Hello Soft Pants, My Old Friend

I was late to the soft pants party.

I’m mostly referring to athleisure wear, something invented by manufacturers to upsell their left-over stretchy fabrics. It’s a combination of workout clothes and loungewear doing neither of those jobs. You can also think about athleisure wear as an updated version of your Grandmother’s tracksuit: comfortable enough to have on for a walk around The Everglades Evergreen Retirement home with the gals while also being presentable enough to wear to Jolly Roger’s 3pm early bird dinner. The athleisure wear universe is populated with things like yoga pants and stylish hoodies and sweatpants. Wait, sorry GAP, I mean JOGGERS, which I have never seen anyone wearing while jogging for exercise or to evade law enforcement.

The pandemic was like that freaky gremlin creature that John Lithgow thinks he sees on the wing of the plane in The Twilight Zone movie. It ripped out the wiring of our daily routines and chased us out of offices and clubs and bars and bowling alley into our homes. We ate out of stress and anxiety and boredom. Some people burrowed under and stopped exercising. Most of us experienced some kind of depression, despair, or trauma and grief fatigue (or all of that combined) that the thought of fishing around in your closet for shoes to pair with a skirt that no one was going to see on your Zoom anyway was paralyzingly absurd. Enter soft pants. Stylish, comfortable, versatile—soft pants were the grab-n-go of clothing, the “of course I’ll have fries with that” of fashion. It was no assembly required wardrobe. I was cautiously optimistic.

I do not have a good relationship with fashion. It has never said “I love you first” or at all; it cheats, it lies, spends all my money, and constantly wants me to change. Worst of all, fashion knows I’ll inevitably text back. Such a jerk.

It’s been this way for as long as I can remember—me making earnest efforts to exhibit some kind of fashion awareness only to fall spectacularly short every time. From age 6 to 11, I was a polyester fever dream of pants with saggy waistbands. The closest thing I came to “designer” tops were shirts stamped with shiny, sticky cartoon characters on them like Care Bears, Smurfs, Muppets, which would crack and flake a little bit with each washing, in a distressing way, not in a “hip, distressed” way. I often wore thrift store clothes. In 1983, consignment shops were dirty secrets, wracks of shame, a mine field of cotton and denim items once worn by your classmates in higher income brackets. They were not the repositories of cool they are now where you can have your pick of which Halston dress you want to “ironically” wear to your friend’s baby shower.  

The tween and early teen years issued in a clothes-that-match frenzy. That period was extremely short lived because that takes EFFORT and MONEY (see Appendix A: thrift store and read for context). Fortunately this overlapped with the arrival of stirrup pants. For any young person reading this, I will save you the effort of screaming at Alexa “what are stirrup pants?” and then having to explain to your parents why you just paid $300 for some kind of equestrian equipment.

Now we call them leggings. But in 1989 they had loops that fit over the bottom of your feet and were made for girls with the bodies of Ukrainian gymnasts, not “real girls with real curves,” which was pretty much all of us. The look was thus: shove the cinnamon rolls of your pubescent body into the stretchy-ish stirrup pants that are now pulled so taut camel toe is a foregone conclusion. Pair with sweater (extra points if it contains some kind of loudly clashing color patterns that look like an Andy Warhol crime scene) that is also long enough to double as a dress. Try not to openly weep when you make it through most of the day feeling confident and “stylish” until lunchtime when a giant, greasy meatball from your hot lunch sub falls out and splatters sauce squarely across the doughy midsection you were trying so desperately to conceal with your loud finger-color painting sweater. Repeat several days a week.

The remainder has been a full-throttled embrace of denim, flannel, oversized sweaters, along with the anxiety-inducing piece of formal-wear thrown in for a baptism or conference or intervention. Every so often I’d spend time with someone incredibly fashion conscious I’d get some on me. I’d be so envious of how put together they were—Steph’s cute purse not only matches her dress, but it isn’t even a laundry bag with old Girl Scout badges sewn on it. Gee! I’d admire how easy they made it look that I would vow to get my shit together and find a style that wasn’t Mennonite Aunt Judith. I sounded a lot like someone “finally getting serious” about that masters or swearing to “never, ever, EVER drink peach schnapps again, like, for real EVER you guys.” Of course in two weeks (or less) when the fabric-high wore off and the weather changed, which meant making all kinds of new decisions about what to wear—I can’t pull off this trendy merino wool cape in July? What?—I’d be right back in the threadbare flannel and the denim not shredded by design.

One day I was doomscrolling through images of peoples’ sourdough starters and protest signs and noticed ad after ad for delicious, luxurious, promised-to-be-flattering-on-all-body-types, relaxed-fit soft pants. Some were part of the athleisure wear trend. Others were clearly trying to be corporate/professional friendly as evidenced by the beautiful, breezy model in her charcoal grey soft pants and black heels. See how she happily strides SOMEWHERE that definitely isn’t to her basement office or that bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned in a month! Look at her carrying that leather tote. Soft pants keep her looking and feeling great as she lives her best pandemic life! I felt the old sensation take hold, the warmth of possibility flood through me as sure as it did when I was fifteen wandering through a forest of taffeta and sequins picturing myself in one of those dresses going to the spring dance with the cute boy whom I already loved 4EVA. I clicked and clicked and clicked.

A few days later they arrived. High waisted, flowy and soft, perfect with sneakers and a cozy hoodie or ballet flats and that chunky, cable-knit sweater. Yes, they whispered to me, you could be relaxed, casually sexy even (!); don’t you want to be like the woman in the ad, dressed in these pants, ready to take on the world instead of crying in the shower every morning? How could I say no?

Comfort: 10/10. Mostly because they seemed less like actual pants and more like a pair of Afghan Hounds grafted to my legs. They were billowy, loose-fitting, and exquisitely soft as promised, but the pants did not complement my body. They enshrouded it, which I suppose could be taken as the other kind of compliment, albeit a back-handed one. Then again, that wouldn’t exactly be out of character for fashion because, as I said before: jerkface supreme. They did not make me feel confident or empowered or energized or successful. They made me extremely nervous going down stairs because of the way the swingy cuffs pooled around and nearly underneath my feet. I could not imagine having a grocery store “meet cute” in these things unless it involved the sentence, “I think my son is hiding underneath your pantleg.” I couldn’t believe I fell for it again. I believed the classic advertising and fashion lie that the fantasy of who you want to be—the cooler, prettier, happier, BETTER IN EVERY WAY you–exists on the other side of this handbag or that outfit. This seems to be a lesson we relish not learning. Why else would we make the same misjudgments over and over again like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s cursed football?

Still, I wore them. I had the delusional idea that they might somehow “become” more fashionable on me the more time I spent in them. I was doing the opposite of dressing for the job I wanted. I was trying to make the dress do the job I wanted. I schlubbed around the house in them. They looked and felt and fell on my body the same if I had on a sweatshirt or sweater, if I wore sneakers or slippers, if I had gained or lost. The fashion of surrender. They accepted me completely, just as I was, even without the tote.

The Charmin Drops at Midnight

We made it through the worst of the pandemic without getting sick and without exhausting our stockpile of toilet paper. It sounds trite, but it feels like a pretty big accomplishment—the toilet paper win, not the part about minding science and not putting everyone at risk like a selfish moron.

In the early weeks of the pandemic toilet paper shortage was savage. I live in a house with one other human who is also a grown-up. Walking into a “Tyler used our last three remaining roles to flood the toilet and now we are absolutely going to have to move” situation was never in question. I thought I’d remain calm and level-headed while the hunt for bath tissue ignited as if it were a subplot in National Treasure. Reader: I did not.

Some mornings my study looked like one of those crime lab rooms: images of toilet paper brands tacked to the wall over maps of area grocery and big box stores, little arms of multi-colored pieces of yarn tagging the connections between product and location. The other grown-up would lean against the doorway, surveying the scene with a scribble of concerned lines etched into his forehead. I’d be hunched over my laptop muttering, “I just saw a tweet from TPRainKing99 with intel that a shipment of the sweet, sweet double-ply is en route to Hartford. If I left in an hour and diapered up….” And that’s when the other grown-up would carefully and quietly back away as if he had just come upon a grizzly mama with her cubs and delicate extraction was all that stood between him and catastrophe. The other grown-up is smart.

Irrational or not (what did I really think was going to happen? I’d have to break into my precious stash of Golden Girl-themed cocktail napkins?), the anxiety fever felt real. I know I ended up paying designer prices for a 12-pack of some brand I had never heard of—Organi-Sheets or Soft-n-Sweet or MegaWipe—simply because it would arrive within the week and not in time for the holidays as was the case with all the other familiar name brands (I will carry this grudge against Scott Tissue to my ever-lovin GRAVE). I know I wasn’t the only one. Judge if you must, but those were scary times. The only people who had remotely prepared us for such scenarios were Stephen King, Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games fame, and Will Smith in I Am Legend. For a few weeks at least it felt like any and every scenario was in play: states could close their borders, the water supply could get compromised, energy grids could collapse. Anyone who has had the grim experience of watching a youth unable to access her technology for more than 15 minutes can testify that power loss is a very, very bad thing. Making sure the closet was snug with bath tissue was the smallest way to achieve some peace of mind and a modicum of control, both which went MIA the second quarantine mandates went into place.

There was another way to increase your supply to meet household demand (again, even if that household contained one other human grown-up who passionately believed that Timberlands “go” with dress pants and, so, was not exactly what you’d call discerning). But it made trying to kidnap the Pope seem like a breeze in comparison. You could try your luck in the newly formed wild, weird frontiers of the jungle that was the grocery store.  

Because I was relatively low risk I couldn’t justify jockeying for a precious Instacart or putting further stress on essential workers running around gathering orders for curbside deliveries. I would rise at dawn like a warrior (To be clear: If I were an actual warrior, I’d sleep in and get going with wrath and vengeance stuff at a sensible brunch-like hour. They would never see it coming). I’d roll up to the supermarket as the “golden hour” for seniors and at-risk people ended, and “once more unto the breach” I went.

In an effort to minimize my existential grocery store dread, I started making my list in relation to the layout of the store. This would shave off precious minutes where I’d have to be inside, silently freaking out behind my stuffy mask about all the things I’d be forced to touch and handle. It felt a little like I was pulling off a heist, except the rewards were escaping hospitalization and realizing that I had just spent $6.50 on a package of generic brand Oreos.

During one trip to the store in that first month of the pandemic, I was gliding up and down the newly adjusted one-way aisles as smoothly as an Olympic skater entering into the final combination of her program, when I came to the top of the paper product aisle and stopped. There it was. A thing of rare majesty, like Loch Ness, Big Foot, Yeti, and a unicorn all combined into one mythical creature: toilet paper. I blinked. Was I dreaming? Had I fallen into a wormhole somewhere in the pasta aisle and emerged in 2015? Was this a trap? As if in a trance, I started to roll my cart forward and stopped again.

A woman stood a few feet in front of me. In this brave new grocery world, I had to wait for her to clear a safe distance. No problem. Happy to play my part even if it meant ruining my personal best supermarket cannon ball run. My patience and goodwill slowly evaporated into volcanic rage as I watched her take her sweet-ass time inspecting the packages of bath tissue. She picked up an 8-pack, turned it this way and that (was it made from something other than liquified pulp substances?), and gave it a little squeeze. She held it another few seconds, considering it again as if it were one of those Magic 8-Balls: Will I have comfort on “the go” today Magic 8-Ball? Ask again later. She goosed it again. And then she did something which, to this day I believe should have been grounds for immediate citizen’s arrest. She put the damn package BACK ON THE SHELF.

Okay, this was not the Holy Grail of Charmin or Cottonelle, Tiffany, I get it, I do. But, what, YOU THINK YOU’RE TOO GOOD FOR TOILET PAPER SITTING OUT ON THE STORE SHELF LIKE A GIFT FROM GOD HERSELF? HOW DARE YOU, TIFFANY! WHAT KIND OF BEST PANDEMIC LIFE ARE YOU LIVING THAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO BE A DISCERNING SHOPPER AND NOT LIKE THE REST OF US FIGHTING OVER SINGLE-PLY LIKE A BUNCH OF GRIMY, FERAL ORPHANS IN A CHARLES DICKENS NOVEL?

I stood there for a good 15 seconds after she had wandered away down the aisle. Must be nice, Tiffany, I muttered enviously into my damp mask as I took my allotted one package of the glorious white stuff and tossed it onto the top of my disaster preparedness cart. It must be a good feeling to seamlessly graft your habits and attitudes from “the before times” onto the gaping void of “whatever this is” now.

I was not doing so well in that department. Basic things I thought were pretty solid—democracy, science—suddenly seemed fragile. I was scared for my friends and family and for people I had never met in New York and San Francisco and London and New Delhi. I was carrying a map in a language I couldn’t read and a compass with a busted dial. We were all building our lifeboats out of different materials. I guess, for some people, it was just as easy to continue on taking the small wins for granted or not seeing the wins at all, but I just couldn’t. And I’ve realized since then that I don’t want to. Sorry, not sorry Tiffany.

Paved Paradise

I pass by the parking lot a few times a week on my routine walks. It’s a small square of concrete that belongs to a 3-story apartment building. The building is unremarkable—a brown paper bag of brick with mid-sized bay windows facing a busy street that’s kind of a junk drawer of places: two-family houses, sketchy real estate offices, a hardware store from the 1950s, a laundromat that doubles as an art gallery (totally real), and, in my opinion, the crown jewel of the stretch: the Ace of Fades barber shop.

I can only imagine that the units inside the building echo the forgettable exterior: a lot of wall-to-wall beige carpet shampooed a thousand times, but not enough to chase away the dingy, baked-in dust hue; white appliances in galley kitchens with once-was-white linoleum and particle board cabinets; bedrooms just big enough to hold a king size and maybe a skinny table and lamp from IKEA, but nothing else (sorry Aunt Sally’s antique brass mirror, you will not be going through to the next round). I could have easily spent the rest of my life not noticing this place if it weren’t for the compact, granite memorial marker parked smartly in a neat bed of mulch at the edge of the lot.

Living in New England for as long as I have, which is my entire life, you become accustomed to encountering plaques, markers, memorials, etchings carved into the walls of moldering,  decidedly very haunted stone houses at any and all intervals around the region. It’s totally normal to be out walking your dog, head down a side street you’ve never been before, and run across a Colonial-looking house with a sign that says “Here lived Bratten James Willoby III who invented the horseshoe and fought off sixteen Redcoats in the fall of 1778 with nothing but an oil lamp and his Bible.” Who needs historical reenactors when it’s literally just outside your door?

And because I’m a history dork, I’m compelled to stop, or in some cases go completely out of my way, to read this or that marker or sign. I’m partly genuinely fascinated by lives lived centuries ago on that particular spot. I believe in mining the past to understand the present; to help us not lose too much sight of our common humanity; to see how far we’ve come; to chart a better way forward or die trying. I also take snobbish pleasure from knowing arcane, esoteric things that others don’t or, more accurately, wouldn’t because they have rich, interesting lives that involve summoning cars and throw pillows and designer drugs using Alexa-the-techno-genie. I am not fun at dinner parties.

So it was on the third or fourth time walking by that I noticed the granite slab out of the corner of my eye and stopped to check it out. Maybe the whole property was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Maybe it was a speakeasy during prohibition. Maybe a group of women lived here who worked in the Boston shipyards during World War II, but were actually spies smuggling messages and cured meats to aid our boys overseas. New England is one big history buffet. The neatly lettered engraving on the granite face read:

This parking area in memory of Stanley Dudek

25 years of dedicated service to the people of the Medford Hillside

Well. I had questions. Who are you Stanley Dudek? A very lazy, one-page Google search turned up nothing. I found out the Hillside is the name of the neighborhood, first developed in the 1870s. Unless Stan was a time traveler, he wasn’t around for the neighborhood’s inception. So what exactly was he doing in service of the “people of the Medford Hillside,” which also makes it sound slightly culty or, at the very least, secret society-ish (the money and power kind, not the blood oath type). But really what I couldn’t stop thinking about was: you apparently did some pretty wonderful, probably selfless, most definitely generous things for others and THEY DEDICATED A PARKING LOT TO YOU, STAN. A place to leave your car, maybe smoke a cigarette, enjoy the occasional beer-in-bag whilst leaning against said car, have that last fight with your boyfriend at 3 AM in the cold, heartless, icy apocalypse of a February morning. So, really, this is the shining tribute you could come up with for your great pal, Stan?

I’m not judging. But I am judging. Peoples’ dying wishes come in all shapes, sizes, and unusual objects. Hunter S. Thompson stipulated his ashes get mixed with firework powder so that BOOM POW went Hunter all over the place. A long-time Marvel Comic’s book editor asked for his remains to be filtered into ink used in one of the comic’s titles. A company called LifeGem offers to turn Mom, Dad, or Uncle Stevie into a beautiful (and completely, totally, absolutely, 100% cursed) diamond. All of it is weird, but seems to capture the spirit (no pun intended) of the deceased. Stan’s parking lot, though. Now that I just found bleak, a little too on the nose in terms of our utilitarian existence.

Unless, of course, this is really what Stan wanted–this granite stump nestled into a 5×6 piece of dirt and mulch declaring Stan’s dominion over a practical, unassuming parking lot. Maybe that’s who Stan was at his core: a regular Joe carving out a regular life, doing the best he could with what he had, and, along the way, trying to make life just a little bit better, a little bit easier, for his fellow Hillsiders. Most of us are probably very fortunate to be remembered at all—let alone in any flattering way, which is why you must designate someone to erase your browser history.

All the best myths and tales-of-old give us heroes wielding crappy second-hand swords, royalty dressed in rags, peasant girls who possess all the power. The extraordinary always hide in plain sight. Maybe it isn’t so far-fetched to think of Stan’s lot as reliable, familiar, and even welcoming in a world where those things and the people who share those qualities may be hard to come by. After all, one building’s parking lot may be someone else’s paved paradise.

Spring Fling

Spring is the horniest season, horticulturally speaking. One day it’s nothing but dirt the color of an ashtray left unattended at a casino slot machine and the next—shazam! Nature is all heavy-breathing and green tumescence. Tightly coiled buds pulse, eager for release like sweaty teens awkwardly pawing each other on the basement couch. No judgment. Spring is all about the freaky fling, horticulturally speaking.

The randiest seasonal offender is, without a doubt, the magnolia tree. Even before they bloom in earnest, they get you with this come hither move. Their buds look like fingers drawn up together as if rubbing something achingly fine between their tips. And when they bloom in full: shameless. Creamy pink, white, or yellow tea-cup sized blossoms audaciously unfurl themselves on the edge of branches, gleeful in their wanton arbor lust. I do believe they would make even Monsieur Toulous-Lautrec blush.   

I had never really experienced magnolias until I moved close to Boston. What in the world would a tree synonymous with southern belles and sprawling Mississippi estates be doing in the almost unseasonably cold Northeast? The short answer: science. Though originally acclimated to the southern states when they were brought to America in the 1780s, magnolias have spread and bred up the northeast corridor from Virginia to Maine. Then again, these saucy minxes are wired for resilience. They’ve been around for more than 90 million years (so, only slightly younger than Keith Richards). They existed before bees. Though we’re rapidly approaching an alarming moment when we might make that statement true again, it’s still mind-bending to think about. The trees we see today form a direct line to a world that included duck-billed dinosaurs and, of course, Keith Richards (just ringing every drop from that joke). That’s some serious staying power. Maybe we’ve done at least a small thing right by our weary earth.

In the early-1960s, a woman named Laura Dwight began a beautification project in her Back Bay Boston neighborhood. What began with planting a handful of magnolias around Dwight’s street grew into a large-scale effort to plant the trees throughout the Back Bay neighborhood. As a result, for a precious few weeks each spring, the magnolias drape themselves over the doorways of stately Boston brownstones. They caress the sides of buildings. They lure you underneath splayed canopies, your face upturned like a hopeful young thing waiting to feel their soft pink lips graze your cheek. At least that’s been my experience. The magnolias are the joyful riot and the sweet exhale of Mardi Gras. They seem to show up every year just when you need them most. Attention must be paid.

I recently learned about floriography: the language of flowers. A cryptology crafted from genus and species, a conversation conducted through petal shape and color and variety. “There’s rosemary,” wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet, “that’s for remembrance.” The enduring powers of folklore and myth given to us in stems and leaves and roots and fruits to help us say what we can’t easily say ourselves. This seems worth hanging onto, especially in the spring when the harsh edges of the world start to soften, when our own selves become more pliable and we feel capable of gentleness again, and we find ourselves stopping in front of a luxurious cascade of pink and white and yellow blossoms that seem to murmur. And we find ourselves listening.  

Not Reentry Ready

I’m not ready. Are you?

Apparently the pandemic is coming to a close. Only four episodes left before the 3-hour series finale with limited commercial interruptions sponsored by Progressive Insurance. Streaming live. Tweet about it with your friends.

Aside from the hours and weeks spent paralyzed by palpable dread and anxiety, that sure went by pretty fast! And here I am rotating my three pairs of soft pants (denim? Isn’t that the new Coldplay album?) and finally realizing my childhood dream of being able to sit on my hair. Is this all I have to show for myself? Split ends growing their own split ends and a slavish devotion to stretchy, breathable fabrics? It’s like, what have I been doing this entire time?  

All this talk of reopening malls and movie theatres and Chuck E. Cheeses has me in a bit of pit sweat because, honestly, I’m so behind. I haven’t started a podcast and my closets are full of the same junk they were in 2012. I haven’t used a funny or ironic or vaguely offensive Zoom background and now I fear I’ll never “accidently” click on something that turns me into a pig or chicken during my congressional hearing. I’m still buying my bread at the grocery store like it was 2018 and have barely made a dent in my toilet paper reserves. Slacker, thy name is me.

While we’re on the subject of abject failure: I didn’t write the next King Lear. I know. I KNOW! I had over a year of mostly uninterrupted time–it was practically a retreat, right? If that retreat was held in the scorched remains of a dystopian nightmare novel—to write a book or screenplay or opera (also set in the scorched remains of a dystopian nightmare novel), but have come up empty handed. I’m a flop, an embarrassment to creatives who are thinking, feeling humans and not cyborgs like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton and, I’m guessing, everyone at Apple (even a pandemic can’t slow the rollout of tech junk we don’t actually need). While there’s still some time left, maybe I can master watercolors or learn Farsi—you know, knock a few easy things off the list so I at least have something to talk about at all the cocktail parties I’ll feel obligated to attend.

That reminds me of something else that I’m not ready for: peopling. How do we say words in the right order toward other humans while also reacting, wait, responding, wait rejoindering (new word?) to the mouth words coming out of their face spaces? Can I still put you on mute? Can I put me on mute? WHERE IS THE MUTE BUTTON ON THIS THING? Once I have it sorted out on how to do the peopling talk-talk again, that brings me to my next worry: What do I say? Of course we will both want to rehash in great and painstakingly finite detail the nuances of our experiences weathering PANDEMIC 2020 (Anderson Cooper and Tina Fey sit down with the entire cast following the series finale—don’t miss it! YouTube with your friends!). What’s left? I suppose there are old standbys of polite chit-chat like climate change, reproductive rights, and baseball (Boy, those Ravenclaws are going to have a tough season without Gandalf pitching. Am I right?). What I’m saying is I feel ill-equipped to downshift out of conversations related on how to get Icelandic citizenship to ones about the avocado shortage. A Pandemic Reentry Guide to Successful Reentry would be helpful. I’d write it, but I only have a few months or weeks left and this sci-fi screenplay about King Lear and Isaac Newton isn’t going to write itself.

It feels like a lot. The pressure to expel yourself back into the world. Not just to a movie or a reopened indoor restaurant, but to vacation in Bali, to commit to the pilgrimage to Mecca, to cash in the 80’s Heavy Metal Rock’n Cruise voucher and get back out there. Go big and do not go home, this is the message I’m receiving. Because we’ve suffered so much and gone without for so long, we deserve to let loose, spend all the money on non-essential items, and crack some ribs hugging people again. I want that, too. I’m just not all the way there yet. Aside from finally getting around to fixing the chimney and falling in love with the art of scrapbooking, I simply feel poorly prepared for reentry and all that comes with it. I don’t know if I want my memory wiped like a new SIM card. I guess I didn’t do much, but I’d like to hang on to what I learned.  

So maybe we can pump the breaks, just a hare, a scooch, really. Maybe there is a reentry-lite option that exists somewhere between MTV Spring Break Booze Beach House ’97 and going to a place that isn’t the grocery store or post office. And maybe it would be enough if we could still wear soft pants while sitting just a bit closer together and laugh more easily and still listen to the birds and talk about the million different nothings or maybe not talk at all and instead just be okay with being okay together.