Moving

We are moving, and it’s from a place that has accidentally become the place I have lived in the longest as an adult, maybe even in my life. We moved a few times when I was a child, and then there was the move from the regular Bronx to Riverdale when I was in eighth grade, and that apartment would have been the place I lived in the longest, except I’m not sure it counts during college, when I lived in various homes in Binghamton, New York for most of the year. And then after college, after a brief time in London, various places in Queens and Brooklyn, and then in 2000, out of the city forever, up to Columbia County. And then a few houses before we landed here, eight years ago, to this bottom floor of a two-family house, which I saw as a temporary move when we had to immediately leave the house and husband I had been separating from. Or something to that effect.

My children were 9 and 12 when we moved here and now they are 17 and 20. To put it more plainly, when we moved in, I was still reading to my younger daughter before bed and now she will be attending college in the fall. The doors in this apartment are the first doors my children slammed in anger. We came here with two cats, then there was one cat, then two cats, and now one cat again. Plus a bearded dragon sometime in the middle of it all. We had one upstairs neighbor that jumped on a mini trampoline directly above my bedroom at night but who, upon seeing me crying when my older daughter left for college, embraced me in the driveway. Each summer, the usually empty house across the road filled with young actors and singers who performed at the local summer stock theater and spent their time singing and shouting on their porch, except for last summer when it stayed empty. My younger daughter would wander up and down our dead-end road listening to music or podcasts. My older daughter would fly off down the steep hill on her bike.  

My older daughter’s tiny room was decorated with posters and Christmas lights, which became painful to look into each time she left for college. Now it is mostly cleared out and ready for packing up. My younger daughter’s room, which has gone through many permutations over the years, is still fully decorated but for only a couple more weeks. My cat has no idea what’s coming.

When we moved here, we were moving away from something, and now we are moving toward something, namely, my boyfriend Tony’s place, just 15 minutes away. And I will miss things, as I miss things from every place I ever lived. Here especially, I will miss the backyard with the wild trees from our neighbor’s yard dangling into our own. I will miss this block with its nineteenth-century houses and monstrous trees. I will miss being able to walk right into the village, and the village itself, which was what made my ex-husband and me decide to move to this area in the first place. I will miss the ancient wood floors and the old-fashioned radiators that loudly hissed all winter long. Most of all I will miss what this place was for me, my first place on my own with my children, where I cooked thousands of meals and wrote dozens of essays. Where I stretched out on the couch and looked out the window and thought about getting up to do something and then just decided to stay there instead.

No more SATs

It’s been three days (well, almost) since I got the second dose of the Moderna vaccine and I still feel like crap. Which is, of course, fine. Soon this will open up my world, which like most everyone’s has been reduced to almost nothing this entire year. But for now, my head aches, my body aches, and I feel too weak to be sitting up and writing this, but I’m going to do it anyway.

The thing is, before this, I was feeling utterly, hopelessly burned out. So much so that I was at times almost looking forward to the vaccine so that I’d have an excuse to lie in bed for three days. It’s like my former enthusiasm for getting an oil change at my local Toyota dealership: “You mean I just have to sit in this comfortable waiting room for hours, reading, and that’s it? Sign me up!” Which, anyway, is sort of an indication that something was wrong. I have been working too much. And I’ve mentioned before that too much is basically anything more than not working. I don’t want to be doing this anymore, and yet I can’t see a way out. We have designed our society this way, even though we really didn’t have to, did we? Could we have chosen some other version where people can have productive lives doing what they want to do, whether it be work or some other thing?

(This quote is mine. The Cut asked people to call in and talk about burnout. And I did.)

I will never forget my friend Emily telling me many years ago about how, in high school, prepping for the SATs made her so utterly stressed and panicked that when she was in a car accident that same year, she actually thought almost gleefully, as she imagined the outcome, “No more SATs!” This is not great.

Not long before my I received my second dose, I had bought the June 1981 issue of Seventeen magazine from eBay. This was a magazine that my step-grandmother had gotten me a subscription for, some time in the previous year when I was 10. That is definitely the right age for teen magazines, if there is a right age for them at all. By the time you’re a teen, you have moved on to better things, but this is the time when you’re still imagining yourself wearing the exact shade of lipstick to go with your blue-and-white maillot bathing suit at the beach. When everyone will admire the fun blond streaks in your hair from the lemon juice you squeezed into it. This turned out to be exactly what I needed to read when I was feeling terrible and lying in bed for most of a weekend. In fact, it is exactly what I did whenever I stayed home from school in those days: grabbed a stack of my old Seventeens and went through them over and over. It was wild to see the editors gently suggesting that teen girls wear sunscreen when they go to the beach (SPF 4!) and pointing out that they should probably wear helmets when riding bikes (“as weird as it sounds”)(!). I mean, there was definitely some sexism and racism in there, which I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting to see reviews of actually interesting books and movies of the time (meanwhile, “Superman II” was considered a bore!). Or the fact that the three teen girls who were interviewed about “just starting” their careers were now successful women in their 50s with their own Wikipedia pages.

Really, though, it was just the thing to be reminded of those thoroughly innocent days when I excitedly made my own oatmeal masks and envisioned the woman I would become with the help of Seventeen magazine. I also bought a laminator recently, which has been delighting me exactly the way it would had such a thing been possible when I was 11 years old. It’s time to get back into the old habits. Or something. I have no answer on how to stop working. I can only make the time that I’m not working more hopeful and somewhat more thrilling. The person who I am when I am not working is maybe the person I was before I started working? I will find out.

Piece of Cake

NOTE: I wrote the below for a short story contest, in which the genre was a crime caper, the subject was a prototype, and the character was a consultant. I did not make it past the first round, which may partly be due to the fact that I had no idea how to write a crime caper and somehow always end up writing the story I wanted to tell in the first place.

I’d been at Fast Furniture for about six weeks when the plan finally began to take shape.

The four of us had been hired by my usual agency, whose name I am not at liberty to disclose. Ostensibly we were there as IT consultants, which, of course, we were. But that wasn’t the real reason we’d been hired. As usual, there was a bit of backstory. The CEO of Fast Furniture was Sam Duffy, who was the cousin of Max Duffy, the CEO of Flash Furniture, though once they had both worked at Fast Furniture, a company started by their grandfather. The “fast” apparently referred to the speed at which furniture once could be made, which Grandpa Duffy had been known for, though now, of course, the actual making of the furniture was done elsewhere, and the place was a furniture design company of sorts, specializing in office furniture. At some point in the past five years, I had learned, Sam and Max had gotten into a terrible fight about something (I try not to repeat rumors, although this one is pretty good, involving Max’s ex-girlfriend, a trip to the Poconos, and some very expensive candles), and Max formed his own company, Flash Furniture, the idea being that he could make furniture even faster than Fast. Which, okay, but this was no longer really the point?    

But recently, word had gotten out that Fast Furniture had perfected this ergonomic office chair and Max wanted his hands on the prototype, which Jamie Furver, kid genius at Fast Furniture, had designed. When Max found out that Fast Furniture was doing an upgrade to their website and was planning to hire consultants, he called our agency, who then managed to get us situated for the steal. I have no idea how Max Duffy found out about us or how we ended up at Fast Furniture, but that’s not really my business. The less we know about that part, the better. To be honest, this was kind of a low stakes job for us, but it paid well, and really, I try not to judge.

Tanya was the actual IT expert; the other three of us knew enough to get by. We’d really been trying to figure out how to get Jamie Furver out of his office so that Tanya could get in there and hack into his computer. We’d also need to unlock his office door, which Bill had been working on whenever Jamie Furver stepped out of his office. That guy was extremely paranoid. He locked his door every single time he left his office, which maybe he was instructed to do, but it just added an unnecessary complication to the plan. Tanya had spent the past six weeks exploring the security of the company’s computer system while we were busy resetting passwords for the constantly crashing website and retrieving files that people kept accidentally deleting from the server. You know, basic IT stuff.   

Anyway, I was at my desk, when Jane from accounting passed by, discretely holding a plain manila folder.

“Hey, Amy,” she said as quietly as she could, which was most people’s regular speaking volume. “Did you sign Joe Rosenfeld’s card?”

I had signed his card yesterday, but people kept asking me.

“Yeah, I signed it,” I said.

There was going to be this big party for Joe Rosenfeld in the conference room. He was turning 30, and it was some kind of big deal. The main point was that we had to make our move during this party. Maury had figured it out once talk of the party started to circulate around the office. If there was a party, we knew Jamie Furver would leave his office (that guy loved cake), and Tanya could finally get into his computer to steal the prototype. Bill would unlock Jamie’s door, then act as the lookout while Tanya worked, and Maury and I would be at the party, keeping an eye on things and making sure no one left the room.

This was maybe the fifth job I was doing with Maury and that guy was really friendly, which is not always great in this business, but it somehow worked for him. Everyone seemed to like him wherever we went. He had worked in offices for many years and felt very comfortable there. I had once seen Maury in a kitchen heating up an entire rotisserie chicken in the microwave. As I said, I try not to judge.

As the day of the party got closer, it had become clear that it was going to be a surprise party, and so for days everyone was going around planning how they were going to surprise Joe Rosenfeld, even though I figured Joe had guessed what was going on. It wasn’t just the whispering and the surreptitious passing around of the card. It was that anyone who had a birthday in that company usually got some kind of party. I had already been to like three of them in my short time there. But for some reason, Joe had to be surprised about this one, which meant that people like Sherri and Barbara Kroeger and Jane had to get in on it, and they had an actual strategy meeting to plan how they were going to get Joe into the conference room and make it seem like it was just a regular meeting.

Jane was all like, “Let’s just tell him we’re moving the quarterly meeting to this week!” But Barbara Kroeger insisted that would look suspicious since they always had the quarterly meeting in March and he’d want to know why they were moving it up earlier.

“Joe would totally figure out something was going on!” Jane insisted.

Sherri thought that someone could just stop him and say, “There’s something really important in the catalogue that we need your opinion on!” and kind of rush him into the conference room before he had a second to think about it.

Maury happened to be overhearing this and stepped in. “What if you just told him he was going to someone else’s birthday party, but then, when he got there, it was actually his party!”

Jane and Sherri and Barbara Kroeger looked impressed. “Wow, that’s really good, Maury!”

Maury looked away, modestly. But that’s the thing about Maury. He was always hiding in plain sight.

I guess I should mention Bill too, though I don’t really want to say a lot about him. We’d had kind of a thing once for a short time, which made it a bit awkward doing these kind of jobs together, but we managed. We’re professionals, after all. I think he’s been with his current girlfriend for like five years, but I totally don’t care and I refuse to learn her name, even though I’m pretty sure it’s Marcia. Which is a ridiculous name. But I’m not saying anything else.

The party was planned for 3:00, the usual party time, when everyone is totally crashing from lunch and an extreme sugar infusion right about then is just the thing. Tanya and Bill and Maury and I were ready. The only problem was that no one could find Joe.

“Didn’t you tell him that it was a surprise party for Vincent?” Jane from accounting said to Barbara Kroeger in the conference room. Maury and I were in there already making sure to keep track of who was arriving. 

“Of course, I did,” said Barbara Kroeger, looking extremely annoyed.

“Wait,” said Mike from client services. “You told him Vincent? He can’t stand that guy!”

“Mike, don’t say anything about that!” hissed Jane, looking around worriedly for Vincent, who was entering the conference room at that exact moment.

“What’s going on?” said Vincent.

“Nothing!” said Jane and Barbara Kroeger and Mike, all looking kind of sheepish.

Maury shot me a look and then said, casually, “So do you think Joe isn’t coming? Is he in his office or…?” Joe’s office was right next to Jamie Furver’s. Joe had to be out of there if this plan was going to happen.

“Ugh,” said Vincent. “Listen, I’m in the middle of something. Let me know when you find Joe.” And he walked back out of the conference room.

“Great!” said Jane. “Why did you say it was for Vincent, Barbara?”

“You told me to tell him Vincent!” Barbara snapped.

“Shhh!” said Mike. “Keep your voice down. Come on, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just figure out where Joe is.”

“If Joe isn’t in his office, he might have actually gone out for a coffee or something,” Gary Kwan pointed out.

“What do you mean gone out for a coffee?” said Jane. “Like out out?”

“Yeah,” said Gary. “Like maybe to the Starbucks downstairs?”

“God, why do people pay so much for Starbucks when they can just get free coffee in the office?” said Mandy. She was 23.

“Some people just prefer Starbucks, okay, Mandy?” said Jane, rolling her eyes.

Things were kind of falling apart for Maury and me at this point.

“Guys, hang on,” I said, as calmly as I could. “Someone should just check if Joe is actually in his office or—”

Lori Beechum stuck her head into the conference room. “Did this start yet or…?”

“Lori,” said Jane. “Can you see if Joe is in his office?”

“Oh, yeah, I think he is,” said Lori. “But when I asked if he was coming to Vincent’s party, he was just like, yeah, maybe. So he’s probably not coming.”

Here Jane shot a look at Barbara, who glared back. “This is actually a party for Joe,” said Jane.

“Oh!” said Lori. “I thought it was for Vincent!”

“Joe was just supposed to think it was for Vincent, or whoever, but it’s for Joe! It’s Joe’s birthday!”

“Oh, yeah, I know. That’s why I thought it was weird that there was a party for Vincent. But, okay, I can try to get Joe to come now,” said Lori, smiling. Everyone knew Joe had a thing for Lori.  

“That would be great,” said Jane. “But please, don’t tell him the party is for him!”

“Okay, whatever,” said Lori, rolling her eyes as she left.

And then Maury, very casually, almost as if he really couldn’t be bothered, said, “Hey, where’s Jamie Furver?”

“Jamie Furver?” said Jane, frowning.

“Yeah, Jamie. He wouldn’t want to miss this. He looooves parties,” said Maury. 

I felt myself getting a little panicked at this point and did some discreet Ujjayi breathing that I have learned from a YouTube yoga class. Then I said, “Yeah, Jamie should really be here and then we can get Joe.”

Jane looked annoyed. “Maybe he’s busy. I think it’s more important that we find Joe.” Gary Kwan, who had slipped out unnoticed, stepped back into the conference room at that moment to announce that Joe was no longer in his office.

“Ugh!” said Jane. “This is awful. I can’t believe how much time went into planning this party and now Joe’s not even here and no one is even bothering to look for him? Like, come on, people, can we just do this one thing!”

Barbara Kroeger looked amused.

“I really think—” Maury started to say, when suddenly Vincent raced into the conference room.

“Lori found Joe!” hissed Vincent. “She’s bringing him!”

“But wait a second,” said Maury.

“Yes?” said Jane. “What? This is perfect! Okay, everyone, be quiet! Wait, is Gary back yet?”

“Gary’s not back!” said Barbara. “Wait, hang on, Gary should be here before Joe gets here!”

Jane sighed. “I don’t think it matters at this point.”

Maury and I exchanged a look, and he strolled toward the door. “I’m just going to drag Jamie in here so I don’t have to hear about how he missed out on the cake or whatever.”

“It’s too late! Maury, don’t leave the conference room!” Jane nearly shouted and then said, more quietly, “It’s too obvious!”

This was really starting to worry me. And Maury too, obviously.

“Wait, a minute, I have a great idea!” said Maury.

But just as he was ready to tell us his great idea, the door to the conference room opened. And there was Lori Beechum with Joe Rosenfeld and Jamie Furver. That Lori was really something else. She looked incredibly smug, while Joe looked a bit bashful and Jamie, Boy Genius, looked very inconvenienced. Though I did see him noticing the cake and his face softened a little bit.

For a second, there was a kind of shocked silence. And then we all shouted, “Surprise!”

“Oh, you guys, is this for me?” said Joe, acting surprised as hard as he could, and Jane just absolutely beamed.

That turned out to be the last job I ever did with those guys. Tanya had gotten the prototype over to Max Duffy and ended up getting bigger and better jobs through our agency, and our paths never really crossed again. Maury is still there too, happy to do whatever comes up. He’s an easygoing guy, as I’ve said. I stayed on for a bit longer and then moved to a different agency, whose name I am also not at liberty to disclose. Last I heard, Bill and his girlfriend Marcia (?) moved to the Netherlands for a new position that I can’t really get into. I hope they’re happy there. I mean, whatever. 

Sometime later on, we’d learn that Jamie Furver’s perfect ergonomic chair had a serious flaw and the entire prototype had to be scrapped and redone, and that Flash Furniture would end up folding, since Max Duffy had neglected much of the day-to-day workings of the company and was only obsessively focused on ruining his cousin’s business. Joe Rosenfeld would bravely ask out Lori Beechum, after having a crush on her for three years, but she would turn him down for Vincent, of all people, which didn’t do much for Joe’s opinion of him. But anyway, all of that was in the future.

Back at the party, we stood around eating cake and talking about Joe and, then, eventually, just whatever shows were on TV. After a bit, Bill slipped into the party and nodded at Maury and me, and by the end, even Tanya had managed to squeeze into the crowded conference room, her mission complete, with a copy of a totally useless prototype in the pocket of her blazer. The cake, which they got from the usual bakery around the corner, was particularly delicious that day, at that particular moment of my life. I watched Maury being handed a second piece of cake, and my heart just completely filled with joy.

This year

I am already looking back on this year, it is already fading into something else, possibly because this year has been so simultaneously terrifying and monotonous. If I were to make a movie of this year (which I wouldn’t), I’d start it on my 50th birthday in March, and you’d see a shot of my children and my boyfriend Tony and me sitting and laughing in a restaurant, in what would be for us the last normal restaurant experience of the entire year. Except, even then, it wasn’t normal really. I remember all of us remarking on how crowded it seemed. Why were the people next to us just so close? We already knew this was the end of something. Two days later, New York went into lockdown, and well, you know the rest.

If I were to tell the story of this year in images, there are really only two that stand out. (Well, to set the tone, first I’d show an endless loop of myself walking from my bed to my desk to my bed to my desk, etc. And then there would be an endless series of myself taking the same daily walk around my little village. You’d see the trees beginning to bud and then the summer flowers and then the gorgeous leaves of fall, but I would be the same, in the same yoga pants and t-shirt and headphones.)

But then there would be this. In early October, our cat Noboru, 16 years old, who we’d had since he was just six weeks old, got very sick very suddenly and had to be put down. He was just a year younger than my younger daughter; they had grown up together. She held him in the back seat of the car wrapped in a towel as I drove us to the vet. He was too weak and too uncomfortable to be put in a carrier. When we got to the vet’s office, we called them from the parking lot, which is how things work at the vet now. It was then I found out that they would take him inside, give him a sedative, and then they’d bring him out and give him the final drug in the car.  I understood they wanted as little contact as possible, but this upset me terribly. I don’t want him to go inside alone, I kept saying, and then they told me they’d call me back, as just at that moment a torrential downpour started and turned into something like hail, and we watched from the car, astonished, as lightning hit the power line across the street and caused it to burst into flames. The vet called me back and said we could come into the office, since it would be impossible for them to do anything in the parking lot now what with all the rain, and their power had even gone out, though they had a generator. And so we got to be with Noboru until the very end, as we stood masked and crying in the office and watched his body ease out of pain.

And then just a week later, Tony and I drove down to a cabin in the Catskills, a cabin that was just a tiny room with an enormous skylight above the bed and windows covering almost one entire wall. It was just mountains all around us, and the openness and the colors were just beautiful in a way that words always fail and pictures sometimes manage to catch. The cabin was freezing inside, and there was a battery-operated space heater that we could not seem to make work, but we made a fire in the fire pit outside and watched the stars until it became too dark to see, and we stumbled to the outhouse, which seemed miles away, especially in the middle of the night. And in the morning as we lay under the skylight, having not slept much in the freezing cold cabin, we watched as the sky started to lighten, shockingly almost, and then there was the sun, just like that, which made me realize that I probably have not seen enough sunrises in my life, and enough would likely be every single day. We were in the middle of nowhere and nothing else was happening, just the sun rising, like it always did. And there are even fewer words for this and there are pictures, but still. This is the moment: that moment and the moment in the parking lot, at the end of my cat’s life, when I watched a power line burst into flames, that I will remember when I think about this year. As Mary Oliver said, I do know how to pay attention.

 

We’ve been waiting for you

Our cat, Pepper, has this autoimmune issue with his eyes, keratitis, which is chronic and involves him getting eye drops a number of times a day. At some point, we might be able to reduce the number of drops, but still, this is basically it for the rest of his life (he’s six). This is going about as well as you’d expect. I’ve found that the best way to do it is to wrap him up in a towel, like a cat burrito, so that only his tiny face peeks out. When he looks up at me, he looks like an actual baby, or rather I am reminded what it was like to have a tiny baby look up at me like that. We look at each other and there is, from my way of seeing it, trust in his eyes, the same way my own babies looked up at me that way.

It has been a long time. My younger daughter will be 17 in a few days. I’ve talked about her birth before, as it was basically the opposite of my older daughter’s birth, which was traumatic for me in every way. When I think about this second birth, I think about a delicious sandwich I ate some hours before she was born, the way the sun shined that day, how, also hours before she was born, my ex-husband and I wandered into an empty hospital lounge where the TV was tuned to a retrospective of John Ritter, who had recently died, and how we both stood there watching with tears in our eyes. I’m not sure the tears were actually for John Ritter, but that’s how I remember it. (John Ritter was the son of Tex Ritter, a country music singer famous for the song “I’m Wastin’ My Tears on You.” So, you know, full circle. Or something.)

Anyway. On the day my daughter was born, 17 years ago, James Gandolfini won an Emmy for The Sopranos, Bill Murray turned 53, and “a daring robotic explorer that circled Jupiter and its moons for eight years plunged into the scorching atmosphere of the giant planet.” It was a Sunday night and I had spent basically the entire weekend waiting to give birth (my “water broke” on Saturday morning, but nothing really happened until Sunday afternoon) and I once wrote about this day because it always makes me think of my friend David Ripley, no longer with us, but who, improbably, was one of the stars of this day in history. At least, for me.  

But the one thing I haven’t written about, even though it’s part of the story too, is the time after my younger daughter was born. It was a few hours later (now Monday morning) and my ex-husband went to get our nearly three-year-old daughter from a friend’s house, a situation that had turned into an entire weekend playdate that none of us had expected. I was alone with my younger daughter, still feeling the rush of adrenaline from both giving birth and lacking sleep, and I held her wrapped up in a blanket, and looked down at her face, this new person with a full head of surprisingly black hair, a stranger who had been living with me for nine months, and I felt contentment, such utter contentment that I can still remember that exact feeling, which is hard to come by, especially these days.

So that now when I hold my cat just like that and look down at his tiny cat face, I am reminded of those days, and how despite how exhausted and frantic I felt, I could pause for a moment and look down at a small person’s face looking up at me and feel utterly content. It is something I like to hang onto, that feeling, like a kind of life preserver. Then I kiss my cat’s tiny face, and drop in the eye drops. He leaps out of my arms.

Early glow

gallery_ (18) (1)

Strawberries are the only food that has actually brought tears to my eyes. Many years ago, my ex-husband and our two little girls and I were at the farm store where he used to bake bread. A coworker of his stopped to talk to us, holding a big basket of perfumey just-picked organic strawberries. Try some, he said to us. Those were the strawberries that brought tears to my eyes. I had never tasted anything so perfect in my life.

After that, and for years to come, the four of us picked strawberries together at that very farm every summer. Strawberries are the first fruits ready to be picked, usually in mid-June, and we were spoiled forever by the perfect ones we picked there. They had a kind called “Early Glow” that were tiny and sweet, and each year they got tinier and sweeter, and I think eventually the farm had to stop planting that variety due to an eventual poor yield. But in those days, the Early Glows were plentiful, and my girls would be nearly entirely red by the end of picking (basically putting one strawberry in their mouth for every one they put in the basket), while my ex-husband picked with an absolute ferocity, dedicated as he was to making tons of strawberry jam, which always involved huge pots of boiling water on the stove on what was always, for some reason, the hottest day of the year.

The tradition was to have strawberry shortcake for dinner after the first night of picking, which was actually buttermilk biscuits with some sweetened strawberry sauce and whipped cream. Much as I loved this, the idea of adding anything, even sugar, to such an already perfect food always seemed wrong to me. And so, we always froze some strawberries as is, in freezer bags, to be saved for a winter day when such a thing was needed. Which is why, in the middle of an ice storm, in December of 2008, after no power for five days, when I inhaled the scent of the summer strawberries that we had taken out to thaw, it felt like an actual miracle. And once again, it was strawberries that brought tears to my eyes.

Many years passed, as they say. My ex-husband still picks strawberries as ferociously as ever on hot summer mornings every year. Sometimes my older daughter goes with him. And sometimes she will bring strawberries home for the three of us, and we’ll make the buttermilk biscuits and the strawberry sauce and the whipped cream. And it brings with it a tiny bit of sadness for me, but mostly joy for the memories of strawberry picking, including one time where I famously stood up too quickly after picking for a while and sort of crumpled to the ground.  Had I actually fainted for strawberries? If so, it makes perfect sense.

Yesterday, when our box of slightly imperfect fruits and vegetables was delivered, in the midst of this pandemic, when everything seems precious and doomed at the same time, my older daughter noticed the box of organic strawberries that I had ordered—my older daughter, who should be at college, but who is now home with us, and I can’t say I mind this very much, though of course I understand why she does. We got to work on the strawberries, and my younger daughter had some too when she returned from a walk. Even though these were not the same first-loved strawberries, and certainly not just-picked, there was still something a bit magical about them for me, the way that they always represented joy in the midst of difficult times. I started to think about summers past and felt somewhat hopeful about the upcoming summer. Hopeful and worried both.

The strawberries were gone within the hour.

Backward and forward

End of school 07 042This morning something caught my eye on the floor of my room. It was three pieces of yarn tied together in a way that seemed deliberate, which will make sense if you have ever lived with children and yarn. I’m not sure how it got there. Maybe one of my cats brought it into my room. Except that it seemed to have come from another time, from like ten years ago. Where had that piece of tied yarn been all this time?

Once upon a time, when I had little girls, there were never not pieces of yarn on the floor. Also, sticks and rocks and other things made or brought in from the outside. But it has been a long time since I saw something so specifically made by children’s hands in my house. Maybe never even in this particular house, which we moved to when my girls were 9 and 12, ages when they maybe were still tying up pieces of yarn, but not so frequently and not necessarily leaving them in all corners of the house. Or apartment rather, which is where we live now.

Once upon a time we lived in a big lovely house with two floors, and my girls played with yarn and sticks and rocks and lots of plastic animals.  And there was a room upstairs, a sort of transitional room that led to other rooms but had no other purpose, that room was filled with houses and animal stalls made of blocks, and those setups were always there. Though sometimes we had all this stuff in the living room too.

Now my girls are 16 and 19, and our home no longer has pieces of yarn and other things scattered around. Or so I thought. Somehow the past is creeping in here. It’s a pretty small apartment, but the past has ways.

It’s really hard not to call this piece of yarn a madeleine since just the sight of it brought back a flood of memories. I think it works the same way, this involuntary memory, as Proust referred to it. Like a smell or a song. Not long ago, I heard a song I hadn’t heard since I was in college, but I had once played it a lot, and the minute I recognized it, I got chills. And I thought, So this really does happen.

I’m going to be 50 in a couple days. Once upon a time, I was a young mother with young children, and I lived very much in the present, as you do when every single moment of your life is so minutely focused. Back then, I worked entirely from home and often would work when my kids went to sleep, around 8:30, which still astonishes me. These days I am usually in bed reading at 8:30. With the whole night ahead of me.

Meanwhile, I have, somehow, the ability to look back in a way I didn’t before. Something happens to time when you become middle-aged. I just wrote a whole essay about time and middle age, and it will get published eventually and then I will go on to write something else. But the truth is that’s the thing I can’t stop thinking about. That’s basically what I’m always thinking about in some way and writing about, really. Though I don’t think this makes me unique.

Middle-age is not new, but I’m feeling it as this startling and wondrous thing. I have figured out a bunch of things and put some other things on hold for now. I am more honest and less concerned about what people think. I don’t need to make people like me anymore. I’m glad when they do though.

Once upon a time I had little girls who tied pieces of yarn together and ran singing through my house. Once upon a time I was a little girl who liked yarn, who ran singing through the house, who choreographed entire dances in her room, who spent hours at an old typewriter banging out story after story, compulsively. I am all of those things now. I am, in two days, 50 years old. I am middle-aged and so damn glad to be here in what is approximately the middle of my life. This is the place from which I look both backward and forward. Times are not so great right now, it’s true. I am in the wrong place at the right time. Or something like that. I’ll figure it out. I’ve got some time.

Beneath this wondrous world

It may be clear by now that I am a great reader of books, meaning that I read a lot of books and that I’m a great reader, such that if you wrote a book you’d want me to read it. Or maybe that I’m a great appreciater of books is more like it. Anyway.

When I was in high school our class read Ethan Frome, a book I liked very much until my teacher pointed out the sexual symbolism of the pickles and donuts served at dinner. I mean, that is a strange enough meal but, honestly, explaining it ruined the scene for me entirely. (Thankfully I’ve never encountered both foods together at a meal in real life, which would also be ruined for me.) In fact, it’s all I recall about the book (except for the final sledding accident) (er, spoiler alert), due to to my English teacher who positively lived for symbolism. But why? Why do we talk about books this way?

Earlier this year, I read Moby-Dick, but I approached it by not looking for symbolism, but just as a wildly well-written, sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving, occasionally tedious novel (or in the words of noted book reviewer Ron Swanson, “a good simple tale about a man who hates an animal”). I had avoided this book all my life, due to a strange aversion to stories about sailing and boats. I truly feared that it would be boring. But then I read some excerpts from it while reading a book about the invention of electric light (I’m sorry to say I abandoned this book, but it did bring me to Moby-Dick, so I don’t think this counts as a loss), and what struck me immediately was the language and the humor, and I was all in. And though there were many days where I excitedly rushed to read the next installment (I love how practically every chapter is like two or three pages long; it always feels like progress) there were some days where, I have to admit, it was a bit of a slog. But ultimately I’m glad I read it, if only for what I think is one of the most beautiful passages in all of literature. Apparently, I’m not the first person to notice the striking beauty of this passage, how incredibly moving it is on so many levels. But I didn’t know that at the time. At the time, I was just struck by it and kept returning to it in amazement. It’s maybe about 500 pages in (but chapter 87!) when the crew of the Pequod encounters a pod of whales, mostly mothers with their babies:

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up toward us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of gulf-weed in their new-born sight.

I could see this precisely, as it was something I noticed in my own children when they were nursing, and I was stunned that Melville was able to capture it so perfectly. I had, for some reason, pictured Melville completely detached from his family life, just writing and writing frantically, falling from grace over and over (a review of his book Pierre or, the Ambiguities, published a year after Moby-Dick, began with the headline “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY”), and yet it turns out he was paying attention to everything, “as if leading two different lives at the time.”

And I do realize there is metaphor here, and symbolism (we are all just simple creatures with our own hidden secrets in the vastness of this world), but it is also just gorgeous writing, and that is what connects us: the joy of storytelling and a good writer’s ability to point out what we already know without knowing we know.  This is why I keep reading.

herman-melville-moby-dick-illustration-by-rockwell-kent

It is August

img

Many years ago, probably around 30 years ago, now that I think about it, I read Raymond Carver’s story “Fat,” and something happened. Really it’s those last lines: “It is August. My life is going to change. I feel it.”  Which I end up thinking about every single August first. But there is plenty more to the story, a quick one, which begins with a waitress telling a story to her friend Rita, and then there is the story itself: “It is late of a slow Wednesday when Herb seats the fat man at my station.”

I have a recording of Carver reading this story and he explains that the story has a kind of frame to it. Carver has a beautiful speaking voice. He pronounces “which” (and other “wh” words) exactly the way my stepfather did: “hwich.” I think of this as a western accent (my stepfather was from Wyoming; Carver was from Oregon), though I’m not sure that’s what it is.  In any case, I long to hear this pronunciation whenever I can.

What I love about the story “Fat” is simply the description of the fat man eating dinner (so much bread and butter!) and the waitress bringing each course to him. Probably my favorite Carver story is “Cathedral,” in which the narrator’s wife invites her old friend over for dinner. The man is blind, and the narrator feels uncomfortable around him. When they actually eat dinner, it’s like this: “We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed the table. We were into serious eating.”

Carver really gets serious eating. The man in “Fat” is ashamed of how much he eats, but the waitress takes delight in it, much as I do, even as I, at the same time, truly get his shame. But meanwhile, she just keeps bringing him food and he keeps eating it.

When she leaves work, the waitress can’t figure out why the fat man has had such an impact on her. She imagines herself getting fatter while her boyfriend is having sex with her, which maybe has to do with getting pregnant, or maybe just getting symbolically bigger and/or more powerful than him, but she really doesn’t know what it means.  She feels depressed telling Rita about it: “But I won’t go into it with her. I’ve already told her too much.” She’s left there feeling that her life is going to change.

When I was younger the lines “My life is going to change. I feel it” thrilled me in a way that didn’t entirely have to do with this story. Now I can’t help focusing on the lines before them: “She sits there waiting, her dainty fingers poking her hair. Waiting for what? I’d like to know.”

I read this story in an “Introduction to Creative Writing” class I took on a whim in college. Despite the fact that I had been reading and writing compulsively nearly my whole life up to that moment, I was not an English major. I majored in anthropology, something I wanted to learn more about, even though I was quite sure I didn’t want to be an anthropologist. I still don’t regret this choice, but I do recall that when I took a more advanced creative writing course my senior year, my professor began her final review of my work with the line, “Are you sure you want to be an anthropologist??” She was insistent that I go to graduate school for creative writing. She thought it was obvious that this is what I was meant to do. And in a slow meandering way, I did end up at graduate school, though not for writing, and then I did end up getting some of my writing published, though maybe not in the way that she expected.

But anyway: “Fat.” This was my first introduction to Raymond Carver, and pretty soon I was reading just about everything he ever published. This might have been the moment when I realized that short stories were masterful pieces of work unto themselves, that you could say so much (so much more even) with fewer words. And this story, in which a woman feels an unexplained connection to a stranger and a further unexplained disconnect from others, is poignant in a way that I couldn’t begin to understand at the age of 19.

“This story’s getting interesting now, Rita says.” This story has been following me around for 30 years. I am still not entirely sure what it means to me, but I know that it’s something. I will keep thinking about it.

It is August.

My life is going to change. I feel it.

Brighton Beach memories

My uncle Lee is one of my favorite storytellers. His stories are always lengthy, methodical, and a total delight. For all of my life (and nearly all of his), the only storytelling he did was face to face, but, recently inspired by a “Memories of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn” Facebook group, he started writing things down. So I’m sharing some of what he wrote, edited a bit, and doled out a bit at a time, like a scoop of Baskin Robbins ice cream (more on this another time). He was born in 1955, so these are memories from the 60s mostly.

One of the shared memories of everyone who grew up in Brighton Beach is that of the beach and sand. Lots and lots (and lots) of sand. We, after all, grew up quite literally on the beachfront, living a mere Spaldeen’s throw away from the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Though we all, mostly, took it for granted growing up, it was a very significant geographical feature to have grown up next to, especially for those, like me, who lived south of BBA between the train and the ocean. Later in life, I would (and still do) very proudly describe my being from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, having lived about 50 feet from the Atlantic Ocean (not much of an exaggeration for me, living just off of Brightwater Court on Brighton 7 St).

As toddlers and up to around age 10, my mishpucha, variously consisting of myself, my sister, cousins, parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle, would fairly frequently congregate on a summer’s day at my grandparents’ house on Brightwater Court for a collective beach outing. We’d pack up blankets to sit on (never chairs), kiddie beach toys—lots of toy pails, shovels, sand sifters, little rakes—and walk over to Brighton 6th street, up onto the boardwalk ramp, across the boardwalk, and down the steps to beach. Sometimes we’d walk under the boardwalk to get to the beach, but at that time it was already getting fairly grungy under there. We always marched all the way down to the water’s edge to lay our claim to that prime real estate, setting up “camp” just above the high-tide line, an important lesson for those unfamiliar with how tides work. We lay out our blankets on the sand, holding down the edges and corners with something to keep them grounded and secure in the wind, and thus started our beach day.

Over the course of the day, we kids would play with the muddy sand at the edge of the water line, making sand pies, sand castles and such. We’d bury ourselves, or other would bury us.  In the drier sand near our blankets, and away from the water, we’d dig holes down about an arm’s length and excitedly strike water, which would fill the bottom of the hole.  After some sand fun, we’d head into the water and splash/swim around in the always cool water. The color of the ocean water was a sort of dark gray / murky green. I just couldn’t really relate to that “Ocean Blue” stuff that Columbus had sailed on in 1492. It wasn’t until many many years later that I actually witnessed the blue waters of Florida/the Caribbean, and only then did I understand. Wow, the water WAS blue. But our water was mostly gray, year-round. 

There was a LOT of sand on the beach. If you can guess, or know, how many grains of sand there on the beach, which extends for the entire length of the Boardwalk, from Manhattan Beach to Seagate, you should please let me know. 10 to the 10th power, the 20th power, 50th power.  It’s a lot.  In addition to being very wide, it was also a long way from the boardwalk to the water line. In the 1960s, the beach was getting shorter due to a lot of erosion, with the water getting closer and closer to the boardwalk. There was a big project one year (led by the Army Corps of Engineers?) to extend the length of the beach, pushing back the sea a bit. They set up these huge sand pumps on the beach, with which they pumped muddy sand slurry from the shallows through very long tubes and piled it back away from the water onto the existing sand, where it was piled up. It made for these huge sand dunes after drying out. It was this sand that was plowed back toward the coastline, ultimately increasing/restoring the length of the beach. For my money, the actual physical sand of Brighton Beach, white and fine, is some of the very best sand just about anywhere in the world. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a lot of sandy beaches over the years, white sand, pink sand, black volcanic sand, and I contend that Brighton Beach’s sand quality, and quantity, is second to none.

It wasn’t enough for people who wanted to get “healthful toasted/tan/brown skin”, a sure sign of youth and vigor, by just sitting in the sun, letting it do its thing, getting bombarded with what we later came to understand through science were very harmful emissions of cell-destroying radiation from the sun. No, they had used those insidious sun reflectors. Folded in three segments, these devices would be unfolded and held against one’s upper chest or neck, under their faces, with the aluminized shiny reflecting surfaces focusing all that solar goodness under their chins, up into their nostrils, onto their faces.  They slathered on suntan oils like Coppertone to accelerate the facial crisping process. The invention of sunscreen with its SPF numbers that offered some protection again those rays was years away yet.  I remember that my grandmother’s arms were covered in this wrinkled reptilian skin, given testimony to her lifetime of sunning, but thankfully she seemed to be able to take it, and she made it to 95 years old.

There were vendors that walked across the hot beach, carrying large coolers of their wares that were strapped over their backs. They sold things like orangeade in these little cylindrical containers (the only thing orange about them being that the weakly sugared water in the container was slightly orange in color, that orange color being of unknown origin).  The best vendor was the one that hauled ice cream around, the Dixie Cups with the little wooden spoons, half vanilla, half chocolate (and also orange creamsicle pops). One of the best parts was that you could ask for, and if they had enough they would sometimes give you, a little piece of the dry ice, frozen carbon dioxide, that they carried in their coolers to keep stuff cold and mostly frozen. We’d fill our sand pails with some fresh Atlantic Ocean brine and he would plop in a little piece of his dry ice. It would immediately cause the water to “boil” as the CO2 was sublimed directly from solid to gas and would bubble up through the water. I, of course, had no idea of this at the time, but I was subsequently a chemistry major, and the secret was revealed. Knowledge is power, But then it was like magic!

Every so often, when the ice cream man was nowhere to be seen on the beach, we’d be given some money and go walk back to the boardwalk to buy frozen custard cones in the commercial strip between Brighton 4 and 6 St, next to the Men’s Club. In order for us to return to our family basecamp on the beach, which was always near water somewhere, it was important to pick out a nearby landmark so that we could find our way back. When the beach was crowded, it was really really packed. Sometimes the landmark was a particular lamppost on the boardwalk, or maybe the lifeguard stand, or a brightly colored nearby beach blanket, anything to help us find our way back. There were occasions where we had to search for a long time for the spot where the elders were (I suppose?) eagerly awaiting our safe returns. Also, the sand on the beach got really really really hot under the summer sun, and we always walked barefooted. Because the beach was packed with one beach blanket after another in the dead of summer, from the water all the way to the boardwalk, we basically did a kind of beach blanket surfing, where we’d hop from one blanket to another so that we didn’t burn our feet too badly. We were still pretty small, and this was somewhat acceptable. When we’d go on those frozen custard forays up to the boardwalk, being barefooted, one thing that I painfully remember was also getting lots wood splinters from the old wooden boardwalk boards into the bottoms of my then-as-now very flat feet. Sometimes they would be large enough to just yank out, but other times, when the wood shards were smaller, but no less annoying, they’d require my elders to surgically remove them by taking a sewing needle, sterilizing it with a match, and excavating my foot with the business end of that needle, sometimes having to dig clear through the top of my foot, or so it seemed to me at the time. Happy memories. 

In the late afternoons of summer, the strong onshore convection winds would start blowing in from the water at about 5 PM. When I was a little older and a member of the Baths, we used to play a lot of paddle tennis. Once the afternoon winds came in, if it was at your back when you were playing you barely had to hit the ball to get it over the net, and it was hard to keep if going too long, but if the wind was in your face, it would take mighty swing to return the ball over the net, lest it land behind you. 

The seagulls would flock to the shore and sand in the late afternoons, though they were always around, year-round, squawking their lovely (not so much) songs, one of them sitting on top of every lamp post on the Boardwalk. Hey, they lived there too. They each always seemed to have bloody remnants of the last meal (fish? little kids?) on their beaks as they foraged through whatever edibles were left behind by that day’s beach crowd. 

When it was time to go home late in the afternoon, we kids would fill our sand pails with sea water and carry it back with us toward the boardwalk as we exited the beach. We’d use the water to rinse off our muddy feet once we got to the boardwalk before putting on our shoes (I don’t really remember flip flops?) for the walk back to my grandparents’ apartment on Brightwater Court. Once there, we all had proper showers to rinse off the brine and sand that was stuck to us.  By the time we were done, the entire bottom of the tub was filled with sand, with plenty more sand trails everywhere in the apartment. There was always sand in my grandparent’s Brightwater Court apartment. The stuff was hard to ever completely pick up, and of course was not water soluble. And so ended our day at the magnificent, glorious Brighton Beach beach.