Friday, January 30, 2009

further engagements, fragments of our selves

I received an email Wednesday night from the former boyfriend I sometimes mention here, telling me that he recently got engaged to the woman he's been with for the two years since we parted ways. It was a sweet letter in its way, in that he wanted to be sure that I heard the news directly from him first, before they start spreading the word to various mutual friends and acquaintances, and for this I am grateful. But I am feeling a bit brokenhearted all the same, despite all the time that's passed. It's hard to move on completely from a person when part of you is still halfway in love with him, still missing the part of yourself that he took with him when he left.

It's been a strange week. Last Friday I had dinner with two friends, two old friends whom I thought knew me well. I've been a bit unhappy with them recently, for various reasons, and I had thought we were going to discuss those reasons, see what we might do to alleviate them. It turns out, however, that they had their own agenda, and sat me down, all serious-like, to discuss their concerns about my life, my happiness, my job, my drinking, my home, my lack of dating, my decision to end therapy soon, etc. It took me by surprise, to say the least, and while I know in my head that it came out of a reservoir of affection, it also felt patronizing, slightly condescending, and largely misguided.

I left their apartment that night somewhat stunned, and walked to the train, and found myself wondering at the ways people read or misread each other, and wondering at the connection, or disconnection, that these readings have to reality. Am I so different around these two friends than I am around all others that they honestly believe what they were saying? Could they possibly know my state of mind more thoroughly than my brother, my mother, my Jill, my Lauren, my Nick, my Arielle, my Sarah, my self? Or is their inability to accept my hurt and unhappiness with them so very strong that they had to shift the paradigm completely?

It was hard to find a center in all of this, a self rooted to the ground, and I felt, on that trip home, somehow untethered.

(This was not helped by the nasty cold I've been fighting since Inauguration Day. Yes, I lay the blame at the feet of our new illustrious leader, after standing out in the cold for an hour, toes frozen, ears numbed, to hear him botch the oath).

I spent much of the weekend in a cold-induced haze, drinking cup after cup of tea, popping vitamin C and Nyquil, venturing out only for a trip to the grocery store for chicken soup and a short walk up to Fort Tryon Park with friend Freddy and Bella the boxer.

I went to work on Monday and told Erica my tale of woe, the story of my surreal Friday night with two men I thought knew me well, and she, full of righteous rage, sputtered and shrilled, "What's wrong with them??" And I found myself again in her indignation.

Wednesday, I left work with Erica and we walked across campus towards the subway, umbrellas held high in the drizzling rain, glistening and splintering and refracting in the Christmas lights along college walk, and we were laughing, joking about something, and my boots (what Arielle refers to as my "sexy boots," such as they are) were clunking pleasingly on the pavement, our coats swinging open in the breeze funneling up 116th Street from the river. I felt tall and strong and bright and it occurred to me, in that walk, that this is what happiness is, or can be; that there was true joy caught in this moment, in the sparkling lights, in the rain all luminescent, in our laughter rising out of us and up into the darkening sky.

I got home to find the letter from the old boyfriend (yes, we have come full circle now), and I lost my breath, and I felt my heart, my soul, momentarily freezing up inside me. But then I called Lauren, and later Arielle called me, and later yet, getting on towards midnight, I called my mother, who let me cry into the phone to her, and who understood what I meant when I said that even as I felt my heart breaking, I also felt a weight lifted, a certain sense of freedom.

As my friend Jean Marie recently wrote in response to a query about how she's doing:

"things seem to be improving here
there can be ups and downs, so i am not rejoicing
but at the moment, i'm in an upswing"

this must be the place (again)

site of the day

Maria Kalman's And the Pursuit of Happiness

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

boys & their bands

Two dear friends of mine, Alan and Josh, and their respective bands, Chopshop and The City & Horses, recently recorded albums and have been planning their CD release parties for awhile now and I've been all excited about going. To both of them.

Until tonight, when I realized that not only are they on the very same night in two very different parts of the city, but they're both on a night when I'm going to be out of town.

Damn it all to hell.

Monday, January 26, 2009

old songs

Nick and I were having dinner this evening, a much-needed dinner on my part after a rather insular weekend spent recuperating from both a nasty cold and a disconcerting social encounter. Our talk ranged from the books we are reading or not reading to the stories we are writing or not writing, from the usual boring old library gossip to all the different selves every one of us embodies and the myriad ways these varied selves, both intuitively and contradictively, interact with all the different parts of the world around us.

Then it occurred to us that the bar we were in seemed to think it was 80's night, and we spent the next hour rhapsodizing over or savagely criticizing the ensuing aural onslaught, from A-Ha's Take On Me (slandered, though with appreciation for the video) to Cutting Crew's (I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight (resoundingly condemned) to John Waite's Missing You (praised, with reservations). I scoffed at his adolescent adoration of Dream Theater and he mocked my pre-teen love for Whitney Houston's How Will I Know ("I'm askin' you 'cause you know about these things!").

Eventually it was time to pay up, make our way through the cold to the subway, and head downtown and uptown respectively, in preparation for yet another workday tomorrow.

Strange to think it's only Monday.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

the old woman & me, or, maybe barack really does bring us all together

There's an old woman who lives downstairs from me, a slightly batty old woman who tends to wear a little too much makeup and, when the weather warrants (and sometimes when the weather does not warrant), a fur coat.

I first made her acquaintance just about six years ago now, not long after we moved in to this apartment, when she ventured upstairs one morning to complain about the noise we'd been making the night before. She, gesturing rather maniacally, said she'd assumed we weighed 300 pounds, given the unendurable loudness of all the foot-stomping. She refused to hear that we'd been out the night before, that we couldn't possibly have been making the racket she claimed was so dreadful it drove her to take Xanax, and that even had we been home, we would not have been stripping the floors in the middle of the night, as she claimed.

The conversation went badly, frustrations on both sides rose to the boiling point, and eventually she left, unsatisfied. We were left confused and a bit shaken, but also with the ongoing joke that perhaps she should look into stronger medication, given the level of noise in her head and the impossibility of us being its source.

Our interactions for a long time after that were minimal at best, limited to nervous smiles and averted glances.

Over the last two years or so, though, she and I have gotten beyond the tenseness and now greet each other with genuine smiles and quiet hellos.

This past Election Day, early in the morning, we ended up not far from each other on the line to vote, as I discovered when I felt someone tugging at the sleeve of my coat. I turned around to find Meredith, in all her fur-coated glory, grinning from ear to ear and saying, "Can you believe this turnout? This is beautiful!!!"

Then two weeks ago I had a couple friends over for dinner. Around 9:30 or so there was a knocking on my door. Joe the doorman, looking rather embarrassed, explained that someone had complained about the music being too loud. He listened for a moment, rolled his eyes, said not to worry about it, and went back down to the lobby. And I didn't think much more about it.

Until I was in the grocery store last week looking for peas in the frozen food aisle. Meredith, looking anxious, came over to apologize for sending Joe up the other night. It took me a moment to even remember what she might be referring to, and I'm still not convinced that the noise she was hearing was actually emanating from my apartment. But I, in turn, apologized regardless, and suggested that she can always let me know right away if something's bothering her.

We ended up chatting for a few more minutes and, given our last interaction, I mentioned Inauguration Day. And Meredith's eyes suddenly lit up as she described her day to me. She'd spent it alone, in her apartment, channel surfing from one station to the next, tears of joy streaming down her face as she watched Barack Hussein Obama being sworn in as President of the United States. She said it was one of the best days of her life.

And I, I've been caught up in wondering at the loneliness this woman must feel from day to day, even with her cats, and have been pondering the notion of showing up at her door for a change, just to invite her up for a cup of tea.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

columbia hearts obama

quote(s) of the day

"We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."
-President Obama, 1.20.09

"I believe it's OK to die but not to kill."
-Tarak McLain, six-year-old

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I found myself thinking about tragedy last week, even before the crash of US Airways Flight 1549. Or rather, more specifically, I found myself thinking about my city in the wake of tragedy. I sometimes joke about, and yet take a certain pride in, New York's not infrequent appearance in disaster movies. But it's been another thing entirely to watch this city of mine reeling from actual disasters, or even just near-disasters, or potential disasters, from the skittishness and knee-jerk assumptions that set in after those airplanes took down the Twin Towers to the collective sigh of relief that went up last Thursday night.

There was Flight 587, en route to the Dominican Republic from JFK, crashing into Far Rockaway on November 12th, 2001, killing all 260 on board as well as 5 people on the ground. Though terrorism was quickly ruled out, the entire city, still in shock over 9/11, was in turmoil for weeks afterward, and in mourning for months. There is a clothing shop not far from my apartment, in the subway station at 181st Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue. The woman who owned the shop died on Flight 587. For a long, long time the passageway to the subway turnstiles was clogged with candles, flowers, prayer beads, letters.

There was a building explosion in April of 2002 down in Chelsea, leaving the city shaken again, though this time with only 40 or so injured and no dead. In this, too, terrorism was quickly ruled out. Friends of mine on the west coast called that night anyway, just to be sure I was okay, even knowing I tend to be miles north of Chelsea. It seemed it wasn't just New York that was skittish still, in those days, but the whole country.

Then there was the great blackout of August 2003. I was, as usual, in the basement of the International Affairs Building. I sometimes complain about working in a basement but that day I was grateful to be so close to the surface instead of stumbling my way down from an upper floor, flight after flight of stairs lit only by cell phone glow and strategically flickering lighters. It took me a while to realize how big it was, and even longer to realize that many people, including friends of mine, had at first feared it was terrorism. One of the most vivid memories I have of that day, while walking the four miles home along Riverside Drive, watching commuters navigate the streetlight-less roads, was coming across a rooster strutting its stuff on the sidewalk around 145th Street. That and wandering the neighborhood later that night, made hungry by the scent of impromptu barbecues on street corners bathed in headlights, and watching the inbound traffic lighting up the George Washington Bridge which was, for the only time in my memory at least, in itself, dark.

It's been awhile since we've had a large-scale tragedy (unless, I suppose, you count the Republican Convention of 2004) here in New York City. But when a coworker came running into my office last Thursday afternoon to tell me that an airplane had just gone down in the freezing waters of the Hudson River, my first thought was to brace myself for a city soon to be in mourning all over again.

I cannot imagine the terror those people on Flight 1549 must have endured that afternoon. All I know is the relatively minor fear that I felt in those first moments before it became clear that tragedy had been averted by a heroic captain and the quick response of rescuers on a 20-degree day.

I went out for drinks with a couple friends that night and the talk of the evening, not only with us but with everyone in the bar, and on the subway to and from the bar, and on the streets walking to and from the subway on the way to and from the bar, was the crash. And I found myself thinking how, but for the grace of God, it could have been a different kind of night all together, and in my own very selfish way I am grateful that my city was spared yet another disaster, yet another tragedy to absorb into itself, and will instead be able to tell the story of that bitterly cold winter day when a plane was brought down by a flock of birds, and everyone on board survived.


Zero 7 & Jose Gonzalez

Thursday, January 15, 2009

'the gift outright'

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

(Robert Frost, read at JFK's inauguration ceremony, 1.20.1961)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

on finding the perfect ring, a family engagement, and chuppahs

Nathan called me early one Saturday morning last March. He'd gotten it into his head to spend the day walking around downtown and wanted me to accompany him.

It was a particularly nasty morning: torrential rain, biting wind, and no A-train service north of 168th Street. I was reluctant, to say the least, but eventually let myself be persuaded.

We met up at the 125th Street train station and headed downtown. I asked what it was exactly that we were doing, and he said he'd read about this little tiny jewelry shop in the East Village that does exquisite work and only uses non-conflict diamonds and would I please help him pick out an engagement ring?

We found the perfect ring, eventually, and Nate had the jeweler expedite it so that he could bring it to Paris the following week with, I think, the intention of perhaps proposing on a bridge overlooking the Seine. (You wouldn't necessarily think it to look at him, but my brother can sometimes be quite the romantic.)

And me and my big mouth, well, I guess I figured since the proposal was only a week away, it wouldn't hurt to, you know, maybe mention it to a couple people. A few people. Not too many, I swear, and all under strict instruction to, unlike me, keep their big mouths shut.

And then the proposal didn't happen. The perfect moment never quite presented itself. And those few people have been harassing me for months now, always asking, constantly inquiring, as to my brother's good intentions. (I might exaggerate a little bit here, but still, it's stressful for a girl to have secrets, especially when she's such an utter failure at keeping them.)

But finally, finally, just after Christmas, just before the New Year, my brother found his perfect moment, in the dead of winter, at a small bed & breakfast out on one of the San Juan Islands, just off the country's western rim.

And miraculously enough, the girl said yes.

When I was a little girl, I kind of always wanted a big brother. I was happy with the brother I had, of course, but I fantasized about having an older brother, someone bigger and stronger and more worldly, to look out for me I suppose.

What I never fantasized about was having a sister, older or younger. I had my girl friends, my bosom buddies, to steal a phrase from Anne Shirley, and just never hungered for a sister.

I will stand with my brother, who is also my best friend, and his Shanna at their wedding ceremony come September. And while Shanna may not be the older brother of my childhood dreams, she's a woman to be reckoned with, and a woman who looks after her own, and a woman my family will joyously welcome as one of our own, and a woman I will be pleased and honored to have as a sister in law.

Which brings me, lastly and finally, to the chuppah. I was talking on the phone the other night with Nate about possible wedding dates, locations, ideas. I mentioned to him my not very well thought out idea of knitting for Shanna a wedding shawl. He said he thought that might be nice, but that he'd been wanting to broach the idea of me knitting a chuppah for them.

A chuppah, if you don't know, is the traditional Jewish canopy under which the bride and groom (or the groom and groom, or bride and bride, as the case may be) say their wedding vows. It represents, or so it is said, the home the couple will create together. It is open on all sides, held aloft simply on four poles, the better to welcome in the couple's loved ones, and the world around them. And it is empty, furnished only with the couple themselves, the people there to bear witness, and the love shared between them all.

The idea of knitting a chuppah for Nathan and Shanna, for these two beautiful, wonderful people who somehow found each other quite literally in the wilderness on the far side of the world, just makes me want to laugh and cry with joy.

I've tentatively found a pattern, swatched in some old yellow acrylic I had in the closet just to see if I like doing it (for a piece this big, you better find a pattern you don't hate knitting from the outset). Now I just have to figure out the yarn (lace weight? fingering? worsted? bulky? white? cream? vanilla? wool? silk? cotton? bamboo? some combination thereof?), and try not to get overwhelmed.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

losing the center

There was a time, a few years ago, when there were nine of us, nine friends or siblings or lovers or roommates, living in my neighborhood, some even in my building. Our histories together extended back varying amounts of time, some of us since birth, some of us since meeting as kids in Paris before the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, some of us merely since college, and some of us even more recently than that.

Our circles extended, of course, beyond these nine, and we all had our individual lives outside of the neighborhood, away from each other. But for me, the little triumvirate of my brother, my boyfriend, and myself seemed to exist at the center of things, each of us bringing in our own influences, people, histories.

Of this circle of nine, I am the only one left. We have since left each other for other neighborhoods, boroughs, states, people.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit these last few days, perhaps because of the dawning of a new year and this ritual we all seem to go through every January of taking stock, taking the measure of our lives.

Our extended circles also have largely splintered, many of us going our separate ways, either emotionally or geographically. This is not to say, of course, that all of these friendships and relationships are gone -- some of us are still quite close. But the cohesiveness, the tapestry, the sense of knowing, for example, that one without a doubt has built-in plans for New Year's Eve, is gone.

The best New Year's Eve I ever had, 2003 I think, was in my very own apartment, in the company of ten or so dear friends, with various other friends and acquaintances coming and going throughout the night. It was an evening spent making the traditional McNeil Family New Year's Eve dumplings, an evening of drinking and talking and singing and carrying-on (wrestling matches, involving some sort of port cheese spread, were waged on the living-room floor) and culminating in my brother passed out on the bed, leaving the couch for the boyfriend and myself after all the other revelers took their leave.

I was talking with my mother this afternoon for awhile about various things -- our knitting projects, chores needing to be done, our cats or lack of cats, Bob Herbert's most recent smack-down of the president, what we had done for New Year's Eve. But also about a certain sense of loneliness that seems to come, sometimes, with growing older. My mother, while I was visiting her for Christmas last week, was rhapsodizing a bit about my circle of friends here in New York, and about how difficult it would be for me to leave, to perhaps move west, closer to her and the rest of the family, because of these friends.

She was missing the community that she left behind in Mohegan Lake fifteen years ago when she moved back west, a community of friends and neighbors that had coalesced over the years into one organism, where my brother and I were lucky enough to grow up. She was not quite regretting her decision to leave this community, but was waxing nostalgic for it, and had forgotten that it had started to fall apart even before she moved away.

These things happen sometimes, these splintering of communities, of circles of friends, whether we leave or whether we stay.

I have new friends in the neighborhood now. A coworker who has become much more than that implies, and her boyfriend, and her cat, and their dog, moved up to the neighborhood this past August. We have exchanged apartment keys for pet-watching detail, and get together outside of work now and again for a dinner in each other's homes, a walk up to the farmers' market in Inwood on a Saturday morning, a New Year's Eve.

And it was a fine New Year's Eve. Different from anything I've had in the past, and a little bit lonelier, but embracing all the same, and close to home, and fun and warm and good.

And maybe this is okay. Maybe it's not so tragic to no longer have a large, ever-morphing, ever fracturing and realigning group of friends, with all the drama that that entails. Maybe it's not so bad to have, instead, individual friendships, rich and solid and rewarding friendships, even if it means less excitement and more time alone.