Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

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The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned.¬†Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

Let me take a selfie

I blog. Obviously.

There have been times over the last few years of my blogging that men will flirt with me or chat with me a bit. I’ll invite them out for coffee, and they’ll respond with a ‘no thank you. I saw your blog, and I don’t want to be someone that you write about later.’

This is absolutely hilarious to me. I share of lot of myself on my blog, but anyone who thinks they know me well by reading things that I’ve written, well, they will be surprised when they actually get to know me and realize I’m much more complex than some words on a screen. I write about things, and about myself, but I am much more than the things I write about.

When I write about others, I do one of two things: I change their names and a few key components of their identity, and only share things that are sanguine to a topic or that I know they would be okay with me sharing; OR I get their permission to tell stories about them. I’m not a passive-aggressive individual who vents about strangers on my blog, naming them by name and publishing for all readers to see. That would be downright cruel.

I also share openly on Facebook, and on my YouTube channel. I share things I am comfortable sharing. I try to keep my Facebook page one of positive energy, wit, and inspiring thoughts and ideas. It can at times be a delicate balance. Oversharing is uncomfortable, as is public whining.

Recently, in a conversation with a 15 year old male, I was told that Facebook was for the “older generation”. “Kids are using Snapchat now. Facebook just kind of. It’s not really for us, it’s more for your age.” I was startled by this. But as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, looking at my friends and those who posted often, it did indeed seem to be primarily those in their mid 20s to late 40s. Funny videos, random statuses, and selfies.

Now I take selfies from time to time. I might send to a friend or two or I might post one on my Facebook wall in an attempt to, again, be either inspiring, witty, or funny. I’ll make a thoughtful face, snap the shot, post, and write some sort of line underneath.

In thinking about selfies, I realize there is a certain amount of ego involved in taking and posting them. There is an assumption that if I take a selfie, I not only like my face, I assume that other people will want to see it also, and that they are interested in what I have to say and show. I suppose there is some desire for validation and reciprocity.

Honestly, that’s a lot of the reason I blog. I have something to say and I assume people will want to read my words and share in my experiences.

Today, I made myself black coffee and, as I drink it shirtless, I snapped a selfie, contemplating how such a delicious drink is zero calories. Yesterday, I had a flat tire. While I waited for the tow truck, I snapped a selfie of my frowning by the tire. A few days ago, I snapped a selfie of me cuddling with my four year old. The day before that, I asked a woman to take one of me with my children in the swimming pool.

There is no hidden agenda when I post a photo of myself. Just like anyone on Facebook, I enjoy getting ‘likes’ and comments on my photos. It’s fun to have the ego stroked a bit. But the fact of the matter is, I have no idea if other people want to see my face, if they don’t want to see my face, if they are ambivalent to my face, if they are tired of my face, or if they wish my face was on their Facebook feed more often.

Again, I like the validation. But I post the selfies, well, for me. Which is another turn of ego I suppose.

I’ve written on Ego before, but I see it as a pretty healthy thing. I spent a bulk of my life kind of hiding in plain sight. So to be at a point in my life when I like who I am, when I like how I look, when I like how I present myself… well, I’m pretty damn okay with that.

So it turns out, at nearly 40, I might just be a “millenial”, one of that dreaded generation who texts too much, has too many apps, and is glued to their phones, posting statuses and Emojis and images of themselves on social media. I hashtag things. I share, comment, like, view, Tweet, Imessage, Snapchat, and download apps. It isn’t so complicated, it’s just this new generation, and I’m fully a part of that.

So as I engage in social media expression, at age 37, as a dad and a social worker and a writer, I’ll keep sharing what I choose to share when I choose to share it, and I’ll be just fine with having a bit of ego about it.

But first, let me take a selfie.

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Making Lemonade in Hollywood

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Let’s say you love making lemonade. I mean, you love it. The whole process. You love blending the ingredients to perfection, and you especially love the huge refreshing and surprised smile people get on their faces when they taste it, cold and delicious. You have tried out several combinations and mixtures, from huckleberry to honey lime to chocolate peanut butter, and the variety is exciting, but it is that homemade original recipe that you love so much.

People ask you how you came up with such a perfect recipe, they wonder why it tastes so good, and you come up with a story about how you got it from your grandmother, but the truth is you made it all by yourself, and you don’t want to share the recipe with anyone else, it’s special and it is just yours.

Soon friends start asking you to make your lemonade for special events, weddings and receptions, company barbecues and family picnics. At first you do it for free, then you charge them just a bit, just enough to cover the ingredients, but then you get busier and you start charging for your time as well. But you charge barely anything. Making lemonade on top of your day job keeps you very busy indeed. But you love it still.

And one day a friend sits you down and says, you know, you could do something with this lemonade thing. You are the best. Just quit your job and open a little store front, or sell it online. Create a YouTube channel about your lemonade, make an Instagram account, create a Facebook fan page, put up a Twitter account, come up with a campaign, people of all ages loving your lemonade. And you are surprised, because even though you make the best lemonade, you have no idea how to run a business, how to market it. You live in a small town. You can’t just make lemonade, can you? But the idea sticks in your mind for a while, and you think, why not give it a shot. But you don’t quit your job, you try to do it smart.

And so you start telling people about your lemonade. You put some money into creating a marketing campaign. You do daily posts on social media. You take pictures and publish them. You offer samples. You tell local companies about it, and put some ads up on the internet. And you stick with it for a few months, but orders don’t increase, and all that time and initiative you are putting into your lemonade promotion is yielding very small results. The people who loved it before still love it, but no one else is really trying it.

You talk to your friend again, and he tells you to keep at it, says the lemonade is the best. And you tell him that you agree, it’s damn good lemonade, but no one else is trying it out. Think bigger, he says. The talent is there, you just have to find it.

And so you save up a bit, and you take yourself to Hollywood, just to see. It’s beautiful there. The streets are lined with amazing buildings full of history and money and success, but also failure and pain and flops. Lemonade is everywhere in Hollywood, in every shape and color and on every corner. There are 50,000 people there making lemonade, and only¬†a few thousand of them are doing well at it, and only a few hundred doing really well at it.

And you spend a few days drinking other people’s lemonade. It’s good, but not as good as yours. But this lemonade, it’s selling like crazy. People are raving about it. It is in shiny cups lined with sugar, in store fronts with air-conditioning and plush seats and soft lighting.

And after a few days of drinking other people’s lemonade, you wonder about your options you really want to keep making lemonade (and you really do), how can you be a success at it? You want to be one of the few thousand (not one of the few hundred), but there are a lot of lemonade stands out there. Do you need pretty packaging? A busy store front on a Hollywood intersection? A new label? Do you need to team with someone who is already making lemonade in order to make yours bigger?

Or do you just keep making lemonade and working the day job, hoping it will take off some day?

Or do you just keep making lemonade for the people in your small town who already like it, and be content with that?

Or do you stop making lemonade all together?

And so a few days later, you are back in your little kitchen and you are swishing your old familiar mixing spoon around and around your old familiar pitcher. Ice is clinking against the sides of the glass as the liquid beneath it swirls round and round. You see the sugar dissolving into the water, and the wedges of lemon bobbing up and down. It turns a careful beautiful bright yellow. And you know it will be delicious, not only because you have made it 1000 times before, but because you love to make it, you love this process, these careful calculations, the mix and stir and clink and swish and pour. You love the process even more than you love the taste of it on your tongue. And people come in and they drink and they say it is delicious.

And you hold a glass of cold lemonade in your hand, and you look out the window at the setting sun, already thinking about the batch of lemonade you will make tomorrow, and you wonder again about ambition, and potential, and doing what you love.