The Knicks, the New Yorker, On Kawara and Making Sense

“He sounds pathetic.”

I was standing in the entry of my parents new midtown apartment, and my father had just emerged from his office/my sometime bedroom, where, minutes earlier, I had set before him the latest issue of The New Yorker–one that, the morning prior, whilst sitting at gate C4 of the Minneapolis airport, I had found to feature a Talk of the Town about a man I used to date. Specifically, about the fact that (as the piece informed me) said man had left his lawyer job to follow around the New York Knicks for a full season and blog about it.

“Well, that’s harsh,” I said, miffed.

I’d found the whole thing pretty charming. He and I, after all, had bonded over the Knicks, our first date drinks at Clyde’s, a subsequent several watching games, and since seeing the article I’d been indulging various one that got away fantasies (I was just thinking of him earlier this week…we did part ways for reasons more to do with context than chemistry…), even checking to see whether he was free for coffee over the weekend. (Alas, as neatly as they’d brought us together, the Knicks and their road games pried us apart: Would love to catch up, he wrote, but in the morning I fly to Denver.)

Friends were similarly inclined, offering such enthusiastic affirmations as Wow! Wild! and Did I meet him? I vaguely remember thinking he was cute. 

My father and brothers, on the other hand (Knick fans most): less enthused. I caught their drift. Sure, the guy might be giving up a perfectly good career and life savings for, potentially, the worst team in NBA history. But, I strained to reason, at least he’d gained some media attention! The possibility of a book deal! Probably, the faintly renewed interest of at least a few ex-girlfriends!

And, of course, the obvious: a purpose.

Two days later my mother and I spent a storybook sunny Manhattan day: a walk, a shop, a museum. She would have preferred to see some mid-century paintings at The Met, but, game woman that she is, humored me for a visit to the Guggenheim, where I was interested in checking out a retrospective of works by the conceptual artist On Kawara.

Among the items on view: canvases adorned only with the written date, hung beside a (seemingly arbitrary) newspaper cutout; maps of cities overlaid with the artist’s travels; binders filled by typed lists enumerating people he’d met in a given day.

I was most enamored by a display of postcards sent to friends announcing I got up at 10:45 pm and I‘m still alive, don’t worry. It reminded me of that familiar impulse, upon getting off a flight, or waking up on a Saturday morning, or getting through a class, to call someone (usually my mother, and usually, I don’t) just for the vague comfort that this matterssomeone cares, I’m here. 

It reminded me, too, of the way that I sometimes lapse into thinking a partner will supply me with purpose. (When, in fact, the only thing I know I can rely on to provide the kind of shape and urgency I am prone to crave is writing.)

Before taking her leave for the miniature Kandinsky exhibit and the gift shop (where she purchased postcards to write her granddaughters–presumably less cryptic–missives), my mom dispensed some characteristically sage insight.

“It’s striking how unemotional it all is,” she said.

Indeed, the curators noted the distance Kawara maintained from his work, how one could fully absorb the art without gleaning much at all about the life or attitudes of its creator.

“I guess so…” I said.

But, I had to tell her, I kind of disagreed.

Strolling up the Guggenheim’s grand, sun-lit ramp, I felt rather close to Kawara. There’s a way in which, I thought, it tells me a lot about a person that they send John Baldessari deadpan postcards, that they chronicle dates in Heveltica font on plain painted canvases, that they make maps and binders and newspaper cut-outs in elaborate effort to represent the fact of their existence in the scheme of time.

On the surface, I can see how Kawara’s gestures appear cold and calculated. But beneath, I think there’s a rawness, a desperation, even; a literal and very human expression of a very human need: to imbue our leaves with meaning, with purpose.

The way I reacted to the exhibit shed some light on how charmed I’d felt by Dennis’ project: whether it takes the form of conceptual art or a (maybe mildly misguided) dedication to one of sports’ most terrible teams, I find something inherently appealing about a person making great grasps to figure it out.

Figuring it out, I know, is not a luxury we all have. You need not walk many blocks in this, or any city, to feel reminded of the many whose daily survival is nothing short of heroic, not to mention exhausting: if I had to work a menial job, feed a bunch of kids, care for my or someone else’s aging parents, commute multiple hours in packed subway cars or on interstates…well, I doubt I’d write this blog or peruse museums or read much of anything. (Although, who’s to say? Maybe my idle time is a curse and if I had eight children and overtime I’d be on my fourth novel by know. We’ll never know.)

But among the few with more fortune and flexibility, I applaud those who try and seek some framework, some narrative, make some comment on what the hell it might mean to get out of bed in the morning.

When someone suggests (whether earnestly or absurdly, or from some unknown place between) that their purpose might be all about the people they meet or the places they walk or the fortunes of a basketball team, it prompts the rest of us to consider not only what that might mean, but what purpose we have in our own lives.

And that’s something, I think we can all agree, we should probably consider more.

Airplanes And Place And Falling In and Out of Love

Is there any contrast greater than that between New York as seen from street-level, and from the air?

Peering down over Manhattan during descent on my recent flight from MSP to LGA, I thought nothing so profound. I thought, instead: how funny does that single yellow taxi look, crawling down a midtown street? And, I wonder what my parents are making for dinner? And, is this where I want to live?

A few years ago I attended a cocktail party on U Street in Washington; it was the first time I remember so directly confronting people far younger than me with far more power. But that smart paled next to the blithe comment of a male acquaintance with whom I stood in the cramped kitchen, sipping craft beer: “Oh yeah, I used to read your blog,” he said. “But then, it gets kind of repetitive: you know, single girl in the city, blah blah.” He appeared to expect my sympathetic agreement: Oh yeah, my writing bores the heck out of me, too!

As I write this I’m realizing that anecdote itself may be a repetition. Which means I’ll have to  now beg your forgiveness on three counts:

1) For Being Repetitive.

2) For Repeating Myself Whilst Apologizing for Being Repetitive.

3) For Using Said Repetitive Apology to Excuse Yet Another Blog Post About My New York Angst.

Speaking of repeating myself, you have by now now likely gleaned that I spent the five weeks prior to that flight in a small town in Minnesota.

And maybe you suspected that I found myself wondering, as I, indeed, did: is this what I’m cut out for, after all? Small town life?

Probably you know that I have spent the last ten years toggling back and forth on the question of whether to live in New York City. And maybe you didn’t realize–I certainly had not–that this particular option, a small town, hadn’t occurred to me.

Before I left, I had been loving my hyper-social New York life. And I imagined that my retreat in New York Mills would be just that: I pictured myself cloistered in some remote and musky garret, hunched over my laptop, typing away the days in a manic fugue.

This was not to be. Instead, by the end of my first week I had found a handful of friendships I was sure could, if circumstances agreed, become lifelong. I’d been charmed by the Lions Club auction and the donut shop and the peculiar, misplaced use of first person plural (“We’ll see ya!”); by the Thursday Town meeting and wide country roads and the Upper Midwest’s stark, minimal awe.

Among that handful of friendships was the woman I mentioned in my last post, who I referred to as my Doppelganger: also from New York, also a writer, also dark-haired and loosely Semitic. One night she invited me to her spacious farmhouse for a lesson in canning–she and her husband had tapped their trees.

“How did you learn to do this?” I asked.

She pointed to a book splayed open on the dining room table: Canning for Dummies.

A moment later we heard the whooshing sound of hot liquid: the maple syrup had boiled over. Flames rose up from the stove, syrup oozed quick from the saucepan in thick peels.

“Oh shit,” she said. I entertained her with gossip as she folded over the stovetop and scrubbed.

“This is why the two Jewish girls from New York should not can unsupervised!” I said.

It was a joke. In fact, despite the mishap, she seemed utterly at home here: in this sunny rural house with animals and a back deck and an office that gave her room to write. It was more of a stretch for me to picture her navigating the crowded streets of downtown Brooklyn or SoHo on a bright Saturday in spring–what I knew to be her native habitat. I met her in this context, and in it, she seemed to fit.

It struck me, watching her tangle with the stained kitchen surfaces, that people can adapt to anything.

Anyone can learn to can, or ride the subway; all of us learn language, and codes of culture, and sciences and recipes; some of us learn to drive on ice or how to fly planes or tie knots or knit sweaters or bake muffins or climb tall things. People are magnificently capable. We learn to live wherever we do.

“There’s no such thing as the one,” my new friend told me that night—once we’d given up on canning and began discussing our love lives over bars of orange-flavored dark chocolate. “You know what Dan Savage says: it’s the .67 that you round up.”

It’s true, I later thought, for place as well as people: despite her evident comfort in her new rural home, there have been plenty of moments in which my friend feels displaced, out of her element. As with partners, there’s always compromise.

Flying into New York, Manhattan’s neat geometry felt like a cosmic joke: the orderly perfection of it, the illusion of calm, as though the universe were trying to assure me, from many thousand feet, that the city could match the country serenity for which I’d fallen.

You are trying to trick me again, I wanted to plead with someone omniscient; How many times can I fall in and out of love with New York? 

Evidently, a lot of times. That’s one thing I’ve begun to grasp. Another is that the city doesn’t go away, it pulses always, and the challenge of finding my place in it will be there, always, too–If I want it.

 

NYC vs. NYM: A Comparative Glance

If I told you that there was a town in rural, Northwest Minnesota called New York Mills with a population of about 1,200, one liquor store (also a bar), one grocery (open til 8, 6 on weekends) and one diner (closes at 3), I suspect you’d assume that place to share nothing–besides half a name–with New York City.

You would be almost right.

Indeed, after two thirds a lifetime in New York City and five weeks in my new, second home of New York Mills (don’t worry, I’ve, for now, returned), I can attest to significant cultural differences–as well as some unexpected parallels.

Many of the general gaps are obvious–diversity, population, incidence of subways and snow-ploughs. And it is with great affection that I offer a few more specifics:

  1. Minnesota Nice. NYC-ers may or may not be familiar with this phrase: a catch-all for the manner most Minnesotans, especially rural ones, assume–particularly with one another, and, after staring at you as though you have dyed red hair, which you may or may not have, or as though they’ve never seen you before, which they probably haven’t, you as well. This often manifests as a folksy comment distributed while waddling out of a booth at Eagles Cafe, post Rib Special: “Oh ya, don’t study too hard!” (Arm pump). Or, say, if it’s May and blizzard-ing for the third time that week, “Hey, snow enough for ya?”
  2. Purpose of Exercise. After my first NYM Zumba class–taught in the “Facility Room” of the local Elementary School and focused on the study of choreography and town gossip, rather than the object of sweating, I explained to my dancemates how Zumba, and exercise classes in general, tend to be different in NYC: “You see,” I explained. “Unlike here, in New York you have to be skinny.” They nodded, a mix of interest and horror. ”Like, if you can breathe between songs, people get pissed.” We happily shimmied on. A few weeks (and, I must admit, several accumulated pounds of Donut Weight) later I went to another NYM class, this one in the lobby of a Lutheran Church: we did neck rolls and side planks to the faint sounds of piano music; between sets, an assortment of eighty-somethings discussed nominees for Church President. En route to the pews for some leisurely tricep dips, I overheard the instructor: “Geez, I think I’m sweatin,” she said. “I guess that’s a good thing.”
  3. Thoughts on Procreation. Growing up in NYC, I’m not sure I realized that women under thirty-five were biologically capable of bearing children. Still, it was a bit startling to discover that most femaled my age in New York Mills had already birthed at least three. In NYC, the family-size question one most often overhears is whether to have a second baby; in NYM, it’s whether to have a fourth. (The answer, it seems, is most often yes.)
  4. Types of Dudes who Drink PBR. In NYC, we tend to associate the iconic beer can with a certain breed of underfed hipster who rides a fixed gear and rarely bathes. In NYM, it’s more popular among beer-bellied, football-watching Dads who drive oversized trucks and consume a lot of processed meat. Sometimes I like to imagine the two groups convened; patronizing, alternately, a Lions Club meeting in Mills and warehouse band practice in Bushwick.
  5. People Who Speak Finnish. Probably, there’s some remote pocket of Queens with a population larger than all of NYM and its’ surrounding Otter Tail County. Honestly, I could never quite sort out what distinguishes Finns from  similarly blond and hard-drinking Midwestern types of Other Scandinavian descent; then again, perhaps they would feel similarly pressed to sort out the Jews from the Italians from the Otherwise Swarthy in Park Slope.

Of course, that’s just scratching the surface. And while the differences may be vast, in my estimation Mills and NYC do share more than a couple of common traits; okay, three:

  1. Central Park. NYM’s is about the size of a standard East Village studio, which, considering the spatial surroundings is not without irony–but hey: it’s not a competition.
  2. Greenwood Cemetary. Both got em–kid you not.
  3. A Concentration of Dark-Haired, Under Forty Women Jewish Writers Who Wear Glasses and Write Memoir. Yes, during the five weeks that I was the Visiting Artist at the New York Mills Cutural Center, there were–to my great surprise–two of us. Among my many unexpected discoveries upon arriving in NYM was a voicemail from The Other, a talented singer songwriter named Elisa Korenne who, during her own Cultural Center residency several years ago, got set up (by the same woman who, I must tell you, also had someone for me–stay tuned) with the man who is now her husband. She is currently writing a (beautiful) memoir about the NYC-NYM transition, about which I am mostly thrilled, and minorly disappointed that she got to it first. Okay fine, NYC may lay claim to a few million more of our kind–but again, folks, we’re dealing with Minnesotans: learn from them for one fucking second and Be Nice.

On Loneliness, Lifelong Friends, and Letting Things Sit

There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either. — Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

The night before I read those lines, Sunday, I got home at half past midnight–the top of my right cheek still specked with crumbs from Saturday night’s mascara. I felt exhausted, high from a little whiskey and a little wine; I felt–as you might imagine–a few things, none of them lonely.

The next morning, Monday, I slept soundly and late, buzzed around the lower half of Manhattan for a few hours–a visit with out-of-town relatives; a lively Zumba class on Lafayette–before heading to a Passover seder in Brooklyn at the home of one of my oldest, dearest friends.

Sitting on the subway, I recognized a distinct, physical pleasure in the anticipation of being with her and her family.

In other words, I had spent the subsequent forty-eight hours surrounded by people–and still, I felt a rich excitement in going to do so again.

*

I have a vivid memory of sitting in the window seat of an airplane in my early twenties.

I’m not sure where the plane was taking me–between Minnesota and New York, perhaps, or Argentina to JFK. I only guess the latter because my other association with that memory is a college friend who lived there; and I remember telling her, in what context I can’t recall, that the worst kind of loneliness is the kind you feel when you’re with someone else.

I then considered this friend a serial monogamist, and delivered my wisdom, sermon-like, with superiority–a defense, of course, against my own insecurity with being serially single.

Maybe I was writing down that thought as I sat by the window on the plane, or maybe I was realizing, as I sat there, alone, that I wasn’t sure it was true.

*

On Sunday night I was coming, most immediately, from a dinner party with two couples. Both happened to be made up of handsome and fabulous gay men, which made me feel more Honored Guest than Fifth Wheel.

But at times, still, I felt conscious of my single status: talk of joint vacations, Sunday brunches, weeknight dinners–those stinging moments of recognition that, yes, it would be sweet to have a companion in this life: someone to come home to, with whom to unwind and share meals and minor daily surprises and frustrations–the things of urban life.

What to do in those moments?

In them, I didn’t even get to ask myself that: I let them pass, as they did, quickly pushed away by vibrant and inclusive dinner party talk–scuba diving, sneakers, YouTube sensations.

It was only later, after underlining those sentences in Robinson’s book on my way to the seder, that I returned to the question, and thought of something a former therapist in Albuquerque–a woman with fuzzy boots and blunt reddish bob–used to say: “Sit with the feeling,” she’d advise. “It might be uncomfortable, but that’s okay.”

*

Lifelong friends aren’t unlike spouses in that their families matter: in the friend with whose family I spent Seder, I could not have done better–generous is far too small a word.

“I consider them my second parents,” I explained to one of the fellow non-family members sitting across the table. “But I’m probably one of about forty people in New York City who would say that.”

“Yeah,” he nodded right away–explaining how he’d spent most recent holidays in their home. “I’m definitely one of them!”

As I reflected on the sheer joy–I use that word mindfully–in both anticipating and being a part of their holiday, I thought (besides, of course, of matzoh balls, charoset and chocolate-covered macaroons) of how so much our lives can consist of efforts to stave off loneliness. How glad everyone there was to be together. How all of us humans feed, so beautifully, off each other.

*

I take pride in my passion for being alone. But if I’m honest with myself, I realize that my happiest moments are being with people. It’s wonderful to connect through writing; it can be intoxicating to explore new places alone; but the thrill of discovering commonality–with a new lover or a fellow seder guest–is singular. It’s special. It’s everything.

And yet.

Being around others, I know, is no bulwark against loneliness. The pronouncement I made to that friend years ago may have been hyperbole, but I do believe there’s a particularly harsh pain in feeling lonely with someone you love–it’s the opposite feeling from finding fresh connection with a stranger; where there ought to be solace, there’s distance. It’s a loss of the most sacred expectation.

There are many ways to feel lonely. As with any emotion, to rank the varieties hierarchically serves nothing.

What does seem useful to me,though, are the twin pieces of wisdom from Marilynne Robinson and that therapist. Basically, this: loneliness is a large part of life. Whoever you are and whomever you are with, it will come. Sit with it. Let it hurt. And let it pass.

On Canteloupe, Dating, and More Grandmotherly Wisdom

“We knew this was going to happen.”

My grandmother (Can we call her S? Should we call her S? Let’s call her S. Glad we had this talk.) was standing above my desk and handing over a plate of canteloupe–freshly sliced.

She was shaking her head.

“Ever since you were little,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Everyone’s been treating you like a princess.”

I grinned and nodded and, feeling rather smug about being so chirpily self-aware, resumed writing.

“Yep,” I said. “I know.

This all, as things often do, began with melon. (By often I of course mean one time–in the form of a five-page rant in a Philip Roth memoir from which I quoted extensively in the preface to my MFA dissertation.)

It was sitting there for days.

“Aren’t you going to eat the melon?” S had asked, nodding her head in it’s neglected direction.

I tried to submit that the thing was hidden: set, as it was, on a kitchen side table atop a camouflaging pink tablecloth and beside a malfunctioning clock radio that blinks constantly.

But then I fessed up.

“Actually,” I said, “I have a hard time with melon.”

S shot me a trademark look that conveys a particular brand of bafflement: one she is known to deploy when I tell her I’d like to dye a streak of hair red or paint one nail green or drink yet another bottle of flavored seltzer.

“What,” she pleaded, “does that mean?”

“Well, I’m kind of lazy about slicing it,” I attempted. “It’s just such a pain…and I never know how to tell when it’s ripe…and, I don’t know…I just tend not to eat it.”

I tried hedging my admission with the fact that I don’t much like melon to begin with; I even tried telling her that I sometimes deign to actually peel a mango.

But it was too late.

“What if I were to cut it for you?”

I gulped. “I mean–that’d be great!”

Which is how I wound up, the following day, cheerfully snacking on her pre-cut canteloupe and discussing the fact that I have spent my entire life dependent on others.

“One day I’ll get married and it’ll be fine,” I joked–a comment that shamed me so abruptly that I soon switched course.

“I mean, one of my few skills  is making friends. I always have friends around to help me with things.” Memories surfaced: my dear pal P sitting on the vomit-green carpet of a college bedroom, dutifully assembling my IKEA shelf; L, a grad school buddy, who singlehandedly folded and packed my entire wardrobe pre-move. I’m not joking.

By now, S had begun to fold the pair of yellow tights whose sight, balled up on my bed, had grown too much for her to bear.

“So listen,” she said. “If you have such good friends, how come none of them can help you with the husband part?”

If I knew the answer, of course, I would not have spent the past 450 words on a preamble. Alas.

As I told her, I can guess: set-ups are tough. Attraction is fickle. For all the millions of single men who supposedly populate Manhattan, most interesting people claim to know none.

S has no time for such excuses. She’s spent the larger part of 2012 in pursuit of someone’s phantom multiracial grandson, a doctor who lives in Philadelphia. (“What matters is that he’s nice!”)

Of course, most people love the idea of setting friends up. My parents met on a blind date–the couple who arranged them will forever occupy legend status in my family’s orbit. Recently, at what may have been the gayest party in New York City, I managed to consume a lot of aged whiskey and smooch the only straight man in attendance in dangerously close proximity to what must have been the priciest coat pile east of Battery Park–when the host walked in, he was only thrilled. “Fabulous!” he cried. “I love it when people meet at my parties!”

All to say that consensus seems widespread: there’s no better way to meet someone than through friends. And yet, in a lifetime of turning to mine for nearly every form of available assistance and support, from slicing my fruit to folding my clothes, seldom have they overtly tried to help me get a guy.

But then, as I suspect Roth would agree, men have a little in common with melon: difficult to pick out, hard to predict, a potential headache, basically, all around.

Perhaps I should give that doctor a call.

 

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Feeling Cliche

This evening, on a rush hour 4 train, I used the opposite of subtlety as I returned the Arts section of today’s New York Times to my canvas tote and replaced it with the new issue of the New Yorker. And then I looked up–first into the middle distance of the crowd, then in the more focused direction of a nearby finance type with a quiet resemblance to Josh Hartnett, seeking validation: how worldly, how sophisticated, I–briefly–hoped they (mostly he) would judge.

And then I remembered that I now live In New York. I turned to my left and took note of a striking blond with the kind of tousled French braid and daintily upturned nose to which I will never more than aspire, imagined her 9-6 life at some glamorous publisher or glossy, and confronted, yet again, the distinct un-specialness that this city so often makes one feel.

Here’s a thing you may know about me: I’m pretty into other people’s approval. (Read: thinking I’m special.) My parents, my peers, random strangers on the subway. I’ll take it–no, I’ll actively, kinda aggressively, seek it–wherever I can.

And it turns out, living in the desert was kinda good for that. Hell, living in various smaller cities was good for that. You know, places where girls who casually follow current events and present softish Semitic features atop scruffed ankle boots don’t pack the walls of every Brooklyn-bound subway car.

(I will leave to your intuitive faculties whether this feeling did or did not worsen when I arrived at my destination: an NPR event in Gowanus featuring sincere discussion of artisanal pencils. Not joking.)

“We are so cliche.”

This has become a running joke between Alison and Douglas and me: how one of the persistent frustrations of living here is feeling, constantly, like everybody else.

The joke began when D and I were having drinks one recent Thursday night (Manhattans, naturally), and engaging a classic, painfully unoriginal conversation about the ups and downs of living in New York. (So much fun! But so expensive. So many options! But such competition. So exciting! But so bloody exhausting, all the time. Bored yet?)

The next night, out at a different bar with A (don’t judge), she told me about the ickiness of something her hairdresser had said when she’d confided about her latest romance–one that may or may not hew to a familiar pattern. (Girl falls for boy; boy is flakey. Stop me if you’ve heard.).

The hairdresser had said: “I hear that exact same story all the time.”

It made her feel, of course, shitty. The same way I feel shitty when I take a moment to fathom the approximate number of other, probably more talented and certainly more ambitious (though, likely, just as insecure) writers there are within two zip codes trying also trying to write blogs and publish books. Or, the number of kinda cute, semi-bookish single brunettes.

There are few things more painful than feeling like a cliche.

The paradox, though, as that there are few things more comforting than being reminded that we all feel the same things. To me, that’s the whole point of art.

And as an artist, one must constantly reconcile the pursuit of originality with the awareness that it’s all been thought and said before. (See: this brilliant essay.)

In art, cliche is taboo because it’s so vague. And life isn’t much different: my pals’ specific stories about dating and job searching resonate the way a good, descriptive essay or story or painting does, too. But the hazy idea of a strange gal on the 4 train wearing more awesome glasses? Not pleasant.

Sometimes (besides Nets games) its important to remember Jay-Z: as he put it, this is a city of eight million stories. They may or may not be more compelling than mine. But either way, the anxiety is pretty dull.

The Single Gal Sprint

You do not need to sprint.

It was Friday of a very hectic week (think two jobs, three subways apart) and I was racing down Lexington Avenue for the umpteenth time, and I may or may not have said the above words aloud—in Manhattan, the noise of so much other peoples’ crazy is sometimes wont to muffle your own.

I had reason to rush: it was already seven, and I was meeting friends downtown for drinks at eight and a dinner date at nine and I still had to stop home and change.

But for a second, I tried to assure myself that my arrival (as it turned out: fifteen minutes late to drinks, ten to dinner) would have little to do with the precise pace of my footing at that moment. (It would, as it often does, have everything to do with a delayed six train. You know, Mistakes Were Made.)

I took a breath. I slowed down. As I did, I caught sight of a hustling pedestrian to my right, typing on his blackberry as he overtook me approaching 86th. It was, I realized, the first time that anyone had passed me all week.

For a second I was surprised, and then I was pissed: how dare anyone go faster than me?

“Just keep your head down, and don’t stop running.”

Whenever I complain to Alison about having too much on my plate, feeling over-stimulated or overwhelmed, this is what she tells me. Sometimes adding, “And try not to cry.”

It’s Manhattan, she says, and all of us—all us single, young-ish, minorly ambitious types—don’t have a choice.

It takes a toll.

This week, one of my close friends fainted at work. Another had to visit the dermatologist because stress was wreaking havoc on her skin. I wore myself out so intensely that by Saturday night I was sick and had to skip out on good a friend’s 30th birthday.

So, why do we do this to ourselves? And, more importantly, do we have to?

Well, a little bit, yes. As every New Yorker knows, each time you step outside a minimum of twenty dollars vanishes from your wallet. In a city where a movie and glass of wine edge on fifteen bucks, working a lot isn’t optional.

And then there are girlfriends to keep up with, readings and dinners and openings to attend: things that fall somewhere between frivolous and obligatory, and tend, as a single person in Manhattan, to feel more urgently like the latter.

When you’re married or in a relationship, any given tiring Tuesday has a default plan: going home to someone you (hopefully) want to relax with.

But when you aren’t, you don’t have that: the alternative to running around and keeping busy is being home, alone. Which is fine and necessary and who doesn’t love an occasional date with Maggie Smith, but it’s a love that can feel hard to indulge when you’re surrounded by the shrill sensation that everyone else has bigger plans.

Plus, maybe your husband is at that reading! Just waiting for you at the grimy bar, drinking cheap scotch and ready to set aside his Ashbery as soon as you step in!

Which is always, of course, a little bit, in the back of your mind.

And even if he’s not, better that you should go and be distracted than at home, waiting for some or other prospect to send or respond to a bloody text.

“Keep busy!” is the only cure, it often seems, for the chronic over-thinking that is our persistent female burden.

(Me: “I just don’t want to be thinking about {guy} so much!” My therapist, poker-faced: “Um, I think it’s totally normal.” Me: “Fuck.”)

So you go to the reading. You listen to important contemporary poets and talk to your friend, which are the better reasons you wanted to go. You go the bar. You say yes when a pair of cute boys invite you out for pancakes. And you sleep as much as you have time, which is barely at all, until, suddenly, you don’t have a choice.

And you try, once in a while, to tell yourself that—even if you want to—you don’t have to run.

On Odd Jobs, Focus, and Middle School Math

Not that you asked, but here are a few things I’ve been up lately:

  • Composing tweets for an early childhood conference.
  • Helping a middle schooler from Queens do her homework.
  • Writing a blog post about organic beauty products.

In the next couple of weeks, I’ll spend time doing craft projects with cancer patients. I’ll help an older woman type her memoirs, and research articles about healthcare for an online university. I’ll think about the personal writing I should be doing and feel guilty for not doing it; I’ll contemplate the changes I should make to my resume, and probably eat some grapes while reading the Sports section instead.

No one has accused me of having too much focus.

Here (humor me) are some things I’ve learned about myself lately:

  • I can’t do sixth grade math. (Literally, cannot do it. Did y’all know I went to Stuyvesant? And, perhaps more importantly, prior to that, had a very expensive sixth grade education? Heads–besides, of course, mine–should roll.)
  • In the time it takes me to come up with three blog posts, I can write approximately two tweets.
  • Sometimes, natural makeup makes me feel pretty.

Here’s another random (by which I mean, hopefully relevant) fact: since moving to Manhattan a little over a month ago, I haven’t finished reading–let alone writing–a single book.

I haven’t had the focus.

Instead, I’ve been scanning through magazines and newspapers on the subway, going out every night, acquiring fistfuls of random, peculiar jobs.

There are ways in which I feel suited to this kind of hectic, adhoc lifestyle: it allows me to feel, again, like a graduate student–going to the gym at midday (eavesdropping, now, on the Aquacise instead of the co-ed crowd), writing nocturnally, avoiding–mostly–the commute at rush hour peaks.

But, this state of hyper-stimulation addling my Manhattan adjustment aside, the peripatetic range of Stuff isn’t terribly new: I’ve always been someone prone to nurturing diverse rather than singular interests.

I’ve admired people like my father and brother: the kind of guys who follow up their pursuit of hobbies with sincerely dedicated measures. When my dad took up photography, he built himself a darkroom in the basement; years later, when he turned to wine, it became a cellar.

And then there’s me: the sort that, when asked what type of history I majored in during college, responds with a passive head tilt and a sound like “Ummm…” (You’d think, after seven years, I’d have a more developed answer. I don’t.)

In just about every way, I think all of us are best served by specificity: a sharp focus, a dedicated passion, a commitment to one person or project or goal. My last year of graduate school may have been the most fulfilling I’ve ever had–just because it was the time in my life in which I had the clearest, most singular sense of purpose.

For a few months after, I was even able to drag that out.

But unfortunately, that didn’t translate well to a particular livelihood–or at least, not one here. And so, I find myself casting about the city like a wild squirrel, cobbling: experimenting with various paths to that perennially elusive goal of Surviving in New York–branding myself with terribly corporate adjectives like Versatile and Efficient and Expert.

Expert at what, exactly? Well…

I don’t know what will stick. I don’t know much about beading or healthcare policy or the social studies curriculum taught in Queens middle schools (to say nothing of the math).

But I do know, now, that I’m capable of figuring all those things out.

And finding, eventually, a way to get back to the focus I do, finally, know that I want.

 

 

A Bright Spot of Sandy

“How are we going to keep this up?”

It had been four days since Sandy hit New York, and Alison and I were sitting on a bench in SoHo: nibbling a pair of scones and sipping Earl Gray tea and ogling the slender Euros as they passed.

“Keep what up?” Alison broke off a chunk of Oatmeal Currant.

“I changed my mind, I like the Butter one better,” I announced. “This. This feeling of calm.”

Alison shook her head slowly. “We can’t,” she muttered. “We’re gonna have to wait until the next natural disaster.”

“Ugh,” I replied. “Hurricane Tommy.”

On the spectrum of Affected by Hurricane Sandy, I fared toward the extreme end of Barely At All. While friends–Alison included–went for days without running water and cell phone service and entire neighborhoods, just miles away, were completely destroyed, my surroundings barely blipped: besides a three-second TV glitch on Monday and a brief moment when, walking Bonita around the block near the time of the infamous Surge I thought both of us might get hurled into the East River, I went wildly unscathed.

This luck lurched me, like many similarly fortunate New Yorkers, into panicked spasms of Survivor Guilt: I signed up to help out, trekking across town at odd hours to fill in for volunteers trapped in outer boroughs or dark and ravaged parts of town; I glued myself to the television and scorned anyone consuming unrelated news. (For feeding this insatiable appetite for disaster coverage, I would like to thank the anchors of the Local NBC affiliate–which, so far as I could tell, stayed live with storm coverage for the better part of the entire week.)

But even in the functional parts of the city, life felt completely upended; even now, as often happens with crises, everything seems divided into distinct panes of Before Sandy and After. The ever modulating concerns of After surfaced everywhere: what subways were going to run and when? Would this event or that party get cancelled go on as planned? What should I be doing to help? When would things be back to normal? The entire city felt a question mark.

This, mostly, was terribly hard. But (how to dredge this sentiment out of cliche?), amidst the chaos and tragedy, there was also a wave of much-needed calm.

Most Americans feel a constant sense of I’m So Busy: we work so much and, often, feel as though we should be working more; we constantly check our devices, captivated endlessly by the universe of social media–one that seems to proliferate endlessly; the rare moments we allow ourselves to detach and sit still are often colored by guilt.

This syndrome is amplified–to put it midly–in New York, where a constant ubiquity of Stuff makes it almost impossible not to always feel as though you ought to be doing something else.

For almost a week, with subways down and businesses shut, many New Yorkers couldn’t.

It took three days for me to reach Alison. When I finally did, she came to stay uptown. We went to a movie in the afternoon. We did some shopping. On Friday we made Bloody Mary’s at one in the morning and indulged in epic bouts of intensive co-therapy. It was heaven.

And after power finally returned to lower Manhattan on Saturday morning, we walked together to the Lower East Side, stopping for tea and scones on our way.

“Why don’t we do this every day?” I asked. “Why do we always feel as though we have to be someplace else? Why can’t we just make ourselves relax?”

“It’s Sandy,” Alison replied right away. “She made us slow down. Nobody had a choice.”

It was strange. It was lethal. It was a terrible disaster that disrupted many lives and will continue to for some time.

But it was also, in some slight way, a bit of relief.

 

On (Mostly) Comfortable Inter-Generational Living

My grandmother makes a really great roommate.

(Most moves to Manhattan involve some compromise–a shower in the kitchen, six flights of crooked stairs, a broker whose fee surpasses most annual middle class salaries; mine, is sharing my grandmother’s midtown apartment.)

There are many ways–besides the whole, brilliantly fortunate lack of rent thing– in which this goes well. We share politics, and pottymouth. (If I took a shot each time she described Republicans as “fucking fuckers,” I’d be always drunk.) We shop together, and even share clothes. (As I write this, I’m wearing a hooded sweatshirt of hers. The other night I had on one of her long-sleeve shirts and a scarf. Okay, by “share clothes” I suppose I mean I wear hers…told you she was a great roommate!) We go to the gym, sometimes together. We have dinner and see movies. It’s like living with a girlfriend who always treats.

Of course–this being a blog, nominally, about dating–I can’t resist telling you that the most precious aspect of living together may be her singular insights into my love life. In fact, Susie–what I call her–is often more open to talking about dating than my parents, who, bless their non-confrontational hearts, have a habit of responding to my romantic reports with the kind of bracing expression most Democrats reserve for presidential debates.

Some samples:

  • Over dinner at an apartment on Lexington, when one date texted–to my utter horror–a photo of his cat: “Back in my day, men didn’t even like cats or dogs!”
  • In line at Home Depot, when told one guy was on the heavier side: “That’s okay, we can put him on a diet.”
  • Various places, numerous times: “Who cares if he lives in Philadelphia/is twenty-four/hasn’t heard of NPR. Is he tall?”  (This, despite her infamous remark from several years’ past: “I hope you didn’t just dismiss him because he’s short. Some short men are terrific.”)
  • On occasion, most recently while walking down 59th, a choice Dorothy Parker quote: “Remember, Liz, ‘Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!’”

Some old-fashioned principles notwithstanding, Susie has always been remarkably open-minded: back when I was a starry-eyed nineteen-year old in love with a man who was thirty-five, she lent us her apartment while out of town.

All to say, for the most part, I manage her role in my love life, as with my life generally, with good humor and a large degree of comfort.

(Mostly; I’m too old not to answer honestly when the answer to “What are you up to tonight?” is, “Going on a date,” but am pretty sure the age does not exist at which I can comfortably respond to, “Where did you sleep last night?” with the (rarely, honest) answer, “With a man who’s not my boyfriend.” Compromise.)

Anyhow. The main reason I moved was convenience–Susie’s apartment is much more centrally located. But certainly, the psychological trauma of living with my parents weighed in.

There’s a way in which it can be easier to lean on the people around us with whom we have looser ties. In the same way that it’s sometimes less stressful to call up an old friend with whom you were never that close (you don’t have to catch them up on every hookup, every trip, every emotional turn), living with Susie–versus those blessed parents–is some relief.

It’s not that she isn’t interested in my life–we check in regularly, update one another on meetings and dog walks and nights out. But those updates are a choice, a convenience (if I didn’t live here, they wouldn’t happen)–not loaded with the obligation and the frantically urgent dynamics that charge parental relationships.

As I muddle through this murky, transitional, those pressures were too much.

Living with a grandparent may sound like a compromise. But it’s also a privilege. And, often, totally fun.