Thursday, February 21, 2013

Happy Birthday, Sister-Friend! Celebrating Christina, and what it means to be & have a sister

It’s my sister’s 40th birthday, which is hard to believe. Aren’t parents 40?  Grown-ups?  What does this mean? Starting to write what her life means to me, what it means to grow up with a sister, was too long for a birthday card. I decided to take to the interwebs, because I think you all need to know what an amazing woman my sister is.

"Sister. She is your mirror, shining back at you with a world of possibilities. She is your witness, who sees you at your worst and best, and loves you anyway. She is your partner in crime, your midnight companion, someone who knows when you are smiling, even in the dark. She is your teacher, your defense attorney, your personal press agent, even your shrink. Some days, she's the reason you wish you were an only child."
~Barbara Alpert

Having a sister barely three years older made for what I thought was a tough childhood. Sharing a grade-school, I had find ways to defend myself from her barbs and teasing. She was (is) smart and funny, and often my friends found her more entertaining than I.  I learned to read early to keep up with her. I had to run faster, since she was great at running track. From my shy stance as a high-school freshman, I watched her embrace her senior status. Watched her laugh in the hallway with her friends, watched her make Todd laugh, the guy on whom I had such a crush. I got rides from her with her friends Stephanie and Johanna, to meet friends at the mall, and jumping in the backseat with them made me feel like one of those girls in an 80s movie: hair feathered, bangs big, oh so grown-up. 

As we grew into adulthood and lived far away from each other, we learned together to forgive each other so many trespasses, all the cruel things we had said and done.  We could begin to view the other as separate, but always connected. I learned from her as she mourned the death of that best friend, Stephanie, watching my strong sister crumble in grief and depend on our family for support. I watched her find her way through that, sharing stories of the ever-hilarious Steph and the adventures they had.

Watching my sister, I learned that strong-willed, bossy little girls grow up into defenders of the trampled-upon.  As a CASA (court-appointed special advocate) Christina found herself standing up against the system for a kid whom most had written off.  I learned from her dating mishaps to avoid DJs, to be real and honest and funny with men, and hope to choose as wisely as she did in marrying a good, smart, gentle, and witty man.

Together we grew into liberal, open-minded women who bounce ideas off each other’s experiences. We have rambling talks about spirituality, from what it means to be raised in the Christian church to embracing different ways of practicing faith and opening to the flow of the universe.  Together we navigate our clan, which, like every family, is lovely and amazing and has places of deep hurt that need to be healed.

As a trained life-coach, Christina has found a natural fit for her skills of empathy and encouragement. She listens and asks questions to challenge others to see the greater picture, to be open to more possibilities. We can spend hours talking about ideas ranging from places to travel, to spirit animal guides, to practical ways to achieve our goals as story-tellers: how we find connection between people, places, and the stories that grow there.

I continue to learn from my sister as I watch her as mother.  As I write those words, tears well up in my eyes, knowing the possibilities, adventures and even deeper love that her son Henry brings to our lives.  Mother has so many meanings, and she has mothered me through the years, offering guidance, wisdom, a mirror to reflect my self-consciousness, worries and successes.  I watch her grow as amazing, loving mother.

I watch her mother Henry, as she takes great care to research and understand his unspoken needs based on stages of his baby-brain development, and know that all the years of her listening and encouraging me will be even more finely honed in his life. That she is learning, and will teach Henry, the idea that "when we’re falling we should be happy because we’re being taught how to get back up."  She is fierce in her love and protection of the over-looked, under-served, and I know will raise a little man to be as sensitive to others as she is. 

As a little girl growing up in the shadow of a strong spirit, frustrated that we didn’t understand each other, unknowingly in competition, I realize now that’s part of having a sister, gaining shape and a sense of self from being different. She is my best friend, and my first phone call when I need to share joy, fear, or heartbreak. I’m so thankful that we share a laugh and a common outlook on life. That we live different lives and bring unique experiences to each other, challenging, questioning, supporting the other on her journey.

"Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be."
~Toni Morrison, Beloved

Happy 40th Christina!  Here’s to all the amazing adventures to come.

Photo by Jay Haldors

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Let's Talk About Sex: Esther Perel's TED Talk on Connecting Sex, Selfishness, Love, and Mystery

"Can we want what we already have?"

This is the question summing up the crisis of desire in modern relationships that Esther Perel talks about on TED.  Perel is a psychotherapist who researches across cultures, coaches and consults organizations and families, holds a private psychotherapy practice in New York, and speaks regularly on erotic intelligence, trauma, conflict resolution and infidelity. She is the author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic.  (From Perel's full bio on

In this TED talk, she explores the dichotomy of romance and relationships in our individualistic societies, where we look to one person to fulfill "what an entire village used to provide," and the reconciliation of our need for "home" and our need for adventure.  

"...this is the first time in the history of humankind where we are trying to experience sexuality in the long term, not because we want 14 children, for which we need to have even more because many of them won't make it, and not because it is exclusively a woman's marital duty. This is the first time that we want sex over time about pleasure and connection that is rooted in desire.

"So what sustains desire, and why is it so difficult? And at the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship, I think is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs. ...

"So reconciling our need for security and our need for adventure into one relationship, or what we today like to call a passionate marriage, used to be a contradiction in terms. Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot, and we live twice as long. So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide:

"Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one.
Give me comfort, give me edge.
Give me novelty, give me familiarity.
Give me predictability, give me surprise.
And we think it's a given, and toys and lingerie are going to save us with that."

As someone who needs a lot of alone time, I love that she talks about safely going off in the world, finding your own joy and bringing that into the relationship.  Of viewing your partner from a happy distance, where you see your partner "on his or her own, doing something in which they are enveloped. I look at this person and momentarily get a shift in perception, and I stay open to the mysteries that are living right next to me." 

"As Proust says, 'Sometimes mystery is not traveling to new places but looking with new eyes.'"

Watch Perel's TED talk for more of her insights from her research on sex and the intelligent imagination behind erotic love.

The video cuts out just as Perel says "there are a few things I've come to understand erotic couples do..."  (Thanks for the cliffhanger, TED.)  I copied her closing words here, from the transcript on the site, so click on that to read, or come back here.

"So in this dilemma about reconciling these two sets of fundamental needs, there are a few things that I've come to understand erotic couples do. One, they have a lot of sexual privacy. They understand that there is an erotic space that belongs to each of them. They also understand that foreplay is not something you do five minutes before the real thing. Foreplay pretty much starts at the end of the previous orgasm. They also understand that an erotic space isn't about, you being to stroke the other. It's about you create a space where you leave Management Inc., ... and you actually just enter that place where you stop being the good citizen who is taking care of things and being responsible. Responsibility and desire just butt heads. ... Erotic couples also understand that passion waxes and wanes. It's pretty much like the moon. It has intermittent eclipses. But what they know is they know how to resurrect it. They know how to bring it back, and they know how to bring it back because they have demystified one big myth, which is the  myth of spontaneity, which is that it's just going to fall from heaven while you're folding the laundry like a deus ex machine, and in fact they understood that whatever is going to just happen in a long-term relationship already has.

"Committed sex is premeditated sex. It's willful. It's intentional. It's focus and presence."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Valentine's Day Generosity: Lessons from Kindergarten

I used to love Valentine's Day - making imperfect hearts out of pink paper to cover in glue and glitter and gleefully put into each classmate's envelope, also decorated and sticky with glue, hanging from the chalkboard railing.  Everyone got a valentine, but a little extra love went into the ones for boys I was crushing on, or for my best friend.  When did it all go wrong?  When did I decide to wear mourning blacks and protest Valentine's Day on principle?

Last year, even though I didn't have a romantic relationship to celebrate, I had an odd, warm-the-cockles-of-my-heart feeling as I passed by, of all places, Aahs, and it's ridiculously over the top Valentine's Day display.  I was hopeful that it might offer a chance for people to tell others they love them, to remind friends of why their relationships are so important, to give adults a reason to relish pink and red and glue glitter on construction paper.

This year, I started thinking about Valentine's Day when my friend Jessika posted this photo. Weeks before V day, her little girl had created a special valentine to make the new girl in class feel welcome.  

In an interview on Kindness, one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye commented that, "We're surrounded by talk and language and reporting and stories of a certain kind, the 'breaking news' kind, but I think we hunger for another kind of story, the story that helps us just feel connected with one another, be with one another. A slower kind of empathy. I think we hunger for that now more than ever."

I love stories of connectedness.  I love kids (and co-workers) who really see their class or cubicle-mates and want to make sure they feel welcome, that they belong. I even love some dopey dude who needs a gentle consumer-driven reminder to tell his heart-throb that he has feelings for him/her.

I hope this Valentine's Day, with Eve Ensler's V-Day One Billion Rising, encouraging people to dance to demand the end of violence against women, and with Brené Brown reminding us that it's also Generosity Day, that we"Give to people on the street.  Tip outrageously.  Help a stranger.  Write a note telling someone how much you appreciate them.  Smile.  Donate (more) to a cause that means a lot to you.  Take clothes to GoodWill.  Share your toys (grownups and kids).  Be patient with yourself and with others.  Replace the toilet paper in the bathroom.  All generous acts count!" 

Pay attention to people — who knows who might need a non-Valentine's valentine today?

I'm down with these V-Day cards:

(See more Wes Anderson valentines at FlavorWire)


Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Paying Attention: My Work is Loving the World

My work is loving the world.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
     keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

~Mary Oliver, from "Messenger"

(Photos: 1., 2. AFAR, 3. via Pinterest)

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Crazy Cat Lady or Career Cat-Catcher?

I recently learned that there is, in the world, a profession of "cat-catching."  I don't have the proper CV for such a gig, but would proudly like to submit my own story of kitty karma to convince you of my mad cat-catching skills.

Stopping overnight at a Motel 6 in Redding en route from L.A. to my parent's place in Portland, I left my kitty in her car carrier to check us in.  Would the staff buy that I had missed the 20 odd “no pets allowed” signs posted behind the clerk's head? A terrible liar, I avoided eye contact, furtively signed in, accepted my key, then cased the joint to find my best "there's no cat in this box!" way in.

The sun was setting as I slunk back to my red Honda hatchback. I sat in the front seat, eyeing my orange and white tabby cat, Clyde. She had endured a 10 hour drive stuck in her hated kitty carrier while I intermittently tossed ice chips at her and sprayed water through the vents, hoping to cool her  from the hot California sun.

She eyed me with a mixture of dull hatred and disdain for subjecting a regal feline to such humiliation. We sat in silence, watched a family tumble out of a minivan. I told her she was now complicit in my scheme to sneak her into the motel.

I nodded and gave her the look: Let’s do this.
Her look: I will kill you in your sleep.

The parking lot somewhat empty, I jumped from the front seat, opened the passenger door, and grabbed the carrier’s handle. Slamming the door, I made a beeline to the back door of the motel when snap! the handle broke, the carrier hit the cement with a sickening thud followed by an orange Creamsicle streak of motion. Clyde ran first for the door where I tried to corner her, then darted between my legs, dashed back across the lot, and disappeared into a thick bramble of bushes. The thick bramble of bushes that separated the motel from a busy four-lane road right off the Interstate 5.

Realizing she was not going to come back out to her tormentor calling “here, kitty kitty kitty kitty,” I ran thirty feet or so around the bushes to the road. Looking both ways, and praying she had learned to do the same in her short kitty life before I rescued her from her death at a shelter, I ran across the street, then stopped. Having never been in this situation before, I was at a complete loss. Crisis 101: Should I run further into the neighborhood, scaling fences and the yards at the mobile home park? Should I quickly sketch posters for a lost cat and distribute them? Should I boil water and tear my shirt for bandages?

As I began to circle the bushes, I did the next least helpful thing in a crisis: I called my family, 400 miles away. By now, the sun had set, which I hoped would hide the tears streaming down my face as motel guests looked toward the sound of my weeping. Explaining my predicament to my mother, I started scattering handfuls of kitty treats and food along the curb that lined the brush. She told me to check back in a little later, reassuring me that my cat would want to come to me. She didn't know about the look of death.

An hour later, it was dark, and I had seen no sign of Clyde across the street or near the motel.  As I continued to call to her, I heard a pitiful meow. Hope was reborn. I started manically thrashing toward the sound, learning in the process that the brambles were blackberry bushes, full of thorns.

My arms bleeding from tiny wounds, but assured that my cat was close by, I went in to the motel to check out of my unused room. I gave a slightly altered version of my story – I had checked in, but then saw the “absolutely positively no pets under any circumstances” signage on my way out to my car and cat. I was simply taking the carrier out of the car to give Clyde some fresh air before deciding upon a different, pet-friendly hotel, when it broke, and Clyde escaped. The night clerk, a girl in her early 20s, looked sympathetic, if a little confused, as I returned my key.

It’s okay, I said. She’s in the bushes, I just have to wait for her to come out.

Three hours later my cell phone was plugged in to an outlet in the hotel. I made quick trips inside for bathroom and vending machine breaks, praying I wouldn't miss her emerging from the bramble.

After another unsuccessful grab at Clyde when I saw her near the edge of the brush, I went inside to ask if the motel had any kind of gardening tool, “maybe a machete?” that I might use to cut back the bramble and allow easier access. After searching, we found a hoe. Better than nothing, I said, a smile on my tear-stained face, my fingers tainted with the odor of wet cat food.

I hoe-hacked and smashed at the thick bramble, my work lit by the eerie fluorescent parking lights. Giving up, I sat on the cold asphalt, and holding the hoe bravely by my side, rattled my bag of remaining kitty treats, calling out feebly, “here, kitty kitty kitty kitty.” A drug dealer who worked the gas station across the street eyed me, and kept to his side of the motel parking lot.

Around 3am, my mother, who was sleeping on the couch with the phone in her hand, relayed my dad’s advice to call the firemen. Now, as much as I love men in uniforms who are there to help stranded cats and humans, I didn’t want to be such a cliché. Do they really rescue cats from trees, or attempt to find them in 30 square feet of brush? At 3am? But, I was desperate, and dialed the local, non-emergency number.

“My cat. She’s stuck in the bramble of blackberry bushes here at the Motel 6,” I repeated upon request to the now-silent operator. “…And she’s on fire?”

They couldn’t help me. But they did advise calling animal control in the morning. After explaining my situation to the animal control office, a ranger (we’ll call her Roberta) in an official-looking khaki uniform arrived, replete with a pole and a net. It looked like serious business, especially if she were out to capture a butterfly. I was doubtful, but desperate. As we took opposite sides of the brush and started tromping it down to walk through it, hoping to scare or corner Clyde, a couple of travelers joined in our hunt. “Is it a wild animal?” the woman asked with interest, eyeing the official khaki uniform.

“No.” I choked down tears and exhaustion. “It’s my cat.” I explained how I had been up all night hoping for her to come out.

“Wow,” her husband said. “You must really love that cat.”

(Why do men hate cats?)

After having no luck, the ranger was dubious about Clyde’s presence, and possibly my sanity. She asked me to meet her later at the office, where I could pick up a havahart trap to set.

I followed the ranger’s instructions carefully. Clearing away all other options for food, I placed a fresh can of tuna in the back of the trap. Tuna is apparently to cats like Dove dark chocolate is to me. I was to practice tough love and ignore Clyde until she was in the trap, so she felt her only option for food was a cage. Not only would I catch Clyde, I now had a new parenting trick, should I ever be allowed to procreate after my dismal display of cat care.

Day 1: Checked back into Motel Six. Checked out Redding California. Movie theaters and Starbucks.

That night, I checked the trap, but, as expected, she was not there. Since cats are nocturnal, Ranger Roberta had told me that I shouldn’t expect any movement from her ‘til night, and wait to check the trap in the morning.

Day 2: At the literal crack of dawn, I opened the back door to the parking lot, a can of fresh tuna in hand. Across the parking lot I saw Clyde freeze in her tracks at the sound of the door, just inches outside the cage. “Nooooo” I mouthed, afraid to scare her further away. Our eyes locked. She turned and ran, ignoring the tempting tuna. I wondered how long it would take to overcome this intense hatred she had quickly developed for me. I changed out the tuna, and walked back in to call my sister, happy that I had a sighting.

My sister, however, was not as upbeat as I. “What is wrong with your cat?” I hadn’t told anyone about the periodic water bottle spraying on the drive, or the times I chucked ice at her through the grate of the carrier. “I don’t know! I’m a lovable cat-person!”

Now a regular, I greeted the motel staff with my update, and spent another day at the Starbucks.

Day 3: I slept in a little longer, getting used to my new life at the Motel 6. I opened another can of tuna – which is not a great odor at 6:30am, and eyed with despair the tower of tuna I had stacked on the bureau.

Opening the door, I heard her before I saw her, no sound more heartwarming than her yowl, which only grew louder as I ran across the lot in my pjs, to pick up the cage. She crouched in the back like ... a cat trapped in a cage. Her white feet and underbelly were grey with dirt, she had lost weight, her teeth were bared and eyes were wild, and she never looked more beautiful to me. I paraded into the motel, proudly ignoring the “no pets” signs. The morning clerk gave me a big grin and stated the obvious, “You must be so happy.”

I was. And I had learned an important lesson about the karma of trying to break the motel rules: it's an all night vigil and a three day stay in Redding, California. And while I may not be the cat whisperer, you should hire me as a professional cat catcher.  I will NEVER give up. 

Me & Clyde in Portland. Born Harriet, rescued in 2001, left for kitty heaven in 2010.