the xanax diary

love, loss, healing and humor (in no particular order)

Awkweird Dating Tales


One of the cruelest ironies of dating is that you really can’t talk about the politics of dating with a person you’re on a date with—yet he is the one person who (theoretically) understands most closely what you’re feeling in that moment. But, ultimately, it would be like sharing your cards or detailing your “tells” with your opponents at a poker table. It simply isn’t done…by me, anyway.

But as a dater—someone who believes love is possible for me again—it’s a hazard of the practice. Dates are like interviews–as a recent date pointed out (and shouldn’t have.) We all know they’re interviews. It can literally go without saying. And should.

“I know immediately,” my date said about knowing if a date feels “right.” “I have a good feeling about this,” he continued smugly, talking about our date.

This date?!

I had a feeling about it too. A dissimilar one. (Which, of course, I didn’t share.) We both knew something immediately. Unfortunately, we knew two very different things.

This date was extremely painful. The further we got into it, the more he told me how handsome I was. (Yes, everyone loves to hear it, but once does the trick. More than once is “awkweird”.) And the more I wanted to desperately figure out where the fire alarm was located so I could set it off on the way the bathroom and then sneak out during the chaos. (In his defense, who wouldn’t be attracted to such maturity?)

He kept finding and verbalizing our similarities. (I said I was introverted. He lied and said he was too. No one who talks as much as he did could possibly be introverted.) And saying how well we’d get along. I kept thinking, “We’d get along better if our burgers would arrive and this date could end.“

Oh. The high fives. Every time I said something funny or witty, he would toss his head back, burst into laughter, then hold his hand in the air for a high five. Funny and witty is my jam. So, there were a lot of high fives. A lot. (And I’ll admit many of them were not deserved.) More awkweirdness.

He’d already broached the subject of kissing at dinner after disclosing he was a “social smoker.” (Deal breaker on its own.) I asked if he needed to step outside to have a cigarette. (Fuel for a date-ending fire.) He replied something like “one has to weigh the options in case there is a kiss at the end of a first date.”

Ugh. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

When he offered me the breath strip, I almost didn’t take it. To send a message. But I took it, thinking he was accelerating exponentially and without regard for signs clearly lit on the side of the road straight into a brick wall of awkweirdness. And part of me wanted to watch it happen.

He insisted on giving me a ride home which meant the date was to continue for a potentially awkward 10 minutes more. It lasted a little longer when he missed a turn onto my street. Then upon finding my building, wide-eyed in the darkness, I wondered why he was backing into a parking spot. I mean, how could you NOT tell from the very quiet ride home that this date was already over? I’m not that good of an actor, I’ve been told (by one of my Second City improv instructors, no less.)

He unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to me.

What?! Are we on the same date?!

I smiled awkweirdly and said plainly, “there will be no kiss.” He, of course, understood with incredible unfettered eagerness.

“I’ll leave the ball in your court,” he said.

At dinner, I’d unintentionally revealed that I found it annoying that someone would contact you after a date to tell you they didn’t think you were a good match. (This has happened to me.) To me, not contacting the person after the date said the same thing with less effort or fuss.

He agreed wholeheartedly.

Perfect.

Farewell 2014…I’ll miss you!


I published my previous post without thinking that I still wanted to write about 2014. But I’m a sucker for the statistical fireworks show WordPress.com puts on for me.

So, we’re a few days into 2015. I rang in the new year in bed. Not because of any tragic reason—though I am a those who subscribe to leaving amateur night to amateurs. To be honest, I was kind of sad to see 2014 go. It was a good year; one fraught with exciting firsts for me.

Becoming a homeowner was the biggest event (financially and emotionally) for me. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time, signing a stack of papers for two hours–all pretty much promising the same thing: pay my mortgage or suffer the consequences.

It was a double-edged sword as I moved out of the home Ken and I shared for five years, then I alone for almost three. It was a place filled with so many fun memories, and the obvious sad ones. But the good far outweighed the bad. It was also the place I began my new journey anew (and figuring out how Ken still fit into it). It was the place to which I brought a 9 lb. Kallie home, and it was a place surrounded by the first yard she frolicked in.

It was my home for eight years–longer than any other as an adult–and though I know it’s been completely gutted and renovated, it’s frozen in time for me. It will always be the apartment withe orange and yellow kitchen that Ken and I painted together with the back yard lush with angel trumpets, sunflowers, and the purple blooming hosta.

Sitting in our back yard after the AIDS walk in 2007 with my friend Mark's then-puppy Rocco.

Sitting in our back yard after the AIDS walk in 2007 with my friend Mark’s then-puppy Rocco.

As for the future, I love my little purchased home, nestled just two blocks from the old rented one.

Another fun first was returning to camping, something Ken introduced me to when we first met. A friend and I went to Door County in Northern Wisconsin last summer. It was a beautiful backdrop for something I wasn’t sure would ever happen again. And I loved every minute of it. There will definitely be more camping trips this summer.

2014 marked the first time since a 1983 trip to Mexico with my family that I left the borders of our nation. In August I went to Montreal for a long weekend. The city itself was charming and seemingly European to my starry Midwestern eyes. It was a great introduction to traveling for someone who prefers familiarity and home.

Mexico. 1983. Mr. Personality is on the left.

Mexico. 1983. Mr. Personality is on the left.

2014. Montreal.

Montreal. 2014.

So, 2014 was a good year. And 2015 is filled with hope and promise. Hopefully, there will be more exciting firsts ahead. But I’d gladly settle for some decent seconds.

2014 in review


Starting this blog 4 years ago to write about all the things I was feeling saved my sanity. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments…to date. And though I didn’t break any records writing this year, it didn’t stop the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys from preparing a 2014 annual report for me.

Bring on 2015!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,600 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

My Favorite Part of the Day


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There seems to be a point in the day by which everything is measured. Sometimes it’s anticipation of a stressful meeting at work or excited anticipation of a special event. But those are the exceptions. A creature of habit–desired habit, needed habit–there is a baseline in my day which is essential, it seems, to maintain order, balance, sanity. It’s the point in the day when I know I can relax, kick off my shoes (emotionally speaking), let my hair down (figuratively, of course) and hoard a little peace that may have been missing my (work) day.

Like many of my fellow Chicagoans, I take the L to work most every day. I used to love taking it. Then stopped needing to. So on the infrequent trips to the office, I drove. Now I love it again. I read, write, watch a movie or even nap (it’s a skill). Zoning out on the train is the perfect way to shake off a busy day and prepare to transition into an evening at home.

As I stood on the platform in the loop the other day, looking forward to my favorite part of the day (which I’ll get to, I promise), I realized I stood on this platform thousands of times throughout my employment in the loop–beginning in 1998. Many of those times, my favorite part of the day was something quite different. When I was younger, I hurried to meet friends after work up in the neighborhood. Or was excited to get home and get the weekend started. Years later, I was tired and longed to get home to Ken and Q. Then after his death, just wanting to get home and close the door behind me. To disconnect form the outside world.

What’s currently my favorite part of the day? Coming home to this face on the sofa, greeting me with sleepy eyes:

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I should qualify that coming home is my favorite part of evening. The morning is usually started off on the right foot with this:

Kallie slithers into my warm imprint as soon as I get up. And is usually ready to play.

Kallie squirms into my warm imprint as soon as I get up. And then challenges me to do something about it.

But in spite of the Ken, Quantum, Kallie (say that tree times fast) and whatever I might look forward to in the future, I wonder if my favorite part of the day is right there on that platform, eagerly anticipating…whatever I have in store for me at home.

And appreciating it in the present.

The Rituals of Christmas


It seems this time of year holiday traditions are somehow more romantic. The Christmas traditions I shared with Ken are still very important to me. We really delighted in the season. Ken had a childlike giddiness that was infectious. It was impossible to be a Grinch at Christmastime with him around. For me, Christmas continues to be magical. It’s my first Christmas in my new place, and I’m looking forward to bringing some old traditions here and making new ones, as well.

First on the list is to decide where to put the pink Christmas tree.

New Tradition: decorate the mantle with Hermey!

New Tradition: decorate the mantle with Hermey!

The Christmas cards I’ve sent since 2011 have been store-bought, but during the prior decade, Ken and I designed and executed construction of our cards–from concept to creation. (See photo gallery below.) Brainstorming usually began sometime in the midst of summer over cocktails on our patio or in our back yard where it morphed and changed from one thing to another before being finalized sometime in November. Actual construction would begin on the weekend of Thanksgiving. Someday, I’ll have the spark to create my own cards again. Someday.

I have so many memories of Christmas with Ken. Some mundane. Some supreme. But one of my favorites is below. It’s from our 2007 card (which was a DVD) and shows “outtakes” from our video shoot. We’d originally planned a talk show format, but couldn’t work it out. This was funnier.

I’m grateful to be in a place where watching this brings me the joy of the season, and the joy of being with Ken.

Mom’s Classic Halloween Poem


Every year my mom sends us kids and her grandkids this Halloween poem she made up when I as just a kid (so around 40+ years this poem has been around). I remember we had an assignment in third grade to write a Halloween poem, so I saved the time for TV watching and handed hers in instead. (Sorry, Miss Gick!)

This wasn’t a terrifying poem, but Mom recited it with such conviction that you couldn’t help but wonder what her coven designation was–as she was most certainly speaking from experience. Although at the part where the cackle begins is when she’d tickle me silly. Enjoy.

Happy Halloween!

JUST A WARNING…. BE CAREFUL OUT THERE TONIGHT BECAUSE, 

YOU KNOW……………

THE WITCHES AND THE GOBLINS

COME OUT ON HALLOWEEN NIGHT!

THEY SCARE YOU…THEY GRAB YOU…THEY HOLD YOU TIGHT!

AND THEN THEY PUT YOU ON THEIR BROOM

AND FLY AWAY UP IN THE SKY.

THEY TAKE YOU TO THE WITCH’S HOUSE,

AND BAKE YOU IN A PIE!

AND WHILE YOU’RE COOKING ON THE STOVE

THEY STAND AROUND AND LAUGH

(INSERT MOM/GRAMMY’S EVIL CACKLE HERE) !!!!!

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HAPPY HALLOWEEN !!!!!

Dear Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers


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TO: Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers
CC: Oscar Goldman, Director, Office of Scientific Intelligence, Dr. Rudy Wells

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

You might not remember me, but we worked together for a while back in the 70s (see photo). Though I wasn’t quite as well known as you two were, I held my own in areas specific to espionage, Big Foot hunting and Fembot control.

I was the youngest agent in Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) history, if you’ll recall. Yes, my friend-and-sometimes-co-agent Chris was the same age, but I was 3 months younger. And he didn’t last very long in the Agency before shipping out after third grade to an “unknown assignment.” Without him, I was on my own.

You probably won’t remember any of our adventures together. I’m sure you had your fill with other young agents at the time, though none possessing my acute abilities in running in slow motion and making a wide array of bionic sound effects–from bionic limbs activating for super speed or strength or my right bionic eye zooming in on a target across the playground to the trill of my bionic ear filtering whispers throughout the lunch room. My skills were mad. And I can’t blame you for being just a little bit jealous.

It was a simple time back then, eh? We were heroes. The good guys. Doing work for a good and just government, using our abilities and gifts to the detriment of only those who would do us harm. Sure there was the occasional double agent–hell, sometimes it was even us! But it was for the best. We were always on the side of right. And there was never any doubt about it.

Sure, we all had unlimited expense accounts, government-funded sports cars and A-list wardrobes, but for cryin’ out loud, we were in constant and unending danger! It was the least our country could do for us. We could go to sleep in our horse stable lofts in Ojai one night, and be shipped off to East Berlin the next morning (remember when there were two Berlins??!)

I wonder if you miss those days as much as I do. Running around in bell bottoms and knits, hanging out at Callahan’s desk outside Oscar’s office while he finished a call with “Mr. Secretary,” cross stitching or creating macramé while Steve wailed and played the guitar with that sad mustache he tried for a while. Good times, my friends. Good goddamn times.

Wouldn’t it be fun for the three of us to get together sometime for cocktails and catch up? We could throw a few cars around and teach some cocky deserving misanthropes (e.g. Starbucks line cutters or people on the train who don’t give up their seat for the elderly) a lesson or two in kindness with some slowmo badass moves.

I would love to see you two again and rehash old times. Living in a world filled with so much gray, makes me long for the times of childhood-colored black and white. Sure, it may have been a more naive time. Or maybe the world was the same as it is now, just presented differently. No email. No 24 hour news cycle. No computers—except for the one Oscar would reference upon occasion. (Did you guys ever know what he was talking about?)

Drop me a line sometime and let me know.

Watch your back,

Agent Stempkowski

…and many more


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Milestone dates regarding Ken don’t ambush me or fill me with dread…much. Or at least like they once did. I’m usually prepared for them–particularly the important ones. Birthday. Our anniversary. Or the anniversary of his death. And, really, as time passes and I keep pushing forward in my life, they seem to hurt less. Really, though, what I think is happening is my tolerance for the pain is higher. I’m just used to it.

This past weekend was Ken’s birthday. He would have been 49. It’s marked on my calendar, though it hardly needs to be. I know it like it’s my own. I can still picture the day. Waiting for him to come home from work, martini ready to be shaken. Making whatever he wanted for dinner. Watching him open birthday cards and a presents, and talking to long distance well-wishers on the phone. Laughing and kissing him, reveling in the joy and fun of his pre-semicentennial birthday while making mental notes and listening for clues of what he’d like for next year’s milestone celebration.

If only.

This year I marked the occasion as I have done since he died. I baked up some cupcake love, wrote out a thank you note, and journeyed to the cancer center where he received treatment to see the nurses–of course, Blanca, in particular. And thank them. For all they did for him, and all they do. Period.

My friend Mindy was in town visiting from Portland. It wasn’t really planned to coincide with Ken’s birthday. It just worked out that way. So, on one of our day excursions, she came to the cancer center with me to deliver the goodies and meet the very famous Blanca–someone she’s heard about since Ken received treatment there.

It was really fun. And special to have her there with me. Ken adored her as well. And she was a pylon for me during his illness. Back then the two-hour time difference allowed me to ensure Ken was sleeping before making a call that would be too late locally. To ramble. Or blubber. Depending on what I was feeling that day. Mindy, like so many of my nearest and dearest, allowed me to lean on her. And taking her to the cancer center felt completing in some way. A tiny measure of closure for one of the many journeys swirling around in my head.

It always feels satisfying to honor a tradition I started in his name. It’s still not always easy to go there. But, as I’ve written before, I feel it’s something I must do. I’m compelled to. Out of a sense of…something. A sense of Ken. It’s a part of me that wants to remember all of it. The good and bad. It’s what life is about–as much as I would prefer it to be only about the good, there can’t be any such thing without the other.

In taking someone with me to visit, maybe I can change how I feel about going there, but I’m not truly sure that will ever happen. What I do know–or at least hope–is that it speaks well of him that I still go. That is important to me. And reminds those who treated him for just a minute of his laughter and smile and good humor during his treatments. And that I–and our entire family–are grateful to the nurses for their untiring dedication to him and to their profession.

Baking these creme-filled cupcakes is always a challenge. I baked them the first time i April of 2010 to celebrate (what we thought would be) the end of Ken's chemo treatment.

Baking these creme-filled cupcakes is always an emotional challenge. I baked them the first time i April of 2010 to celebrate (what we thought would be) the end of Ken’s chemo treatment. Note to self: bake something else next time, for cryin’ out loud.

Since Ken’s birthday was on a weekend (when they are closed), I went to the cancer center a couple of days before. When his actual birthday arrived, it felt good that I hadn’t waited for a momentous day to come and have its emotional way with me, but rather been proactive, rendering it somewhat impotent–emotionally speaking.

Kind of like giving grief the finger.

The Outlook Time Travel Trap


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There is a trap I fall into every so often when I’m working in the office. (It never happens when I’m working from home.) An electronic pack rat, I’ve kept most of my Outlook email since 2006. I know. I know. That’s a lot of email. But things are cyclical at work and I sometimes need to refer to something old to create something new. And I’m lazy–trying to decide what might or might be useful in the future. Just keep all of it!

It’s during these moments when I need skip back in time to 2009 or 2007 to look for an old document or piece of information, I’m overcome with the crippling desire to see one of Ken’s emails sent during that time. My stomach turns itself inside out, but I’m powerless to stop myself. I click the “From” column to sort by sender.

Every.

Single.

Time.

I’m almost sickened by it–how much it hurts. Like picking off the proverbial scab–but for the 10,000th time. (Shouldn’t I know better?) As I scroll down the screen, my heart and mind ache for a time when he was here. And healthy. To a time my life was so effortlessly complete.

And much I want to go backward, and reply to one of his goofy emails and sign it with “love you. see you at home.” I want to leave work–carefree and oblivious–to head home to make dinner with him and talk about each of our days, and share a martini.

It’s not quite like it used to be though. There were times in those first months I frittered away hours reading through now-seemingly-irrelevant email strings between us, taking great pleasure–even more pain–in them. It was a form of self-torture. To force myself to hurt, as if to scream repeatedly at myself “He’s gone! He’s gone!”

From this vantage point, it seems like such a cruel thing to do to myself. Over and over. But it’s a trap. An emotional magnet that even now is hard to withstand. It’s a slice of a happy time in my life, excised and suspended. Like a piece of art to be pulled out and admired upon occasion. The kind of art so staggeringly beautiful, it makes you cry.

The trap is a little different for me now–some almost-three-and-a-half-years later. Now I only read one or two. Okay, maybe three. To test myself, perhaps. To see if it still hurts as much. To see if I long for him and our life together any less. To see if I can right myself from an emotional tail spin.

It does.

I don’t.

I can.

 

The Old Camping Percolator Rides Again!


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Two years ago, I was saddened–bothered, even–when I found an old camping percolator and cups while trying to do some organizing in the old apartment. It had been a punch-in-gut reminder that I’d never camp with Ken again. I’d never be able to enjoy the thing he introduced me to again with him–or without him, for that matter. The memories and the loss tugged at an already fractured heart, so. I tucked that percolator away near the rest of the camping supplies and didn’t think about it again until I moved in January. Even then, it still bugged me that I’d never get to use it. For Ken. And for me. I even considered getting rid of the camping stuff since I was moving to a smaller place. But I didn’t. Couldn’t.

The percolator had been a gift from my friend Kathy to Ken after she camped with us on our iconic Ojai trip in 2005. She saw what we had for making coffee: pouring boiling hot water out of a tin pan into a coffee filter, teetering on top of a glass pitcher–as not ideal. Dangerous even. I’d only done it a few times and always burned something: my hand…my leg…Ken’s hand…Ken’s leg. It wasn’t pretty (unless I was lucky enough to splash on the prosthetic one.) The percolator was ideal. And vintage!

In all the ways life can give you unpleasant surprises, she can be just as good at delivering sweet ones. I made a new friend last year. Someone who camps. And when we found out that the other camped, we threw around the idea of getting out of town for a long weekend to do so. So, we did just that a few of weekends ago.

It was exciting to gather the camping gear and prep it for actual use! I hadn’t disturbed most of it which was last lovingly packed away by Ken’s hand after our trip to Ojai. It was a litmus test of sorts. I wondered if I would be opening a not-yet-healed wound. Though always nostalgic to see things and touch things he touched, I was mostly excited and impressed by all the things he’d thought of (toilet paper, aluminum foil, salt and pepper and on and on). He took great pleasure in being prepared and in taking care of us. And even now, he still made my first foray back into camping easier. He’s still taking care of me.

Sure, it took a little more time to set up the tent and required another person (thanks, José!) to actually make it happen, but, hey, it had been more than a decade since it had been unfurled (except the week before camping when I freaked and tried to set it up in my living room…unsuccessfully…due to space constraints.) But it was in perfect condition and felt as cozy as it ever did. Although the last time I slept in it, there was no such thing as an iPad and streaming Netflix to lull me to sleep. (I really know how to rough it!)

I wondered if this camping trip would be difficult. It’s easy for me to fall down Ken-laden rabbit holes when doing things so closely associated with him. I wondered if it would be sad. Or hurt. Or make me miss him all the more. Fact is, all those things happened. And happen regularly. You can’t share what we did and not long for it…forever. But, those feelings don’t hijack and derail me much anymore.

This trip was fun. And exhausting. (I can’t remember the last time I spent any time whatsoever on a bicycle.) But mostly fun, and it served as a confidence-building reminder about the healing effects of time. And how far I’ve come. No doubt, Ken is always with me. In my mind and heart and memory. He still weighs in on important decisions I contemplate. He still surprises me when I blurt out something he would have said or stumble across a photograph I’d forgotten about. He’s with me in ways I can’t even articulate.

For me, this was another iconic camping trip. And certainly not my last.

 

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