Friday, May 29, 2009

Bronze Ambition

It begins with an unmanicured pointer finger. Pressing it firmly against the small triangle embossed on my stereo’s smooth, rectangular buttons, I am greeted by warm bossa nova melodies winding their way through my living room as they follow me into the bathroom. There on the counter beneath the vanity mirror, a bottle of Corona with a lime wedged in its neck just begins to sweat as the bright bulbs do their best impression of relentless sunshine. Welcome to my beach, my bronze ambition.

For years now, well alright – decades, really, I have been attempting to change my body through a strict self-tanning regimen.

My first encounter with sunless tanning cream happened in middle school during a time when I was desperate to break free from my geek status and join the world of teen popularity. It never happened, thanks in part to the quality of sunless tanning lotions in the early 1990s. The anticipation of my newly bronzed body as I worked the cream over each arm, leg and plane of skin made me dizzy with excitement. I went to bed anxious to wake up as the new and exotic me.

Morning came, and I ran to the full-length mirror in my bedroom the way a child charges the tree on Christmas. The reflection was devastating.

Slowly, I peeled the layers of clothing from my body to reveal a pattern of swirly, striped and splotchy skin in various hues of beige and orange. A kind of paisley inspired wandering of color covered just enough of my body to suggest that it was meant to be more consistent, but not enough to look as though I’d had any clue as to what I was doing. Despite exfoliating and careful application of the cream, I looked like a sepia girl in a Technicolor world.

Over time I perfected the sunless tanning technique, baring my sun-kissed limbs without the zebra-like stripes on the wrists, ankles and knees that plagued less seasoned “sunbathers.” For a while I could credit all of the muscle tone in my arms to the many times per week I applied self-tanning lotion, and the methodical massaging technique I came up with that ensured it was going on correctly.

While living abroad in Italy as an exchange student, I finally got a real suntan after vacationing in Sardinia for two weeks with my boyfriend and his family. We spent our days lounging on large rocks that jutted into the Mediterranean sea, a landscape so magnificent that I wasn’t sure who had the starring role: the emerald waves ebbing and flowing into the shoreline, or the rocky fjords that broke them up.

It was such a magical environment, that my skin miraculously responded favorably to the sun. For the first time in my life my body darkened into a rich bronze color contrasting with locks of dirty blond hair that soon transformed into platinum strands of gold. It was as if my “Fairy Bod Mother” had visited me. Suddenly I saw myself as an attractive woman. And I was in love, and I was speaking fluent Italian.

I had never before encountered the woman I was while standing before a mirror during those days and it was very hard to see her fade as my time in Sardinia, and then Italy came to an end. The next four years I was a student at Ithaca College, and then went on to live in New York City before ending up back here in Syracuse. At times, it seems that I’ve spent the last eight years looking for that version of me that was glowing from the inside out on the beaches of Sardinia. New York State weather and the romantic endeavors of my twenties did little to reinstate that glow as any attempts to surrender myself to the sun or men have left me badly burned.

It seems that with the first nice day of each summer, I somehow forget that I am fair and freckled and should really be putting SPF on to avoid damaging my skin. For whatever reason, I convince myself that it will be different this time – that laying on a towel all day in late May is a good idea and “sun protection factors” will only hamper the sun goddess within me that has been waiting patiently to emerge if only she could find a few rays of solar splendor.

How very wrong I always end up being. Solar splendor quickly changes to solar sizzle as the day comes to an end. With a bottle of aloe in hand, I do what I can to make things better.

Similarly, I do this very same thing with men. I meet one that is seemingly wonderful and commence to invest in him without worrying too much about the consequences. As the “chase” comes to an end, so too does our relationship. With a bottle of Chardonnay in hand, I do what I can to make things better.

It amazes me that I have proven to myself time and time again that I am not built to receive large quantities of sun and that using an SPF is in my best interest. I wonder if there is such a thing as a “Spinster Protection Factor” – something I could apply before first dates that would ensure my heart won’t get broken after the first few months of getting to know someone?

Luckily, we live in a world that has started to realize how terrible the sun can be for you and even the people who easily tan are starting to change their sun-worshipping ways. This makes it easier for us white folks to carry on with our pastiness as we take precautions to protect ourselves from the effects of too much sun. A tan might look good, but it’s not always the best thing for our overall well-being.

The same can be said about a husband, at least in my case.

These days I still visit my special bathroom beach, and though I’m not laying on a blanket of white sand with a tropical beverage in my hand, I still find it plenty relaxing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to care less about what people think about me and more about what I need to do to think positively of myself. I’ve been an athlete for nearly 15 years and it has made me appreciate my body in important ways. I no longer regard it as just a canvas that I need to paint and decorate to look good for the viewing pleasure of others – I see it as a means to an end. This body allows me to run, bike and swim – to feel myself persevere through pain, push past limits and get to know myself from the inside out in a powerful way. I know how my breathing sounds when I’m running a seven-minute mile, and I know how free I will feel if I continue running at that pace to push through moments where I thought I had to stop running or I would collapse. These things aren’t just significant to me as an athlete – they’re also good for me to know as a human living in a tough world. When I think of all this body has achieved in my life, it seems petty that I get upset with it for not tanning easily in the sun.

Now when I sip Coronas in my bathroom while applying self-tanning lotion, I use it as a time to relax with myself and honor my body for what I demand of it each day. I say hello to the beauty mark to the left of my knee, and drop by for a lengthy visit to my right trapezius muscle. I love the added bonus of finding myself a bit bronzed the next day, but I no longer do it because I feel that I have to in order to impress someone. I do it for me.

I do it because I look forward to that time spent with myself and feel proud that the process of self-tanning no longer means I’m trying to change who I am because I think I’m supposed to be a certain way. I do it because I like the woman that I have become and I don’t tell her so enough between workouts, family and career obligations. Sometimes I put too many walls up and I forget that she needs to hear it.

So here’s to a healthy glow – both inside and out. Bottoms up, walls down and bronze away!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Tribute to the Last 40,000 Miles

When we first met, I wasn’t sure it could ever work. She required so much more maintenance than I was used to, and she was much more hands on than I like to get on the first date. My father actually set us up and I didn’t have much choice but to get to know her, to listen and understand her needs and follow her lead. We spent a lot of time in my driveway those first few weeks, and she didn’t usually smell so great when we were done. Those were the first few miles on my 2000 Volkswagen Jetta.

She was a used car, with 60,000 miles on her and plenty of life left in her wheels. There was a nick here, a scratch there, but an impeccable stereo with good bass and space for six CDs at a time. That was all I needed to know.

A year and 40,000 miles into our relationship, she’d already seen me cry countless times. Draped over the steering wheel as the proverbial shoulder to cry on, I sobbed in the protective environs of my Jetta several times while working at a horrible little publishing company with more dysfunction than Dunder Mifflin. Soon after starting there as online editor, I would also splash the dash with (gross) tears of desperation as I tried to pull myself together after countless break-ups with my on-again/off-again personal trainer boyfriend. The Jetta would wait patiently while I moaned and snorted my way through a few minutes of concentrated angst, and then she’d rumble to life when I turned the key to go home. It was almost as if she were offering me her condolences as we moved along the road…

Now, now…Did you really want to hang around and pine for someone with a lava lamp and a week’s worth of dirty dishes piling up beside his water bed?” A few quick maneuvers from second to fifth gear told me I did not.

As in all of my relationships, there came a time when I started to lose some faith in the Jetta. She was always so good to me that I didn’t know how to react when she started to become a slow drain on my bank account. Her taillights went out frequently, and I started to think she enjoyed it when the same state trooper on Route 20 pulled us over time after time.

You realize that we spoke about this problem last week, right?” The cop asked as he peered into my car.

I always felt bad for him because I was usually pulled over late at night after coming back from my parents’ house where I spent the evening doing laundry after a long run in my old stomping grounds. As a result, I probably didn’t fit the profile of the usual suspects trolling the highways at 2:00AM with malfunctioning cars. With my laundry neatly stacked in the passenger seat, my wet hair back in a pony-tail, and NPR humming in the background, I peered over my dark framed glasses at the officer and promised him I’d have the lights checked out. Not too exciting, where cop stories are concerned.

Due to the ever-demanding maintenance the Jetta required, she earned herself the nickname Junka. Born from a blog I wrote about her in 2006 when she had just 110,000 miles on her (posted below), the nickname was a result of some ranting I felt the need to do after a series of repairs that cost me almost $1000. I once took an all-inclusive vacation to Aruba for that much money. It pained me to shell out the same amount to fix parts of my car that I’d never even see.

My relationship with the Junka wasn’t all bad, we did have many good times together. I’ve traveled to almost every triathlon I’ve ever competed in and every race I’ve ever run in that car. She’s kept my hands steady many a time as I nervously drove to each event, visualizing how it would go over and over again, anxious to know if I would be able to do as well as I’d hoped. And she was there to congratulate me with a soft seat after I crossed the finish lines, practically saying “I told you so” when I’d hang an age-group award medal from the rear-view mirror. She’s waited patiently in parking lots as I called everyone I knew to tell them how it went, while my sweat-soaked racing garments soiled her fabrics in the hot summer heat.

The Junka has taken quite a bit of abuse over the years. She’s suffered through hot coffee spills on her center console as I jerked the car to work in a hurried frenzy, and spilled barbecue sauce from late-night stops to Burger King when I needed a little snack after happy hours. She’s a potpourri of stray blonde hairs, old winter road salt, and caked off mud from running shoes that are tossed into the car without care. I seldom vacuum her or wash her out because the time and effort seemed stupid to spend on an “old car.” Though I did have her detailed once a couple of years ago when I realized that there was barbecue sauce in more places than I could reach with a toothbrush.

I’m amazed that the Junka has hung in there for so long after I wrote about her at 110,000 miles. Nearly 40,000 miles later, I’m actually sorry to see her go. In the last year she’s lost a muffler, developed an oil leak and seems to have developed “dashboard” Tourette’s syndrome, where the warning lights will randomly flicker on and off, and the needles in the gauges surge forward then back to normal with no rhyme or reason. Her key has broken in half so that I now carry around the remote end in one pocket, and the manual entry half in the other. When I lock her from the outside, she pushes out a homely, sickly honk akin to a goose with a sinus infection, perhaps.
Patches of rust flake from her sides like old skin from a bad sunburn.

As I prepare to part ways with the Junka, I reflect on all the time I spent at her wheel. We’ve come a long way, so much further than the 87,000 miles we actually drove together. We’ve been through three jobs, three boyfriends and one fiancĂ©. Ironically, just last night as I was tearing through the glove compartment to find the title to the car, I came across a piece of paper folded up – an email from my ex-fiance with directions to his place. It was the email I’d printed for the very first time I went to his house. Those directions once represented a beginning, found after almost three years in a car that was coming to an end. I couldn’t help but pause for a moment, letting myself dabble in sad.

I remind myself that when one door closes, another opens. I’ve started to come out of the long, dark funk I’ve been in since breaking my engagement. I see that life goes on, as it must. I know that not everything can last forever and sometimes you have to stop investing in something if it’s doing you more harm than good – like my engagement, like my car.

I wasn’t sure about getting a new car…dealing with another monthly payment, getting rid of something that’s become such a time capsule for my twenties…but I’m 30 now. I’ve made a lot of changes in my life in the past year, and I guess getting a new car was something that was bound to happen at some point.

I looked at lots of options – thinking that maybe I wanted an SUV – maybe the Tiguan? Or a Honda CRV? But what about something cheaper, like a Civic?

I ended up going with another Jetta, even after I was sure that I hated the 2009 model -- probably because I was convinced I ought to go with something different after so many years in the same car.

She’s a lot fancier than the Junka, and it will take a while for this new kid to develop the kind of character that the Junka had, but she is pretty spectacular and I look forward to a long relationship with her, too. Because the Jetta isn’t the kind of car you drive a couple of times and then kick to the curb. With the Jetta, you go steady. I’m looking forward to the next 87,000 miles of my life.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Volkswagen Junka

Here's a new tagline for the Jetta:

"The Jetta - For people who like to throw money into a black hole." How about this one: "Farfegbankrupten!"

True, my car and I have had a love/hate relationship from day one. I test drove it
with my father in the passenger seat nearly three years ago. The test drive will be forever memorialized as the time when I demonstrated to my father how poor my stick shift skills were.

About three miles from the dealership is a gravel parking lot where I was given
the simple exercise of moving the car forward just one inch at a time, so to show my father that I could take the car on the road and integrate with actual traffic (as opposed to flying down back roads where only a random squirrel would suffer the consequences of my rampant driving). I've never heard swear words combined in quite the same way as when my father braced himself on the passenger door and dashboard after a session of bucking about the parking lot in the Jetta that afternoon.

"Jesus Chr*st, Lisa. I don't have any confidence that you will ever be able to drive this car," he concluded.

Despite my apparently poor display (I was actually pretty good at this point - my
friend Danielle had taught me to drive standard months ago and worked with me in a much more "serious" condition), I ended up getting the car and the Jetta and I have had a fairly decent relationship over the years, save for past few months.

Jetta has been pissing me off. To start, her exterior lights have gone out one
after the other which has prompted many annoying pull-overs by the local police. Then her wiper got messed up, so that a long black strand of rubber would trail behind the rest of the blade every time I turned them on. For months my dashboard was lit up like Vegas - with every possible warning light turning on at random times for no reason. My personal favorite is the orange light shaped like an engine with a thunder bolt striking it. What exactly is that supposed to mean?

Is the car about to blow up? Am I going to be damned for driving 4,000 miles over my oil change number? It's very vague. I usually let that one go for a while before pulling into a garage to inquire. That's another thing about car troubles...

"Inquiring" about these troubles usually leads to a hefty swipe on the credit card. Turning off the orange light costs about $200 dollars. I can make it go away with a Sharpie for about 75 cents. YOU do the math.

Following all of this, I noticed my car starting to feel like a saucer sled on wet
roads. It was mid-July and I lost control of my car going 40 mph on a major highway with some drizzle on it as if I were on black ice in mid-March. Upon further examination, and after my father's plea to come outside and "look at the goddamn tires," I saw that the front wheels were all shiny with little silver threads. What's the remedy? An alignment and new tires - cha-ching!

Another favorite ailment that plagues my car, is the fun game of "power window hide and go seek." The game is really short. Driver attempts to lower window using "down" button, window decides to fall inside of door and screw you with a 20 minute drive to work in the rain, yeah! Oh yeah - and cha-ching!

Finally, my brakes decided to call in sick Monday morning. While pulling out of
the parking lot at my apartment, I missed mowing down the kids waiting for the school bus by about five inches when I discovered that Plan A) Brake for children, would be replaced with Plan B) Swerve to avoid hitting children. (And please note that this action has nothing to do with my prior blog, Kids Suck).

Not all of the Jetta's problems are from old age and quality German engineering.
I take some of the blame for things gone wrong, because I have been known to inflict pain on the car. Backing into a boat hitch twice inside of five minutes comes to mind. And after a fight with an ex boyfriend a year ago, I attempted a fast exit in reverse out of a steep and narrow driveway, which resulted in my careening through the lawn over a grassy knoll. I removed a large portion of the earth with something underneath my car (a big, plastic black part broke off that I've since relocated to the trunk for safekeeping), moonlighting my Jetta as a backhoe.

Ah yes, me and the Jetta and the love between us. She's got 110,000 miles on
her and things can only get better with time, right? Like a bottle of wine...the longer it's around, the more money it will cost you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Perhaps one of the biggest disadvantages to being single at an older age is the fact that you become so reliant on yourself, that you find it hard – and possibly even detrimental – to allow yourself to rely on anyone else. And conversely, allowing someone else to rely on you.

I was once obsessed with the idea of being in a committed relationship. I remember having a crush on a boy named Waylon as far back as Kindergarten and asking him ridiculous questions at lunch.

“If I were about to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, would you try to save me?” I’d ask.

I don’t remember what his response was, but it seemed to me that at some point I decided a man was supposed to save me in some way if he really liked me. Maybe I never learned how to rely on a guy for much of anything because Waylon decided it was fine if I went over the falls in a barrel.

Things didn’t get much better as I made my way through elementary school. In an effort to woo my crush in the fifth grade, I borrowed a pair of my older cousin’s tap shoes from her dance class. Though they were much too big for me, I wore them over a thick pair of socks and click-clacked my way past his desk en route to the pencil sharpener, pausing dramatically to see if he’d noticed me when I got there. He did not, but my teacher seemed to take issue with tap shoes in the classroom and I was asked not to wear them again.

By middle school I was well into my three-year phase of sporting a bowl cut – something my mother plagued me with for as long as she could before I started to take more interest in my appearance. Many of the girls in my grade were starting to pair up with boys, declaring themselves as “girlfriends” and it became clear to those of us without boyfriends that we were huge dorks. The bowl cut didn’t help, nor did the fact that other girls were starting to get boobs while I began to enjoy the nickname “Flatware” from boys who teased me – and not because they were flirting with me.

In high school I realized that the serious relationship was not something that would happen to me any time soon, and set out to find other ways to become noticed in lieu of being romantically linked to someone who was “cool” or “popular.”

Eventually, I would graduate from high school with a reputation for being a good singer, a humorous girl, and a strong track runner. Though during my senior year I finally got to kiss the boy who sat near the pencil sharpener in the fifth grade, we never became more than friends and I left high school still lacking the experience of a committed relationship. What’s more, the guy that I was probably closest to through most of high school eventually came out of the closet and declared he was gay. Thus, the man issues continued.

As an exchange student the very next year, I finally found love in Italy with a boy, who like me, had never been romantically involved with anyone before. I came to enjoy the idea of being someone’s girlfriend, though I have to admit that experiencing these things with Northern Italy as the back-drop may have set the bar a little high for the rest of my life.

Case in point, my Italian boyfriend and I broke up after I came back to the United States and dating in college proved to be an utter disappointment in comparison. It didn’t help that the very next boyfriend I had was a self-indulgent baseball player from Boca Raton who whisked me away to the Bahamas for a weekend after which his girlfriend from another school found out and made him introduce her to me. I became painfully aware of what a broken heart felt like.

During the rest of my college years I would go through an assortment of awful dating experiences, including another emotional interlude with pencil-sharpener boy from high school, a grown man who still used the word “mommy,” and a boyfriend who I was seconds away from kissing for the first time before we were in a horrific car accident that resulted in several injuries and the death of someone in the car. I graduated college in pretty much the same condition that I’d graduated high school. A well-rounded woman in many areas, save for the long-term relationship.

Through four years of high school and four years in college, I had girlfriends who were always somehow “officially” attached to men. I’ve been marinating in conversations of love, anniversaries and commitment for more than a decade now and only in my late twenties did I finally come to peace with the fact that I was just not having those same experiences. It used to bother me a great deal because I felt that I was missing out on something, that I wasn’t able to truly be a grown up without that strong bond to a man. I had some more serious relationships with a few guys after college, but they proved to be their usual dysfunctional experiences in the end (one guy was reading my journals and hacking into my email, another was a pot-smoking verbally abusive loser, and the other was an alcoholic from West Point who used the word “ain’t” in every sentence. I could go on about him, but it would exceed the PG rating I try to maintain for this blog).

My past has taught me that being in a relationship isn’t always the key to finding stability. While my friends seemed to have thrived and grown as women while in their relationships, I actually was at my best when I was NOT in a relationship. This gave me time to indulge in all sorts of soul-searching activity, the least of which was running and training for triathlon – both things that made me feel strong, empowered and worthwhile. I had an identity: Maybe I wasn’t anyone’s girlfriend, but I was an athlete. I was focused on making myself into the best ME I could be.

Since I could never rely on any of the guys I was involved with for much else than a guaranteed argument and the occasional dinner date, I started to regard men as extraneous entities in my life. They were like chew toys for a dog – if one was hurled my way, it might have piqued my curiosity to play with it for a while, but I’d eventually get bored and move on. If another dog came along to chew on the toy I may have convinced myself I needed it back again, but I always got over it.

When I was engaged I felt that I’d finally found a path away from dysfunction because my fiancĂ© was everything that my previous boyfriends were not – he was polite, responsible, professional, and respectful. I finally felt like I was with someone that I could rely on – someone I even started to rely on, until it became apparent that there were some hurdles in our relationship that we couldn’t get over. Tempting as it was to ignore those hurdles and continue on with the bliss of being a bride-to-be, I am not trained to stay in a relationship for stability’s sake and I had to end it. I’ve never had a rock, but I’ve always had myself.

I realize that I have had to be my own rock, and maybe that’s not always a great thing.

The allure of going through with my wedding and living happily ever after was hard to walk away from. It felt like a diss to the girl that has cried herself to sleep so many times since grade school when nobody would come to find me during the slow songs at school dances, when I went to the prom with a friend instead of my crush, when holidays came around year after year and my friends shared stories of their significant others’ gifts and family get-togethers and travel plans. Each time I wondered when it would be my turn, and then it was…and then it wasn’t anymore.

While some women find comfort in their families – their husbands and children – I still turn to the tried and true miles that wait for heavy shoes to find them as I move silently over the terrain to find my rock. Running brings an inner peace that slowly makes its way through my core, diluting my worries with a simple, “Shh…” as I feel myself unwind from within, relaxing to the realization that I can access this kind of stability any time I want to, and it doesn’t require anyone but me.

I’ve started dating someone new and the relationship has been moving into more serious territory, the kind where we should “be there” for each other.

It’s come to my attention, that I might have work to do in that area. It’s not that I’m selfish and don’t think of what someone's needs might be, it’s that my relationship experience has never required me to be someone’s rock.

I’ve never been in a relationship with someone where we are both willing to share our inner most thoughts and feelings, and have conversations that require each person to really try and authentically understand what the other person is saying.

I’m not sure if this is part of being someone’s rock, and them becoming yours, but it’s the first time that I’ve ever been able to discuss raw emotional feelings with someone with such ease – and I need that in order to trust someone enough to ever rely on them. The absence of this ability in my engagement is what caused me to end it and move on. I don’t feel that two people can be truly connected if they withhold some part of themselves from the other – no matter what that part is, or how painful it may be to share it. I think of it like the Carfax services…how are you to know how a vehicle will run and the maintenance it may require to be at its best if you don’t know its history and what you’re dealing with? What may seem like a minor detail in the car’s history may come back later to cause engine failure and then nobody is going anywhere. But if you’d known about it sooner, things could have been done to prevent that from happening.

It has been more than a year since my wedding date was postponed, and nine months since the engagement was officially broken. It has seemed like a long and impossible road to travel and many of my closest relationships were tested during that time. Some of them didn’t survive and it has made me even more aware of how much I’ve come to rely on myself for stability in this world.

I know I have to learn to let go a little bit, and trust that there is someone in the world that wants to be there for me who believes I am equipped to be there for them. My relationships won’t always feel as one-sided and dysfunctional as they have in the past, and while it’s good that I can be my own rock, I don’t think I need to continue fighting the opportunities to experience what a truly healthy relationship could be like. I never thought of being there for myself as a bad thing, until I realized that it just might be getting in the way of letting someone else be there for me too.