Waving farewell to familiarity

Daily Prompt: What’s the biggest risk you’d like to take — but haven’t been able to? What would have to happen to make you comfortable taking it?

It’s interesting that this question was posed today, as the answer has actually been on my mind since yesterday when a college acquaintance announced via Facebook that he and his family are relocating from a major Midwestern city to small-town Charlottesville, Virginia, where we attended college a decade ago. When questioned as to what prompted such a life-changing decision, his response really struck a chord: “Mostly quality of life considerations around short commutes, good schools, low cost of living, and warmer weather. It was an easy decision once [my wife] and I decided we would rather maximize time with [our baby daughter] than maximize our income.”

For the very same reasons as stated so eloquently above, I, too, hope one day to pack up my family and head for greener pastures — that is to say, outside of New York.

First, let me make one thing clear: you won’t currently find my house listed on any local real estate web sites. My husband and I have cobbled together a good life for ourselves on Long Island and are not at the point where we’re ready to ride off into the sunset. Our families are here, most of our closest friends are here, and we’re both employed in our chosen fields by well-established companies nearby (mine a whopping four miles from my house, making for an amazing daily commute).

But being fortunate enough to have lived in a different state for several of my most formative years, I — unlike many people who were born and raised anywhere within the New York metropolitan area — am of the firm belief that there is life outside of New York. Life with significantly lower housing costs and property taxes, significantly fewer traffic jams, significantly more open space, and significantly better weather.

I’ve also outgrown my love for New York City, which used to be my go-to explanation as to why Long Island was so great — it offered both accessibility to the city and an escape from it. While I’ll still hop a train into the city once in awhile to meet up with a friend or take in a show, my westward trips have dwindled over the past several years as I’ve come more and more to loathe the traffic, the crowds, and the incredible expense of doing pretty much anything in Manhattan. What this means is that I now inhabit the overpopulated, overpriced suburb of a city I don’t care all that much about.

So, if it some point the stars align and the right situation presents itself, I would be open to stepping firmly outside of my comfort zone and relocating to a different state with a slower pace of life. My husband and I have already had conversations about this and are on the same page, so it’s mostly a matter of seeing how life plays out in the coming years.

In the meantime, I’m trying to kick the habit of watching House Hunters on HGTV and seething with jealousy over what $250,000 will get you outside of New York…

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Party of two

Daily Prompt: Plan the ultimate celebration for the person you’re closest to, and tell us about it. Where is it? Who’s there? What’s served? What happens?

Growing up, I loved to plan parties. Birthday parties, backyard pool parties, even a big high school graduation party at a fancy catering hall — I planned them all. From carefully selecting the guest list and mailing out the invitations (this was pre-email/Evite/Facebook, mind you) to hitting Party City a day or two before the bash to pick out the perfect decorations, I relished the entire process.

That was then. These days, I find party planning more stressful than exciting, and I tend not to enjoy hosting much either. I think it’s mostly because I put an incredible amount of pressure on myself to make everything perfect and end up spending the entire party worrying that people aren’t having a good time. (Or, in the case of one particularly rowdy backyard barbecue a couple of summers ago, worrying that my elderly, set-in-his-ways neighbor was going to call the cops.)

Luckily for me, I married someone who feels the same way about parties as I do. As a result, we prefer to celebrate milestone events by partaking in activities that we enjoy as a couple and that don’t involve too many other people.

Case in point: for my husband’s 30th birthday, I took him to New Orleans. I’d been there several times and felt that he would enjoy the experience, and he was completely on board with the idea. We spent four days consuming incredible food (New Orleans is a dream destination for anyone who loves to eat), imbibing cocktails we’d never even heard of, exploring every nook and cranny of the city’s oddly charming architecture, and generally basking in the completely anti-Manhattan vibe. Oh, and then there was the champagne and platter of strawberries I had delivered at our hotel room at 8AM on his actual birthday. (Nothing like taking your morning shower half-drunk!) Despite the searing late-August heat, I would call it one of the best trips we’ve ever taken, and I think he would agree.

In my mind, that is the ultimate celebration: just the two of us, exploring a new and fascinating place. No RSVPs required.

new orleans

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My “in the zone” activities

readingDaily Prompt: Tell us about your favorite way to get lost in a simple activity — running, chopping vegetables, folding laundry, whatever. What’s it like when you’re “in the zone”?

One of the upsides and downsides to being an introvert is that I am constantly lost inside of my own head. Externally I might appear as peaceful as a placid lake, but at any given moment it’s more likely that my inner thoughts resemble an ocean — constantly in motion, churning and crashing and dredging up hidden treasure (or debris) at unpredictable moments.

I consider this a positive trait in that it makes me a very thoughtful person with keen observational abilities. At the same time, I often find it extremely difficult to “shut off” — to enter that coveted space where, however briefly, my brain stops analyzing and finally just relaxes. This “zone” that people always refer to is somewhat of an elusive concept for me, because even when I’m involved in an activity that could be considered simple or mundane, I usually still end up thinking about some aspect of my own life (or someone else’s).

Elusive, but not unattainable. I can think of two activities capable of lifting me out of my own head:

  • Reading. I love to read. I’ve loved it since I was old enough to pick up a book and realize that the scribbles on the page told some sort of story. If I find the right book (generally contemporary or historical fiction), I can escape myself for hours at a time, instead occupying my mind with the words and images and feelings that the author evokes. This is not to say that every book I read puts me in the “zone” — many are simply momentary distractions. But every once in awhile, that special book comes along and transports me far, far away, and I love every minute of it. (Incidentally, I recently finished just such a book: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. Incredible and highly recommended.)
  • Driving. I’m not talking about my quick jaunts to work in the morning or the hours stuck in the rush-hour nightmare that is the New York metropolitan area. No, the drives capable of putting me in the “zone” are the long-distance ones where the roads are wide open and the scenery whizzes by. If the driving conditions are optimal, my thoughts will slow, I’ll get lost in the music blaring from my stereo (because there is always music blaring when I drive), and dozens of miles will pass without my even being aware of them — or myself.

What about you? What are your own personal  “in the zone” activities? Am I the only one who sometimes finds myself considering my purpose in life or planning out my future while watering the plants or scrubbing the bathroom floor?

Photo courtesy of lina menazzi

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What’s in a name?

Daily Prompt: Write about your first name. Are you named after someone or something? Are there any stories or associations attached to it? If you had the choice, would you rename yourself?

My first name is Marisa. Quick quiz: how do you pronounce that? If you’re like 95% of the population, you most likely assumed that it’s pronounced the same way as Marissa and that my parents were just feeling a bit creative while filling out my birth certificate.

You’d be wrong. My name is actually Ma-ree-sa, but I don’t expect anyone to get it right on the first try. After all, Marissa is a fairly common name here in the US, but how often do you meet a Ma-ree-sa outside of Italy?

As a child, the common appearance but uncommon pronunciation of my name served as a source of some annoyance, forcing me to correct countless teachers working their way down countless attendance lists (to no avail in some cases where the teacher just couldn’t wrap his or her mind around that pesky long vowel). Eventually I stopped caring so much and began to see my name as a quiet way to distinguish myself from the crowd, but that process of acceptance definitely took some time.

That’s not all. There’s something else special about my name as well: the uniqueness that stems from its lack of uniqueness.

I know, I know. What?

You’re likely familiar with the tradition of naming a son after his father to create a “Junior” (or “Third,” or “Seventeenth,” or whatever it may be). But if you’re an American, you probably don’t know of too many daughters who are named after their mothers. Well, now you do! My mother’s name is also Marisa, and she in turn was named after a distant and (I believe) long-dead relative. So I am at least the third Marisa in my family, and until I got married and took my husband’s last name in 2009, my mother and I looked like the same person on paper. However, it’s important to note that I was never technically a “Junior” because my middle name is different from my mother’s.

These days, I see no reason to want to change my name. I personally feel that my pronunciation is more elegant than the double “S,” and I don’t mind being named after my mother because she is a wonderful person. However, should I one day have a daughter, I don’t plan to carry on my mother’s tradition. I would like my daughter to start life with her own can’t-be-traced-to-anyone-else identifier. Besides, I think two living Marisas in one family is plenty! :)

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Electric viola dreams

violaDaily Prompt: Tell us about something you would attempt if you were guaranteed not to fail (and tell us why you haven’t tried it yet).

Weeks before I was to enter third grade, my parents received a letter from my new intermediate school informing them that I would be required to take a weekly music class. I could choose to sing in the chorus or take up an instrument. Perusing the list of acceptable instruments, I formed a quick and inexplicable attachment to the idea of the viola.

“Why not the violin?” everyone asked me when I proudly showed off my half-size rented viola. “Everyone’s heard of the violin. Wait, what is a viola, anyway?”

I think it was exactly that air of mystery — that almost universal unfamiliarity — that drew me to the instrument. I didn’t want to be like everyone else and start my musical education on a violin. The viola was bigger, with a deeper and (in my opinion, anyway) much richer sound. Sure, when it came to orchestra arrangements we almost always played second fiddle (ha) to our smaller and shriller cousin, but we violas provided a musical backbone for the rest of the orchestra. Or at least that’s what my music teacher kept telling us.

The viola and I ended up getting along surprisingly well, and I continued with the instrument for a full decade. I started weekly private lessons in addition to my school lessons, my parents bought me a “real” instrument and I eventually joined about 87 different extracurricular orchestras. I found making music to be both satisfying and fun.

But so were other things, and as I advanced through high school my attention began to be drawn elsewhere — to the school newspaper, my paying jobs, my boyfriend. I stopped practicing nearly as much as my private teacher would have liked, and although I continued to participate in music-related activities, it became pretty clear that I wasn’t going to make a career of the viola. After graduating high school, I flirted briefly with the idea of continuing to play in college, but once I settled in Virginia I reached the conclusion that I was burned out from music. Over the next several years my viola case was tucked away under a series of beds and, although I would take it out and “noodle around” from time to time, I never again played it seriously.

Today, although I don’t regret not trying to go further with my playing (I can’t imagine having chosen a career path that doesn’t primarily involve writing), I still think back fondly to my time as a viola player and appreciate the incredible talent of those who have managed to make it their livelihood. I’m especially in awe of any player who has taken strides to make string music “cool” by playing the electric viola, which I think is one of the coolest things on the planet.

All of this is to say that if I were guaranteed not to fail, I would love to learn the electric viola and play as part of a rock band. I wouldn’t need to become famous — the band could consist of a bunch of grizzled 65-year-olds playing cover songs in a dive bar for all I care. All that matters is that I would be good enough to feel like a true musician and “wow” a few people in the process.

Of course, a few factors are keeping this particular fantasy at bay. One, I don’t think I have the drive to come home from a full day of work and practice the long, long hours it would require to whip me back into any sort of musical shape, especially since playing rock music on an electric instrument would require starting pretty much from scratch. Two, while I was a pretty decent player at my peak, I was never good enough to be able to improvise musically, which I believe is a pretty major part of playing in a band. And three, I’m not a big fan of putting myself out there publicly and I think I would require whole lot of Xanax to get me through every performance.

But a girl can still dream. As was inscribed by fellow alto clefs all over my high school yearbooks, violas rock!

Photo courtesy of ccho

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I want to know what love is…

Daily Post: We each have many types of love relationships — parents, children, spouses, friends. And they’re not always with people; you may love an animal, or a place. Is there a single idea or definition that runs through all the varieties of “love”?

The easiest way to answer this question would be to copy and paste a dictionary definition of love and leave it at that.

love [luhv]
1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.

Tack on “or place, or thing” and it sounds like Dictionary.com came up with a pretty solid, all-encompassing definition. But I’d argue that there’s more to it than that, and that there’s a better way to describe what love really means — whether it’s love for your husband of 35 years, your grandmother, or the goldfish you won at a carnival.

Try this on for size: Love is the deep, soul-enriching connection between two entities that continues to exist despite imperfections, differences in perspective and the stressors of life.

After all, love is easy when everything looks rosy — when there’s nothing to fight about with your spouse, when your child is perfectly behaved, when the town you’ve grown up in has the lowest taxes in the nation combined with the highest high school graduation rate. (Does such a mythical place exist?) But it’s when the going gets tough that love shows its true colors. Do you still feel that same affection — that same magnetic pull — toward someone or something when things aren’t perfect? For example:

  • …when you and your significant other are going through a rough patch due to [insert difficult life situation here: sick parent, financial issues, new baby, infertility, etc.]?
  • …when your “adorable” cat or dog scars your brand-new leather chair with deep gouges visible from 10 feet away?
  • …when the college you’d always felt was your perfect school suddenly makes a completely boneheaded decision that propels it into the national news for months? (Ahem…not that this one is based on personal experience or anything…)
  • …when the stress piles up at your job to the point where you begin to daydream of standing on top of your desk and repeatedly bellowing George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words through a megaphone?

If your honest answer to questions like these is yes, then I’d argue that your love is the real deal.

Romantic, passionate love is great. But it’s not everything. It’s how you feel and behave in the face of the everyday grit — and shit — of life that truly speaks volumes.

As I’m feeling rather musical tonight, I’ll leave you with this:

You’re welcome.

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My take on digital-age communication

Daily Prompt: How do you communicate differently online than in person, if at all? How do you communicate emotion and intent in a purely written medium?

For someone like me, the advent of electronic communication has proven nothing short of a miracle.

Being someone who tends to spend a lot of time inside my own head, I don’t always find it easy to untangle and translate the multitude of thoughts floating through my mind into spoken words — at least not in “real time.” Sometimes I need a few seconds or even longer to consider how I’m really feeling and the best possible way to express these feelings out loud. While I’m perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation, my built-in time delay means I’m not always the wittiest conversational partner, or the most active participant in an in-person brainstorming session.

Enter the Internet. I received my first modem and a subscription to America Online as an eighth-grade graduation present and quickly fell in love with the whole concept of Internet communication. On the computer my social insecurities fell away; I could use my flair for language to become whoever and whatever I wanted. I made online “friends” in other states and forged closer connections with actual people who went to my high school, including one guy who would eventually become my long-term boyfriend. I started an online ‘zine that gained several thousand subscribers and was responsible for landing me more than one writing gig for national publications.

Nearly two decades after dialing in to AOL for the first time (oh, my God), my love for all things online really hasn’t faded. In fact, it’s now grown to include texting and a select few forms of social media. Why? Simply put, as a general rule I’m better at expressing myself in writing than verbally. Online communication gives me the physical and mental space I need to share my views as effectively as possible. It allows me to spend a little longer considering what I truly want to say, without being concerned that my valuable ideas are going to get lost somewhere on the arduous journey between my brain and my tongue.

Of course, I realize that not every exchange can — or should — be had online. No matter how many eloquent words I might be able to slip into an email, text or Facebook post, my writing can’t always take the place of a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart discussion. I try my best not to let these digital filters get in the way of real human connections — but it sure is nice to know that on those days when my lips just can’t seem to form the right words, my keyboard is right there, waiting to pick up the slack.

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A shower a day keeps the cobwebs away

showerDaily Post: Describe a little thing — one of the things you love that define your world but is often overlooked.

For me, when it comes time to slip from the warm embrace of my bed and face the day anew, there’s really only thing that can ease the jarring transition from blissful slumber to total alertness — and it’s not coffee. (Although coffee doesn’t hurt.)

Regardless of what else I may do in the morning (feed the cats, check Facebook, stare blankly into space), my day hasn’t started — hasn’t really started — until I take my shower.

Standing underneath that exquisitely relentless stream of hot water, I banish both the physical grime and mental cobwebs of the previous day, and I feel reset — as though whatever negative thoughts and emotions may have marred yesterday’s landscape have been obliterated, and my mind is newly clear. Maybe that’s why I (and millions of others, apparently) tend to do much of my best thinking in the shower.

Not to mention my unfortunate hair, which tends to become even more unfortunate after a night plastered to my pillow. Without my daily shampoo and subsequent blowdry, facing the public (especially on a workday) becomes a somewhat daunting prospect.

My morning shower is so ingrained in my routine that I often have little or no recollection of taking it once I’m out and wrapped in a towel. In that sense, I guess it could be considered an aspect of my life that’s both overlooked and taken for granted. However, on those rare mornings when I choose or am forced not to shower before leaving the house, I generally feel out of sorts for the remainder of the day. Dirty body and hair, tired eyes, fuzzy mind — just not right at all. So it would not be at all hyperbolic to call my morning shower a little thing with huge significance in my world.

So for all of you who shower at night to save time in the morning, I salute your efficiency — but I also don’t understand how you function the next day!

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The worst form of torture

Daily Post: Do you feel uncomfortable when you see someone else being embarrassed? What’s most likely to make you squirm?

To put it bluntly, I’d rather lock myself in a room and listen to Kenny G’s version of “My Favorite Things” at top volume on repeat for three days straight than be forced to witness someone else’s embarrassment.

OK, perhaps that’s a bit drastic given that it only takes about three notes of any Kenny G song to throw me into a homicidal rage. Regardless, I’m wired with a strong empathetic streak — one that tends to come roaring to the surface whenever I watch a cringe-worthy situation unfold. Whether the person in question does something to embarrass himself or is unexpectedly embarrassed by the actions of a third party, you’re most likely to find me blushing on his behalf, averting my gaze and trying to pretend I haven’t noticed whatever is happening — even though I am most decidedly noticing every single horribly awkward second of it.

It’s the strangest thing. I could hate someone with every ounce of my being — to the point where I’d take pleasure imagining him flubbing the most important speech of his career or discovering he forgot to wear pants on a long-anticipated first date — but if one of these embarrassing events were to occur in front of me, it’s almost guaranteed that my initial reaction would be one of pity rather than glee. The same goes for any of those reality shows where “talented performers” often make idiots of themselves on stage. I watched the first season of American Idol religiously while in college (shut up), and whenever it became clear to me that one of the singers was doing a horrible job, I had to resist the urge to change the channel until they were done so that I wouldn’t have to bear further witness to their failure. This would happen even if I believed that a particular singer was awful and should never have made it on to the show in the first place.

I’m assuming all of this is a result of my overactive imagination, which often prompts me to think (too?) carefully about how others are probably feeling in a particular situation. It’s also frighteningly good at inserting me into situations I’m not actually a part of, compelling me to picture myself in another person’s shoes. My empathy sure makes me a great listener, but it also forces me to squirm in discomfort more often than most people realize. I’d call it both a blessing and a curse.

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Double trouble

clonesDaily Prompt: If you could clone yourself, how would you split up your responsibilities?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my first instinct in responding to this question was to say that I’d create one clone of myself to go to work daily and at least one more to take care of all housework and other tedium, freeing up an abundance of time for the real me to do whatever the hell I’d like at any hour of the day or night.

But then I started thinking.

Sure, it would be amazing to sleep in every day (since I happen to be one of those people who has never outgrown the need for a lot of sleep), read as many books as I can get my grubby little hands on, and travel whenever the desire might strike. But I know myself. After a certain amount of time not learning anything new at my job, not contributing to my own savings account, not doing anything to improve my own house or yard, and generally not contributing to the betterment of my surroundings or society, I’m pretty sure I would start to feel unfulfilled. Slothlike. A shell of a human being. Personally, I feel that I solidify my standing as a productive member of society and therefore grow as a human being by carrying out all of those day-to-day tasks that aren’t necessarily fun but that signify my own ability to do something. For example, getting through the day at work means that I’ve succeeded at using my knowledge and talents to earn a certain amount of money. Emptying the litter box means that I’ve succeeded at taking care of (furry, adorable) dependents.

So here’s what I’d propose. I would not assign set responsibilities to each of my clones, thereby permanently robbing myself of the opportunity to learn and grow from those experiences. Instead, I’d reevaluate my needs on a daily basis. Generally I would go to work myself, but if on a particular morning I happened to wake up with a horrible headache or a pressing desire to spend the day sipping wine on the deck, I would have one of my clones attend work for me on that day only. If I found myself with five errands to run and only two hours in which to get them all done, I’d send a clone to run two of the errands while I completed the other three. Oh, and while I would continue to be relatively social, if there were a particularly odious event I felt obligated to attend (bridal shower on the first warm spring Sunday, Tupperware party any day of the week), you’d better believe my clone would go in my place.

See where I’m going with this? I would certainly take advantage of the additional help, but I’d also do everything in my power to prevent laziness, complacency and rootlessness from redefining who I was as a person. After all, we build our character by accumulating all kinds of experiences — not just the ones that involve lying on a beach in Tahiti!

Photo courtesy of Scoobymoo

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