Monday, December 31, 2012

Fur Before Mortgages?

My brother's dog and I have loads in common, well beyond the brown eyes, headstrong natures, outrageously good senses of hearing, and shrewd hunches about people and the faraway noises we're able to detect so distinctly. We live for long walks in the snow, being driven around in cars, eating whatever is there for the chewing, and stretching out on my dad's living room couch. However, when it comes to nervous energy, he takes the cake. I'm the rock.

We've had a week from heaven together and when I go back to New York, he'll be my hardest goodbye. When I went away to college, the biggest homesickness-related adjustment was this business of living without animals. With the family and friends I missed, there were phone calls, emails, cards, and letters; with the animals, all channels of meaningful communication were sharply cut off.

Someone once told me that she won't officially feel like an adult until she owns a house. I (an apartment renter) have felt like an adult for many moons, but has that feeling been official? Unofficial adulthood is intense; an official version sounds like it could reap more returns. I won't officially feel like an adult until I'm finally ready to adopt a dog or cat of my own. I was born for the role of mollycoddling primary pet caretaker.

I'll take the house(s) too - the Catskills house, the Bermuda house. Those could be fun investments. But first comes the four-legged fur. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Flight or Fight

A little more than a year ago, I hailed a cab at 4:30 a.m., pulled my suitcase in after me, and told the driver I needed to get to LaGuardia airport. As we drove up Broadway, he asked me who I was running from.

Excellent question, but where to begin? A more revealing line of inquiry would tap into who and what I am running from.

Early-morning flights always seem like a productive idea at the online-booking stage, especially if you’re in a first-rate mood and sipping coffee or wine at the time. You fall into full-on Carpe Diem mode, figuring that once the aircraft lands you’ll have the entire day ahead of you and this will be a good thing. It’s only the night before the flight, when you’re futzing around at 1 a.m. and realizing you need to physically be inside of the airport in 5 hours, that the gravity of what you’ve gone and done begins to sink in.

What does being a night owl mean to me? I consider myself a martyr every time I wake up before dawn.

Another Martyr Morning has come, I’m in full-on Carpe Zombie mode, no amount of caffeine will snap me out of it, and I can’t sleep on planes. The last time this happened, I made a promise to myself: This is it. I’m never booking an early-morning flight again, and this time I mean it.

I’m much better with the promises I make to others than I am with the ones I make to myself. But New Year’s Resolution season is as good a season as any to bring a new operating strategy to my table. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Semple Sale

Every so often, I read a work of fiction or creative nonfiction that’s memorably uplifting enough to help lure my concentration away from reports of mind-blowing tragedy. I recently wrote a short review of Maria Semple’s dazzling Where’d You Go, Bernadette, most of it is pasted below, and I recommend the book to anyone who is attracted to intelligently funny writing.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette
By Maria Semple
Little, Brown and Company (336 pp.)

What’s it like to be all grown up and frighteningly gifted? In her sophomore novel, former TV comedy writer Maria Semple (Arrested Development, Ellen, Mad About You) offers a glimpse into great genius or, more tellingly, what can become of those who have it and let it go to waste.

Bernadette Fox, a creatively stymied MacArthur grant-winning architect with a Marie Antoinette complex, has moved from Los Angeles to Seattle with her Microsoft-hotshot husband and their destined-for-hotshothood teenage daughter – suffice it to say the relocation hasn’t gone very well. It’s only a matter of time before Bernadette becomes grievously turned off by the “gnats” (her Seattle neighbors) in her midst and frustrated with her own frustrations, culminating in her impulsive climb out of her home’s bathroom window (with the aid of her chief gnat-nemesis) and subsequent international vanishing act. 

The daughter, Bee, serves as the rivetingly fast-paced novel’s narrator as she tries to make sense of her mother’s geographical and personal journey. The rest of the narrative is a “So Where the Hell Is She?” spin on the “Who Dunnit?” motif, filled with e-mails and other forms of newsy correspondence that spot-on capture the unique brand of self-righteously idle pettiness that can all too frequently pervade hyper-privileged American cities and suburbs:

I don’t know who I’m more furious at, Bernadette Fox or Gwen Goodyear, for calling me out in the Friday Folder . . . I created the Diversity Council. I invented Donuts for Dad.

Plot- and character-driven fiction that’s as smart, witty, and imaginative as great contemporary literature should be.   

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Spam-ish Verses

One of my new neighbors has written me a poem. A fairly long piece that opens with sexist sentiments.

I hadn’t seen the chauvinism coming because the first time I spoke to him (not even a full week ago), he promoted a book he’s publishing which is centered around the groundbreaking theory that “a woman’s power isn’t below the waist, it’s above the waist.” (At the “above the waist” bit, he aggressively pointed to his head with an index finger.) Readers will evidently need an actual key to unlock the page-by-page magic.

“Let me know when you have free time, so we can sit down and kick it,” were his final words to me….until we met again in our elevator on Saturday afternoon.  

“I have something for you,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” I asked, while scrolling down and re-reading my text log from the night before, which included an alert about my Yahoo e-mail having been hacked. Everyone I’ve ever communicated with via that e-mail account has received spam in my name.

“Uhhhh-huhhh,” he said, just tickled with himself.

“What, that book of yours?”

“Nope. Something else. A surprise.”

He said he’d leave it (the poem) outside my door that night. Too many people in this city know exactly where I live.

My door-buzzer rang later that afternoon when I was eating noodles at my desk, rallying to go back out. He handed me a reusable plastic drawstring sack that contained the poem (written on a ripped-out sheet of spiral-bound notebook paper), a necklace, a T-shirt, and a bag of Hershey’s Kisses.  

“This is your Christmas present,” he said, with a sternness more commonly seen in distant uncles by marriage.

How’s that for coming through with the type of customized care package I requested last week? Valuable lesson learned: If You Blog It, It Will Come.

Here’s the next request I’m putting out there: I wouldn’t mind getting some poetry from a few more folks, and cannot wait to review the stanzas that stream in soon after this post goes live.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Micromanaged Care Mail

I mailed out a customized care package a few days ago (a small and understated one - “receive it with love, receive it with realism,” I heads-upped the lucky boy it went to), which is something I haven’t done since Bush II was chief. Earlier this year, I sent someone else a set of flowers from a local “floral atelier.” The care package I could have sent instead would have cost a third as much and would have meant more to both of us.

(Atelier!)

In addition to not having sent a care package in some time, I haven’t received one in just as long. Think twice before underestimating the days of cracking open pricelessly personalized shipments of affection, brimming with everything from homemade Toll House cookies to music mixes to construction-paper drawings from grade-school children.

I’m not normally one to fish for presents. That said, the customized care I currently crave includes:  

*One jumbo rainbow-swirl lollipop  
*Fingerless gloves
*A handwritten note that will make me laugh and cry, ideally all at once
*A blow-wand bottle of bubbles
*Something kitschy that’s representative of the sender’s town or region
*A beeswax or soy wax scented candle
*A surprise, which should in no way overlap with the kitschy keepsake

Anything without petals.

Monday, December 3, 2012

‘Tis the Season to Be SITS-ing!

It’s finally December! Although I understand why a lot of people don’t like the holiday season, I’m not a part of that crowd. This late-November-through-late-December cycle gives me an annual second wind.

Today is a holly, jolly holiday for my blog, c/o the SITS network - 40,000+ female bloggers who look out for each other’s online interests. It’s a melting-pot community that embraces former TV writers, current bartenders, bakers, wedding planners, environmentalists, hair-care enthusiasts, mompreneurs, nurses, and everyone in between. Each weekday, SITS showcases one network-member blogger - and today it’s yours truly. The Roving Retorter site launched in February 2010 and my goal is to make sure it doesn’t take its last breath until I do.

Happy Holidays, thanks for swinging by, and I hope you decide to come back soon!

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Reunion . . . in a Gated Community

On Saturday night, within 20 seconds of turbulently landing back on U.S. soil, I reached for my phone to check my messages while this tough cookie of an airplane taxied toward its gate. I immediately responded to a missed text from one of my besties, casually mentioning that I’d just touched down at Newark Airport.

She wrote back that she was about to get on a plane in D.C. and her connecting flight was scheduled to arrive at Newark Airport in 90 minutes. Throughout our 15-year friendship, a remarkable range of words have passed between the two of us. This “meet me at the diner in Terminal C” thread was a new one.

In my inaugural blog post, I alluded to having more outlandish stories than most people I know. The “most people I know” qualification had this Jersey-bound friend in mind. She is someone whose stories can consistently top mine.

After a lively dinner, I dropped her off at her next flight’s boarding gate. I wanted to stand by the window and wave goodbye as her plane backed up and started taxiing toward the runway - that’s what my dad used to do with me, during the feel-free-to-escort-your-party-directly-to-the-gate era. But the line of passengers waiting to board my party’s connecting flight was as long as a Grateful Dead show and I needed to race downstairs to confirm that my suitcase – which had been sitting, unattended, in the baggage claim area for 4 hours - hadn’t become the subject of another outlandish tale.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thankful (A Word You Don’t Hear Enough This Time of Year)

During my younger years, there was one Thanksgiving dinner at my house where we went around the dining-room table and each person had to say what s/he was thankful for. Now that I think about it, I was most likely the instigator of the exercise and my inspiration had been a touching scene from a made-for-TV movie. 

The adults’ answers (“good health” and “this family” were tied for #1) seemed vague and dull. Nobody bothered to elaborate much, and that was what I found disappointing. I’m a stickler for specificity and a sucker for statements peppered with colorful details.

I’ve been incredibly anxious these past few days, dealing with and dwelling on all I need want to get done before this week’s holiday. But what’s calming me down, more effectively than the Tension Tamer tea which has actually played a part in riling me up (don’t have enough time or stamina to get into that one right now), is the memory of those self-assured faces around that long-gone Thanksgiving table, when no one felt a pressing need to focus their core concerns on anything (careers, errands, bills, transportation-related inconveniences, grievances with acquaintances) beyond “health and family.”  

I’m in reasonably good health; although I wish more members of the clan were still living, I have my family; I have a set of other loved ones who have become an extension of my family; all of these people are currently in reasonably good health. Nothing else needs to be said, other than that the type of stress I’m presently feeling is a sign of great fortune.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Sweet and the Shameless

I’m proud of being a pretty good listener. If I had stuck with my late-adolescent ambition of becoming a child/adolescent psychologist, the couch I would have carefully chosen for my office would be plush, pastel, and the talk of the professional community.

I exchanged pleasantries with a boy who could pass for a late adolescent the other night. He’d been sitting on a bench near a sidewalk I turned onto, and when he stood up to nervously approach me I thought he was going to ask for money. I would have given him as much as one dollar - reward money for his spectacularly sweet disposition.

He pulled out his phone, held up a picture of a young woman, and asked if I thought his girlfriend was beautiful.

I’d rather have been asked for that dollar. She is beautiful, but what sidewalk stranger is going to come back with “not really” to such a question?  

He and the 24-year-old girlfriend are two of the new kids in town. They moved to New York to build her street cred as an actress. She has been turned down from the fourth Broadway show she’s auditioned for, thinks it might be due to her recent weight gain, and fears she has no future. (Sometimes I feel so honored to no longer be 24, or any age before rolling with the rejections became second nature.)

The boyfriend is distraught about the girlfriend being distraught. He followed me home and told me everything. I was fine with it until the photos he insisted on sharing went from tasteful to scantily clad. I tried getting rid of him by tiring him out, walking faster than usual, taking him up and down stairs and hills. He barely lost his breath.

All in all, we had a constructive session. He thoughtfully listened to my advice on how to remain a source of emotional encouragement. He also ate up my "This Is a World That Hates Women" sermon, which I delivered from the top of a hill we climbed.

They’re considering therapy. So am I, after some of the pictures I saw. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

‘Twas the Night Before Election Day

I have blood relatives who belong to the Tea Party and blood relatives who belong to the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Even though a few might not believe it, I love them all.

After work on Monday, I went to a local Obama campaign office to phone bank voters in Ohio. I was in no mood to do more work after work, and had Should I go? Should I go? Should I go? on replay in the back of my mind all day.
Reader, I went. Could you imagine if I didn’t go and Romney ended up winning Ohio? My conscience (which is all I have) would be in shambles.
Midway through the Welcome-to-the-Computerized-Phone-Calling-System presentation, the guy sitting in front of me, who had already been acting up for awhile, answered his ringing phone and loudly caught up with his caller. He looked pissed and surprised when another trainee looked, pissed and surprised, his way. The rattled trainer sighed and continued presenting. When the guy got off the phone, he barely paid attention to the rest of the demo because why would he want to do that in lieu of making menacing faces at the woman who’d made a face at him?

The Republicans wouldn’t let an unmistakable liability like this lay a hand on a phone connected to their campaign’s computerized system (to call registered voters in a crucial battleground state on the eve of a neck-and-neck presidential election?) and wouldn’t care whose feelings got hurt. Here, no one kindly but firmly sent this guy off, assuring him that the polls would open at 6 a.m. and the machinery looks forward to tabulating his vote.

Training concluded, the computerized system temporarily shut down, and we were told to sit tight. The only snacks I saw were a box of Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins, a bag of stale bagels, and an open container of a spread that may or may not have been hummus. At least one phone-banker, and you know who I’m talking about, may or may not have swept at least one finger through it.

The joint was packed. After an hourlong wait, when it was clear they wouldn’t be ready for me to start making calls anytime soon, if at all, I’d had enough. My time is dear to me – it’s all I have. (Or was that the conscience? I have 2 things – my conscience and my time.) I excused myself (pretending to take an urgent personal call, although the phone I held hadn’t rang, beeped, or vibrated), disappeared through the first set of open elevator doors, and made it home in time for the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills season premiere. But the most beautiful thing I've seen on TV all week came last night at 1 a.m. and took the form of four words: Mitt Romney Concession Speech.

Mitt could use a munchkin. Who couldn’t? 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween on the Eastern Seaboard, 2012

Monday morning, I felt like pancakes. As I whipped up the batter, I felt something warm and smelled something funny. It’s that damn hurricane, I thought, turning around to look out the window. It’s coming for me already and it’s not even supposed to hit till primetime. When I turned back and saw the smoke billowing above and beyond the bowl, the truth didn’t set me free – it hurt my hand. I was holding a Category 3 electric mixer.

That hurricane, the real one, later did a number on the lower end of Manhattan. I live on the upper end.
When the storm picked up speed, with the sounds of sirens in the distance, my lights kept flickering but they never went out. I was positive the wind gusts and heavy objects slamming against my rental-property windows would break them. Today, those windows seem stronger than they’d been the day before the surge. 
I know how it feels to struggle through acute hardship while you’re surrounded by people whose lives haven’t been upended by the misfortune that’s struck you. It’s a strange feeling to be surrounded by others’ acute hardship when you’re one of the people who’s been spared.

I’m not viewing photos and videos of a disaster zone in a land far, far away. My downtown (neighborhoods I’ve grown to love) has been drowned and darkened, while I’ve been staycationing uptown, baking loaves of banana bread and booking holiday-travel flights.

I didn’t live in NYC on 9/11. Although these are obviously two profoundly different types of tragedies, I now have a slightly better understanding of the emotional toll that first one took on the locals and the energy that ensued. If anyone most engagingly represents this strain of energy, it’s the trick-or-treaters – the ones dressed as heroines, the ones dressed as villains - I ran into outside tonight. The exuberance of their masses is as critical as it is contagious.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Runner’s Block: New Hope for a Cure?

Unless it’s heavily raining, heavily humid, or I’ve heavily overslept, I walk to work. It’s the most relaxing hour of my atypical weekday.

Ninety percent of the joy-walk takes me through the western half of Central Park, past swarms of high-intensity cardio buffs training for road races or optimal health. Some walk at a maniacal pace, some jog, some sprint; with others, only they know what they’re up to.

I was once a legitimate runner. Running had been a hobby with healing powers. I still hope to run a half-marathon before I die: you read it here first. (Or a third of a marathon.)

I suppose that means I should start moving faster sometime soon.

First, I must physically and psychologically ready myself for the easing-back-into-it process. I’m presently in pre-training mode, which primarily consists of: drinking cold water; loading up on carbs; upping my daily caffeine intake to lock in that extra edge; window-shopping for new running shoes and sports bras that are as pink as possible; and supportively smiling at the high-intensity cardio buffs in the park.

Regularly coming within torch-passing distance of these park-based athletes is doing something to me. The constant close-range sight of them is more stimulating than the caffeine.

I’m particularly affected by the second-shift runners. That used to be my fly time, when I ran like I owned the park.

Every time I pass a beaming young woman flying up a hill along the 6-mile loop at 7 or 8 p.m., I’m brought back to the giddiness that came with flying up that same hill in the cold early evening air, after the sun went down and the moon lit up, and it was just open road without the swarms.

Now I call upon that lit-up moon as my witness - my second shift shall rise again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Massaging Out the Kinks of a Calling

“I don’t want to be doing this. I really wish my parents encouraged me to do something different, something more interesting,” she (an intellectually and professionally under-fulfilled yuppie) said, her voice trembling with indignation.

“Like what?” I asked, knowing exactly where this was going. I’m familiar with the song. The line-by-line lyrics change with each soloist, but the tune stays the same.

“I don’t know. Like massage therapy, for example.”

She, who’s so not masseuse material, pulled that one straight out of nowhere – that’s why I belly-laughed. I’d have an easier time with the visual if her handshake were firmer.

(I’ve also met and know a fair amount about her doting parents, who paid her way through school.)

It’s one thing to be an able-bodied, well-educated adult who hasn’t figured out your calling. It’s another to expect your parents to have figured it out for you.

Most involved parents do what they can to cultivate the interests and talents of their still-in-the-nest kids. But it’s not the parents’ job to pinpoint and stage-manage something as deeply personal as another human being’s passion. If a kid has been raised with enough self-awareness, confidence, and competence to hear and answer the calling whenever it comes, the fulfillment will follow.

The coolest intellectually and professionally fulfilled adults I’ve known fall into two categories: (1) they’re doing something their involved parent(s) originally tried steering them away from; or (2) they never had an involved parent and don’t allow that background to get in the way of their foreground.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I’ve Been Writing on the Railroad

Years ago, my H.R. manager and I rode a nearly empty express train from New York to D.C. We laughed and storytold until the 3-piece suit across the aisle called us out, on his way out. “You ladies are very rude, this is the Quiet Car,” he scolded, with his most convincing headmaster pose and tone (plus the outfit), before slipping through a door that led to a platform in Philadelphia. It was the first time I’d been awakened to the possibility of permitting passengers to sit, surrounded by silence. No small talk, no big talk, no listening to music from the earbuds of others.  

“Hey buddy, I’m on the other side of the world right now. Nice foliage.”
That was one of the first outdoor-voice declarations coming from the seat behind me in an Amtrak car a few days ago. I don’t board Amtrak often and usually end up having to run for whatever window seat I can get, wherever it is.  
“I asked him to stay somewhat sober today and he said he would. But I know he’ll be a wreck when he picks me up from the train station.”
He spent hours calling everyone he knew, some of them more than once.
“I’m going to Syria next week to take care of some bad guys. Semper Fi.”
It was at this point, the Semper Fi, that I set down my book, pulled out a notepad, and started taking dictation. He’d already covered machine-gun manufacturing, kiboshes, and horse farms. Shame on me if I missed another word.
 “I can’t get ESPN, can’t get the scores of my games, don’t know if Buffalo’s doing anything. I’m just lost, and I’m not used to being lost on a Sunday.”
We need more Quiet Cars - on the rails, off the rails. Unexpressed thoughts are becoming an endangered species.  
I took a break in the café car. As I stepped closer to the counter, I recognized the cashier from my last Amtrak café car, 3 months earlier. I stayed quiet, no small talk, no big talk – a remembrance of café cars past would unnerve him. I placed my order.
“That’s what you got the last time you rode this train,” he said without a smile.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What’s Most Fitting

After several years of outgrowing nearly everything that hangs in my main closet, the lion’s share of my current wardrobe is now outgrowing me. I’ve gone from wasting precious time wading through the forest of natural and synthetic fibers asking, “Are these pants too tight to wear to work?” to wondering, “Are these jeans too baggy to wear to the Ding Dong Lounge?” It’s a problem I’ve waited for since early 2009. 

I can finally fit back into my best business suit, which isn’t actually mine. It won’t ever feel like mine. The charitable but oppressively high-strung maid of honor in a wedding I once bridesmaided my way through loaned it to me while I was in the thick of interviewing for mid-level day jobs and in dire need of a form-fitting power suit - powerful enough to help take the hiring committees’ minds off of the capricious tenor of my résumé. The maid of honor lived up the avenue from me and owned more chic suits than anyone I knew. We wore the same size and the whole thing had been one of her overzealous ideas. When we last ran into each other, I reminded her that I still have what’s hers. She said to consider it a gift to me from her. Will do. For some reason, I was invited to her own wedding a year after the wedding we served in; for some reason, I went . . . to the wedding, the bridal shower, the engagement party - let’s just say, in the gift-giving department, we’re even. 

There are a number of people from my past who still have things that belong to me. It’d be nice to get them back (the belongings, not the people), but I don’t have the inclination to initiate a conversation with them (the people, not the belongings), much less a custody battle. Even the outspoken types can turn into non-confrontational types when it comes to matters that don’t seem to matter much once all or nothing is said and done. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bless My Homeland Forever

Through much of junior high and high school, I moonlighted as a babysitter. Some stretches were like being on a Rolling Stones tour - another night, another gig.

I just texted the first kid I ever babysat, who’s now in her early twenties. She still lives in the swing state that spawned us and I needed to ensure that she’s registered to vote for Obama later this fall. When she and her mom were in New York a couple of years ago, the three of us were the most underdressed bread-breakers at the high-post Tribeca restaurant we found ourselves in.

It was during those prime babysitting years that I jumped through all the hoops it took to bust out of the Midwest – a land I didn’t hate, but didn’t love. I was born restless and most in love with the idea of customizing a path that was as fertile and newsworthy as the courses a lot of my elders had journeyed down.

I had to see, up close, what else was out there to better understand and respect where I came from. My personal and professional dealings with folks from all over have served as reminders that (underneath the narrow-mindedness that’s easily uncoverable in many of their small towns, rural enclaves, and medium-sized metro areas) Midwesterners epitomize two guiding principles – sincerity and simplicity. 

My grown-up travels back home and to other parts of the region are as medicinal as my delicious goblets of red wine. When I learn that someone I’ve just met is Midwestern born and bred, there’s more than a sense of familiarity; there’s a sense of relief.  I won’t get sucker-punched, I won’t get sucker-punched, I sing to myself (and sometimes out loud). So far, I’ve only been proven wrong once.

Elected politicians are among my least-preferred citizens, but I now get excited about presidential election seasons the way teens in their prime babysitting years get excited about Halloween. My original neck of the woods becomes a little less marginalized and is taken a little more seriously, swaying in the spotlight before getting redeposited backstage for another four years. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Privilege of Laughing at a Time Like This

Last month, one of my besties (a term I’ve gone from loathing to loving) almost lost his life in a middle-of-the-night house fire. He woke up engulfed in flames. Other than the makeshift pajamas on his back at the time, he no longer has what he owned.

Of course, he’s not dry-eyed or uncomplaining, and the post-traumatic stress is in its earliest stages. His mind and body are undergoing a transformation. But not his soul.

You don’t know someone until you’ve seen how s/he responds to pain, crisis, or off-the-charts stress. To understand a person’s true character, watch how s/he behaves in the worst of times, not the best of times. How they handle themselves, how they handle others - along the victim-phoenix spectrum, most people fall somewhere in between; some are all phoenix, nothing but.

The phoenix who’s the subject of this post was in the ICU for 5 days. “The nurses loved me, they thought I was fabulous,” was one of the first things he had to say about that. His skin, including the skin on his face, suffered second- and third-degree burns. “Now it’s just like I had a chemical peel, I look fantastic,” he reported last week.   

He’s not getting back to himself – this is his core self.

In college, when his off-campus apartment was broken into, it sounded like the burglars prepared themselves a light meal in his kitchen before bouncing. “And they didn’t even fix me a plate,” he said not long afterwards.

During her one-woman Broadway show a few years ago, Carrie Fisher mentioned an occasion with her daughter. When Fisher chronicled the almost too-bad-to-be-true sorrow and dysfunction that had plagued her and their family over the decades, the daughter periodically broke into laughter, easily able to locate hilarity in the hardship. Fisher said that was when she knew her kid would always be OK.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Unloading Baggage

For the first time in recent memory, I rolled in early for a dental appointment. Much like my being super-early for an outgoing flight, it felt unnatural and I didn’t know what to do with myself. The waiting room’s TV was too loud to focus on the book I brought, I’d already dealt with my e-mail and read the morning news, everyone I’d want to text with was somewhat hard at work, en route to work, or still asleep. And joshing around with this uptight waiting-room crowd was out of the question. I flipped through a magazine that had been tossed onto a chair across from me, and grew particularly enthralled with its “What’s in My Bag?” feature, where a celebrity dumps out the contents of her handbag, for all to see.

I’m cleaning out a huge, black, and timeless Liz (my mom called her Elisabeth) Claiborne bag I’ve kept in rotation since college. The interior lining is in tatters; one strap has stayed attached to the body of the bag with the help of an industrial-sized stapler. We’ve endured so much for so long, and I dread the day I have to put it to sleep. What’s in it?:

1. A great beauty of an umbrella. People can’t help but smile through the rain when this little number is up and at ‘em. It lifts moods. Most of my T.J. Maxx purchases turn heads.

2. Crumbs

3. 1 pleated white ankle sock

4. My office ID badge, the electronic-access swipe function of which hasn’t worked in at least 2 years.

5. Chopsticks

6. A sheaf of scrap paper, where I jot down any ideas/thoughts/lines that stop me in my tracks while I’m on the go, away from my computer. (The most up-to-the-minute jotting: I don’t trust people who are politically correct at all times.)

7. A travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer that’s gone unused because I always forget it’s there, underneath the weightier matters.

8. A tube of lip balm that cost too many euros and doesn’t hit the spot nearly as well as my Bonne Bell Lip Smackers.

There had been an empty plastic produce bag in a side pocket. It’s been passed on to a bagless lady whose dog made quite a mess on the bridle path in the park. She needed something quick, and it’s a good thing I had that bag on me. Otherwise she would have gotten the ankle sock.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Art That Illustrates (Not Imitates) Life

From what I can tell, someone who is (at best) barely acquainted with me clings to the impression that all I do is drink, travel, and watch Bravo’s Real Housewives.

She’s left something out. I also watch Gallery Girls (still Bravo).
I couldn’t have cast it better myself. Not everyone can relate to a subset of rookie go-getters who have moved to New York to stake their claims in the contemporary art world. But anyone who has recently spent entry-level time in a competitive, elitist, commercial, glamorous-to-outsiders industry will be familiar with the people in this neighborhood: the trust fund kid; the little brats who might as well have been set up with trust funds, what with the high-end parental handouts they collect; the middle-class-bred voice of reason who works the hardest and whines the least; the too-cool-for-mainstream-mores hipsters whose funky attitudes start to make mainstream mores look marvelous. All that’s missing from this lineup is the tragically innocent pushover (the one who doesn’t “need alcohol to have a good time”) who steadily gets eaten alive.
One lesson a walk through this landscape can drive home: elitism comes in many different shapes, structures, and socioeconomic situations.
I react to TV shows the way I react to people. I respect the real deals and stay clear of the phonies with the predictably limited and smooth-talking scripts. By now, most of us know that reality-show storylines entail a fair amount of behind-the-scenes producer-generated manipulation. But reality-realm producers can’t be held accountable for everything seen on screen. For example, if you’re wondering why six of the seven Gallery Girls cast members are white, don’t pass too much judgment on Bravo – take a long look at the industry it documents.  
The last scripted show I occasionally followed was Dawson’s Creek. “Nor should you,” one character would say to another. Yes, script-keepers, that’s a very accurate representation of how Generation Y teenagers in the United States troubleshoot with each other.
 “I hate Brooklyn,” a just-out-of-college, non-native Manhattan resident blurts out on Gallery Girls, staring down the camera with an exhausted grimace. There’s not a producer on the Bravo payroll who’d be willing or able to regulate rawness like that. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I’ll Show You Vintage

The only non-edible item I’ve ever bought at a flea market is a hand-carved pedestal that was meant for toilet-paper-roll storage. I use it as a nightstand.

I’m no flea-market fanatic. I’m not a member of the sizable demographic that banks on gleefully strutting away with chandeliers and antique candelabras from these places. I saw a chandelier booth at the flea market I wound up at the other day, off to the side of table upon table staffed by surly vendors hawking Pez dispensers; beat-up coin purses; dusty, broken-handled coffee pots; back issues of obscure Central European magazines. Hustlers heaped rumpled old clothing onto oversized card tables and stood back, watching hyped-up Manhattanites tear their way through. “It’s vintage, it’s vintage,” they barked.

Sizable demographics need to be tapped into.

My dad is gradually de-cluttering his suburban house. That’s sure to take some sweet time. There’s the clutter that should be thrown out vs. the pieces (my inheritance) that can be reused – after they’re each sold off to the highest bidder. The basement alone is home to a saleable stockpile. Just call it vintage, they’ll bite. Say hello to my unborn daughter’s hoity-toity college fund.

Enough with all the gently used merchandise I donate to charity. What am I, a saint? The Goodwill Industries outposts I’ve been to appear to have clutter/surplus problems of their own.  

I donated approximately 15 books to my local library last year. By the following weekend, my donations sat on a cart by the library’s front door, getting peddled out for a profit (theirs, not mine). Those books could have been added to the family flea market inventory that everyone else in the family has yet to learn of.

The second-to-last time I was back home, I found a ceramic bowl that had been boxed up in my childhood bedroom and handed it over to a friend before we left for lunch – free of charge. It’s vintage! You think Pier 1 still carries that model in stock? 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Best Workstation in the Nation

For the past 2 days, I’ve been working from home. It’s not just something I could get used to. I have gotten used to it, and think it’s a lifestyle that should become par for the course. Why do I need to go into the office for anything other than meetings and free air-conditioning?

The “home” I’ve worked from has been on a small hill that overlooks a pond. I’ve seen and heard it all from up there – photo shoots, film crews, a wedding, Shakespearean plays. Almost 9 years ago, before I relocated to New York, a thick-accented man approached me not too far from this hill, to ask for my number and whether I was a virgin. (I initially thought he was saying “Belgian,” which created a good deal of confusion for nearly a full minute.)

Yesterday’s most riveting concentration-breaking scene came in the form of a distressingly raucous argument, in a language that’s foreign to me, between a very old woman in a motorized wheelchair and her male companion. He (who might be her son but, in this time and place, could just as easily be her fiancé) was doing the bulk of the yelling, teetering on the brink of getting physical. There was the real fear of her getting chucked into the pond, wheelchair and all. When she couldn’t take it any longer, she shouted something back at him and zoomed away in the chair. Whatever she said effectively put him in his place. He looked sad and scared to see her go.

The old and infirm in New York are as tough as they come. They continue to do great work in their high-pressure offices well into their seventies, when they could have retired a decade earlier; and cruise through Midtown rush-hour traffic in their wheelchairs; and slowly, but purposefully, walk their dogs, with only the company of a cane or a walker, after the sun has gone down. Discount them at your own detriment.

From my hill, I had an unobstructed view of the eastern half of the pond. I could see things the son/fiancé couldn’t see from his bench down below. I bet she wanted him to think she sailed all the way home, after deciding to cut him off for good. But all she’d done was park her power-chair on the other side of the pond, where she sat still, before turning around to pick him up so they could head out together. As they exited the park, she took the lead, stopping every now and then (head held high, never looking back) to wait for her fella to catch up.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Keep the Alterations Coming

I’ve been referred to as “an observer.” As in, “life is very hard for an observer, isn’t it dear?” (The “isn’t it dear” and the question mark weren’t part of the original quote. I tossed them in for effect. And for kicks.)

One emerging observation of mine has been that a person’s general life direction tends to be established by the time s/he has hit the 30-35 age bracket, the same way a person’s general personality is thought to be formed by the age of 6. It’s not that people can’t pull a 180 after reaching the mid-thirties mark so much as they often don’t.
I’ve also been referred to as judgmental and too fond of making overgeneralizations, this sort of slander usually coming from people who may be chronologically older than me but whose practical experiences have been less checkered/more homogenous than mine have been. So this life-direction theory has been kept to myself or privately shared with the members of my inner circle. Not everyone can handle it.
Now I got back-up. According to a book that came out earlier this year, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – And How to Make the Most of Them Now, “80% of our defining decisions are made before we’re 35, and 70% of lifetime wage growth happens in the 1st 10 years of our careers.”
When I was 21, I turned down a potentially life-altering summer internship because it was unpaid. This was the first in a series of that decade’s defining decisions and life-altering episodes. Every day felt like an experiment. Those are the only kind of days I ever want.
I’m 1 year and 2 months away from 35. My general direction was solidified at 29 or 30, but I’ll be closing out this age bracket with a bang. Same thing with each age bracket that’s still to come.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The High Road

On the clean and cool streets of San Francisco, I needed walking directions from the Mission to the Upper Haight. They didn’t have to be good directions, just the general “turn right” or “turn left” at the next corner type of guidance.

I stopped into the nearest place of business, a Laundromat, where the only people on site were 2 young men who weren’t doing a lick of laundry. I asked the more sober of the two for directions. “I’m not sure,” he said. “He’d be the one to ask,” pointing to his associate, who was squinting and barely able to stand up. Lucy was in the sky with cubic zirconia. I wasn’t expecting someone this high to be able to speak, but he wasted no time in lunging forward, eager to make himself useful.

“Now, first of all, you shouldn’t walk because that would take you, like, a day,” his opening statement began, while he stood hunched over, with one arm down the back of his pants.

I eventually got to where I needed to be, on my wits. The farther up the Haight St. hill I hustled, the more the passers-by looked to be in contention for the blue ribbon in a Laundromat Lucy look-alike/act-alike contest. Was the boy accosting me about weed trying to buy or sell? Chances are, he didn’t know either.

First by circumstances and then by choice, I’ve spent this lifetime in the company of people who think, look, and live differently from me. But this part of town was a reminder that I haven’t had much direct exposure to the druggies.

I prefer the drunks. The drunks, I get.

The greatest drunk I know lives one floor above me, and he adores animals the way I do. You should have seen the level of care he gave his elderly dog; and the way he mourned her after she died of old age. He now has 3 or 4 cats and, in spite of all the hard liquor he reeks of at all hours of the day, he diligently leaves the air-conditioning on for them when it’s warm, while he’s out doing whatever he does when he staggers out of our building. (One of these days, I plan to follow him, no matter where it takes me. Just need to know.)

His newest cat is a charmer. She’s enormous, like something out of science fiction. I’ve seen my drunk walk her on a leash. He rescued her off the street, and she has 8 claws. He says it’s good luck. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Glass Half Grateful

Toward the end of my non-stop flight into Los Angeles this week, I looked down at my left thumb to catch a fresh glimpse of my new ring, but there was no silver in sight. I searched the floor and my handbag before sitting back in my seat to think deep.

Remember that scene in Home Alone when Kevin's mom is on the plane, and she suddenly realizes she left something behind?

I'd taken the ring off to wash my hands in a JFK Airport bathroom, and it probably didn't have to wait very long on the shelf above the sink before it had a taker.

I'm not just appreciative of the good stuff that happens. I consciously consider myself lucky when the less-than-good stuff didn't turn out worse. An article I skimmed last week suggested that the secret to individual happiness and success is gratitude, and that people who exclusively dwell on the negative aspects of their day or an experience can never be happy.

In the past 72 hours, I'm grateful that: the ring I lost and won't find wasn't one of the expensive or sentimental-value ones; I got to take a walk on the beach with a friend who I hadn't seen in more than a year; and even though my overrated Hollywood hotel didn't offer a complimentary breakfast, its complimentary lemonade might be the best citrus concoction I've ever tasted.

The realists, critics, and sarcasm specialists can be just as excited about being alive and well as anyone else. Sometimes more so.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

They Don’t Make Journals Like This on Wall Street

Two revelations:

(1) For years, I’ve kept a detailed journal that’s now about 1,000 single-spaced word-processed pages long.
(2) I have the kind of memory that makes people uncomfortable.
If you tell me something (or if I hear anything about you), as long as I was paying attention during the information’s delivery, I’ll remember it, quick-recall style, for the rest of my life (at least until the senility kicks in). I had a fourth-grade acquaintance—whom I haven’t seen, heard from, or heard about since fourth grade—whose birthday falls on February 15th (or so I overheard, at age 9). To this day, every February 15th I find myself honoring her with a moment of silence.
On account of the not always paying attention, and my not being perfect or a robot, there are things I do forget. That’s where the detailed journal comes in. If I’m asked why I became standoffish with a specific someone during Presidents’ Day weekend 2009, and I can’t fully remember why off the top of my head, all I have to do is turn on my computer, pull up the journal file, do a “Find” search, and there’s the answer, all laid out, chapter and verse.
My latest “Find” search exhumed an entry alluding to an afternoon shopping trip in London during the summer of 1998. While I waited for a friend to come out of a bathroom in Harrods, a man sat next to me, waiting for his wife. He was an American too, and we had ourselves a grand old time reminiscing about the Motherland. By the time our people came out of the loo, this guy and I were giving Frick and Frack a run for their money. He asked my friend and me what we were studying in school, and we told him we were pre-law. “Women lawyers, huh?” he said, after a long pause, shaking his head in genuine revulsion.
If it hadn’t been for my trusty database, this unabridged history would be lost forever. I’ve always remembered the friendly back-and-forth with an older American at Harrods, but I forgot about the sexist stuff.
I think everyone, even those who don’t like to write, should regularly update a journal of some sort. One that nobody else can see. If it keeps you half as honest as it’s keeping me, staving off senility might turn out to be less of a challenge.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

To Sum It All Up

When I was asked for my “short bio” this week, I reviewed a few of the bios I’ve released in the recent past. They each have a different shtick, depending on who the audience is, and none of them will work this time.

Since they’re completely self-generated, these bios are actually autobios. Drafting them is an image-conscious exercise. Who am I/what have I done vs. how do I want this particular set of people to perceive me/which of the things I’ve done do I want them to know about?

What I won’t do is mislead or drift into the short fiction-writing realm. I’ve read so many subtly shady bios of people I know that toss in exaggerations or the names of titles and awards that mean nothing, but sound like they could mean something to those who have no way of knowing any better.

Awhile back, Ani DiFranco took issue with a magazine’s characterization of her as a self-made mogul. Technically, she is one. But she avoids thinking of herself in those terms, and doesn’t want to encourage others to view her in that light either. She said that instead of “ani d., CEO,” she’d prefer to be known/remembered as a “songwriter, musicmaker, storyteller, freak.”

Here’s my real, substance-conscious, “short bio”: I’m resilient, I’m not afraid of hard work, and I won’t flake out on my loved ones. I don’t take the days of my life for granted, I’ve owned up to and accepted the consequences of every mistake I’ve made, and I laugh at most all of my own jokes.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Which Way to the Water Slide?

In the span of one hour, an 11-year-old and I took Midtown Manhattan by storm. We rode side-by-side on the Bryant Park merry-go-round, rolled through Times Square, sat down for a street artist’s charcoal sketch. If we had more time and I wasn’t such a tightwad, I would have taken us to a matinee performance of Evita. Everyone should see Ricky Martin get busy live at least once.

When I first toured an extensive swath of Manhattan as a kid, I was younger than 11, and remember equating the experience to being in the middle of a theme park. It still feels that way, if not more so, twenty years later.

During the stroll from the Nasdaq board area to the charcoal-sketch artist’s easel, we bypassed a group of kids getting their pictures taken with an adult-size muppet character. These muppets also routinely set up shop along several blocks of 6th Avenue during the holiday season, and I had a big problem with them, and the sidewalk congestion they create, until a few months ago. I’d been sitting on a bench near 42nd Street, cooling off from something that had just happened, and a defeated-looking middle-aged man (who might be somebody’s doting young grandfather) appeared by the bench behind me, fumbling through a huge bag. We exchanged sad smiles and I forgot about him until he left his spot at the bench to slowly walk toward Times Square, wearing a full-on Elmo costume.

Now whenever the street muppets wave at me, I wave back.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Coming Down Is the Hardest Thing

Fifteen minutes into an Appalachian Trail hike, I was riddled with second thoughts.

I probably wouldn’t have been so skeptical if I’d been properly dressed. I expected an uphill nature walk in the deep, dark woods, along rough-ish terrain – not a climbing-over-jagged-rock-ledges course that’s better destined for the REI-poles-and-backpack breed of hikers. Had I known this was an Outward Bound-caliber trail, or had I remembered that it rained the night before, I would have worn thicker shoes. And a pair of socks.

More than one individual has told me that I’m the most stubborn person they’ve ever met. Quitting doesn’t come easy to me. I climbed up one set of rocks, and then another.

In spite of the country-bohemian attire, it’s possible I could have gone all the way up and come back down, yelling and cursing from start to finish, without much incident. It was all about the gamble.

The now well-publicized notion of “do[ing] something that scares you every day” is a noble concept, but even nobility has its boundaries. Nobody needs to be a hero all the time. Selective heroism is more gangsta.

Prematurely turning around and gingerly scaling down those two sets of slick, mossy rocks was sketchier than propelling myself to the top of them had been. It wouldn’t have taken much for a seasoned klutz to slip and fly down the adjacent ravine that most likely wouldn’t have offered much to grab onto during the freefall toward the forest’s floor.

I’ve made it out of the woods, once again, in one piece. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

An Upside to Dirty Laundry

The first half-dozen times I glanced through the windows of a below-street-level building in my neighborhood, I thought it was a deli-cafeteria and wondered how long it might take them to fix me an iced coffee.

When I started to consistently see people wheeling bundles of blankets and clothing on their ways in and out, it hit me - I was face to face with my new and improved laundromat, where you can find a loving family of four having Sunday dinner at a lopsided table as they wait for their clothes to dry; or chance upon a soft-spoken, furtive dialogue that includes: “Yeah I know, but man, why do you have a naked picture of your cousin on your phone?”

I wasn’t happy about needing to do an enormous, long-overdue load of laundry this past weekend, or having to push my huge cart across busy streets in the sticky 93-degree heat. My mood dramatically lifted within minutes of my sweaty, pink-faced arrival at the laundromat that rarely disappoints. Two families with early-elementary-school-age children surrounded me. One featured two very pretty little girls. The other family’s pair of boys wildly ran around the premises in their underpants and sleeveless undershirts, and I was the only one who was absolutely elated by the sight of it all.

I sat down to read Anna Quindlen’s new book at a table in the back of the room. The two girls and their mom sat across from me, with some snacks.

The elder underpants boy really had the hots for the younger girl. I caught him checking her out during one of his lawless laps around the washing machines. Once the parents cleared out of the seating area, and it was just us kids, the mack was on. Or the attempted mack, as – surprise! – tighty whitie has no game.

He bounced over to her, much of his handsome face hidden behind those oversized geek-chic glasses that are all the rage with the hipsters, and asked how old she was. (As socially unsophisticated as it may be, I applaud the idea of establishing the age difference straight from the get-go. There’s no joy in suddenly learning that you’re 11 years older than the guy you’re on a third date with.)  He followed up with an interrogation about the snacks.

Underpants: You’re eating lunch now? [It was sometime between 3:45 and 4:15 p.m.]

Sweet Little Girl: No.

Underpants: So that’s your dinner?

Sweet Little Girl: No.

Underpants: It’s your supper?

Sweet Little Girl: What’s supper?

He told her that supper was a combination of lunch and dessert. That’s when she got noticeably weirded out.

Underpants: Why are you eating at a time when you’re not supposed to be eating?

Sweet Little Girl: Why aren’t you wearing clothes?

The parents returned, the kids clammed up, the underpants boys segued into a good-natured wrestling match on an elevated platform, and not having laundry facilities in my own building presented itself as more of a privilege than a problem.