Saturday, July 25, 2009

It's a tough town, kid

Well, my rooster story brought about such an entertaining set of comments from you all, I've been trying to think of other topics that would encourage more such sharing of amusing anecdotes. I was coming up empty until the other day, at the nail salon, when I was reminded of one of my favorite genres: New York City wisecracks. There are eight million stories in the naked city, and I bet a good seven million of them involve snappy, snarky comebacks. Life in New York - piled on top of each other as we are - can involve a lot of day-to-day conflict, especially the verbal kind; the upside is that a not-so-pleasant encounter can provide the opportunity for one of life's more satisfying accomplishments: coming up with a perfect witty response that psychically destroys your opponent. (Of course, the response must be conceived of and deployed on the spot, rather than later that night, when you're brushing your teeth and still fuming over That Jerk, and I Can't Believe He Said That, and Man I Should've Let Him Have It.)

I've already shared with you one of my more pleasing encounters in this vein, but believe me: I've got a million of 'em. For instance, a few years ago, I'm waiting in a subway that's been idling in the station for a good few minutes (god only knows why, but probably something to do with the ever-mysterious "train traffic ahead," an "explanation" that only comes over the intercom on a train that I waited ten minutes for in the first place, so I know there's no train traffic ahead, buddy, don't try that line on me.... But that's a different tirade, for another time). So anyway, the train is sitting there, doors open, and I'm standing in the doorway, trying to concentrate on my New Yorker and not start fuming about the friggin' delay, when I hear a guy tearing down the stairs, calling out, "Hold the door! Hold the door!"

I have opinions on holding the door, whether it's the subway, or an elevator, or whatever, which can basically be summed up as, "Why should we all be delayed just so you can squeeze on?" So I keep reading my magazine, even though I'm standing in the doorway closest to the staircase, and before the guy can make it onto the train, the bell rings and the doors shut right in his face. I can feel him glaring at me, so I just keep my head down and wait for the train to pull away.

Instead, the doors pop back open (probably because someone in another car was holding the damn door), and the guy steps in next to me. The doors shut, the train starts up, and the guy stands there, glaring and glaring and glaring at me, while I continue to stare at my magazine. If this were a cartoon, I'd be nervously whistling.

Then he says, "Yo, why didn't you hold the doors?"

I pretend to ignore him, though I can feel my face getting a little hot.

"Yo, why didn't you hold the doors?" Now he's leaning right into me, and people are glancing over, so I have to say something. I give him a look and, in a Brooklyn-inspired smart-alecky tone of voice, say, "I don't speak English." I then return my attention to my (English-language) New Yorker, while his mind totally short-circuits and the guy next to me snickers. La la la.

Then there's yesterday, in my favorite nail place (open 24 hours a day! 365 days a year! yay, New York!). I get myself all comfy in the pedicure throne and dive into The New Yorker (my standard NYC reading material, as you've no doubt surmised) while Ivana (per her name tag, though I wonder if this is the name on her Korean birth certificate - but no matter) goes to town on my feet. After a minute, I become aware of the two women sitting a couple thrones down...

{A warning: as with my snobby post about the hordes of tourists at the Louvre, this anecdote involves my intolerance of and hostility toward the tourist genus, this time toward a certain type of all-American tourist one often finds in New York. Sorry if it offends, but in the spirit of sharing all my innermost thoughts and feelings and dreams with you, Dear Reader, here goes.}

...Back to the salon. The women are clearly a mother/daughter team, wearing the classic "I'm not from here" outfit of the summertime tourist: baggy tee shirt, casual way-too-short shorts, big white sneakers, white socks (this is not the beach, people! this is New York! dress accordingly!). The mother is enjoying herself by rather aggressively chatting up every employee in the joint - any time one of the salon gals walks by, the mother is all, "Why hello! What a cute shirt! You don't smile enough! You have such a pretty smile!" I stick my nose more deeply into my magazine and try not to be overly judgmental.

But then, she went Too Far. One of my pet peeves (yes, another one) is that people who don't live in places like New York and Los Angeles (the two spots where I've spent my adult life) seem to think it's perfectly okay to complain about these cities to the people who live there, as if this isn't deeply insulting and shockingly rude. I'm not sure if this is a case of protesting too much out of insecurity and low self-esteem, or just the kind of smug superiority that some non-urban people seem to feel, as if it's somehow admirable to not be able to make it in the big city.

Anyway, one of the salon gals makes a little joke with the mother about her in-your-face chattiness. The mother, delighted to be so encouraged, says, "Oh, I'm always just as friendly as friendly could be! Not like the people here. We're from Erie, Pennsylvania, and in Erie, people say please and thank you, and we smile and say hello when we pass someone on the street."

I can't hold back. I turn to her and say (again with the Brooklyn-inspired inflection), "Well, I'm from New York, and in New York, we don't make random rude comments about other people's hometowns."

Of course, that's completely not true, as New Yorkers are always making disparaging comments about Anyplace That Isn't New York, but that's beside the point. The woman kept her trap shut for the rest of her pedicure, and I returned to my magazine, just so delighted with myself.

I would like to point out that if people in places like Erie, Pennsylvania, were so damn sweet and friendly, all the misfit toys growing up in such towns wouldn't feel the need to flee to places like New York as soon as they could afford the bus fare.

I would also like to point out that I didn't say the first thing that popped into my mind, which wasn't quite so clever, but would have been much more satisfying: "Honey, if you don't like it, get the F out. You won't be missed."

Jungle Red, darling.

{top: poster from the 1974 "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three"; bottom: Rosalind Russell (apparently a cousin of mine!) in "The Women"}

Thursday, July 16, 2009

city slicker

I don't have a lot of nature in my background. I was born and raised in the suburbs, and have spent my adult life first in Los Angeles, then in New York. To be sure, my Connecticut town was something of a wilderness, in a Mean Girls / Pretty in Pink way, and lord knows that the law of the jungle rules in L.A. and New York, but in terms of outright unspoiled nature, my experience is mostly limited to a very few vacations.

Still, for some reason, I tend to think of myself as an outdoorsy person, someone who could easily win Survivor, hands down. This despite the fact that (a) being in the woods makes me think of Blair Witch Project, and being in the water makes me think of Jaws; (b) I know basically nothing about flora and fauna, other than various ways to kill a cockroach; and (c) I'm a total princess about things like nice pillows and a good deli and 24-hour everything.

For instance. During my daily walk through the woods today, up here in my weeklong country idyll, I saw this fellow:

Now, if I were a nature girl, I probably would have froze and noted his behavior, while my train of thought went something like this:

"The beaver is North America's largest rodent and is built for life in the water. Adults can be up to four feet long and weigh over 60 pounds. The beaver has webbed hind feet and a large, flat, nearly hairless tail. It uses its tail to help maintain its balance when it is gnawing on trees. It will also slap its tail against the water to signal danger or to warn away predators.... Beavers live near rivers, streams, ponds, small lakes and marshes. They build lodges of sticks and mud on islands, on pond banks or on lake shores. Beaver dams are domed-shaped and can be as high as ten feet tall.... The beaver has a specialized digestive system that helps it digest tree bark.... Beavers mate for life, but if one mate dies, the other one will find another mate.... Beavers can live to be 20 years old."*

Instead, my thought process went something like this:

"Holy shit, what is that? Is it a dingo? Oh, wait, it's a beaver! Oh, how totally cute! Just like Mr. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe... He was so brave... Edmund was such a jerk in that book; I don't think I ever forgave him, even in the other books, when he was supposedly all noble and kingly.... Selling Mr. Tumnus and his own siblings down the river just for some Turkish Delight.... I'm still not quite sure what Turkish Delight is.... Isn't it weird that 'sweetmeats' are candies, and 'sweetbreads' are meat?... Ooo, that reminds me of that time at Craft, when I had the amazing sweetbreads, and the giant scallops, and the potato gratin in its own adorable little copper skillet, and that fierce Pinot Noir...."

As you see, in less than thirty seconds, my thoughts are no longer centered on communing with nature in the woods, but instead are off having a mad feast at a high-end Manhattan restaurant, and the beaver is long gone.

Perhaps the definitive proof of my inherent city mouse status came a few years back, when I was staying with friends in their farmhouse in upstate New York. It wasn't a working farm, but they did have some sheep (basically pets), and a hen house filled with chickens who laid the most delicious eggs, and two roosters: one fenced in with the chickens, and one roaming the land.

One morning, on her way out the door, my hostess let me know that one of the hens was sick, and, in the evil ways of the fowl world, the other chickens had ganged up on her. "They'll basically peck her to death, poor thing, so I took her out of the coop and stuck her in the barn."

How ghastly, I thought; how very Tippi Hedren.

Not much later, I looked out the window and saw the rooster-at-large heading into the barn. "That little shit," I thought; "he's going after that hen."

Sure enough, when I went out for a recon mission, I found the poor hen cowering in a corner while the rooster came at her. I proceeded to yell authoritatively at the rooster, and shooed him out of the barn. But as soon as I turned away, the rooster came right back in, very aggressive, and very determined to bully the hen. By now, I hated him, deeply, and so I shooed him away more forcefully, kicking at him a bit, and stomping my feet.

And then - sweet Jesus - he turned on me, spreading his wings, making a god-awful noise, and rushing straight at me like a bat out of hell.

I screamed and jumped back, and (and I thought this only happened in cartoons) I literally jumped right out of my shoes. Granted, they were flipflops, but still.

I fled into the house - barefoot and terrified, my flipflops left behind in the grass - slammed the door behind me, and peered out the window to see the rooster arrogantly strutting back into the barn to assert his now-uncontested dominance over the females of the farm. Sheer humiliation.

Can't you hear the crotchety old coot, undoubtedly played by Walter Brennan in the Hollywood version of this story, cackling and scratching his stomach and chortling, "Damn city folk; can't even rustle a rooster; scared her plum right out of her shoes."

(Just in case you're worried about the hen: Once safely back in the kitchen, I calmed myself, found a big broom, basically pummeled the rooster out of the barn, and tucked the the traumatized chicken away in a safe, rooster-free corner. Then I retrieved my flipflops, got in my car, and drove off to the nearest mall for the day, where I bought a ridiculously expensive bag, to remind myself that I do indeed have skills, even if they're more about excellent taste and credit card usage than animal husbandry, or whatever.)

My nemesis - can't you hear him? "Listen, boy, to what I'm tellin' you: She jumped clear out of her shoes! That girl's as timid as a canary at a cat-show."

{*Beaver info (the science-y, fact-based stuff, not the C.S. Lewis stuff) courtesy NatureWorks from New Hampshire Public Television.}

Sunday, July 12, 2009

my vision quest

At lunch the other day, a friend and I were talking about theater and ballet and books (and what else is there, pray?), and he brought up two of his favorite works: Waiting for Godot, which he had just seen on Broadway, and which I know well, and Don Quixote, which was the subject of a print that he had just bought, and which I’ve never read but am familiar with thanks to the ballet and Man of La Mancha* and general cultural osmosis. “That’s an interesting combo,” I said to him. “You must like the idea of the quest.”

“You’re right,” he said, surprised. “That always appeals to me.”

“You’re into the journey,” I said.

Journeys, quests, progress, process… These are subjects that have occupied me quite a bit in the past few months. For the past year, I’ve been in between – in between homes, in between jobs, in between any sort of settled routine. I haven’t had the kind of well-defined life where you can easily answer questions like, “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?” or “How do you spend your time?” This is a tough state to be in – or rather, it’s a tough state to stay in; my impulse is to find something, anything, quick; to arrive somewhere and say, “Here it is; here I am.”

As I write this, I’m sitting in my friend Rachael’s home in upstate Connecticut. She and her husband and their two children are visiting family on the West Coast and very generously offered to let me stay here in their absence, along with their crazy cat, the aptly named Bongo (who just came tearing into the house with a feather in his mouth, looking incredibly satisfied with himself). It’s a lovely spot – quiet and green and remote (no cell phone signal!) – and I’m hoping to get some writing done during my week here.

The past two weeks, I was staying in another borrowed home, this one a gorgeous apartment on West 72nd, taking care of (i.e., being highly entertained by) two adorable kittens and enjoying being in New York. In fact, I kept thinking how nice it would be to be back in the city, right smack in the middle of everything, with theater tickets and sushi delivery and plans every night.

Then again, on the drive up here, I found myself looking at For Sale signs, wondering what it would be like to live a quiet life on a river in Kent, preferably in a small old house with a porch and lots of trees, having people over to dinner and watching old movies and enjoying the seasons.

But the truth is, neither of these visions is an option right now, and if I focus too much on that blunt fact, I can pretty easily spin out into “Oh my god what am I doing??” territory.

Instead, I’m trying to truly understand that being in between isn’t the same as being nowhere, that in fact I have a lot of momentum in my life, and a lot of possibilities. And more than that, my quixotic quest feels infinitely more fruitful and rewarding than much of my adult life to date, where I’ve had the good job and the nice apartment and yet felt stuck and stagnated.

Because really, when do we feel most alive? I’ll answer that: At times of change and movement – a new job, a new home, a new love, even a crisis. These are the times when we peel back some layers, find new aspects of ourselves (good and bad), make new connections, perhaps feel closer to what might be called our essence.

Right now, what I’m trying to grasp is what I told my friend at lunch: It’s all about the journey. There is no destination, really. I’m not going to arrive somewhere and set up camp and be done. Or at least, I hope not. By living my life very much day to day right now, and trying to enjoy what’s going on without looking forward with either dread or expectation, I feel much more settled than I have in the past, even though, on the surface, there ain’t nothing much settled about my situation. I’m trying to experience the moment, rather than trying to capture it, or replicate it, or fret about its passing.

This train of thought brought to mind a passage from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, where Clarissa is looking back on a youthful summer of romance and possibility. The gist of this passage has always stuck with me and reminded me (when I let it) to pay attention to what is right in front of me, right at this moment. Because, ultimately, my friends, that’s all we got.

“It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book…. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.”

*In fact, maybe I’ll take Brian Stokes Mitchell singing “The Impossible Dream” as my new call to arms.

Top: Don Quixote with Sancho Panza, by Gustave Doré; bottom, my upstate welcome committee, tonight, 7pm.

Monday, July 6, 2009

on the road in June

One of the consequences of my big life disruption of a year ago is that I don't really have a home. Most of my belongings are in storage in the Bronx somewhere (at least, I hope they are; there's always the chance my mover sold everything last June and has since been happily depositing my monthly fees in the meantime), and I still feel too up in the air to make any sort of long-term housing decision; even a three-month sublet seems like waaaaaaaaay too much commitment right now.

So I'm always on the prowl for trips and visits - hence the 25 days in Paris, the two months in Mexico at the end of last year, and, now, the house-sitting stints and road trips.

In fact, I counted up the number of places I've stayed in the past year, and the grand total is 21 - not bad for a jobless gal!

June saw a number of excursions, in various locales: from top, Harlem, Morningside Park, a view from Skinner Mountain in Massachusetts, a view from West 72nd Street, post-storm on a harbor in Connecticut, and still life with Henry on the Upper West Side.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Something Precious"

"He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds - for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight."
- Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

Last week saw a significant anniversary in my life, an occasion for which I believe there are no gift guides or Hallmark cards: one year sans full-time job. Yes, it was one year ago that I exited my dingy below-ground office, disgruntled and angry and anxious, and feeling as if I'd been peeled raw by the humiliations and aggravations of the past months/years. (Perhaps my fragile emotional state at that moment can be partly attributed to the debilitating hangover I was suffering, thanks to my extremely fun going-away party the night before. But only partly.)

As with any anniversary (other than Birthdays-Ending-in-Five-or-Zero, which make me cower and avert my eyes), I'm using the occasion to check in, see where I am in relation to the year previous, try to figure out what direction I'm pointed in, and valiantly attempt to determine if it's the right direction - the proverbial taking stock. And I have to say, I'm quite pleased with the stock on hand.

First and foremost: I'm not miserable! How about that! I don't feel stuck or trapped, or filled with dread at the start of the workweek (what workweek?), and I no longer have the feeling that I am without options. So, even excluding all other criteria, it's been a very successful year.

I can also see how my thinking has unfolded over the course of the past twelve months, how a sense of where I want to go in my life has gradually cohered, thanks to a whole slew of events and a rather stop-and-start train of thought. I feel open now - emotionally, yes, but even in a physical sense, as if my ribs have unknit themselves and my chest has opened up. I remember years ago, I was in San Francisco with a friend who had lived in that city for quite some time. I kept pointing out things that caught my eye: a particular sliver of view, an old-school sign, a building painted an oddly arresting color. Finally he said, "Siobhan, I've never seen any of this stuff. You're a noticer." I think I'd lost that capacity in recent years - it's as if I were just hurrying along, head down, brow furrowed and all that. In the past year, I've started noticing things again. I must be standing up straighter, looking up and around, not just focused inward on those dark and stormy thoughts.

And I have plenty of opportunities to look around, to stop and smell the proverbial daisies. I have a lot of unstructured time these days, the kind of time that makes some (employed) people shudder and say, "Oh god, aren't you bored?"

Bored? Bored? I'll tell you what's boring: trying to kill time at a job you hate, where there's no momentum, no creativity, where in fact momentum and creativity are routinely quashed. It's not that I'm so madly active now, but it's inactivity by choice, thank you, not enforced inactivity, or worse, enforced activity of the pointless and menial variety. Now, if a glimmer of boredom appears on the horizon, I can either pop up and find something to do, or I can kind of look at the potential boredom, ponder it, poke at it, see what it brings up. Solipsistic, yes, but it's not as if I'm inflicting my solipsism on anyone else (other than you, a little bit), whereas sometimes it seems to me that nine-to-five life is all about someone inflicting their fetishes and neuroses and paranoias on anyone in the near vicinity.

To go on just a bit more about my fascinating states of boredom: what they evoke for me, more than anything, is the boredom of childhood - an afternoon with nothing to do, no one around, a time when I could just futz around my room, looking at my things, reading bits of books, talking to my cat, lying on my bed and daydreaming. Which is perhaps why the above quote from Brideshead jumped out at me when I was watching the series last weekend (for the umpteenth time). Charles Ryder and I have very different situations and circumstances, but like him, I feel that I've had an epiphany (not so much a lightening-bolt epiphany, but instead a rather drawn-out and prolonged epiphany, but an epiphany nonetheless) that has brought my past rushing up to me, making years gone by more immediate and relevant than my recent history. The metaphor of an incessant static being silenced resonates with me: it's as if now that I don't have a constant buzz of anxiety and fear and low-level panic, I can tune into another richer, more meaningful station - some sort of core self that is helping me find my bearings right now.

Among these bearings: I'm being reminded that there are alternatives between full-time office job and no work at all; that there are more soul-satisfying ways for me to live than I have in the past, oh, 15 years; that work can involve creativity in ways other than trying to find new tactics for negotiating office politics. And it's the reconnection to my distant past that is responsible, I believe, for my learning these lessons. It's as if, once the wireless in my head was switched off, I could slowly settle down, in the sense of coming to rest and letting the extraneous stuff drift away, and see what's left.

As a reminder of what was evoked for Charles in that moment cited above (and also just because that first episode is so painfully heartbreaking and gorgeous), let's let Sebastian wrap it up today.