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.

 

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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.

A tale of kielbasa

I was looking at a recipe today for lentil soup and noticed a suggestion for adding kielbasa, which immediately led me through a long chain of memories about kielbasa (I am reading Proust’s Swann’s Way now, and I’m trying hard not to make the madeleine comparison here), which is what I’m going to write about now.

The best kielbasa I have ever had in my life was from a butcher shop in my ex-husband’s hometown, a little farm town in western Massachusetts that has or had a large Polish population, including a number of my ex-husband’s relatives on his mother’s side.  Not only was this butcher shop in my ex-husband’s hometown, it was actually across the road from the house he grew up in, where his parents still live, which made getting the kielbasa a challenge when he (and therefore we) stopped talking to his parents. But I’ll admit it was also kind of a thrill. We continued to visit the area with our kids after my ex-husband cut off contact with his parents because it was an area we all knew and loved, and there was plenty to do there. Plus the kielbasa, which involved driving somewhat furtively into the butcher shop’s parking lot (with a glance at the house across the road) and then me rushing into the store as quickly as possible. Obviously the owners (and generations of the butcher’s family) all knew my ex-husband.

I’m not even sure what made this kielbasa so great, but it is the kielbasa that I defined against all else and found all else lacking. Back when we still lived in the city, my ex-husband would get kielbasa from the Polish butchers on First Avenue, but it wasn’t until I tried the western Massachusetts kielbasa that I truly fell in love. I’d never even had it until I met my ex-husband. I found this weird because my own grandmother was Polish. But I don’t think Polish Jews ate kielbasa, I explained once to a friend. Nazis ate kielbasa, she responded. Apparently so did large Polish families, including in something called “white borscht,” which I thought my ex-husband was making up when he first explained it to me (I also thought he was making up “canned bread,” but no, that is real too).  White borscht is a thick potato soup with kielbasa and hard-boiled eggs and sour cream. Some might call this excessive.

So until I met my ex-husband, I had never had kielbasa, but once we started dating I was eating it every few weeks or so, always roasted with potatoes and other vegetables, and served with horseradish mustard. It was quite good. Except that when I was pregnant with my first child, I developed a terrible aversion to the smell of garlic, which is basically the smell of kielbasa. Not long before I had developed this aversion, when were still living in the city, my ex-husband had bought some kielbasa, probably from First Avenue, and every time I opened the fridge I wanted to die. I think we may have put it into the freezer, but even then the faint smell continued to haunt me for months. (Funny enough, the smell of garlic would torment me some years later, when my ex-husband took home, from the bakery he worked at, a huge empty container that had contained crushed garlic, tossed it in the trunk of our car, and promptly forgot about it. For days, I was haunted by the same smell, and thought I was losing my mind, until we finally located the source.)

And now, I am no longer married to the man who introduced me to kielbasa, and I have not had kielbasa in years.  I don’t miss kielbasa exactly, but I do miss something. Maybe it’s simply my younger self, which I am always missing, even though I tend to like my older self more. It’s the way I miss my children. There were once these babies that I knew and loved and lived with, and then they just disappeared.  I am living with these teenagers now, who are just terrific people, but I sometimes think, Where are those babies that used to live with me? They’re just gone. And my 20- and 30-something selves are gone too. And I never even tried white borscht. I probably never will. The one thing I will do, probably forever, is miss people and moments from my life and food I will never eat again. It just comes with the territory of being a writer. And being a parent. And being a human.

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Backstage fury

As a parent you are told, pretty much from the moment your child is born, Just wait till they’re teenagers! This is never said with delight. Usually it’s accompanied by a shaking of the head and an oh-man-how- did-I- survive-that smirk. You might answer, Oh, I know, believe me (even though you certainly don’t know, but it’s what you are expected to say, though actually the thought of a walking, talking person slamming their bedroom door to get away from you seems almost thrilling during those early years). And I will confess that the first time my daughter, at the age of 13, yelled at me to get out of her room, I actually had to turn away so she couldn’t see the astonished smile on my face. It was happening.

However. That was probably the last time I smiled about it.

Instead, I find myself regularly reminded of the summers between college when I worked backstage on some professional theater productions. The actors in these productions were very likely to snap at you in those frantic backstage moments when, for example, they couldn’t find their other shoe or you showed up one second later than you were supposed to in order to zip up the back of their gown. My immediate understanding was that that backstage moment was charged: they were going to hiss at you and possibly say awful things, as you were very calmly searching for their shoes and/or promising over and over that you would be two seconds early next time, and you were to forgive them always. What I understood then was that these actors were under an enormous amount of stress for a relatively short period of time and that I was to take nothing personally and let all that fury just wash over me as part of my job. Come to think of it, I wasn’t even getting paid.

The realization that I was not to take anything personally, that I was going to get snapped at regularly by people under an enormous amount of stress, seems prescient now that I am a parent of teenagers. When I am in the right frame of mind, I can let all that backstage fury wash right over me. It’s not my fault, I tell myself. I just happen to live backstage pretty much all the time now, and my children are frantically losing their shoes before they have to go onstage on a regular basis. I don’t always remember this, of course. Instead, there have been times where their fury or cold dismissal has not washed over me, but rather worked its way in. I have sat, miserable, on my bed and thought, This totally sucks.

And yet. For whatever reason, people never tell you the other part. They actually keep the other part from you. I’m talking about the fact that these teenage children of yours are actually people, funny interesting people that you would like even if they weren’t your own children. Somehow, while they were busy snapping at you and watching youtube videos, they were also turning into engaging young adults that you end up enjoying having around. I mean, most of the time.

It’s quite possible that no one tells you this because it is your reward, your secret reward, from parenting teenagers, the one that you get to discover yourself, as you’re peering from behind the curtain and then slipping off into the wings.

Time passes

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Oh, right! I remember this time of year, where you look outside a little bit after lunch, and it’s already pitch black, and later, when it’s 7pm and you think it’s 11, you’re not even sure how you can still be awake. Our bearded dragon has gone into something called brumation, which is how reptiles react to the change in lighting and temperature when winter is coming. They sleep nearly all day and barely eat at all (this was alarming me until my 14-year-old looked it up) for a couple weeks or months. This is pretty much where we’re all at (except for the eating part, of course) in November. Remember?

This is the part of fall I always forget about because we’re all so busy thinking about pumpkin spice and gourds and Halloween costumes, etc. etc., and then we have that Sunday, the longest day of the year, which people get all giddy about, briefly, and then we are plunged into darkness, and then, oh right! This. This is not the sort of thing I was ever aware of as a kid. Seasons had more to do with holidays and activities, but now I notice the light, always the light, or the lack thereof.

I am reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse now, which is a book that maybe would not have floored me if I’d read it when I was younger. But now I am floored, just completely stunned, by its brilliance. The book is all about the passage of time, and it plays with time in remarkable ways. Woolf wrote the book when she was 45, which makes sense to me. It is probably the right age in which to read it as well, so I am just about on schedule. The first section, all 122 pages of it, takes places in a single day. And then the middle section, the one I can’t get over, takes us through ten years in just 19 pages. Time Passes, the section is called, with remarkable understatement. Characters die suddenly or they go to war and die or they get married, have a child, and die, all in short bracketed sentences. Meanwhile, the section itself is mostly about time and the night air as it swirls through the house, over and over again.

But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labor, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

Whereas now, as I look up from my desk and out the window, I can see my kids driving off in my car, out into the world, while I sit here and write about time passing. I get it.

For now, the trees gleam and the light mellows and I will hunker in bed and finish my book. And night will succeed to night.

This summer

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Why has this summer gone by so fast? Is it the fact that we have had very few really hot days and it’s hardly felt like summer at all? My kids would argue that it’s because nothing special happened and thus the days all blend into each other (even though, oh right! They spent eight days in Costa Rica with my father and stepmother, riding horses on the beach, but you know, whatever), and yet that’s not really true either.

A few weeks ago, in the car, I switched on the radio, which is something I do very occasionally, and the song “Uptown Girl” was on, and I did not turn away from it, which right there was something. Instead, I found myself thinking about how sad it was that Christie Brinkley and Billy Joel were no longer married, even though he wrote this song about her, the kind of song that is difficult to get out of your head once you hear just a second of it, which doesn’t mean it’s a good song, but still. The line “now she’s looking for a downtown man” seemed somehow poignant. I was just slowing the whole song down in my head and every single line was killing me. (I know.)

Not long after that, I was in the car again and I looked up at the sky and I couldn’t believe how stunning it looked, the way the colors of the sky and the clouds just seemed to pop. I couldn’t get over what I what I was seeing, and I thought about how incredibly lucky I was just to see that gorgeous sky right in front me. And then I thought about how lately everything was just overwhelming me like this. Which is possibly why my next thought was, Am I dying? But then I realized no, just the opposite.

This summer I worked, sometimes late into the night, but also took afternoon walks while listening to S-Town and Criminal and all the rest. I made hundreds of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. This summer, in fact when my kids were in Costa Rica, Tony and I went to the remarkable Innisfree Garden, and all I could say was, I can’t get over how beautiful this is! How can this even exist? How can we be right here, in the middle of something so beautiful like this? This summer I also went to the funeral of a young man, the brother of my daughter’s best friend, and what I remember most, as dozens of people filed into the funeral home, is that one older man, clearly not a stranger to funerals, said to someone, This is a sad one. This summer I played bocce ball for the first time and completely flipped out while trying to park at the Ben and Jerry’s flavor graveyard in the pouring rain. I made fruit cobblers and crisps and cakes and sat in the passenger seat of my car while my daughter drove. I made a pinhole projector out of a cereal box and then took a couple hours out of an ordinary day with my kids, Tony, and some welding glass to look at a partial solar eclipse. I saw the movie A Ghost Story, which I am still thinking about weeks later.

This summer I paid attention, which was a new year’s resolution I made a bunch of years ago and somehow managed to fulfill every year since. I stopped by people’s gardens and took photographs of the late summer flowers I love: sunflowers, echinacea, day lilies.  I noticed the nights getting longer and then, slowly but steadily, shorter again.

I think this is what happens at middle age (I should add, if you’re lucky). You have finally lived long enough to know what you should pay attention to, and so, even if the world around you seems to be burning up in flames, you can notice the summer flowers, you can keep looking for the things right there in front of you that make sense, that have always made sense. Do peaches taste just as crazily delicious as they always have? Yes. Do you still swoon from the viney smell of fresh tomatoes? Yes. Does that summer night feeling still make you shiver just a tiny bit, the way it always has? Yes. Does every single summer bring back memories of every other summer of your life? Always.  Are you paying attention? Yes. Always. Yes.

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.

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