I've stopped feeling relaxed about the dairy industry

Is there oat milk? I said, and then I said: I’m sorry, I know it’s so pretentious, and the barista shrugged and said, Sure, it isn’t really. And then I realized that he has grown up in a world where it’s never been in question that plants are milked! Could this be the true divide between millennials and members of Generation Z, between people like me who were raised to feel ashamed of their lactose intolerance, and people like him, who have never believed that the default way to cream your coffee requires a touch of animal cruelty? Because let me be clear: I love yogurt and cheese, I’m a fiend for ice cream, but ever since I learned to hook myself up to an electric breast pump I’ve stopped feeling relaxed about the dairy industry.

I think of myself as a barista at heart, always have since, you know, I was a barista. I worked at Starbucks in Wolf Road in Albany in the summer of 2001, which at the time was just a summer, but which just weeks later became the last summer, or at least a last summer. I worked there even though I made less in my hourly wage than I’d made the previous summer, as the receptionist at a dying healthcare company where I read books all day, answered the phone three times a week. Every now and then I was called upon to fix the photocopier because I was young. That job made me feel like I was dying inside, even though it gave me the opportunity to read a hundred novels, and so I guess I thought that working at Starbucks would be more fun, more active, an opportunity to make friends with my fellow baristas. 

I guess I did, though I don’t remember any of their names. I remember things about them like: one of them had a little soul patch on his chin that he called a ‘pinch’. One of them was in a seminary to become a Catholic priest and was also so extremely mean to the customers that he got fired after two shifts. One of them was a conventionally attractive woman who served people Frappucinos and then turned to me and said, The calories in that would choke you! I remember that one of them was also Jewish, because one time he told someone that he was Jewish and then the guy he had said that to frowned and looked at me and said, Ya got Jew blood? and I said Yes and laughed thinly, the way I laugh when I feel under threat. One of the things about working at Starbucks at that particular time is that we could not become Facebook friends or exchange cellphone numbers, and that’s very refreshing, that they’re lost to me, as I’m sure I am to them. A prelapsarian time.

Two women came in every day of the week several times to get five-shot Americanos and one of my fellow baristas whose names I’ve forgotten said, They’re in a cult! and I said, Really? and they said, Yes! and in fact it was true, they were very bad people and I believe that they’re now in prison. But I was less concerned about the cult at the time — after all, I couldn’t google it — than the fact that I hated the part in the day when we pulled up the foam mats from the floor and mopped the lake of spilled coffee and the grit of the grounds off the floor. Working at Starbucks wasn’t any better for me than working in the office. Maybe it was worse. I had to start my morning shift at 5:30 am and I hated that, profoundly. I even hated the time that I saw a man running down the street in boxer shorts and a satin bathrobe during my 5 am drive, clearly interrupted in the midst of an affair. I couldn’t appreciate it! Whereas now in retrospect I recall that scene and think How interesting. 

Ever since those three months of my life I’ve identified as an ex-barista, and that means I’ve been a generous tipper when it comes to coffee. Sometimes I even say something tragic like: I used to be a barista! before I lovingly place a dollar bill in the tip jar. But today when the guy just accepted my oat milk order like it was nothing at all I realized: I’m wrong. I cannot relate, I do not know this young man’s life, I am old, I am old.

I tipped him a dollar, yes. But I think it won’t ever feel the same.


The windiest place in Scotland at the time

Or maybe that was just a credible rumor

There was a time back in the early 90s when I wanted nothing more than to go to summer camp, the kind where you slept in a cabin for six weeks and your parents drank a lot in your absence. At summer camp maybe you learned more about who you were — Jewish, evangelical Christian — or what you were good at — tennis, violin. There was no camp for me, or if there was one, I didn’t know about it.

No matter: in our family we spent six weeks in Scotland, I suppose learning more about who we were — partly Scottish people — and what we were good at, which in my case was reading through the Penguin paperbacks that were collected in my grandmother’s spare bedroom, in my brother’s case the math problems on the teatime game show Countdown. My sister: very good at the word puzzles.

Back home at the end of these summers it was hard to explain to the kids who’d been to camp what exactly I’d been up to. They had boyfriends now who lived in Canada, and I had whatever is the opposite of a tan, maybe an itchy new sweater, an anecdote about farm animals. I don’t think I tried to tell them about the trip we took to the nuclear power plant but now that’s one of my favorite family photographs, four of us squinting into the sun in front of the cooling towers (Dad was taking the picture). I have it on my desktop at work which I suppose is by way of telling people, passers by my desk, who I am. 

I think that was the same summer that we stayed in the caravan park in Southerness, which is an encampment of vacation trailer homes for those unfamiliar with domestic British ways of vacations. Southerness was, I believe, the windiest place in Scotland at the time, or maybe that was just a credible rumor — certainly every night it just sounded like our caravan was going to fall over, buffeted by the July gales. We slept in sweaters and duvets and was there hot water? Probably not much. 

This vacation stands out in my mind as one of my mom’s peak mothering moments, it could have been so dreary and yet she would say things like, Well, this is fun! and We’re having a great time! in a way that was really believable, was enough for me to come around. About ten years later I went on my first real beach vacation, to the Costa del Sol in Spain, and then I was like, Oh, this is what a beach holiday is like not in Scotland?! With sunscreen?! but I didn’t feel resentful, just impressed at my family’s efforts. Whenever life is hard but requires a positive attitude I think of Southerness.

Of course the truth now is that these summers in Scotland were so formative, as formative as any summer camp could have been, maybe more so, they were such an important part of who I am, and now the weirdest thing — the most unexpected thing — is now it will form part of my son’s self too. This week we are on the first of his visits to his Scottish grandmother, the beginning of his own exposure to this place, these people, and when in preparation I ordered him a secondhand yellow raincoat, his first of a lifetime of raincoats, I felt so proud of who we are.


it's too late to make it the Best Summer Ever

and so I can just live

Now is the part of the summer that makes me feel some relief because it's too late to make it the Best Summer Ever, and so I can just live. Earlier on in every summer I have a tendency to reflect on all of the things that I haven't managed to do but around now, the waning of August, I find myself looking forward to autumn, to not feeling like every weekend spent in a less-than-hectic way is an opportunity lost.

A phrase that I hate in reference to Doing Things (apologies if you like it, but hey! this is my space) is 'making memories' which is usually applied in an approving way to an account of something that one is going to do. Oh, someone will say, you'll going to be making memories! or sometimes it’s used as a directive: Make memories! someone will say. It's so well-intentioned and it always makes me feel so sad and undermined, the implication that one decides seeks experiences primarily to recall them afterwards.

Now that I am a mother this pressure is different, of course, because it is not just my responsibility to make my own memories but now I have responsibility for the baby, too. Of course the baby will not remember anything that happens this summer, but I still feel like I have to show him a really good time. Even though when I think about why I think I have to take him places rather than let him crawl around in the living room with pages he’s ripped out of the New Yorker (this makes him sound like an intellectual but it’s really because the pages are of a lighter more rippable weight than those in other periodicals), I feel I know that it is because I feel that there is some social pressure to perform that I am Making Memories, lest someone regard my insufficient memory-making to be evidence that I am not a good mother.

This is probably what I was thinking about earlier in the summer when I signed myself and the baby up for swimming lessons on Saturday afternoons. I picked this time because E would be working at the neighborhood farmshare, and because I thought that now I am back at work it would be good for me and the baby to spend some Quality Time together, I guess Making Memories. The lessons are at a local pool in a high school of journalism (bad idea for a high school in the current economy I think! but that's another conversation) and the lessons themselves I did enjoy, splashing around holding the baby while he wears a full-body swimsuit in the style of a Victorian gentleman at an English seaside resort.

But after the lesson, the changing of the baby out of his fully-body swimsuit as well as the changing of myself in a locker room designed for high school students — honestly this was one of the most stressful parenting experiences I've had so far. I say that with an acknowledgment that I didn't go into labor, but I'm guessing it would have also been frustrating and humiliating and awful? There was just no surface on which to put the baby, or at least no surface on which I could put the baby where he would not be crawling through traces of other people's athlete’s foot, and then he started screaming and needed to drink milk that I could only administer from my own body, and then I had to rinse the swimming pool off his skin lest he get a chlorine rash (forget my own skin, my own skin was moot) and in the end, yes, you'll be happy to know that I did manage to get the baby and myself out of our swimwear and into street clothes and out of the high school for journalism. And home, we got home.

But for the rest of the week it just haunted me, filled me with dread that I would have to do it again the following Saturday and several Saturdays after that, just so that when people said things like What are you and the baby up to this summer! I could smile and say things like, Oh, we're taking swimming lessons.

Obviously I quit the swimming lessons, and now I am much happier on Saturday afternoons and the baby doesn't care because, as noted, he doesn't Make Memories, not yet. And, you know, I’ll admit it, I still think I’ve had a good summer, maybe even a best one. And I think I’m a good mother, even though I quit the swimming. I think I'm pretty good.



Now available in a nifty yellow paperback.

I love Monica.

This is probably the worst day of our marriage so far

I used to say that I thought a stroller would be the worst part of parenthood, and I meant it, inasmuch it was a bad thing that I could tangibly imagine, from back when I used had a job babysitting an 18-month-boy in Montreal that required me to push him around in an awkward BabyJogger (one time he fell out of it, I still feel bad about that, I hope he’s OK, if only I remembered his name I would google him).

And it’s true, a stroller is bad, bulky and irritating when you’re used to moving at speed. But what is worse, perhaps, is that every kind of baby transport is hard. The thing that I have loved so much about living in a city until now — the car-free freedom — is now so limiting with the addition of a person who weighs about 15 pounds. If I know you in life and you haven’t seen me, I apologize, I really do, I thought I would be the kind of mother who darts cheerfully around the city with my pleasant child in tow, but the truth is that though he is pleasant (you know, in my opinion, of course I think that) and I am pretty cheerful, at this stage in the game any travel beyond the perimeter of our neighborhood feels like an onerous project.

At the weekend we were going to New Jersey for one night, to see our friends in a place that is, to be clear, only seventeen miles away. Not far. At 1:30 the baby and I got out of swimming class (another story) and E said, Oh, we need to get a car to the train station at quarter past 3, and I snapped, That’s not going to happen, and E said, in his kind and reasonable tone, Well, let’s really try. At quarter past 3 we were ready but when the app indicated that we would arrive at the station with 5 minutes until the train departed I bellowed WE ARE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT and that began the cascade into crisis.

First, we had an argument about the cost of a ZipCar, and then I tried to storm out of the building, which was out of proportion, and then we agreed that we would just pay for it. But then when we got to the car there was something wrong, it couldn’t be driven. E called the company and they said, Sorry, but don’t worry, we can give you another car, it’s just 7 miles away! and E said, Do you have any idea how far that is in New York City?? and then I said, OK, I’m calling an Uber, and we will take a bus.

At the Port Authority Station we climbed out of the car and popped up the stroller and everything seemed OK and then E realized that he had dropped his phone in the gutter. In the Port Authority gutter! If you’re not familiar with the Port Authority just know, that’s not a good gutter. He wrapped it in a brochure for a Broadway show and then we proceeded to an elevator, and then just as I got in with the baby and the stroller (thank god I had the stroller!) E, who had now reached a level of stress that I had last witnessed when I was having a Caesarean section, said: I have to wash my hands, they have touched this gutter phone!

So there we were, me and the baby, on our own in the Port Authority. The baby was crying and I was singing his favorite song, ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’ and I was thinking to myself, Everyone knows you should never split the group! and of course it was the wrong elevator, and so I rode back up into it and figured out where the bus was departing from and then walked through the station to the other elevator whilst singing ‘Someone’s in the kitchen with Di-NAH’ and rode down to the bus gate and there was E, with his gutter phone in the queue for the bus, and I joined him and I said in maybe not the kindest of voices: This is probably the worst day of our marriage so far! and he said, Yes! and then we sort of laughed because, of course, that makes us very lucky.


He did text me the next day to see if I was alive

Perhaps because I spent most of last summer inside with morning sickness, I forgot until this week that one of the things about summer in New York is the potential, the sense that every golden hour is heavy with possibility, especially after the long sweaty foul-smelling New York summer days. But the evenings, after a shower: a summer dress, a patio, a patch of grass, a spritzer, a popsicle, a good spot to watch the sun go down. All kinds of good things could happen in New York’s sticky night air.

No doubt my belief in this was part of why I fell in love with E in the summer, because I was out on the town with a sense that something good could happen, or at least nothing too bad. (No doubt it was thanks to my dogged belief in the possibility of a New York summer that when feeling hopeful about meeting E, I overlooked that three weeks earlier on a date with another man something bad had happened, I’d fainted while exiting air con-chilled restaurant into the heat, my blood pressure dropped and so did I and I hit my head on the sidewalk and got a concussion, no, I did not see him again though he did text me the next day to see if I was alive).

The Q train track on the Manhattan Bridge is one good place to see the sun go down; on Sunday night that’s where I was. Across the aisle a woman in a specific hat — she’d clearly thought about what hat to wear, and selected this one, it was not just any hat, I love people who take care with hats — applied concealer under her eyes, patting on big pale triangles like a YouTube makeup expert. Who knows what she had in mind, but the care of her application indicated that she hoped for something, some event, some happening, some hope. I smiled.

Next to me, another woman about the same age (25ish) snapped a photo for her Instagram Stories. People irritate me, she wrote over it. I looked back at the woman with the concealer to see what was irritating. I couldn’t see it. Summer is also a time, I suppose, when some people realize that they’ve had enough of New York.



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