When he was sick

She felt the tears welling up behind her eyes, making her feel like she may sneeze. If only all of the emotions she had could be contained to that, to just a sneeze or a yawn, maybe she could manage to get through the afternoon. But the memories started flooding in, and she wondered if she was promoting her own sadness by letting them come, or if she would have felt this way even if she had blocked them from her thoughts.

She was sitting on an orange plastic subway bench underground on an otherwise sunny Sunday afternoon. She had started the long journey home from visiting an apartment on the other side of town, settled in for a long and bumpy ride. She had been going through the city the last couple months with a feeling of numbness, overseeing her daily agenda with a mechanical precision that made her feel in control. Like she was managing. Like she was doing just fine.  But very occasionally something would throw her off balance, a small glitch in the routine of her well-planned days. It was moments like this when she realized it wasn’t sustainable. It wouldn’t work. Different choices would need to be made. Reality, somehow, would emerge, and the raw emotion of it would boil over putting out her flame.

There was a man with a little blonde girl sitting across from her in the empty train car.  She couldn’t help stealing looks at them as they sat. On the third or fourth quick glance, the tears started streaming down her cheeks. She knew once they started, she couldn’t easily get them to stop. The all-encompassing feeling of sadness was mixed with some annoyance. Why now? Why so publicly?

The man was probably around 35 with brown shaggy hair and blue jeans. He was in a casual Sunday T-shirt, a little too worn to wear during the week, but too loved to throw away.  The little girl kept hiding her face in the side of his torso, mucking up his t-shirt further with the juice box all over her face. Her little legs were dangling from the seat, and sporadically kicking in glee whenever she took a sip from her straw. She would sometimes look up at him and say something nonsensical. The man would nod, or reply in an understanding tone of one or two words, always mildly distracted by the book he was reading, but stroking her hair absentmindedly as he read.

In the seat across from this pair, she wondered if he noticed her sitting there, silently wiping the tears that flowed from her eyes like a tap that wouldn’t shut off. He didn’t seem to pay her any attention. A lot stranger things have happened on the subway.  In the meantime, as she sat there, she marveled at her ability to cry without making a sound.

This would be the moment she looked back on years later when she thought of that summer, and her decision later that day to leave the city for good, and move back home.


This time last year I was already doing workouts from home and holding my breath on the subway into class. During my train trip to Heidelberg in January, I even switched cars because someone close to me had a cough.

I have always been a worrier. I worried about all the could-be pandemics that never came into existence. I was thorough and diligent in my ruminations; it was my duty. Lay awake. Worry about this one hard. Do it justice. Still, some part of me could conclude that I was being slightly irrational. Everything would be fine because everything usually is. Nothing tremendously bad ever actually happens. I just have to give it some serious concern, and let it free. Then, last March came, and this one was different. I didn’t handle it well.

NPR asked people this month the moment they realized last year that their lives would be different. I read them this morning and many made me cry. I was taking a walk around the old city canal in Utrecht by myself, listening to music and reflecting on what was happening in Italy. It felt inevitable, the closing of things, shutting in. At the time, I reminded myself to be grateful of the blooming flowers and the balmy weather. I didn’t anticipate then how incredibly fearful I would become in the weeks to follow. How I wouldn’t leave the house for almost a month, how I’d panic and cry every time groceries were brought into the house that we laboriously cloroxed for what felt like forever. How I wouldn’t touch mail, wouldn’t open the patio door for friends, wouldn’t let the windows be cracked while people walked by.

Yesterday, two friends came over and sat in the sun in our backyard, drinking tea and eating merci chocolates from a bowl. It was such a nice afternoon, the kind of pleasant uneventful time that I have grown to appreciate even more in this last year. I remind myself: we’re not missing anything. I am not in a rush to get anywhere. Although I am still nervous, there is a calm contentment that I have this season that contrasts so sharply to a year before. Nothing really has changed out in the world. Things are still closed and locked down. Keep distance. Limited guests. Now a curfew. But I have settled into this life in a not unhappy way. Nuzzling in like my cat, who finds the oddest places to sleep and be comfortable. We’ve made a new home, a new normal. Something slower and less exciting, but not without sunny moments. Here is to next year being even brighter.

Advice for Former Selves by Kate Baer

Burn your speeches, your instructions
your prophecies too. In the morning when
you wake: stretch. Do not complain. Do not
set sail on someone else’s becoming, their voice
in your throat. Do not look down your nose
at a dinner party, laughing: If only they didn’t
have so many children.

Revision is necessary. The compulsory bloom.
When you emerge with crystals in one hand,
revenge in the other, remember the humble
barn swallow who returns in spring. If not
for her markings, another bird entirely.

By Kate Baer
What Kind of Woman. New York, Harper Perennial, 2020.

Wish List Inspiration

My dad was always infamous for his Christmas lists, and I just rediscovered one recently. As Valentine’s Day just passed, I thought it could still serve as an inspiration for others. Copied and edited for spelling errors:


Welcome – greed

  • Please give me both absolutely everything +/or absolutely nothing or emptiness
  • Puppets – any and all kinds, big and small, tall and short, colorful and drab, from all countries, all over the world.
    • Please understand the length and depth of the research that will be required and, above all else, don’t skimp. Don’t be cheap.
    • Quantity and quality – I want lots, lets say at least a coupla hundred, remember: any kind
  • Marionettes
    • Note: this is a separate study, once again in quantity, so please research this diligently. This should become a somewhat very important part of your life.
  • Puppets #3 – also, please don’t forget the puppets
  • Blowgun – actually a blow-gun collection!!
    •  And once again, don’t be cheap. Use your imagination. Naturally, blowguns from around the world are welcome – antique blowguns would be nice, and modern ones too, maybe some historical ones
    • You may have to penetrate scary head hunter/cannibal places but remember you’re supposed to be dedicated, so please, don’t overlook this item. It is important to me. Thnx.
  • A blow-gun retail shop – I don’t think there are many blowgun shops and I need a job and a skill. Maybe I’ll have some good luck and turn it into a big chain store all over the world – “blowguns-r—us” or “everything blowgun”
  • Poison darts – could be short range, long range etc. Books and stuff too. You may need to have a supervisor look this one over. Thanks.
  • Casino computer games – must have sound and background and characters I can chat with, and video poker for a Toshiba cheap laptop.
  • Taiko drums – any kind of size, also sticks
  • Jeans – size 36 by 30
  • Puppet theatre books
  • Bongo drums or similar
  • Shakuhachi flute
  • Gongs and bongs
  • Electric piano
  • Electric organ
  • Cymbals and bells
  • Chimes
  • Selma soprano sax
  • Long johns – large – duo-fold
  • Black pullover sweater or vest – size XL
  • Warm socks, wool socks
  • A nice scarf
  • Cowboy hat – not John Wayne type, more like Wyatt Earp type, gambler dude type
    • I will measure my head soon
  • Foxwoods – all expenses paid gambling trip
  • Ninjutsu stuff – the way of illusion, will require research, shuriken, etc.
  • Croupier school or classes
  • Masks 0 all kinds, or every kind
  • Judo gi, size 5
  • Kimono
  • A good yumi (bow)
  • Naginata, throwing knives, throwing spikes
  • Buddha stuff – layman’s robe, meditation cushions.
  • Kung fu clothes and weapons
  • Bamboo flip flops
  • Books – instruction books on card tricks, magic tricks, Mongolian eagle hunting, croupier instruction, ninjutsu manuals, puppet histories and texts
  • Tibetan books – anything by Kalu Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse
    • Dragon Thunder: My Life with Chogyam Trungpa
    • Collected works by Chögyam Trungpa
    • Any manuals or works about Marpa Lotsawa or Tilopa
    • The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa
    • Writings by Alexandra David-Néel and/or Gampopa
  • CD of Disney’s Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast
  • Spices – cooking spices – any and all, both exotic and not
  • Much more stuff soon – keep checking in, there are lots of categories I am forgetting. Just keep getting me stuff. I’ll remember more. Be patient. Thnx.
Wyatt Earp, inspiration for my dad’s cowboy hat request

Ice Skating

People are skating everywhere across the Netherlands. Each little park pond we pass has kids and adults alike clicking away on the ice. This past Wednesday, my professor was so excited about the idea, she made a separate discussion board online for students to upload their skating pictures. The internationals shrugged. The Dutch waited by the door with their skates.

I have never really been into the idea myself. All I remember about skating from my youth is being cold, hurting my tailbone in a fall, and preferring to wait inside where there were those little fake marshmallows in hot chocolate packets. I’m not a winter sports lady, aside from a few blizzard walks.

But skating is ingrained in the Dutch psyche. My husband could talk about the nuances of ice for hours – what makes it strong and what is not safe. What different cracks mean and what sounds are good. He joyously puts long sharp knife blades on his feet and risks his life for fun, an ice pick always around his neck in case he falls in. He was on his first pair of skates at a very young age; I imagine the same age as he was on his first bike. Each little Dutch human taking on both land and sea (water, actually) in a fully adult fashion. This is still what impresses me most about growing up here. The level of trust to do things I am still afraid of at thirty five.

I suppose there is something liberating about being out there in the quiet, just listening to the sound of the ice creak under your feet and into the distance. After ten years together, I have sure seen plenty of videos of the process. For a country that can’t seem to manage snow very well, they certainly love their ice. Yesterday, in our town, there was even a band playing outside as people skated around the human shaped hole in the ice by our house. I held the skating bag, waiting at a distance and waving from my safe spot on land. Makes me smile though, still. The sound of a country celebrating something they love.


My husband (and in-laws, I think) got me a funfetti cake for my birthday. Despite displaying my very old age on top, it still looked like a cake for little kids. I ate it for breakfast.

I never knew how much I would crave generic white “American” vanilla sheet cake until I moved here. Actually, I didn’t even know this was a type of cake that I could miss. I just thought of it as plain old cake. The type you get at grocery stores, half off. You never really buy this cake; you just look at it in the baked goods section and admire how insane it looks with all its frosting and relevant holiday decorations.

Well, here, they don’t have that type of cake. They have pastries and things filled with whip cream and what my dad would deem “health cake” due to a lack of frosting. (My dad didn’t consider anything cake unless it had frosting and unless it was chocolate.)

It wasn’t until a few years living here that I even realized I missed these standard issue sheet cakes, the ones you can make from a Betty Crocker box. But you can’t find them easily here – not the box or the cake itself.

So my husband special ordered this one, with the little colorful confetti inside to make it even more festive, flavored with strawberry jam because it still needs to be Dutch and a little bit weird. It was one of the best birthday presents I have received.

My birthday belly, long ago.
Photo Credit: Susan Kandel

A Blizzard

Today marks a code red blizzard in the Netherlands. Our grocery order was pre-emptively cancelled, the trains aren’t running, and there seems to be a minor panic around this 3 inches of snow.

My New England comes out now. This? This is what you call a blizzard? This is what everyone is so worried about? Okay.

When I was younger, my dad used to watch the weather channel religiously. The same local forecast map over and over again, as if it would change or predict something different. Perhaps it was soothing, like watching a babbling brook or a fireplace. The weather radar map, replaying a green cloud over and over again into the night, as he sat on his lazy boy and ate popcorn.

New England wasn’t one for boring weather, in his defense. We had blizzards. But in my memory, Boston always knew how to handle them. I was once on the news at the age of six for being at the only public elementary school open in Massachusetts during a blizzard. Our superintendent had something to prove: we would not have a snow day. So there I was in my goofy pink hat, sitting on the school bus, featured on channel five. My 15 minutes of fame, minus 14 and a half.

Despite incessantly watching the weather channel, my dad didn’t care much when the weather changed. He shrugged, and put on his boots, long johns, and 8 pairs of wool socks. Always prepared.

The only thing that really mattered, his pastime throughout the years: having to dig us out.

That he did complain about. Each snow storm, he’d say, “okay girls, who is going to come and help me shovel?” and each time, we’d look up at him disinterested from our spot on the couch and then turn back to watching TV. When we were little, I think he even bought us pink industrial style snow shovels to help in the efforts. It didn’t work.

He’d go out there for hours in the same hat and winter boots, and slowly, methodically, shovel the driveway while we watched from inside. He’d come in occasionally, enviously reporting on someone’s new snow blower or how a neighbor had a connection with a gardening company that had a seasonal plow business on the side. Living in a land of white came with rules of respectability, neighborly commitment and unspoken shoveling laws (see: Boston’s long tradition of putting a chair/misc. object to hold a cleared spot on the street).

The biggest treat for my dad was when one of our neighbors would offer to do our driveway with their truck plow or snow blower: that was the best Christmas gift, all season long.

But usually it was my dad out there in his hat, with all the other dads on the block, looking the same and cursing under their breath as they slowly shoveled and dumped in their separate driveways, heads down, breath foggy, dedicated to the cause. All this so he could then “warm the cars up,” turning them on to breathe exhaust fumes into the neighborhood for a couple hours and thaw out, so we’d be toasty warm and ready to go when we needed to. That, by the way, was the point of the whole ritual in the first place: to go about the day. The snow never stopped my dad, and as a result, never stopped us either. We went to work, school, and the grocery store. We got in our cars and went where we needed to go. It was cold, but my dad taught me how to lean into a skid. Taught me to look out for sand and salt on the road, and showed me when a street wasn’t ready to drive on just yet. So, when the Dutch tell me to prepare for the blizzard, to stay safe, I shrug, roll my eyes, and look back at the TV, just as I did when I was young. They’ll figure it out, I think. We already know how to do this.


I started my final set of classes for my Master’s this week, and it has been intense.

As I stress and worry through countless late nights, there is something comforting about submitting something and marking it complete. Being graded for your words. It gives my world a sense of tidiness that otherwise does not exist. In corona, in life, things aren’t wrapped up in a package of pass or fail and good or bad. You just struggle through in the gray, making decisions on your own.

I read once that generally women succeed more than their male counterparts in school because they can easily follow the rules and stay disciplined, but in the outside world, the glass ceiling comes into play. “Thinking outside the box” gains traction, and men who break those rules, or better yet, disrupt them, get their time to shine.

I didn’t realize how tiring this would be after I graduated the first time. How tough it would be to work in tech with so many men above me. How much more confident you have to be to have your voice heard. To suppress the urge to apologize for things that aren’t your fault.

I went to an all women’s college as an undergraduate. My first year there, I complained. I missed boys. I felt uncomfortable with how progressive everyone seemed when it came to thinking about their gender and their sexuality. I felt overwhelmed. A whole new world from the co-ed public school in the suburbs I had graduated from.

But now, I wish everyone had had that experience. I wish everyone could realize that this corporate life, this real-world life, is so vanilla, so bland, so deeply boring and predictable.

As I return to school in a totally different environment than that which I studied in more than 13 years ago, I am trying to piece it all back together. Determine, for myself, what are important values I want to defend and see practiced and represented as I teach myself new things, and while I interact with a younger generation of girls like me, like who I used to be. What stereotypes are being reinforced, either by myself or others? What am I getting out of it this time? Who is coming into the job market with me, now? Younger and highly motivated, with so many problems to solve in this world.

I am so inspired by this new step, this fresh start, taken in my mid-30s. Despite the late nights, white hairs and stress sleep, I am holding my own. But more than before, I hope, I am doing it for myself. I didn’t consider myself a feminist in my early 20s, but certainly do now. I want only better for both women and men than what’s on offer today. I want to make a difference again, a change. And I think that’s what school is always for, regardless of how or where you learn it: to try to be more yourself in a world that asks you to be the same.


The OG American Cat – Part Two

I had Ollz since he was a kitten (about 7 months old) until the end of my time in Boston, about three years later.

I often think back on those years as some of my happiest. It was the time when we were all figuring things out together, all starting from “Go” in the same Monopoly game. Now when I sometimes feel others have far surpassed me in the game of life with their advanced jobs or fancy homes, back then, my peers and I were all equally confused. We had graduated in 2008, the year of the (first) long recession.

So we were willing to live in drafty apartments and take the jobs that would have us. My friends from high school were back home in Boston, and all of my friends from college had decided to move there too. It was the perfect mix of old and new, past and present. Good and bad. We were in it together.

And Ollz was there too, watching me stumble home late at night after a long night of bar trivia or eat cannoli’s in bed after a tough day at work. He saw me eat frozen peas out of the bag, and cheerios for both breakfast and for dinner. I was trying things out, proud of myself for making it on my own, despite how wacky it looked.

I had big dreams I couldn’t easily identify and still don’t fully realize.

At the time, I was considering what then felt like a big step: moving in with my partner in NYC. As a commitment phob who was never a big fan of New York, this felt like a huge decision. I solved it in the way I often do – by making some other big decision instead: I made plans to quit my job and leave Boston, but instead of moving right to NYC, I would travel first to Argentina and explore on my own for a few months. Figuring out what I wanted and what I should do next.

Ollz couldn’t go with me to South America. His sensibilities weren’t cut out for travel. So I made a choice: I gave him away.

In all the many cats we have fostered and owned and cared for since then, I still feel guilty about that decision. It wasn’t his fault, after all, that I had a whole life to figure out. And he was my very first love. But as such, I grew apart from him. I wasn’t ready for the permanence of that love just yet.

And what brings me solace now is knowing he went to one of the nicest couples I knew: a guy who was friends with my dad and my uncle. He was studying at Harvard to get his PhD in Buddhism, and his wife had recently comes back from a solo meditation retreat in the mountains. Where I brought chaos, they would bring calm and enlightenment. Perhaps it was kismet it worked out this way. I can still not think of a better mom and dad for my first cat.

And so we said our goodbyes to start new lives on our own.