Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
Just A Junk Drawer Dream
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Woman in Search of Women Part 1

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About a year after my divorce I ventured onto Tinder and clicked the box that prompts both men and women to show up in the videogame-esque dating app that allows you to indiscriminately swipe people in and out of your life based solely on appearance. As I live near a city smack in the middle of the enormous rectangle that is Pennsylvania, pickins was slim. Penn State is located here, so while it is a college town, I was 37 at the time, which, for me, ruled out a large percentage of the collegiate population, although there was a brief but certainly educational dalliance with a sexy Argentinian grad student.

Bernardo was an invaluable acquaintance as I attempted to rediscover my sexuality amid the smoldering wreckage of my divorce. But it wasn't strictly a physical thing. About a week after meeting him my beloved dog Max died. Bernardo allowed me to cry on his couch while he studied. He'd serve me tea, occasionally adjust the blanket he'd draped over me and play M. Ward's Hold Time album on his turntable, the perfect soundtrack to debilitating grief.

If I thought quality available men in the area were lacking - on Tinder, anyway - women (seeking other women) were nonexistent. Profiles like "Power of God blesses me every day. Constant work in progress, getting closer to who I want to be every day. Love pizza, my cat, tequila slammers and dancing but not necessarily in that order lol" left much to be desired.

I'd almost decided to delete the app when I saw her. Cute thirty-something blonde, director of something that involved advocating for children and a smattering of photos revealing she also liked to play in the great outdoors. Attractive woman who spends her worklife concerned about the well-being of children and also likes to get outside and have some fun? Fuck it. Let's give this thing a go, I thought and swiped right.

Blood Red Sentimental Blues

The fucked up thing about it is that because I was the one who initiated divorce he indisputably became the heartbroken victim. My broken heart, although equally savage, is constantly written off as my choice.

"You're the one that wanted the divorce," is the glib response when I express valid hurt over a devastating outcome related to the end of my marriage and life as I knew it.

I didn't choose divorce. Who wants divorce? Isn't it considered the worst possible outcome for both people involved in the relationship? It's the worst thing that ever happened to me, the hardest thing I've ever experienced. Divorce eventually became the only option. And if you don't get that, if your knee-jerk reaction is that I "didn't try hard enough," then you don't understand how relationships work. It's a stupid, offensive statement.

So maybe I'm not as far along as I should be in the grieving process. Maybe I will never get to where some people think I should be at this point in time. Maybe I'm just fuckin' nuts. Regardless, no two divorces are even remotely alike and what I feel about the end of my marriage and the divorce that took its place is my response to my own very personal experience. His experience, even though it's in relation to the same divorce, is not even a relatable experience. He's struggling through his own divorce experience that, from my vantage point, doesn't resemble mine at all. No one else will ever know the intricate ins and outs and myriad fucked-upness that seem insurmountable to me a lot of the time. There is no timeline for what you're supposed to feel and when you're supposed to feel it. Just try to survive to the end of the day and call it a win. I lost today.


Ride Your Pony Thank You Jesus

A motorcycle thunders past my living room window and Billy Idol's "Mony Mony" lingers in the air like smoke, instantly calling forth air-conditionlesss summer MTV marathon memories from my pre-teen years.

Ride your pony. Ride your pony, Idol's top lip violently curling heavenward.

Humidity hangs as heavily as the perpetually wet beach towels decorating the side porch railing. Dory, Nemo and the Paw Patrol gang, official flags of summer.

Feel all right, I said yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah...

Feels like rain. Smells like rain. Looks like rain. Air like the bladder of a pregnant woman, forced to release a deluge on this little town tucked in the rolling green hills of Central Pennsylvania. A tired breeze filters through the window in place of Billy Idol's growl and sends a tumbleweed of black dog hair silently skimming across the wood floor.

I think, once more, of the vehicle I try not to see parked near Serge's house every Friday night and Saturday morning. Divorce in a small town. Motherfuck. I have an intellectual response and an emotional response and they usually reside at opposite ends of my response spectrum, my ultimate response falling anywhere in between based on various interchangeable life circumstances including but not limited to my stress level, alcohol consumption and the time of month... In other words, my reaction to the soul-constricting circumstances divorce faithfully serves up is a pull of a slot machine lever; Some days I'm all cherries, baby, the champion of divorce! Other days... Eh. Not so much. But I'm ridin' that pony, getting back on the fucker every time I fall off. It's all about the kids.

Later. After the rain. After stumbling onto a treasure trove of chanterelle mushrooms while walking in the woods, Cory stops the car in the middle of the country road we're rolling over. Wordless and shirtless, he hops out and begins picking black-eyed Susans he will present to me with a shy grin so I can fill the giant mason jar sitting atop the kitchen table he built me from wood he also scavenged from the side of the road.

Me, in the passenger seat, watching him in the rear-view mirror lope through weeds and wildflowers. I pop wild raspberries we just picked into my mouth, one at a time to make them last longer, and think strange thoughts about them. Raspberries; nature's finest jewelry, I declare to no one as I peer at the dozens of delicate caviar-like pouches of juice that comprise a single raspberry. It really does look like a precious stone bauble that might adorn the hand of an aging wealthy socialite. Strawberries hog the berry spotlight most of the time, but raspberries have always been my favorite. Strawberries can be cloying, the good girl of the berry world, all straightlaced and churching. Raspberries are their sassy cousin. Zingy. Church? Girl, please. We goin' clubbin.'

On the way home, chanterelles, raspberries and black-eyed Susans jostling for space in my lap, I spot another one of those "Thank you Jesus" signs that dot the yards of Jesus lovers across the land.

Thank you Jesus.

The only time I've ever uttered the phrase with the straight-forward sincerity the sign conveys is when offering a thank you to the universe at-large after a negative pregnancy test in my teens or a narrowly avoided car accident, but never from a place of genuine gratitude to the lord and savior of scriptural times.

Thank you Jesus, I whisper to myself. And I smile.

These People Know How to Party

I invited my former husband over to my backyard to enjoy some beers and toast s'mores with our kids several evenings ago. Serge lives three doors away. As in; his house, a house, a church, a house and then my house. This guy I've been clocking some time with was also enjoying our backyard fire pit with his boy, who shares a daycare class with my Charlie, so the seven of us - three adults (allegedly), and four kids - made for an interesting get-together.

Clocking some time with... Hahaha. I'm such an emotionally corrupt pussy. The word 'boyfriend' lodges heavily in the back of my throat every time I go to introduce Cory or speak about him to someone who is unfamiliar with his presence in my life. I had "boyfriends" in high school and college, but now? I'm an oldish broad with three kids and various and sundry life baggage-ness. Is boyfriend really the right term for this kind of post-divorce, solo-mom-of-three-sometimes-meets-up-with-solo-dad-of-one liaison? And shit. I'd feel squiggly calling him my boyfriend even if it was a word I felt completely comfortable flourishing like a gift bottle of wine during those social instances when an introduction requires the relationship elaboration.

I've experienced women pleased as punch to brandish the term like a weapon, stabbing you in the face repeatedly: My boyfriend this and my boyfriend that and while I don't begrudge them giving the word a workout worthy of a CrossFit sesh, it ain't for me. All boyfriend usage rights have long since expired for yours truly, probably around the time I pushed my third child into a snowy world in a 100-year-old farmhouse one cold March morning. Congratulations, it's a boy! Also? No more boyfriends for you, lady! So, what's left? Partner? Ugh. Manfriend? Hey everyone! I'd like you to meet my manfriend! Nah. It's best to let people wonder who this man is in relation to my life, especially since I spend most of my time pondering the same damn thing.

Cory? He don't care what I call him, just so long as I call him. He seems to dig me. God knows why, I mean, have you read this website? But, God bless his rangy ass, he digs me. Not because of some phony show I've put on in an effort to impress. He just enjoys my company, batshit craziness and all. And the other night we both enjoyed Serge's company. Serge is a charming sonuvabitch and he was in fine form that evening. I believe Cory hoofed it down the street to our local distillery no less than two times for emergency beer supplies and I think we all know that the amount of beer consumed directly correlates to how good a time was had...

I dunno. Life is weird and sad and bad and magical and heartwrenching and unbelievably fuckin' beautiful.

Chasing the Fix

I am no longer on social media and the difference it has made in my life is nothing short of astounding. Okay, that's a lie. I have what I refer to as a 'shell' Facebook account under a different name I use for work purposes. "Hello, I'm a producer for AccuWeather and your video of a tornado is really great! May we use it on our website and network with credit to you?" I don't follow anyone or post anything from that account other than work-related requests. I also check Twitter most mornings from my AccuWeather computer to see what's trending, again for work stuffs. There are no apps on my phone. Except the one that monitors my phone usage. Moment. Highly recommend. The number of times you check your phone and how many hours of your day you spend staring at that little screen will alarm you. The minutes add up to a horrific waste of life. The app keeps me honest with myself.

What happened to us? We walk around staring at screens and justifying all the staring at screens and how we need our phones so we're available 24/7 because we're all so goddamn important we can't let a text or email go unanswered for ten minutes and if we do someone else is texting or emailing again demanding a response and it's all bullshit. Half the stuff we all get up to on our smartphones doesn't really matter or even exist in the real world. Hearts and thumbs ups and Facebook debates with strangers, opinion articles passed off as news or fact that say nothing and mean even less, endless memes and photos of other people allegedly living amazing lives but who are just the same smartphone addicted junkie as the rest of us. Put down your phone and it all ghosts away, like that satisfactory snapping off of an old school TV where the image shrinks to a white dot that eventually disappears. Gone.

I used to spend hours of time scrolling social media feeds and reading news articles, justification acrobatics Cirque du Soleiling around my brain: I write online for a living, I need to keep up with social media so I can build a following who is interested in what I write which will, in turn, land me better writing gigs. Or: I need to read the news! News is important! I must be informed, especially with Trump at the wheel. And it's true, I do need to be aware of certain goings on in the universe as part of my job but that kind of thing can be accomplished in minutes, once a day. Truth be told, most online news these days is drummed up, clickbait nonsense. My desire to stay abreast of current events and trends was an imaginary value. I thought it made me informed and, in turn, a better person. It didn't. It just added to the noise in an already cluttered brain and I don't miss the bullshit headlines suckering me in for a read at all. I paid for each of those reads with time and time is a valuable commodity. Since deleting my news app I have discovered that anything important going on in the world will leak into my consciousness in one way or another and I can, at that point, choose to further inform myself in a mindful, intentional way. Endlessly scrolling a news app on my phone was an unnecessary time suck that almost always ended in reading ridiculous articles that were, in two words, consummate bullshit.

Picking up my phone became my default position. The slightest pause in my activity would see me reaching for my phone. Red stoplight. Pick up phone. Standing in line. Phone. That bled into my life as a mom, which of course, I'd justify by telling myself I work full-time and have three kids and, by god, If I want to read this article about how Kim Kardashian's waist-cincher changed her life while my kids splash in a backyard pool I bought with my hard-earned cash, I deserve it. While it's true that I have earned the right to read an article, what I was missing was the fact that reading the article and the one after that and the one after that was a monumental waste. Same thing goes for emails and texts. I'm checking for "important" work emails, I'd tell myself, ramping up a false sense of urgency and creating anxiety where there need be none. And then, when I'd made sure there were no emails awaiting my attention, I'd mindlessly wander to the good old news feed or Instagram or Facebook to scroll others' posts or maybe create my own post, which compelled me for hours afterward to check back in and see the reaction. And then check my work email some more. Then Instagram. Haven't checked Facebook in a few hours, let's see what's happening there.

Reading an article the other day - What is brain-hacking? - felt like someone throwing cold water on my face. My boyfriend, Anderson Cooper, talks to tech engineers in Silicon Valley who reveal some insidious shit about how they are basically programming people. Addicting them to their iPhones like sheisty drug dealers, creating computer codes that give your brain "rewards" that have no actual value. Thousands of ivy league educated engineers making the big bucks by devising ever-sneakier ways to keep your eyes on your smartphone, hooking you on that dopamine fix you get when someone hearts your photo or likes your status and the notification buzzes your physiology. Here's a bit with Anderson talking to a computer programmer whose job it was to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.
For example, on Instagram, he told us sometimes those likes come in a sudden rush.

Ramsay Brown: They’re holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here’s the 30 likes we didn’t mention from a little while ago. Why that moment--

Anderson Cooper: So all of a sudden you get a big burst of likes?

Ramsay Brown: Yeah, but why that moment? There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.

When Brown says “experiments,” he’s talking generally about the millions of computer calculations being used every moment by his company and others use to constantly tweak your online experience and make you come back for more.

Ramsay Brown: You’re part of a controlled set of experiments that are happening in real time across you and millions of other people.

Anderson Cooper: We’re guinea pigs?

Ramsay Brown: You’re guinea pigs. You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And they’re doing this to keep you in there.
The entire article is fascinating and worthy of your attention. Teams of highly paid engineers working to keep us addicted to our phones, constantly checking them like pulling at the lever of a slot machine to see what we're gonna get next. Facebook likes! Instagram hearts! Direct messages! Keep your Snapchat streak alive! Here is someone you may know on Facebook! Ping! Ping! Ping! Must click little, red notification. What if someone really needs me right now? (how often does anyone really need you right now?)

All those strangers hearting your photos, Facebook "friends" weighing in on your latest update, people you may have never even met in person causing you unnecessary anxiety or agitation. And there you are, little mule, checking scrolling checking scrolling in your endless quest to reach the carrot that doesn't even exist. It's all a fuckin' waste, man. A black hole of nothing that doesn't amount to shit. Oh, I'm not against keeping in touch with people who add value to your life or using social media in an intentional, limited way. There is genuine community to be found all across the Internet and it can be empowering and beautiful, but be honest with yourself: What percentage of your online life is truly adding value to your real life? What is your real life? Is your real life your online life? Do you even know any more?

I didn't know for the longest time. I confused my self-worth with my online activities which made me ridiculously defensive both online and in person to the point that I couldn't view a person's intentions or various situations with any sort of clarity. I allowed the Internet and the people on it, most of whom I've never even met, to dictate my mood, my self-esteem. It's still a struggle, letting go of the things that don't matter (figuring out which things don't matter is surprisingly difficult!) and focusing on real life and those online activities that add value to that life. I still feel the twitch to pick up my phone several times a day and find myself making up reasons to check it so I can scratch the itch, get that dopamine fix. But goddamn! When you wake up, pull your eyes out of your iPhone, realize what's slowly happening to all of us and wean yourself off the smartphone/online addiction, your mind immediately begins clearing out all the extraneous clutter and you feel good. Really, really good. THAT'S the fix I'm chasin' now.