Why I left New York City

It was the subway. The very same subway I’d been riding all my life had become, almost instantaneously, unbearable. Perhaps it was always unbearable, but now I could no longer actually bear it, if you follow. It was, probably, the summer of 1999. I don’t want to live here anymore, I said to my then-husband, and he was delighted. He, who had been raised in a tiny farm town in western Massachusetts and had come to New York City for college, delirious with joy, was, after 15 years of living in the city (including Avenue D in the early 90s, for fuck’s sake), done with it. He was just waiting for me to come around, which, quite suddenly, I had. And so we planned our escape.

I look at those photos of the subway cars in the 1980s, when I presumably was riding them, and they look terrifying to me, but they never did then. Except when my dad had us walk between cars while the train was moving to get to a less crowded car (or maybe just a car that was closer to where we had to get off) (I have inherited his near-obsessive efficiency). Walking between cars while the train was moving seemed like something a grown-up couldn’t possibly be doing, and I followed along, thrilled and terrified, looking straight ahead. Anyway, those photos. I don’t remember a single other scary thing happening on the subway during that time.  The graffiti didn’t seem remarkable to me, since I’d never known anything else. I remember the Guardian Angels too. Again, unremarkable.

When I was in my senior year in high school, taking the train uptown from my job at David’s Cookies on 42nd Street, my coworker Debbie Dunston pointed out that you could always tell a train was coming when you felt that hot air blowing on your face. Believe it or not, someone actually had to tell me that.

At some point, in our early 20s, my friend Christina and I rode on the D train drinking whiskey out of a paper bag, which was perhaps the high point of my subway riding. The near constant steel drums reverberating in the 34th Street station was probably the low point.

Though what really did it for me were the crowds, the people dangling from the straps and poles all around me, squeezing in through the doors. The moment it occurred to me that I was trapped in this mass of people I was done for. I developed an instant claustrophobia that seemed to get worse by the day (once, years after I had left New York City, I saw a photo of a packed subway car in Tokyo during rush hour, and I actually started to hyperventilate). How had I managed it for so many years? I had spent my childhood in the Bronx crammed into city buses (the way you mostly have to travel in the Bronx) and almost found it fun at times, as the bus lurched or stopped short. And I’d been on plenty of packed subways too. One morning, I saw a young woman faint, but because the car was so packed, she didn’t really hit the ground, far from it actually, she just sort of sank a bit, and then was, with ease, lifted upright again by some men nearby. Due to this maneuver, she was not one of the proverbial “sick passengers.” Half the car didn’t even know about it.

But one day, I’d had enough. Like a switch was flipped. I would get into packed subway cars only to step out of them one stop later. At the time, I worked near Penn Station and lived in Carroll Gardens. Many times, coming home I would walk to the tip of Manhattan just to spend the shortest amount of time on the subway. When we knew we were leaving the city, I would count the days until I never had to ride the subway again.

So that now, when I visit the city (17 years after I left it), I find that if I spend as little time on the subway as possible, I mostly enjoy my time there (except for, sometimes, the filth and the crowds on the street and the way you have to spend like $1000 a day no matter what you’re doing). But really though, I will walk 70 blocks to avoid taking the subway, which is just fine because that is exactly what I want to be doing in the city anyway. My kids (country folk) think my hatred of the subway is crazy since every single thing about it is somewhat thrilling to them. Also, it’s hard not to notice that the subway seems to have reached peak misery right about now.

But here, I leave you with a happy subway memory (I have plenty of these despite my grumbly opinion of them now). My dad and brother and I are heading back on the D train from my aunt’s house in Brooklyn to his apartment on 73rd Street. My dad is reading a story I wrote. My brother is playing a tiny harmonica. It is 1988. I am 18 years old. The subway is unremarkable. The city is easy.

subway

The mystery that is Elton John

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The other day, like maybe three days ago, I switched on the radio in my car for just a few minutes and heard Elton John’s “Levon,” which I haven’t been able to get out of my head ever since. It’s a good idea not to think too hard about Elton John’s song lyrics in general (he was born a pauper to a pawn? I don’t really get this but that does not stop me from singing this over and over in my head), which, as Bernie Taupin wrote them, are just strung together because they sounded kind of cool at some point, I imagine.

But this leads me to wonder about the mystery that is Elton John (this, I have just decided, will be an every-so-often feature on this blog; see The mystery that is Neil Diamond if you need some context).

How is it that he has (in my opinion) made some truly terrible songs (I have always thought that “Bennie and the Jets” would be the perfect soundtrack to some awful scene in a movie—perhaps someone getting stabbed while “Bennie Bennie Bennie” in that insane falsetto repeats over and over and over?), but at the same time he made songs that, if you thought about it (and I have), are almost identical to the terrible songs and are, somehow, rather likable. This is the mystery for me. What is it about “Tiny Dancer” that delights me? For some reason, I love the line, “Turning back she just laughs.” Yet is this any better than music’s most ridiculous understatement, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise a kid”? There is really nothing separating “Tiny Dancer” from “Rocket Man,” yet why does one delight me and the other irritate me? I have no idea. Or “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” I should hate that song. My god, I don’t know why I don’t. I should have the same reaction as I do to “Candle in the Wind,” which is, oh please, no. And yet. But there is practically nothing different about those songs. Right? Fly away, high away, bye bye. Seriously, what is wrong with me?

I should also probably hate “Crocodile Rock,” and I do, I do, really, but at the same time I can’t help remembering the “Heavy Hands Workout” class my friend Rachel and I took in college and the steps our teacher choreographed to this song, and then I have to smile. Damn you, Elton John, it’s just that you have been around all my life. Another memory that just popped into my head: it’s the summer of 1979 and I’m on a school bus with a whole bunch of young strangers heading to a sleepaway camp that will turn out to be four weeks of hopeless misery and sports, but at this moment, I am still a little hopeful, and then “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” comes on the radio, which was already an oldie, if you will, but made me briefly smile. For a moment, on that bus, when I was down, he was my clown. Aw!

Did you know the song “Levon” isn’t really about Levon Helm of The Band, but the name does come from him for some reason? Actually, if you ever look up this song, you will find a whole bunch of people obsessing over the name Alvin Tostig, the name of Levon’s father in the song, whose name also has no meaning at all. Then again, he was born a pauper to a pawn. What the fuck?

As I found with Neil Diamond, I realize that I have no real answer to the mystery that is Elton John and why he has been so intolerable and yet also tolerable to me my entire life. I will probably keep pretending to hate him, but then also liking him sometimes, forever. I don’t see anything wrong with this and I don’t think Sir John would either.

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me

Just about (give or take some hours) 47 years ago, I was born at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (was I born in a college? This puzzled me for years.) in the Bronx. It also happened to be Albert Einstein’s birthday, which was supposed to be considered a remarkable coincidence, though I never understood why exactly. What did I know? We had a biography of Einstein on the bookshelf that I could see from my bed if my door was open and the light was on in the hallway. The author’s name was Clark and the spine of the book read “Einstein Clark,” which I thought was written by someone named Clark Einstein. It took me a long time to make the connection.

This year my birthday coincides with a blizzard, and I can’t really feel too sorry for myself as I get to be inside and cozy all day and probably will make blondies later (which I confess here for the first time that I prefer to brownies). It’s true that I won’t go out to dinner tonight with my boyfriend and my kids at my favorite local restaurant and get their delicious creamy polenta (which is, to be fair, essentially a stick of butter with a few grains of polenta), but I will just make myself my own birthday dinner, which will involve Brussels sprouts, which when braised in cream are possibly more heavenly than creamy polenta (trust me on this) (I first learned about this delicacy in a fancy food store in Great Barrington, Mass, when someone next to me was reaching for a pile of Brussels sprouts and a  nearby enthusiast could not resist saying, Have you ever tried  Brussels sprouts braised in cream??).

The other day, I was thinking about my age, naturally, and about being an adult, and I decided that for the most part, adulthood was when my life got truly good. Childhood really wasn’t for me. I have a moment from childhood that for some reason I recall vividly, which was probably around third grade when my friend Robbie and I were pretending to be Mr. Magoo and his dog (did he even have a dog? I barely watched that show.). This involved Robbie walking around on his hands and knees, wearing a scarf as a leash, and me dragging him around. But I guess as Mr. Magoo I was blind also? Anyway, I think we were in some sort of closet that had lots of coats and hats and scarves (but why we were there is probably a good question that I don’t mind never finding out) and the fun part was just leading around this dog on a scarf leash and tripping into things. What I’m getting at here is that I was having a great time and was so completely in the moment, not at all aware of anything else but the joy of pretending to be Mr. Magoo, which is why the exact location of this action is so unclear to me. I was completely unselfconscious the way that children are when they play. That was, to me, the best part of being a child. The rest of it (the lack of control, the inability to do what you wanted, the confusion, the loneliness) totally sucked.

And now I find myself with a grown-up life, which is not really the life I expected, but is, often times, the life I am grateful for. If I can be allowed, for a moment, during a time of real crisis, just to be purely happy and content, which is probably the thing to do right now to keep things in perspective. Which does not mean to give up fighting, but just to be grateful for a moment. I am 47 years old. At this point, it’s safe to say that I have perspective and actual wisdom, both of which came from experiences, many of which were not good. It seems funny to me now that one of my most vivid childhood memories involves the pure joy of acting as a blind man, leading around a dog on a scarf. It took me a long time to make the connection.

 

I want something else

Lately, I have become slightly (more than slightly) obsessed with Manoush Zomorodi’s podcast “Note to Self” (“the tech show about being human”). I am catching up on everything I missed from late 2015 onward (I’m mid-2016 now, which becomes occasionally heartbreaking when Hillary Clinton and/or the upcoming election is mentioned). I highly recommend the episode entitled “What Happens to the Videos No One Watches,” which is exactly what it sounds like and features (as its total highlight) a video of a guy doing a karaoke version of “Semi-Charmed Life,” while his family in the background are having a party and completely ignoring him. Really, what’s best about this show is Manoush herself who is so down-to-earth and funny and never minds digging deeper into anything.

Which is why I was particularly struck by her four-part episode “Taking the Lead,” in which she follows two women as they try to create a start-up company that is a kind of Uber for working parents. Here’s the thing: the topic is fantastic and important (how technology might be able to help working mothers – and fathers – make their lives easier), but the part that struck me the most was that Manoush actually confronted the women about a mistake they had made. This was genuinely thrilling to me, very much like that scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen brings out Marshall McLuhan to point out that the guy talking about Marshall McLuhan knows nothing about him, and I stopped whatever I was doing (driving?) to listen to the conclusion. This is the sort of thing I dream of doing, confronting someone for being wrong, and then having them say, My word! I was totally wrong! Thank you so much for pointing that out! Surely, this would happen to Manoush, right? I couldn’t wait.

Basically, here’s the gist of what happened: the two women had created this app and then joined a startup accelerator (yes, I had to look that up) to compete for a cash prize to help their app get, er, started. Manoush was all about the social implications of this app (finally a way to use technology to help working women with babysitters and deliveries and such!), so she was stunned to see that in their pitch all they talked about was the money they would make. One of the women (who’d been in advertising) kept saying that as women they had to prove their startup would make money, period. Manoush didn’t think so. So before the prizes were awarded she went to some of the judges and asked them what they thought of the two women. Most were vague. When Manoush pointed out that there were great social implications to this app, the judges said that the two women hadn’t made this point at all. Manoush asked the judges if they had made this point would it have made a difference. The judges said yes. Manoush was right!

When the prizes were finally awarded, the two women came in 9th out of 12 and got, comparatively, very little money. A product that worked as both a cellphone cover and something that would roll joints actually did better than their app. Manoush decided to, at a later date, play for them what the judges had said. (I was, at this point, totally riveted. This is the thing I dream of doing. She was going to pull out Marshall McLuhan!) It might seem like she was being smug, but she really just wanted to show them that they had possibly presented the wrong angle and that maybe they should make a note of this for the future (to her credit, Manoush never uses the phrase “note to self,” even though I am certain the temptation is strong).

Because they were so busy (working moms!), Manoush had to meet with them separately to play them what the judges had said. One of the women (who had decided to become more of a consultant because as a working mother she was unable to commit entirely to the project) (oh the irony!) said that yes, she always thought it was about the social cause. O..kay. Then, Manoush talked to the other woman, the now-CEO, the one who was more insistent on the fact that they needed to pitch the money-making angle. Manoush told this woman that the judges had said that actually investors would be more interested in the social cause angle. But the woman responded that she really didn’t agree. And went on to defend her position in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Should I have been surprised? Did I really expect her to say, My word! I was totally wrong! Thank you so much for pointing that out! I did. I honestly did. Or I hoped she would. She was smart, right? She could see the error of her ways. And yet, of course, what is obvious, what is so obvious that I hardly need to say it, but I do need to say it, is that if you have an opinion about something, you have come to that opinion for a reason. Perhaps you really did tons of research. Or perhaps you really cannot see another side because you have done no research at all. Both of these starting places seem to lead to the same conclusion: generally, people are not going to change their opinions even in the face of evidence. That isn’t to say that people don’t change their opinions, because there are many examples of just the opposite happening. But in the most basic of ways, we are committed to our opinions on things because they are what make us who we are.

Maybe this is because of evolution (I won’t eat that plant because I got sick the last time I did) or because humans need routine and security in their lives (I have never eaten that plant so I never will) and therefore not too many people are willing to take risks (if I just cut off those poisonous leaves could I eat this plant?). It’s rare in people, rarer still in politicians, but sometimes people and politicians do change their minds in the face of evidence. We often hear about it because (like child abductions and plane crashes) this is a rare instance. I wish it weren’t so rare. Note to self: do something about this. It’s rare, not impossible.

Writer-parent

Five years ago, in the summer of 2011, when my girls were 7 and 10 years old, I answered these questions about being a writer-parent. It was for a blog that now seems to be defunct. We no longer have hamsters, but much of this still applies.

How do you balance your time between parenting and writing?

I like to think I do this simultaneously. As someone who for years managed to read The New Yorker while pushing a stroller, I find that I am actually good at this sort of thing. There is nothing separate about the two really at home as my “office” is in my bedroom and gets a whole lot of traffic. While I was writing that sentence, in fact, I was interrupted a number of times by my older daughter asking if I thought it would be easier if she put her sleeping bag into her backpack first before the other stuff, or on second thought, maybe the sleeping bag shouldn’t even go in the backpack at all? Or maybe she could try it both ways? And thus my thoughts went here and then there and then back to here again. And I can often manage this. On the other hand, sometimes I have to say, Can you just wait a few minutes until I finish this? Oh yes, yes, my daughters will say. And then, What are you writing anyway? Do you have to get it done today? Are you going to be working on it later too? One time it occurred to me to tell them that I actually like writing, which I was afraid they didn’t actually pick up on, seeing me as they sometimes do pacing around or saying, Man, I just hate this. But I think the most important thing comes down to the kind of parent you are and I confess to being sort of a relaxed parent in that I am thrilled to have my children go off on their own and then come back and tell me what they’ve done. Eventually they will write these things down.

What is the best piece of advice about being a parent and a writer?

Despite what you think, you will always find time to write. You will write while your child lies asleep across your lap for hours. You will write while your child plays for a few blissful minutes with your old Fisher Price barn. You will probably end up writing whenever your child is napping, which you think you could never do, exhausted as you are, but the ability to write and write with no interruptions at all will lure you from sleep. Also, later on, if your children want to find something to watch on Netflix while you are writing, let them. (This, by the way, is how my children discovered the Jonas Brothers all on their own.) You will also find that if you don’t write, that if your time is better spent dancing with your kids on your bed, well, that’s just fine.

I think the very best piece of advice that applies to being both a parent and a writer is: pay attention. Both occupations make you very watchful, which is actually something that comes naturally to me, but there is that second step of paying attention, which is a little more challenging. I tend to notice the light a lot more now.

How has your writing changed since becoming a parent?

I’d like to say that I can only write in short blocks of time now due to being a parent, but the truth is I always wrote like that. I find though that now the late late night has become my preferred time to write, not because I am a night owl particularly, but because I can count on the fact that someone won’t be walking up to me when I am so clearly in the middle of something and asking if I would like to pet her hamster. (I’ll admit that I have actually said no to this on occasion, but then felt bad and gave in. Turns out hamsters are always worth petting.) Sometimes I will pretend to write while my younger daughter sits on my lap just so that I can listen to her make the binder clips and staple remover talk to each other. Are you listening to me? she will demand. No, I’m just writing, I will say.

Tell us something we don’t know about you and being a writer-slash-parent.

I tend not to like to write about my children all that much. When I was growing up, my mother always stole stories from me, so I feel like I need to let my children have their own. And I expect they will sometime. To be honest, I am always encouraging them to draw and write comics, something that I have wanted to do my whole life, but I completely lack the artistic skills for it.

My younger daughter has asked me a couple times what I want to be when I grow up. I always answer: a writer.

 

I could just read instead

“The differences between a personal essay and a confessional essay can be tricky to spot.  The personal essay — the more exalted form of the two — can be as dense and layered as a short story; it fancies itself a prism and uses the personal to shed light on the communal. . . .The telltale signs of the confessional essay include a warm, pseudo-confiding tone and a penchant for lists and adverbs like ‘humiliatingly’ and ‘embarrassingly.’” This was part of a N.Y. Times review by Sloane Crosley (who happens to be a pretty good personal essayist, in my opinion) about a book of confessional essays, one whose author I no longer recall. Crosley goes on to say that one is not a higher art than the other, etc. etc. but I think what she means is that one totally is, but she’s going to try to be fair in her review. If she didn’t really mean that, well, I mean it.

A few nights later I woke up at 2a.m. and thought about how I didn’t feel like sleeping anymore. I decided I could just read instead. This started out extremely well, but ended extremely badly, when at around 5a.m. I decided that I actually should try sleeping but couldn’t. And then it was morning and I had to go to work. But between 2 and 5a.m. I came across this great personal essay in The New Yorker by Emily Raboteau, who I had never read before, but immediately became smitten with. Her writing falls into the personal but not confessional category. Joan Didion is probably the best example of that kind of writing, in that she is both there and not there, and Raboteau kept that same kind of distance from her readers, maybe even a mildly amused disregard for them, and a kind of delightful wickedness at times that reminded me of Shirley Jackson, whose fiction and nonfiction is some of my favorite writing ever.

I’m not quite sure if my writing is confessional, I confess, but I do know that I generally don’t like reading that kind of writing and that sometimes when I read confessional essays it makes me never want to write again. This is how I’ve been feeling lately. You know: what’s the point? But then I read some wonderful personal essay and I realize that I am just ending up in the wrong places sometimes.

This is not really an explanation of anything; perhaps it’s only a reminder to myself to stop being discouraged. And to write the things I most want to read, which is “so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it” (I know I’ve mentioned that Seymour Glass quote from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters a dozen times already, but it is so worth remembering).

Reading good writing always encourages me. It always makes me feel like, All right, things are getting done! And sometimes it even makes me think, Good, that was written, so now I don’t have to write about it. Because, you know, it’s always nice to pass the work off to someone who does it better. But sometimes I have to do the work too, even if my natural impulse is to shrink from it, is to think that there’s no real reason to keep writing (I mean, there isn’t really, except the compulsion, which has been lifelong).

All of this is to say that I am at the start of something. And hopefully, eventually, I will get to the end of it. And perhaps shed light on the communal, etc. etc. I’ll let you know.

I’d rather laugh with the sinners

It was six months since I had spent basically half a day at the ophthalmologist only to find out that all those tests I took were merely establishing a baseline for what my optic nerves looked like. Now, it was time to compare, and this meant hours of horrible tests again (one of which involved a woman photographing my optic nerves, which means you are doing the exact opposite of what your instincts tell you to do when a blazingly bright light is repeatedly flashing in your eyes). But before this, it meant having my eyes dilated as much as they possibly could be, and they ended up nearly black and much like a cartoon character’s eyes. I was told I needed to wait around 10 minutes (it was much longer) before they’d come get me for the next round of tests.

I was led into the darkened waiting room, which is somewhere within the maze of examining rooms. It was completely full of other people staring into space or at the television that was blasting out at us. Every now and then someone’s name would be called and then another person would stagger into the room to wait. The lights were dim, but not totally dark, and I found that without my glasses and my book held pretty close to my face I could read (a book of John Cheever stories, as it happened). Oh, this is fine, I thought at first, but then noticed that over time my vision got slowly blurrier and blurrier. This fascinated me, but then kind of panicked me. It was like I was getting older before my own eyes, as though time had sped up and soon I would look in the mirror and see that my face had deeply wrinkled to match my much older, much weaker eyes. This is what happens, I thought, terrified, just not so quickly. And for the first time I wondered, What would happen if I couldn’t read?

From the time I first started figuring out how to put words together (which I am told was when I was three and a half) nothing has ever made as much sense to me as reading. And when I started to write a few years after that, it was mostly so that I would have more to read. If I really think about it, I’m probably better at reading than I am at anything else, though it’s such a personal and pretty much hidden skill. So what would happen, if, as I saw in that waiting room, my eyes began to fail me and no special glasses or operation could help?

My uncle, who was once a terrible reader, is now a prolific listener of (to?) audio books. He can’t get enough of them. And it thrills him that something that was once so impossible for him to do (apparently he read so slowly that it frustrated him too much to continue) is now part of his daily life. He listens on the subway, on his bike rides, everywhere he can. And, he calls this reading, which I have to say it really is. So there is no reason I couldn’t simply start listening to books, right?  I think about how you end up asking yourself, at some point or another, If I had to choose, would I rather lose my sight or my hearing? And I always pick sight because I think I would die without being able to listen to music (which I recall becoming important to me around three and a half as well), but what about all the things I’d miss seeing? And what about reading? And then I just get sad.

Eventually my name was called and I got to have the flashing light tests, etc. When it was all over, they told me to wait in the regular waiting room, though I couldn’t figure out why. I had already paid the copay. I just wanted to go home. And as I sat there, feeling exhausted and battered, I suddenly noticed that on the radio (was there a radio on all this time?) Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” had just come on. Hadn’t I heard this song enough in my life? In fact, wasn’t this one time too many to be hearing this song, a song I had heard, on and off, for the past 39 years of my life? I stood up. There was a man at the desk (born in 1947 I could not help but overhearing) happily discussing his copay with the receptionist like he had all the time in the world. I did not. I put my sunglasses on on top of my glasses (which naturally made me feel like this guy) and headed out into the most blinding sun I had ever seen.