Wednesday, January 19, 2011


How did you first come to understand what death is?

I can't remember the answer to this, myself. It probably involved a goldfish. But I can remember experiencing, for the first time, being lied to about death.

My grandmother had a golden retriever that I absolutely loved when I was a kid, maybe 5 or 6 years old. Cindy was one of the highlights of my visits. She was furry and let me ride her and was my friend.

Then, one visit, Cindy wasn't there. Where was Cindy, I wanted to know? I was informed that Cindy had gone to the vet.

Cindy was at the vet for a super long time, but that was OK. I would simply wait until she came back.

But it took a really long time for Cindy to come back. I was on this story like Geraldo Rivera. Was Cindy back yet? When was she going to come back? Why did she go to the vet, anyway? WHERE THE FUCK IS CINDY?

I never got a satisfactory answer. Cindy never came back. Eventually I, the most Gullible Child in America, figured it all out.

It was (and is) not my mom's style to lie to me. However, it was my grandmother's style to lie, and she insisted that the situation be dealt with in this manner.

It seems like parents get kind of stressed out (I sure would) about this moment -- the moment when death must be explained somehow. I'd like to come down with a firm verdict and say that being lied to scarred me forever. It did not.

I advocate honesty. But whether you're straightforward, roundabout or downright deceptive, our culture tends to be severely fearful of death, and you're not going to change that in one instant.

This post was inspired by a friend's comment on Facebook about how she dealt with this same situation:

"[I had] to explain to J. yesterday that a dog he knew died. ...This dead dog has been dogging me since September!" she wrote. "It belonged to the physical therapist J. sees twice a week, and he'd fed him treats before. When we came back after the summer break, there was a photo of Freddy posted, and a message saying he'd passed away.

"And now, in January, the photo is still there, so naturally J. has started asking when Freddy is coming back. I decided to use the word "died," but now he is working it into everyday conversation and saying "so and so died," which is usually untrue, but kind of jarring to hear!"

My mom -- though she lied on behalf of her stepmother to me about Cindy -- taught me more about death than anyone, because she experienced it so harshly and so soon. Her mother died when she was 9 years old, and her father died as she was rounding her 20s. She also lost her beloved grandmother too soon. She communicated this loss in the way she talked about those loved ones after they were gone, and in the way she hugged us and said "I love you."

In college, for a sociology of religion class, I decided to write my final paper on belief systems around death. I thought (and still think) that the way religions and cultures explain death is fascinating. I was printing out my paper (dot-matrix) in the university lab and encountered a student from Israel who asked what it was about.

As I told him, he looked confused and dismayed. "Why would you write a paper about something like that?" he said. He had served in the Israeli Army and had witnessed a lot of death. He couldn't understand why anyone would dwell on this subject willingly, make it an academic topic. A paper.

I felt, in the moment, like a dirty voyeur, because that's what I was. At the heart of my academic interest lay a desire to find an coping mechanism that would work for me when death inevitably came my way.

I liked the idea of no mirrors. I liked the idea of setting a time limit on mourning. Other than that, not much insight. Because you can't prepare.

The first time I had to face death -- for real -- came when my grandmother died of colon cancer. It was the first time I'd ever seen a person on her deathbed.

It was horrifying. It was horrifying not only to see my grandmother, so beautiful and proper, reduced to a rattling skeleton where she lay, but also to see my father hunched over her, weeping, clasping her hand and telling her what a good mother she had been.

I remember being very angry. I was angry about what happened to her, and then about the fact that we were all asked to convene at the restaurant Grandma liked to visit for her birthday dinners.

What the fuck? Why would we go to the RESTAURANT where we celebrated her BIRTHDAY after her DEATH, as if she were here? That was, like, a cruel joke to me. I ran and ran on the treadmill that day, dry-eyed, trying to work it out. I never did. I just had to accept that that's what her kids -- the ones who mattered -- wanted to do.

If someone could tell me a good lie today, as an adult, about death -- if I could somehow revert to the child I was, and believe that lie -- I daresay I'd prefer it.

Music: "Sometimes It Snows in April"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

No Thank You.

So, I faithfully watch The Bachelor franchise. I do not expect your support for this decision. It is a Personal Life Choice for me.

Those of us who watch The Bachelor know, and fully anticipate, that certain ridiculous words and phrases will recur throughout each season. The show knows this, the people on the show know it, and we in the audience wait for it, so that we can wince (or drink) accordingly when we hear:

"on this journey"
"soul mate"
"here for the right reasons"
"most dramatic/controversial/etc season EVER"
prince/princess metaphors
"I came here to fall in love"
"this process"
and many others

But the phrase that struck me on Monday night's show came during Brad Womack's one-on-one date with Jackie. To me, there was a clear dealbreaker on this date for Brad, and it wasn't Jackie's supposed cautiousness in love or the irksome amount of times she confirmed that she felt special.

It was how she kept saying "thank you."

I am all for being polite. My mother is a please-and-thank-you Nazi, and I admire her for that and (yes) thank her for training me to be a polite, appreciative person.

As a child, I learned to say thank you early and often, both verbally and via handwritten notes, which are probably about as common as five-year diaries these days.

But you can say thank you too much.

Let's say you're in a long-distance relationship, and your bf/gf comes to visit you. Let's say, like Jackie, you're on a date, and the other person signals that he's interested in being with you by kissing you, or making a general effort. Let's say you're going through a hard time, and a friend listens to you.

In moments like these, saying thank you is more insulting than polite. Certain actions are part and parcel of real relationships. You don't say thank you for them, as you would to someone who doesn't owe you these things. To say thank you in such a moment is actually a way of putting distance between yourself and the other person. You don't mean to do this, because you're busy being grateful and proper. But that's the effect.

Have you ever been thanked for something you considered it obvious to do in a relationship? It feels a little surprising and overly formal, doesn't it?

Still, my thank-you indoctrination has been complete and overly successful. Once, after a night out, one of mom's best friends gave me a ride home after a concert on her way out of the city. It was a no-brainer ride -- literally on her way.

I told her she could just drop me off a few blocks away. I get extremely uncomfortable at anything that might put someone out on my behalf. I generally avoid asking for rides, loans and most favors in general. She insisted on dropping me at my exact location. I thanked her.

At that point she got offended. "Of course," she said, shutting me up. She was understandably annoyed. The woman had known me for some 25 years; we were just at a concert together; my place is right on her way home. Of course she's going to drop me off at my door. To suggest otherwise by standing on ceremony and thanking her excessively is to cast doubt on her status as a real person in my life.

To this day, I have problems with this. Some of my loved ones are the same way. We thank each other too much: Thank you for listening to my crap. Thank you for coming out with me. Thank you for coming to visit me.

You do not say thank you for this stuff. It is part of the territory.

My thank-you heritage hit me one day after I'd been hanging out with my nephew, who was maybe 5 or 6 years old at the time, at my parents' house. At the end of the day, as he was about to leave, my mother urged him, "Say thank you to Neena for playing with you today." He dutifully thanked me.

My heart was broken in that moment. I tried to break the cycle there. My mom meant well. But I looked at my nephew and said, "You don't have to thank me. You never have to thank me for playing with you."

Music: "Thank You"

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Cab Chronicles.

"Hey, you paying in cash, right? I don't take credit cards."

That was my first indication that this NYC cabbie was not like the others. Most of them have the credit-swipe machines and the TVs in the back that play light news reports and late-night talk show snippets. This guy had a gray screen and attitude.

I winced and got out. But fortunately, UncMo's Favorite Person was standing there seeing me off, and had cash for the fare. So back into the cab I went.

Like many cabs in NYC, this one was driven by an Arab gentleman. Unlike many cabs in NYC, it featured a soundtrack of Shinedown. At first, I thought it was just the radio, but no -- this guy was rocking the full CD, skipping songs he didn't like and humming quietly to the ones he did.

This cabbie was angry-lite. He alternated between humming to the power ballads, cursing other drivers ("The sign says Monday through Friday asshole! I'll kick your ass!") and inquiring about my relationship.

"Where are you going? Can I drop you off at Seventh?" he asked.

"Amtrak," I said. There was silence. "Seventh Avenue is fine, whatever's easiest."

"You can get Amtrak from any entrance," he said, which was clearly a "you are dumb and I don't care" statement, because any cabbie knows that "Amtrak" means "Eighth Avenue or as close as you can get to it." I did not respond.

But now he wanted to know: "You going to New Jersey?"

"No, D.C.," I said.

"Oh. That's where you from? Was that your boyfriend?" he asked. Mr. Shinedown had gone suddenly from angry to inquisitive.

I answered him. Long-distance relationship? Yes.

"Looks like it," he said coldly. I wasn't sure what that meant.

"My girlfriend is in New Jersey, and sometimes that's too far for me," he said. "Sometimes I just don't feel like going out there.

"She wants to live together, but I say no. I come to see you, and you come to see me, and that's it. You live together, and that's when the problems start," he said.

"Maybe," I said.

"Unless you get married, that's something else," he said.

I kept quiet.

We pulled up to the LIRR entrance to Penn Station, which was about a block and a half from where I needed to be.

"Is this OK? You can get to Amtrak from here," he said.

This cabbie was a d.b. I knew this, but actually ended up giving him a really good tip, because my a-la-minute math skills were not subtle enough to calculate the exact amount that says, "you weren't terrible enough for me to stiff you, but you don't deserve a good tip, so I'm giving you this middling amount," but also because he had managed to remind me that even though I was bummed in that moment to be leaving NYC, I was still a lot happier than, say, this guy.

He drove off and I trudged over to Eighth and 33rd, half annoyed and half amused.

Music: "Call Me"

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Dear Diary.

The last time you shopped for a five-year diary, which may have been just last month or perhaps December of 2005, or perhaps never, you probably did so with some trepidation, knowing that five-year diaries -- and well, even the concept of writing anything down on paper -- have become increasingly obsolete.

I just filled my sixth five-year diary (yes, friends, that multiplies out to 30 years of crazy) and needed a new one. Not getting a new five-year diary was not an option. I've come this far in chronicling every damned day of my relatively boring life, and am not about to stop now. Contrary to what many people believe about a new year, it is really an opportunity to affirm that change is bad.*

Despite the fact that many of my five-year diaries have metal locks on them, or embossed script, or gold-edged pages, they are devastatingly unspecial and banal. They more often resemble an accountant's ledger, if you will, of my life.* Take a sample day: Did I work? Did I go to the gym? Did I eat at a restaurant? Did I have some notable sex? Did I watch a movie? Did I finish a book? Did I talk to my mom? Did I meet a new person? Did I have a generic, oppressive emotion? Wow, yeah. What's on television?

Still, the diaries are a handy reference point for me. Every once in awhile, I will thumb back to that vacation, or that holiday, or that date, and get a useful thumbprint sketch. Occasionally, phrases capture slow shifts and sudden revelations: "I feel sort of stateless, [my mom] and I have a new gap in understanding." "I broke down and said I wasn't feeling like I could try." "I'm sort of addicted to his presence in my life right now." (Note: When circling grand proclamations, it's prudent to use the words "Sort of.")

To me, journals are different than diaries. The word journal, post-1990s, is a little icky. It sounds like a yoga retreat assignment (to be expressed in the verb form "journaling"), or a positive-thinking exercise. I love yoga and positive thinking, but would just as soon leave journals out of it. The best journals do not have structure, themes, or self-aware labeling.

I was faithful to a system through my teens and twenties: journals were for long-form and diaries were for short-form. The long-form is now a Word document on my computer, rather than a book. But the short-form remains handwritten. I still believe there is value in putting a pen to paper every day, even if it's only for five or six lines.

So imagine the warm and happy surprise of coming across this five-year diary. I literally almost wrote a fan letter to the designer of this book, Tamara Shopsin, and apparently I am not alone.

First of all, Shopsin's diary simply revives the form. It looks clean and alluring, rather than antiquated and inexplicable. It has six lines allotted for each year, rather than the customary four or five, which, as it turns out, is just the right amount of space to make you feel more expansive, to make you share more, to make you try, when you're writing about your day.

It has the requisite ribbon for saving your place.

And -- I love this, because I used the "notes" space at the back of my last diary for this very same thing -- it has a BOOK LOG section at the end.

Do not let your days slip away unmarked. Someone -- your spouse, your child, your parent, some alien in a museum, maybe even you -- will want to hold onto something and look back at you someday, will want to find you through a looking glass.

* My sister, a propos of nothing, recently sent around a link to a Meyers-Briggs test. A former boss of mine was obsessed with this test. I'd taken it once for her, and then another time in my latest round of kareer konfusion, and yet I still could not for the life of me recall which type I am supposed to be, though I had a hazy memory that I'm an INTJ, so I took it yet again. My result was ISTJ, aka the "Duty Fulfiller," aka the most Boring Spice of all possible personality types. ISTJs are also not known to love change. Among the recommended occupations for ISTJs: Accountant. However, the test indicated that I was one percentage point off from INTJ. So do you know what I did? That's right, I took the test a-fucking-gain to PROVE that I was, in fact, an INTJ, or "The Scientist". What is the personality type for someone who doesn't like her result on a stupid personality test, and so takes it again so she can prove she is a different type of nerd than what the original results indicated?

Music: "The Scientist"

Photos by sirmchin