Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Roman a cliff.

My effort to take some vacation time and write two hours a day did not crystallize my ambitions and drive them forward the way I hoped, but from the very start, the whole exercise was one of self-deception: If you give yourself only one week, at the holidays no less, to achieve some sort of major life turning point, you're probably going to fail, unless you commit a crime.

I did not commit a crime (legally speaking, that is; in terms of YouTube viewing choices and Target purchases, I probably needed to be scared straight).  I did, more or less, write for two hours a day that week. When progress or inspiration on fiction items waned, I turned to this blog, and at one point managed to create an UncMo for myself, which is really going over the top because life provides plenty of them for me already.

I woke up at 4 a.m. one morning recently, came over to my laptop, and took down the most recent post that I had written about Thanksgiving and some of the people who were and were not there. The thought that propelled me was: "Do I really want that just hanging out there?" By "that" I mean snarky, negative feelings that served no one, including me. The only time it's a good idea to put feelings like that out there, in my opinion, is because they are either super funny or super touching and will turn crap into joy because you are speaking to some common crummy experience that we all share.

Or, you can do it because you're kind of bored with yourself and procrastinating on writing something that might be worthwhile, so you decide to dive into some stuff that's just kind of beside the point and not even that entertaining and doesn't even really have to do with you. I'm not doing that kind of b.s. on this blog anymore. For at least the rest of this year, maybe more.

So I deleted the post and realized what like every other author on the planet has already realized, which is that if you are going to get real personal and petty, it's far better to mask it as fiction and sell it for money.

However, I restore here from that deleted post the one bright spot, Tree 2.0, which is twice the size and joy as last year's tree, especially because Sir UncMo and I picked it out together (or perhaps he patiently waited for me to pick the one I really wanted and pretended to agree—hard to say).

Monday, December 02, 2013

Two Hours a Day.

This week I decided to stop making excuses for myself and take five days of vacation from my job solely for the purpose of writing. "I am going to see what it's really like to be a full-time writer," I told myself. "I'm going to devote all day, for a week straight at least, to writing." The vacation was slated for right after the Thanksgiving holiday, so really it would be 10 unfettered days.

As the dedicated week approached, I said, becoming slightly afraid, "I am going to devote at least six hours, five days straight, to writing."

And now, I have arrived at the week and can say that no fewer than two—two solid hours per day will be spent on writing.

Never mind that I have two hours to spare on any given weeknight: I have no kids, no crazy work hours, absolutely no excuse. Usually that time is spent on House Hunters and YouTube videos like this one.

The point was that my job was exhausting me and simply stifling my creativity and I needed some breathing room. Room for inspiration. Right?

Anyway, I took four full days from Thanksgiving to dive into this mentally grueling goal. I mean, I don't devote two hours to anything anymore, unless maybe it's failing on macarons for a fourth time or sleeping. I am too busy losing on Scrabble, feeling bad looking at Facebook or watching aforementioned programming.

I am proud to say that today I am at three hours and about 4,500 words of writing. Except a lot of that is transcribed from previous jottings, and exactly 293 of the words are worth keeping: a little piece of silver in a vast pile of dirt.

"Inspiration is for amateurs - the rest of us just show up and get to work."

It's heartening when a genius such as Chuck Close says this, though not new. It's something we know rationally, but keep forgetting, because it seems, seems so truly, that all of the masterful works we know and admire sprang fully formed from the artist, a thunderbolt of creativity. You see handwritten notecards from Nabokov or some manuscript from a Bronte in a museum and the notion is reinforced. This idea of immediate brilliance grows and becomes a chimera, chased but never captured—ultimately an excuse, in my case, for accomplishing jack squat.

The thunderbolt never came. I never found what I had to say. What I did find to say was not new or exciting or brilliant, nothing even close to Nabokov or Fitzgerald or Murakami. I had to work, revise crummy paragraphs and wade through pointless crap, and it was unpleasant. I had to dig through a bunch of dirt to get to the silver. I never found any gold except for that one thing a few months ago but it's so hard to polish and it may not even be gold but just plated.

Well no fucking duh. That's the way it works.

This truth was hammered home to me over months of writing author profiles for over a decade ago. Aside from freakin' Isabel Allende, who finds it just "so easy and so wonderful" to crank out a novel, most writers just work and work and work until the right words break through, and even then, they wade through rejection and revision and torment. It is not like sitting down for a 45-minute exam, writing a blue-book essay and getting an A, which is what I could usually pull off and is what I personally would prefer.

But even after that education at BarnesandNoble, writing profile after profile on hard-working authors, somehow I just didn't want to accept that a career-making piece of writing was not just going to drop in my lap overnight. Finally, about 25 or so years after thinking that maybe writing is something I would want to do, and because it's really the only thing anyone ever encouraged me to do, it's dawning on me that perhaps some serious effort is in order. Hey!

Fortunately for this weeklong project of mine, there is no shortage of work. Any number of failed or neglected projects await my attention. Sheafs of handwriting, scrawled in airports and on trains, sit unmined. Two websites (including this one) lie silent. Two novels lie unfinished. Idea file Idea file Idea file. The point, I remind myself again and again, is not to achieve fully formed brilliance. The point is the process. The point is that you do, or do not, there is no try, and for that matter, there is no almost, no draft. There is only slogging through crap and making a final version and hoping that you turn out something that someone, somewhere might like.

Music: "Genesis"

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Tree.

No residence I have occupied ever felt more like home to me than my parents' house. I am fully aware that this is a rather pathetic admission coming from an independent, working adult. After all, I am perfectly capable of making my own home. I just never did.

Always renting, and always keeping one eye on some sort of exit plan, I did not spend more than two years at any one address for 20 years. I liked to, let's say, keep my options open. I never got around to hanging pictures or painting walls or filling up various sad empty corners, because it was usually time to move out soon anyway. Getting married never changed that internal sense of flux (my ex had been very keen to buy a house; I was not).

I have recurring dreams about trying to find a home. Maybe my home gets swept away by a tsunami and I have to find my way back to it, or I am looking for a place to sleep in some random communal house, or trying to pick my room in a new house that my parents have moved into without consulting me, but always in the dreams I am looking for My Place, because I have not yet found one.

My current apartment is the most home-like non-home I have ever had, and the most enduring. I have lived here for more than four years, the plants are alive and growing, and it even has nice framed pictures on the walls, thanks to Sir UncMo. This year we made significant layout and furniture improvements, and now there is only one empty corner waiting to be filled. I am within a 15-minute walk to places of interest such as my job, the White House, and most importantly, Whole Foods. It is a fabulous setup for a twentysomething. It is merely a decent setup for a fortysomething who spent too long keeping her options open.

Still, it is not really mine, and also only mine—both at the same time. I rent the apartment, and would never buy it, so I have no sense of ownership. And I alone picked the place; it is home to two people, but we eventually want and need to buy (yes, please, now I say, buy) our own place together. Part of me thinks—at least, hopes—that I will be moving out of here sooner rather than later.

As part of this general transience, even though I adore the holidays, I never had my own Christmas tree. Too much trouble. Expense. Not really worth it. Pretty unenvironmental. Half the time I was traveling at the holidays anyway. Sir UncMo has professed tree indifference, leaving it up to me. It was easy enough to just enjoy my parents' tree on visits to their house.

Last year, I decided this had to change. I was tired of passing by the rows of firs and subconsciously assuming they were meant for the people with "real" homes. You do the holidays with the home you have, and you do it up the best you possibly can. It was time to get some damn ornaments, get some damn tree lights, and get my own damn tree. (Why does it sometimes take so long to understand things that are so blatantly simple?).

It was mid-December. I marched on over to the Whole Foods, where they had been selling little trees, perfectly sized for the P Street crowd. Time to buy my first-ever tree. I would surprise Sir UncMo with it. The only thing missing from this scene was lightly falling snow and some Randy Newman music.

I got to the Whole Foods and blinked. They were sold out. All the trees I'd been walking by for days and days, gone. Last shipment. Done. Sorry Charlie Brown. That seemed to be it for my tree epiphany.

But then on the way to my parents' house that weekend, I saw a tree lot and stopped. Most of them were way too big, because these were trees for the Potomac crowd. But there were maybe three smaller ones, $20 trees, even tied up in neat cylinders like the real thing, not pre-placed like houseplants into a stand like the P Street trees.

The guy at the lot did all of the things that he is supposed to do. He pulled out a tree, cut the strings around the boughs, banged the stem on the ground so that the branches shook out and unfolded all of their glory, appraised my choice alongside me with a cocked eye and all the gravity of a Catholic minister, sawed off the lower branches so that I would have enough stem to put in a stand, sawed off the bottom part of the stump so it could absorb water well, recommended to me where I should go to buy a stand (I hadn't thought about the stand), and then sent me on my way.

As I was preparing to go, he eyed the tree once more. "What do you think, should we tie her up?" he asked his assistant. The assistant shifted stance and turned to me."Do you need any help getting it to your car?" I barely got out the reply, "Oh no, that's OK..." before they both snickered and said, "Just kidding." Of course I didn't need help. It was a tiny tree. "I could rope it to the top of my Miata," I suggested. We all laughed.

Yes, it was a small tree, and a rebellious tree. It would not cooperate with the stand and fell over approximately five times, dumping water and ornaments along with it. But as you can see, it was a beautiful tree, and there it was, in my home, in our home. This year, I can't wait to get another one. Why did I wait all those years?

Music: "O Tannenbaum"

Friday, November 01, 2013

Things I Say More Often These Days.

I don't know what that means.

When can we get together?

I'm fine staying home.

Who is that?

What does that say? (Or simply, What?)

Music: "Something in the Water"

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Plane Ride.

Travel by plane happens infrequently enough for me that I still view it as sort of special. I like to wander an airport, people-watch, and then burrow into a window seat and zone out. I like the sense of being stateless, in transition, for a moment.

Today's journey is to Chattanooga for a conference, and I am a little harried after getting through security and realizing that boarding has begun for the flight. I'm wearing my warm-weather flight uniform: jeggings and a lightweight t-shirt with flip-flops. The sexiest part of this outfit is my compression stockings, which I've been required to wear for air travel ever since getting a DVT three years ago.

The stockings are black and toeless, so they extend past the bottom of my pant leg and end just at my toes, beneath the thong sandals. I am fully aware that this looks terrible, and part of me enjoys a certain defiance in looking so terrible. I mean, eff you. I HAD A CLOT, and so now everyone must suffer vicariously, by having to look at my compression stockings. Enjoy, TSA! Anyway, who cares? It's an airport. I imagine this is the rationale employed by so many American air travelers who are clearly wearing pajamas.

My day is lunch-free so far and it is 1:30 p.m. I permit myself the financial and ecological extravagance of a smartwater and "touch of sea salt" popcorn for all of $9 before making my way to the gate, or what seemed to be the gate until it became apparent that it was just a place for people to mill around and listen to announcements directing them to a series of "doors" one level down.

My flight is boarding from Door 4, a mysterious place below the actual gate assigned to my flight. I take an escalator down, pass a series of doors, and toddle up to the Door 4 line, aware that I am flying on a regional jet and will have to gate-check my bag while pretending to myself that maybe I will not end up on a regional jet and thus not have to gate-check my bag. It's a little game I like to play with myself, one I always lose.

Anyway, amidst all the confusion, I realize at the same time as the ticket agent that I am carrying two carry-ons with my roller bag, which is obviously unacceptable, so I become one of those lame people who has to step aside to consolidate my bags because I am too dumb to know The Deal when you fly, which is that the airlines prefer that you travel with no possessions at all, or alternatively with all of your things stashed in something the size of a violin case.

My bag full of flight reading is a cheery cloth tote that was designed to be a library bag for a child, a fact I learned only after purchasing it for myself, but one that did not faze me because the bag is still essentially fulfilling its purpose. I shove the cloth tote into my oversize purse, and the ticket agent and I both smile at each other and nod to cement the fiction that I now have only one carryon. She scans my ticket and does not take my roller bag. Maybe I am winning. (Of course I am not winning.)

What is behind Door number 4? Not the plane. Disorientingly, it is a sidewalk with a bus parked in front of it. With no signage and no other passengers to follow, I board the bus and hope that these people are all going to Chattanooga and not to, say, New Delhi, or worse, a rental car facility. My roller bag goes on a luggage rack and I sit on a black vinyl seat just big enough to hold two children or one and a half adults, and watch through the window as the next person in line emerges into the sunlight, blinking and confused. She looks around and then at the bus, like, "Really? This?" and an airport staffer standing off to the side looks at her and nods like, "Yeah, that."

I take the opportunity to call Sir Uncmo and detail my journey thus far. "Yeah so you have to take an escalator that is like a portal to another world. And then I went to something called Door Number 4 and now I'm on this bus. Have you ever had to do that?"

"Um, not since 1979," he says.

"Yeah and it's not even the cool elevating Star Wars bus like at Dulles. It's just, like, a school bus."

I realize I am being kind of a jerk, like Lydia on Breaking Bad demanding stevia and chamomile in a roadside diner. I mean, I'm flying US Airways to Chattanooga, coach. What do I want, hot towels and a handheld conveyance to my throne? It is obvious that plenty of people do this all the time. I just happen to be more accustomed to the AirTrain revolution of the past two decades.

Eventually the bus takes us over to the plane, where everyone troops onto the tarmac, leaving our roller bags in a tidy, forlorn group before we ascend the tiny stairs up to the plane. The whole situation throws me off. For a boarding process like this, I expect to be either a) in a chain of islands or b) in 1976, when I flew for the first time, by myself, at age 4, and actually did get something like a handheld conveyance to my throne (see below).

I remember exactly two things about that United flight. One, I got a set of wings, which was cool, even though it was not entirely clear to me why I would get a special gift just for boarding a vehicle, but who was I to object. Two, I was seated at the very front next to a member of the military — Navy, I think, wearing whites and a cap — and was forced to ask him to open my peanuts during the flight because my little hands could not pry them open, hard as I tried. I remember that this was a daunting request because this man was facing straight ahead and clearly not interested in conversing with someone of my stature. He wordlessly took the peanuts from me, opened them, and handed them back to me with a perfectly straight face. I said thank you and just felt relief that I could have my freakin' peanuts.

On the Chattanooga plane, I fold myself under the space in front of my seat and try to deconstruct my fictional single carryon. My seatmate arrives and I step out to let her in. Then the guy behind her starts to barrel forward as if I am not even there, as if I will magically disappear from the aisle so that he can get to his seat. I swivel to my side and try to avoid being run over. "If I could just — be allowed to — get back — then you can —" Annoyed. Discombobulated. Passive-aggressive. Part of the problem.

The plane feels minuscule and banks a bouncy hard right before stabilizing after takeoff. I am not sure whether my "ahhh God" is just in my head or audible. I exhale and try to quell a sense of panic. Normally I am not a nervous flyer, but these regional jets really test one's faith, especially during a government shutdown that affects the FAA and air traffic control.

It is about at cruising altitude that I realize there is a Big Editor from the Magazine of the organization that I work for just one seat in front of me. Probably there the whole time, observing all of the fails that I assumed had been forgiven by airport anonymity. Drat. I try to erase him from my mind.

Seeing that they are using bigger plastic cups for this beverage service—larger than one would expect a plane of this size to be able to carry—I ask for a Coke Zero, which is what I order when feeling a bit more low-self-esteem than usual. Something about the name and the fact that it tastes more carcinogenic and Tab-like than Diet Coke, my usual go-to.

Did I mention that this trip is for an environmental conference?

The large $5 bag of popcorn that I bought takes about as long as cruising altitude to consume, so I consider it well worth the price. I'm on the aisle and my seatmate has kept the window shutter closed. It's a regional jet with no screens that still has NO SMOKING stenciled over the tray table. Popcorn is a welcome diversion, along with the last fourth of an issue of Food and Wine and the last fourth of Questlove's memoir.

The plane lands and I feel more thankful than usual for being still alive. We step onto the tarmac, collect bags from an unceremonious pile, and march along painted stripes that show us the way to Chattanooga. But part of me is still on that tarmac in '76, when flying was still mysterious.

Music: "After Light"

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11

Every year, and I can't believe it has been 12, since the year that this country was attacked, I have feelings and want to say something. But because nothing really happened to me on that day, other than walking within the panic on the streets in New York and breathing in the vapor of death and devastation for weeks afterward, I have never felt entitled to say much. Other people suffered more. Other people witnessed much worse.

But here are the things that tend to come to mind on this day.

The weather. This year it was hot and humid in DC, nothing like the clear perfect air that absorbed the impacts of those planes. I walk out into the soup and feel a little relieved. It does not feel the same as that day's weather, so perfectly, relentlessly memorable.

I can't believe how in some ways it is almost like nothing happened. People post to social networks about their mundane concerns on this day, where before it would have been unthinkable to have anything but this event at top of mind. Is this progress, or regression? Maybe it's both.

How is it that my eyes still start to sting with tears at the image of the smoking towers, even though I have seen it so many times?

What do children, people who were just babies or not born yet, know about this day?

I don't like abbreviating it as 9/11, like it's a festival, or a thing.  I never will. I still seem to be the only one who finds the opening sequence of  'Mad Men,' much as I love that show, a bit insensitive.

I remember us all looking for ways to contribute. We flooded Red Cross and fire stations with clothes and supplies until they finally had to tell us to stop. The survivors we were hoping to aid did not exist. There was nothing to be done.

Missing posters and candles and flowers on street corners for people who were not to be found.

The smell, the smell.

The panics. Evacuations based on fear, on a new world that no one understood yet. Being herded down a staircase in midtown, crying, not because anything was actually happening, but because of what now was possible.

Bin Laden is dead now. Suck it, Bin Laden. And yet that offers no real satisfaction.

The blessing of my family, ties that endure beyond that moment when we could not reach each other and were confronted with just how important that communication is.

The day is officially passed now. I avoided the memories pretty well, as did (I'm guessing) a lot of people. Is there an unseen price we are paying for that avoidance? Or is it just moving on?

Music: "Letters From the Sky"

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Accuracy is important to me, and yet it feels as though at least 50 percent of what I say needs to be fact-checked and usually corrected. Every other conversation or show has me on Google doing research.

This would make me really smart if I remembered ANYTHING that I look up or absorb. Instead, I spew out half-remembered, half-digested tidbits from various sources, just trying to get through a conversation.

This is true especially at work. I was in a meeting recently with two people where we briefly digressed about the merits and drawbacks of Rotterdam. My colleague was complaining that the food wasn't very good there. I have never been to Rotterdam but took this as my opportunity to note that in a documentary I just watched about Michelin-starred restaurants (what movie? I can no longer recall), I was surprised to note that two of the restaurants were Dutch, including noma.

My colleagues nodded politely, clearly not giving a shit but indulging me anyway. The meeting went on. But while we talked about the details for a video shoot, I realized: Shit. Noma is not Dutch. It is Danish. Shit! Wow. How could I have messed that up within the space of one day? And everyone is just proceeding as if what I said were true.

What if later they find out it isn't, and then they say to themselves, "What? That dummy Christina told me Noma was in the Netherlands, and now here I am in Rotterdam psyched for the most unexpectedly awesome meal of my life, and it turns out to be a sham, all because of her IDIOCY."

I had to issue a correction, but there was no good point in the conversation. We got further and further into work items and restaurants were floating increasingly far behind in the conversation's trajectory. "Just let it go Christina. Who cares?" I told myself. But my compulsion for accuracy would not relent.

We were standing up, concluding the meeting, when I interjected, a propos of nothing, "By the way, Noma is not in Rotterdam. It's in Copenhagen." My colleagues both momentarily gave me a look that said, "What the hell is she talking about?" Then, polite as ever, they recovered. "Oh! Haha! Okay..."

God. Why do I manufacture these awkward moments?

Music: "What's the Use"

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Yoga Crimes.

In the dream, my yoga mat has disappeared and the studio has transformed into something that looks like a community rec center under renovation. I search the cubbies where mats are stored, but cannot find my name among the labels. Everything has been moved around. Finally, I spot it—but instead of my mat, I see a note written in fine red marker that directs me elsewhere, punctuated with "Sorry!"

In a general storage area underneath a staircase, I finally locate my mat. It is crumpled in a heap of others. When I pull it out, it is covered with fingerpaint and glitter: canvas for some kind of children's art project. Unacceptable!

I take the mat to the front desk, which happens to be at a wooden art table. "I'm sorry that happened," the desk attendant says after I show her the damage. The owner of the studio happens to be standing right there. "Creativity workshop," she stage whispers to the attendant, indicating that my compensation for the lost mat should be a free pass to an event that will surely involve the verb "journaling" and more of what is scattered all over my defaced yoga mat.

"No!" I rush to object. "No creativity workshop. I want a new mat." The dream ends before a resolution, but the feeling is that I will not get my way.

You are probably thinking, "Wow. I mean, really Christina? You're that bougie and neurotic that you're actually having an anxiety dream about yoga?"

Yes. Any other questions?

In real life, the Dupont Circle yoga studio that I frequent does have nice wooden cubbies with our names printed underneath them. The studio offers many small comforts (skylights, good teachers, Life Savers peppermints, nice smells, tea), but this particular one had gone unappreciated by me: When was the last time you had a cubby? A place with your name on it in a communal space that is safe enough to leave open, a place for your things, and your things only?

The last time for me was Seven Locks Elementary School. Mine was a double classroom that held three grades at once and was divided for organizational purposes into two colors: Blue and Green. Blue cubbies were on one side of the room, Green on the other. The cubbies smelled of laminated wood and books and pencil lead and erasers and sandwich bread and vinyl binders.

A cubby.

Lately the studio has gotten crowded, and the staff has resorted to using the very top of the two cubby units as storage space. So the people who joined late didn't get a cubby, they just got essentially a surface with their name under it. What will they do? I thought when I saw the storage issue. It is a small area, there is no room to add cubbies. My cubby space became more precious in my mind.

Then one day I come into the studio, retrieve my mat from my cubby, walk into class, unfurl it and... wait. It was a reversible mat, and it unfurled to the wrong side. Someone had used it. Someone had invaded the sanctity of my cubby.

I spent more of the next hour than I would like to admit poring over this situation in my mind. Who would do such a thing? When there are mats freely available to rent from the studio? Did they know they were doing something wrong, or did they somehow think it was OK? Weren't they worried that I would show up for the same class, find my mat missing, and catch them? Could the culprit be right there in class with me, on some other poor sap's mat?

But then, isn't the point of yoga to let stuff like this go? Inhale. I mean, who cares if someone used my mat? Exhale. Isn't the concept of owning a mat, having a cubby, just an illusion I cling to for security? Inhale. Because really, we don't own anything. Exhale. Everything is impermanent. Let it go.

What cooties did they deposit on my mat? How long has this been happening? Was it just once, or is it a repeat offender? Did they use just the other side, hoping I would not notice, or have both sides been used? WHY WOULD SOMEONE DO THIS?

Square your hips. Elongate your spine. Reach out through your fingertips. Twist deeper. Just fold.

What could the studio have done to prevent this? Nothing really that I can think of. I vaguely remembered seeing in one of the studio's e-newsletters something about a problem with people using others' mats and to make sure that your name was written on your mat. But that's dumb. I mean obviously it's my mat. It's sitting in my cubby. Somehow my affinity with revisiting elementary school ends at the point where I need to label my belongings.

Lokah samasta sukhino bhavantu. OmNamaste.

At the front desk, the attendant is apologetic and hapless. "We are suggesting that everyone write their name on their mat. There is a marker hanging over there on the wall," he says. I thank him and trudge over to the marker hanging at the end of a string. The ink is appealingly silver and shiny, but I still don't want to use it. My initials gleam over the blue on the underside of the mat. I roll it just so, leaving the initials facing out of the cubby's edge.

It seems like my mat is usually untouched when I pick it up these days, but I have sort of let go of the idea that I am the only one using it. Om. Except that after labeling, I had the dream described above.

I know. I am ridiculous.

So I reveal this for your entertainment. But also to ask: What are your memories of cubbies?

Music: "Shanghai Drive" (no point really, just a sort of dreamy, disconnected-esque piece from Thomas Newman I like that seems to fit here)

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Music in Hudson Valley Episode of 'No Reservations'

You happen to be watching an old episode from 2010 of No Reservations. It's the one where Tony and company tour New York's Hudson Valley. At one point during the episode, he and Michael Ruhlman visit a creepy old hotel called the Mohonk Mountain House. The producers insist on using a creepy classical composition throughout the visit. It has low horns punctuated by bell chimes: a reckoning.

You've heard that music before. Damnit, where was it? Was it The Shining, a vibe they are obviously trying to simulate? Is it some creepy music from Eyes Wide Shut? No. No. You Google it. You look at IMDB. You look at the credits. You look at the show website. Maddeningly, you cannot find the theme, even as its tolling horn blasts taunt you. It was in a movie you saw... somewhere...

Finally it dawns on you. Julia Roberts looking scared. An empty house. YES! It was in Sleeping With the Enemy.

In case you were wondering.

Music: "Symphonie Fantastique, Fifth Movement," Berlioz

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Cabbie's Lament.

7:00 pm, New York City on the last Friday night in June. Step out of the train, join the slow-moving herd of travelers and luggage inching through the hot bath of platform air and up a narrow stairway, navigate past at least four deeply disturbing spectacles in the human pinball machine that is Penn Station's main floor, and stand on the grimy escalator until it spits out into a new level of pinball game, the corner of Eighth Avenue and 33rd St.

Thanks to the car service Uber, the torturous line for taxis is one trial for which I no longer need to brace myself in a trip to New York. But Uber can bring its own surprises. Let's begin the journey.

I peer at my phone to see where Uber thinks I am. Nope. Some location that might be mythical. Wait a minute. The map updates. Yes, there I am, a blue dot outside Penn Station, lumbering slowly to the curb of 33rd. And a mere 1-minute wait for a black car! Yes!

Uber informs me that Ramon is on the way. I look for his license plate number and blink, not seeing it on the screen for a moment. Oh! NOSTRESS. That's his license plate. I like Ramon already. "No stress" is my mantra, even though it rarely works for me.

I see that Ramon is already parked right across from me on 33rd. What a treat! I hop across to where he is waiting and wave to the driver, a middle-aged man with a mustache. "Christina?" he says. "Look how fast we did that!" I smiled and said, "I like your license plate." Mutual triumph.

"Ha, yeah," Ramon said. "Let me just write this down and we'll be on our way." Ramon logs the trip quickly, turns on the air conditioner, and eases out into traffic.

The interior of the black SUV is calming: cool air and clean black leather. Ramon says he wants to cut over on one of the lower streets to my Upper East Side destination and "avoid that mess," waving toward Times Square. Ramon and I are of the same mind on preferred route. I settle in, grateful for a No Stress beginning to my NYC visit.

Ramon asks me some small-talk questions about where I am coming from, how my day is going, etc., but I keep the answers brief, not feeling like a chat. Ramon, however, is nothing if not a dedicated conversationalist, with "conversation" defined as an unending litany of woe.

"Friday, everybody fighting!" Ramon said. "Everybody in a hurry, getting mad, everybody has to get to their destination right away. Friday is the worst!" He informs me.

"That just sounds like New York every day, to me," I said. Ramon ignored me and went on. Everyone is fighting, making each other crazy, he continued. "For nothing! For no reason!"

It was clear now that Ramon's "no stress" motto was not working for him either. He was the most stressed guy in New York, and he was determined to let me know all about it.

"This Chinese lady. She wants to go all the way cross town in 15 minutes. 15 minutes! Ok, I tell her we go 31st because that's the fastest way. But then she arguing with me saying no, no, take 34th. I tell her no, 31st is traffic...."

Can you guess the outcome of this tale? That's right. Poor Ramon was right, they took 34th and it was horrible. I sat there murmuring and giving short answers, but after awhile it no longer mattered whether I was into the conversation. This guy clearly needed to vent.

Somewhere around East Midtown, I realized that this was not going to let up, so I decided to go with it. I asked Ramon whether most of his offending riders were New Yorkers, or out-of-towners, and hit the record button on my iPhone. This was his reply.

In case you couldn't catch it, at the point where I chuckle (0:37) he is saying, "You need helicopter, my friend." He winds up with "Jesus Christ," pronounced "Jesus Cry," an interjection he frequently used to emphasize the absurdity of his clients' desires.

Multiply this two minutes by 10, sprinkle with a couple of interludes of chilling, forced laughter, and you pretty much have my NOSTRESS ride, which culminated in an epic story about a standoff between this "white guy" (tip for disparaging all of humanity: always qualify with the race; it is more damning, no matter which race you are describing) who was kicking Ramon's car ("This is a new car! Come on.") because of where  he was parked and the clock, which ticked away as Ramon waited for a hapless fare who could not locate him, despite his impeccable description of where he was waiting, and ultimately canceled the trip.

I tried to mollify him by saying what a great service Uber is. "It's a great service!" he agreed. But this got him on the topic of Uber's rating system. "Some people, they give you one star. Some people, they give you five star." (For the record, I gave him three.) He let me know of his low regard for the population of fares who did not want to have any conversation, a population to which I secretly belonged.

I bade Ramon a speedy farewell at the door, while he urged me in a somewhat martyred tone to enjoy the rest of my day. Was there any day left to enjoy? It didn't feel like there was.

Perhaps it is not fair, but since Ramon used me as his unwilling confessional, he is now my unwitting material on this blog. If you ever see this, Ramon, do not be offended. Simply use it as a story for your next fare. Start the story with: "This white lady, she think she's being funny..."

Music: "Leavin'," Jesse McCartney (2:25... "no stress no stress no stressss")

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"What Is Hoarding?"

My mom asked this question rhetorically one weekend as I sorted through a box containing, among other things, nearly every single birthday card I had ever received. You know, just the kind of chit-chat that comes up when contemplating a box that happens to contain blank stationery from 1982.

Let me start by saying that no home in my immediate family has ever been touched by the type of hoarding that deeply affects lives and makes for sordid television shows. I have known people with real hoarders in their families — my ex and one of my best friends among them —and it's not a joking matter. (Well actually, they have joked about it, but I can't. So let's move on.)

Those shows, and those examples, can convince an average person who hangs on to things too long that there's really nothing to address. The home has clear pathways and is not sanitation hazard. The home may also be your parents' home, where you do not live but where you store a few "keepsakes." So what if there are a few full boxes in the closets, and possibly a Naf Naf shirt from 1986? Nothing to see here, people! Fully functional, that's me. Oh, and by the way, I can't stand clutter. In my place.

My mom and I have both been (jokingly, sort of) accused of hoarding by other family members. What this tells me is that the condition is possibly hereditary, and therefore I bear little to no responsibility for whatever tendencies I display. (Right Mom?)

I'll admit that I wondered what would happen when she retired. Controlled chaos hid behind closed doors for many years: kitchen cabinets were crammed with towers of Tupperware and unmatched lids, not to mention a bunch of expired food; basement closets harbored untold amounts of clothing.

One of the first things she did upon retiring was to clean that stuff out.

I'll admit that surprised me a little. If I had just retired, maybe I'd just alternate going to the gym with lying around a lot, and get to the stuff behind closed doors later (not unlike what I do as an unretired person on weekends). But she was ON IT. Like, within the first week.

She says now that she didn't realize how stressed she was when she was working, and how much it prevented her from dealing with stuff like Glad containers, tomatoes from 2006 and seven-year-old walnut oil (left there by her daughter, UncMo).

It was relatively easy to deal with the kitchen stuff. The clothes were another matter. "Clothes are my identity," she said. I could not judge, knowing that I had a stash of Esprit, Firenza, Guess and other labels (hello Naf Naf) meant to preserve my '80s identity. It's hard to throw away clothes of any kind, much less clothes that are in perfectly good condition, much less clothes that still fit, convincing you that if you could just donned the right outfit, you just might be teleported right back to your younger bod in the '80s, yet suffused with the wisdom and self-possession of your later years. Too much to ask?

But the key problem for me was, and always has been, paper. I grew up in an era that required it, and I saved it all: the birthday cards, the birthday newspapers, the letters, the resumes, the pamphlets, the brochures, notebooks, diaries, journals, the letters, the resumes, the Playbills, the stickers, bank statements, phone bills, credit card statements, pay stubs, my first bylined stories, more letters—you get the idea. (The class picture below, on top of the Penn graduation pamphlet and the candy cigarettes, is Sir UncMo's. I have extended, as a courtesy, hoarding privileges to his past as well.)

This all fits in a bedroom closet at my parents' house, far away from my actual (sort of) neat abode. It even fits with the records and books of mine that my dad, lacking any hoarding projects of his own to tackle upon retirement, took it upon himself to box up and stow away. It fits, but I know it's all there. Now, when I visit my parents on weekends, I often make it a point to wade through one of the many closeted piles of paper. (Sometimes I make some discoveries, and sometimes, as above, I end up bringing a select number of things in shoeboxes to my own closet, pretending that I've dealt with them.)

When I was a kid, I saved candy and gum wrappers. So, if you can picture it, I had a dresser full of clothes, and in the bottom drawer, I had maybe two small boxes (one of them was definitely a Barbie box) crammed with one representative wrapper of every bit of candy or gum I had ever consumed. Bazooka, Dubble Bubble, candy corn, Reese's, et cetera.

To me then, it was basically a way of cataloging my love for sweets. It was my Evernote Food, expressed via one ridiculous collage of waxed, colored paper. I still remember, as a kid, opening the bottom drawer of my dresser and seeing all those wrappers pressed behind the cellophane window that was meant to display a Barbie, and feeling a mixture of satisfaction and shame. The satisfaction was for what a good job I had done of cataloging my consumption. The shame was from knowing, vaguely, that it was not "normal."

That's right! I know what you're thinking: Today, that 11-year-old would have pharmaceutical assistance. Too late, friends!

Flash forward about 10 years. I'm done with college. My parents came to graduation, ready to help me pack up. "I knew you were depressed when I saw your room," my mom said later. It was a corner room on the ground floor of a group house in West Philadelphia, bars on the window, with a loft bed, where I read Sylvia Plath a little too closely (who's depressed?). It wasn't that I had accumulated very much. It was more that the room was a mess, and I had not bothered to pack a thing, even though I knew I was leaving. And my mom was right. I was abjectly depressed. You can't see these things in the moment. You have to look at them later and realize that you were a frog in boiling water.

This is where the question of "what is hoarding" gets interesting, to me. Are you holding on to a past you can no longer revisit? Are you just too tired to deal with the accumulation of stuff? Or is it a combination of both? What is your physical environment telling you about the mental?

Either way, my view now, in no small part because of that college insight from my mom, is that your physical environment reflects your current state of mind. Are you accumulating clutter and disorganized, or are you neat and up-to-date? Are you editing your life, regularly, in every way, or are you getting sloppy? Conversely, is your space so sparse or tightly controlled that there is no room for imperfection or spontaneity?

Now, like my mom, I resort to organizing my oversupply of beauty products and giving away clothing when things start feeling hectic. But I still possess, at the top corner of my closet, a shoebox with candy cigarettes in it (those things keep!). And I may or may not have rescued some perfectly fine McCormick Italian Seasoning of undetermined vintage from my mom's kitchen cabinet. I don't save too much paper these days, but I do hoard digital conversations, including chats with Sir UncMo. I know that we are meant to live in the present, but I may never let go of my need to preserve the past. Especially when it involves people who mean a lot to me.

All I ever wanted to do by saving things was to hold on to my life, the life that is slipping away every single minute of every day, inexorably, which I've known ever since the day in third grade that elementary school let out for summer and I was the only kid who wasn't happy it was over, because I realized, with devastating certainty, that I would never have another year quite like that one, never be a child again, and didn't even comprehend yet that the days were numbered where someone would put pen to paper, just for me, leaving an envelope to be opened.

Music: "Smoke"

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Hour Is Striking.

Recently I came across some old copies of my high school's literary magazine.

My thought was the same as yours: poetry by teens. How embarrassing.

I knew I had a poem in there somewhere. It was terrible. Here's the first reason why: It was a "found poem." That's where you don't actually write anything yourself. You just string together things that other people wrote and call it your own. Here's the second reason: I found mine in Elle magazine. That's right. I took selections of the silly copy that filled a women's fashion magazine and strung it together to make a tapestry of bad puns and excessive alliteration.

Here's what I remember about high school creative writing class: I struggled to get a poem or story of any kind accepted for publication in Erehwon (you know, that's nowhere backwards); my teacher was one of the "cool" teachers who liked to wear a purple bandanna as a scarf and was either dating or worshiping the DC poet, teacher and publisher Richard Peabody, I can't remember which; we read a lot of Raymond Carver and once listened as a class to Jimi Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic" to learn about metaphor; I was a good student and praised writer who somehow was not doing very well at writing creatively, at least in that milieu. I wanted to be doing better.

I had mixed feelings when that one poem got accepted into Erehwon because I knew it was by far my dumbest one, and that I had written other poems, real poems, and yet those were not good enough. You can witness the terribleness below:

Photo courtesy Deborah Wassertzug*

As I paged through the old copies, the names came flooding back of the students who always won the "awards" that a panel of adults would give to what they deemed the best pieces in the magazine. Those entries in the table of contents got an asterisk next to them. And you know, a lot of the writing wasn't bad for a bunch of precocious teenagers. Many of the bylines in that magazine belonged to people who later became magazine editors, published authors, independent writers.

I continued to study poetry, and to write poems, most of them appalling, but it was an outlet. It takes a supreme amount of talent and self-confidence to be a poet. Basically, you are assuming that you have such a masterful command of language that you will be able to paint the same picture that others paint with a far larger number of words, and do so without being melodramatic, obtuse, or ridiculous.

I have only ever met one ordinary person who wrote poetry and was actually a stunning poet. We worked together. He was a kind of rumpled, often funny copy editor. One day he came up to my desk while we were working a weekend news shift and said, "Want to hear a poem?"

"Sure," I said.

He proceeded to reel off, by heart, a poem he had written. I was prepared for a joke at best, a supremely awkward moment at worst. I was not prepared for the poem to take my breath away. It was not a poem for me, nor was it a particularly romantic one. It was just an exceedingly good piece of work.

"That was really good," I said, my mouth open.

"Thanks," he said, and ambled back to his desk. I subsequently developed a crush and dating interlude that was annoying and inconsequential, except that this person introduced me to Haruki Murakami and Frank O'Hara, which is very consequential.

Poetry can make you into a sucker.

In my thirties I tried to keep my love of poetry alive, but volumes sat like museum pieces, unread. I would cut out the odd New Yorker poem, but stopped trying to learn about the authors. Today I regularly focus long enough to get through an article in that magazine (no small task), but even skimming the poems feels like a chore. It seems, now, harder to spend extra time on just a few lines of text, when there are so many other short phrases to wade through on Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the Internets that yield their meanings so easily and cheaply.

I never found my found poem in those three unearthed copies of Erehwon (Deborah later did, above). After staring at them for awhile, I put them into the recycling.

Then the next day I came across a poem in Yoga International of all places, a magazine I happened to buy at a Houston newsstand while killing time on business trip.

The Hour Is Striking

The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now; there's a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Maybe it is not time, after all, to put away poetry for good.

Audio: "Having a Coke With You"

* Erehwon PTSA Award winner