I spent last week at a silent meditation retreat in a rural part of Massachusetts. It actually wasn’t very silent. People didn’t talk, but the place running the retreat is in the midst of an extensive building project, and eight hours a day, directly outside the meditation hall, cement trucks churned and other trucks dropped off gigantic loads of dirt and bulldozers deposited it into wide holes and all of this was accompanied by the very loud beeping and grinding and digging such things generally entail. It didn’t bother me, though, partly because it sounded like home but mostly because I was far more bothered by the person near me sucking on lozenges, and whenever the construction noise picked up that meant I could no longer hear the lozenge hitting the edge of her teeth.
The retreat lasted ten days, and by day five I was in the strange space I arrive at under such circumstances. One moment my mind felt like a planet floating in outer space, the next I was infuriated by a person doing nothing other than considerately trying not to cough by sucking on a lozenge, and the next I was suddenly aware of a pain in my knees so acute I couldn’t imagine how I had ever managed to notice anything else. Once the hour was up I would walk outside, my mind momentarily clear until someone passed in front of me and a single thought would appear, such as, “That man is wearing a skirt.” Gender roles are all reversed at these things. The men wear sarongs. The women wear loose fitting pants. And even the most mundane observations take on significance when surrounded with so much silence.
The same seemed to be true of dreams, this was all I could figure. Midway through I woke up in the middle of the night with the feeling that I had just had a very meaningful message. I opened my eyes and sat up, this was how important it felt. For a second the dream was gone, but then I remembered it. First the image returned: two cows in a field, and atop each cow was another cow, but sitting the way a person would on a horse, with their two back legs danging down on either side. Then the message: “The world is best viewed from atop a cow.” Make of it what you will.
The two men were standing together outside the coffee shop I go to sometimes. The older man had on ill-fitting red corduroys, the younger man had on ill-fitting jeans and a white cotton t-shirt. He was telling the older man he needed to quit it with all the surgeries - what did he think, that changing his face would be enough to draw women in? The older man seemed discouraged. Yeah, yeah, he said. It’s just I’m insecure, and besides the real problem is I’m fat. I gotta quit eating. I know what you need to do, said the younger one, you should start taking speed. You want me to get you some meth? The younger man, I decided, was an asshole.
You know what your problem is? the older man asked. You’re a Jew, so you’re genetically predisposed to try to undermine the confidence of Aryans. That’s what you’re doing to me right now. The older man, I decided, was also an asshole. I mean, look at you, the older man said. What do you mean, look at me? said the younger man, I don’t look like a Jew. Ha HA! said the older man. Everyone can tell you are a Jew. I focused intently on eating my cookie. They seemed like exactly the kind of assholes who might turn to the nearest person and say, hey, don’t you think this guy here looks like a Jew? On the sidewalk I watched a man fiddling with his phone walk straight into the flowering branch of a tree, look up from his phone and give the tree a dirty look.
Then the younger man received a text. Oh my God, he said, I’ve just received amazing news. What is it? asked the older man. The younger man ignored him. You know what you should do? he asked the older guy. You should get an exercise bike. I don’t need to exercise, I need to quit eating, said the older guy. So what’s your good news? The younger guy paused for a super long time. Isabel texted me, he finally said. So she wrote just to say hi and you’re going to respond simply by telling her where to meet for lunch? asked the older man. You’re starting to get the hang of this, the younger guy said, you listen to me and we’ll get you a girl in no time. You just can’t tolerate any of that bimbo crap. The older man nodded. And with that they took off to meet the lucky girl.
Lately I have been taking an exercise class that involves running across the Brooklyn Bridge extremely early in the morning. It’s brutal, at least for me, which makes it particularly hard to motivate myself when I hear the alarm go off at 5:30am. Today I skipped. On Saturday, however, the class starts at 9am, and last weekend I successfully got myself out of bed in time.
The class involves sprints and running and then all these terrible exercises with stretchy band things, and how hard I have to work would make me feel foolish except that it usually seems hard for everyone else, too. Last Saturday, though, there was this guy there for whom nothing was hard. He had gigantic shoulders and huge rounded calf muscles and a neck like a tree trunk. He was a true specimen of health, built like a fridge but super fast—like a fast fridge—and for most of the class I watched him unabashedly. I found it strangely relaxing, watching him do things I find hard with such ease. It was like watching an acrobat, or an animal on one of those wildlife shows, or a ballerina balancing on one foot with her other foot above her head. Until the part where we had to sprint, and he took off up the bridge, almost swaying back and forth - he had so much muscle to move that running required this sort of motion. But super fast, as I mentioned. Like a fast swaying fridge. And all I could think was: If that guy came after me, I could never, ever run fast enough to get away.
I’ve been to a few different therapists in my life, and all can variously be categorized as bad (the one who told me I could stand to lose ten pounds), strange (the one with the wand and the therapy dog) or good (the therapist I have now).
It is such an odd relationship - he know loads of intimate details about me, but I know almost nothing about him. Does he get impatient with how I get stuck in the same ways over and over again? Does he think I am impossibly self-involved? How could he not? All I do in his presence is talk about myself incessantly, one hour at a time.
If I told him any of this I’m sure he would smile in the same beatific way he does when I ask him how he’s doing and suggest we talk about it. But because the thought of doing that makes me vaguely uncomfortable, instead I tell myself that he does not do what I imagine I would do if I was a therapist, and occasionally share bits and pieces of his patients’ lives with his friends. Moreover, I tell myself he definitely does not have more or less favorite patients, and that once we walk out of his office we cease to exist to him altogether until seven days later, when we walk back in.
Last week, though, I was in a small cafe and there was a woman talking nearby on her phone. It was a very emotionally fraught conversation. There was a suicidal mother, a suggestion of an Al-Anon meeting, a reference to a trigger incident—it soon became apparent that the woman on the phone was a therapist, and on the other end of the line was a client in crisis.
Finally the therapist got off the phone and turned back to her friend. “Sorry,” she said. “I had to take that. That was the one with the crazy mom - remember her?” The friend did, and the therapist proceeded to catch her up on everything that had just happened to the one-with-the-crazy-mom. At the end the therapist teared up. “There’s just always that one client,” she said. “You know, the one that’s your favorite?”
When I was growing up everyone in my family called my grandmother “Oma,” and while I have had friends tell me they did this too, it has tended to mean they are Dutch or German, while my relatives, other than a few distant strains of the family tree, are not. The source of my grandmother’s nickname was actually my grandfather, a physicist with a wry sense of humor who at some point deep into their marriage started referring to her as “Old Mother.” He also greatly appreciated the economical use of language and as a result “Old Mother” became, simply, “O.M.” My oldest cousin then transformed this into “Oma.” I wrote a piece about my grandmother that was recently published in Salon and an early version included a quote from one of my cousins in which she called my grandmother “Oma.” At first it seemed important to include this and I spent about an hour trying to figure out how to explain her nickname in just a sentence before giving up and cutting it. Thank goodness I did not see any reason to include my grandfather’s nickname, Dopo, which would have required, among other things, an explanation the Op language.
Summer is coming.
I didn’t drink much in college. Partly it was because I was too miserly to invest in a fake i.d., but also I just didn’t really like alcohol—an early foray into vodka shots proved an incredibly successful prophylactic. On my 21st birthday my two closest friends brought me to the local bar and I took two shots, promptly lay my head down on the table and said I was ready to go home.
For inexplicable reasons, about half the senior class went to this bar, the Gatekeepers Tavern, every Wednesday, and after my birthday I started going too. Of those two friends, one exclusively drank Long Island Iced Teas, which I quickly concluded were disgusting, and the other one drank Jack on the rocks, so that’s what I drank.
I have been to many bars at this point and consumed many Jack Daniels on the rocks (happily not many Long Island Iced Teas) so in spite of the tenor of the sole Yelp review—”5 of Americas most wanted criminals are usually seated at the bar and there’s a bevy of lovely $10 hookers outside the front door”—I feel comfortable stating definitively that the Gatekeeper was a great bar. I was very sad to hear that it had closed. Apparently a few years ago the senior class, exhibiting the inexplicably uniform logic of a flock of birds, decided to take their business to some dance club nearby with colored lights and a dj or whatever. This sounds incredibly lame to me, a response probably not that dissimilar to the way adults in the 1950s reacted to kids dancing the Hully Gully, and makes me feel about as old as Moses.
On New Year’s eve I got the stomach flu, though I prefer calling it the “winter vomiting disease,” as I saw it referred to in a few alarmist news articles, since this more accurately evokes how miserable it was. As far as viruses go I would give it an A+, assuming viruses judge themselves according to how terrible they make you feel, and how quickly they’re able to spread between human hosts.
I got it while I was in California with my family, all of us staying in one house together, and within two days, out of 12 people, ten were sick. Ten! We dropped like flies, and so dramatically that it was almost funny. We’d sit down to dinner, and by the end of the meal two more people would have stood up with a funny look on their face and headed upstairs to lie down. It was the kind of stomach flu where you’d try to roll over only to realize your stomach could only accomodate being tipped to one side, and you’d immediately have to roll back. I was too sick to even watch tv. The only thing that brought me comfort was breathing, or at least the thought that with each breath I was one breath closer to this thing being over. And then a week later I got the flu.
I had a crappy day yesterday, but this morning, walking to the subway, I suddenly felt better. Motion, or forward motion at least, almost always improves my mood. And this is, I think, because one of the things that I am most of afraid of, the sort of common area in the Venn diagram of my fears, is stasis.
I have no idea why stasis should be frightening. It doesn’t make sense. It’s just a lack of activity. Maybe it has something to do with my army of Puritan ancestors and their indefatigable focus on always progressing, on achieving academically and professionally and even, most ridiculous of all since there is no actual way to be successful like this, personally, on having disciplined, productive habits like beginning all days at dawn with cold swims, which is not what I do, obviously, but always, somewhere in me, is what I feel like I should be doing. What is it about WASPs, that they are so incapable of sitting still and so eager to be physically uncomfortable? Or maybe it is a normal thing that I simply haven’t grown out of—it’s so profoundly childish it’s almost embarrassing, like how babies are calmed by getting walked around the room or jiggled up and down.
Also like a baby, I am happiest when I am carried along by motion that I am not in charge of, like on a plane or a train. Trains are the best. And ultimately this is where I get into trouble. Because if you’re always waiting around for someone else to put you into motion, you never move at all.
On the upside, the flu has made my New Year’s resolution to drink less extremely easy.
A few weeks ago I was heading into work when one of the street vendors outside my building called me over to his cart. “Hey, are you married?” he asked. This is the same question he asks me every time he calls me over to his cart, which has happened somewhat regularly for the last two years, meaning he has heard my answers go from, “No, but I have a boyfriend,” to “Well, I’m engaged,” to the answer I give him now, which is: “Yes.”
Generally this is the extent of our interaction, but that was the week of Thanksgiving, and perhaps inspired by the holiday he upped the ante by telling me he wanted to give me some pastries. I don’t like street vendor pastries, but he was very insistent, and a few minutes later he dispatched me with two bags full of danishes and muffins. What could I do? I said thank you and happy Thanksgiving and brought them upstairs to my office, where I laid them out on the table and knew they would be gone shortly. Magazine offices – you leave out any food, anything at all, and it disappears within hours. We’re like a plague of locusts.
I responded to this act of kindness by walking to work on the other side of the street for the next few weeks. I am not recommending this course of action, but it’s the truth. And things went on this way until this past Wednesday, when I decided I was being ridiculous. I was also in the midst of my umpteenth effort to fully wean myself off coffee, and was feeling confident because that morning I had succeeded in only drinking green tea. I had half a cup at home and the rest was in my travel mug, and I hoped it would at least help stave off a headache for a few more hours.
As I passed, he called me over to his cart. “Are you married?” he asked, and from there he jumped to, “Ah, but why are you married?” An awkward silence ensued, because how does one answer this question? And in the midst of it he reached out for my travel mug and I handed it over. It felt like it would be so rude to not give it to him, especially after the pastries. It also felt a bit like I was possessed, like the whole thing was just happening to me and there was nothing I could do to stop it. “Is this coffee?” he asked. “No, it’s tea,” I told him. At which point he POURED OUT MY TEA and refilled the cup with Lipton black tea, which I really don’t like. He handed it back to me, and also handed me a muffin. “It is too bad you are married,” he said. “If you weren’t, I would take such good care of you.”
A little after the storm made landfall Matt and I decided to walk down to the water to see about the surge. This was not, clearly, what the mayor had recommended—earlier in the day I had been out for a run and almost got blown into a pole—but at that point we’d been stuck inside for hours and curiosity won out over caution.
Once we got to Hicks Street we could already see the water. It had risen up over Brooklyn Bridge Park and onto Atlantic Avenue, its edges lapping at the street in little waves. We stood there, looking, with a bunch of other people who just stood there looking, too. There is nothing quite like a natural disaster to leave you feeling like a farm animal, staring out mutely at things you’re unable to understand.
A cop car, lights flashing, had parked itself horizontally across the street, we guessed to block vehicles off from the water. But why bother? The water itself seemed enough of a barrier. We stared out at the fenced-in parking lot at the end of the avenue, now fully a part of the river, and watched as a drain sporadically spurted up like a geyser. Abruptly the cop car did a U-turn and took off. And then a moment later we all turned to see a huge white suburban pull down Atlantic and take a right straight into the water. The SUV sank down, driving fast enough to leave a wake, until a block later, where it rose up and took a right into Brooklyn Heights. This seemed odd, since there were clearly ways to get there other than driving through the East River, and we were still talking about this when he pulled down Atlantic again, and took another fast right straight into the flood.
Unexpectedly, it was comforting. As long as idiots were still out doing idiotic things, it meant certain aspects of the world would remain unchanged, no matter the weather. So we went back home, turned the radio back on, had more soup and finished off our beers. What else was there to do? “A storm even more perfect than the perfect storm,” the newscaster said and we laughed. We didn’t know yet about the Rockaways, or Red Hook, or Chelsea. All that was clear was that the hurricane was so gigantic and unprecedented that it was making even newscasters lose their ability to form sentences that made any sense.
This past Saturday Matt and I were walking to our car to drive home from a party when we noticed two people who’d been there trying to hail a cab (and failing), so we gave them a ride. On the way back to Cobble Hill one of them mentioned that she’d left some sort of humane trap out in her apartment because she had a mouse and we all laughed, because, well—”a mouse.” It’s only ever mice.
Someone suggested she get a cat and then I suggested she get a snake, surprising even myself. I had a snake as a pet in college that ate live mice, but mostly I forget that this ever happened. It seems like such a non sequitur with the rest of everything else I’ve ever done. It was what I asked my mom for my birthday that year, a ball python that I named Salome Bean and that lived in a cage in my dorm room. I was in a particularly dark period, which maybe explains a little bit of it, but really I think what happened was that I spent some time in high school at the Meadow, this big grassy field in Central Park where kids would go at that point to get stoned and braid each other’s hair, and there were a few characters who would come around that always had these huge snakes wrapped like oversize accessories around their necks, and I somehow got it into my head that this was very cool. I don’t know. It was 1997.
I ended up spending a semester with Salome Bean, dropping little white mice into her cage every week or so. She was clearly not pleased with the whole scenario, to the point that eventually I let her out of the cage and she just lived in my room, and this worked fine until she disappeared for a few weeks and I terrifyingly came to believe she had found her way into the dorm room next door, where an intensely organized English major lived. She would not respond well to the snake, I didn’t think. Eventually, I found Salome Bean curled up behind my heater, but it made me realize the situation wasn’t really working for either of us and I sold her back to the pet store where she came from.
What is incredibly weird to me now, since that part of my life feels so unfathomably far away, is that the lifespan of ball pythons is actually 20 to 30 years. Which means Salome Bean could very well still be living out the rest of her life somewhere. Maybe her time with me was just a weird prelude to everything else she’s ever known. If that is the case, I hope she is in a much larger cage. She seemed like a very gentle snake. She didn’t even like to eat the mice I’d try to feed her. She’d let them roam around for a week sometimes before killing them. Though it is possible this was just because she was depressed.
I wrote about Poe for New York magazine’s Scandals issue and discovered that he and his friends seem to have had about the maturity level of 13-year-olds. Incidentally, that was how old his wife was when he married her. Also, she was his first cousin. All in all it made me very glad to live now and not among the catty, tuberculosis-infested New York poets of the 1840s.
And then for a travel piece on New Orleans I got to interview Bryan Batt, who plays Sal on Mad Men, and who grew up there. He was just as charming as you might expect. I was asking him about his favorite hometown places, but really what I took away from it is that I am very glad to be alive now and not in the miserable, racist, closeted 1950s.