Category Archives: daily life

Moving Forward

September 11, 2014

Even as sensitive a person as I am, I’m always a little surprised that I still cry when this morning comes around; that for not having lost any loved ones and having merely been a witness, on this day every year, the memories still sit at the forefront of my mind. I suppose though, when the wound is so severe, the scars never really do go away. Thankfully, despite never forgetting, we do go on, tending to our busy lives—our current projects, and the tasks of the present.

One of my ‘current projects’ is training for this year’s New York City marathon. And one of my to-do’s for the day, was a long run. I’ve been lucky, with this summer’s unusually pleasant temperatures, to have logged most of my miles outside, but of course, I’ve had to rely on the treadmill here and there too. The treadmill has it’s plusses—the soft surface, no wind to battle—but for nine miles, it’s just boring. So it was my plan, leaving home this morning, assuming there would be no rain, that my long run would actually be a run home from work. Well, unlike the perfect blue sky we awoke to 13 years ago, the one this September 11th morning was overcast and gloomy. And all afternoon, the threat of a storm seemed to linger above us. But at 6:30, to my surprise and delight, the mighty sun had made its way out from behind the dense canopy of clouds. So I would get my fresh air.

But I couldn’t just bolt like that. See, these long runs, I’ve learned, require preparation. And the preparation requires focus, because if even only one thing is forgotten, I could be in for misery at some point along the way– say, for example, last month’s matching half-dollar size blisters, or the other day when I locked my keys inside my apartment and had to wait, sweaty and exhausted after a two-hour run, for my super to come and save me. So first, it’s a lengthy bandaging and wrapping of both of my feet; then, it’s securing my hair back with a strategic placement of bobby pins so to avoid annoying mid-run fly-aways. And then I have to gather my little pack of essentials—my headphones (must have music), ID (in case of emergency), handkerchief (because I always have the sniffles), energy chews (fuel for the journey), and of course keys. So, I went through the routine, did a double-check that I’d covered everything, and then I was off.

Outside, my mind quickly began to wander, assessing my latest aches and pains, mapping my route and water stops and where I’d be when darkness would fall. And in all of my thinking, ironically, I’d sort of forgotten the day, or that it wasn’t just any day, but 9/11. But then at around Gansevoort Street, the running path on the Hudson River Promenade juts a little further westward and the view of downtown Manhattan opens up. So out of nowhere, suddenly right in front of me, I see the Freedom Tower. And the sky, instead of its earlier, sad grey, was now the most beautiful backdrop, in swirls of pink and white and blue, like cotton candy. Almost instinctively, my arm went up in a fist, like a “woop woop” cheer. And then, worried someone might have seen it and misinterpreted it, I brought it down as quickly as it had shot up. Of course, I wasn’t cheering for the day, but that we’re still here, rebuilt, standing strong.

Freedom Tower 1

I continued on my way as the sun set. And as I curved around the southern-most tip of the island to begin heading northward, I was stopped again, this time to see the tower aglow against the night sky, and to its right, the illuminations of the former towers, reaching upward. I know it sounds sappy, but it took my breath away.

Freedom_Former

And then from the bridge, looing back at Manhattan…

From Bridge

As I write this, again I think it’s strange, that after my morning in tears, as the day went on, I’d almost forgotten it was September 11th. I will never associate the word happy with this date, but on my run, I was glad to have been reminded of it again, seeing the Freedom Tower before me, and glad that instead of feeling sad, I felt propelled to move forward, with my head lifted, proud and strong.

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Afternoon in the Park

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Whenever I whine to my sister about distractions that seem to constantly be getting in the way of my writing, she says that if I want to really finish my manuscript—which I’ve been talking about and toiling over, for way too long now—I need to work like I’m on a deadline. I have to act as if I’m turning it in for a grade. And sometimes, I need to say no, even if I really want to say yes. Like this past weekend, Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend of beach season…where everyone in New York City gets out of town.

I got on the pale-skin bandwagon at least a decade ago, after years in Florida, striving to achieve a permanent honey brown. These days, I accept my naturally fluorescent-white complexion (that has only become more blinding by living in the north), and have gotten used to the ritual of tanning by way of a bottle. Still, a little Vitamin D will always do a body good, and who doesn’t love a day at the beach? So when my friend invited me to head out with her on Monday, I jumped. But then the scene of me standing on the rooftop, shouting that I have FINALLY FINISHED MY BOOK flashed in my head. And though I really wanted to say yes, I had suck it up and politely decline. Because as much peace as the beach is to me, the hot sun on my skin, the powdery sand the most comfortable bed, it’s a place to shut off and not feel guilty about doing so.

So I’d turned down Robert Moses, but I still needed a plan. Finally seeing sunshine after the long, grey, winter, almost overnight, the trees alive again with lacy leaves, the sky a comforting, chalky blue, I felt like I’d be sinning, staying cooped up inside my apartment, or anywhere inside for that matter. But ‘outside’ in New York City pretty much means a day at the park, and a day at the park—be it Central Park or Prospect Park, Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, or even Washington Square Park (though the bravery quotient in the squirrels there has me a little on edge)—means a day of napping in the grass. But then it came to me—Bryant Park. I’ve been there countless times for summer movies, and I tell myself I should visit more during the weekday lunch hour so to maybe find my husband, but I don’t think I’ve really ever given it enough credit. It really is a masterpiece, with the feel more of a classic garden than your typical city park. Aside from its central lawn, that is the only part of it I’ve really ever paid attention to, there’s a bubbling fountain, two grand tree allées, ping pong tables and Pétanque, a carousel, a reading room, and best… for a writer… café tables and chairs lined all along its promenade. So as my friend headed to the beach, I packed my bag…and headed for midtown.

When I arrived at the Bryant Park subway station, it being one I rarely travel through, I was clueless as to which staircase would lead me where, above ground. So I chose the nearest one, and lucky me, I landed in a quiet corner where an empty table was calling my name. I sat down and positioned my chair inward, so that just beyond the sprawling blanket of wild—or at least wild-looking—ivy in front of me, there was the lawn with families picnicking, children skipping, an intermediate yogi repeatedly practicing his headstand and tumbling; and bordering that, the park’s perimeter trees, behind which stands a wall of city buildings. The trees planted in Bryant Park are London plane trees, the same species in one of my favorite places in Paris, the Jardin des Tuileries. They can grow to be 120 feet tall. I sat under one so high I couldn’t see the top of it, I thought it must’ve been at least that. Tiny sparrows played in the shrubs, pigeons pecked at crumbs near my feet, and high above, a covey of others sang songs to one another from tree to tree, and zoomed in flight from lamppost to lamppost, making me jealous, wishing I too could fly. The sun peaked through the canopy of leafy branches, warming the shady ground where a father and son played chess, and two wrinkly, white-haired ladies gossiped with iced teas, and an odd couple walked hand-in-hand. I wrote, alone in my green corner, and in between words, would pick my head up to just watch, in awe of the beauty surrounding me, even despite the city bustling fifty feet away. It was perfect…

Almost perfect…

About an hour in, at one of my pauses, I noticed a man approaching my table. He was in his early 60s I would guess, dressed nicely, appearing clean. There was nothing about him that alarmed me. I figured he had a question; needed directions, or the time. After all, I am the one people pick out amongst a crowd at the post office to ask if I think their package has enough postage on it. I’m used to strangers. “I noticed you’re writing,” he said. “And I just couldn’t help but admire the magical quality you have, here on this beautiful day, working so peacefully. I used to write poetry and I know, sometimes you can be searching for the perfect word for hours, and it helps to just look into the distance.” Ok. Not what I expected, but he kind of nailed it! It was, in fact, a beautiful day, and the scene to me, did feel magical. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s really perfect.” And then I remembered his mint green pants and his fedora. I’d seen him earlier, walking around with a younger man at his side. Thieves? I reached, nonchalantly, down to my bag that I’d nestled in between my ankles, making sure it was still there; that his chit-chat wasn’t really a way of distracting me while his pick-pocket sidekick got to work. After years in New York, as sad a truth it is, you learn to watch out for this. But my bag was there. All good. “So are you writing poetry?” he asked. “A novel,” I replied. “Wow,” he said back with a bow of his head. “Great that you have a novel in you at your age. You’re not writing the sequel to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ are you?” Seriously? Never mind the fact that I’m pretty sure there’s already a sequel, and maybe even a third volume—Eewww!! Where was he hoping this would go? “No. I’m working on something of my own,” I replied with a disapproving shake of my head. After another two minutes of trying to engage me, he got the hint, offered his best wishes and finally parted.

A while later, a homeless lady came up to me asking for change, and then a toothless man asking to borrow my pen. Ok, fine. Minor distractions. Back to work. Then some time later, a pasty kid with a choppy Mohawk and an array of haphazardly placed tattoos and a pierced septum came up and introduced himself as an image consultant and tried to convince me to take his card. Yeah, thanks but no thanks. I think I’ll stick to the path I’m on…image wise. Soon enough, he noticed my disinterest and walked away and again, I got back to work. Then the man two tables down from me, who had been quiet and keeping to himself the whole afternoon, started rummaging through belongings he had stuffed into a collection of tattered, plastic grocery bags. And then he broke out in a fit of maniacal laughter. And that sent me packing.

I closed my notebook, happy with what I’d accomplished for the day, feeling ok to call it quits. It was six o’clock and I was hungry. I took a look around once more before leaving, and felt thankful—for the beauty surrounding me…and even for some of the crazy. I mean, after all, that’s New York.

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Thoughts From a Wise Old Fish

Last week, as I scrolled through my feeds on Twitter and Facebook, I came across a flurry of posts with links to lists of the best commencement speeches from the last three decades. One that appeared more than once, that I had heard of, (having found it in book form a few years back), but had not actually ever heard, was David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address to Kenyon College titled “This is Water.”

Having been curious as to what it was about since thumbing quickly through the hardcover version, I decided one night after settling under the covers before bed, to listen to the twenty-two minute video of it on YouTube. When it was finished, beyond feeling disappointment that it hadn’t been the speech at my own graduation, I wished that somehow it could become required listening—or the transcript, required reading—something that every human being, in order to move along, onto adulthood was required to ingest. The speech begins with Wallace bringing up the cliché that a liberal arts education is about teaching students how to think, and from there he moves on to talk about how, how to think translates in what to think about. He talks about how in order not to be ‘dead’ while here on this earth, we need to redirect our thoughts from being focused on ourselves and be aware of the people and the world around us; need to veer away from the automatic tendency to see everything as being about us and thus be bothered or irritated when things are a way we don’t like, or an inconvenience to us.

I was tempted to play it again, it was that compelling, and though Mr. Wallace starts out by saying he is not a wise old fish, his are words of wisdom. With my eyes falling shut, I decided that instead of listening again right then, I might schedule a monthly recurring appointment to play it, so to always have it in mind, and because it’s probably one of those things that every time you hear it, you get a little something different out of it. My take-away that night was recognizing that yes, living in this crazy, non-stop, crowded city, I am constantly irritable and maybe, it would be worth my while to try to not be. I would actually love to become good at walking into an annoying situation (hmmm, let me think of one) and not be bothered by it… to maybe even find some morsel of joy in it.

So I decided that the next morning, I would start practicing. I would try, as Mr. Wallace said, to take the focus away from myself and really be aware of my surroundings. And I would make a conscious effort to reprogram my automatic reaction to whatever it was I was confronted with, and maybe look at it a different way. So I started with a situation that on a daily basis drives me almost to the point of insanity. And that is my commute.

I have written about life on the L before. Of all the trains that have been part of my quotidian ritual throughout my nearly two decades of living in New York City, I think, in terms of the morning rush hour, it just may be the worst. This is no exaggeration. The morning L train commute was one of the first cons on my list years ago, when I was struggling with the decision of whether or not to finally make the move to Brooklyn. The early-morning crowd is almost always near intolerable, with people clogging up the doorways, unwilling to move so that others can board. And the bikes and backpacks! Let us not forget the bikes and backpacks.

So there I was waiting on the platform. When the train pulled up and the doors opened, I did as I normally do and pushed my way into the car in search of an empty patch of floor. Once in place, I rearranged my bags, taking one from my shoulder and positioning it in between my calves so to make room for the surrounding bodies. And as others behind me did the same—pushing to get in too—I noticed one area that appeared empty and had me thinking “Why isn’t anyone filling up all of that space?” I realized soon after, that it was occupied by two small people who didn’t stand tall enough to immediately be seen. It was a pair of little girls, the older one probably nine, the little one maybe six. Their mother stood a few inches away.

I guessed from their attire that they were Orthodox Jews, the mother with no visible hair on her head, wearing a turban and the girls dressed, not in neon jeans and sparkly sneakers like most of the mini-gals I see in the city, but sweetly—or conservatively—in long skirts, tights and Mary Jane-style shoes, and blouses with cardigan sweaters. They both wore glasses and had their fuzzy, wheat-colored curls, pulled back in short ponytails.

 

When the train leaves the Bedford Avenue station in Williamsburg, it traverses the East River to Manhattan and does so underwater, which makes for a rather bumpy ride that lasts a solid two minutes at least. As I always make sure to before this long stretch, I reached for what empty space there was on the pole next to me and held on with a strained grip. The mother, standing right beside me, was barely secure, at the same pole but instead of holding onto it, leaning against it with her shoulder. We took off and soon the car was shaking turbulently as the train barreled through the tunnel. I saw that neither of the girls was holding onto anything. I wasn’t sure if this was out of comfort or fearlessness, the two of them—little New Yorkers—likely accustomed to riding the subway, or if it was them simply being aloof. I thought immediately upon seeing the three of them, that they sort of looked to be in a world all to themselves.

We rode along. And about midway through the river, I noticed the mother reach into her bag and begin digging around. Of course! Her daughters were hungry. After a few seconds of rummaging, she pulled out and handed to each of them, a peeled and ready-to-eat hard-boiled egg. A pungent, sulfurous odor entered the airspace. Faces winced as the waft hit them. But not one of the three so much as batted a lash. So with eggs in hand—as if it they were microphones, because that’s how kids hold hard-boiled eggs—the girls simultaneously sunk their teeth into the soft whites.

The ride through the tunnel was beginning to feel eternal what with some stranger’s pillowy backside resting too comfortably on my hip, and my hunger intensifying at an uncomfortable rate as it often does at this hour of the morning. As we sped on, the older girl continued to eat slowly. She looked to be enjoying the snack, or at least that she was satisfied by every bite and eager for the next one. But she was captivated by something else within her view, not paying attention the dry, 13-minute yolk that crumbled onto her hand and down to the floor that I, or one of my fellow passengers might later step on and track across the train car. The younger girl, though still holding onto her egg, had given up on it and was instead, half a finger deep into her nose, digging like it was the bottom of a frosting can, trying to scoop out the last of the sugary goodness. And then, just as I expected, though I will never understand why they do this—kids again—she pulled it from her nose and stuck it in her mouth and began to suck, as if it were a lollipop direct from Candyland. And then, as if she hadn’t quite gotten her fill, she repeated the whole thing in the other nostril.

Finally, I felt the train’s deceleration underfoot as we approached First Avenue. The mother lifted her shoulder from the pole and signaled to the girls that this was their stop. The little one was stuck in la-la land excavating. The older one was still munching on her egg, but as the train transitioned from the dark tunnel into the illuminated station, recognizing that break time was in fact up, she pushed what remained of it into her mouth with an open palm, where it settled into one cheek, producing a comical bulge from underneath her paperwhite skin. And concerned perhaps, by how far from ladylike this emergency act was, she moved a delicate hand in front of her face as she worked to finish chewing.

As the mother ushered her daughters out of the train at First Avenue and the new batch of commuters stepped in to merge with the rest of us, I made eye contact with a guy who I had noticed earlier, who had witnessed the whole thing alongside me. He smiled and then we quietly chuckled.

There I was on the L, not annoyed, but actually smiling. I made an effort to look at the situation differently and managed to find a morsel of joy. And really, it wasn’t so difficult.

So…Thank you Mr. Wallace for your thoughts. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that you are missed. Likewise, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that you were, whether you ever thought it or not, indeed, a wise old fish.

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On Compliments

On a recent visit home, I had a chance to see a group of friends from childhood, one of which is expecting a baby with his wife. He, I’ve known since the first grade; she, I met five years ago when they first started dating. But she is pure loveliness and fits in so well, I feel like I’ve known her my whole life. One evening, as she and I were chatting about her impending motherhood and I was waiting with my hands on her belly hoping for a kick, I told her husband that he found a really great woman and I was a happy to have her in our circle. As he thanked me, I went on to thank him for not letting her get away. And I told him that it felt really good to be able to say that and genuinely mean it. He delivered a second [this time modest] thank you as if taken aback by the sincerity of it all. And then I told him the story of when I first learned the importance of giving compliments.

I was probably six years old, and my sister Kristina five. We were with our mother at the checkout in the local grocery store, this rinky-dink place called Pantry Pride where everything was a little dingy and seeing a pretty face was like seeing sunshine after weeks of gloomy weather. The cashier—I remember her like she’s in front of me now—was a petite but slightly plump woman that I’m guessing was around 60 (though who really knows, because how accurately can a six year old gauge one’s age?). She had dark grey shoulder-length hair that she wore in big curls like from hot rollers, and thin wire-frame glasses that sat on the end of her nose. Her cheeks were a soft pink, like the color of raspberry sherbet, and her lipstick, a few shades darker. She had pale blue eye shadow on her eyelids and her eyelashes were long and lush. It sounds garish I know—first for a 60-year-old woman, next, for the grocery store—but it wasn’t. Honestly, she looked just like Mrs. Claus to me, but of course, in a different outfit.

Kristina was mesmerized the woman’s beauty as she watched her ringing up our groceries. She tugged at our mom’s arm and whispered up to her, “Mommy she’s pretty.” My mother looked back at her and replied, “She is pretty honey, but you need to tell her. If you don’t, she’ll never know.” So Kristina (who usually was not shy, but here, so in awe, was hiding behind our mom) mustered up the courage to lift her little head up to the woman and said, “You’re pretty.”

The woman beamed.

“See?” my mother said on the way out of the store. “Did you notice how she smiled when you told her? Whenever you have something nice to say about someone, you should say it to them. If you keep it to yourself, how will they know?” We nodded, acknowledging her instructions. “When you give a person a compliment, it makes them happy.”

I tell this story often, and whenever I do, I think yes, how wonderful it is that with something as simple as a few kind words, we are able to make one another happy, even if we’re strangers. As far away as that day in the grocery store is, I will never forget it. What a great lesson I learned from my mother that afternoon.

I have carried it with me ever since.

Blackout!

Never will a New York City summer go by that I don’t think back to those two days ten years ago, when against the black sky, the city lights were dark, and instead we could see the stars; when outside we sat on our stoops drinking beer, and in our apartments, where the air was hot and still, cold-water showers were our only relief: The Blackout of 2003.

At the time, I was working at a small design studio that occupied the garage of an old brick building in the West Village. Our space was simple and spare with concrete floors, white walls, and industrial divided-light windows high overhead. It was typical, throughout the day, when clouds would shift in the sky, that the sunshine, which often spilled down on us, would disappear intermittently.

It was a little after four in the afternoon, while I was away from my desk, that the dimness rolled in that day. Initially, I thought it was just another dense fleet of clouds, but then realized that the lights had actually gone off. And my co-worker, who typically sat quietly clicking away in AutoCAD was suddenly banging his mouse in a fit of frustration, shouting obscenities at his monitor.

During the blackout of ‘77, the two of us were crawling around in diapers, so at the lights going out —even at seeing our neighbors standing in their doorways—I don’t think either of us imagined a power outage spread across New York and a good chunk of the Northeast. Aside from that, memories of September 11th still echoed pretty clearly and I know that I for one, was still on edge. So like a dirty drug in the bloodstream, within seconds, panic was coursing through my veins, and my mind naturally went to thinking that they were at it again, and that this was only the beginning of something much larger and much darker.

I felt a tingling in my palms and then that familiar clamminess that haunts me when my fight-or-flight defenses kick in. I reached for the phone to call home, but the line was quiet and cell service was out. Then I remembered: My sister Kristina who had been up for a quick trip with her, at the time, on-again-off-again boyfriend Paul, was still in the city, scheduled to fly home that evening. My heart was on the floor. Thoughts of terrorists and planes ran rampant in my head. And then my co-worker relayed news that it appeared to be nothing more than a good old-fashioned blackout, and I could breathe again.

Still, I worried about my sister. But then, as if it was being confirmed that we did indeed possess the telepathic abilities we so very much believed in as children, Kristina walked in. A chill ran the length of my body. Only moments before, the thought had crossed my mind that I might never see her again. “How did you know to come here?” She looked at me, shaking her head, her sapphire eyes beginning to water. “There’s no way I was leaving you here and never seeing you again.” She burst into tears. And as I did too, I grabbed her in my arms, knowing the root of her worry was the same as mine had been. “It’s not terrorists Kris,” I said, gasping through sobs. “It’s just a blackout.”

We cried until we came to our senses, finally realizing, we didn’t have time to waste. We had work to do. Our first mission? To pick up Kristina and Paul’s luggage that was in storage for them, at their hotel…in Times Square.

Everyone who’s visited New York knows it’s a pedestrian city (note: this was pre-Citi Bike), and everyone who lives here is accustomed to walking every day. But when the buses are overcrowded and the subways are at a halt, traffic lights are down and walking is the only option, it’s a whole other story—more like a citywide march that everyone participates in. So they we were, under the still scorching sun, on a 30-block hike uptown, amongst the hot…sweaty…complaining masses.

After another hour, as we headed back, down to Soho where I was living, reality had really set in. First, there was the question of dinner, our collective hunger growing steadily with each stride, and the fact that any food I had at home could not be cooked. Then there was the heat and the more unfortunate fact that no power meant no AC in my studio apartment where we would sleep like sardines. I would need to locate candles. And then it dawned on us, more importantly, we needed to locate Taryn, another friend in town, scheduled to fly out that night, who at that point, was most certainly stranded as well.

As we turned down Thompson Street, I looked to the bench outside my building, and to my relief, saw that familiar head of brown curls, the lanky pair of legs and the converse high tops. She was there. We rushed to meet her, and for a second, I felt like a mother bear, with all my cubs, safely in my care.

After a quick regroup, we pooled what cash we had in our wallets and split up. Kristina and Paul made a beer run to the deli and Taryn and I headed to Ben’s Pizza, that thanks to a wood-burning oven and a guy named Tito who had lived in my building for 25 years and was manning the door for the sake of crowd control, was one of the few places open for business. T and I lucked out standing next to a skinny, model couple that wasn’t as concerned about eating as we had been. When they overheard our frustration at the 2-slice per person limit they said that we could have their extra two. Great! Because in our minds, yes, there was the worry that it might be some time before we would eat again. So we split six slices between the four of us. [Never mind the fact that this cost us $30 because the man behind the counter took payment from each of us and when we tried to dispute, threatened, “You no pay, you no get pizza.”] 

Back at my building, we drank beers on the front stoop and were content with plain old conversation as entertainment. Above us, the sky was one black dome of stars, which for anyone who knows this city, is a rare spectacle and one of amazing beauty. At one point, someone said they were worried there might be looting, like there had been back in ’77. I shook my head, knowing that after what we had been through two summers before, there was a solidarity in the city that no one, no matter how down-and-out they were, would dare disrespect.

After a second trip to the deli later in the night, not for beer again, but to lean, for a few seconds, against the still cool refrigerator doors, Kristina and I stopped at a payphone at the end of the block to call our parents. In front of us, there was a man, that by the sound of it, was also reaching out to a loved one. At his mention of being able to see the stars, I recognized his unmistakable voice as belonging to none other than Wallace Shawn. Well of course—because what’s a night in New York without at least one celebrity run-in, right?

In the stairwell of my building, a kind neighbor lit the way with votive candles that we were beyond thankful for, climbing four flights in pitch-black darkness. Inside my apartment, I lit whatever candles I could find, and we took turns taking cold showers. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve welcomed water at an Arctic temperature raining down on me. When it came time to go to sleep, Paul, for some odd reason, was awarded my twin bed, while Kristina, Taryn and I slept on layers of blankets and pillows spread out across the tiled kitchen floor. As with any slumber party, we stayed up talking until our eyes finally fell shut.

I look back on that summer ten years ago and think how lucky I was that the day a blackout hit, I had three friends there with me. When I would have been all alone, probably scared to death in the dark, I wasn’t. Would I have ever imagined, with the heat, the hunger, no money, no subway, that this saga would turn out one I’d someday laugh reminiscing about? Had you told me this was how it would unfold, I probably would have waved a hand, tossed my head and said something along the lines of such an idea being far-fetched, or ‘never in a million years’. Or maybe I’d just look back at you straight and say that I thought it was absolutely, totally and in all other ways, ‘inconceivable’.

*For a great visual trip down memory lane, see Gothamist’s look back here.

 

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Home Sweet City

home sweet city

On a recent weekend out of the city, a young cousin of mine asked me a question every New Yorker has asked their self at least once—a question I have asked myself more times than I care to think about: Will I live in New York City forever? I looked out the car window, past his puerile face to the bucolic scene in blues and greens—the perfect azure sky, the rolling hills dotted with lush, leafy trees. I shrugged my shoulders, flashed a face of doubt and said simply, “I don’t know.”

It’s not that I can’t bring myself to imagine ever living elsewhere. I daydream about faraway places all the time—about living in a quaint Parisian apartment on a narrow cobblestone street in Montmartre, or a charming, light-filled flat in London, or even packing up and heading somewhere closer to home like Chicago or Seattle, just to see what it’s like. But what James was asking was not so much could I leave New York, but could I ever leave the city. I knew this because of the way he asked—the sweet innocence in his voice, as if he wondered how anyone could prefer urban chaos over rural quietude. I turned to him and asked, “Do you like New York?” He said back gently, but assuredly, “No. I like it here.”

As a child, when I would sit down with my paper and pencil to draw, it was rolling hills and barns that came to life on my page– this despite having grown up on the beach where palm trees stood instead of pines. Was there was a longing within me? Maybe. But then along came Seventeen magazine and its editorials that pictured young city gals in Bohemian dresses carrying brown paper bags of vegetables down Soho streets. Those images made my heart skip a beat. As soon as I could go, I headed for Manhattan. And as many times as the question of staying forever has crossed my mind, here I still am.

I tried explaining to James what it is about the city that gets me…what it is that, as backwards as it sounds, actually puts me at ease. I’m not sure he grasped it—perhaps for no reason other than at twelve, knowing home only to be the quiet country suburbs, he simply can’t relate. I know I’m not alone however, in my love for city life. Just last week I came across this letter in an old issue of AD Russia, a printout of the English translation literally falling from the magazine while I sat thumbing through it in search of an article for my boss. Eugenia Mikulina, who at the time was editor, gets it exactly…

 

The City

 

Well put Ms. Mikulina.

As for my future, well– I don’t know where life is going to take me, or if I’ll ever feel a pull to any place quite like the one I felt that brought me here. But I like to go with the flow, take whatever comes my way. So if an opportunity for a new place to call home ever does come around– even if it is the country– I’ll consider. Until then, I’ll be content here, in the city…with its uneven pavement (on which I get to walk each and every day) and crowded subways (where I get to see faces and overhear stories I would otherwise never know)… the tiny, expensive apartments (where I have learned to find happiness living with less)…the bumper to bumper traffic (where I sit back and enjoy the ride) the noises, the smells… the glitz and glam and grit and grime that makes the city what it is… the place for now at least, that I call home.

Well I’m A Middle Child, So…

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When you are born a middle child, like I was (second in a line of three girls), people are never shy in sharing with you, their thoughts on why you are the way you are. You’re sensitive; you need a lot of attention; and my favorite, which I heard just last week: you’re dealing with a Jan Brady complex. A lot of it, I laugh off, but on occasion, I do find it interesting to analyze what effect my birth order actually did have on me. Maybe it is because I wasn’t the eldest, who was trusted, and handed all of the responsibility by mom and dad, or because I wasn’t the youngest, who was always given that extra nudge, coddled just a little more, that I played alone as a child and that it was me who decided to go to school 1100 miles away from home and be ok on my own for the next two decades. Perhaps there is a correlation; I really don’t know. But one thing I am pretty sure is a result of being stuck in the middle all those years, is that I always need that pat on the back that says I’ve done well—that little bit of reassurance to bolster my confidence, even when it’s for something I have no doubt I’ve executed without a hitch.

Case in point:

It was last week, when my boss put me on the task of organizing the menu for a working dinner with a new project team which included, in addition to him and a few of my co-workers, two outside consultants and a [very important] client from China. Sure, I could do this, no problem. If there is anything that I know for certain I’m good at, it’s preparing a beautiful meal. From choosing the dinner plates and table linens to arranging the flowers, and writing the place cards and crafting the menu itself, I’m your girl. I love to do it and I know I do it well.

So the meeting was on Friday and I got word end of day Wednesday. Fine. A day to plan was plenty. Before leaving for the evening I sent a kind inquiry to my point person for the Chinese client, asking if they had any preferences for our dinner, or, more importantly, if they had any dietary restrictions.

Mid-morning the following day, I received a note back that read something along the lines of: “Healthy, not too greasy…Greasy food is not good choice… Small pieces of beef are ok…as long as not greasy.”

I kid you not.

I read it three times, during which my mind toggled back and forth between pictures of a raw, Gwyneth Paltrow-style spread of “healthy” food, and the carnivore’s delight: a juicy, rare steak. I was sure that this dinner meeting with our Chinese client was not the occasion to experiment with either extreme however, so I started thinking of more universally appealing options– a menu that fell somewhere sort of in between crazy-healthy and indulgent. Ideas began swirling. I started looking at websites for all of the local ‘purveyors of fine foods’, browsing catering menus. Nothing seemed quite right. It was that “small pieces of beef” line that kept throwing me. Would he mention beef if he didn’t want beef? No! He wanted beef. Beef, beef! Citarella had a Filet Mignon platter and at Dean & DeLuca there was a Provence Grill platter or a Pan-Asian platter. (Though, a Pan-Asian platter is weird for a Chinese client, right?) Anyway, a group of eight was really too small to go the catered platters route, so I figured I’d put something together myself, prepared of course, as I don’t have a working kitchen at my disposal.

I took a venture to the nearby Whole Foods thinking skewers, and made a beeline to the dinner-ready window. Et voila! There they were, piled high, calling my name. I would do a few chicken, a few beef, a mixed greens salad and a nice side of grilled veg for the non-meat eaters, and a summer pearl couscous (or some equally delicious starch). Well, my hopes were dashed as fast as the brilliant plan had come to me—when the man behind the counter explained that the skewers need to be reheated and that the recommended method of doing so is low heat on a stovetop. Ok, so skewers were out and it was on to Plan B. At least I got the starch and the salad.

On the walk back to the office I shuffled through the list of restos in the vicinity that with some sweet-talking might make me exactly what I wanted and deliver it hot. Then back at my desk it was a call to a new place just around that corner at which I’d recently discovered (and I say this because it’s a sports bar) a surprisingly good menu that includes, what else but skewers.  So after trying to explain to two lovely Irish gals what exactly I wanted to do [and getting nowhere] I was finally connected to the chef himself.

“So I’ll take four orders of the chicken skewers… and…do you have any beef?”

“We don’t have beef skewers but we’ve got steak.”

“Hmmm. Steak could work. What kind of steak?”

“Steak Frites with an herb butter. It’s a prime-aged, grass-fed hangar steak.”

“Is that what I see in the picture on your website?”

“Yes it is.”

“Well that does look delicious. Can you make me three of those medium-rare hold the frites?”

“Three of those, medium-rare, hold the frites. Sure thing.”

“And do you have any sort of vegetable?”

“I got a roasted vegetable– chickpea, tomato, artichoke hearts, asparagus…”

“I’ll take three!”

And at that, everything had fallen into place.

At 6:30 my culinary work of art was finished—the paper takeout cartons were traded for ceramic serving dishes and made pretty with sprigs of watercress and bright purple leaves of radicchio, and under the lights, gently dimmed for effect, our minimal black dinnerware looked elegant. The glasses had a delicate sparkle to them, and somehow the silverware looked shinier than usual. Any trace of Whole Foods or sports bar menu had disappeared, and now it was nothing less than a gorgeous feast. I opened a bottle of white and a bottle of red, fluffed the lettuce greens one last time and smiled to myself, content with my little masterpiece, pleased with my mission accomplished. But of course, there was still one thing I would wait for….

The next morning at work, there were the expected rumblings around the office about how the meeting had gone, and from the boss-man, there were a handful of thank yous—to everyone on the team, for all the hours they’d put in, for all the hard work. Of course, my contribution was minor in comparison—a day of my life instead of weeks—but when it came to me, there was no acknowledgement at all, like the dinner had never happened…or better, as if I’d tossed my hands up and served McDonald’s to our guests, paper wrappers and Happy Meal boxes included. So I fixed dinner. Still, it was my effort. And I wanted that reassurance that my effort was appreciated; maybe even impressive. When noontime came, there was still not a word. Was it that he had forgotten? Or had he said nothing on purpose? Was my version of beautiful so far from his? My ‘masterpiece’ really nothing so special at all? My mind began in a downward spiral. But wait… There was still hope. The day was not over. There was still his goodbye.

And then there before me, it happened. Or… it didn’t. “Good night,” he said, buttoning his raincoat. “I’ll see you Monday.” My heart sank. And from behind my blank-faced “goodnight” in reply, my inner Jan Brady set off in hysterics—one part frustrated, one part confused and the rest just sad. And I felt like chasing after him in search of an explanation.

Wait a minute here? What about me? Did I not do well? Didn’t you mean to thank me?

It was an hour later when the note came. Via email. A thanks for a beautiful dinner and a job well done.

So, in the end, however late it arrived, I got what I wanted… or, being the middle child I am, what I needed. I guess that the lesson this time—because there’s always a lesson, no matter how grown up we are— is that beyond always trying to do my best, I should learn to live with the possibility that I might not get the pat on the back and feel content enough with the knowledge that I have done the job well.

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Life Lessons

So here I am sitting down to my blog and once again, it’s a month since the last time I published anything. It’s not that I’ve been lazing the days away, or that my passion for the craft has withered. No! Not in the slightest. The idea for this post actually came to me some time ago. It was that alone, I didn’t think it was substantial enough. You know, I’ve never been a woman of few words, and obviously here, I favor the long-form essay. So, as I often do with early ideas, I put this one to rest for a little bit, and took a step back to let life unfold; to see if something would come to me– in my sleep or in the middle of workweek chaos– that I could add to it, to shape a meatier piece. And after weeks (sure, maybe a few too many), thanks to my open eyes and listening ears, a few things did.

It all started one Saturday a while back, when I took a free class at one of these new all-cycling studios that have popped up across the city. Having never been to one, and wishing I could afford to give up my cut-rate, regular gym membership and join one to be among a higher echelon of the gym-going public, I was pretty psyched for the preview. Well, as I had imagined it would be, it was great— the place was squeaky clean, like teeth after a trip to le dentist; the bikes, brand new, were super smooth to ride; the sound system was booming; the staff was friendly… yada yada.

Then there was the instructor. So, I get it… When it’s your career to work out, you’re going to have an awesome body. Great. Good for you. You deserve it. I mean it. That said, I’m a fan of humility and I never do get why, when you’re sitting on a bike on a platform in front of the class, where everyone can see you anyway (and they’re drooling… either with desire or with jealously), you, the owner of this awesome body, feel the need to flaunt it. Do you really need to get off your bike as we, your average, less-than-hard-bodied students pedal through virtual mud, to dance in front of us in your skimpy bra-top and teensy-tiny shorts like you’re doing a striptease, showing off your washboard abs and your collage of sexy tattoos?

This was the scene playing out in front of me, and by three quarters of the way in, I was over it and had put the kibosh on the idea that I would yes, trade in my discount gym for this place. (Thank God for my brain, because going through with that would have meant going broke, but somehow I had reasoned that it was ok.) So I was over it, but still, I would ride it out, through the one last song. Our little playboy bunny instructed us to crank up the resistance one more notch, and then another, and I did, and then she said to us [these words that I never would’ve expected]:

“I know it’s hard. But you can do it… Be grateful for the fact that you can do it. Be grateful for having this body, and this mind, and this spirit. Be grateful for having been able to wake up today and come here.”

And at hearing this, I closed my eyes… because however annoyed I’d been with her earlier, at that moment she was right; and she was saying this to us with sincerity. I choked up a little bit. But still there on my bike, I pushed through. And though being grateful is something that I am every day, being there in that room, all of us, grateful together for those few minutes, was bigger and stronger and better feeling to me than being grateful alone ever had been.

So a few days go by, and I’m still on this high after bunny’s words of wisdom, and I come across this article that was published last month on NPR. It’s a piece on the recent disheartening report on the increase in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans. And as I always do when this topic comes up, aside from whatever frustration I have that for some people, this is the answer, I felt really sad. And I wished in my heart that I could help find a way to change this reality. I don’t know how to do that of course. Would positive words or thoughts that I have to share sink in to someone flirting with the idea of taking their own life? I kind of think not.

But a few days after reading the article, I happened, coincidentally, to arrive at a page in the book I’m reading, that really felt fitting as I waited to find the last piece to this post. And whether it sinks in or makes any sort of difference, I share it here…from Tinkers by Paul Harding:

“Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of greater certainty… And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.”

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On ‘Leaning In’

It’s a little over a week ago now, that I first heard about this new book ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg. It was my mom who mentioned it to me in the middle of one of our weeknight phone calls. She’d caught an interview with the author on some morning show, and told me that I should find it online and watch it. For a second I wondered whySure, it’s a book about women in the workplace, gender inequality and the need for us [women] to push ourselves a little harder, or lean in a little closer, to get that place in front, or at the top, that we deserve. I get it. But it’s written by the COO of Facebook—a woman with two degrees from Harvard. My mother is fully aware that I’m nowhere near even standing next to the ladder, let alone trying to climb it, and that I have no ambitions of the high-powered executive ilk.

Maybe it was just her being a good mom, wanting the best for me; wanting me to be successful, and able to take care of myself, and achieve whatever goals or life dreams I set down when I got out of college. Who knows, maybe there’s some unfulfilled career dream that she had, that I never knew about. Whatever the case, I said ok, and found a segment that had aired on NPR and pushed play. Immediately, I was aligned with Sandberg, and in days that followed, in reading reviews both for and against her advice and her mission, even having not yet read the book, I agreed with her. Regardless of what kind of work I do now or ever will do, I feel very strongly that these hurdles we women face are ours to confront head on if we want to see change.

Growing up in a house full of girls with a father who didn’t want to raise little prisses, it was hard not to end up a feminist. So, like my sisters, I have feminist blood coursing through my veins, empowering me with the die-hard belief that I can do anything the boys can do. Ok, obviously not anything, but you get my point. I can do anything boys can do—and some things I can even do better.

What’s sort of backwards in all of this, for me personally, is that as much as I believe in leaning in, fighting the fight, at the same time, I think I might very easily be able to throw my hands up and say “Forget it.” The cover story in this week’s New York magazine is entitled, ‘The Feminist Housewife’. I read the article yesterday over lunch. It talks about the growing trend of stay-at-home mommyhood and how many young (and some not so young) women in today’s society actually don’t want to lean in to their careers—not because they’re wimping out, but because they want to be mothers, want to give their blood, sweat and tears to the job of taking care of their families. I have forever imagined having a family; but I’ve also always imagined working. I enjoy being part of the team setting, the regular interaction with intelligent, articulate, witty adult peers, the chit-chats and inside jokes and collaborating on projects and going for post workday beers. I have to say however, the article did make the housewife-mommy lifestyle sound very appealing, and by the end of it, I was kind of wanting it for myself.

But, let’s get back to reality. I’m a single, 36-year-old woman in New York City with not even a prospect for a husband on the horizon. So, as I wait for the housewife-mommy lifestyle to meet up with me some day (hopefully), I have to work.

This brings me back to a conversation I had over dinner last weekend with my cousin’s seven-year-old son Jack. He asked me at one point, “Andrea, what’s your career?” There is nothing quite like being put on the spot by a seven-year-old, let me tell you. I took a swig of wine, cleared my throat and replied frankly (because I was really answering the whole table of people staring at me and not just him). “I don’t really have a career,” I said. “It’s more of a…job.” Of course I wondered: at seven, do you even know the difference? “Well then what’s your job?” he asked back immediately. I stared into his brown marble eyes wishing the telephone would ring or that someone would swallow something down a wrong pipe and fall into a fit of coughing, but alas, no luck. So I started on about how I manage an office, and am the assistant to the boss, and that I take care of him to make sure his day runs smoothly. Of course I wasn’t feeling so proud but, whatever, it’s a job and I do it well. And Jack replies (and here I almost choked): “So you basically make sure his desk is clean?”

Well thanks to my mother, who was in town visiting and sitting next to me, the conversation was smoothed out and in the end, I was still breathing and Jack was at least somewhat satisfied with the work I do, however different or less it is than what he expected. Thinking back on the whole exchange, that initial question of why my mother felt so strongly about me needing to hear Sheryl Sandberg’s interview comes to mind—the question of how leaning in applies to me. I actually can quite easily see the answer. I think the basic principles Ms. Sandberg discusses can be applied to any of us in any environment if what we want is to be recognized for the work we do, and rewarded or compensated as we see fit.

So my job is not work that I am wholeheartedly fulfilled by, but this is by choice. I made the decision to veer away from what I thought years ago would be my career, because I fell out of love with it and found it eating up my life. A job, on the other hand, allows me to pursue the longtime love I never before focused on, which is writing. Granted, it means writing in my spare time, but I’ll take what I can get. Earlier this month, the website VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) published their ‘2012 Count’ which takes a look at the numbers of women versus men in various segments of the literary world. Without having to study their charts with much scrutiny, it’s quite clear, the dismal disparity that exists and subsequently, the message that success in the literary world is no easier to achieve than success in the corporate world…if you’re a woman. My dream may not be to have the corner office, or be the highest paid executive, but yeah, I’d love to be a successful and respected writer one day. So is the idea of leaning in, for me, really backwards at all? I think not.

The bottom line is that we all deserve to have what we want in life. I don’t think anyone is saying success in the corporate world is any greater than a happy, healthy, well-cared-for home, or that it makes you any better a woman. And I don’t think, despite what a lot of the critics have said, that Sheryl Sandberg’s advice can’t apply to all of us. She’s coming to us with first hand experience. She knows the challenges that come with being a woman. She’s definitely on our side in this. I remember being a little girl, afraid to put my hand up in a classroom full of boys but being free and speaking up at Brownies. Sadly, I know that that insecurity, despite believing I can do anything boys can do, has stayed with me to some extent. I hope one day we see change. And in the meantime, to Sheryl Sandberg (and to my mother)—thanks for the push… to lean in.

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Ah Yes…This Is Why I’m Here.

At the end of a long day, when stepping across the threshold of my cozy apartment is my heart’s absolute greatest desire, the walk home, short as it is, can sometimes feel like a painfully eternal trek. The freezing cold air bites at my face and my fingertips feel as if they are only moments from lifelessness. I pace briskly, but can’t seem to get there fast enough. At times I even wonder, exhausted from New York City life—commuting and all the rest of it: Shouldn’t I be done with this nonsense? In another town I’d have a car.” I think that after seventeen years, yes (and I think even Frank Sinatra would agree), I could make it anywhere. I wonder isn’t it time I trade the rat race in for a quieter, more peaceful existence. I even go as far as asking myself: “Why am I still here?”

On Mondays, it’s a residual high from my 7 o’clock spin class that keeps me from counting the number of steps I still have before reaching my block or questioning my life in New York. Despite the fatigue that inhabits me, my mind is off in some euphoric place after the 45-minute all-out blood and guts ride. It’s this class that gets me out of bed on Monday mornings as I dread the start of the workweek; this class, that I turn down all other Monday evening invitations for. Little can sooth my soul quite like it. But when a certain email caught my eye last week, while sifting through my inbox, without hesitation, I deemed that missing it every once in a blue moon certainly wouldn’t kill me.

The email was from a group I once took a class with called Sackett Street Writers Workshop. It was an invitation for a reading that they were hosting at an indie bookstore called BookCourt in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Just like I was first drawn to Sackett Street for the cozy appeal of its classes, many of which take place in the teachers’ brownstone apartments, I was drawn to BookCourt, perhaps because of the neighborhood it’s located in, or its story as a little community bookseller that could.

So last week, when Monday rolled around, I nixed the spin class and instead, after work, took a detour to Cobble Hill for the event. Well, as I had imagined it would be, BookCourt turned out to be a dreamland—where every title in the wide yet carefully curated collection called my name; the kind of place (if you are a book lover) that you want to visit everyday, or move into, if bookstore owners allowed such a thing. I found my way to the back of the store, to the events space known as The Greenhouse. A group of about 40 people were seated in folding chairs, as Julia from Sackett Street, a woman I’d never met, but through emails, introduced the evening and brought up the first author.

There were four in total, including Julia herself, each reading an excerpt from a recently published or soon-to-be published piece of work. As it is any time when you have a bunch of writers in a room, each was different from the next, and with every one, I connected differently. What I saw as the common thread was that each one of these authors was such a seemingly regular person. And though yes, there was a obvious disparity that existed between myself and each of them—that they have published books and I don’t—I like to think that they started at the same place I did, with that goal in mind, that ache, that need.

At the end of the night, before leaving, after introducing myself to Julia, I went up to the counter in search of the last author’s book. As a treat to myself, and because I am a lover of paper books and because I desperately want to save the disappearing brick and mortar stores that sell them, I decided I would buy a copy. The book was ‘Dare Me‘, about high school cheerleaders—what a NY Times book review called “Heathers meets Fight Club good”. The author? Megan Abbott, a petite redhead with a big smile and contagious enthusiasm. I’d heard Julia mention Megan was the author of six novels, but her name was not familiar to me. But then at the counter, I saw another book next to Dare Me, with the same name, Megan Abbott stretched across the bottom of its watery blue cover. This one was called ‘The End of Everything’, and it was one I realized then and there, that I’d seen on numerous reading lists in the past few months. So of course, I had to buy it too. And I would have Megan, the author sign the both of them.

An hour later, when I climbed up the stairs from the subway to begin my long, short walk home, I recognized, though it wasn’t my typical Monday night post-spin class high, that I had a feeling of lightness inside me. It was a pleasant mix of happiness and inspiration. What a perfect creative evening it had been. I paced the broken sidewalk, the winter air fresh on my skin, recalling Julia and my conversation, when she talked about New York and its wealth of resources for writers. I shook my head in agreement again, smiled and said to myself, “Ah yes—this is why I’m still here.”

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