Friday, October 15, 2010

my buddy

I had some bad news recently: last month, my good friend Damon died suddenly, without warning, at his home in Santa Monica. I want to write about him, but I’m in fear of sounding trite or clichéd, since Damon loathed triteness and clichés. But I’m going to try to get something down on paper, as much of a tribute as I’m capable of.

I’m in that state of shock, of disbelief, of confusion and incomprehension that comes after someone close dies. After all, we know that things don’t just disappear. Maybe in a movie, a magician can make something vanish in a pouf of smoke, but in real life, nothing disappears; it transforms, perhaps (water into steam, wood into ash), but it doesn’t disappear. So how can a person — a personality, a force, a bundle of irony and wit and loyalty and irreverence and love — be here one minute, gone the next? How can it be that there will be no more reminiscing, no more dinners out, no more commiserating over life and its travails… How can it be that we’ll never again talk about Mapp and Lucia, or The Pursuit of Love, or Brideshead or Diana Vreeland or Frank O’Hara or our imaginary gardens or Abbot Kinney or Martha Stewart or moving to Bridgehampton/Montauk/the Springs or Alec Guinness or bread pudding or Palm Springs or Follies? This makes absolutely no sense at all.

Damon and I were neighbors at the beach in Venice for the five years that I lived there. Our building was small, with two units on the ground floor (mine in front, Damon and John’s in the rear) and one upstairs. Our apartments shared a patio, so we could zip from one kitchen to the other, if only to commiserate about the latest dreadful upstairs neighbor. (One trashy couple plagued us endlessly. One morning, Damon came to my kitchen door to tell me that in the middle of the night, he just couldn’t stand the TV noise any more. “I tiptoed outside and flipped the circuit breakers for their apartment. Ah, blessed silence. I stayed up all night, enjoying the quiet. Then at 5 a.m., I tiptoed back out and flipped it all back on.” The brilliant crowning touch was a few days later, when the power went out in all of Venice and Santa Monica. Damon and I were standing in the front yard, surveying the darkness, when the upstairs neighbor joined us. “I can’t believe the damn power has gone out again,” he said. “Mmmmm,” Damon replied, studiously not looking at me.)

Damon worked from home and was known to raid my fridge during the day if he was out of coffee or milk, or if was just looking for a snack. I called him one day on his home phone and got “The number you have called has been temporarily disconnected” — he hadn’t paid his phone bill. I thought a moment, then called my home phone number, and Damon picked up on the first ring: “Oh, hi, Siobhan — I’m hanging out in your kitchen till my phone gets turned back on. I drank your Diet Coke.” It’s not everyday (not ever, really) you end up with a neighbor who feels free to commandeer your apartment, and you’re delighted.

Once I moved to New York, Damon and I struck up a feverish email correspondence; the pile of printouts currently stacked on my living room floor is a good four inches thick. They range from frivolity (shopping as therapy) to angsty (the big life questions) to utterly, delightfully inane (the imaginary adventures of our alter egos, a pair of drug-addled b-list types who apparently traveled the world getting into situations with everyone from Henry Kissinger to Jackie O), with a significant portion devoted to books and theater. Pretend you’re me, ten years ago, working at a bland and dreary job, watching the clock, trying to keep up the hateful billable hours, listening to the woman in the next cube (possibly the most inane woman on the planet) endlessly plan her daddy-funded dream wedding, when *ping!* comes an email that starts off like this:

6/6/00: Furthermore, understand completely about states of dispiritedness as have been in one for years. Have often had trouble with idea that Life Is A Cabaret. More often have felt it to be an 8 a.m. lecture on Applied Physics that goes on through lunch. You fall asleep, you wake up, you fall asleep, you wake up, and still some old bald man is droning on about Infrared Frequencies. Talk about your Gravitational Pull! Talk about your Inertia!

Really, is it any surprise that for years, as evidenced by the printed-out pile next to me, I apparently did nothing but email Damon?

We were as like as peas in a pod. A good portion of our email exchanges would probably be incomprehensible to anyone else, since there’s a lot of “As you well know” and “I don’t need to tell you” and “It goes without saying.” The emails are funny — really, remarkably funny, I must say — but they’re also almost painfully honest and raw, filled with our fears and disappointments and doubts (often draped in irony), and our inability to figure out how to proceed.

Checking in before heading off to therapy, the notion of which now bores me to pieces. Can’t get into a talking-about-myself-and-all-my-little-problems mode these days, so just sit and stare at therapist who, in obligatory therapeutic manner, just stares right back. Tick tock tick tock.

We had an ongoing game of coming up with memoir titles. Damon was a pro at this: he had a whole series of imagined memoirs, starting with “I Don’t Mind Walking” (later revised to “No Thanks, I’ll Crawl”) and culminating in what he saw as his late-in-life look back at everything, “Enough Already.” He also had a title for a self-help book on an as-yet-to-be-determined subject, “Brace Yourself.” In real life, he worked in development for the movies, which involved contact with lots of people — famous and not — who were ripe pickings for his acid pen.

2/22/01: Well yesterday was a garden of earthly delights. I had a 3 p.m. meeting at Warner Bros. which is in Burbank or something. It took me four freeways and one hour to get there. It was stop and go much of the way until the clouds finally broke on the 134 and we got up to speeds of 40 m.p.h. However a truck in front of me lost its tarp and its contents began to rain down upon us. Millions and millions of Saltine crackers and dried corn — I AM NOT KIDDING! — snowed the skies. I had my window open so my car quickly filled with these delicious tidbits — meant, no doubt, for the slaughterhouse chickens of West Covina. I mean I was literally picking Saltines and dried corn out of my hair and sweater during the meeting. Plus, I was meeting with one Paula Weinstein who had a toothpick in her mouth the whole time! I AM NOT KIDDING!

Damon’s boyfriend, John, tells me that he wishes that Damon could have had the garden he always dreamed of, and in our emails, there is a surprising amount of garden talk, given that we were each living in apartments, tending at most to a few potted plants. Gardening, I think, represented a way of life outside the day-to-day concerns of the working stiffs, a connection not to nature, but to a civilized, quiet, private life, away from the travails of city living, and perhaps away from our own time (especially after 9/11), back into some idealized 1930s British idyll:

10/9/01: Nerves decidedly shot as evidenced by huge start at sound of barking dog this a.m. Must seriously consider moving to countryside where plan would be to obtain pair of half-glasses and sweater with elbows out which would indicate to world that I am harmless old he-spinster who is to be left alone to write memoirs. Plan includes learning to put up fruit and veggies (“canning” I believe they call it) with possible cottage (literally) industry such as mail-order truffle business to bring in coin. You know what I mean?

My last contact with Damon was after my most recent blog post. Among our many, many joint obsessions was Marian Seldes and her inimitable, regal Grande Dame bearing; in fact, it was Damon who gave me the copy of Bright Lights that Marian signed for me. After reading the Marian post, he wrote simply, “This, of course, has special meaning for me, for several reasons. Thanks for it.”

Since John called me with the news of Damon’s death, I’ve spent a lot of hours remembering my time in Venice, and a lot of hours reading our old emails. I remember Damon telling me that after his mother died, his friends got used to him bursting into tears out of the blue. I feel like that now, going through the emails. In fact, I feel a bit like Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve: zipping from one emotional state (laughing helplessly at some classic Damonism) to the next (in tears at the idea that there won’t be any more Damonisms) and onto the next (so angry at myself that I didn’t keep up the friendship as well as I could have, and thereby depriving myself of the fun and reward of Damon’s presence in my life).

All those emails serve not only as the chronicle of our friendship, but also as a journal of my first few years in New York. Reading them over, I’m struck by how difficult a time it was for me. I was struggling to figure out a career that made sense (still working on that one, but with less angst), struggling to find friends, struggling to meet that elusive “someone special.” I was lonely and isolated, and felt quite at sea most of the time. Our cross-country, 90-percent-digital friendship, it occurs to me now, was probably my most vivid and reliable relationship in those years.

Never having looked back at these emails before, I’d had in my mind that they were mostly just silly, fun exchanges, but I realize now that they played a much more important role in my life. Through his steady stream of emails, Damon shored up my fairly unstable self and helped me through some dark days of the soul. And on top of that, he provided me with a lot of outright joy.

I have a sweet snapshot of Damon and me propped up on my desk, taken during a weekend in Vegas that involved listening to a lot of Abba. Damon is mugging a bit, but I’m just smiling away, clearly so happy — and feeling so lucky — to have such a great pal.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Another long absence from my poor, lonely blog. Clearly, expecting the muse to strike without really putting in any effort isn’t working, so here I am, sitting in front of the big iMac screen, determined to persevere, hoping the muse tunes in at some point.

Since my life doesn’t seem like a good subject for a blog post these days (I’m in a work slump, feeling unmotivated; and I’m in love, but not ready to write about that), I’m going to digress down some different paths, writing about people, places, and things that I love. And because I’ve been thinking about her lately, and because she’s the cat's meow in my book, and because I could learn a few things about perseverance and focus from her, I’m starting with Marian Seldes.

If you’re not a theater nut, you may not have heard of Marian, and for that, I am truly sorry. She’s a grande dame of the New York stages, with her first role in 1947, for god’s sake, in Judith Anderson’s Medea, directed by — get this — John Gielgud. An appropriate starting point for us, I think, as Marian reminds me of those great hammy Brits like Gielgud and Guinness and McKellan. No one but no one can declaim like Marian, no one can roll words around in her mouth like she can, no one can arch an eyebrow with devastatingly hilarious effect like she does.

As the ever-brilliant Charles Isherwood puts it, “In my view if you have not seen Marian Seldes on a New York stage, you are not a true New Yorker.” Her stage triumphs include her association with Edward Albee; she originated roles in three of his best-known works, Three Tall Women, The Play About the Baby, and A Delicate Balance, which brought her a Tony Award. She came in at the last minute to replace Dorothy Loudon (who left on doctor’s orders) as Carlotta Vance in a revival of Dinner at Eight in 2002 at Lincoln Center Theater and got her fifth Tony nomination for her trouble. And, perhaps most famously, she’s in Guinness’s book of world records as “most durable actress” for playing all 1,809 performances of Deathtrap (1978-1982) on Broadway: that’s eight shows a week, every week, for over four years.

I’ve seen her in quite a few things over the years, perhaps most memorably in the unsettling Play About the Baby, which, for all its creepiness, had some of the funniest moments you can imagine, like Marian (as Woman) suddenly making up sign language to accompany Brian Murray (as Man). It’s a scene that is so clearly Marian, you know Albee wrote the part with her in mind:

(Woman begins signing — clearly absurd signing-like gestures.)
MAN. What are you doing?
WOMAN. Signing.
MAN. You know how? You know how to sign?
WOMAN. (Signing.) It would seem so.
MAN. When did you learn? And why? Why did you learn?
WOMAN. (Shrugs; signs.) It came upon me.
MAN. When?
WOMAN. Just now; I just realized I could do it.
MAN. Sign away.
WOMAN. (Signing; smiling.) Thank you.

Not just any actress could pull off Albee’s particular style with the deftly delivered venom and sly complicity that Marian employs. In his review of the play, Charles Isherwood (then at Variety), said this of “the magnificent Seldes”:

“I am a trifle theatrical,” she says in her opening monologue. “And no apologies there.” None needed! Seldes’ ample talents — her mischievous comic instincts, her supple sense of language, her elegant bearing, the hint of sublimated sensitivity in her imperiousness and, yes, that outsized theatricality — all are deployed to extraordinary effect here.

Her deliciously dry wit is evident off-stage as well as on. For instance, in a misguided attempt to evoke some warm nostalgia for the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square shortly before its demolition, the Times asked a few theater types for their fond memories. Marian’s reply: “I have no memories. I only remember walking by it and thinking, ‘I hope all those people are going to the theater.’”

Happily, Marian received a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Tony ceremony, giving the Times Magazine an opportunity to run a profile of her, by Alex Witchel. Alex typically (and with somewhat scathing results) resists the charms of her subjects, but she was obviously under Marian’s elegant thumb from the get-go. And why not? When you’re writing a piece about someone who’s giving you quotes like this one, about her one appearance on Sex and the City, as Mr. Big’s mother — “I’m sorry I wasn’t asked back. I think I could have helped him” — you’ve got to feel some serious gratitude that she’s making your job so easy.

Alex gets further help in her piece from the various theater luminaries who praise Marian and her inimitable style: André Bishop, Nathan Lane, Laura Linney, and Paul Rudnick, who describes Seldes as “universally gracious,” and goes on to say, “She seems genuinely enchanted in the Harry Potter sense, otherworldly in a way that can’t be duplicated. You feel graced by her presence and conversation, like you’ve suddenly been knighted.”

I’m lucky enough to have felt that grace, several years back. It was at Sardi’s, appropriately enough, at a awards ceremony that I knew Marian would be attending, so I quickly accepted my invitation. I wrangled an introduction, and had a two-part interaction, the first part of which went something like this:

I. Miss Seldes, I am such a fan of yours. I can’t even say.
SHE. (Gently resting her hands on my shoulders and leaning in close; speaking in a low, secret-filled voice.) My dear, you are so sweet to say so. You really are so kind.
I. (At a loss.) I love your dress.
SHE. (Leaning in even closer; speaking even more softly; looking about a bit as if to make sure no one could hear.) My dear, you know, I didn’t know what to wear, so I took this right off the costume rack, since I knew it would fit, and it really is such a pretty color, isn’t it?

Really, it’s not the words that matter in an interaction with Marian. It’s her compelling presence, her ability to train her gaze onto you unwaveringly (Alex Witchel wrote, “Now sitting in front of her, even here, I realized that she never moved her eyes from my face. In two hours, not once.”), her ease with the dramatic gesture (at Sardi’s she gave a deep curtsey, hand on her heart, head bowed, upon being introduced to someone she admired), her beautifully trained, exquisitely modulated voice, and, let’s admit it, those eyebrows. You can’t escape them. (Marian’s performance with Nathan Lane in Terrence McNally’s Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams in 2005 must have been quite the Battle of the Brows.)

And now for part two of my Marian experience, which shows that, perhaps because she has never become a celebrity on the scale that many of us believe she deserves, Marian has remained lovably accessible. One of the other guests at the party, amused at my awe of Marian, wrangled it out of me that I had a copy of her memoir —

— and wanted to know why I hadn’t asked her to sign it. “This is why,” I said, and showed him that Marian had already once inscribed it, to someone unknown to me, and it just seemed awkward to show her how this copy of her book, complete with a lovely inscription, had ended up in a second-hand shop.

“Oh, who cares,” Jacques said, and zoomed across the room, calling out, “Marian! Marian!”

“No. Please,” I whispered, but too late, here came Jacques, towing along Marian, who had a slightly puzzled look on her face.

“I understand you have a copy of my book that you would like me to sign,” she said.

“Well, Miss Seldes, yes, but I have to show you… well, see… Miss Seldes, it looks like you already did sign this book, but for someone else.”

“Oh, my dear,” she said, “let me see.” She took the book and peered at the inscription (no one can peer like Marian), then said, “Do you have a pen?”

With that perfect timing that makes her so irresistible on stage, she carefully circled the original inscription and wrote “DELE” (the copy editor’s term for “delete”).

She then flipped ahead a few pages, and wrote this for me:

I mean, really.

Marian’s last New York stage appearance (to date), as far as I know, was in La Fille du Régiment at the Met, which I missed, to my eternal regret, since she appeared thusly:

Her last Broadway appearance (again, to date) was in Terrence McNally’s Deuce in 2007, with another old pro, Angela Lansbury. They played tennis stars from the good old days, making an appearance for fans years after their retirement at the U.S. Open, reminiscing and commiserating and showing a few cracks in the surface that, given the context (how many more times would we get to see these two vets?), were pretty heart-breaking.

Marian looked quite frail at the Tony Awards, and one must face the fact that we may not see her on stage again. But her astonishing career (both on Broadway and off), her obvious sense of herself as a craftsperson, and her clearly evident joy at being part of the theater world — all this serves as inspiration to me, a reminder of the payoff of hard work, of persevering. It sounds corny, but Marian has taught me a lot.

Which I’m sure would please her, since she clearly values her experiences teaching acting to students such as Kevin Kline, Robin Williams, Laura Linney, and Patti LuPone. In the Times Magazine piece, Marian sums up her contributions in her typically articulate, thoughtful manner:

“Well, I love a task, I really do,” she said modestly. “I got scared toward the openings of each play, of course. But I’m not afraid on a stage. I’m afraid in life.” Not today, though, on the eve of a lifetime achievement award. What feels like a great achievement now? “Maybe the teaching,” she said. “I hope so. Because that’s helping somebody. It was the hardest thing too, because it takes an energy. If you look away from a student’s eyes at the wrong moment, you can hurt them.”

Marian is currently on screen in The Extra Man, which doesn’t sound like a particularly great film (anyone seen it?), but which I must see, if only because she plays a character named Vivian who looks like this:

Clearly, there will be swanning about, which is all I need to know.

{From top: as Carlotta Vance in Dinner at Eight; in Ondine; with John Wood and a very young Victor Garber in Deathtrap; in The Play About the Baby; at the 2010 Tony Awards; in La Fille du Régiment; in The Extra Man.}

Sunday, June 6, 2010

paint chips and procrastination

What is it about moving into a new home that sends one completely over the edge? They say that, when it comes to stressful situations, moving is up there with losing one’s job or having a close friend die or getting a divorce, but why? Why can’t it feel like an exciting fresh start? A new adventure? An opportunity to purge oneself of excess belongings? Why does it make one — okay, why does it make me — feel like I want to pick up and flee?

That’s a bit of a prologue to my apology for being in absentia for nearly three (!) months. I’m always a bit of a procrastinator, but three months of stalling is quite an accomplishment, even for me. Here’s my long excuse: When last we spoke, I’d been summarily booted out of my fantastic apartment in the heart of the city, just five weeks after I’d moved in. (Really, it felt as if I had just unwrapped the very last teacup and placed it in the cupboard when the knock came on the door.) And those five weeks of domesticity came after close to two years of trav’lin’ light, with nearly all my belongings in a mysterious storage unit in the Bronx. So I’d been blissed out to have a place of my own once again, and deeply enjoying picking out new furniture, arranging my books, having friends over, getting to know the neighborhood.

For those of you who have gone through it, you know that there’s nothing quite like apartment-hunting in New York. Even in a “troubled” economy, it’s a blood sport: if you find something that looks good, you’ve got to pull the trigger pronto, because it ain’t gonna be there tomorrow. And you’ve got to kiss a lot of toads (gloomy, cramped, dingy toads) before you find anything that’s (a) livable, and (b) relatively affordable. To go through this twice in the span of a couple months was enough to send me in quite the spiral, leading to my neglect of the following: friends, family, books, work, journal, therapy, exercise, and, of course, you.

I’ll spare you the gory details of the Great Apartment Search, Part Two, except to say that I just couldn’t find a place that I clicked with (and comparing everything unfavorably to the One That Got Away). I finally got so sick of the whole damn process that I threw in the towel and signed the lease on a less-than-perfect place (which, however, has more closets than I’ve ever seen in a New York apartment, which is nothing to sneeze at and is, to be honest, probably the reason I took the place). Then I went through agonies of renter's remorse, followed by the conviction that I would love the apartment more if I painted it, followed by agonies of choosing colors and taping walls and painting till I dropped.

And now here I am, in the final stages of cleaning and unpacking and sorting, and trying not to continuously compare the new place to the old, and trying not to let the new place symbolize to me this whole period of upheaval and discombobulation. (It doesn’t help that I keep reading about my old neighborhood, which has become the new “It” zone — it’s like getting unwanted updates on an ex who’s doing fabulously without you.)

What I am trying to do is get back in the swing of things — reconnecting to people, responding to embarrassingly old emails and messages, focusing once again on work, and creating epic, multi-page to-do lists. And, perhaps, looking ahead and thinking about where I’m headed. As part of my re-emergence, I had drinks with a friend the other night who’s going through her own upheavals and crises. We got on the subject of trying to balance living in the present with planning for the future, and she said, “I keep catching myself saying, ‘I just need to get through June,’ and then realizing how crazy that is — ‘just get through?’ Really? That’s the goal?”

The past few months seemed like a kind of limbo as I lived them, with no routine, no real structure, no home base, just getting through the days, flip-flopping between lazily enjoying my lack of responsibility, and freaking out about what the hell am I doing with my life. From where I’m sitting now (my genteelly shabby living room), I have a bit more perspective and can see that this hasn’t been just an aimless interlude, that there were some positives: I re-confirmed to myself that, despite the hassle and the expense and the perfidy of its landlords, I choose to be in New York for the time being. I found that my friends are even more amazing than I’d realized, as they offered help and commiserated and generally stepped up when I needed them. I had the opportunity (*sigh*) to confront some of my chronic anxieties about money and work and the future, since they all rose up en masse and tried to take me down (an experience that also got me back on the therapy track, thankfully).

And, Gentle Reader, there’s this: I met a wonderful guy who turned out to be astonishingly supportive and helpful and sweet during this whole kerfuffle (and who helped paint the kitchen and the bedroom), and you know what? We went and fell in love.

How’s that for burying the lede?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

square one

There are certain relationships that seem so perfect, so meant-to-be right, so love-at-first-sight, that you almost can’t believe it’s really happening to you. Everything just seems to fall right into place, and you walk around in a happy glow, so thrilled that life has given you such a winning hand.

Well, as they say, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. You may remember my lovely new apartment, the one I just moved into on Feb. 1, the one where I was finally feeling settled after nearly two years of shuttling from one spot to another. It had seemed so serendipitous, the way we found each other — it was enough to make me believe in fate, or the universe looking out for me, or something.

I’d loved the industrial feel of the apartment, with its lofty ceilings and huge metal-framed windows — it clearly had started life as a manufacturing space. The owners had taken care to create 54 quite nice apartments, with good kitchens and big bathrooms and great layouts. Unfortunately, in all the to-do of converting the building into rental apartments, no one seems to have taken a moment to officially convert the building from commercial to residential. And somehow, after years of tenants and leases and amenities and staff (and years of annual inspections by the Fire Department), the city apparently never noticed this minor detail, until this past Tuesday, when the Department of Buildings somehow got prompted to take a look at the situation, with the result that the building was shut down on the spot, and I and the rest of the tenants were given a couple hours to pack up some necessities and find a place to stay.

And it doesn’t look like this is a paperwork issue that’s going to be cleared up in a week or so. Not only was the building never zoned as residential, but it violates some fairly serious codes, like the one about residential buildings having more than one staircase or “egress” (no one ever says “exit” in the world of planning and zoning), or the one about residential buildings having a fire escape, or the minor one about residential buildings having sprinkler systems. As the very sympathetic cop said on Tuesday, as he briefed us shell-shocked tenants in the lobby, “I feel for you guys, I really do, but there’s no way we can let you stay here. God forbid [pronounced ‘Gad fehbid’] there’s a fire in the stairwell — you’d all die. This place is a deathtrap.”

Hard to argue with that logic. (And very hard to understand how those fire department inspectors managed to miss all this over the years.)

That sympathetic cop was joined by several other of New York’s Finest, along with a contingent of New York’s Bravest in three fire engines, the OEM, the Department of Buildings, the Red Cross (to make sure everyone had somewhere to go that night), and, of course, a few intrepid reporters who were salivating over the story of an entire “luxury” apartment building (no one told me it was luxury!) being evacuated, and all its occupants being vacated with almost no notice.

So, crazy as it seems, I’m back on the hunt for an apartment, less than two months after finding this place. I have no brilliant insights to draw, other than increased appreciation for Cindy Adams’ sign-off: “Only in New York, kids, only in New York.” In terms of my sanity, I’ve managed to not utterly freak out (after a few minor breakdowns in the first 48 hours), and I haven’t gone back to my apartment for more than a couple minutes at a time, so I’m already moving on, and not getting too stuck in “But this place was perfect for me!”

Hopefully, my return to living out of a suitcase will be limited to a couple weeks; as much as I enjoyed some of the adventures of the past two years, and the footloose-and-fancy-free-ness of it all, it had been such a relief to finally have a place of my own again, to start to put together a routine and some (relatively) long-term plans. I must admit that, in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation (the Post referred to us as “evict-ims,” which I thought was pretty cute), a part of me wanted to toss everything back into storage and pull a 25 days in _________, skipping town on the drama and hassles.

But my five weeks in the deathtrap were great, really, and I want to have some kind of focus and direction right now, to set up a bit of a life for myself. So this afternoon (a nasty, cold, rainy, windy, raw afternoon), I’ll be back out there with a broker whose instructions include “no illegal conversions,” looking at apartments and hopefully (please, Universe, please) finding the next next apartment without too much trudging and angst.

Friday, March 5, 2010

hearts and minds

He was sure that he wouldn't feel at ease for even a moment until he knew exactly when he would once again press her tightly against himself. She said yes. And the sense of relief that came flooding into his soul was so powerful that for a brief moment he even questioned if their getting together the next day really mattered to him at all or not. But that doubt was quickly dispelled, for he had read enough literature to believe that anxiety, even more than jealousy, is the great driving force of passion.
— Françoise Sagan, That Mad Ache

There’s nothing like romance for dredging up slag heaps of irrational, overwhelming fears: fear of pain, of humiliation, of abandonment, of need and neediness, of vulnerability, of rejection, of loss — et cetera, et cetera — all leading to an antsy anxiety that makes it difficult to simmer down and focus on anything else (like, say, writing a blog post).

The new romance in my life, while pretty great in many ways, faces a few significant hurdles / potential dealbreakers that leave me feeling very unsure and hesitant about how to proceed: Should I dive in and shoot for happiness, even if it’s short-term and ends in tears, or should I hedge my bets and adopt a cautious, practical, wait-and-see attitude? Should I be open and trusting (major effort for me), or should I be guarded and self-protective? Should I bolt?

How you would respond to these questions probably reveals how much of a romantic you are (it’s kind of like a Cosmo quiz, without the exclamation points and sex tips). My path in the past would have been a demented combo platter: throw myself in full force without any due diligence, committing my heart 100 percent, but not tell anyone, least of all the object of my affection, and instead maintain a brittle veneer that was somehow supposed to hide and protect me.

Of course, that brittle veneer doesn’t do much, in the end. I remember one boyfriend, at the messy denouement of our relationship, saying, “Funny: I’d always thought you were so tough.”

Yes, very funny. Actually, I’m tough in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of situations, but when it comes to romance — not so much. Instead, I veer recklessly from utter giddiness and delight to utter dejection and despair, with occasional forays into a state of being curiously unmoved and resigned — the “whatever” mode.

For example: In this current situation, with the aforementioned hurdles, if he’s being prudent and advocating caution and talking up the importance of behaving sensibly (as if!), I can feel myself, as the words are coming out of his mouth, wanting to say, “No! Let’s go for it! Let’s do that fools-rush-in thing!” and simultaneously wanting to retreat to my corner and get that chip back on my shoulder, the one that indicates that I don’t care at all, fine, do what you want, makes no diff to me. Whatever.

Anxiety might be “the great driving force of passion,” per Mlle Sagan, but I’ve had enough of it, thanks. I’d be happy to move past this stage, into one of happy anticipation of what is to come, with a reassuring sense of security. I hate feeling (especially at this point in my life) that wanting what I want is a mistake, that being vulnerable is something to hide, or to conquer, or to be ashamed of.

I suppose the goal right now should be to live in the moment as much as possible and have fun and enjoy. I mean, it’s a new romance, it early days yet, it could go in a million different directions, why borrow trouble… And yet, I do feel I need to somehow also keep tabs on the potential for serious damage and decide at some point if I need to cut my losses.

This, of course, would involve handing over the reins to Reason, being practical, exercising Good Judgment. Just as I can be tough at times, I can also be rational and reasonable with the best of them, only not when it comes to love and all that. Faced with love and all that, my rational side is tossed into the back seat, and the foolish romantic me is at the wheel, careening recklessly down the highway, flattening signposts and passing on the right.

I don’t think it’s so much about which is stronger, the heart or the mind, as it is about which listens better. Our minds are right there, part of the conversation; we can create compelling arguments, remind ourselves of past mistakes, resolve to act differently from now on, logically and reasonably try to choose a smarter, safer path. Our hearts, however, remain stubbornly deaf to all of this logic and reason and continue to feel whatever they damn well please, regardless of whether it makes any sense at all. The split between the heart and the mind can be a torment, as we toggle back and forth from one extreme to another, trying to find some kind of solution that appeals to both. (How great would that be!)

But when there isn’t a solution that works all around — when our minds are saying “bail” and our hearts are blithely whistling a happy tune and not listening — it can be such a relief to finally admit that you can’t win an argument with the heart (mainly because the heart isn’t even participating in the argument — it’s pulling a Bartleby, calmly stating “I prefer not to” no matter how forcefully you try to engage it in battle). The moment of surrender — of throwing in the towel and letting the heart lead the way — is to feel the relief of giving in: you stop fighting, stop trying to take the wheel, and just sit back and check out the scenery.

Of course, I’m headed god knows where, but maybe that’s not all bad.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

open house

Well, here I am, finally: in the next apartment! I moved on Feb 1, into a sunny, quirky pad smack in the middle of the city. This being New York, looking for the apartment was incredibly stressful and grueling, and it became another test of my ability to trust my instincts and to keep in mind a sense of what’s important to me. As usual, I didn’t quite ace the test: I forgot that I even had instincts, felt completely overwhelmed and rushed, and got utterly rattled by various brokers doing a hardsell on “building amenities” like roof decks, lounges, gyms, climbing walls (!!), and room service (!!!), or expecting me to be bowled over by a teensy “terrace” or a glam and glossy high-end kitchen.

But I don’t really picture myself sprawled on a chaise on a Financial District roof deck or splurging on room service on a daily basis, and to me, New York balconies and terraces seem kind of sad and gray and grimy, and just something else that you have to furnish and clean. And I have survived my entire life — and cooked countless meals — without the aid of a fancy-schmancy kitchen.

Somehow, despite my feet being so tired and my head hurting from hours on craigslist, and in spite of my near-irresistible desire to just throw in the towel already, I was able to deflect the deals being lobbed my way (free two months’ rent! no fee! no deposit!) and hold out till I found the Mr. Right of the apartment world. After a particularly frustrating morning of looking and not finding, I had lunch with a wise broker friend who told me, “I’ve seen it over and over again: It’s fate, your home is out there, you will find it, it will all fall into place.”

Yeah right, I thought, with absolutely no faith in the idea of fate, and went off to meet yet another broker to take a second look at a few apartments I’d see earlier, in a building on Broadway. Each of the three apartments he’d shown me before had had a fatal flaw; one got no light, one faced the back of another building, and one was on a low floor and seemed too noisy. But they were big and spacious and not too madly expensive, so I figured what the hell, might as well look again.

The broker and I zipped up to the tenth floor, and he marched down the hall into an open apartment. I followed, took a look around, and said, “This is not the apartment you showed me before.” “Yes, it is,” he said, kind of belligerently. “No, it’s not,” I said. “Yes, it is,” he said, peevishly. “No, it’s not,” I said, equally peevishly, “and I’m 100 percent sure, because I love this apartment. I love it, and I want it.” He looked at his paperwork and said, “Oh my God, we walked into the wrong apartment.” We’d barged straight into a recently vacated place that was still being primped and had not yet been listed, and wasn’t supposed to be shown for another week, and… well, you know how it ends. (I apologize to my broker friend for doubting his wise, wise words.)

So here I am, living life in the next apartment! I love the neighborhood — it’s half gritty and seedy old New York, and half buzzy hipster New York — but mainly, I love having my very own home once again. I love having my long-lost stuff* back with me (though when the mover was bringing it all in — box after box after box — I nearly had a meltdown at the sheer mass of it all). I love being able to make spontaneous plans with friends that require only a quick stroll across town, rather than a schlep to the station, a boring train ride, subway hell, and so forth. I love having things delivered — Indian food, a new table, groceries, books — and I love the doormen and porters who make everything so damn easy. I love that my pals stop by for a chat and a glass of wine. I love watching the constant happenings on Broadway. And man do I love the giant industrial windows that are let floods of sunshine into my afternoon.

In fact, overall — despite the fact that I should probably be panicked at the prospect of paying an outrageous Manhattan rent — I’m actually quite relaxed. I have found the elusive feeling of being open to what’s around me, curious about what’s coming my way, not too caught up in anxieties or expectations or fears. And the openness is clearly perceptible to others: I’m meeting people left and right, cool projects are popping up, and my calendar is just full enough to keep me busy without driving me to insanity.

Paradoxically, I want to keep a tight grip onto this sense that I’m not latching onto things. I’m trying right now, as a practice, to let each experience stand by itself. If I can stay focused on the moment, I have a better chance of staying tuned in to what I’m feeling, rather than getting caught up in what it all means, or judging an experience based on what it leads to, or what I want it to lead to, rather than what it is.

Of course, there’s a reason this is all referred to as a practice. Especially during a time of great change like this one, I can get swept up into all sorts of anxiety about what will make me happy, where I’m going, what I should do, what I should feel. When I crawl back inside from that particular ledge, I try to come back to the moment, to stop spinning way ahead of myself, to enjoy the here and now. Yet herein likes another paradox: I may not want to get caught up in a cycle of predicting and controlling and fretting, but I also have to take into account the need to plan ahead somewhat, and the need to take care of myself. It's as if I have to try to create a framework in which to operate, so that I can stop myself from zooming into situations that seem hardwired for disaster and still find a way to be awake and aware and in the present — to feel the flow — and to trust in the fate that helped me find my next apartment.

* Examples of my beloved stuff pictured here — how did I survive without it??

Saturday, January 16, 2010

new construction

Let me give you a piece of advice (and I speak from experience): If you’ve suffered a romantic disappointment, or if you woke up with a nagging sense that love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, do not that very day go see South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater, in which Paulo Szot’s gorgeous, compelling baritone first overwhelms you with the promise of romance (“Some Enchanted Evening”), then destroys you with the pain of lost love (“This Nearly Was Mine”), before you’re completely undone with a last-minute true-love happy ending (orchestra goes mad, music crashes over you, stage goes black — oof). I staggered out of the theater into a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon and felt about as far from a tropical happy ending as is possible.

My romantic disappointment this time around was a minor one, on paper, yet somehow felt crushing. The only loss, really, was of the castle in the air that I’d built in mere moments, out of nothing but a few thrilling moments and promising “signs” and lots and lots of daydreaming.

“You’re letting your imagination run away with you,” my mother always said to me when I was a child. And it’s true: I did feel that once my imagination got started, I had no control over it. If it wanted to freak me out with thoughts of disaster and danger, off it would go, heedless of my growing terror and quickly working me up into quite a state, where a slow creak or a shifting shadow in our old house would make me nearly implode with panic.

That imagination still causes me plenty of trouble. I may not have to check under the bed at night, or fret about something dropping down onto me from a tree in the dark, but give me a little material and I can build a lovely 3D vision of the future—or rather, a future—that is so lovely and captivating that I can find it rather crushing to come back to earth and return to my real—and much more prosaic—life.

There’s nothing like romance for derailing my ongoing attempts to try to follow the Buddhist advice of living more in the moment. Perhaps this is because romance, bottom line, is all about anticipation of the happy future, about projecting into an imagined bliss. Not matter how enjoyable the romance might be in and of itself, the thrill comes from dreaming of what may come, from hoping that what’s happening now is a promise of what we want to happen later.

So a disappointment can feel wildly out of proportion, because it’s not about missing the actual person, or feeling their absence. It’s about mourning the loss of an entire envisioned life, a relationship and a person that didn’t even exist and yet have left a yawning absence behind. It’s about wrenching your gaze away from some glorious vista of love and happiness and enchanted evenings and returning your attention to what, in comparison, can seem as drab and flat as a cold, gray January afternoon.

My other current struggle with my imagination involves my now-active search for that ever-elusive next apartment. I’ve seen literally dozens of apartments; if it weren’t for the stress of having to make a decision, it would be nothing but fun to see all the different apartments—and all the different lives—available in Manhattan. You can do quirky in the West Village, rugged in Flatiron, perfectly nice in Gramercy, mad luxury in the Financial District (lap pool! three roof decks! room service! ping pong! billiards! indoor rock-climbing! free breakfast!), corporate in Chelsea, charming on the Upper West. (Can you tell I’ve been reading a lot of real estate listings? I’m actually having nightmares about floor plans and obstructed views and closet space.)

And you know, it all sounds pretty great. I walk into an empty apartment and instantly visualize my brand-new life—making breakfast in a cool open kitchen, working at my desk overlooking killer river views, kicking back in a sleek design-y pad, all of the above set to a groovy soundtrack and starring a completely organized and with-it version of me.

Early in my search, I found a really fantastic place, which I now refer to as The One That Got Away (damn that broker!). In this one, my fantasies of my future life got seriously out of hand. I had already picked out my outfit for the great housewarming party, had met with clients at the giant metal desk that sat in the middle of the space, had trotted to and from the yoga studio around the corner, zipped over to Whole Foods to pick up some yogurt and apples…. You get the picture. After I had created such elaborate visions, not getting this apartment felt like someone had ripped my whole future away from me. (Again: damn that broker!)

And then there’s the fear of picking the wrong apartment! Of making a mistake! Then what? How will I live with myself and my poor decision?

With all of this pointless anxiety and self-inflicted disappointment, I need strong reminders of why living in the moment is so key. I got one the other night, again at the theater, this one the Sunday following the emotional tidal wave of South Pacific. This time, I had my wine before the show, and this time, the tidal wave was of an entirely different variety.

It was a performance of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, at the Barrow Street Theater. (Go, now—don’t miss it.) Our Town has a reputation, I believe, of being corny and old-fashioned—sentimental nostalgia—but I’m here to tell you that it’s not. It’s lean and poignant and packs a major wallop at the end that smacked some sense of perspective back into me.

For those of you who didn’t pay attention in high school English class, Our Town is set in a small town (Grover’s Corners) in New Hampshire, beginning in 1901. Wilder wrote that, with Our Town, he wanted “to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” He specifies right up front that there’s to be no scenery, no curtain; we’re just plunged right into life as it’s happening, with no sets or props to distract us. As our guide to the town, the Stage Manager, tells us after the first intermission, “The First Act was called the Daily Life. This act is called Love and Marriage. There’s another act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that’s about.” Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and the final act: That about covers it, right?

That final act is set in the graveyard, up the hill from town, with the dead sitting calmly and patiently, remote from the drama of the living. A young woman who has just died in childbirth—a character we watched in the first two acts—comes to join them, but can’t quite let go of her life yet. She asks the Stage Manager to let her go back and live one more day (her twelfth birthday). He warns her against it (“As you watch it, you see the thing that they—down there—never know. You see the future. You know what’s going to happen afterwards”), the others warn her against it, but she must see for herself.

She goes back, with all her knowledge, and tries to live in her life again—her mother making breakfast, her father back from a trip with a birthday present for her, the cold winter weather—but it’s too much. It’s not only that she knows the future; it’s that now she knows the great tragedy of life. She knows that we all die, and yet we don’t pay attention to life while it’s happening. She sees (and so do we, thanks to an astonishingly powerful coup de théâtre that I'm not going to give away) everything that she missed the first time around, everything that was too familiar to be noticed. And she delivers one of the great devastating speeches in theater:


I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. {She breaks down sobbing.} I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

Stage Manager

No. {Pause.} The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

Shattered. I was simply shattered, and reading the lines now, I’m hit all over again. It’s so obvious, so simple, and yet so shocking: The clock is ticking, we’re all rushing toward the end, and yet, as Emily puts it, we’re “shut up in little boxes…. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people.”

In her brief time back among the living, Emily can only be heard by her family when she is speaking as her twelve-year-old self, so her mother cannot hear her great plea, but we, in the audience, can hear it:

Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it—don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.

Monday, January 4, 2010

upson downs

Well, here we are: Twenty-Ten. (Such an odd-sounding and -looking year, isn’t it? Very Space Age.) No matter how much I resist assigning meaning to New Year’s, it was still a thrill watching the clock hit midnight straight up, and the calendar flip over to 01/01/10. I suppose, surrounded as we are by top-ten lists and post-holiday diet tips and tax forms (already!!), it’s impossible to stop ourselves from looking back and looking ahead, from taking stock and making resolutions.

My favorite resolution ever came from a friend in L.A., years ago: “No more cheap shoes.” As much as I applaud and support her admirable goal, my 2010 resolution, such as it is, is a bit less concrete: I want to work on my court vision. In basketball, court vision refers to a player’s ability to take in the whole picture—to see everything that’s happening on the court, and to strategize the right moves given the situation and the various ways it could potentially unfold.

I want court vision for my life—to be able to see the whole, not just the parts, to figure out the different ways a scenario can play out. This would be a change for me: I tend to get focused on some fraction of a given situation, and to react solely to that one aspect—good, bad, or indifferent—and to tamp down any distracting awareness of the whole shebang.

This is especially true of high-emotion moments, whether positive (going on a fun first date) or negative (being yelled at by an evil boss). In the past, it’s been nearly impossible for me to step back in such a moment and weigh the situation; instead, I just react out of my own tangled emotional history—in the first example, by projecting way ahead into a happily-ever-after future, in the second by zooming straight into “fight or flight” mode.

I have really tried, over the past couple years, to learn to be “in the moment” as much as possible. For me, this means looking at what is right in front of me, right now—not what it was, or what I hope it will be, or what I wish it were, or what it represents—and, given that, to figure out my options and my best move.

I’ve had a lot of guidance in this effort—from books, from yoga, from therapy, from wise friends—and have managed to get myself in a much better place than I was just a couple of years ago. Of course, a huge part of this can be attributed not to any innate yogic goodness on my part, but instead simply to the fact that I left my hateful job; it’s much easier to be more mindful (and grateful) if you’re not in a continuous state of exhaustion and jerk-induced panic.

But while the lessons I’ve learned are valuable, and while I can see the progress I’ve made, it doesn’t take much to plunge me back into an inchoate emotional turmoil. I was initially going to call this post “nothing but net,” and blather on for the whole time about my astonishing spiritual development, but then I had a setback that forced me to face how far I have yet to travel. Simply put, that fun first date (on Christmas Eve, no less) doesn’t seem to be leading to the finish line of bliss that I’d envisioned. I’m disappointed, naturally enough. The issue is that I’ve instantly taken a relatively minor incident and blown it up into a symbol of everything that’s wrong with me and my life, and, to be honest, I’m wallowing.

Still, I’m trying to put into practice what I’ve learned—to try to create a bit of space where my rational self can step in and prevent my slipping straight back into an emotional mess. I hope I can keep my sense of the big picture—that this one incident has no larger message, that I’m not stuck, that I have choices, that I can act in different ways than I have in the past.

What I’m working to remember right now is that, as much as I wanted this potential romance to work out, the disappointing outcome is not a measure of failure. As the ever-helpful Buddhists remind me, “Your journey is to know yourself.” The goal isn’t romance, or a new job, or a fat bank account. The goal is being aware, and learning, and appreciating. And if I don’t get the outcome I wanted, whether in a romance, or a work project, or what have you—well, no harm, no foul.

Speaking of outcomes: I hope that in 2010, I can more fully understand this concept, so that my sense of the big picture—my court vision—can carry me through rough times, without crazy roller coaster rides like the one of the past couple weeks.

An admirable intention, to be sure. And I’ll get right on it—after a bit more wallowing.