When does the non-essential become essential and vice versa, OR how I spent five days in San Francisco and only took 8 pictures

I was sitting in a diner on Haight Street, right by the famed intersection of Haight and Ashbury, and I slurped chicken noodle soup while some friends and I talked shop about publishing and children's literature. We hadn't seen each other in months, but when we sat together to eat and chat it was as if we'd never been apart. And in a way, we never had been apart, thanks to Facebook and Twitter and message boards and the like. This is the beauty of social media – you can live half a country away from friends and still know everything about their day-to-day lives.

Except… this isn't really true. You know everything they're willing to share. They know everything you're willing to share. So you keep in contact, and you laugh together, you cry together, everything is better than Cats, but you still miss out on essential things. Like facial expressions. Arm squeezes. Hugs. Body language. Embarrassed glances. True guffaws.

You and your friends (and "friends") are familiar with every intimate detail of each others' lives (or the shared intimate details), but the true intimacies are lost. It's strange how, these days, knowing what someone has had for dinner or what pithy statement their child has come up with has become the essential knowledge needed to propagate a friendship.  Maybe the one line movie reviews and the onslaught of smiley faces actually are the intimacies now – they actually are the essential connections – that create the peristalsis a relationship needs to stay alive and moving forward through infinite intersections of wires and tubes and technological webbing.

On some days – the days when you feel particularly isolated or glum – those dopamine hits you get from making people "like" you over and over again, they can be lifesavers. Suddenly, the non-essential information, the shared cat gifs, the rant about the grocery store, these things become essential. And not just essential to keeping the momentum of a friendship in full (or even medium or low) gear, but essential in knowing that you're not alone in a wild and wicked world.

Living in a world where no one is physically present and yet everyone is omnipresent is strangely isolating and strangely liberating all in one heartbeat.

When I was walking through San Francisco last week I was struck by the humanity of the city. It sounds ridiculous to say that out loud, but being surrounded by teeming masses when you've spent days and weeks and months mostly isolated — it can be shocking. And it's not like I've been locked in a dark basement or chained to a kitchen radiator. I do manage to get out of the house here and there. I see friends around town. But everything is 90% routine. There is no getting lost in the center of the city. There is no navigating public transportation for the first time. There is no four-mile trek through the center of town to get to a bar on a Tuesday night. My trekking is usually of the Star variety, or the treadmill variety. Being let loose in a big city I've never been to before opened my eyes in a variety of ways.

The faces I saw were not profile pictures clearly crafted to look attractive, or to send a message, or to be funny, or to show off. They were pink-cheeked and windblown and starry-eyed and angry and dirty and leering and confused and focused. The conversations I overheard weren't tips on cooking a good pot roast or advice on how to get a toddler to sleep, they were bits and pieces of dialogue, "Oh you do not even want me to say what…." "He just think I'm this…." "The meeting was pushed back to…."

I was so busy watching the humanity around me, I forgot to tell humanity that I was there. My presence in real life created a void online. I rarely remembered to "check-in" anywhere. I completely forgot to take pictures when I was with friends. I'd post a little update of what I was up to, and then forget to check to see what my friends had to say about it. I guess my dopamine receptors were full of cityscapes and fresh air and mint tea and human interaction and so that constant quest for online interaction was dulled. Or maybe, at the end of every day, I was just too tired from moving and talking to sit in front of a screen.

Over five days I saw how what I had seen as essential parts of my day – getting on Facebook, tooling around Twitter, lurking on message boards, were maybe not as essential as I thought. I don't remember the name of the diner my friends and I ate at, because I didn't carve it into social media stone. And yet I vividly remember the conversation we had – even though I wrote none of it down.

The conflict I feel, though, is that without the daily perusal of social media I wouldn't have felt so close to the friends I was able to hang out with, not just that day at the diner, but other friends I saw, too… friends I hadn't been in physical contact with for over a decade. I wouldn't have even been able to make plans with some of them, because our only contact is through social media. My relationships with friends I've known for years, and with friends I've known for decades are both deeper and more nuanced because of the details we know about each other's lives. And we wouldn't know this detail without our constant contact. Non-essential information has become essential. And, arguably, essential information (the feel of someone's arms around you, the warmth of a borrowed coat) is often non-essential to the maintenance of a relationship.

It's a conflict, isn't it? And what to do about the friends I have who live in my own town, who I "see" everyday online, but who I hardly ever see in real life? Is it better that we're able to keep in contact like this, or is this contact keeping us from feeling the compulsion to see each other face-to-pink-cheeked-face? When does the essential/non-essential pendulum shift? How can I talk to you everyday and still miss you so much?

I don't think any of these questions are new. I know I'm not the first one to raise them. But this internal conversation was a big takeaway for me, after spending a week catching up with old friends, and, really, catching up with myself.

When was the last time you plunked yourself down in the middle of a strange new city and had to navigate your way through? I'd say it was transformative, but if I'm truly honest I have to admit that even being plunked down in the middle of the city, everything was informed by social media and technology. I might not have thought to "check-in" everywhere and take a ton of pictures, but I went on the trip laden with restaurant suggestions from friends. I was led to and fro by a magical map held in my hand. I could text people at any time to keep in constant contact. So it's not like I was really, truly on my own.

But in times like these? Compared to my usual technology tether? It really was like being dropped into the center of a strange and compelling universe. I was liberated even as I disappeared from the freedom of the ubiquitous and infinite feed.

That, I think, is something to contemplate.

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Full Circle

For the past few years, my friend Jote has encouraged people to take the month of December and find something to be grateful for every single day. I'm never very good at keeping up, and I'm sure that I won't be good at keeping up this year, either. But today… today is sunny and quiet. Today I have three healthy children who are all at school with friends they love. Today I have a glass of iced cold brew (with some Hershey's special dark chocolate blended in). Today I have excellent music playing loud and clear through the whole house. Today I have the morning to enjoy all of these things while I work on my newest book that's under contract.

I'm ridiculously grateful for these things. Almost unspeakably grateful. Breathtakingly grateful.

And yet… there's more.

This book that I'm working on – agonizing over, really – is about a boy who has a baby brother with a trach. A few days ago I got the first part of the advance for this book. It went directly into the bank. I stared at the statement. It's not a ton of money. Not even a half a ton. But compared to a few years ago, it's a megaton. Compared to the years when the baby with a trach was in my living room and not in my book, it's a bit of a miracle. And even more miraculous, I don't have to immediately take the money out of the bank to pay a doctor or to pay for medical supplies or to pay for travel expenses to see our Team of Superhero Doctors. I don't have to count every penny of it to make sure groceries and the mortgage are covered. Our Lone Star card is gone now. WIC is in our rear view mirror. Charitable Care programs no longer mean "programs to keep the Haiku of the Day family afloat."

So this morning – this beautiful December morning – I took some of that money and I made a donation to the hospital where my son had life-saving airway reconstruction surgery. Then I made a donation to the local PICU that saved his life – with some extra funds designated for the NICU that kept him breathing for his first 8 weeks. And I'm going to continue our monthly donation to the milk bank that, through its charitable care program, provided life-saving donor milk for nearly 18 months.  

The idea of coming full circle has always seemed like an abstract ideal, until now. For many years, things were good. For many more years, things were not good. For the past couple of years, things have been on the upswing again. I'm grateful for all of these experiences. I'm grateful for the perspective and the pain and this stunningly wonderful and awful ability to truly understand what it's like to be swallowed by emotion. I'm grateful to be able to give back, even if it's not a lot, and even if it doesn't feel like I could ever give enough to truly say thank-you. I'm grateful that an abstract ideal now has a concrete definition. 

Full circle. 

Here we are.

It feels like it's not enough to be grateful. But I am. For everything.

For everything.

coming undone

It's 8o degrees today in Austin, TX.

In December.

I just spent two hours laying in my backyard, soaking up the sun, and cursing the zero lot lines because I really wanted to rip my clothes off and just… dissolve into the warmth. Sanity (weakness?) prevailed and I kept my clothes on. And then I started to get hungry. And then I realized that I'd spent two hours laying in the yard and not writing. Though I was reading poetry, so that almost sort of counts as working. It was research. It was for inspiration. Both of those things. See? Working.

Laying in the yard, talking to ladybugs (I left that part out, but yeah, it happened), reading poetry – Jesus, crying over poetry. I know. God, I know. Have you seen the movie Frances Ha? I am undatable. So undatable. (Which is good, because I'm married, but if you see the movie you'll know what I mean.) I am a mess. I am coming undone. But maybe in a good way?

It was a lovely morning. Even hearing the neighbor clipping his toenails didn't distract from my good mood. And knowing that it's going to be freezing and gross by the end of the week made me enjoy it all even more (minus the toenail clipping, of course).

I guess there's not really a point to this blog post, other than the fact that it's been over a month since I posted anything. Don't fret. I'm still politically outraged about a whole slew of things, and I'm still constantly overwhelmed and bested by my children. I still make terrible dinners and burn holes in my shirt by leaning too close to the cookie sheets (not because I'm baking cookies but because I realize it's 6 pm and the children are starting to actually eat each other so I better heat up a frozen pizza, stat). I'm still being thwarted by my manuscript that is too hard to write and too sad and creates so many feelings that I literally lose my breath while I write. I'm still constantly ruining clothes by being unable to eat olive oil or salsa like a normally functioning person. I still can't figure out why there's that smell in my pantry, and I'm still too lazy to drag everything out of it to investigate.

I'm still everything.

But today it's 80 degrees and I'm wearing my olive oil stained capris because I'm too embarrassed to wear running capris in public, and I'm still sniffling over the poetry I read in the yard, and I stopped writing this for a minute so I could dance to the song Dressed in Dresden. All of these things are happening, which feels like a LOT. Except, it's really nothing. But then the nothingness of it makes it feel like something pretty great. What? I don't even know anymore.

Maybe I have to have days of laying in the yard and crying over poetry because I spent so many years not being able to do that. Maybe this is like some kind of 37-year-old lady rumspringa.

Or maybe this is how everyone feels when you get an 80 degree day in December?

I don't know. But I like coming undone… at least for today.