November 3rd (Week Eight)

Here's a strange thing if you send your child off for her senior year in high school. You are technically an EMPTY NESTER, in that you have a NEST and yet there is NO CHICK IN IT. But you are also still the parent of a senior in high school, a senior you both miss and yet also do not want back in your house staring at your blankly a year from now. They must be doing something. Ideally, they should be going to college. Therefore, where have I been for the past two weeks? Enjoying my newly-free life, possibly having brunch on a weekday, becoming friends with Quinn again?

No, Gentle Reader, I have not. I have spent the last two weeks doing battle with college applications. 

If this isn't a phase of your life right now, I assume you felt nothing. The parents of a college-bound senior just let out a collective squeak of empathy horror. What's so heartrending about all of this is how it's supposed to be easier now. That's what we parents tell each other when our children are freshmen, sophomores. "The Common App website," we say brightly, with only the tiniest twitch under one eye, "It's easier." The parents then breathe shallowly and whisper, "Right?"

And it is, sort of. The Common App does reduce a certain amount of redundancy. Your son wants to apply to four schools, you click four schools. Your son wants to apply to fourteen, it's just ten more clicks. Upload this, request that, clickclickclick, done! 

"Right?"

Not really. Every school has their own requirements, their own essays, their own brew of secret handshakes and kick-ball-change moves. Some have Early Decision, some have Early Acceptance. THESE ONLY APPEAR IDENTICAL. IN FACT, THEY ARE VERY DIFFERENT AND ONE MIGHT BE RIGHT AND THE OTHER WRONG AND YOU SHOULD HAVE A FAMILY MEETING ABOUT THAT! I suppose some kids could do this entirely on their own but, really, it's rapidly becoming a part-time job and for most students, their senior year is a full-time job in and of itself. The child does a bit, the adults around them do theirs. If your child is in a school with an active college counselor who isn't trying to help 500 equally-stressed families in the same six weeks, count yourself blessed. Most parents I know are doing the bulk of this themselves. And, if you're so inclined, spare a thought for people like me who technically home-schooled their child. 

Transcript? On me.

Parental essay? On me.

Counselor essay? On me.

School essay? Three guesses.

(Her Dad is brilliant and doing lots of things with regards to the application but I do the writing stuff because, honestly, I have no other skills.)

You have to get recommendations from people around the student who can speak to who they are in some fresh and novel way, which is a huge deal because even if people love your child very much, there is virtually no one who is excited about writing an essay. So you, the parent, gets to be both very, very grateful and fractionally hectoring, which is never a good feeling. If you know someone well enough to ask them to do something like this, you probably don't actually look forward to reminding them again, and again, and again. What profiteth a child in a supportive and nurturing educational environment if her parents no longer have friends? Then add in how the kid is nine hours ahead of us, which means we leave texts for one another and wait for the other person to wake up, a simple question like "Where did you take that Biology class again, with the teacher who sneezed?" can take 48 hours to answer. And since one of her applications is due in eight days (See: Early Decision v. Early Acceptance), this is pretty much my life right now. 

Well, that and being a sounding board for the kid. She's having the time of her life, all sort of new experiences, handling the French public transport system with sangfroid, but when she left we were told there would be homesickness. "It's always worst in November," one adult in the program told us sagely in an earlier meeting, "It's pretty much gone by December." I didn't pay much attention to this, because the kid had found this program, done the paperwork, tracked down her own recommendations (a skill I never really appreciated until last month), told me where to sign and took it to the post office herself. This was not a candidate for homesickness.

As is often the case, I was wrong. 

It's hard, being away from home. This program sends back teenagers who can confidently fend for themselves, but they got that way by fending for themselves, thinking in another language 24 hours a day, living with a family not their own, problems-solving. It's good, it's transformative, but it's really relentless. After six weeks or so, the novelty wears off and the students are left with the dawning awareness that this isn't a vacation; until May of next year, this is their life. Home - with its boring bits and its annoying bits and all those familiar bits- starts looking wonderful. So while wrestling the Common App and the beginnings of college loan paperwork-

WHICH IS EVIL MANIFEST UPON THIS EARTH.

We've also been a sounding board for someone coming up against the first real challenge of her life. She knows she's going to be fine. Her dad and I know with even greater certainty than she does. But that doesn't mean she doesn't require a little help. When my mother was 80, she had a stroke which screwed up her balance. For the rest of her life, she was dizzy all the time. Over the next year or so, she figured out that if she touched the wall of wherever she was walking, the dizziness would briefly abate. Didn't take much, no more than an index finger to the wall, but her brain would temporarily orient. That's the kid right now; she doesn't need much but every once in a while we need to be the wall she can locate, to remind her she isn't spinning, that she's actually fine. She texts, we text back. Happy to do it. Thrilled, in fact. I want to go back to Panicky, Mournful Quinn of August and say, "You know what? You're going to be more interesting and relevant to her in France than you've been to her in Los Angeles for years." But it does mean that the empty nest is currently occupied by a bird mother, texting encouragement across the seas and trying to find the paperwork for that Coursera class the baby bird took. 

 

October 18 (Day 45)

I'm going to be all sorts of helpful tonight. First of all, if you feel as if your life is isn't great, update your Apple IOS system. I tell you, the 48 hours of intermittent grey screen and weird extra-planetary messages from your previously compliant work friend will put the rest of your life in perspective. But I'm back now and yes, there is something weird where the number 5 keeps showing up in words and sometimes the computer tries to set itself on fire, but I now have perspective and know how much worse it could be.

Speaking of perspective, I realized I never told you all about the actual day we put the kid on the plane. Specifically, the last few hours, when I was weirdly serene. This was good because the kid had been very clear with her parents about what we were allowed to express. One of us was allowed to be emotional and we knew which parent that was. Daniel is the hugger and I....well, my mother's people are Midwestern German Catholic farm stock and I'll leave it at that. To live with me is to learn the very fine gradations between the "bored stare," the "politely horrified stare" and "you just took my tomatillo salsa" stare.

(That last one is murderous rage.)

So, we're winding down the final few hours and we're running around and doing errands and maybe we've already been to CVS three times because she keeps remembering CVS sorts of objects. And then there are suddenly a flurry of texts between the kid and several of the kids from the program, people she's been texting with for weeks, and she's all excited because they're going to have lunch together. And I open my mouth to say, "Uh, you're about to have a year with these people. You will not see your parents for months. Maybe you can watch your mother decimate a bowl of tomatillo salsa one more time as she imparts a bit more hard-earned life wisdom?"

But this was insane, partially because we had been given the pleasure of over seventeen years of meals with her and partially because I have no life wisdom to impart. I mean, she had already heard my "Don't take a mint from the open bowl at restaurants" nugget but, honestly, I believe she was already there. Better to let her have a pleasant meal with friends, enjoy our trip to the airport together, be Midwestern about the whole thing. We took her to the mall in Boston where her new classmates were eating. She went to her restaurant, we went to Eataly. Daniel found various bits of food which pleased him. I got a soda because I suddenly had no appetite. We paid and sat at a table. Daniel ate and I thought.

"This is it," my brain calmly informed me, 'This is the rest of your life. The two of you eat together and she's off leading her life elsewhere. First in another restaurant, then in another country. And yes, she loves you two very much but, let's be honest, you will become increasingly peripheral to her life. She'll come to visit you in your small condo in a warm state which will mystifyingly smell of stew and she'll tell you a few anecdotes from her life, but you will never know her as well as you do right now. And when she leaves your stew-condo, she'll think of it as 'Going back to her life.' Because you will be as much of an artifact as an appendix. And then she'll come take your car keys."

I couldn't swallow my overpriced soda. To my horror, I felt heat in my eyes. I was going to cry? Here? In Boston, in Eataly? I let out a small hiccuping noise. Daniel looked up from his broccolini, concerned. 

"You okay?" he asked softly, reaching out to touch my hand.

I knew only three things at that moment. I would never get that particular kind of soda again, the retirement condo would smell of stew and if he touched me, I would burst into tears in a violent way. I flung myself from the table, giving the international waving symbol for "I'm not okay but neither do I want company, continue to eat your broccolini." I raced out of the restaurant, into the mall and put every bit of emotional energy I had into not-crying and finding a place to not-cry. And there, like a beckoning, beautiful, shallow angel, I saw it:

SEPHORA.

I hurtled into the giant makeup store and triaged my problems. My first problem was my daughter was about to leave and...nope, that problem was not my first problem, because that was an inside problem and I can lock my feelings away into a very small, very dark, very ignored box in the very back of my brain.

(See: Midwestern German Catholic ancestry.)

No, my first problem was until I got my feelings locked away, they were becoming outside problems. My eyes were threatening to leak without cease and with that would go my makeup and my face would puff up and I'd look like a tired water balloon. Well, my first first problem was I had careened into a makeup store, my face was beet-red, and my index fingers were wedged under my eyes to keep the mascara from running. Seven women in the middle of makeovers were staring at me. One women halfway through a nighttime makeup looked at me and said "Honey, are you okay?"

The love of my life, the father of my child, asked me and I could hold it together. A stranger with half a strip of false eyelashes on asked me and here was my response:

"In (sobsob) three hours (gasp gasp) my daughter (indexfingerindexfinger) goes...to...FranceGWHAHEEWAAHEEENAAAA!"

The last bit was mostly just mucus.

Her makeup artist solemnly offered me tissues. The rest of the women stared at me in sympathy. One makeup artist took advantage of the break in the work to softly remind her client to blot her lips. The women who had asked me if I was okay smiled sympathetically.

"Oh yeah. I've been there. My daughters are both at college. You'll be fine. France? How lucky for her. How well does she speak French?"

I don't know what your angels look like. Mine have a smokey eye and a peachy nude lip. Five minutes of meaningless chatter and I could breathe again. Two minutes after that and I was walking down the Sephora aisle, looking for a foundation sample with heavy enough to neutralize my red, moon-shaped face.

(Yves Saint Laurent. France might be causing me pain but oh, one of their men saved my butt.)

I walked out of Sephora, towards Eataly. Daniel was walking out wearing the mildly terrified expression most heterosexual men wear when a women near them might be about to cry. 

"You okay?" he repeated.

I thought about it. My heart hurt. She was going to live her life. It would not be my life. But that isn't a tragedy. That's a job accomplished.

"I'll be okay," I answered, and then I pulled out the spiffy new waterproof mascara I had just bought to make sure I looked my best to send my daughter off. 

 

 

October 8 (Day 35)

My first Adult Gap Year project has begun. 

I mean, besides "Find a Better Name than 'Adult Gap Year'". That project is ongoing.

A friend owns a bakery. She graciously agreed to let me intern there as needed, possibly — at least partially —because I've spent so much time there I could declare it as my weekend house. I screwed up my courage and asked if I could be of help as the busy holiday season hits full stride. This required courage because what if I asked and she said no? It would be embarrassing. I'd feel so awkward, I'd have to find another bakery only it wouldn't be as good and I'd have to teach another group of fresh-faced employees that they don't need to ask, yes, I want more iced-tea. I always want more iced-tea. Mercifully, the bakery owner accepted my proposal. 

"I will try to reward your generosity," I responded, "by not setting myself on fire."

She laughed.

I guess to some people that could be considered a joke.

For a small person, I am remarkably accident-prone. When you're the size of the average ninth-grader in Beijing, there shouldn't be that much to damage. But at least I'm creative. Anyone can hurt herself falling down stairs. I defy you to find another person who fell up a flight of stairs, landed on her own fencing foil, and removed a chunk of shinbone.

[I also refused to go to the ER because I hadn't shaved my legs and I decided an unshaved leg was the more awkward disclosure here, not the part where I skewered my own tibia.]

Bakery kitchens are notoriously filled with things that are sharp, hot, or delicate so this is not a place I would naturally put myself. Nonetheless, as I commit to my Adult Gap Year (ew) I will commit to being a newer, better version of me. Anything is possible, right?  Yes, I did run into the coffee table again last week and, yes, coffee tables aren't known for throwing themselves in front of innocent people but perhaps that was my last stupid domestic injury. Perhaps my notorious clumsiness will become a thing of the past. Perhaps all my new burns, fractures and contusions will come from making cookies! 

Perhaps I am unclear as to what goes into making cookies.

That's the other thing. I happen to like baked goods quite a bit but actual baking only interests me about a third of the time. I don't mean that for four months a year you can't keep Quinn out of the kitchen. I mean that if a recipe produces three trays of cookies, by the time the second tray needs to be popped in the oven I'm already staring longingly at the pile of food magazines on the shelf. Or the kitchen door, Let me also confess right here and now that I absolutely adore "The Great British Bake-Off" .  I adore it because: 

  • It condenses years of skill and hours of work into a few shots of British people frowning into ovens and
  • If I'm watching it while lying on the couch, I'm probably not getting injured.

[Which reminds me, I need to figure out which lunatic family member left a steak knife between the couch cushions. On the bright side, my tetanus shot is always up to date.]

Everything is possible this year and it's a really nice bakery so, darn it, I'm going to give it a shot, learn new things and work very hard to stay unenflamed. My nails were clean and unpolished, my shoes covered my toes and my soles were grippy. I was ready to work. I was handed to a young woman who took me in the walk-in freezer and pointed to a shelf. "Grab those," she said, "and bring them out."

"Those," I came to discover, were industrial-sized cookie sheets about 2-feet square, each rolled flat with dough. She slapped one down on the cutting surface and handed me a cookie cutter.

"You know we do something new each day for the thirteen days up to Halloween, right?" 

I nodded. I knew this because I had eaten all of them.

"We cut the cookies in advance, freeze them, bake and decorate that day. Cut them out and set them out on these empty trays, here. Try to use as much of the dough as you can. No waste. The dough has a lot of butter in it, so try to work as quickly as possible, because it'll start getting sticky."

I stared at the skull-shaped form in my hand and the irregularly-shaped dough in front of me.

Oh, God. 

Spatial awareness.

We meet again. 

You remember that test in high school where they showed you a weird milk-carton-looking shape and you had to pick which of the four options it would resemble if you unfolded it? Upon seeing those, I had to be restrained from stabbing the page with the pointy side of my compass out of rage and horror. What sort of sadistic bastard would design such a test? What sort of sick freak could decipher it?

[The father of my child just read that over my shoulder and chirped, "I loved those. They were fun." May he run up a flight of stairs with a fencing foil.]

My spatial awareness is so bad I've taken to blaming it on my multiple concussions because "brain damage" is easier to explain than "flummoxed by shapes." I read somewhere about spatial tests designed to test crows that I'm quite confident I would not score well on. It's possible I was designed to live in that universe mathematicians are so excited about -- the one with only two dimensions.

And now I had an asymmetrical object I had to orient on another asymmetrical object in a repetitive and efficient manner before one of those asymmetrical objects started getting sticky. On one level, I knew this wasn't a huge deal. First, any leftover cookie dough gets gathered up, chilled and rerolled. Second, if this was a critical process I wouldn't be doing it. The really nice woman working next to me graduated from Corden Bleu. I was basically participating in Take Your Shut-In To Work Day. But my very unqualified-ness meant I had to try even harder to make the most efficient use of dough ever seen before in any bakery. In the days to come, I longed for my rep to be: "Weirdly injury-prone but surprisingly useful."

I cut out one skull, flipped the cutter upside-down, cut the next one mirror-imaged. I couldn't see as that bought me any better use of dough but it seemed like the sort of thing people who had spatial awareness did. Three, four, five skulls. This was oddly satisfying. I was creating both skulls and reassuringly small bits of residual dough. Maybe I was getting better at this type of thing! Maybe the krill oil I had been taking was helping the head trauma. I started on the third row and set the cutter in the first direction.

Nope. Hanging off. 

Flipped the cutter.

I was now staring down at a wide band of cookie dough over to one side, unused and mocking me. Noticeable, embarrassing, an area about the size of India but not quite wide enough to press out one complete skull.

"Ever worked in a bakery before?" Cordon Bleu asked me cheerfully as she snapped out skull after skull, as identical as playing cards. Her dough remnants were minuscule. I wiggled my skull around a bit, noting grimly how the dough was starting to get sticky. Damn it, I had to pull the trigger. I cut a skull and moved on.

"Nope," I said in what I hoped was an approachable tone as I stared down at the dough. How could I have have what appeared to be yards of dough but no way to angle more than a single skull in the rest of it? Was I missing something? Was this the permanent record my high school math teacher had warned me about in Geometry class?

"What made you decide to do this?" Cordon Bleu asked as she slapped perfect skulls on the tray. I restrained myself from screaming,  "I can either answer a question or cut a cookie!" because that would have come across as unsociable and also insane. Instead, I went with pretending I didn't hear her. Eventually, I accepted the inevitable, cut out the last cookie— a skull with a trephination dent — and rolled what seemed like a volleyball of dough into the "retrieval" pile. I got another slab. Once again, the first two rows worked like a dream and the third row demanded configurations best suited to a Cirque du Soleil act. I quickly gave up on being "the wise user of dough," and went with "Gracefully accepts her limitations." Eventually, the skulls were finished and in the freezer so we moved on to ghosts. You know what a ghost cookie cutout is? An amorphous blob. I was confronting my own limitations before the first row was out.

"The ghosts are cute, aren't they?" Cordon Bleu said enthusiastically.

I'd have answered but the shape and the dough had banded together to mock me. Add in the wavy bits which looked for reasons to break off with each stamp and I can now say that for the first time in my life, I'm afraid of ghosts.

You know what's a perfect Halloween cookie? The candy-corn cookie! You may not love candy-corn, which to me are just insect-sized sugared-up votive candles, but let me tell you something: that's a fantastic freaking cookie because it's a triangle. Even I understood what to do. Cutflipcutflipcutflip, againagainagain, you're done. It felt fabulous. I wanted to rewrite my resume to begin: "Ask her about triangles." 

"How's it going?"

The bakery owner swung past to check on we  happy band of brothers the cookie-cutters. Also, quite possibly, to make sure I wasn't bleeding on anything. I looked up at the clock. Hours had passed without my noticing. This isn't my life's work but, damn it, I was accomplishing something. It was novel. It was useful. It had a beginning, a middle and an end.  And God knows it was taxing certain parts of my brain to their absolute limits. I brushed some flour off my shirt and answered honestly, "I'm really happy to be here."

Day 22 (September 30)

It's been three weeks and a day since the kid left, which is a milestone. Before now, the longest we've been separated as a family was three weeks for her bucolic summer camp which allowed no electronics, forcing them to communicate with loved ones with a PEN and a PAPER. So the irony is that when she was at camp twenty miles away we heard from her less than we're hearing from her in France, texting us to let us know French food is amazing but their burritos are somewhat inconsistent. 

I've missed her, but if you're the parent of a senior in high school and you're starting to dread the upcoming wrenching away, I can only give you my reaction so far. The dread leading up to her leaving was far, far, worse than her being gone. What has replaced the dread is some occasional aches, but also kind of quiet relief. 

We're modern parents, we didn't do this by halves. I used to entertain myself by asking parents of the kid's classmates if they did a) more, b) less, c) the same amount for their children as their parents did for them. 100%, let me repeat 100%, of them said "More." One woman applied for and decided on a college without ever mentioning it to her family. Teens got themselves to practices at 5 in the morning. One father said to me, "I'm not sure my father knew where I went to school." 

This isn't to say that we had terrible, negligent parents. There were fewer expectations, fewer options. The journey to a good college is now presented as an arms race, a race in which tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires are paying American grad students to write their children's essays for them. The prizes go to the shining stars, and there's always something more you the parent could be doing to burnish the kid's glow. Also, sexting! We're very worried about sexting. We're very worried about everything. Parenting is 18 years of playing Chutes and Ladders with someone else's future. We're trying to do everything right. You don't realize how much energy that program, trying to to everything right, is using up running in your head-computer until it's not. 

Something could go to hell with the kid tomorrow. Something could be going to hell right now, and they're just trying to fashion an effective tourniquet before they let us know. I'm probably putting the horns on the serenity merely by noticing it. Coming to regret the hubris of having written this already. But for right now, as far as I know, my kid is happy. Daniel is happy. I'm constitutionally incapable of happiness, but am looking forward to the first Gap Year adventure, which starts later this week. The pets seem to be working through their grieving.

Hey, parent of a senior?

This might be as a bad as it gets. 

Day 17 (September 25)

"Cheryl and Mike are going to be in Las Vegas," Daniel said.

I hummed in a not-listening way.

"We could meet them for dinner," he added.

"Of course we can't," I shot back quickly, "because-"

I stared at Daniel. He smiled at me. 

Right. We can do stuff like that now — meet friends for dinner and stay over in another city, what with our kid being someone else's responsibility. We're carefree and gay!

Well, we're carefree.

Or, more accurately, we're carefree once I got the dog an appointment at the dog hotel he likes for a night, sub-contracted the foster kittens and arranged for a neighbor to check on our actual cats. The nest might be empty but it's still thickly covered in dander.

Let me tell you about the Great Lie of Las Vegas. The Great Lie isn't "I have this foolproof system!" You don't. It's not "She actually likes me!" She doesn't. No, the Great Lie of Las Vegas is: "It's easy to get there from Los Angeles." It's not.

True, you can drive there or fly there but the cheap tickets are out of LAX — an airport currently in the middle of a comprehensive renovation slated to be finished never. You can spend an hour at LAX just realizing the parking for Southwest is ten miles outside the city limits. You can fly to Las Vegas via Burbank Airport, which is delightfully convenient, small and manageable but makes up for it by charging three times as much. Or, you can drive.

"It's just four hours!" people tell themselves and the Great Lie is born yet again. First of all, four hours in a car is never four hours. A more accurate way to describe the drive to Vegas is, "Four (LOUD DERISIVE SNORT) hours." Also, it's not so fascinating a drive. The road to Vegas is a hostile moonscape periodically dotted with rotting housing stock from the Boom of 2007 which forms a sort of Pilgrim's (Lack Of) Progress and a warning to those greedy enough to be duped by "zero-down" mortgage hucksters.  We left Los Angeles before noon on Friday but the road was already clogged with people eager for both their mimosas and their serving staff to be bottomless. Daniel and I passed the time chatting and eating what could be best described as a nauseating amount of trail mix. Five hours later, we hit the city limits.

I looked up at a billboard.

"We could see Ricky Martin!" I announced happily.

Daniel frowned. "You want to?"

"No, but we could," I said, and shifted in the seat, brushing some sunflower seeds and chocolate off my shirt. "We can do things like this now. We can start being people who go to Vegas! Why haven't we been to Vegas in years?"

"You fear the sun. You hate gambling. You fall asleep after one drink." Daniel noted.

"I'm not saying we'd go every weekend," I mumbled mulishly, finding a nice-sized chunk of dark chocolate on my sleeve and eating it. Antioxidants. 

Ten minutes later we were still staring at the Ricky Martin billboard. We hadn't moved. Even inside the car, I could feel the sun radiating every part of me not covered in cloth. I reapplied sunblock fretfully.

"I hate the Strip," I announced.

Daniel said, "I know. You tell me every time we come here."

It's nice, having traditions.

We got to the hotel, I admired the first hotel bar, cunningly located between the parking lot and the car-rental desk. We slogged through the casino. Every third row had one person sitting at a slot machine as if part of its root system. This person was of such age that gender was indeterminate and of such stillness that it wasn't completely improbable they'd died two days ago. I can only assume the air filters the casino run to keep the cigarette smell at a minimum also helps with the corpse funk.

Whatever exhaustion we felt after five hours in a car and a surfeit of cashews was immediately ameliorated by seeing our friends. You know what's great about dinner with people with adult children? How you talk about your children for a bit, and then you don't. You talk about other things. I'm not sure I've talked about other things in seventeen years. They travel together. They go to vineyards. I'm probably not going to do that any time soon (see: asleep after one drink), but we could.

WE CAN DO ANYTHING.

But what I really wanted to do was not get back in that car. After dinner, we strolled a few casinos along the Strip. More specifically, I stared at the couples under the age of 30. Almost to a couple, the woman would be wearing something tight, really short, low cut and typically backless. It was like a philosophical exercise in how much fabric you could eliminate and still be defined as a dress. These girls would teeter along in their mock-Louboutins, every third stride or so grabbing the sides of their dress and jerking downward so the entire casino wasn't doing a visual Pap smear. Nearly all of their dates were wearing what I would describe as Saturday jeans and a t-shirt that reeked of having been shot out of a cannon. She was dressed to impress voters at the Adult Video Awards; he was finally going to clean the gutters. I'm not turning into that old person who carries on about how people "Used to dress up to fly," but if I'm having to deny myself salt for a week to fit into a dress I'm going to insist my boyfriend take off the snap-back. These couples all strutted the casino's aisles, seeing and being seen, passing by the possibly dead slot machine jockeys, searching for the elusive exits and pulling down their skirts.

The interesting thing about Vegas is how quickly it's not Vegas. Ten minutes away, it's suburbs, filled with people who, according to our friends, arrange their lives to never get near the Strip unless they have guests in town. Ten minutes past that, it's lizards and spiny plants. So, the next morning, before our friends flew home and we took the four-(HA!)-hour drive back to Los Angeles, we went for a hike in Red Rock Canyon about thirty minutes west of Las Vegas.

There are dozens of hikes in this spectacularly scenic park. Being fit people about to court deep-vein thrombosis with another sitting-marathon ahead of us, we chose the hike marked "Strenuous." If the girls walking around the casinos the previous night taught me anything, it's that in Vegas you do nothing by halves. Also, a dress can be both backless and frontless.

Ice Box Canyon is less than five miles round trip. That is not why it's strenuous. The elevation is less than one thousand feet, steady and not particularly dramatic. That's not why it's strenuous. Ice Box Canyon is strenuous because it is mostly boulders and wiggly,  fist-sized rocks. I can say that for the first time since the kid left, there were stretches of time when I wasn't thinking of her. This is because not spraining your ankle while exploring a terrain reminiscent of Soviet-era missions to Venus can be mentally taxing.

There are few situations where being short is an asset. If you get trapped in a mine, I can bring you water. If someone's ninth-grade daughter has outgrown her clothing, I may get free stuff. If a hiking trail is coarse and unsteady, my lower center of gravity comes in handy. I scuttled along in a steady, not-spraining-your-ankle manner all the way up to the waterfall, stared at it appreciatively for a few minutes, took a few snapshots, and started back. Cheryl and I headed down the same path we'd come up, chatting and clambering. Here's the fun thing about a strenuous hike along a path which mostly consists of rocks of varying sizes: it's hard to notice when you've gone off it. After a while, Cheryl politely cut off my ramblings about something and asked, "Aren't we supposed to be up there?"

I looked up the side of a steep hill on our left to what appeared to be a flat road. Or maybe not. It was too far above us to say for certain. Cheryl is tall and had not chosen this path. I am short and had chosen the path. This was mine to fix. I told her to stay where she was and flung myself at the steep wall to see what if anything was above us. My resume may now safely add, "Quinn is an ungainly but marginally effective rock climber." 

Cheryl climbed up behind me to the path we'd wandered off — the real path. We found the guys who were just starting to realize we weren't where they'd expected to meet us. Daniel and I sent Mike and Cheryl off to the airport and we headed back to Los Angeles. I found the trail mix bag and was pleasantly surprised to find a few more raisins. I waved a fond farewell to the Ricky Martin billboard as we drove, squinting into the setting sun.

 

Day 13 (September 21)

Right now, I have two writing projects on deadline and other than that, I have nothing. After I finish writing for the day, you know what I could do?

ANYTHING.

For the first time in nearly two decades, I am my own person. I could even be writing from anywhere. That's the benefit to being a freelance writer that freelance writers tell ourselves when we notice we still haven't got the money for our own island. And yet, every morning I wake up, I write jokes in the same place, I work out the same way, I eat a carb and drink a caffeine...please. I eat the same carb and drink the same caffeine. Even dumpster rats would look at me and say "Honey, you gotta mix it up." Then the day becomes a haze of words and keeping the foster kittens off the keyboard and falling asleep briefly mid afternoon. The next thing I know, it's dark and I'm no closer to the transcendent change I promised myself. I know that in October I have an adventure arranged, but there is currently nothing teed up on the other side of it and I can see my habits have their own gravitational pull. If I don't actively change things every day, even a bit, I'm going to get nothing out of this time. There is no carbohydrate in the world which will ameliorate that. 

Both projects go in tonight. After that, I have no excuse. 

I'm not saying everything has to change overnight.

But something has to. 

Day 9 (September 18)

I don't wish to brag but I'm a terrible sleeper. When the kid was about five months old she started sleeping through the night. I, however, continued to wake up at around 3:30am, which was when she had usually gotten up. It wasn't every night. First, I woke up once every couple of weeks; then every week or so; then for long stretches of several nights in a row. I'd wake up at 3:30, stay awake for anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours then drift back to sleep for another hour or so before the day started. I could fall asleep like a champ. I just couldn't stay asleep. If you're currently thinking "Oh, I have a cure for that! I should write Quinn right now!" please realize I've followed this routine now for 17 years. If your suggested remedy's first side effect isn't "This Will Kill You," I've tried it. Some treatments work for a couple of nights before my brain seems to wire around whatever therapy or medication we're testing. If it weren't so unwonderful, I'd almost be impressed at my brain's work ethic. But in the last few days, something new is happening. 

I fall asleep at 11 pm like a normal person. I sleep straight through and wake up at 5:30am like a dairy farmer. When you write jokes based on politics and politics occur mostly on the eastern coast of the United States and you sleep on the western coast of the United States, this new wake-up habit is serendipitous but, candidly, still a little weird. I'm up before the pets. I'm wide awake and writing jokes as I hear the newspaper land on the doorstep. I see a couple of texts from the kid, jokes from her new life, ravings about some food or another. She's happy so Daniel and I are happy. At some point, the sun comes up.

At 2:30pm, I become tired.

No, that doesn't actually convey what happens. 

At 2:30pm, it's as if I am hit with a rubber mallet. I can barely form words. I couldn't be trusted to operate a mechanical pencil let alone heavy machinery. I drag myself to a horizontal surface and fall face-forward on it as if dropped from a great height. An hour later, I reluctantly shake myself out of my coma and stumble back to my day. I've never been especially grateful I work for myself but these days I'd have to arrange a desk with a dog bed underneath into which I could curl. I just woke up a few minutes ago and reflexively checked my phone's clock. It was on the secondary setting, which is the local time where my kid is.

Oh.

I've been going to sleep at the same time she does every night. Maybe it's a coincidence. Or maybe waking up at 3:30am for all those years was my way of whispering to her, "Sleep well, I'm here," and falling asleep mid afternoon is my way of pretending I still am. 

 

Day 7 (September 15)

 

This morning, I bounded in to our bedroom and told Daniel,  “I just figured it out. It's not that I don't grieve, it's that I grieve in metaphors!”

Daniel, having been asleep when I bounded in, responded with “Slrph?”

I chose to take this as encouragement to continue.

“Like how this summer, with the calendar thing?...”

Quick backstory on the calendar thing. I am a freakishly punctual person. There are things I do badly, but being where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there is one of my weird gifts. Well, it was, until the past few months. As D-Day approached, at least once a week I’d forget to be someplace, or I’d put something in the calendar on the wrong day, or I’d hear we needed to be at the ferry to Catalina at 8:15am and carefully write down 8:45am, assuring we missed the boat.

For the sake of his blood pressure, Daniel and I have agreed to not utter the word “Catalina” for at least eight months.

“So,” I continue, sitting on the bed and prodding at Daniel’s foot. “It’s completely obvious that was my brain’s way of trying to forget the passing of time, that with each day we were getting closer to sending the kid off. Because, honestly, when she comes back, she’s back for, like, a few weeks and then she’s off to college. We’re done, right?  Who wouldn’t want to forget a boat ride over that?”

“Znudrgh."

“Sorry. You’re right. Still too soon. But this morning I’m putting on leggings to go walk and they’re hers and it occurs to me! It’s so obvious!”

I waited for him to ask for details. He appeared to be sliding back to sleep. I poked his shin in what I hoped was a convivial way. He pulled the covers over his head.

“Blught!”

“Stop whining, you’re fine. Since you asked, why am I wearing her leggings! It’s like those nomadic people in that documentary!”

Silence.

“You know! From…Russia! Or Peru. Somewhere nomadic. Anyway, anthropologists discovered toothmarks on the skeletons of children and they theorize the mothers would cannibalize their children who died because since they were nomadic, there was no grave to visit. Eating a bit of your child was a way of keeping them nearby! These aren’t leggings, they’re a symbol of loss and connection!”

I waited expectantly.

The silence deepened.

I poked Daniel’s shin.

“Stop that!” the quilt ordered.

“What do you think?”

Daniel lifted his head slightly and squinted at the clock.

“I think I don’t have to get up for an hour,” he said.

“That’s true,” I agreed, “But the idea felt important.”

“Guessing you found the matcha tea again.”

“I wish you’d stop hiding it.”

“I hide it because of mornings like this,” he sighed, gazing lovingly at his pillow.

“Oh, hush,” I snapped, “Now, my idea. What do you think?”

“Candidly, I think eating your daughter’s workout leggings is weird. Now, go away,” Daniel said, flopping back down again.

I learned two things today:

          1.     The matcha tea was in the glove compartment,

          2.     I need something to do, and quickly.

Yesterday’s exercise class bought me 24 hours. I have things to do in a week. Between now and then, I have writing assignments, my own projects, and this diary, but those are going to keep me in the house, drinking green tea and having great thoughts which apparently might include cannibalism. I hate the phrase “Keeping busy,” for all of its little meaningless projects to hold off the whiff of the grave intimations, but it must be said.

I have to keep busy.

And Daniel has got to find a better place to hide the tea.

Day 6 (September 14)

 

I absolutely love the fashion and beauty industries. This might surprise some people who have seen me in public. “That woman loves fashion and beauty?” they might ask. “That one? The one out in public dressed as if she’s in the third day of a sinus infection?”

We’re all surprised. I dress like the writer/errand-doer I am — the kind of person who, while at Target for motor oil and cat litter, picks herself out a shirt because it’s on the sale rack and almost fits. But just because I look as if I’m heading to the pharmacy for urgently-needed medicine doesn’t mean I don’t have loud and informed opinions. Speak loudly enough about something on social media and people start sending you things for the cheap pleasure of watching you bloviate. A few months back, I got an email, the subject of which was: “This is bullshit, right?”

Don’t have to ask me twice. I clicked. Here was an article about a physical trainer in Houston who is the go-to guy for fashion models having to get their measurements down. If you live a worthy and thoughtful life and don’t think about the fashion industry, let me commend you. I'll bring you up to speed. Models are hired to wear clothing. At most photo shoots, the clothing comes in one size — the “sample size.” Your hips must be 34 inches around. You can be the prettiest girl on earth but if you’re starting off in the industry and are an inch, even a half-inch, bigger than the clothing, you will not work. This is where this guy comes in.

He is known in the industry as “The Hip Whisperer.”

So, in answer to the subject line of that original email, sure, it’s bullshit. It’s bullshit that a multi-billion dollar industry hews to a standard of beauty nearly impossible to maintain without lucky genetics, constant dietary vigilance and one very busy workout coach in Texas. It’s also bullshit that this story is, apparently, the most read story ever on this magazine’s web page.

And it’s certainly bullshit that I got entirely too excited when I saw hat The Hip Whisperer was coming to Los Angeles. “WE HAVE TO TAKE THAT CLASS!” my brain shouted happily in my skull. To say this was irrational is putting it mildly. I don’t act on camera any more so I’m not required to live under my natural weight. I’m not a half-inch away from the Victoria’s Secret runway job, so that money could be better spent on something more useful and practical, like clothing without food stains.

And yet, taking this class felt stupid in the right way.  It would be nothing which benefits anyone but me and nothing I’ve ever done before. Every morning, I take my morning walk the exact same way, at the same place, in the same direction, every time. If I do decide to treat myself by going into the coffee house near where I park my car, the barista has my drink poured before I reach the counter. I refer again to rats in Manhattan: this rat needs to try out some new dumpsters. I signed up to have my hips Whispered at.

Today was my first class. I reached the stairwell of the dance studio at the same time as a teenage girl of glowing health and doll-like proportions. Her perfectly-manicured hands held a Lucite box. Inside the box was a tiara. We walked up the stairs in silence for a few seconds before I couldn’t stand it a second longer.

“I have to ask,” I said, pointing to the box. She looked down at it in some confusion, as if she had forgotten it was there.

“I am Miss Teen North Hollywood,” she said. “I’m competing for Miss Teen California.”

“Oh,” I said brightly and then, assuming it was called for, added, “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” she smiled.

I waited for her to explain why she needed to travel with her tiara but she just met my gaze another moment then, still smiling, continued into the gym. Maybe pageant winners must be constantly prepared to open a Hyundai dealership or visit a burn unit. Police officers are the thin blue line. Perhaps she was part of an even thinner bedazzled line.

I have lived in Los Angeles my entire life. I danced ballet for several years in my early teens. I worked for a casting director who did mostly modeling campaigns. I’m used to being in groups of people who are on the thin side, so please understand there is no hyperbole when I tell you that these twenty or so women were nearly perfect physically and for all intents and purposes completely identical. Tall, slender, hips within striking distance of the magic thirty-four inches; Helen of Troy would have started worrying a cuticle around these girls. Also, they were all about 20 years old. I reminded myself my value to the world is rooted in my decency and my ability to craft a punchline. That when it comes to the Body Wars, I am Switzerland. I also warmed up and listened to two of these girls discuss their workout schedules and eating plans, a conversation that was both ceaseless and duller than I can adequately convey.  I’m not saying these girls were stupid. I am saying that fixating on one specific body part will make a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient sound stupid.

I couldn’t have been happier.

The class itself was diverting in a “Dear God, what did I do with my muscle tone?” sort of way. I have injuries older than my classmates and several of these injuries awakened from their slumbers deep within my body and sang at me in terrible joy. It was a kind of circuit training requiring you do so many of these, so many of those, a few dozen third things, then back to the first activity. Clench. Grimace. Repeat. Over and over again. This also required that I count each rep as I worked out. I can do one or the other. If I count while working out I slow down and eventually stop moving, opting instead for staring bleakly into space, creeping out everyone around me. I quickly gave up counting and just followed the girl next to me, as she was freshly transplanted from Houston and had worked with the Whisperer before. She was 17. Once again, a 17-year-old girl was running my life.

An hour or possibly a decade later, the class ended. The Whispered filtered out a little bit more perfect than they'd been 60 minutes earlier. The teenage girl whose counting I borrowed sprung towards the nearest mirror, fluffed her hair a bit, and got a quick selfie in the flattering light that just seems to follow all these girls everywhere they go. I lay on the floor and realized that in order to leave, I would have to move. I contemplated just having my mail forwarded to the dance studio, to this specific yoga mat.

Whatever my hips were whispering doesn’t bear repeating.