The Metaphor

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Many years ago, I lived for a summer with my friend Rachel’s mother. I was in between apartments, and I had something lined up for September, but stayed for a couple months with her before that and paid her a tiny amount of rent. It was a pretty cool deal. The apartment was on West 90th street, and I lived in the bedroom Rachel had grown up in, which was now a sort of generic guest room. I was working as an editorial assistant at Random House at the time and I remember that I had gotten my hair cut in a way that flipped up at the bottom. I liked this haircut. What I remember most about this summer is that I wanted to do nothing else when I got home from work but watch TV with Rachel’s mother. She watched two things and two things only: L.A. Law and nature documentaries. It was during this time that I grew to have a sort of lazy crush on Jimmy Smits and also discovered the wonder that is David Attenborough’s voice. The entire time we watched TV, Rachel’s mother, who had a delightfully wicked sense of humor, kept up a running commentary that only added to the joy of TV watching.

But really I bring this summer up just because of this one remarkable line that I have not forgotten all these years later, when I am now exactly twice the age I was then. During one nature program, we were introduced to a small rodent-like animal, possibly from Australia.  The most interesting thing about them was the way they mated, which involved the males brutally attacking each other to win the females. I seem to remember a lot of fierce kicking. We were told that the males were so intent on winning a female that they fought nearly constantly and stopped eating entirely. By the end of the mating season, announced David Attenborough, all the males are dead.

I know that at the time I thought there was a metaphor there, and to this day, I can see that there is, but it is not something I can quite get to. I thought of this line most recently when I was thinking about how I feel at the end of December, after my older daughter’s and boyfriend’s birthdays and Christmas are all over, and all the shopping and the stress and the worry is over, and my bank account is basically tapped out. But that isn’t quite right, is it? I think after David Attenborough spoke those words, Rachel’s mother might have said something like, Huh! And we sat there in silence, letting it sink in. Because even right when we heard it, we knew that there was nothing like it. And we knew that something witty related to, say, the mating rituals of humans wouldn’t quite be an accurate comparison.

But then, last night, I was driving home from a fencing competition with my younger daughter. She had come in sixth out of six fencers. It was her first competition, and she had been nervous. But she was fine about coming in last; she was pretty pleased to have a medal at all (they awarded up to eighth place, so…). We were talking about writing, and she was angrily explaining, to the point of tears, how hard it is for her to just write freely, without stopping to edit her words. And even then, she has to think after every sentence; nothing ever just flows. Just like me, I thought, my poor girl. Don’t tell me that I’ll always be like this! she shouted at me. Just then I thought of another metaphor. It’s something that E.L. Doctorow said once, comparing writing a novel to driving at night. I have used it for years to describe both writing and driving at night, and so I told it to my daughter: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

This seemed appropriate now, especially since it was dark and extremely foggy and I was having to make my way home similarly.  I get that, said my daughter, and it seemed to calm her for the moment. It is nice to have a metaphor like that, I thought to myself. The kind that is often exactly what you need.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Australia, a bunch of male rodents were fighting with each other. They had stopped eating and were spending their final days or weeks fighting and mating (if they were lucky) or just fighting (if they were not). By the end of the mating season, all the males would be dead.

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P.J. Vogt’s laugh

In the years before 2011, I did not like celery. And then one day, I did. Slowly it turned into one of my favorite vegetables in the world.  Now just the smell of fresh celery leaves makes me swoon. This summer I kept some celery leaves, crushed and shriveled, in my fridge for weeks just because there was a tiny hint of that smell still lingering in there. I try to put celery leaves in anything I’m cooking. In case this isn’t clear, celery is all about the leaves. You’ve probably seen something called “celery hearts,” which is missing the entire point as well as the leaves. I roll my eyes at celery hearts. Those poor fools who buy these! I think.

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Anyway, my point is actually this: sometimes a thing you thought you hated (once, I hated celery) can become something you love (and then I tried the leaves!).  It just flips like that: hate to love. Just like that.

When I’m not using celery to illustrate this point, I use a more recent example, which is P.J. Vogt’s laugh. Vogt is one of the hosts of the very excellent podcast “Reply All,” which is a show about the internet, i.e., pretty much everything. I am an unlikely fan in that sometimes it ends up being a bunch of dudes yukking it up about something on Twitter, and I have repeatedly pointed out to my boyfriend Tony that I do not like the “dudes yukking it up” podcasts that he favors, but I’m for some reason okay with this one. Honestly, it has to do with their smart and interesting reporting, plus they are genuinely funny and are entitled to yuck it up sometimes. But there was one thing that bothered me when I first started listening to the show: P.J. Vogt’s laugh (which happens to be one of the first searches to appear if you google “P.J. Vogt”). It is a very distinctive laugh, which probably you either love or hate. At first, I hated it. Now I love it. Just like that.

I can’t really describe Vogt’s laugh (you can google it if you’re interested), but at first I found myself cringing whenever he laughed.  I would brace myself when someone else said something funny, just waiting for the inevitable. And then there it would be, this loud forceful hehehehehehe.  I think I hated his laugh for years. But then one day something happened.

Vogt was telling a story on the show that featured his mother and his aunt, identical twins (if you know me, then you know how already fascinated I was), and when he was talking to his aunt, she started to laugh and it was the exact same laugh as his. The exact same one! I imagine that his mother must have that laugh too (they’re identical twins!). And as I was marveling at this, I thought of my uncle Lee, whose entire family has the same distinctly charming laugh that I have loved my entire life. And realizing that P.J. Vogt’s distinct laugh was somehow shared by his family made it completely okay. And the next time I heard P.J. himself laugh, it was perfectly fine. I no longer hated it. I loved it!

In case this isn’t clear, I love it when this happens, when something I used to be so sure about surprises me like this. If you are paying attention, as surely you are by now, and you’ve lived long enough, you know that unexpected surprises are some of the very best parts of being alive. I’d like to use this as a metaphor for everything that’s going on right now, but I have to say that nothing surprises me and nearly everything depresses me. Everything, that is, except for celery. And, of course, P.J. Vogt’s laugh.

The secret to a happy marriage

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There is a family at the Troy farmer’s market that sells real Belgian waffles and also various kinds of quiches, all of which I have purchased and all of which are delicious. The man is maybe in his 50s with a slight Dutch accent (or rather Flemish, which is the language spoken in northern Belgium). I end up going there every Saturday while my younger daughter takes fencing nearby. I don’t always buy Belgian waffles or quiches, but every now and then I do.

Sometime this past spring my boyfriend and daughters and I found ourselves at another farmer’s market in the town of Callicoon, some 130 miles away. Wouldn’t it be funny if they sold amazing quiches here too? I said, and then we immediately came upon a woman selling the exact same quiches that I buy in Troy. It turns out she was the man’s wife (also with an accent), who sold their quiches and Belgian waffles in Callicoon on Sundays, and he sold them in Troy on Saturdays. She was delighted to hear that we knew her husband. I bought some waffles, and they were delicious as always.

So today, when I was buying a Belgian waffle for my daughter to have after fencing, I finally got around to telling the man that I had met his wife some months ago at the other farmer’s market. Oh yes! he said, with a big smile. We work in the office together all week, you know, so on the weekends, we like to be apart. It’s the secret to our marriage! he said and laughed, but of course he was totally on to something.

I then noticed that there was a small sign explaining that the waffles contained pearl sugar, just like traditional Belgium waffles. Pearl sugar doesn’t dissolve, so you get a tiny delicious crunch of sweetness with each bite. I imagined that this man had been getting questions and/or complaints from customers about what was inside these waffles, and he was tired of answering them. Meaning that this man, who has already figured out (at least) the secret to a happy marriage, had been wasting his time explaining over and over that his waffles were perfectly fine and doing exactly what they were supposed to do.

But then, he got to come home to his happy wife, who had spent the day doing whatever she wanted to do, maybe reading on the couch with an endless cup of coffee, enjoying the cool breeze coming in through the window. I finally had to make a sign to explain what pearl sugar was! he’d announce to his wife in Flemish. And she would shake her head. What they don’t know, she would say. And they’d exchange knowing smiles.

Then: I need to start getting ready for tomorrow, she’d say, jumping up from the couch. And the man would sink down into it, imagining his perfect Sunday.

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A long time ago, a few months before I turned 30, my then-husband and I spent a weekend in a wonderful little inn not far from where I live now. We had decided to leave the city and were checking out the area we hoped to move to in January, because how can you really know what upstate New York is like in the winter if you don’t visit during the most desolate time of year (we still found it lovely). The best thing about the inn (mostly all I can recall about it now) is that it had a wood stove in the center of what you might call the common room, a wood stove that was directly in the center of the room with chairs placed all around it, and all we did for most of our time there was read in this warm smoky room around the stove. (I also remember falling in love with a tiny toy poodle who was also a guest there. She sat in my lap like a cat, which is probably what I like most about small dogs.)

Whenever I go to guest houses I always like to hunt among the often randomly stocked bookshelves first to see what my options are before nearly always settling on the book I brought along with me. One exception to this occurred some years later in Cape Cod, where I found the book The Lovely Bones in our guest house and stayed up reading it compulsively way into the night, despite the fact that our young children got us up pretty early in the morning. And the other exception was this time, in that smoky warm room, where I found Erica Jong’s Fear of Fifty and devoured it similarly.

I have always been a fan of Erica Jong. I first discovered her in early high school, when I was probably too young to be reading her, but what I understood then, and what I will insist on now, is that despite the fact that she is more known for the explicit sex in her books, she is a genuinely talented writer, literary really, but doomed forever to be thought of as “naughty,” a problem that never seems to follow male authors around.

Fear of Fifty is the book she wrote when she had just turned 50 and realized she would never again be the youngest or cutest person in the room. Of course, just as it happened when I read her for the first time, at 30 I was really kind of too young to appreciate it. What I remember most about reading that book was really just the pleasure of reading for hours around a wood stove with my then-husband. And the way that the book sucked me in, the way my favorite kinds of books do. But though I knew it was a sort of memoir, sort of feminist exploration of getting older, I remembered so little about it.

So now, at the age of 48, though I find myself delighting in the fact that I will never again be the youngest or cutest person in the room, I decided to read it again. This time I am spending the day on my couch in a town not far from that inn, in mid-summer, reading this book with the same sort of compulsiveness. It hits me that I am finally reading her at exactly the right time. (Though, of course, this book was written in the mid-1990s and now she’s 76. But still.)

The story of her life is what fascinates me most. The fact that she says that the only way she could write anything like Fear of Flying was to pretend that she was writing it for herself and would never show it to anyone. I keep thinking about this. What if I wrote like that too? Without the voice in my head that reminds me that no one is interested in what I have to say, that it’s all been said before, that I keep repeating myself. What if I could just write for myself?

I keep trying to trick myself into writing, trying to treat it like a habit I can incorporate into my day, the way I have somehow been doing yoga every day for nearly three years without missing a single day. But I don’t think all habits are the same. And a habit that allows you the freedom from your own constantly chattering mind is a lot different than one that insists you listen to that constantly chattering mind and figure out what it’s saying. It’s so much work! It’s strange that writing comes to me so easily and yet it is also so freaking hard. I both love writing and hate it. I am compelled to do it and often feel relieved when it’s over. I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly surprising here.

As for turning 50, well, I’m watching it happen all around me. Because I was skipped in school, many of my friends are turning 50 this year, and I’m just observing as I always do. Sure, it doesn’t sound great. The number itself. And I love so much being in my 40s that I feel so sad thinking of leaving them. The remarkable thing is that because my parents had me so young, I clearly remember my father’s surprise 50th birthday party because I was a married adult when it happened.  That’s the other thing. Many of my friends have parents that are older or much older than mine. We are not all going through the same things at the same time. And yet. Of course we are. But what’s happening to us? We’re the same people, we are really the same people we always were, and yet there’s no denying that we are all in unexpected places now.

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As for me, my older daughter is leaving for college in five days and I don’t yet know what this will be like. Nothing is like what we expect. It will be just me and my younger daughter here with my older daughter 3 ½ hours away and I haven’t still quite processed this. And I certainly won’t in five days’ time. Because how I feel is that there was this time line. We knew about it from day one. The clock starts the minute your baby is born.  And this clock was somehow in the background all the time, but you could forget about it, especially as your children became some of the best roommates you’ve ever had, and it seemed like things were really going to be great for a long, long time. And then, one of your roommates decided (or so it seemed, even though you helped her every step of the way) that even though things were going really well, she just felt like moving out. Oh, you said, that’s so great! But your heart was sinking sinking sinking. This was it. You’d always known it was coming, and many years had actually passed, but you still felt it had come too soon.

Once upon a time, you were reading a memoir about turning 50, and you were not quite 30 yourself, and just a few months married, and you had no children, no debt, no worries, and you delighted in a sweet little poodle who curled up on your lap in front of a wood stove. And now you are reading that same book, approaching 50, no longer married, no longer debt-free, full of worries, with two children that have been delighting you both like and unlike that poodle for years, and things are going to change yet again. I suppose the one thing that has not changed, that has never changed, is my love for finding a good book and reading and reading until I feel like my real self again, the one that devoured books as a child when the whole world was ahead of me and would turn out to be, forever, a complete mystery.

Things in plain sight

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It was when I saw the second person in as many days walking past with half a watermelon covered in plastic wrap that I started to take notes. We were in Munich, my two teenage daughters, my boyfriend Tony, and I, and among the other things I noted about this wonderful city (there are bakeries in every single subway station, everyone rides bikes, kids roam around on their own, and no one smiles unless they mean it), I began to notice that people just carried odd things on the subway (more accurately, U-bahn).

Perhaps the things themselves weren’t so odd, but rather that people were just carrying them out in the open. I wondered if it was because they don’t use plastic bags in Munich; in grocery stores, people bring their own bags, or you can buy a cloth bag there (which we did). And in other stores, you might get a paper bag or just nothing at all. So perhaps people on the U-bahn had nothing in which to put their items. Except that, no, people carried bags, just not plastic ones. Though in the U-bahn, many didn’t carry bags at all, which meant that whatever they carried was right in plain sight and exactly what I wanted to see.

In the course of our week there, I saw the following, in addition to the two separate men each carrying a wrapped half watermelon: a woman who wore a jacket that said “Lady Gang” on the back holding a flowering cactus, a man holding chocolates and a small toy, a man holding a spade and bag of potatoes, a man holding a small wooden model of a house, a man holding  a non-flowering cactus, a young woman holding a fancy homemade cake which had a sort of shower cap-like contraption around it, protecting it from, well, us. I think that if I lived in Munich I would have an endless list of Things People Carried in Plain Sight, and I would never tire of it.

But why do I mention this, why is this the thing from our marvelous week in Munich—in which we saw gorgeous churches (and attended a concert in one of them), strolled through an ancient cemetery, watched people surfing in a river, climbed the German Alps in a cog railway, visited an outdoor market, and ate delicious food—that delighted me so much it is all I want to write about now? I don’t really know. Of course, I probably don’t have to say this, but it was a total joy to notice such things. To notice such things Somewhere Else. I felt happier in Germany than I have in a long time.

And seeing “Lady Gang” with her flowering cactus reminded me that I was on vacation. I had stepped out of my own life. And as always, I was paying attention.

Look it up!

What I don’t understand, truly, what actually enrages me when I think about it, is the fact that people still ask questions out loud and expect that someone else will answer them. Why do they not use google? I think about a million times a day. I am baffled by this and continue to figuratively shake my head (and literally get angry) every single time I see someone post something online, who then gets a comment like, What is <topic, object, etc.>? LOOK IT UP FOR FUCK’S SAKE!

I honestly don’t get it. I am pretty much someone who spent her childhood waiting for the internet to be invented. Sometimes as a kid, I would come to my mother with a word in a book that I didn’t know, and she would say to me, Look it up! Which was, I guess, a way to teach me to use the dictionary, but was, in fact, a total drag because it meant going to the dictionary and flipping through the pages and, really, I just wanted an answer right now! I didn’t want to stop reading. I wanted an answer quickly so I could get back to my book. Do I remember the words I learned by looking them up in the dictionary? No. But how vividly I remember that frustration of wasting time to get what should have been a quick answer.

Just today I overheard someone ask my 70-something coworker (a retired newspaperman) why the word “lede” in “burying the lede” is spelled that way, which immediately interested me, but when I could not clearly make out the mumblings from behind me, I simply looked it up on google! I mean, it’s not like he was sharing a newspaperman story from his past (that I would have listened to as he was working in Washington during the Watergate era), but just a simple fact that anyone could look up.  Anyone. You don’t need to turn to an expert on newspaper facts anymore. You could find the answer yourself! (“Spelling the word as lede helped copyeditors, typesetters, and others in the business distinguish it from its homograph lead, which also happened to refer to the thin strip of metal separating lines of type (as in a Linotype machine). Since both uses were likely to come up frequently in a newspaper office, there was a benefit to spelling the two words distinctly.”) (You’re welcome.)

I get that people are lazy. I get that maybe they just want someone to tell them that one simple thing instead of finding themselves spending hours down google rabbit holes after looking up one simple phrase (“why burying the lede not lead?”). I even get that sometimes people would rather engage others in conversation instead of spending their time alone with their computer. I do get this. And I like stories just as much as the next person (in truth, probably more). But when one simple google search would satisfy a person’s curiosity, I just have no idea why they can’t just do that.

Googling this very question turned up an article that asks the question that I’m asking and basically comes to the same conclusion: people are lazy (also, a lot of people don’t know who Arcade Fire is, which I find forgiveable). But it’s one thing to be lazy (I can’t put this book down to look something up in another book), and yet it’s another to be publicly lazy. Seriously, everyone who is reading this: the next time you are about to publicly ask someone a question about something, ask yourself, Could I actually find the answer in like two seconds myself? If the answer is yes, well, you know what to do.  I am obviously never going to say, “Wait, let’s just not look this up. Let’s just not know!” I want to know everything. All the time. Everything. I wish everyone did too.

 

One more cup of coffee for the road

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My earliest memory of coffee was the kind that I witnessed blurbing up in my grandparents’ percolator every morning I spent at their house. Watching my grandfather pour himself coffee was thrilling for a couple reasons: first, the kitchen was my grandmother’s territory, but he was somehow allowed to use it for breakfast (this involved my grandmother suddenly slipping out of the kitchen as they could not stand to be in a room with each other for a single second). Second, my grandfather seemingly knew his way around the kitchen beyond just coffee, which surprised me every single time I watched him make himself sunny-side-up eggs or scraped the burned parts off his toast before buttering it. It was as though all the intervening years were slipping away and he was again a young bachelor living on his own in some different apartment in the Bronx. He took his coffee with lots of milk and sugar. I thought, as a child, this was the right way to do it.

Throughout the 1970s, my mother and stepfather drank instant coffee, which involved pouring hot water on some brown powder in a cup.  This seemed so totally boring that I didn’t even really consider it coffee. I tried instant coffee, once, many years later, when my grandmother was living on her own in a different apartment, and she insisted I have coffee. When she brought out the container of instant coffee, I didn’t know what to say. When did she stop using a percolator? When I actually tried some of the instant coffee, I knew what to say: Oh, I can’t drink this.  My grandmother understood.

I didn’t really start drinking coffee regularly until the mid-1990s when coffee came to New York City. Yes, of course, it was always there, but I just hadn’t known! Now every four blocks, I could get a mocha latte. Life became more thrilling. But at the same time I was enjoying regular espresso drinks, I noticed a kind of pain in my chest. I thought maybe I was having a heart attack or cracked my ribs or something. I was 26 years old. But when a doctor mentioned that it was likely acid reflux, I pretty much knew what was to blame. And so, for the next approximately 20 years I experimented with drinking coffee and not drinking coffee. I’m still figuring it out.

But just this evening, while making dinner, somehow I knocked the glass carafe of my coffee maker onto my kitchen floor and it shattered.  This carafe has been cracked for years. Not so cracked that it couldn’t be used, obviously, but cracked enough that whenever my boyfriend used it he tended to pour himself coffee over the sink. This coffee maker was from a previous life, one that I shared with my ex-husband. I don’t even remember how it cracked, but it never seemed bad enough to actually replace. Or I just couldn’t be bothered. Or something. (Once, when my ex-husband and I were in an obsessive juicing phase and our juicer broke, he got into the car that very second and rushed to Target to get us a new one.)  Maybe I wasn’t even a committed coffee drinker, since I really did take long breaks from it where I would only drink black tea (I’m not giving up caffeine, I mean, come on).  But now I’m in a coffee phase again and I ordered myself a new coffee pot.

There are times when objects from our past lives are so personal, so connected to our past selves, that when something happens to them, we are crushed. Or saddened. Or even relieved. But sometimes devastated. And then there are those other times when an object from your past falls to pieces. And you just sigh. And then sweep it up. And then you throw it into the garbage and order a new one.

It was just a coffee pot. Easily replaceable, as it turns out. Who knew.