Spring Breakdown: Part 1

The girls are on spring break this week, and yesterday, while driving home from the Constitution Center in Philly, my friend Dave’s Facebook status made me laugh:

I can’t help but notice that my friends’ spring break photos are a lot heavier on museums, cultural spots, and family activities, and a lot lighter on body shots, beer funnels, and bad dancing than they used to be.  We must be growing up.

I have known Dave for 30 years, and while neither of us were ever shy with a beer funnel, I had to agree with his assessment.  However I told him not to fret, as baby bags now come equipped with insulated beers holders.  Bottles, shmottles.

In the last few months, when the stress of moving threatened to break us, Phil and I fantasized about going away for spring break.  But the reality is:

  1. We have no more money.
  2. Go “away?” Isn’t this away?  Where’s home?  Where are we?
  3. Where are our bathing suits?
  4. We have no more money.

So, instead Phil took a few days off for a mini-staycation. A staycation, of course, is a vacation taken at home.  Although I must admit I was wary about something that sounds like a good idea, but actually looks more like this:

Stay-ca-tion (n): 1. A chance to look around at the chaos that is your life and remember why you were fantasizing about an escape to a tropical island.  2. A reminder that your kids are not just quarrelsome holy terrors after school, they are actually like that all day. 

But, this Debbie Downer is pleased to report that a staycation was just we needed.

We have visited some old haunts in Philly, unpacked a box or two, and saw some friends. And for the first time since our return to PA, Phil and I have just hung out:  in our kitchen, drinking beers, taking turns being the deejay….we call this a Lifelab Session.

So during last night’s Session, we started talking about our most memorable spring break.  Interestingly, neither his pick nor mine was of the Bahamas-wet-tshirt-contest variety.  (Disclaimer: We are not saying that we were above trips that included Jello shots and pole dancing, but simply were not cool enough to consider it in the first place).

My first two years of college were rough.  I left for a semester, came back, changed majors, gained weight, lost weight, drank too much, changed majors again….I think the term for this is hot mess “finding yourself.”  Sophomore year I lived alone while all my former hall mates pledged sororities, which was conducive to “finding yourself” but was really, really lonely.

By junior year things turned around, and I started hanging out with a great group of friends that are still my b-fries to this day.  We all moved in together and it was awesome – one of the best years of my life.  But sometimes…I could get a little overwhelmed by the closeness.  I went from being a hermit to a pack member almost overnight, and I think my happy place was somewhere in between.

So when my grandmother (Nannie) called me and said, “I can give you money when I am dead, or I can give you money now, but if I give it to you now you have to use it to go visit Helen in London for spring break,” I said, “Now is good.”  Nannie was the bomb.

Helen is my best friend from childhood.  In high school, I probably spent more nights on her parents’ couch then I did in my own bed.  And while Helen is Taiwanese, she actually wanted to be British, and decided to spend her junior year at University of Michigan abroad.

Helen and I were so different, but I think that’s what made our friendship work.  She wore vintage clothes from flea markets, I wore hippy skirts from head shops.  She went to jazz clubs and punk rock shows, I went to outdoor music festivals.  But when I was with her, I always learned something new – about art or music or poetry – and this felt expansive.  Plus we laughed a lot and did a bunch of dumb things.

Helen Jess on couch-1

London with Helen was not about double-decker buses circling Big Ben.  London with Helen was art museums and hidden gem noodle houses serving huge portions for cheap.

london spring break jpegs-5

London with Helen was taking baths with water we boiled in the kitchen sink when our hair had finally become too dirty to tolerate.

london spring break jpegs-3

London with Helen was sitting on the curb outside her flat, chain smoking Parliaments and drinking forties of Stella out of a brown paper bag.

london spring break jpegs-2

And apparently, London with Helen was wearing REALLY RED LIPSTICK.

london spring break jpegs-4

London with Helen was exactly where I needed to be that spring break.

*Because all LifeLab Sessions center around good tunes, Phil and I each created a mini-playlist to recapture the essence of our favorite spring break adventure. Here are the tunes that remind me of that trip -and my life- circa 1998:

  1. Girls and Boys”/ Blur:  A perfect pre-game song.  Tequila shots required.  I mean, it can’t all be about museums – it was spring break, after all.  london spring break jpegs
  2. “Sometimes, Always”/ The Jesus and Mary Chain: I still love this song.  It’s so peppy.  It also reminds me of the Jesus and Mary Chain t-shirt I used to wear to torture my mother who probably thought I was in an anti-Catholic cult.
  3. “There She Goes”/ The La’s: This song reminds me of all my girl crushes.  Whatever, stop judging, you know you had one too.
  4. “Fake Plastic Trees”/ Radiohead:  Oh, Radiohead.  Is it really that bad?  A great song to listen to in your room in complete darkness and cry about how no one understands you, you will never fit in anywhere, wahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
  5. “Everyday is Like Sunday”/ Morrissey:  How can you make a London playlist without The Smiths/Morrissey? This song is the 3rd track on Morrissey’s debut album, and it makes me think of a rainy, hungover, “cave day.”  Although I heard it’s actually about a group of Australians waiting for nuclear devastation.  Which is way more depressing.

Do you have a favorite spring break?  What songs would play on that soundtrack?

Stay tuned tomorrow for Phil’s edition of Spring Breakdown: Part 2…








Ferris Bueller and Joe Bloggs: Daring Greatly Together

Phil and I were driving home from a doctor’s appointment yesterday when I saw the sign: “Bat Houses For Sale.”

I was intrigued. “Bats buy houses?  I thought they shacked up in haunted attics.”

Phil, always at the ready with an official sounding answer, said, “They need to seek refuge because they are deaf.”


“Bats are deaf.”

“Ummmm, I don’t think so Dr. Doolittle.  Pretty sure they are blind.  You know, blind as a bat?”

He laughed.  “Or dumb as a stump.”

I love these rare moments with a less-than-perfect Phil, because most of the time, he comes pretty damn close.  When we first started dating, his superstar resume almost scared me away: 4.0 student, captain of his high school football team, full engineering scholarship to Villanova.  Ok sure, that’s impressive, you say.  But is he a total nerd?  Nope.  He’s fun, charming, and 100% likable.  Think Ferris Bueller.

As I see it, the downside to this charmed existence is the pressure to be happy, dazzling and brilliant all the time. I, fortunately, do not have this problem.  I call it the Beauty of Being Average – no one expects too much.  You are not afraid to fail because the bar is set so low.  It’s like falling off a step stool vs. Phil’s 10 foot ladder.   I was an average student, an average musician, an average athlete.  Think Joe Bloggs.*

In high school, Phil was doing advanced calculus while I was smoking cigarettes outside the PathMark in East Hanover, NJ.  He ran football drills and led student council meetings.  I streaked my hair with Manic Panic while my friend Maureen pierced my ears with a safety pin. He was every parent’s dream and I was an ABC Afterschool Special.  At my college graduation from Villanova, my dad said, “Well Jess, I wasn’t sure you could pull this off. But what do you know, here we are!”  I’m pretty sure that’s French Canadian for “Congratulations.”

These childhood roles – Phil as Superstar and Jessie as Hot Mess – spilled over into the early years of our marriage, and we worked with a therapist to bring more equality into our relationship.  But certain situations trigger old behaviors.  My recent health issues, for example, have brought out the bossy control freak natural leader in Phil.  He feels it is his duty to help me, which is nice….if I ask for help.  But he tends to take over, acting as if he has everything under control – even though I know he doesn’t.  He feels frazzled and I feel like a burden.  This creates distance – the opposite of the intended effect.

I tried to talk to Phil about letting his guard down, but these conversations ended with both of us getting defensive.  I couldn’t figure out why until I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly:

We ask [men] to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it.  In these moments when real vulnerability happens to men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.  And men are very smart.  They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when  we’re thinking “C’mon!  Pull it together!  Man up!”

Holy crap. I thought.  Is that really true?  Do I really do that?  The answer, of course, is yes.  I am guilty of this double standard.  I want Phil to be sweet and sensitive when we are talking about “safe” topics.  But when we are discussing issues that make me feel squirmy and insecure – like money and medical bills – I want him to be in control.  Powerful.  Confident.  I want to feel safe at all costs, even if that means being lied to.

But it’s a trap.  Because deep down you know when someone is telling you what you want to hear.  Then you both retreat to opposite sides of the bed with all that bottled up emotion, and you don’t feel safe at all.  You feel alone.

I had to stop this cycle, and find a way to invite vulnerability into tough conversations.  But I needed a mental reminder – a tool to keep me from getting defensive or judgmental.  Like an electric fence.  Or ego taser.

Then, I found this little gem.


When I look at this face – the first face, not the spooky floating ghost-face- my heart softens.  Phil is allowed to have doubts and fears just like the little boy in the picture.  In many ways, he is still this kid who just wants to be seen and heard and loved.  The kid who wants someone to hold his face and say, “Hey. I’m here to help, it’s going to be ok,” when he forgets how to make a slip knot or whatever the hell you do in Cub Scouts.

However, my new approach hit a snag when I started shaming myself for shaming him.  What kind of heartless bitch crushes the spirit of an earnest little Cub Scout?  Who the hell do you think you are?

I am this person.


This little girl still exists, too.  Maybe she feels inadequate, not that smart, a little lost.   She needs someone to place a grounding hand on her shoulder and say, “You can do this.  You are capable of a lot more than you think.”

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown says:

Love is not something we give or get; it is something we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

A part of me cringes at this definition; the self love things always throws me for a loop.  My inner critic has been around for a long time, and that bitch loves a good cat fight.  So I will continue to arm myself with baby pictures.  Because you would never say:


“Get up and do something, you lazy slob!”



“What the hell are you wearing?”

Go find that shoebox of old photos and give it a try.  I dare you.

* Joe Bloggs: (n). Brit slang for an average or typical man.  Used by the Princeton Review SAT prep course for the average student prone to choosing the most obvious, dumbass answer.