Three Little Letters (aka: it’s Better to Know)

It’s time for us to talk about something with three little letters. Something you’ve all heard of, but many people are afraid to talk about.

No, not sex. *Rolling my eyes* Believe me, I am the last person you’d want to discuss sex with. It’s really not one of my strengths.

But it is related to sex. And the three little letters are an acronym. Today’s topic is HIV.

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. In the U.S. alone, more than 1 million people are infected with HIV. And 15% aren’t even aware that they are infected. That’s 1 in 7 of you who are walking around with no idea that they are carrying a potentially lethal virus. https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/statistics

Don’t you think it’s better to know?

HIV used to mean a death sentence. Not even that long ago, up to half of those diagnosed with HIV would go on to contract AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Today, if HIV is diagnosed in time, those living with the virus can be treated with ART drugs (anti-retrovirals) to suppress the virus and help you to live a longer, healthier life.

HIV never even used to cross my mind. It just wasn’t something that had anything to do with me. In my entire life, I have had only 3 sexual partners. The first was my husband of 17 years. I naively thought that STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections) don’t apply to married couples. I was totally safe. Protected.

Until my ex-husband began cheating with prostitutes.

The moment I learned about his misdeeds, I did two things. 1 — I stopped having sex with him forever. And 2 — I had my gynecologist test me for everything.

Because it’s better to know.

Note: HIV can be spread through semen and vaginal fluids, through oral sex, or blood, such as during a blood transfusion or by an infected needle.

My second sexual partner was an acquaintance of mine. We had a sexual relationship that lasted for months, and was, to the best of my knowledge, monogamous. We also used condoms. But still, after it was over, I got tested for STIs.

Because it’s better to know.

My third sexual partner was a man I met on eHarmony, whom I nickname “Z” on this blog. (He is also my final sexual partner, as I will never again have sex with another person). We lived in different cities, but we dated for a few months by telephone and text, as well as in person. I enjoyed every aspect of our relationship very much — including sex, which was surprising to me, given my past negative experiences.

After he broke up with me, it took me more than a year and a half before I worked up the courage to get tested. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was afraid, that there was even the slightest chance that he hadn’t been honest with me about his HIV-negative status.

But knowing your own status, I realized in the end, isn’t about your partner. It isn’t about how much you love him, or how much you trust her. It’s about your own personal health, and the ability to make wise decisions.

There are a number of ways to get tested for HIV. You can ask your primary physician, or your gynecologist for a test. (Remember — they are not there to judge your lifestyle!). You can visit a walk-in testing clinic. You can use a home sample-collecting kit, which you mail in for results. Or you can do as I recently did — use an over-the-counter oral testing kit called OraQuick, which costs around $40 and is available at Walgreens drugstores. Be sure to test at least 3 months after having sex, as there is a false-negative window if you test sooner than that.

If you are sexually active don’t know your HIV status, then it may time for you to test and get some peace of mind for you and your partner or future partners. Or for yourself, even if you are celibate, like me.

It’s better to know.

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I Need a Name for this Salad (aka: Plant-Based Goodness)

Eureka!

I have created a salad that both salad lovers and the salad-averse can enjoy.

Kind of a low-salad salad.

Seriously. It’s filled with plant-based goodness — quinoa, walnuts, chopped dates, and a little arugula, just so that we can say we ate our veggies. 😉

Yes, in fact, I do almost always have fresh flowers on my table. 🙂

Okay fine, it is not completely plant-based, because this recipe includes feta cheese. I can’t help it. I have a serious thing for feta cheese. Until there’s a good vegan option, it will always be my biggest reason for not going all-out plant based. Well, that, plus occasional grilled steak burritos. Or lamb gyros. Or pad thai with shrimp.

In my defense, I call myself a flexitarian, not a vegetarian. I include meat or seafood and other animal proteins in my diet up to 20% of the time. Which nutritionists say is the third healthiest way to eat, just after the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet.

As I was saying, this salad has some feta cheese. But you can always skip that part, if it’s not your thing. Either way, you’ll get this wonderful nutty-sweet combination of flavors.

This salad was my attempt at a copycat version of a salad I enjoyed at a local restaurant. They named it “Autumn Harvest Salad.” But I think it tastes great no matter the season, as do my three teens. So what shall I name my version? Not Just Arugula Salad? Gotta Have Feta Salad? The Salad from Jupiter? Seriously, nothing sounds just right. I’d love some ideas!

Here’s the recipe. Feel free to adjust amounts to suit your own tastes (especially since I’m better at throwing it together than figuring out the actual amounts I use!):

“Insert Name Here” Salad

Quinoa, 1 cup uncooked

Arugula, around 3-4 oz.

Walnut halves or pecan halves, 3/4 cup

8 dates, pitted and chopped

Feta cheese crumbles, 2-3 Tbsp.

Raspberry-walnut vinaigrette, at least 1/2 cup (also works great with pear vinaigrette, or any other fruity vinaigrette. Or use balsamic vinaigrette if you wish to cut down on the sweetness).

Directions: Cook quinoa according to directions on package, drain, and refrigerate overnight or until chilled. Toss quinoa together with other ingredients, then chill together for at least an hour. Enjoy as a main course or hearty side dish.

Not Just a Man’s World (aka: My Awesome Tech Career Journey)

My job is awesome.

Every day, I realized how blessed I am to be able to say that. To be able to wake up each day and look forward to the work I get to do. To be able to use my unique skills and talents to impact the lives of other people in a positive way. Yes! *Pumps fist*

It feels good.

I never used to imagine that one day, I would not only have a successful career, but that I would find so much fulfillment from my work. In my early years, work was just something I did to pay the bills, and my ambitions were small. I used to be a teacher of young children — a low-paying career that led to a seamless transition into full-time mothering. Mothering as a SAHM was, of course, fulfilling in its own way. It was also the thing to do among young conservative Christian women in my circle, at the time. To focus on raising your kids, cooking meals, cleaning your home, and supporting your husband, the breadwinner, was considered the most honorable, ideal role for a woman. Even a woman with a 4-yr. college degree.

Gag.

Quick digression: I’m no longer sure how I ever bought into that philosophy. I now believe firmly that the responsibilities of child rearing, caring for the home, and financially supporting the household belong to both partners, rather than to one or the other based on gender. But since I’m no longer married, none of that applies anymore anyway.

Anyway, at some point, when my youngest kid was in grade school, I went back to work as a teacher in the local school district. I was good at it, but it was tiring, brainless work. Not to mention it paid very little. So when I was laid off due to state budget cuts, I decided that it was time. I would return to college to pursue a career in the one field that made me excited to think about.

Information Technology.

Code on a computer screen

After all, I’d been using computers since my Commodore Vic 20, back in 1981. I used to listen to my now ex-husband talk about the IT work he did, and think to myself how i could easily do his job. Plus, let’s face it — IT is a lucrative industry. But for me, a teacher of young children and former SAHM with literally no IT job experience, switching careers was like climbing a mountain that was largely hidden in the clouds.

I started off with the goal of doing IT support. People would call me with issues, I would tell them to reboot their computers, and everyone’s happy. When I first went back to college, I knew pretty much nothing about the other branches of IT. Coding? Zip. Databases? Zilch. Networking? Nada. But one cool thing about IT is that each of these areas is somehow interconnected. The more classes I took toward becoming a tech support girl, the more I learned about the rest. Suddenly, I knew about subnets, and protocols, and network layers, and basic coding. And I fell in luv with System Administration. That was my dream job.

It was a little intimidating, at first, heading into the world of IT. There are still very few women in this industry, compared to men. Especially in the higher-up positions. I intend to change that. So does my daughter, who is preparing to study Computer Science or Software Engineering when she heads off to college this fall. *More fist pumps* When you’re working in a world largely dominated by men, you have to learn to assert yourself pretty quickly. Ask questions. Speak up when you have ideas. And study your brains out, because until female-male ratio is even, we women still have to prove our worth and competence.

Men and women in a business meeting

Today, I am a System Admin (which is pretty much like God, in case you were wondering), as well as a declarative developer (who just happens to do some software engineering, as well). I get to analyze business issues, then come up with technology-based solutions to solve their issues and improve their processes. Then I design and build those solutions, train the users, and provide ongoing support. I guess you can say I wear a lot of hats. And I like it like that.

Me at work

So, here I am. Career-Focused Single-Mom Barbie, armed with a laptop and a cellphone. It feels good to be able to use my brain every day to create systems that actually make things better for a lot of people. It also feels good to bring home a decent income, to pay the bills and support my family. Yes, I’m still a great mom. Yes, I still cook and clean our home (as do my teens). Yes, i still get plenty of me-time to relax. Whoever said that we can’t balance it all was clearly trying to discourage us. Don’t buy it.

When I look back on how far I’ve come in just a few short years, and how I managed to switch careers and land a great job in midlife, I feel pretty satisfied. It’s like climbing to a mountain peak, then looking back at where I began. I did it! Now, I get to enjoy my work while assessing that next mountain peak. It’s pretty high, half-hidden in the clouds. Just like my current job once seemed. But I’m confident that I can get there, if I just keep climbing.

Why Don’t I Know How to Make Friends? (aka: Adult Friendships)

5 years later…

It’s disappointing how little has changed since I wrote this post. I’ve since joined additional Meetup groups and attended many. My work environment has changed. I engage in frequent conversations and generally get along very well with coworkers and people I meet. As always, I am friendly and kind and courteous. I listen to others and express interest in what they say. I am usually positive and cheerful, and never speak badly of anyone. And a year and a half ago, I spent time dating a wonderful man, and we had a positive connection.

But I still remain friendless.

And maybe it is me. I’m sure that I have a strong invisible barrier around me that keeps me from really trying hard enough to go from being friendly to friends with others. It is built out of fear that I will like someone more than they like me. Fear that they will like me, then they will change their minds and disappear. Fear that has been reinforced so much that it has become a reasonable expectation.

I would make a very good friend. I’m such a great person! And I like me. But I am 43 years old, and still chronically lonely — not so lonely that I’m willing to befriend someone who is bad for me, or unkind to others, or has little in common with me, but still quite alone. And I now accept that I will remain that way for the rest of my life.

The Girl From Jupiter

Shy adult can't make friends(Okay, a brief pause from poetry appreciation to address this confusing and overwhelming topic of friendship).

Why is it so hard to make friends as an adult? Okay, well, maybe it isn’t hard for most adults. Maybe many adults make acquaintances and friends easily, thanks to adept social skills, more outgoing personalities, etc. And certainly for many adults, it is less devastating when friendships end, because it is not so difficult to move on to the next friendship. I wish that I knew how to be that way.

But here I am, 38 years old and feeling once again like the misfit kid on the school playground, reading a book instead of playing tetherball – not because I don’t love to play tetherball, but because no one has invited me. Or because I asked to join the game and was told, no way, not you. So what do you do?…

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For the Throne! (Aka: International Women’s Day)

Winter is here, people.

Those of you who know what I’m talking about are glancing at your calendars, counting how many days remain before the series finale of Game of Thrones — one of the most exciting TV shows of this decade. Who will be brutally murdered next? Who will sleep with who? Most importantly, who will take the throne and become king (or queen) of the seven kingdoms?

But that’s not really what I want to discuss. Today is International Women’s Day. All around the world, people are taking a moment to acknowledge women and the contributions we have made and continue to make to society. So it only made sense to take a look at the women of Game of Thrones. Why? Because their timeless archetypes are common among many women, young and old, throughout the globe.

Arya Stark

The tomboy, who eschews femininity in favor of wearing pants and wielding a sword. Later, we see in the character Brienne of Tarth, a glimpse of the great knight Arya could become in the future.

Sansa Stark

The feminine “good girl” princess, who dreams of marrying her fairy tale prince, Joffrey. When her prince turns out to be a sadistic monster, and the world turns harsh and cold, Sansa quickly grows up and develops an exterior of steel.

Catelyn Stark

Catelyn is deeply devoted to her husband and children, which is apparent in everything she says and does. Far from perfect, Catelyn struggles with her role as a stepmother to her husband’s bastard son, Jon Snow.

Cersei Lannister

The opportunist (some might say bitch), who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, for herself or for her children. Seduction, betrayal, and murder are only a means to an end for her.

Daenerys Targaryan

“Miss Independent.” Plays her role as the dutiful, obedient sister and wife until she figures out who she really is. Once she embraces her true self, her power is unstoppable. She gathers an army and pursues her goals relentlessly, all without having to rely on a man to rule at her side.

My personal favorite? The Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryan. Not only is the badass Mother of Dragons born to be a queen and rule the seven kingdoms, but she is true to herself and always tries to be kind and just (though sometimes she fails). I identify strongly with her sense of independence.

Other women may read this and find that they identify more with the disillusioned princess, the tomboy, or the devoted wife and mother. But most of us may agree that we are multi-faceted. That many of us are sometimes the princess, and sometimes the tomboy, and sometimes the devoted wife and mother, and sometimes the bitch. Kind of the Game of Thrones version of the Breakfast Club archetypes.

But whatever type of woman you define yourself to be, and no matter who you are rooting for to take the throne at the end of the final season, I hope that today you will celebrate being a woman, or celebrate the women in your lives.

Pluck! Pluck! (aka: Swimming Against the Current)

While shopping at the mall, I came across a gorgeous bracelet, strung with polished stones in varying hues of grays, blue-grays, and green-grays.

“That is so you,” my daughter said. “You have to buy it.”

Ten minutes later, the bracelet was paid for and dangling from my wrist. It really was a perfect piece of jewelry for me, because more than half of my wardrobe is gray. Gray sweaters. Gray dresses. Gray flats and tights and t-shirts. I even own a gray overcoat and a gray faux-leather jacket. Such a smooth, sophisticated color. Neutral enough to be a blank palette, but far cooler than beige, and softer than black. Ambiguous. A mystery.

My love of all things gray doesn’t end there. I find comfort in gray, cloudy skies. Our living room furniture is mostly gray. My car is gray. In fact, I even identify as a heteromantic graysexual, or gray-asexual.

Which is what makes this little problem so ironic.

Sometime during the past several years, a tiny sprig of gray appeared among my off-black locks of hair. When I first discovered it, my heart sank. Oh my god. Here it is. The first official sign that summer has come to an end.

But then, I plucked it out, and all was right with the world again.

A year later, the sprig had multiplied. I had two — count them — two strands of gray hair. Pluck and pluck.

Now, at the age of 43, I have counted as many as six tiny sprigs of gray among my curls. Possibly more, hidden in the back. This has officially become an invasion. A takeover. I can still pluck the little suckers, but they come back with friends. And they’re so unruly! Not at all as well-behaved as my other soft, springy curls. The little gray punks like to poke out from my head in unpredictable directions, making their appearance super obvious.

It’s silly and vain of me to care so much, I know.

I’m middle-aged. The appearance of crepey skin and gray hair is perfectly normal. Although I’ve often been told that I look quite young for my age, I couldn’t expect that to last forever. The other silly thing is that gray hair on other people doesn’t bother me in the least. Never do I look at another person’s salt and pepper tresses and feel the temptation to start plucking. So why does the appearance of gray in my own hair freak me out so much?

Maybe because it is a reminder of my own mortality. Youth is not eternal. Life does not last forever. Like a tree, we blossom, then bear fruit, and then the leaves, like our hair, begins to change color. And we all know what that means.

Winter is coming.

Unlike a tree, we don’t lose our leaves and vibrancy only to have them return again, green and new, in the spring. For us, once the lively browns and blacks and reds and yellows that graced our heads throughout our lifetimes have faded, that’s it. They’re gone. Nature’s not going to give us brand-new hair.

Something about knowing that something good is only going to be in my life for a limited time makes me want to savor it. Capture it. Hold onto it for as long as possible. Change is inevitable, of course. Nothing lasts forever (except maybe the diamonds in my old wedding ring, which still sits around, useless, in a box somewhere). But if that means I have to always go with the flow, to accept it as it comes, to age gracefully, then I have one thing to say.

Screw that.

I think that Dylan Thomas said it best:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I will not accept that beauty is chained to youthful age. I refuse to lie back and float along with the current that will eventually dump us each into the sea. I will not go gentle into that good night. Instead, I plan to keep struggling, keep swimming hard against the current until my body is too old and too sick and too tired to take another stroke.

Last week, my cousin died of breast cancer. She and I were around the same age. Both single moms, though her children are mostly younger than mine. Since our teen years, she was the cousin I went to get my “hair did.” Thanks to her skill and deft fingers, I went through hair phases of long, braided extensions and sleek, straight, flat-ironed styles. When I wanted to try a new color, I sat in her salon chair, and we gabbed about family members, raising children, and TV shows as she worked her magic, transforming my ordinary black hair into a honey-streaked marvel. She snipped and shampooed and braided and styled so many women, and made so many of us feel beautiful.

Cancer robbed my cousin of her own hair, her beauty, her youth, her life. Far too soon. If not for cancer, I’m sure that she would have continued to help women in our struggle to look and feel our loveliest, no matter our age. Gray hair? Why settle for bland, unruly gray hair? Why not dye it auburn, raven, or gold? Why not curl it or straighten it or try something new? Why not try new makeups that decrease our wrinkles or bring out the shade of our eyes, or wear clothes that make us feel sexy, or cute, or strong, or alive? Why should we settle for frumpy, dumpy, and bland, just because we’ve arrived in middle age?

I love the color gray. But I do not love the gray hairs reminding me of the end we must each face. So I reject the idea that fighting them is vain or silly. Instead, I choose to make myself look as young and alive on the outside as I feel on the inside. If my cousin were still here, I would ask her to highlight my hair to hide the gray intruders. Hair dye — such a fun and simple way of raging against the dying of the light. I wonder how I’d look as a blonde?

Apples to Apples (aka: Dealing with Unpleasant People)

Do you ever find yourself in situations where you have to get along with an unpleasant person?

Believe it or not, in real life, I usually get along pretty well with most people. Whether or not we share the same background, or socioeconomic class, or culture, I can usually find common ground and hold a decent conversation with them. The trick, I think, is understanding. When I make it a point to try to understand the person I’m speaking with, it paves the way for positive interaction.

Usually.

Today, I had an unfortunate encounter with an unpleasant person.

No wait. Let me reword that. Today, I had an unpleasant encounter with a person. Because we are all people, and our bad moments do not necessarily make us bad people.

I went to a Meetup event, which I do from time to time, or else I would have zero social life (other than kids and water cooler chats with coworkers). This particular meetup event was for the purpose of speaking Spanish with other Spanish-language learners and native speakers. These events are often low-key — a couple of hours of exchanging polite, informal conversation with people of all ages, walks of life, and levels of Spanish.

For most of that time, I chatted with a group of three other people. We sipped coffee and tea and talked about all sorts of topics — pets, travel, work, music, even politics. We didn’t always agree, or share much in common, but we were able to enjoy one another’s company while helping each other to fill in that occasional Spanish word or phrase that eluded us.

That was the pleasant part.

However, after the others left, I turned toward the two remaining speakers, who had been engaged in their own conversation. It didn’t take long, however, before I noticed how one of the speakers was quite opinionated. Which only bothers me a little. The part that bothered me a lot, however, was that he gave of this air that his opinions were the only ones that counted. To top it off, he also had a tendency to not only correct other people’s Spanish, but to do so in a rather superior way, often cutting them off mid-sentence, and adding how he can’t stand it when people say things a different way, because it’s so wrong.

Still, due to my desire to get along with people, I continued to smile and ask questions, and encourage the flow of conversation. Perhaps, I thought, he was on the autistic spectrum, which could account for his hard-to-stomach interpersonal skills.

The last straw, however, came when the other speaker and I were discussing the importance of being familiar with the various ways Spanish speakers talk. I suggested that the most important thing about language is not to always speak with the best grammar possible, but to know how to best speak and be understood within a group of people. Well, he not only shot down my idea, but attempted to invalidate it completely. This happened more than once in the conversation. While I am perfectly at ease with differences of opinion, or with considering new facts that I may not have known, I cannot tolerate blatant disrespect.

“You know,” I finally said, when tactful hints failed, “you’d be easier to get along with if you were willing to admit that you don’t know everything.”

Now here, many intelligent people would say, “Well, of course I don’t know everything! There are many things I don’t know.”

But this guy says, “I know a LOT of things. I’ve taken some doctorate level classes.”

Seriously?

Just like that, I was done. Conversation over. The moment people demonstrate that they are not willing to learn, or to consider that they may not always be right, is the moment an exchange of ideas between intellectuals becomes a pointless waste of words. And honestly, life is too short for that.

My parting words? “I find your arrogance unpalatable.” To which, of course, he responded that he found me unpalatable. I laughed. It was like saying goodbye to an egotistical child. Too bad. His Spanish was actually pretty good. I could have learned something from him.

I guess I’m pretty lucky. I don’t often have to deal with unpleasant people. At least, not on a regular basis. Most people I encounter are generally pleasant. Or at least, polite. Coming across one who behaves to the contrary is like finding an apple with a worm inside. That person may actually be pretty decent once they cut away the bruised, wormy spot. Who knows? It’s not up to us to cut it away. Perhaps it’s not even up to us to point out the worm (though I did, in no unclear terms).

The part that is up to us is how we choose to react. When we encounter arrogance, or rudeness, or lack of respect, are we able to find the strength to respond with politeness and positivity? Or do we respond in kind, and expose our own wormy parts? (We all have wormy parts, buried deep inside).

Honestly, I’m not sure how I did today. Was it wormy of me to call him out on his arrogance and rudeness? Or did he need to hear it? Later, we exchanged messages on the Meetup app, both apologizing for our part in the conversation that went sour. Which was cool. We could have just as easily have never spoken again, in any language. But part of being a good person is being forgiving, and offering people a second chance to prove that they’re willing to cut the worms away.