How Not To Die from Mid-Winter Blues

When I leave for work in the morning it’s dark and when I come home in the evening it’s dark.  Basically, from Monday to Thursday I don’t see my house in the daylight.

I’m not complaining.   I love seasons.   When I lived in LA, I used to get depressed by the sun.  Every single day it felt the same…relentless sun.

“You are depressed by sunlight?” An LA co-worker once asked in disbelief (and I believe I detected a little bit of disdain in his voice as well.  It’s the same disdain I get when I tell people I don’t like chocolate or strawberries.  Not liking chocolate, strawberries and sun makes other people contemptuous).

My mother understood.  She knew how much I loved thunderstorms and how much I missed them in LA.  I wrote for the New Mickey Mouse Club years ago and my office bungalow was right smack in the middle of the Disney MGM lot in Orlando.  Every single afternoon there was a thunderstorm at around 3 or 4 o’clock.  I could be in the worst mood, and then there would be this violent thunderstorm for about fifteen minutes.  Then it and my bad mood would be suddenly gone.   I loved it every time.

Every five years or so there would be a thunderstorm in LA, but it was hard to enjoy since it usually set the city on fire.  When I would visit Ohio, my mom would pray to a god she didn’t believe in to give me a thunderstorm while I was there.  It was her way of showing me a good time, and I loved how much she understood me.  (She also always gave me a white chocolate lamb in my Easter basket when I was a child instead of those dreaded and awful tasting dark chocolate bunnies.)

When I was trying to decide if I should move back to New York after my mom died, I asked her for a sign.   A few minutes later, I put on my headphones and pressed shuffle the first thing I heard was Stevie Nicks singing that thunder only happens when it’s raining.  That felt like as sure a sign from my mother as I could ever imagine.

My mother hated winter.   She loathed February.   Yesterday was the anniversary of her death.  Do you know why?   Because she hated February so much she died on January 31st. She was determined not to experience another stupid February.  Her death was a final F-U to February.       This determined stubbornness was one of the many reasons I loved her, but it did make that February a little  drearier for the rest of us.

My husband Saul is also not a fan of February.  I don’t think it helps that his birthday is on February 1st.   (Yes, there is something symbolic that his birthday is the day after my mother’s death day, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet.)  Saul is younger than me.  Not as young as I hoped.  I thought I would be marrying a twenty-five-year-old at my age, but my midlife crisis didn’t work out as planned.  Saul is only nine years younger than me, and he is at the age where you start to realize you don’t turns heads the way you used to when you were younger.   Saul still turns heads though.  I’m at the age where I can only turn heads if I yell something alarming as I enter a room like FIRE! or BUFFALO STAMPEDE! or BOYS IN MAGA HATS!

But even though I love seasons, I still can get a little down this time of year.  I’m sad we haven’t gotten any big snow, and am aware that we get so much less snow than we did when I was a kid.   I’m also angry and sad our President doesn’t care about global warming because there is nothing in it for him.

I’m also a bit sad I finished writing my book.  Do I start another book or just never write again?  I had always planned on being like Harper Lee and writing one great book and being done.  But now, if I really want to be like Harper Lee, I have to write a prequel to my memoir and make myself racist.

So, February if gets you down, I’m here to help.

How do you get through it if you don’t have money or time to go to a warm climate for vacation (which if you do—go! Don’t even read the rest of this.  Read it on vacation on a beach and laugh at the poor suckers who need it.)

Here are my suggestions for beating that I-Wish-I Were-Dead February Feeling

BUY A ZEBRA—Please don’t buy a live zebra unless you live in some sort of wildlife reserve or a zoo, but I don’t really believe animals should be in zoos, so what I’m trying to say is buy a fake zebra.  And it doesn’t have to be a zebra.  That is what Saul and I bought earlier this week for our backyard to go along with the hippo we bought last year.  I think the secret to Saul’s and my marriage is that we buy hippos and zebras for our backyard.  We never argue over important things like that.   But buy your own version of a zebra.  Something unusual that you love even if not one other single person loves it.  It will lift your spirits.  (Unfortunately, I can’t see my zebra in my pitch dark backyard from Monday to Thursday, but it gives me something to look forward to in the weekend daylight).

 

zebra

THROW A PARTY—Saul and I are throwing a Writers/Artist Salon this weekend where people who like to paint or draw hang with Saul on one floor and people who like to write hang on another floor of the house with me.  Saul is going to make chili and pie.  That’s another perk of February.    It is the middle of winter, and no one is going to see you in a bathing suit for another few months (if you do take that beach vacation, I suggest wearing a caftan since you will never see anyone on that vacation beach ever again.  If you are single and want to hook up during this vacation, then I recommend making February the month you dabble in chubby chasers.) Throwing a party gives you something to look forward to and checks off several “Oh we should get together” dinners with friends that you would have to endure in the miserable weather.

PICK-FROM-THE-HAT MOVIES—Saul and I started this tradition over the holidays. We put the names of movies we want to see, or have talked about seeing, or want to see again on scraps of papers and then we pick a piece of paper from the hat on cold evenings at home.  You can of course also play this by yourself.   It takes the guess work out of what you should watch and avoids overwhelm. One caveat:   You HAVE to watch the movie you pick.  No do overs.  You’ll be surprised how much you can enjoy something, once you get past your initial resistance.   In these last few weeks, we’ve watched Fearless with Jeff bridges, La Grande Illusion (some hoity toity movie Saul wanted to watch), After Hours, A Star is Born (the new one with Lady Gaga), Flashdance,  A Walk on the Moon and Black Panther.  It’s been fun, but I prefer Judy Garland over Lady Gaga any day.   And how did we collectively NOT  know that Jennifer Beales had a dance double in all those scenes?  It’s so obvious now.  The other thing I learned from this exercise is that the musical phrase What A Feeling stays in your head for a long, long, long time.

VOLUNTEER—Helping animals or people is always good.   I’ve been really bad at volunteering lately so I won’t go on too much about this.  But I will remind others and myself.  If you can’t volunteer, at least flirt with a very old person.

My friend Lisa loves February. She loves the light of February–the muted blues and grays and how they cast a less harsh light over everything.   The way the sky feels so full when it is about to snow (pre-global warming).   She always reminds me that February is the time to do those inside projects or make those long-delayed phone calls.   You don’t have to feel guilty you are not outside like you do in the summer.   You can stay inside in your sweats.

I love winter because I look at the woods when I walk my dog.  They were so lush and thick in the summer and now look so barren.  I look at our backyard that was filed to the brim with milkweed plants and bees and butterflies this summer and now looks so dead.  It’s hard for me to believe that that garden could be full again next summer.  I tell myself nothing will come back to life.  But I’m sure the woods will be full again, so I’m sure my back yard will be too.

Winter reminds me that everything is cyclical.  When I can’t write one day, I’m pretty certain I will be able to write  the next day or the next week.

When work or love or money or any number of things don’t go our way and some part of our lives feels so barren, winter reminds us that everything always seems to come around again.  The winter makes the spring that much sweeter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR—Keith Hoffman plans to die on January 19th, 2022 if Trump is reelected.

 

 

The 10-Year Challenge

Last week there was a new challenge on Facebook.

It asked that you post a photo of yourself from 10 years ago and one from today.  I’m not sure, but I think it was to commemorate that Facebook has been in our lives for about a decade.

Sometimes I miss the old days of Facebook when it wasn’t run by Russians.  The challenge made me nostalgic for the past.  I thought about all the friends I’ve made on Facebook and all the conservative relatives I’ve stopped speaking to because of it.

And I still miss the days when you wrote your update in third person.

Keith Hoffman is feeling happy that Barak Obama won and racism has ended!

 I also miss the quizzes.  Once when my friend Sara called and asked if I had time to talk, I told her I was too busy at work.

“Really?” she said.  “Then why did you just post the “WHICH DOWNTON ABBY CHARACTER ARE YOU” quiz results on your wall?   (For the record, I was Lady Edith—the middle sister who was perpetually unlucky in love—the exact one you don’t want to be).

The challenge was more interesting than I first thought.  I saw people grow from teens into adults.  I saw people go from being a mess to getting sober and looking shockingly different and healthy.    I saw a lot of men and women who looked older and more beautiful.   (I guess if you really aged badly you wouldn’t have played the game?)  It was fascinating seeing people transition through their lives.

My pictures didn’t look that different at first glance (Thank you Oil of Olay), but more interesting to me was that both photos happened to be cropped.  In the first, I was with my sister during our trip to New York City back when she  lived in Ohio and I lived in LA.  In the second, I am with my husband who I didn’t even know ten years ago.  (And if I had, he would not have legally been allowed to be my husband.)

The first picture is from 2007.  (I realize that is from almost 12 years ago, but I don’t think the rules about it being 10 years are that strict.)  If you had told that man in the picture that in the next twelve years the sister standing next to him would be dead and then his mother would die a few months after that, and that he would stop drinking and doing other self-destructive behaviors and move from Los Angeles back to the city he is visiting in the photo, and get a new job and become mildly famous in certain odd circles because  of Bigfoot,  and travel to Greece and Scotland and Nepal and meet a man he would marry and then buy a house with him in a little river town he had never heard of…

Well, I would be excited about the husband and New York City, and think you were absolutely crazy about the bigfoot thing–but mostly I wouldn’t get past the thing about losing my sister and mom.   I would be pretty horrified and terrified and FREAKED OUT!   I would be angry at you and then probably plead with you, asking you if I could change the future like Scrooge when he was begging  the Ghost of Christmas Future.

But now it is twelve years later and all those things happened and more.

Most of them happened with me having zero control over it.

And all of them  made me a better man.

I wouldn’t have wished my sister to die for anything in the world.  But it changed me to my very core as nothing else could have.  It developed in me strength and courage and compassion that was untapped until I had to process and deal with that tragedy in my life.  (And if I were able to somehow tell my sister this, I’m pretty sure her response would be, “How nice for you.  Meanwhile, I’m still dead”).

I learned what true friendship looks like by going through it with others, and I am now able to see and appreciate genuine friends and let go of those who are not genuine and who suck the energy from me.  There are so, so many good friends in my life.   But let me give you an example of a true friend during that time.

Soon after I returned from that insanely grueling trip to Ohio during my sister’s short illness and death, my friend Alexandra sat with me in my backyard and just listened as I told her the whole terrible story not leaving out any detail no matter how insignificant.  Every once in a while she would shake her head sadly and say how terrible it all was.   She didn’t try to fix it.  She didn’t try to get me to look on the bright side.  She just was a witness to my grief.   That is a great friend.

There were others who did the same.  My friend Greg sat through a very long lunch hearing the same details.    And so many more who kept me afloat while I was sinking… Steve helped me order plane tickets home, Jill drove me to the airport at 4 in the morning…Scottie watched my dogs…Megan kept my life somehow running while I was away and helped me find my lost luggage upon my return while I had a breakdown in the middle of LAX,,,) I will cherish those people for the rest of our lives.

But I also learned to forgive those who couldn’t show up and then to move on.

In those ten years, I learned to value my life and myself, and to be patient because grief will not be rushed.  I learned that joy will come back if you can figure out how to ride out the sad–hopefully with the help of others.  I truly believe there is always  help from others when you reach out for it.

I then looked at my husband’s Saul’s 10-Year-Challenge photos.  He and I both lived in LA at the same time and travelled in the exact same circles, but we never intersected until we both moved to New York.  We often say that we would have not been ready to meet and come together a second before we did.  I know his journey in these last ten years and they certainly weren’t all easy.  I know those years shaped him to be the man he is today– the man who is a good husband.   And I know he started drawing only in the last few of those ten years and is now an amazingly gifted artist.   I mean, I don’t think anyone could see that surprise happening.   Who knows what is deep down inside us waiting to bloom?

Clearly I have no idea what the future will bring.  If I look more than an hour ahead the unknown looks scary.   Constancy seems like the thing I endlessly strive for, but that is not what I got in the last ten years.

But all the change and upheaval has transformed me into a very happy man.

I look into the face of both of my photos.  The man in the second picture looks so much more centered and secure (and that is not only because of the good lighting in the room it was taken).   And that is truly how I feel.

I’m not yet ready to shake my fist at the heaven’s and shout, “BRING ON CHANGE!  BRING ON UPHEAVAL!”

The most I can do is try to meet the surprises of each day with grace and humor.

And continue moisturizing when I get up in the morning and go to bed at night.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Keith Hoffman just now wrote his first blog without mentioning even once that Trump is an absolute dangerous train wreck as a President.   Who says people can’t change?

s:k

 

I Am Too Sexy For My Shirt

Today the head of my company was in town from the UK.   It’s always a little nerve-wracking when she is in town.  I mean, she’s my top boss.  And the fact that she is based in the UK and only around the office about once a month only raises the stakes.  You have limited time to show her how smart, talented, likable, hardworking and endlessly employable you are–and how you are the last person that should be considered during the next round of layoffs.  It’s exhausting.

So, when I headed to the bathroom from my office the other day and turned the corner to discover her standing in the narrow hallway talking to another person, I hesitated for just a moment.  The only way to get to the bathroom would be to squeeze between them.  I mean,  my bathroom break wasn’t an emergency.  Maybe I could hold it another ten minutes or so until they moved on?   But no.  I’m an adult.  I decided to make my way through.

“Keith, have you seen Bohemian Rhapsody yet?”  she asked as I was in mid-squeeze.  I hadn’t but didn’t want to seem impolite so I told her it was on my list.  I was smart enough not to go into how my husband Saul and I have a hat with scraps of paper in it with names of movies that we pick from.   We call it our Pick From the Hat Movie Night.   That seemed like more information than she probably wanted.    So she and I started talking about Queen and Queen concerts.  Now, I have never been to any Queen concert, but, again, I didn’t want to seem rude or disinterested so I held forth on the topic as much as I could and nodded thoughtfully at what seemed like the correct times.  When she said that Freddie Mercury was one of a kind and impossible to really be captured by even a great actor, I thought about telling her that I thought Princess Diana was also one of a kind and that she was so hard to capture that she was the only character not played by an actor in the movie The Queen, but only appeared as herself in news footage.  Even though there was a chance to connect the group Queen with movie The Queen,  I stopped myself again.  What if my boss was an anti-monarchist or even worse, a monarchist who thought Princess Diana had almost toppled the monarchy?  That was all too dicey so I wrapped up the discussion with something like, “That Freddy Mercury.  Gone too soon huh?  AIDS is awful!” and made my way to the bathroom pretty satisfied with my performance.

I waked in the restroom practically whistling with self-satisfaction when I glanced in the mirror and discovered that the entire time I was talking to her my shirt had been unbuttoned down to my navel.   I looked like Richard, the sleazy upstairs womanizing neighbor in reruns of Threes Company.

lar

The only thing that saved me from drowning myself in the sink is that I could hardly wait to tell other people in the office what I fool I had made of myself because I knew it would make them laugh.

The story doesn’t end there.  When I was in the middle of telling my coworker, Sarah, the story–my boss came around the corner again.

“Why didn’t you tell me my shirt was buttoned down to my navel?” I asked.  (I find it best to call out one’s humiliating mistake before someone else does.)

“Oh, I didn’t notice,” she replied.

“Well,” I said.   “That’s even worse.”

Here’s another thing that happened this week:

A few days before open-chest incident, we got a company-wide email looking for “searchers” for the floor of my office building.  A “searcher” is a person who looks for people in case of a fire, and makes sure they get safely to the exit.  A man is assigned to look for the men, and a woman assigned to look for the women.  I assume this is to ensure someone doesn’t break into the restroom of the opposite sex during a fire just to sneak a peek.  That fact I’m gay kind of ruins this rule, but who am I to make waves?

I have been a searcher before.  I resent the responsibility, but like the attention.  I replied all to the email saying.  “I have always enjoyed being a male searcher and would love to do it again.”  A few minutes later my direct supervisor sent me an email: “Are you SURE you took that sexual harassment course??”

Luckily, she was joking or I might be hiring  Matt Lauer right now instead of writing this blog.

I guess my point is:  MY GOD!   WE NEED HUMOR!

I’m blessed that finding the humor is one of things that comes naturally to me.   It seems it doesn’t to everyone.  Our president seems to have zero sense of humor.  Well, he does joke about “blood coming out of her whatever” and makes hilarious fun of disabled people so I guess he is funny.  Just not laugh-out-loud funny.  Or even really laugh-quietly-to-yourself funny.   Actually, he’s just a humorless, sexist, racist, narcissist.  But I digress.

Facebook, as we all know,  is challenging.  I do my BEST to only post funny political things now that I finally understand that those people who LOVE Trump will never be talked out of it.  Ever.  I have had to accept they those diehard people will go to their grave not realizing they have been conned by this man.   So, I try not to post angry, humorless, political rants, but sometimes I fail and then I usually delete them when I wake up the next morning feeling remorseful.

But the good thing about Facebook is connecting with people.  I found a girl on Facebook  named Melisa who i had had a high school crush on, and told her that I once called her my Junior year, but when she came to the phone I hung up.  (You kids can’t’ do that today.   You have to be much cleverer to ghost people.)   Melissa and I have since connected on Facebook and she even sent me a handmade Welcome Sign for the front of my house.  What I adore about her even from afar is her kindness and especially her sense of humor.  I don’t know if we will ever actually meet, but I can tell by reading about her life one funny Facebook post at a time that the world is a better place because of her.

And that’s true for the all the people in my life.  My friends near and far are people I can laugh with.   My relationship with my husband, Saul, is like one long shared joke.   Okay, that didn’t come out quite right, but hopefully you understand.

So, my challenge for everyone is to end your day before you go to sleep each night by thinking about something that made you laugh.  Obviously, I am trusting anyone reading this to understand I don’t mean laughing in a mocking, mean way.  Think about something you read, or something someone said or a moment  you made a fool of yourself.   (I have coffee every workday with my friend Sara and there is always one laugh to be found in that).  Think of that moment and be grateful   We are sure seeing that anger hasn’t been really accomplishing things, so maybe focusing on the humor of being alive is worth a shot.     We can at least try, right?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:   Keith Hoffman has been known to dress provocatively and hunt for men in the restroom.   He has written a book entitled The Weird Thing Is….  There are some funny parts in it.

 

 

 

JULIE

Below is an excerpt from my book.  This is definitely not all my book is about, but 10 years later it is still healing to write about this day that so utterly changed the course of my life.  Some things have been altered to be understood as a standalone story.

SEPTEMBER 5, 2008 

“She knew I loved her, right?” my big brother Greg asked as we rushed down the hall.   “I assume you guys know I love you.”

“Yes, she knew,” I said.

The truth was I wasn’t always sure Greg loved me since he wasn’t really what you would call emotionally demonstrative.  It felt good to hear him say it.

We were coming from our sister Julie’s hospital room where she had been in a coma after having an aneurysm a week earlier.  We were running to the waiting room to tell our oldest brother Dave that we were about to take Julie off life support.   Julie was a month shy of her 52nd birthday.

My blackberry buzzed with a text message.   I’m getting on the plane now.

I had forgotten my ex-boyfriend Steve was heading to Cincinnati for his pre-planned yearly birthday trip to see my sister.   Even though we were long broken up, he and my sister were still best friends.

We’ll see you soon I texted back.  I slipped the phone back into my pocket.   I was pretty certain he wouldn’t make it in time to see Julie.

We returned to my big sister’s room a few minutes later and it was packed to capacity.  Friends and family had heard the news and shown up.   It felt like a party was being held in the sacred ward of dying people.  I was proud Julie has so many people who loved her dearly, but I had mixed feelings.  Shouldn’t a deathbed be by invitation only?

The immediate family-me, my brothers, Mother, Julie’s husband Stu and her sister-in-law Minette—huddled around the doctors and gave the okay to take her off life support.

“How long will she live once you take her off?” Greg asked.

“Not long.   Probably a few hours at most.”

We thanked the doctor as he walked out of the room but I wasn’t sure for what.

I spotted my Aunt Jody and Uncle Dick in the crowd.  Aunt Jody had lost two brothers including my father so she understood what I was going through.   She grabbed me and held me close.   I sat down next to Uncle Dick.   We sat staring ahead.

“I was working on my putt stroke last week. It’s all based on rhythm and cadence regardless of the length of the putt.”

He was talking to me about golf.  I knew nothing about golf.  I found golf boring.  I wanted to remind him there was a dying sister in the middle of the room.  I supposed he was trying keep my mind off of what was happening as if that was possible.

The nurse walked in and the room instantly became quiet.  We all looked at her expectantly.  She kept her head down as she went to Julie’s bed.  She unhooked my sister from the respirator and other machines.  She was serious and professional.  I think I had expected her to be apologetic.

I had made so many jokes in my lifetime about “pulling the plug” that I was actually surprised she didn’t literally bend over and pull a plug out of a socket.

The entire room seemed to be holding their breath but nothing dramatic happened.   She just laid in front of us still breathing.

Maybe she isn’t going to die after all?   Maybe the doctors who were wrong so many times this week were wrong about her dying today.  Maybe she could still wake up and be totally normal.  We’d buy her all kinds of cool scarfs to wear like Rhoda Morgenstern until her hair grew back where they had operated trying to save her.

“It will take a little bit of time for her body to shut down,” the nurse informed us before walking out.

I decided I didn’t like her.

We all watched and waited.

In this suspended moment of time I felt a rush of pride in my family.

We were a family.

My three brothers and I had a collective history that we shared yet viewed though our own perspectives.  But when life became bigger than our own individual egos—when life literally became life and death—the invisible thread that connected us—that would always connect us—pulled us together as one.   We came together to make sure that our sister died with dignity.

Julie’s breathing seemed to slow down.   I couldn’t tell if she was even breathing anymore but didn’t want to ask or prove myself right.  I just stood there watching over her like everyone else.  It had only been a few minutes but the nurse already returned.  She looked at a monitor next to her bed.

Without looking up she told us.

“She’s passed.”

She turned off the rest of the equipment and a collective wail erupted in the packed room.  I sobbed and hugged someone.   Then I hugged and cried on someone else.   Everyone held and comforted one another as our grief spilled out all over the room.   We were messy and we were loud.  I saw a wet blur of sad faces all around me.   In the middle of everything I saw my brother Paul standing next to Mother and her holding his hand.   The expression on their sad faces made me feel helpless and drowning.  Minette began to wretch and dry heave.  I noted to myself that I would have to tease her about it later.

Time passed.   It was sometime late on a Friday afternoon.

People slowly began to filter out.

My sister’s body laid in the bed with my mother sitting in her wheelchair next to it holding her hand.  I was relieved that the struggle was over for my sister.

I texted Steve.   Julie died.  I’m sorry.

I texted a friend.  Julie died.  Please let everyone know.

Paul finally wheeled Mother out and I was left alone with my sister’s body.

I bent over and kissed her hands, her arms, her check and her forehead.

“I love you so much Julie.”

I was aware that kissing my sister now that she was dead didn’t feel as strange as it would have if she were alive.  If she were alive, she would look over at me and ask me what the fuck I was doing.

I walked to the doorway and turned around one more time.  This was the last time I would ever be able to look at her and I didn’t want it to ever end.

I walked past the hospital staff as they went busily about their work without looking up even though they must have heard our keening and sobbing.  Death was part of their everyday—even my sister’s death.

I sat in the back seat on the drive home holding the picture of Julie and me in New York that had been on the table next to her hospital bed.  At the stop light, I looked out and saw an ugly woman in the driver’s seat of the car next to us.

Why didn’t she die instead of my beautiful sister?

I ran ahead up the stairs of my mother’s house and turned on the oxygen tank as my mother made her arduous climb behind me.    She sat on the couch and attached the tube to her nose.  I sat in a chair near her.  My brother Paul and went into another room.

We fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon.

What else was there to do?

 

A few hours later I woke up from a deep sleep.  Steve had arrived and gathered with others down the block at Julie’s house.  I asked Mother if it was okay to head down.

“Of course, honey.” She looked older than I’d ever seen her.

I walked into the door of Julie’s house that wasn’t Julie’s house anymore.   Steve was petting her cat and dog.   How would her pets understand that she is never coming back?

“Do you have pot?” I asked Paul.  He didn’t

“I know Julie has to have some somewhere.”  I said.

I looked through her house including the drawers in the back of her closet.   There were packets of Nicorette gum everywhere.  Julie hadn’t smoked for years but was addicted to Nicorette gum.   I wondered if that was what gave her an aneurysm.  I found letters and cards and wondered how much you had to respect the privacy of someone who was dead.   I found a half-written list and realized that death is a snapshot of where your life stopped.  Not everyone gets a neat ending.

Finally, I found a plastic bag full of weed.  I grabbed Julie’s pipe and packed it full.  I sat on her bed like I had so many times before with her and inhaled deeply.  I waited for the feeling of being high that blessedly would numb the pain.  I felt nothing.  I inhaled deeply again and then again.   Nothing.  I wondered if the pot was weak or if I was already too numb to get high.    I inhaled one more time as Paul walked into the bedroom

“What are you doing?”

“I found some pot but it’s not very strong.”

Paul took the plastic bag from me and sniffed it.

“This is catnip.”

I look at him stunned.  We both busted out laughing.

I gave up on getting high but was angry at my sister for not sending me relief from beyond.

I went downstairs and found myself becoming the official greeter as more people showed up at the house.

I stood in the kitchen and hugged Minette.

“That’s weird” she said looking over her shoulder

“What?”

“Her grocery list on her whiteboard.  “Cotton…Lemonade…Garbage Bags…Dog Treats…I didn’t know Julie drank Lemonade.”

“She doesn’t.  I do.  She made that list for me when I was visiting her last week.  I told her I was craving lemonade so she picked it up from the store.”

Another friend of Julie’s walked in and hugged me.

“Wow.  Julie drank lemonade?” he said looking over my shoulder at the whiteboard.  “I’ve never seen her drink lemonade.”

This continued throughout the afternoon.   I was amused that people seemed to think they had discovered some dark secret my sister had been hiding.

I sat down on the front porch with Steve who was still petting Julie’s poor cat. A car pulled up and a neighbor from across the street jumped out and ran over to us.

“How is Julie?  I heard she went into the hospital the other day!”

Without missing a beat of petting the cat, Steve calmly answered, “She’s dead.”

I never realized that someone could react to hearing bad news like they had been physically knocked backwards but that that was what I saw this woman do.   She must have expected us to say Julie would be back tomorrow and was not ready for this.   Even though my sister was the one who died, I stood up and hugged and comforted her.

“Julie was so wonderful,” she said to me.  “She was a real hoot.”

As she almost stumbled back to the car I glared at Steve.

“You might want to work on your technique at delivering bad news.  You might have started with a little warning like ‘Oh the news isn’t good…’”

Minette came out and sat next to me.

“I wonder why this happened to her.  She was so healthy.”  I said leaning my head on her shoulder.  I had been annoyed all week by people who didn’t know her asking if Julie was overweight or sickly as if they wanted to find a rational explanation for this irrational event.

A thought came to me with a sharp shock.   “Do you think it runs in the family?”

“I looked it up,” Minette offered helpfully.   “They say you don’t have to worry unless a second sibling dies from one too.”

“Um…you have to worry if you’re the second sibling,” I said.

“Right…I hadn’t thought of that.”

I stood up and suddenly didn’t want to be there anymore.

Before I slipped out the back door, I grabbed Julie’s whiteboard with the lemonade list off the side of her cabinet and brought it with me.   I liked that it had her handwriting.  I liked that she was thinking about me when she wrote it.

I walked down the block to join Mother.    My phone rang.

“Hi, is this Mr.  Hoffman?”

I stopped walking.  “Yes.  Yes.”

“Mr. Hoffman, we have a special offer just for you that I’d like to tell you about…” the male voice said.

For some reason, I didn’t just hang up.   It wasn’t this guy’s fault his timing was so bad.

“Yea…um…my sister died this afternoon…”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry,” he said kindly.

“That’s okay,” I said once again comforting a total stranger.  “But I can’t really talk…”

“Of course…”

As I was about to hang up the phone I heard his voice again.

“Mr. Hoffman…I just wanted to let you know that my sister died two years ago.”

“She did?   How is your family now?” I asked.  I wasn’t sure why I was talking to this person except that he sounded so kind.  The truth was that I couldn’t fathom that my family could ever be put back together after this horrible day.   We had to be broken beyond repair.

“It was a rough first year but we are okay now,” he said.   “In fact, we are even closer now.”

“You are?”

“Yea, we really are.”

“Thank you.   Thank you so much.  Thank you.”

From this random call on the darkest day of my life I got my first tiny glimmer of hope.

I hung up and walked up the stairs to my mother’s house.  She had the TV on.  Paul came in right behind me.  None of us said much to each other.

We watched a DVD of Arrested Development and somehow managed to laugh a few times.

Around midnight we turned off the TV and hugged each other goodnight.

We had made it to the end of the first day.

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INFESTED!

After my husband Saul and I bought a house, we decided to really splurge and have our backyard landscaped.

That sentence is not something I ever expected to write but my life has changed in the past five years.   When describing my life, words like husband and house and landscaped have replaced words like sex, drugs and Broadway show tunes.  Well that’s not true.  Nothing has replaced Broadway show tunes.

At first, we were going to splurge and have a screened-in porch built, but after literally months of trying to get a contractor to return our texts, we decided to go with a landscaped yard instead.  We hired a reputable landscaping company and told them money was no object.  When they gave us a quote, we changed our minds and told them money was actually an object and asked them to please cut the estimate in half.  Who needs a log flume in their backyard anyway?

But still, we spent more money than I have ever have spent on anything in my life except the actual house.

We liked our landscaper.  His name is Rob.  He drew up beautiful plans and we were tickled pink with them.   We were going to have a Kentucky Coffee Tree and butterfly plants!  I didn’t actually know what either of these things were, but they sounded exciting and looked good in Rob’s rendering.   When someone at work asked what kind of tree they should plant in their yard, I told them with quite some authority.  “Oh, Kentucky Coffee Trees are the absolute best.”  But really, I was just going off of a sketch.

A few weeks and many thousands of dollars later, our yard was landscaped and it did look beautiful.  I mean, it wasn’t quite like the drawing.  The butterfly plants looked awfully fragile for a backyard with a new puppy, and the Kentucky Coffee tree looked…well…did you ever see A Charlie Brown Christmas?  That Christmas Tree looked positively robust compared to our Kentucky Coffee Tree.    It was scrawny with lots of dead branches.  It was actually so scrawny I think “lots” is an exaggeration as there weren’t many branches on it living or dead.  When a chickadee perched on it the first day I feared for its life as I wasn’t sure the tree could support it.

 

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Our landscaper assured us the tree would grow when we met him at the nursery a few days later.  As he told us this, we couldn’t help but notice we were surrounded by hundreds of lush trees

“Why didn’t you plant one of these other types of trees in our yard instead?” we asked.

“I thought you guys would want something more exotic” he replied.

“Um no,” I thought.   “We wanted something to block the ugly building behind our house.  Something that actually has leaves in the summer.”   But Rob assured me the tree would take root one day.   I just hope I live long enough.

As summer went on and the butterfly plants blossomed, our garden looked quite beautiful especially when bees and monarch butterflies came to visit by the busload.   If you didn’t look up, you barely remembered there were dead branches blowing in the breeze above you.

But a few weeks ago, Saul noticed something red on the butterfly plants.  Was it a fungus?  We looked them up on the internet and discovered to our horror they were aphids.  Red aphids!  And not just a few but I’m pretty sure millions of aphids covering every single plant

But along with the aphids were caterpillars and with another internet search we discovered they were monarch butterflies-in-waiting!   Would the aphids kill the caterpillars?   And was it possible to kills the aphids without killing the caterpillars?   After more googling, we found out that the aphids won’t kills the caterpillars and there is no way to get rid of the aphids without killing the caterpillars.

Saul valiantly started hacking away at the most infested  but would inadvertently find a stray caterpillar crawling on one of the hack-off branches.  They say that less than 10 percent of these caterpillars will make it to butterfly status, and he didn’t want to kill a single one.  That‘s why I love Saul.  He rescues caterpillars from a pile of hacked-off aphid-infested dead plants.  He doesn’t kill spiders or other bugs either.  Except for mosquitos.  He hates mosquitoes.

Then the next day we discovered little polka dot beetles on the butterfly plants.  They were much cuter than aphids.  Saul did another internet search and found out they were some type of evil beetle that burrows into the roots of and kills butterfly plants.  Now mind you, almost every inch of our yard is covered in these parasite-laden plants under the sickly tree.

Saul sent an angry email to our landscaper.  Saul enjoys being a bad cop.  I’m more of a “the yard is half full of aphids” kind of guy and Saul is more of “our yard is an absolute disaster” person.

Let me give you an example.   We took our dog Alfie to see the ocean for the first time last weekend, and a woman mentioned to us that she heard about a dog that had drank too much ocean water and died.

 

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I wanted to drown her.  You never put a negative idea into my husband’s brain.  It will percolate in there until a catastrophe is fully formed.    The entire way home from the ocean and the entire night he was convinced our dog was dying from drinking too much ocean water.   I tried to comfort and calm him by telling him he was insane and that I couldn’t stand living another day with his negativity but it didn’t seem to  help.

The next day we took Alfie (who was still alive and not murdered by the sea) for a walk on a trail that was not infested by aphids or beetles.  I took this time to speak to Saul about our relationship.  I love speaking to Saul about our relationship but he doesn’t always share this love.

ME:  So…to conclude… this is how I think we can improve or communication and support each other’s growth.  Do you understand what I’m saying?

SAUL:  No, I don’t understand what you are saying and I thought this was going to be a fun walk with no talking.      But..anyway… I hope you feel heard by me.

I didn’t feel heard in that particular moment, but decided not to press the subject.

But then the next day something magical happened.

Saul sent me a picture from the backyard.  Two brand new monarch butterflies were hanging on our back fence waiting for blood to pump in their wing so they could fly for the first time.

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I’ve written about this many times, but when my sister died, Monarch butterflies appeared to me everywhere.  I mean EVERYWHERE.  They even flew alongside my car on the busy 405 expressway in Los Angeles.   They gave me so much meaning and comfort, I eventually had one tattooed on my arm.

 

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So here we are, our garden full of parasites and dying trees but also full of beautiful butterflies who are on the very edge of extinction and need all the parasite- infested gardens they can get.   I mean, we have a responsibility.  Maybe some of those little guys need to fly somewhere to comfort a newly grieving brother.

I guess life might be boring if gardens were always perfect and oceans were never dangerous and sisters didn’t die and husbands always heard your VERY INSIGHTFUL relationship tips.

Maybe there was a reason Eve ate that apple.  Maybe the Garden of Eden was boring in its perfection.   Maybe she wouldn’t have had time for the serpent if she had been busy trying to get rid of aphids.

If you help a butterfly out of a cocoon, it will surely die because it didn’t go through the struggle and maturation.

I am pretty sure we mature through our struggles.  We grow through our imperfect lives.

Yesterday, I climbed up that fragile little tree and sawed off the all its dead branches.

And I will patently wait for it to take root while the butterflies are learning to fly.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

KEITH HOFFMAN is an author who makes aphid jellies and jams in his spare time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOW TO GET SUED BY YOUR FAMILY

While I’m writing this blog, I am also writing a memoir.  I’ve been writing this memoir for many years.

At first it was simply about my childhood.   Whenever I told people the circumstances of my growing up, they would look at me with shock for a moment and then inevitably say, “You should write a book about that!”   Finally, I took them up on it.

When I was dating, I tried to avoid delving too much into the past on a first date.    It just led to too many questions and then the entire evening became about my weird family, and, although it passed the time, it didn’t usually lead to a second date or sex—not even pity sex.   One time, a very cute guy just looked at me with that shocked expression I was so familiar with and said, “I  can’t compete with that.”   Nothing makes you feel like damaged goods like that.

When I told my big sister I was writing a memoir,  we came up with the idea of writing it together.   She would write her version of an experience from our childhood in one chapter and I would write my version of the same experience in the next chapter.     It was going to be a funny, heartfelt novel that showed how personalized and selective memory could be, and win us a Pulitzer Prize and get us on Oprah.  At least that was what we decided the night we hatched the plan after getting really stoned together.

Even after we sobered up we thought it was a good idea, so I gave my sister all kinds of books on writing and was about to send her the first draft of what I had written when she pulled a fast one on me and died suddenly.   Well, actually she died after having an aneurysm and being in a coma for a week –so technically she went into a coma suddenly and then died after torturing her family for a grueling week.

The end result of that life-changing heartbreak was that obviously our award-winning Oprah Book Club pick was not going to get written.  Then to make that really bad year a gruesome year, my mom died five months later.   Now I had two huge life things to write about and losing the two most important women in my life moved to the front of the line.

Every single morning, I got up and wrote about my sweet, beautiful, funny sister and then I wrote about my strong, glamourous sometimes overbearing but always loving Mother who survived more than really anyone ever should have to survive.  I grieved every morning as I wrote, and I healed by putting their unfathomable deaths into a story.  By putting it on paper and giving it a beginning, middle and end, I could somehow process it better.

When I finished, I realized I had to braid both stories together.    That is what I’m finishing up now.

When you’ve been writing a book for so long, you never really think you will finish–but 3 writers’ groups and 4 writers’ retreats later, I am actually coming to the end of the last chapter.  In fact, if I died today (which I was worried I would.  I had my doctor’s checkup this afternoon and whenever I get a doctor’s checkup I’m sure I’m going to get bad news.  I mean, who else is going to tell you you are going to die except a doctor or a murderer?)  Anyway, if I died today, my husband Saul could publish my book.  Just to be clear if Saul ever asks—I’m not interested in Saul being happy and finding love after I’m gone.  I would like him to remain sad, and live alone and tend to the animals and promote my legacy.  For the life insurance he’ll get, I don’t think that is too much to ask.)

Finishing a memoir brings up other issues when your memoir is about family secrets.  Some of those family secrets are doozies too.  Some are so big I can’t blog about them. I can’t casually mention them here without repercussions.   I had to write the memoir all these years not thinking about that, but now I have to start thinking about it.   One of my brothers has known I was writing this book for a very long time.  He knows he is going to be a big topic of it.  I love my brother.  I love all my family and nothing in my book is written as revenge or is mean-spirited.  Every single word is written with love but still…there are secrets revealed.

My brother wants his story to be told but he also doesn’t want the boat of his life to be rocked.

I reminded him that no one reads books anyway and I have offered to change his name.  One of the leaders of my Tuesday night writer’s group suggests making someone you don’t want to be recognized in your book Japanese, but I don’t know if that is going to work here.

Then after Mom finished baking her apple pie she called us in from our game of stickball.  “Julie!  Keith!  Haruto! Time for fried chicken!”

I think people might get suspicious but, then again, in my family it would be one of the lesser surprises.

Of course, I can write anything I want about my sister and mom because they aren’t around to sue me anymore, but I’m not yet sure it’s worth killing my three brothers just to get published.

So, my brother Haruto and I are taking it a step at a time.   He will read the book before it ever gets published and hopefully he will see how lovingly and respectfully I tell his story because I really do admire him and his life.

My husband is an artist and paints people he thinks are beautiful.   In high school, I drew Loni Anderson from WKRP in Cincinnati because I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. But I really have no talent at that.  Anyone else I draw will end up looking like a sociopath’s mad scribblings.   Instead I write to honor, to show affection, to tease, to laugh with, to heal, to respect and to show adoration for the people I love.

Whenever I am in a writers group I feel like those of us in the room are carrying on the ancient custom of sitting around a fire and storytelling.  Of course, there isn’t an actual fire.  Sometimes there are pretzels but that’s about it.  I guess my point is that I hope by trying to tell the story of my family, I am honoring the humanity of us all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

RIKU TAKAHASHI is a writer and memoirist.   He lives with his husband Hinata Yamamoto in Lambertville, New Jersey with their dog Kaito and theirs cats Asahi and Sora.      

 

 

THE LAME PUPPY

It’s been a while since I have written a blog.  A few people have told me they missed it.  One man who was trying to sell me extra security for my blog site on the phone told me he found my blog really fascinating.  I understand he is a salesman and may having been saying that so I would buy what he was selling, but I choose to believe him anyway.

There are a few reasons I haven’t blogged, but I guess the main one was that every time I started to, something would happen in the news and I would start writing an angry blog about the current president.   I’m fairly certain the last thing the world needs is another angry blog about the current president.  And the two people from my high school who voted for him and have yet to unfriend me are not going to be convinced otherwise by anything I write.  So I have a lot of half-finished blogs on my computer.  Maybe after I die from a stroke caused by the current president, they will be published posthumously like A Confederacy of Dunces.  Maybe like Van Gogh people will discover my great genius after I’m dead and feel guilty they never acknowledged it while I was alive.  That would be nice.

Anyway, the other blog topic that I keep starting and stopping is the puppy my husband and I rescued a couple months ago.

I’ve written about Alfie before   He is a Red Heeler but it is more commonly known as Totally Insane and Exhausting Dog.

I’m not sure what Saul and I talked about before we got Alfie, but now most of our conversations center around the consistency of Alife’s poop, or the last thing Alife tried to chew up, or what we will do with Alfie whenever we go somewhere for longer than two hours.

I know people go through this with children but the thing about getting a puppy is that it changes your life sooo drastically and sooo suddenly.  It is not gradual, like when you slowly dip your toe into a chilly pool.  Getting a puppy is more like being tossed into an ice hole and then being held underwater with a large spikey object for eternity.

Alfie has had a tough few months.  There’s the castration which I have blogged about before but really, I can’t emphasize enough that castration is not fun.   If I can help one person understand that castration is not fun I will not have died in vain.  (But if I do die make sure to publish those half-finished blog pieces so my genius is recognized.)

Next Alfie hurt his paw.  I’m sure when you read that you imagined he was galloping through a field after a deer or playing with another puppy and then taking a bad tumble.  No.  Alfie hurt his paw leaping off our bed to try to play with the cats (who, for the record, did not really want to play with him in the first place).   He landed on a soft shag carpet and suddenly was hopping on three legs for the rest of the day.  I am working on a show at Animal Planet about special needs animals.  One of them is a boxer with only two legs who can run full speed down a beach.

That is not the kind of dog Alfie is.

Alfie limps sadly across our kitchen sighing with resignation over the sad state of his life.  Alife will probably never be one of those heroic dogs like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin.  He probably would panic if I fell down a well and would need to go home and chew a squeaky toy to calm himself down.

Saul and I took our broken puppy to the vet.  We learned when you take a limping puppy to the vet they suddenly got hopped up on adrenaline and stop limping.  It’s  like when you take your car to the mechanic with a knocking sound and then it doesn’t knock for the mechanic.  Or it’s like that frog in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons that would only sing for the one guy and just croak for everyone else.

I didn’t need Alife to sing.

“LIMP!  LIMP!”   I screamed at him like a pageant mom, but he stubbornly walked normally down the hallway of the vet who looked at me like I had Munchausen’s by Proxy.  She gave us a few anti-inflammatory pills and the front desk sternly sent us home as if he were drug-seekers.  The minute Alfie was out of the car, he hobbled pathetically to the front door barely keeping upright.

The vet did suggest Alfie should completely rest except for taking a few steps outside to pee.  Have you tried to keep a Red Heeler puppy on bed rest?   Have you ever seen a Red Heeler have a puppy fit?    It is a lot like watching The Exorcist but scarier.   Alife would suddenly do figure 8’s around the house at the speed of light.  He was like a cartoon blur that whizzed around our legs and circled the alarmed cats.   He was able to do this effortlessly for five minutes straight but when he was done he would limp again.

For the next two weeks Alfie limped his way around the house.   Every time he seemed to get better, I would be fooled and take him for a long walk thinking this was good for his mental and physical health only for him to start limping again as we walked in the front door making me feel like some sort of monster.

We couldn’t deny it.  We had a lame puppy.

If he’s not limping, he’s having diarrhea, or chewing a hole in the bean bag chair or peeing on the couch (this was only once and we have THOROUGHLY cleaned the couch but we understand if you want to remain standing when you visit us.)

All my dogs have been somewhat broken.  Rusty didn’t love other dogs.  Lester went through a neighbor’s plate glass window, Sasha tried to kill a puppy I brought home.   They never seem to be the cute animals in the dog food commercial or on the internet or playing Puppy Bowl.

So what is the point of having these things?

Here is what I think.

If we go around thinking our puppy should be perfect we will be disappointed.  If we go around thinking we picked the wrong puppy (like instead of a Red Heeler maybe a sane dog) we will be disappointed.  Instead,  we have to figure out how to Love What Is.  It’s the same as with our parents or kids or husbands or jobs–nobody and nothing is going to live up to  our fantasy and most of our troubles come from trying to find that fantasy in reality.  So, I had shift my attitude and tell myself that Alife is mine and Saul’s to love.   Our job is to love this puppy within an inch of his life.    He is what the universe gave us.

And I think that by loving Alife I am reminded what love is all about.   It’s not about ego, but about compassion and understanding.  Maybe the current president doesn’t believe that.  He confuses us and tells us we will find happiness in power and control.  So maybe we need these broken puppies to teach us that lesson more than ever.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR—Keith Hoffman is wary of shag carpets and castration.