Our Stories

Hannah’s artwork done during Covid-19 lockdown, summer 2020

I don’t post much on Facebook anymore because my kids are almost 20 and their stories and pictures are theirs to share. I don’t have as many of my own stories these days and no one wants to know what I ate for breakfast. (Ok, I had eggs and avocado.)

It’s harder than I expected, this second year with them gone. The pandemic gave us six bonus months together. I wish we had made more of the time. We just existed together, trying not to get on each others’ nerves with little to do and nowhere to go.

They are back where they belong now. This morning I am playing Harry Styles’ Fine Line at full volume. I didn’t know this album was sad.

I miss them. Not sure why. All they did was tease me and sleep until 3 pm. Sure, they fill up a house with their laughter and singing and secret twin language —only now it’s TikTok references that Scott and I don’t get.

Empty Nesting is hard, not because two 18-year olds leave home at once. Yes, that’s hard but they should leave home. The whole world belongs to them now.

It’s hard because they also take with them the 3-year old who needed you to tie his shoes and the 8-year old who looked for you in the carpool line and the 15-year old who still called you Mommy. They are still in there somewhere.

I miss them all so much. They grow up and look forward. We grow old and look back. We go from being the protagonist in our life stories to the supporting character to the unseen narrator remembering all that was.

 

 

There’s no place like home: From empty nest to broken nest to quarantine.

For a homebody like me, this forced social distancing from Coronavirus feels equal parts bizarre and comforting. My people are home with me.

For us, staying home means finally going home as our unplanned renovation thankfully winds down enough to move back in after six months—just in time for the “Stay at Home” orders from our county. We will have no kitchen for awhile so that will be interesting. This is surreal for everyone. For us, it’s like we’ve become avatars moving through the levels of a video game where each challenge gets harder and comes faster

We dropped off our second freshman child at college in August at New York University and flew home to a massive slab leak inundating our floors.

Every parent knows the stressful months leading up to a first-time college drop off. We have twins—so there were two universities, two dorms to outfit, two kids to prepare, two goodbyes to brave. It was a summer whirlwind of logistics, planning and worry and then right when we thought we could exhale, the level of this game got much harder.

The Money Pit’s problems cascaded. New plumbing. New floors. New windows. New framing. New electrical. New drywall. Heck, we might as well update the bathrooms and kitchen while we have it torn apart.

It might have once been rewarding to remodel so extensively. But I am tired. I am spent. I just wanted to adjust to our new reality of an empty nest The nest is empty alright. Nothing in it but traces of asbestos sludge and construction dust.

You know that part in every horror movie just before the killer shows up and the music crescendos into a single sustained high-pitched note? That note has been playing for six months.

And then the Covid-19 pandemic showed up. Damn.

Those same eager college freshmen we dropped off six months ago have been sent home, upset, confused and scared. They are under our roof even if our roof is temporary accomodations with ugly rented Cort furniture. We are unexpectedly together again. But we are safe. Unmoored but healthy.

I’m grateful for that.

In a few days we will once again sleep in our own beds in our own rooms. We could all use the familiar cocoon that is home right now. Nothing about this pandemic could have been imagined six months ago. We try to hold onto what we know. Home. Each other. Family. Comfort food. Familiar TV shows and movies.

I feel so badly for all those college kids away on their first year and for the high school seniors on their last year. All the precious lasts that will not happen. The last prom. The last baseball season. The last birthday party with childhood school friends. The last yearbook. The last time together as a group at graduation.

How tenuous it all is. How little we control as life tosses us around throwing hurdles and calamities our way. Our house comes undone. Our plans come undone. We are all so vulnerable. I can come undone. I can break.

I’m all out of grit. I tell myself we’re lucky. No one is sick. No one is hurt. I miss my mother and father. My Dad, a doctor, would be calm and logical. My mom would make food and tell stories. I am my children’s mom. They need me to be calm and logical and cook and tell stories. They need me to reassure them.

I need my home.

March 25, 2020

Seeing God with the windows down and Mariah Carey on the car radio

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I’ll tell you my story about the time I saw God. But first, let me tell you about Women’s Night.

I have an extraordinary aunt, Tilde, my father’s sister. She and her great friend Dawn, who is as much a part of our family as any blood relative, used to host a dinner for the women of the family at Christmas every year.

Ours is a big family. There are easily more than 20 women just in the same town. They called the dinner Women’s Night.

Women’s Night was designed as a break from the frenzy of the holidays, without husbands or fathers or sons. The only purpose was to bond with one another and have fun, like a sleepover without the pillow fights or the sleeping and with way better food.

It was part therapy session and part holiday celebration. After dinner we would sit around a circle and they would invite us to share something about our lives and ourselves.

Usually we were given an assignment in advance. Each year the challenge was different. “Tell us about your happiest memory from childhood.” “What’s the bravest thing you ever did?” “What new thing did you learn about yourself this year?”

The walls we all build around ourselves and the secrets we keep, even from those closest to us, would dissolve on this one night each year. It was scary and hard. It was often hilarious. I don’t think I ever left a Women’s Night without having cried…a lot…and laughed even more. We connected in a way that is rare and beautiful, even magical.

It was their gift to us.

So back to that time I saw God. One year, at Women’s Night we were asked to recount a moment from any time in our lives when we felt the presence of God. (You know, nothing too heavy.)

For me, choosing the moment was easy. I remembered it because as it was happening, I actually thought, “God is here right now. He wants to play and laugh and make his presence known. And so he is.”

Here’s the story I recounted.

I had just picked up my twins from their last day of preschool before Christmas break. They were still high from the holiday party, the gift exchange and all the sweets when Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” came on the car radio.

“Turn it up mommy!” Hannah squealed. “Put the windows down mommy!” We had a habit of rolling down the windows and turning up the radio when a great song came on. It was our little bit of wildness.

Their school was located in the heart of our idyllic little downtown in Winter Park, Florida, a place so perfect it looks like it was conjured up from a dream.

With Mariah blaring and while stopped at a traffic light, Hannah yelled “Merry Christmas!” to a construction worker. He turned, smiled at her and shouted it back. And then another guy working alongside him did the same.

Squealing with delight, she shouted “Merry Christmas!” to an older lady walking her dog who looked up, waved and shouted back “Merry Christmas!” Peels of laughter rang out from the back seat.

“Hello there!” she yelled and waved to anyone within earshot. “Hello!” they responded, returning her bright smile.

I just want you for my own. More than you could ever know. Make my dreams come true…all I want for Christmas…

“Merry Christmas!” she shouted to a jogger and then to a guy riding a bike. Then to a group of men. Each one caught by surprise, turned to us, smiled and shouted back “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas Mr. Postman!” she yelled as we turned into our neighborhood. Jake just giggled and whooped, delighting in his sister’s uninhibited joy. There we were, our own Christmas carol, dashing through streets laughing all the way. It was magical. Spontaneous. Real. Wondrous.

Baby all I want for Christmas is you…

By the time we pulled onto our street, I had tears in my eyes.

I looked in the review mirror at the face of pure joy…my wonderful girl, who in that moment felt nothing but unabashed love for everything and everyone…with the wind blowing her hair…the music filling the car…connecting with complete strangers in sheer happiness for a single perfect moment and then another and another.

I remember thinking that God simply decided to dissolve the walls and the secrets…and fully show his face on that beautiful day through that beautiful girl.

Merry Christmas.

December 24, 2016

My Big Baby

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(My goofball making me “prom pose” with him.)

Almost every morning when I drop off my kids at school, my 16-year old son says, “Bye mom. I love you.”

Sometimes this big kid even says, “Bye mommy.” I don’t dare tell him how much I love it for fear he’ll get self conscious and stop.

When he was younger he’d call out to me from around the house with a nonsensical “mommy, my-my, moo-moo, meemee!” It made me laugh so of course, it was ceaseless. Boys are like that. If they get a girl to laugh…be ready for a repeat performance.

He still tries to get my attention with a booming rant of “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mama. Mom. Mommy. Mom. Mama. Mom” when I’m standing right in front of him.

When you decide to have a child, you of course imagine cute babies and adorable toddlers. You generally know that they grow up to become actual people. But here’s the thing. You should yearn to have a teenage son.

Teenage sons are just long, lanky toddlers with deep voices and body odor.

He’s affectionate in the same way he was as a little boy. But now it’s a text from school after a chemistry test or when he learns the Yankees will retire Derek Jeter’s number.

He sneaks up behind me while I’m cooking and lifts me off the ground or hugs me and tackles me onto the couch to tickle me.

When I’m anxious about something like his taking the car, he teases me (in an exaggerated Spanish accent for some reason.) “Jes mom, I’m going to get into an asseedent yust driving to eschool fife minutes awaay.”

A few days ago, he told me that a girl he took out on a date texted him that she just wants to be friends. “How does that make you feel?” I asked. “I’m cool. I don’t really care.” And he doesn’t.

He’s easygoing and naturally happy. But he will care someday. He will fall in love and all that affection and closeness will shift to her, as it should.

But for now he’s my guy. My big baby. And I will savor every single moment. I know it is fleeting and I don’t take a moment for granted.

Fidel’s ashes.

img_7273(My parents at Varadero Beach in Cuba in the 1940s, blissfully unaware of the upheaval just ahead.)

My parents were ordinary, middle class people. Not wealthy. Not part of any one percent.

Castro’s death opened wounds I didn’t even know were there. It left me with a wistfulness I share with maybe millions of others. We are the children of the revolution, either looking in from the outside…or looking out from the inside.

We inherited the betrayal of a whole generation. To us, Cuba lived in our parents’ stories. A mysterious, elegant beautiful dream that turned into a nightmare.

For exiles and maybe Cubans living on the island, Castro’s death was supposed to revive that dream somehow, liberate us, begin to restore something sacred that was stolen.

But of course it doesn’t. It can’t. Fidel’s ashes travel across the island in an orchestrated funeral march. But they also float across the Florida Straits, mingling with the dust of so many long abandoned dreams of “next year in Cuba.”

My mom died five years ago. My dad has dementia. I’m exactly the same age as the aging Cuban revolution.

In death as in life, it’s infuriating how many people praise Castro or excuse him. President Obama called him “controversial” as if there’s a way to see tens of thousands of deaths, dehumanizing poverty, stolen property, decimated cities, fractured families and fear as anything but tragic. Oh right, literacy is ostensibly at 98 percent.

American slavery lasted hundreds of years. But no one today thinks slavery had any redeeming qualities or calls it “controversial.” No one praises the free healthcare that slaves received or argues plantation owners “loved” their slaves.

Fidel Castro was really one of the world’s last 19th century-style slave owners. No ships needed. His plantation was an entire island.

It’s easy to imagine how fear, starvation, executions, indoctrination and relentless oppression can make anyone a compliant slave, one that mourns the death of his master.

My parents took the Underground Railroad of the day–a Pan Am flight out in 1959. But many others risked and lost their lives to escape in boats or makeshift rafts…and still do.

It’s why I can’t be a tourist there. It would be like going to a picnic on a Southern plantation in 1830 and marveling at all those happy workers in the fields. “Bless their hearts. Look! They’re singing!” I personally can’t do it.

If you want to go dance salsa and drink a mojito in Havana, go ahead. I can’t yet. Not while Cubans are forbidden to leave. Forbidden to speak out against the system or its leaders.

Not while Cubans are unable to own their own property, monitored everywhere, even in their homes. Unable to sell the products of their own making. Unable to read news from the outside world. Unable to buy milk or meat or toilet paper because it’s rationed, plentiful only for tourists.

Cuba’s economy in 1954 was roughly equal to Italy’s at that time. Today it is half of what it was more than 60 years ago. Think about the repression necessary to keep people that hungry and desperate for more than half a century.

If you go there, have fun. Take pictures of the decay and stagnation and of the Cuban people whose spirit is so difficult to extinguish. But please understand it remains a prison for people who deserve better and have no way out.

I thank my parents that I’m an American.

I thank America that I can share my anti-Trump opinions on Facebook without fear of getting arrested come January.

I thank God my greatest worries are as trivial as they are…as they seemed to be for my parents on that day long ago on Varadero Beach.

If you win by identity politics, you lose by identity politics.

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My brother in law defended his Trump vote in a series of texts to me explaining that white males are the only group it’s ok to hate and marginalize in our political discourse. He felt besieged politically, socially and economically. He also felt the need to remind me that the Best Man at his wedding to my sister was his gay black best friend.

I let that sink in for a few days.

I scanned my Facebook feed, reading about inconsolable young women, angry gays, frightened Muslims, defiant African Americans. A “million woman march” is being planned for the day after inauguration. I too posted my share of self righteous commentary on my Facebook wall.

That evening I tried to comfort my distraught daughter as she sobbed, “Pence believes in electroshock therapy for gay teenagers! How can anyone vote for him? How can anyone put their jobs or taxes above that?! Maybe they don’t hate gays, but they don’t care about gays!”

Her pain was real. But let me translate: “How can anyone put their self interest above my self interest?!”

First, I was struck by the misinformation of her claim. There is no credible news source that can pinpoint such an outrageous position by Pence. There’s a lot of faux news out there folks. Beware and be discerning. Critical thinking is hard work.

Secondly, the irony of her statement was entirely lost on her. One could easily hear my brother in law’s (more restrained) complaint, “the democrats’ definition of ‘inclusion’ doesn’t include me.”

We don’t have much governing done by leaders anymore; we have identity politics played at every level. Power is acquired and negotiated to groups and through groups. Be it democrat, republican, conservative, liberal, Hispanic, black, Muslim, evangelical, female, or LGBTQ…

You pick your box (or are born into it) and are expected to subscribe to the worldview in that box that some activist told you to believe. The only common ground might be a shared contempt for the one percent, assumed to be white corporate titans with summer homes in the Hamptons.

We need to change that. If this election teaches us anything it is that governing needs to be about policies that impact us all equally as human beings. There are very few truly competing interests and that’s where really good, rational debate can and should happen.

If you voted for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman, you can’t be angry if someone voted for Trump because he’s a man. If you voted for Hillary because you believe she would defend one type of religious expression then you can’t be angry that someone voted for Trump believing he’ll fight for a different religious doctrine.

Trump exploited identity politics in his win as much as Hillary did in her loss.

There’s a moral superiority in much of the angst about Hillary’s loss that really needs to be examined. Group narcissism may be much more dangerous and damaging to our nation than Donald Trump’s narcissism.

It’s not the Apocalypse.

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Ok, I’ve moved through the stages of grief. As a former Republican, I may have gotten to acceptance a bit faster. I was initially as devastated as anyone.

How did we make such a schmuck our president? Seriously.

But here’s the thing: After listening to a lot of analysis and people who voted for Trump, I believe (hear me out folks) that Trump voters are not all racist, homophobic woman-haters. Not even close.

The people I’ve listened to don’t care who you love or marry. Seventy percent of Americans don’t care. They don’t want to deport my Dad’s caregiver. They don’t hate Muslims. Most people don’t want to overturn Roe vs. Wade even if they are against abortion.

People who call this a “whitelash” are conveniently ignoring that whites elected Obama twice. Take that off the table already. It’s offensive. Obama holds a remarkable approval rating. Michelle is the most beloved First Lady in history.

Are there fringe wackos who voted for Trump like the KKK? Yep. Are there idiots who have taken the results as a license to attack minorities. Yep. But they are not who got him elected. The first thing we can do as a nation is denounce that–loudly and forcefully. I’ll march for that.

Let’s stop echoing a narrative of hate to make ourselves feel better about this loss or superior to anyone. It isn’t true. And not looking at the truth about our friends and neighbors is to stay in a place of ignorance and foster more anger.

It’s mostly about the economy. It’s about the very people who likely bought into Obama’s hope and change message and who are more hopeless and still stagnant after eight years.

It’s about rejecting the slick game of politics, where promises are made in public but favors are curried in secret, where minorities are often exploited for power.

It’s about saying, “Wait a minute, I repaid my student loans and I worked through college to pay my own tuition. You can too.”

It’s about getting government bureaucrats out of micromanaging our businesses and our healthcare. Be honest, didn’t Hillary come across like the world’s biggest micromanager? Trump, not so much.

His warts and ugliness are in plain sight. Hillary’s are smoothed over, edited (some might say deleted) to a point that feels phony, making us wonder if she’s phony.

But enough about why and how we got here.

The election is done. Let’s focus on more than just opposition. What do we want to achieve? How do we make each other safer? How do we bring prosperity back to where it’s been decimated? How do we rise up against racism and hatred and call it out everywhere we see it? How do we advance common goals?

How do we heal the wounds this vulgarian, who is now our president, caused? How do we make America great despite him.

It’s not the Apocalypse. It’s just the next day.

Living Leisurely vs. a Life of Leisure

Smell the roses.

So I’ve noticed lately how often I’m greeted with a slightly sarcastic “how’s retired life?” Sometimes people follow up the greeting with a reminder that they “actually work.”

It’s been more than six months since I stopped working and the slight condescension from others is starting to annoy me a little. Maybe I still seem an oddity, a novelty, to them.

It’s amazing how I’ve become so accustomed to my life now that those comments or questions throw me off a bit. “What? Oh, yeah, it’s great,” I reply, underplaying it a bit because, frankly, it’s FREAKIN’ AWESOME.

It is easy to confuse a life of leisure with living life more leisurely. I’m definitely doing the latter. A life of leisure conjures up images of sunbathing by a pool, shopping for expensive handbags, long lunches on Park Avenue after tennis at the club. That’s not what I’m doing.

But I am savoring almost every part of the day. Today, I woke up slowly, realizing I would have already been at my desk at that hour a year ago.

I drove my daughter to debate camp, listening and laughing with her gleeful anticipation of tonight’s Republican debates.

Later, I sipped my second cup of coffee and read the entire newspaper. Then I picked up the kids’ alterations and asked the seamstress about her own kids and grandkids.

I went to the grocery store for the second time this week right in the middle of the day. I took my time walking up and down the aisles. I chatted with the deli counter lady. I was in no hurry.

I let the ticked-off guy wearing scrubs cut in front of me in line at the U Break I Fix store. He was so grateful that he went from surly to charming in two seconds flat.

I’m heading to an appointment to have my roots colored soon. I have time to get cash first after my stylist texted me, stressed out, that her credit card machine is broken. No problem.

It occurs to me that none of these are things I could have done on a typical Thursday one year ago. I would have crammed the errands at the end of a long day, flustered and exhausted in this 98 degree summer heat. The grocery run would have been squeezed in late on a Sunday night. The hair appointment would have meant guiltily missing some family activity on a Saturday morning.

A paid sitter would have driven Hannah to school, listened to her stories and run the errands that I would have been too important and busy to do myself.

I have an old friend, a very successful attorney, who told me last week he broke up with his live-in girlfriend of more than 15 years because she didn’t work. He’s fairly wealthy, mind you. It just bugs him, he explained. She volunteers at animal rescues. She serves as a guardian ad litem for troubled kids. She’s beautiful and works out daily. She loves him. But he finds he doesn’t respect her if she isn’t gainfully employed. He thinks she’s uninteresting without a job to talk about or co-workers’ stories to share. He asked her to move out. If she gets a job, he told her, she can move back in. God, I hope she gets a job and never goes back.

I’m sure he thinks less of me now. But the thing is, I kind of think less of him. This same friend refused to have children with his first wife because she was short and he didn’t want to risk having short sons. She worked, by the way, but it didn’t stop him from cheating on her.

My mother never worked. She was also one of the most engaging and respected women I’ve ever known. She read voraciously. She commanded respect by how she carried herself, by what she said and how she loved and lived. She wasn’t meek or apologetic or boring. Ever. She would have thought my friend was missing the point of loving someone. If she was alive, she might have invited him to dinner and given him a good lecture about his own conduct as a partner.

Many of us are missing the point of life. Too many of us value leaning in at a conference table much more than leaning in to talk with the person on the other side of a deli counter. We admire status and power titles over the state of our own souls and measure others’ worth by their net worth.

We take vain pride in how busy we are and then buy books on “mindfulness” or how to “be present” in our own lives. It’s easy. Just. Slow. Down.

Reflections on the water

The perfect spot on the beach.
The perfect spot on the beach.

At fifteen I wrote a poem about the beach that hangs framed in my Dad’s bedroom.

This is the place I want to live. To run fast and free beside the sea. To be forever the best I can be.
And I would love for you to come with me.
To look at the heavens, dark and far, reflected in the water,
and count the stars…

It’s our first summer vacation getaway and we came to New Smyrna Beach. School just ended Friday and we loaded up the car. Surfboard? Check. Bathing suits? Check. Cooler? Check. Not much else needed. We rented a little townhouse that allows dogs. It looked great in pictures. But when we walked in, I actually gasped.

It’s spectacular. This is what people who love the beach and architecture imagine as the perfect beach retreat.

The deck alone is worth the rental fee. Big and deep, wrapping around the ocean-facing rear of the house, creating a secluded, romantic retreat nestled into the dunes.

Pictures can’t do it justice. Four adirondack chairs face the water with an enormous umbrella offering shade. Just behind them is another seating area with a big comfy sofa and more chairs. This is the place to hang out all day. There’s a gas grill and an outdoor shower surrounded by lush sea grape, pampas grass and wildflowers. Wildflowers!

Wow. Just wow.

Oh, and the interior is beautiful too. The walls and ceilings are covered in Pecky Cypress stained the color of driftwood. There’s a loft with two beds that H has claimed, laying out all her books. We’ve hardly seen her in three days.

All this and we were able to bring our two dogs, no questions asked. Life is sometimes perfect.

And then…not so perfect.

The raw intensity of the ocean where it meets the land can be serene…or ferocious.

On Sunday afternoon helicopters and rescue boats interrupted the bucolic scene searching for a 17-year-old boy who had been swimming with friends and then was suddenly gone. We watched them go up and down the beach looking for him. I thought about his mother. I prayed.

I sat on our beautiful deck with the late afternoon sunlight shimmering on the waves, watching rescue crews look for that boy underneath those waves for hours.

…This is the place I want to die.
To watch my soul take wings and fly.

I don’t remember the rest of the poem. His body washed up on shore this morning. For his mom, the world has stopped. Yet on this same beach, people are swimming. Kids are giggling. Surfers are running headlong into the waves.

I made my children breakfast and quietly gave thanks that it was not my tragedy. Not my son. I hugged him a long time until he squirmed free, laughing.

I set aside the horror of it all for a moment to try and renew my vow to savor every second of this day, this life, this beautiful spot on earth.

The virtue of doing nothing

Rainy Monday mornings: Nature's way of telling us to chill.
Rainy Monday mornings: Nature’s way of telling us to chill.

Laziness gets a bad rap. It’s a rainy Monday morning–the kind of morning everyone at work grumbles about and mutters they wish they could have stayed in bed. I can actually stay in bed. I love the unique darkness inside a house on a grey morning. It’s like the day itself is slow to wake…sleepy…lazy.

One thing I haven’t done since quitting work is spend a lazy day in bed. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been lazy, but only after getting dressed, making the kids’ breakfast, driving them to school, making the beds, starting a load of laundry. I pay some dues first before laying on the couch with my iPad to check out what’s new on One Kings Lane, or else the guilt gnaws at me. It sort of gnaws at me anyway. I don’t really enjoy it.

What will I say when people ask what I did today? I can’t say nothing. We are our stories. There are no stories to tell when you waste a day. Waste a day. That’s a terrible expression.

We feel a need to call our doing nothing something enlightening, like meditation…or educational, like retreat.

Why do we deny ourselves the bliss of doing absolutely nothing for its own sake, ideally in our pajamas, without needing to belittle it, explain it or earn it?

Have you ever watched a dog just lay around, finding the right cold spot on a marble floor or squishy pillow on a couch? They lay around with no qualms. There is no guilt, not even when you give them the evil eye for laying on the couch. They just stare back and stretch.

It is their natural state as much as it is to run or eat or work.

Did our prehistoric ancestors lay around on a beach or in a tree thinking, I should really be foraging for food or sharpening that spear? Probably.

But what if it’s just fine to do absolutely nothing at all? No planning. No problem solving. No working. No reading. No bill paying. No talking.

What if it’s great, in fact? What if much of the anxiety in our modern world, requiring so much medication, is just a natural response to the scarcity of laziness in our lives…and the unrelenting demand we place on ourselves to do more, achieve more, have more. With smart phones, we can’t even unplug from the office on weekends, at night or while on vacation.

I am going to practice doing nothing today without a shred of guilt. I am going to learn to unapologetically answer nothing when asked what I did today.

It isn’t depression. It’s just wonderful, blissful laziness…the glorious resting of our minds, bodies and souls. Try it.

It will do you good.