Into the Dark

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I looked at death tonight. I’d like to say I examined it like you would a textile, holding the weight of it in your hand, feeling the surface. But of course, it wasn’t like that.  No one touches death, we only picture it until it embraces us.

It was more like admiring something in a catalog and thinking “I wonder how that would be. What would it be like to try that on? Is it too expensive?”

In my twenties, I used to think about suicide on a fairly regular basis. I’d imagine the aftermath. I’d consider it as a solution, but not for long. If you’re thinking about the “after” you’re only kicking the tires. For a month or so, when I was 26, I slipped way below the surface and really thought I wanted to die. I was in so much pain that I didn’t see the point in going on living.

Luckily I had health insurance. Because I had health insurance, I had a psychiatrist, a good one, who kept me alive by making me sign a contract every day that I would not kill myself before I saw him the next day.

I don’t have a psychiatrist anymore.

But this evening, I looked at death again. And I didn’t think about “after.” I looked at it like one looks at a deep dark pool. Some alternative state. And what I thought is this: it would be so nice to rest.  This would stop all of the things that are hammering in my brain. The last box to tick on the last to-do list.

I have too much on my plate.

I am supposed to be writing a book. I haven’t done a damn thing for it since October. That inattention weighs me down. I have been busy with volunteer efforts. I have been busy helping friends. I have been busy spinning my wheels. The days start and end in the dark.

When I tell my friends that I am out of hope, they suggest chocolate. They say they feel the same.

At my house, the television goes constantly. My husband is wonderful in many ways, but he starts the day with “Paternity Court” and falls asleep on the sofa to “Rachel Maddow” on Tivo. I am not in the same room with it, but I hear it throughout the house. A friend of mine used to share the complaint– her husband had a particular fondness for “The Price is Right.”  When her husband died last winter, “The Price is Right” was on across the room.

Our twenty-year-old son lives with us. He’s a good kid, but he and his father can’t communicate.  As a result my husband nags me all day every day about the things he wants Julian to do, since direct communication  between the two of them so often ends in shouting.

Every plaint, every pundit, the queries by phone and email, the tasks left undone, each of them another stone in my pocket.

Today I met a friend for lunch. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was out of sync, not quite keeping up. Afterwards, alone, I sat in the car in a parking lot in silence. For twenty-five minutes, just staring out at the December sky. I felt strange. I ran some errands, picked up dog food and toilet paper.

Driving home through the city streets, I didn’t even feel like I was in the car. I felt like I was in some other place, perched on a diving board, my toes curled around the edge.

And then I came home. And the television was on and the dogs swirled around me. In the kitchen, my husband notes that I have tears in my eyes. I just nod. I don’t know why I’ve been crying. I don’t know why I feel so down. I don’t know why I feel so tired. I only know that I’ve been into the dark and out again.

 

 

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Writing for Lent

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I’m not Catholic. I almost wrote that I am “not particularly religious,” when I realized how that statement somehow lacks a basic truth.  There have been times that I’ve believed in God, and times that I have not.  It’s not so much that I doubt, it’s that I have simply come to the conclusion that I don’t know, and I am open to whatever the answer turns out to be.  (Except for hellfire and damnation. Even when I did go to church, I went to the Lutheran church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America does not do hellfire and damnation. I understand that even the Pope in Rome is starting to let go of such ideas.) This little essay, then, is not about religion; though it may settle for awhile in a pew, contemplating ritual.

Today is Ash Wednesday. Yesterday, in the throes of Shrove Tuesday, different friends mused about what they would give up for Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. Quite a few of them chose chocolate, and that is apparently quite a popular thing to give up for Lent. It used to be that many people gave up eating meat. Some people give up television, or beer, or Facebook. I thought about giving up argument.  This would be a tough one for me. I have a natural tendency to teach; and a very shallow tolerance for ignorance.

But then I did a little research and I discovered something about Lent that I never knew before. (Remember, I didn’t grow up in the church.) The notion of Lent is not just one of penitence, but also one of contributing to the greater good. The whole point of giving up chocolate, or meat, or beer is not just one of self-denial, but is also supposed to  enable you to give those things (or the money you’ve saved from not buying them) to someone in greater need.  Perhaps the question then, for all of us, ought to be not “What are you giving up for Lent?” but “What are you giving for Lent?” In an essay, by the Scottish Vicar Rev. Canon Gordon Reid, he suggests that instead of giving up something for Lent, one can take on something extra, and it too should serve the greater good.

Like the little drummer boy, I have no gold to give. Or meat. Or chocolate for that matter. I have only my song, the drumbeat of my fingers across the keys, the tales of my people, the thoughts in my head and those in my heart. So I am Writing for Lent.

And apparently there is a tradition for writing for Lent. People write daily devotions, they write prayers, they keep special Lenten journals. There is a long-standing custom for people to write letters to those for whom they wanted to mend a difference, often a letter a day to the same person. (Frankly, I can see how that last one might go badly awry.) In each of these instances, the church recommends reflection and repentance. But borrowing a leaf from the Reverend Canon, it seems that my own reflection and repentance is less of a gift to the world than love in all of its myriad forms.

In that spirit, I am going to write a different short essay every day for 40 days, and while I am writing I will try to keep in mind that these are supposed to be for the benefit of others. That is, itself, the greater test. Because certainly there is a selfish component to this as well: I have a much larger project that is overflowing the “in” box, and I have had a very difficult time getting down to it. Sometimes just getting back in the habit of writing every day every day every day can help you find your way to that which truly requires your full attention and best efforts. God only knows I’ve had plenty of excuses for my indolence.

I don’t imagine that I will be able to fulfill the true mission of this every single day. There will be days when I write about things that benefit no one, or perhaps I will write something because I am angry and upset. I am human, and like all the rest of us, I sometimes have feet of clay. But I will try, and in that effort is my humble gift.

White Bread

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Let them eat cake.  ~ Marie Antoinette

 

The other night, at Kroger, I looked down at the paper bag in my cart and I felt a little horrified. In the bag were two packages of Oscar Mayer Bologna, two loaves of white bread, a head of iceberg lettuce and a package of hot dog buns.

So it has come to this, I thought, panic creeping in.

Rather than teeter off the edge into full-blown despair, I rationalized. This is the price of my freedom.  Even though my husband is retired and I find work here and there, job-writing, I don’t have to punch a clock anywhere. If I was out there in the rat race, I could buy what I used to buy. But at what cost, I asked myself, just slightly smug.

The justification doesn’t last.

It’s been bologna sandwiches for three days now. And truth be told I have a sort of “slumming it” fondness for such food. Sometimes a bologna sandwich on squishy white bread is just what the doctor ordered. But not often. And certainly not for three days in a row.

It seems worse in the summer somehow. In the winter, you can spin fantastic meals out of the meager pantry. A bit of bacon and some dried fettucine, a little  cream and before long, it’s a plate of fettucine carbonara that you’re tucking into. Potato soup. Clam chowder. Casseroles. My one indulgence is the quart of heavy cream because it does extend everything into the realm of sublime. I know how to cook and for the most part, we eat well.

But I’m not inspired. There are things that I could make, even now in the sultry days and nights of this Ohio summer, that are tasty and sustaining and don’t seem quite so pathetic as bologna sandwich on white bread.  But I don’t. I just open the refrigerator door and reach for the mayonnaise.

I think the problem is my husband.

Tonight he wanted to go see a free jazz concert that the Dayton Philharmonic was playing at a venue just across town. He didn’t go because he didn’t feel we could afford the gas to drive 10 miles. Maybe he’s right. The thing is it doesn’t matter if he’s right or not; that “sky is falling” outlook is persistent and contagious. It’s true that there’s a lot of month left to go with $100 in the bank. But ever the grasshopper, I think there will be some solution around the corner, and there generally is.  But he’s right, too. What if there isn’t?

I don’t want to be so poor that we can’t drive 10 miles.

That level of austerity chips away at my sense of freedom. Even to continue the research for the book, I’d have to drive out to the University. Eight miles. There’s a bus, but that’s too expensive as well.

So I go on eating bologna sandwiches.

Which is, in itself, ridiculous. Friends gave us fresh asparagus last week, it was delicious. The cherry tree in the yard is heavy with ripening fruit. There are still cartons of my favorite yogurt in the fridge. A pork roast in the freezer. Potatoes, always useful in salads. We should have planted a garden- I wonder if we still couldn’t get a few things in the ground.  Eggs, of course, lend themselves to a thousand guises. The white bread is the biggest sin of all since one of our best friends is an artisanal baker, and we could simply ask him. But asking is hard. The concern that I will ask too much never leaves me.

There are 17,908,343 “food insecure” households in the country. That’s not people. That’s households. Using the U.S. Census bureau statistic of 2.55 individuals per average households, this figure represents 45,666,175 hungry people. Or about the population of California– all wondering where there next meal is coming from.

We don’t even really meet the threshold for “food insecurity.” We certainly have too much money and too many assets to ever qualify for Food Stamps. Think about that the next time you’re judging someone using food stamps to buy a birthday cake or soft drinks in the check out line in front of you. Isn’t it bad enough to be hungry much of the time, do they deserve scorn too? The rate of food insecurity changes by household type: more than twenty percent of households with children don’t have enough to eat.

Our household falls into a kind of gray area that the U.S. Government calls “marginal food security.” That means we worry that we’ll run out of food before we have more money. That we consume food faster than we thought we would. (Well, hell, there’s a 19-year-old boy-man here, of course we do.) That our diet is not as varied as it should be because of our very limited food budget.

So. I’ve decided to trade off a little of this bountiful freedom for a bit of precious security. I am going to see if I can’t find very part-time work; 10 hours a week would make a difference. I probably waste that much time noodling around on the internet. And if I can’t find something, I’m going to make Chicken Little look for a bit of work. He’s earned his retirement, certainly, but without work, his world has become quite small.

And tomorrow I’m going out to lunch with a friend.

We All Shine On.

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Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
~Anton Chekhov 

 

Thought I was gone, didn’t you? Yeah, some days I did too. Certainly this won’t go back to being “Twelve Moons”– no more accounts of how many steps I took, or what I had to eat. Though I will still write about food. And aging. And self-image. But the narcissism that it takes to write about your own struggle with weight, day after day after day, was dull.

It was already starting to peter out. Then I hurt myself. I don’t even remember doing it– a foot put wrong somewhere along the way– and badly strained the Achilles tendon in my left foot. I am not quite recovered still. Some mornings I have to hold on to the walls so I don’t fall down.  For good measure, throw in a round of illness, and I wish I was talking metaphor. The day after my birthday in January, I was laid flat with the flu (I think it was the flu) and didn’t get out of bed for three weeks. I wasn’t fighting for my life. And it was a good thing I didn’t have to, as I hardly had the energy to walk six steps to the bathroom.

So to say I lost my mojo is to speak the truth.

I know I have to get back to writing. Every time I start a new blog I think my friend David Esrati must shake his head. He is most definitely of the opinion that one should have one blog and one blog only. David wears many hats, but he is a wizard at marketing, and he may have a point. Every time I have a blog that picks up a little momentum, I kill it. It comes to an end of its pre-ordained life and I start the next. I told him that the different blogs are like different books (he’s not a writer per se) and though that’s true, I missed the lightbulb going off over my own head.

So I didn’t start a new one this time. I re-kindled an old one, sputtering and smoking and creaking along.

Every time David introduces me to someone he refers to me as the best writer . . .   and when he says it I generally am the best writer in the room. I hardly ever go into rooms with other writers. But lately even that’s felt like false advertising.

A few weeks ago sitting with another friend I said “I don’t think I can write anymore.” Though I was deeply embarrassed to do so, I began to cry. It was the truth of the statement leaking out, it was the fear, it was the absolute desolation that I felt inside. I know I still have the skill to write, it’s the willpower that worries me. The discipline. It’s always the discipline.

I thought at the time that it was our precarious financial situation that left me paralyzed. And there may be some truth to that. But I choose this so that I won’t have to give up 40 hours a week to further someone else’s Big Dream.  So why have I stopped writing? My mother, self-styled expert on such things, would  (and has) deemed me depressed. But the depression is because I’m not writing. And of course it’s hard to get back to writing because I’m depressed because I’m not writing.

I’m just lying here in the sawdust.

But I’m going to try to clamber back up once again. I hope you’ll find me here, most nights, writing by the light of the moon. We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

Flat

Flat tire in formal attire

Long ago, back when a good story seemed the most valuable thing, I used to tell people that my earliest memory was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It wasn’t true. I was old enough, 22 months, to have remembered that tragic day, and I’m certain that my parents were absolutely shattered by the event, so perhaps with hypnosis or something, I could dredge it from the frontal lobes. But no, my first real and entirely recollected memory is of a flat tire. Two flat tires actually.

I remember sitting on the fender of my mother’s maroon car in the heat of the sun, on the side of a road in a pine forest. I was probably two and a half then. A family in a white station wagon stopped to pick us up, and I sat in the way back surrounded by older children. The inside of the car was red. We went to an Esso station and that’s all I remember. I know it was an Esso station because I remember the sign was four characters inside a white oval with a blue frame. The details have been filled in for me over time.  My mother hit a pothole, and got two flat tires. The gentleman of the family that picked us up took my father and one fixed tire back to the car and helped him put on the fixed tire and the spare and then Dad came back to the gas station and picked us up. It was some place in Georgia. The car was my mother’s Corvair, famously unsafe at any speed, but my mother still describes it as one of the best cars she ever had.

There have been uncounted flat tires since then, though luckily only a few have been dramatic. In 1986, I was driving through Binghampton, NY on I-86 and I had a blow-out on my Volkswagen rabbit. I was in the center lane and managed to nurse the car to the far edge of the road along the median. I had to cross three lanes of traffic with my dog to get off the highway. I have to wonder if there was some vibe about me in those days that was off-putting or if it’s just Binghamton, but what sticks with me is how people were not at all kind. I had AAA, so I walked about a mile to a Holiday Inn to call them. The desk clerk yelled at me because my sweet dog was sitting quietly at my feet while I made the call from a payphone in a hallway. I was told it would be at least an hour until the wrecker could get there.

I tried calling some old family friends who lived in Vestal. I’d known them since I was five. I thought maybe they’d come help me, but they just said they were glad to hear from me and hoped I’d have a better trip after this mishap. So I walked the mile back and crossed the three lanes of interstate traffic and sat in the car and prayed no one would hit me. A New York State Trooper stopped and gave me a ration of grief, but when he learned that a tow-truck was coming, he set out some flares and went on his way.

The tow-truck driver wouldn’t let me bring the dog in the cab, and complained about the car not being “off the road” and with a great deal of huffing and puffing delivered us to the Sears automotive department, where I bought a tire for $40 and set off again in the dark. I’ve had no interest in returning there. For any reason.

Another flat tire that sticks with me is the one that my uncle Tim changed on the Swingley Route in the wilds of the Beartooth mountains in Montana. The road is washboard, it took us awhile to realize that the tire was flat. Tim and his wife and two boys were visiting us; I was 8 months pregnant. My husband was working, but I was leading them on a merry adventure to the Roadkill Bar and Cafe, fifty miles away in McLeod. Eventually it became apparent  that something more than usual was wrong with our 1988 Volkswagen Quantum. (The best thing about that car was the license plate: LEAP. The worst things were too numerous to list.)

Then there was today’s.

Crossing East Dayton on Third Street is about my least-favorite route across the city. The street is narrow, but heavily traveled. The houses are alternatively boarded up, burned out, or inhabited by hollow-eyed white folks who long ago gave up on ambition. There’s a Rite Aid, and a Shell station where you have to go inside to pay because they have too many drive-offs. There’s a store-front “nightclub” promising dancers, a used appliance place, takeout Chinese,  a couple of corner groceries, one of those was the last place a teenaged girl was seen alive before her body was found in a trash can a block away.

We’d taken the Mercedes. It’s our nicest car, one that someone paid 75 grand for in 2003. We don’t usually drive it around town, “preserving” it in the garage most of the time.  A guy in a maroon pick up truck pulled out in front of us onto Third, “merging” right into the traffic as seems the convention these days– never mind right of way, or stopping before making a turn. My dear husband is very sensitive about the bad habits of other drivers, which means every time he gets behind the wheel of a car, he is enormously aggravated by those less considerate around him.

A few blocks up, the maroon pick up decided to turn left onto Findlay. We only know that he was deciding to turn left because he came to a stop in the middle of an intersection with a green light. Muttering, Elmer went to drive around him– but the guy swung wide to make the left and startled, Elmer goosed the car to get out of the way, running over the curb on the opposite corner. That something was badly wrong was immediately apparent.

“Well, shit.” I said. “Better pull in at this gas station.”

“No,” he said “That’s a private enterprise and we’re not buying gas there.”

“Well, you can’t stay on this street, pull in there.” And he did. And yes, the right front tire was flat to the ground, the sidewall having been punctured by the cast iron storm sewer cover that juts out a tiny bit from the curb.

Oh, the drama. I got out the card and called AAA. I helped unload a few things out of the trunk. I called the insurance company in case there was more damage than just the tire, perhaps some suspension issue. Yes, we would be covered, let them know if we needed to make a claim.

I stopped myself from screaming “How many times do I have to tell you to watch out for the curbs?” I listened patiently to him rant about the driver in the pick-up, and his despair at the impending expense. And somehow it was of course, my fault that we’d taken this car instead of his usual driver, a 14-year-old Saab with 230,000 miles.

The AAA service guy arrived– someone directly from AAA– and none too friendly. I need to call them about that on Monday. Why on earth would you take a job helping people if you can’t at least be courteous? The “emergency spare” doughnut was impressive– as tall as a regular tire. The Mercedes-Benz owner’s manual has 10 pages on how to change the tire and cautions not to run the car on more than one “emergency spare” at a time. Apparently the AMG version of our car has a “collapsible spare” and auxiliary air-pump. I read the description of it out loud and we laughed as we pictured someone unfolding the “collapsible spare” out of a cardboard box. (Disappointingly, it’s not that different from the regular doughnut.)

When we got home, he was still too upset to call the tire places, so I did.  One tire place not only had the matching tire at the best price, but the guy on the phone called me “hon,” which made me want to cry. He has to order the tire out of Charleston, but it will be here Tuesday. We joked that it was good the tire wasn’t coming out of Boston, with its impending blizzard. He said he’d call me when it was in, and they’d take care of me.

The rest is just money after all.

Sounding the Depth

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Is this the bottom? It feels like the bottom. Not the bottom of the stairs, with a clear path to get up and climb forward. Not the bottom of the ocean, its many fathoms, full of light and life and music. No, this is more like the bottom of deep well.

I do not feel sorry for myself.

How could I feel sorry for myself? I see around me people who are suffering more than I am. Not just “people” like amorphous children starving in far-off nations, no I mean real people. They’re dealing with terrible losses, or life-threatening illness, real crises. Not this kind of selfish malaise that keeps me from getting out of bed.

Or going to bed.

I started out nine months ago, chipper and whatnot, ready to get myself together. It went well for awhile. I stumbled, often, but I got back up again. I came to terms with living in a much reduced circumstance. I clipped coupons. I stopped going out for lunch. I figured out thirty-five ways to cook potatoes.

And then I stopped writing. And started arm-wrestling demons. I know what depression is. I did my five-years-with-a-therapist stint in college. One of the great reliefs of leaving the artistic community in New England is that I discovered that the rest of the world does not assume you have a therapist.

I could probably use a therapist now, but I can’t afford it. Hell, I can’t afford to go to lunch.

I’ve been sick since my birthday, January 16. Most of the time since then I’ve spent in bed. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store with my husband chiming in my ear about how we can’t afford anything. I bought it anyway, spending a hundred dollars on groceries that are supposed to last us until March 1st. They won’t. When we got home I was so exhausted I had to lie down. Later, I found a slip of paper on the counter where he had worked out  how much milk we would need, how much dog food, how much gasoline. He doesn’t understand how much that inspires my despair.

There is so little  joy in my life and that makes me cranky. Even the things I used to love ring hollow. When I’m cranky I alienate people and then I feel lonely and unloved and more cranky.

We’ve been waiting for our old dog to die. For months we’ve thought he was on death’s door. But not yet. And just as well, because we can’t afford that either. It may be a race to the pearly gates between my old coonhound and my grandmother. Don’t be offended, she’s eager for her heavenly reward and I don’t begrudge her that. I’d like to go and see her, but I have to measure the cost of gasoline against all the other financial considerations.

It’s exhausting, this constant weighing of importance.

So I sit, here, at the bottom of the well and look up and think it’s really not worth bothering, trying to climb out. I feel like just when my hands reach the warm grass, someone will step on them.

It’s the Money, Stupid

a completely politics-free post

The last few weeks I have been bludgeoned with depression. It’s awful. I stay up as late as I can, often just noodling around on the computer, until I can hardly see to stumble up the stairs. Then I sleep away half the day. When I do get up, I look like death. And maybe that’s appropriate, because that’s what this feels like. More than depression, it feels like grief.

We have a long family history of depression, and I struggled with what I thought was clinical depression in my early twenties, though in fact that might have been something residual from a head injury. No matter, I know what that “cut off at the ankles” feeling is like, that heart of lead, and I am vigilant about it, usually.

Thing is, I couldn’t figure out why I felt so bad. No one has died. My son’s doing quite well in his first semester at college– and still living at home, so no empty nest to contend with. My marriage is what my marriage is: steady, solid, ticking along like a Timex. The writing goes well, when I write. I wrote a piece the other day that garnered a thousand reads in a few days. That’s a major achievement for me, a milestone.

It’s true that my efforts at dieting and exercise have ground to a halt. How can they not when my circadian rhythms have been laid to waste.

Tonight, curled up on the sofa, in front of the television, my husband started to talk to me about the cell phone bill. We’ve changed plans, and like every time you change plans, they promise it will be less or about the same, and it is always more. But this time it’s different, because there’s not enough money to pay it, and I snapped at him. Hard. And that’s when I realized.

It’s the money stupid.

When my husband retired in 2006, I retired too. He’s a railroad retiree and the system pays you to be idle. He paid into it, he’s entitled to it. Hell, they’d even pay his ex-wife if she wanted to collect that instead of her own retirement. They paid me because we had a son who was not yet 18. I could work, if I wanted, but if I made more than the wages of a very part-time job, they’d start deducting that from the check, fifty cents for every dollar I made.

I thought, great I have five years to get the book done. (Not even the same book then as now, also part of the problem.) The Railroad Retirement Board has provided me with the most valuable thing of all: time. In addition to that, I’d been left a modest inheritance from my father, which we used to buy our house in Dayton, and fund things like new puppies and showing dogs and a new computer and nice shoes.  Finally, last year, we sold our house in Montana, and cleared a little money on it as well. So for the last five years, we have been entirely comfortable.

I don’t want to give the impression that it was the life of Riley around here. We weren’t jetting off to Paris or anything. But we could afford to be generous to my mother, and my grandmother and Elmer’s daughter and Julian. If we didn’t feel like cooking, we went out to eat. All of our cars were getting pretty long in the tooth, so we bought a new car. Well, new to us, anyway. And all the time I kept thinking, I’ve got to get working on the manuscript.

I am the penultimate grasshopper.

Last month Julian turned 18, so that check stopped. This month, we ran out of money. It’s not dire. We own our house, we have enough through Elmer’s retirement to pay all of our obligations, and even buy a few groceries. But we are very suddenly out of money. I can’t go the friends’ wedding in Wyoming that I’d planned to go to. I can’t buy a puppy from a friend’s litter that I had promised to buy. Hell, I can’t even go out to Montana and sort out our small mountain of belongings still in storage there. I can’t go out to lunch. The gravy train has not just come to a screeching halt, it’s gone right off the tracks.

It isn’t that I don’t  have plenty to amuse myself that costs little or nothing. We still have our membership to the Carillon Park. (Yeah, history nerd, what can I say.) The research that I still need to do is still basically free, though the trip to the Library of Congress is put off until God Knows When.  We can go to the Y. I’ve got stacks of novels I meant to read, and my husband isn’t giving up cable television, so there’s always the idiot box. I have my wonderful dogs, even if I can’t afford to show them.  Dayton is full of walking paths, and a free art museum and community events. There’s always sex. Entertainment is not the problem.

The problem is that the window got suddenly oh so much smaller. We went from not having to really worry about money to really having to pinch pennies, almost overnight. I am, as my English stepfather used to say, a clever girl. And I will find a way, something that gives us more financial breathing room. If worst comes to worst, I can always get a job. I think. I am mostly sorry that I squandered away the time, because now I will have to justify the time I make for myself. Yes, I knew it was coming. Yes, I should have planned better, but you know I just wanted the party to keep going. Damn it all.