Sometimes you just can’t explain human behavior

It’s my favorite time of year: Cooler days, falling leaves, pumpkin picking, apple cider donuts . . . and people acting really, really weird.

I was recently at a friend’s house for a casual get together, and I brought my 15-year old daughter. She had nothing else to do that day and wanted to see how my friend had redecorated her house, so why not?

There were a few people I knew there, many that I didn’t, and everyone was wrapped up in conversation, so my daughter (let’s call her Joy) and I hung out in the kitchen, munching on snacks. I spotted someone I know (let’s call her Gerty) in the living room talking to a group of people and gave her a polite wave.

Gerty was dressed for this festive occasion in head-to-toe black, her slight frame barely solid enough to hold her steady on impossibly tall black boots, hair characteristically pin-straight, her mouth a bright red gash. She can be a little severe, our Gerty.

Suddenly she was right in front of me. How did she cross the room so fast? Did she glide? Not possible in those boots, I would have heard her clumping toward me.

“Hi there,” she said. “Hi!” I responded, then gestured to Joy, who I don’t think she had ever met. “This is my daughter, Joy.”

If things didn’t already seem a little off, they were about to get weird.

Gerty turned toward me, eyes wide, moved in so close I thought she was preparing to lick my face, and said with a tight grin, barely moving her lips:

“You brought . . . CHILDREN?”

I really had to think about my response. Mentally I looked around the room to make sure I hadn’t misjudged the audience. There was food, there was wine, there were lots of people about my age engaged in loud, happy conversation. There were no strippers, no gimps, no one was cursing, no one was naked. Why not bring a child?

My next thought was: Technically Joy isn’t a child. She’s close to 16 and could pass for 18. In fact, one of the guests had previously (jokingly) recommended she have a shot since we lived close and could walk home. He had no idea she wasn’t even old enough to drive.

I opened my mouth to say . . . I’m not sure what . . . Probably “Uh?” and Gerty, who was sandwiched between me and Joy, turned her back on Joy, effectively pinning her against the stove. Joy looked over Gerty’s shoulder at me with a slightly panicked expression. I shrugged, as if to say “She’ll move along soon, I’m sure she’s not aware that she is suffocating you with her black turtleneck.”

Then Gerty spotted someone she knew on the other side of the kitchen, and although the distance was only about 8 feet, she started bellowing to get their attention. Meanwhile, she hadn’t moved. Joy was still pinned, holding a cookie up in the air, unable to get it to her mouth since Gerty was leaning against her.

That’s when I went from puzzled to angry. When you introduce someone, the absolute minimum response required in a civilized society is to say hello and make eye contact. Ignoring the introduction and then turning your back on the person you’ve just been introduced to is beyond rude. But then preventing them from moving while shouting to someone else? To me, that’s baboon behavior.

Thankfully Gerty tottered away before I could smack the physically passive aggressive personality right out of her body. I considered tackling her but there wasn’t much room and I would most likely take other people down at the same time.

Instead, I told Joy “She’s just . . . a little unusual. You know some people, not aware of their surroundings. Loud talker. Close talker. Socially tone deaf.  I’m sure it was nothing personal.”

For all I know, that’s true. But it doesn’t excuse the behavior. And it made me wonder: Are some people just hard wired without basic human empathy, or the skills needed to analyze a situation and behave accordingly? If so, is the ability to act like a social animal something that can be learned through intense training? Or are people like this just destined to go through life offending everyone, yet fortunate enough to be oblivious to the negative effect they have on others?

So many questions. But I don’t want to spend too much time pondering them. If my observations are accurate, at least one out of 5 people seem to have the makings of a true sociopath. From now on, I’ll trust my gut and walk away instead of waving at them.

Why do I save spiders?

Ok, I really thought I had gotten over my fear of spiders. At least to the point where I could remove them from my kids’ rooms when needed. You always know when it’s needed. There is no shriek quite as piercing as a child spotting a spider in his/her room, or–even worse–in the shower.

My newfound confidence went right out the window this morning when I was sitting in bed, working on my laptop, and saw movement along the baseboards out of the corner of my eye. Maybe it’s just a cricket, I thought.

Why would a cricket be any better than a spider? Actually, it would be worse. You can’t catch those things, and they JUMP! At least spiders don’t jump. Not spiders this big. Dear god . . . That IS a spider, right?

I crept out of bed and put on my flip flops, then decided to take one off in case it decided to attack. Then I put it back on, because . . . that thing was huge. I didn’t trust my aim with a tiny flip flop against a behemoth arachnid. Smacking at it might just make it mad.

I ran (as quietly as possible) to the kitchen to get a large plastic cup, heart pounding. What if it wasn’t there when I got back? What then? It could be ANYWHERE! Oh my god. The cats were perched on the dining room table as usual, but looking concerned. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s just an enormous spider. You would be helpless against it. Besides, it looks poisonous.”

Back into the bedroom. It was still there. Thank god. I crept closer, and closer, trying to get the cup in position before it spotted me. How do spider eyes work, anyway? Do they have more than two? Can they see in all directions? I feel like I really should know this before trying to sneak up on one.

No matter. The cup is all I’ve got. I brought it down slowly, slowly. It didn’t move. Plunk. Got it! Too late, I realized that the cup wasn’t flat on the floor. It was propped up on the–what do you call that thing at the bottom of the baseboard? A kickplate? My years of binge-watching HGVT failed me. In horror, I watched it go scampering under the door of the closet.

I paused outside the door, cup in hand, for a very long time. Damn it. What now? I can’t start poking around in the closet, it’s sure to drop on me from whatever it’s attached to. I opened the doors and just stared. Eventually I worked up the nerve to slowly push aside a 4-pack of paper towels, expecting it to come charging at me from the other side of the package. Nothing.

I stepped back and noticed the flashlights on an upper shelf. That’s it. I’ll be able to see it better without having to physically enter the closet, and maybe I could paralyze it with the light. I didn’t know if that was possible, but I really, really hoped so. It happens with deer, right? Spider in the headlights?

Just then Betty (cat #1) entered the room. She loves chasing lights. I trained the light on the closet floor, and she ran right in after it. “No, Betty! Don’t scare the spider!” I turned off the light. But before I did, I saw something right there on the floor, in the open, that looked a lot like the spider. I turned the flashlight on again and kept Betty at bay with my foot. I think that’s the spider! Just sitting there! Why is it doing that? Oh my god, it’s actually paralyzed by the light! It was like I had discovered fire.

I brought the flashlight closer and closer, testing the light paralysis theory. It didn’t move. PLUNK. Just like that, he was trapped. Hooray!

Now, how to get him outside? The old “slide paper under cup” trick worked, but I couldn’t pick it up because the paper was flimsy. One wrong move and he would make a break for it–probably down my arm. I had to slide him across the floor, inch by inch, trying not to jump out of my skin listening to him skittering around in there. Six agonizing feet later, I remembered that there was a rug between me and the screen door.

What would McGuyver do? Duct tape. We have duct tape. Feeling accomplished, I ripped up what little duct tape was left on the roll into small strips, and started folding the paper up the side of the glass and taping it in place. Almost done . . . and then the tape ran out. One section of paper was going to be loose when I picked up the cup.

Sigh.

Holding that section tight against the cup with my hand, I maneuvered the screen door open. Carefully, gingerly, I walked him (or her) to the very far end of the yard and put the cup down. It ran around the inside of the cup, but didn’t find the loose section in the paper. Dear lord.

I untaped a few sections and put the cup back down. Thankfully he/she/it found its way out this time.

Hopefully it will not find its way back in the house! Because I’m all out of duct tape.

I don’t believe in ghosts. But I believe in ghost cats.

There are certain places that my departed cats seem to like hanging around. They’re basically the same places they liked to be when they actually walked on four legs–any place where they might get fed, or could play with water.

Often I’ll be standing at the kitchen sink, or at one of the bathroom sinks, and I’ll feel that familiar delicate brushing of the back of my leg with their whiskers or the side of their face, inquiring if dinner is going to be soon. Or the slight flick of their tail as they circle me, winding between my legs and making it impossible for me to take a step for fear of squashing them. Sometimes I’ll feel the cool, “bop bop bop” of a tiny nose tapping against my leg, sniffing for who knows what.

I’ll turn around, and sometimes it’s my actual, living cats. But sometimes there is nothing there.

I’ll look around to see if maybe one of them brushed past me and quickly left the room, but usually I’ll see them both snoozing on their cat beds on the dining room table. Beds that, inexplicably, they refused to get inside, but will make biscuits on the top until they flatten out and become mattresses instead of hidey caves.

They don’t just make themselves known by touch. I’ll also hear them going down the stairs. Always down, never up. I’m not sure why. I’ll be sitting on the couch, right next to the stairs, and hear the unmistakable padding of paws down the stairs, each one followed by the slight click of their toenails. I would like to say that sometimes it’s my actual cats, but there’s never a cat there. Our floors are creaky, but they don’t mimic the sound of a cat walking down the stairs.

But most unsettling is seeing them. I mean, I don’t see them. But my two cats do. Always in our bedroom or closet, and always on the ceiling. They will both pause, look up at the same spot on the ceiling, and then their eyes will dart back and forth, back and forth, always looking at exactly the same spot. I have followed their gaze many times, looking for a bug, or a spider, or a swaying spider web, or a shadow, or a flash of light from outside. There is never anything there. I think, maybe it’s a sound coming from the HVAC system, or a bird or squirrel on the roof, but I never hear anything.

This mostly happens in our walk-in closet, where we have one of our cats’ ashes.

If I thought there were a ghost of a person in my house, I would move the hell out. Even if it was someone I knew and loved. That’s just too creepy. But the cats? I don’t know, it’s kind of reassuring. Like they’re just visiting to make sure everything is ok, maybe giving our cats some pointers about getting at the hidden snacks, sniffing the different foods they’re eating, sniffing their butts.

Our cats don’t seem too concerned about it, so I guess it’s ok with me.

Sometimes you just have to quit: How I prepared in advance for my own mental breakdown

I’ve always been an independent person. I don’t like to ask for help. I’m slightly on the introverted side, so I prefer to work by myself. Or with one or two people I really like. But most of all, I like to be creative. This was a good place to be, more than 20 years ago, when I started my career in corporate communications and was in a small team, managing a small publication on my own.

Then things started getting uncomfortable. There were promotions, there were children, there were projects and people to manage. All normal milestones in life, and of course there were many aspects of these changes that I enjoyed. And I was good at it. I could work 12 hours a day, take care of the kids, pay the bills, and all with a sunny disposition.

On one hand, I was proud of being able to accomplish so many things at once. But being good at getting things done is exhausting when the things you’re getting done are not ones you want to be doing. I’m talking about the work side of things, not kids or my home life. Those areas of my life I always cherished, but I never had enough time to really pay attention to them. To just enjoy them.

A slight buzzing had started in my head, a kind of background noise that crept in during times of stress and faded when things got quiet. Things were never quiet for long, and the moments of peace got to be few and far between.

The moment I knew I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, was when I was at home, giving a presentation to our CEO on the phone, with my boss on the line to assess my performance, while holding a squirming, sick, screaming toddler. I thought: Ok, now is the time to start hatching my escape plan.

You would think that planning ahead to leave something you don’t enjoy would make “that thing” easier to deal with. It didn’t. It made it worse. Watching my nest egg grow much too slowly, doing the calculations to determine when it was “safe” to leave . . . And the guilt of knowing that I was making a conscious decision to go from supporting my family to potentially making no money for a long time. It was suffocating.

The buzzing got worse.

I was anxious all the time. My heart raced, my blood pressure rose. I sweated even when I was cold.  In quiet moments I would sit and listen to my pulse pounding in my ears, and I could feel it in my nose. Sometimes I would get nosebleeds.

Eventually I got depressed. Nothing could make me happy. I withdrew from friends, family, activities, everything. I just wanted to be left alone.

One morning I found myself in my hotel room, pacing up and down the floor in my towel, gasping for breath. The reason? An event I was running later that day, one that I had run for 5 years in a row. In fact, one of many events and large meetings I ran throughout the year. Nothing major had ever gone wrong at any of them, and there was nothing special about this one.

But as I was getting ready to dry my hair and get dressed, I had a horrible thought: I couldn’t imagine the event happening. Usually before an event, I run through it in my mind, and I can see everything happening the way it should. That always gave me peace of mind, like I was just following a script that was already written. In this case, however, I couldn’t “see” the event. I took it as an omen that something was going to go terribly wrong, and my brain was protecting me by not letting me see it.

I panicked. I thought about packing my bag and running away. But I didn’t. I got through the event, it went well, and I got on the train and was happy to see my family when I got home. Fortunately that was only a few weeks before I walked out the door of my building for the last time, because I don’t think I would have survived another challenge.

I’ve been “free” for 9 months. Quitting wasn’t easy. I felt like . . . a quitter. And I still do.

If I had been a stronger person, I could have gone to therapy, taken antidepressants and continued on in my job for another 20 years. But even the thought of that depressed me. I don’t want to look back on my life and think “wow, I really hung in there, didn’t I?” There are no medals or rewards for suffering in silence.

So here I am, hustling to get freelance writing work every day, getting some here and there, writing personal things for my own amusement, and slowly adjusting to a life without constant stress. It sounds easy, but ironically, it’s a little . . . um, stressful. But there’s negative stress that eats at your mind and body, and then there’s constructive stress, which drives you to work hard at doing something you enjoy.

I can deal with constructive stress. So . . . Here I am. And here I go!

Goodbye, Weekday Drinking . . . Hello, Weight Loss (Well, sort of)

I just had my first paid web site article published. Woo hoo! I don’t have any more to say about that, so please check it out!

https://thereset.com/punch-bowl/goodbye-weekday-drinking-hello-weight-loss/

 

“Someone threw a HERB at me!”

My son has always had a strained relationship with nature. He doesn’t like to go outside if it’s hot or sunny, because he gets sweaty very easily. If he is forced to go outside, he first puts on his sun hat and then inspects his surroundings to make sure there aren’t any bugs in the vicinity. If a bug is sighted, he immediately heads indoors.

A couple of greenery-related experiences could have contributed to his distrust of the outdoors. Or if not, they’re still amusing to me.

He couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, going somewhere with my husband in the car. They stopped for gas and the attendant, after peering in the window at my son in his car seat, declared “What a handsome little fella, he looks like a Bush!” Meaning the former president, which of course went right over my son’s head. He was quiet for awhile, then as they pulled away, my husband heard him say softly, as if to himself, “That man called me a bush!” I still wonder what he really thought that meant. And for the record, he does not look like he’s related to anyone in the Bush family. Or would that be the bush species? He also doesn’t look like any type of shrubbery.

Fast forward about 7 years. I love gardening, and I often force my son outside to help me transplant and water plants. He’s familiar with most varieties of the herbs and vegetables growing in our garden. One day the kids were getting in the car, and as usual they argued about who was going to get the front seat. Being smaller and faster, he got to it first.

As she got in the car, my daughter grabbed a leaf from a nearby basil plant and threw it over the front seat in retaliation. There was a moment of silence, followed by a loud exclamation: “Someone threw a HERB at me!” This made us cackle for so many reasons. Mostly because he pronounced it with the “H.” As if someone had physically thrown a man named Herb over the front seat of the car. Also, he was aware that “someone” had thrown it, but didn’t know who. My daughter was the only one in the back seat. Who on earth could it have been, if not her? And then there’s the formal (if incorrect) way he identified the basil leaf. He knew it was an herb, but didn’t know which type. Not wanting to dumb things down by simply calling it a leaf, he called it A HERB. So now, when I go outside to water anything, I’m going to water my Herbs.

He hates when I tell both these stories, so of course I have to publish them so I will never forget how to tell them.

 

Mediterranean Mashup: A Delicious Disaster

I made up a recipe awhile back for pizza with a Mediterranean theme—spinach, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, feta cheese, etc. I painstakingly took photos of each step as I made it, intending to post the recipe here. Then I looked at the photos: The pizza itself, with each topping added one by one. It was essentially the same photo over and over. That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!

I never said I was especially bright.

So, I invited my friend Karen over one night, and we re-enacted the making of the pizza, with “action shots” instead of pizza shots. Ok, there are a few pizza shots too.

Let’s start with the first photo, above. This shows you everything you will need to make the pizza—except the fresh oregano and basil. I thought of those after I took the photo.

ARGH! I mentioned artichoke hearts, but I didn’t use them this time, so they are not pictured above. But really, wouldn’t artichokes be overkill at this point? Use them if you like, though. They are good. Use the softest parts, chop them into small chunks and add them with the rest of the toppings in Step 8.

Here’s a complete list of ingredients (minus the artichokes):

Pizza dough (or premade pizza crust)
Ricotta cheese (low fat)
Mozzarella cheese (part skim)
Feta cheese (fat free)
Frozen spinach
Fresh oregano and basil (or dried)
Sundried tomatoes
Garlic (any kind—fresh/chopped, jar/minced, or pre-roasted cloves like I used here)
Kalamata olives
Seasonings—salt, pepper, red pepper flakes

Step 1:

Preheat oven to 375. I put it on convection bake. If you have a pizza stone, even better! Let it sit in the oven to heat up.

Step 2:

Microwave the frozen spinach until thawed, dump in a strainer (I sometimes call it a colander, what do you call it?) and press it down to get as much liquid out as possible. I used a paper towel to absorb some of the liquid. Watch out, that spinach can be very hot. Let it sit there and cool.

I didn’t take a photo of that part. I got distracted by something shiny.

Step 3:

Roll out the dough.

This turned out to be more challenging than we thought. Sometimes I’ll get a premade, already baked crust, so you can dive right in with adding the toppings. This time I got a fresh ball of pizza dough, thinking that the texture would be better. That was true, but it took some wrestling and a lot of flour to get the dough rolled out. Make sure to leave the dough in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. Once it warms up, it’s harder to work with.

We put a light layer of flour on a piece of parchment paper (the pizza will stay on this during cooking) and used a rolling pin to roll the dough out as thin as possible.

Oops, I lied. Sorry. We didn’t put the dough on the parchment paper, and it was hard to pull it off the countertop. Put the parchment paper down first, then a layer of flour, then the dough.

I would like to say that we ended up with a perfect circle, but it was more like a lopsided square. Someday I’m going to learn how to throw a pizza to make it round.

Pizza 4

Before adding any toppings, brush the whole surface of the dough with olive oil (all the way to the edge).

Step 4:

Cheese!

Pizza 5

Spread a thin layer of ricotta cheese on the dough, stopping at about an inch from the edge. I think we used most of the container. Add some salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes if you like it a little spicy. I like it a LOT spicy.

Step 5:

Add the spinach.

Pizza 6

It’s easiest to use your fingers to drop pinches of the spinach all over the pizza.

Step 6:

Sprinkle on the entire bag (yes, the entire bag) of mozzarella cheese.

Pizza 7

Finally, add the feta cheese. Just use as much as you like. We used the whole container.

Step 7:

Fresh oregano . . . and fresh basil.

Chop about a tablespoon of oregano (or dried), and as much basil as you like. We used about a quarter cup. Sprinkle these all over the pizza. I put these on now instead of the very end, so they wouldn’t get dried out while cooking.

Ok, I lied again. I made the mistake of putting them on at the end, and they got crispy. Don’t do that. Put them on now.

Step 8:

The rest of the toppings. Chop your sundried tomatoes, olives and garlic, and add those in any order you like.

Pizza 10

We only took a photo of chopping our pre-roasted garlic, but we really did also chop the olives and sundried tomatoes. In any amount that you like. I used roughly a small handful of each.

This is where you can add chopped artichoke hearts if your heart (get it?) desires. I’m picky about mine: Even though everything in the can is edible, I usually strip off the outer layer of the artichoke heart before chopping because it’s a little stringy/chewy.

Man, I really need to get new knives.

Here’s roughly what the pizza will look like before it bakes. I hope for your sake that yours is round.

Pizza 11

Step 9:

Into the oven!

Pizza 12

Transfer the pizza, still on the parchment paper, to your preheated pizza stone. If you don’t have a pizza stone, you can place it directly on the center rack.

It was a good thing Karen was there, as the pizza transfer takes at least 3 hands. We had 4 hands, and still almost dropped it.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, checking often once you hit 15 minutes. If the cheese is melted and the crust is just slightly brown, it’s done.

Step 10:

Eat! Here’s the finished product.

Pizza 13

It was delicious. Enjoy!