On Love and Work

“But don’t you think there’s a partner out there for you who might be more perfect?”

My brother was sitting across from my parents and me at an upper floor breakfast buffet in a Long Beach, California, hotel.

We’d been talking about a podcast, and–like most of my recent conversations–I’d managed to turn this one into a vehicle for gushing about my relationship. 

In this moment, I was gushing about how often we argue.

Rather: how good we are at communicating.

I had brought up the advice of Alain De Botton, recently interviewed on On Being about the New York Times article of his that, apparently, attracted more interest than anything else that happened in 2016. (Sit on that for a second.)

Specifically, his caution–one I find deeply compelling–that all relationships are very difficult. That people are difficult, in all our myriad, intricate ways, and that, therefore, any attempt at intimacy between them will require serious, delicate labor.

“Well,” my father had chimed, “of course that’s true in the long term. In the beginning, though, you should think the other person is perfect.”

At this, I bristled.

I’ve already said it publicly once, so, here goes again: I’m in love. I have found a partner who I deeply respect and admire. With whom I love to talk and listen and read and walk and be. Who inspires me with his compassion and commitment to working for racial and economic justice. Who makes me uncontrollably giggle and reads fucking poems. I have found someone, in other words, who I think is a really great fit for me–or at least, for the person I am now.

I have not found someone who I think is perfect.

And nor, as I told my brother and father and mother, do I think I ever will.

*

“Is he you?”

About six weeks after meeting Rob, I stood in the YMCA locker room on a Saturday morning across from a friend. As you might have guessed, things had already grown serious, and intense. Things, too, were/are not without conflict. While both he and I are skilled at talking through most things that arise, there is one particular issue–an ongoing friendship with his ex–where we struggle.

“We’ve actually talked about seeing a therapist,” I shared.

Thus, her remark: what other human would consider the idea of counseling less than two months into a relationship?

The one I’m dating, it turns out.

There are, in fact, many ways in which he and I overlap. (His mother, upon reading my blog: “She sounds like you, but in a female voice.”) Also: we both have small bladders, a tendency toward messiness and intellectual seeking, and a hyper attunement to the emotional energy of other humans; we can connect just as powerfully through physical intimacy as we can sitting on a couch, sharing passages from bell hooks or Grace Lee Boggs and reflecting on one another’s insights.

Before you throw up, let me assure you that there are, too, significant gaps: in our respective levels of interest in golf and backgammon, for example, or my desire to report on most waking moments of my day, even (on those rare occasions) when we’re apart, versus his inclination to keep some things to himself–along with other, related (and highly gendered) communication dynamics.

We talk about that–the gendered piece. And, when stuff comes up, when one of us feels slighted or aggrieved or even a little bit distant, we acknowledge and talk about it: the assorted levels of conditioning, from our families and cultural backgrounds, that, in many ways, still determine how and what we speak and behave. (Along with, ya know, lousy mornings, etc.)

As my brother was quick to point out, it can get a little exhausting.

But, for me at least, it’s also deeply rewarding. Recognizing and probing our moments of disconnection makes the moments of connection more powerful, and feel more full.

It can also make me walk around South Minneapolis, notice folks wearing wedding rings, and ask myself, Good god, how do people do this for years?

At this point (as the above might make you glean), I can imagine–or at least feel hopeful–that he and I could continue to make things work in the long term.

I also know enough to know that I don’t know anything–and that the way I (and he) feel right now may have little bearing on the way either of us feels in ten weeks or months or years.

But that, too, feels helpful: my most recent relationship felt burdened by my sense that it was somehow fated; sure, rationally, I knew there’s no such thing, but (for various reasons relating to the conditioning described above, plus the circumstances of that particular meeting and a set of shared physical features) emotionally, I let myself buy into the lie that we had to be together. And that belief, however small, fostered an anxiety that hurt much more than it helped–that coated me with a near-constant edginess, a low-lying panic: what if I fuck this up? 

I’m not immune to that now. I still have moments of terror about losing Rob. If and when it happens, I know it will suck. But I also feel somewhat lighter than I did then: right now, I think we’re great for each other, and push one another to be better people; I also know that could change. I think it does feel somewhat miraculous that we crossed paths when we did; I also don’t think there’s any providential guarantee that we should or will last.

A friend who’s been with her partner for many years recently shared an exchange they have when things between them grow hard: “Do you still want to make it work?” They ask one another. Both of them recognize that if the answer is yes, they can. And they do.

I’m not sure there’s any sounder theory of relationships than that: you both just have to want it badly enough to put up with the hardship–hardship that, no matter how long you’ve been together, will always arise.

 

Some Notes On Prospects, Feelings, Being Boring and Being Real

“I think he sounds like your best prospect in a while.”

My friend S took a bite of her oversized burger.

I cradled my spoon beneath a bowl of sun-colored soup.

I said, “You know he lives in a different time zone?”

S nodded, flashed the hint of a smug smile. “Yeah,” she said. “I do.”

I recalled the last time someone made such a comment. It was last summer, whilst having a drink with my grad school friend D. We were on a South Minneapolis patio, and had just run into a local bartender in whom I was then interested. Not long after that, said bartender and I went on a date. He didn’t ask me out again, but did, one afternoon two weeks later when he, evidently, had about thirty minutes to spare, attempt to lure me to his house. (“Is this an afternoon booty call?” “Yes.” Truly.)

I don’t offer these exchanges to discredit D or S, both of whom, I wholely trust, hold the interests of my heart deeply in theirs. To them, a good prospect is someone who (to the best of their knowledge) genuinely likes me.

Nor do I want to diminish the (many) merits of the prospect of whom S spoke.

I report them, rather, to highlight some recent, redundant chapters in the ongoing saga that is my love life, working title, Predictable Pursuits in Pointedly Unavailable Men. (Forgive me: when it comes to alliteration and men whose creative/professional ambitions preclude paying me much mind, I am weak.)

Some days after lunch with S, I flew to New York and was between turbo visits with friends and family when I walked the length of Park Slope and called my grandmother.

S and my grandmother belong to the same generation. S, however, is not my grandmother. And in the ten years since I stopped seriously dating her son, she’s grown comfortable asking, rather directly, about my sex life.

My grandmother, on the other hand, prefers a less forward approach.

We spent the first ten minutes of our conversation dancing around the topic, covering items like Donald Trump and the varying health of family dogs. Then, How’s your social life?

Also because she is my grandmother (her initial, as some may recall from the time when we were roommates, also happens to be S), I tend to give her a hard time.

“If by social life you mean, literally, social life, than it’s great. But I have a feeling that isn’t what you mean. I have a feeling what you mean is men.”

“Well, they might be included in your social life…”

“Yeah,” I said. “They are. And it’s terrible.”

“Oh, dear. Why is that?”

I was walking alongside the Prospect Expressway, and the traffic was loud, and so was the wind.

“Ugh,” I said. “It’s the same as always. I fall for men who aren’t available and can’t get excited about the ones that are.”

Grandmother S may hold back on the interrogation side of things, but, bless her Manhattan-raised soul, this is not the case when it comes to judgment.

“Well,” she said. “That isn’t exactly original.”

“I know,” I replied. “Tell me about it.”

Equally cliché is the attendant question: But, would you be more into him if he were less into you? Or, Would you be as into him if he were more into you?

The short answer to both questions is, of course, always, I have no idea.

But then there are the other short answers, which are, respectively, Probably, and Probably not.

To elaborate: when the touring musician who literally can’t find time to launder his towels doesn’t text me for several days/months, I’m left with a surplus of hours in which to question his level of interest. But the available guy? The one who visits when he says he will and says all the things I theoretically wanna hear? I don’t have to waste a minute worrying about his affections, and can instead go straight to exploring all the ways in which he may or may not diverge from the Imaginary Man Who I Still, Stubbornly, Think Should Be My Husband.

The problem with this extended answer is that, while interesting, it ultimately leaves one exactly where one began: with short answer number one. One, still, has no idea.

*

“Haven’t seen a blog post in a while…”  Available Prospect recently commented.

“Yeah…” I said. I didn’t explain. I couldn’t.

Here’s a thing:

It’s bad enough feeling bad because you have a strong, mutual connection with someone who is unable to date you.

It’s worse to feel like there’s something wrong with you because this has been a pattern throughout your adult (okay fine, and adolescent) life.

Add to that the guilt of boring your readers because, as Grandmother S succinctly phrased it, your love life is so unoriginal.

And, oh yeah, the fear of hurting people you care about. (A: “You tend to spend a lot of time thinking about your broken heart, but man, you’ve broken a lot of them, too.” Me: “But it’s so much easier to dwell in sadness than hurting others!”)

You know, it’s enough to keep a girl blogger quiet for roughly six weeks.

Here’s another thing: as I discussed with some budding creative writers the other night, no one wants a victim narrative. In literature, as in life, we’re interested in characters who act, who take accountability for their choices, who make choices. We’re less interested in what terrible circumstances befell people than how they chose to respond.

And, sweet readers, I am making no choices. I am sitting here in a quiet, sunny, south-facing room north of downtown Minneapolis, hiding from choices. (Also, my novel draft. Which, quietly existing, as it does, as a nonverbal file on my hard drive, is a terribly easy task.)

Instead, I am thinking about my conversation with A over drinks at a quiet French bar in Greenwich Village last week. I’m thinking about the different words she and I used to describe a shared feeling: for her it was grief, for me it was a tossup between anxiety and sadness. It’s something we both recognize as a constantly present sensation. A low-lying layer of, well, Name Your Own Feeling, that we deal with daily.

Sometimes ‘dealing with it’ means trying to ignore it, or cover it up with things like popcorn and reality TV. Other times it means tending to it, with yoga or friendship or writing or inordinate-seeming tears.

It’s the product of not having something you deeply want, compounded by being at a stage in life where not having this thing sets you apart from the bulk of your peers (have I mentioned how many weddings I’m going to this summer?) and subjects you to a vicious stigma that suggests inherent flaws with your body/brain/capacity to be loved.

I know, people. It’s uninteresting and unoriginal as hell.

But damn, is it real.

 

Notes, Continued, On Not Living In New York

It often happens, and is thus often remarked, that the wisdom people give you doesn’t resonate until long after it’s given.

So it happened that yesterday, I walked the streets in Park Slope, felt fond feelings toward the brownstone and tree-lined streets (quiet, as they blessedly, rarely were), and remembered something a colleague once said to me about five years ago, as she and I strolled the University of New Mexico campus.

“New York,” she said, “is a great place to visit.”

I (and likely, you) know that my attitudes toward this city have swung and swung like a cheap amusement park ride for the duration of the thirteen (golly!) years since I left for college: consistently, quickly, and not rarely inducing nausea.

So that when she said that to me, my gut reaction was something along the lines of: sure, that’s fine for you, you being a person who did not grow up in New York and therefore can feel adequate without living there. Or, to put it another way, that’s fine for you, you being an inferior person.

Flash forward: today, and all of the last days that I have spent in this city (outside those moments when I have been cursing crowds or humidity and clutching my niece like the world depended on it) I have thought to myself—that woman was right.

Friends, feel free to feel proud. Because I am pretty sure this trip marks the very first time that I have come to New York with zero desire to move back, and zero guilt about that feeling.

Okay. Obviously that’s not totally true. If it were totally true, than I wouldn’t feel compelled to qualify. Which, of course, I do.

So: I still would like to think that there will come a time in the relatively near future when New York will feel, both financially and emotionally, like a plausible and appealing option.

But, among the levels of clarity that have recently, thankfully emerged, one is this: New York is not the place for me right now.

This clarity, honestly, has emerged over time. Driving it along have been a couple of other pearls from writerly types: the editor who, over lunch in the West Village, hurriedly advised that she tells all young writers to get out of the city—until, she said, they become Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. (Moments, I’m sure.) Too much going on, she said, and too easy for the competition to psych you out. And the grad school professor who, over coffee in Albuquerque, nodded his head and cautiously observed that I might have a choice: between being a writer and living in New York.

At the time I let his words sink in about as much as a suntan. I was having fun in New York. Also, I didn’t know where else to go.

*

“I don’t know how people do it.”

I was chatting with an acquaintance this past weekend at a Greenpoint wedding (one that managed to be equal parts rustic, Jewish and awesome): a woman who grew up in Chicago, and as of recently, resides, happily, in Brooklyn.

We were commiserating about the hardship of living in the place you’re from: how you can’t seem to escape the weight of those adolescent insecurities, those unshakeable family roles. She shared how she always makes a point of keeping a bit of cash on her at all times, but when she goes home, it somehow disappears.

I told her how despite being the most reliably punctual person I know, I managed to be late the last time I was dispatched to pick up my niece from school (imagine me + 5th Avenue in Park Slope + running like an escaped wildcat): for both of us, just as we were trying to prove to our relatives that we are not the flakey, incapable youngest children we know they think we are, we managed to mess up.

“Maybe someday we’ll be able to handle it,” I said to her as we took a pause from the dance party and leaned against a wood pillar.

“No,” she shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

It doesn’t matter how our families see us, or the people we went to high school with, or anyone else we associate with these sites of our upbringing. What matters is how yoked we are to the way we think they do—and how deeply it penetrates the way we see ourselves.

It’s a handicap that may, someday, be worth working against. But for now, I am content to accept it. And to enjoy coming to New York, as that grad school colleague suggested, as a great place to visit.

Which, in case you didn’t know, is awesome! (Probably it would be more awesome if I didn’t have to cram in time with twelve close relatives and about as many close friends…) But anyway. Still! There are reasons  reasons I probably don’t need to tell you (Just in case: The energy! The art! The brilliant, ambitious, attractive people!), why people put up with the crowds and the lines and the walkups and the astronomical rents.

Things, I must tell you, that I find much easier to enjoy these days in small doses that I have no (present) intention of making big.

On Big Birthdays, Reflections, and Extraneous Pillows

Like most days, on the first day of my thirties, I did some things. These include (but are not limited to):

  • consuming: an almond croissant the size of Rhode Island; Kir Royals at home and a three-course fancy dinner out with pals
  • my first FaceTime with family in Philadelphia
  • a lakeside meltdown, catalyzed by an argument over a lamp smaller than my tricep (+ a week of insomnia + turning thirty)
  • a resulting bout of retail therapy (producing: one CB2 accent pillow and a used collection of Alice Munro. hello, aging!)
  • a copious amount of vaguely prompted tears

Also, between hysterics, some (inevitable) reflection.

I know that the numerical aspect of aging is not worth considering—thirty means something quite different to me than it does to various others my same age, just as seventy is a whole different set of experiences for most men than it is my fit, youthful father.

(To say nothing of what a hundred and three looks like on my grandmother, who, though lacking the dinner routine of this guy, lives alone and has better vision, probably, than you.)

And yet, it’s hard to escape that birthdays–particularly those with zeroes placed at the end–provoke introspection. They are markers. And whether we like it or not, they prompt us to compare ourselves: with who we’ve been, with those around us, with the expectations we harbored earlier of how things would be. (Also, for me at least, evidently, to lose my shit.)

Perhaps it is moving back to a place where I lived as a far different (read: younger) version of myself. (A subject, indeed for another story.) Perhaps it’s just been anticipating the tail end of my Extremely Late Twenties. Whatever the reason, my head has been there a lot lately–in that place of comparing who I thought I’d be with who I’ve become.

In memory, as a college student just a few miles from where I sit now, my friends and I did not just expect Big Things of ourselves–we assumed them. We were vessels of curiosity and desire, thrilling about our radically left campus, our minds blown daily by one or two joints and the breathless deconstruction of Western teachings most of us had never actually absorbed.

We were going to change the world. Make a difference. Be exceptional. We held ourselves above such cliches, of course, but the ambitions they contain were in the ether: as ever-present as greasy cafeteria food and caffeinated all-nighters.

We graduated. We got jobs, went to grad school, dispersed around the country–to the cities we’d fled or new ones we’d found. We realized, in some gradual but penetrating way, that aspiring to happiness was challenge enough.

We got jaded? Gave up? Sold out?

The night before my birthday, crumpled in bed, I moaned that I wasn’t sure what had happened; that I have yet to fully abandon these idealistic ambitions–that I still do aspire to fame, to changing lives, of being, to being, somehow, exceptional. And still, or perhaps more, now that I’ve learned how complicated everything is, I don’t even know what these ambitions mean.

Is it enough, say, to have a positive influence on a few aspiring writers? Is it enough to have a few dozen, or hundred, or (not that I would know) thousands of people reading your work? Is it enough to be loved? By how many? What will make me, make one, feel fulfilled? Where do we accept compromise between our youthful ambitions and adult limits?

A writing teacher once told me an anecdote (one I’ve probably recounted before) about a Nobel-prize winning author confiding her reaction to a book critic who had commended her recent novel as her “best in years.” (“What,” the author bemoaned, “Was my last book no good?”)

In other words, it is never enough. And to the extent that it doesn’t make us bitter, that’s okay: we should always strive and reach and seek. We will always question and crumple and crave and wrestle and soothe.

I’m okay with that. Even if, every so often, it results in extraneous pillows and tears.

I guess the only thing I can ask of aging is that along with the doubts comes gratitude–for making tea in the mornings and phone calls with loved ones in the afternoon and the mental/physical health that allows me the privilege to probe as I, as so many of us, can’t help but do.

 

 

The Precipice: On Wanting, and Not Wanting, to Know Why

Here are a few of the books I have begun reading in the last six weeks:

A biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. A new novel set between contemporary Nigeria and the US. Assorted editions of Best American Essays. A friends’ recent, acclaimed memoir about his mothers murder. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. A sardonic memoir about searching for D.H. Lawrence. A book about goats.

Let us not discuss how many I have I’ve completed. But, well, on second thought, lets–because that’s precisely the point: lately, my attention span has rescinded to that of a teenage Labrador. (In other words, technically, one.)

The urge to write most often strikes when my mind is least clear; so it is that I come to you in the middle of things. Among them: a seven (formerly known as ten)-day juice fast. A new relationship. A recent, cross-country move. A grueling apartment search whose tone I hope to soon turn.

I want to say that I come to you because I miss you. But to be honest, it isn’t exactly “you” I miss–”you” being an anonymous and widely dispersed cluster whose visible gestures (to me, at least) are few.

What I miss is the space to make sense of things.

Even though, at the same time, I don’t.

At the end of August, my family gathered in Vermont to celebrate a confluence of significant birthdays: this month my brother Jon will turn forty, I will (yep) turn thirty, and Pops will be seventy. We don’t often manage to get all of us (thirteen, at last count) together for meals or holidays, much less several days in the country. It was special.

One of the memories I’m currently cherishing is a walk with my nine-year-old niece. Her two cousins had departed the day prior, which meant that she had stopped running, and now had time to indulge contemplative conversation with Aunt Lizzie.

We were walking along a dirt path, flanked alternately by stands of maple and grassy fields where the Brown Swiss graze, and she bounced a small blue rubber ball on the ground, and told me that she hated not knowing things.

I asked her what she meant; she explained that she just hated not being able to figure things out, things like opening a door (what I knew had been a recent issue in the hotel).

“And I hate not knowing why things,” she said. “Like, why I like to ride horses but I hate riding a bycicle.”

I could feel my insides leap at the chance to Preach Writing: this niece has shown a fondness for the written word, and a compulsion to read thousand page books dozens of times. This was it, I thought, the chance to set her to follow my writerly footsteps!

“Well, that’s the really neat thing about writing,” I said. “It helps you figure out how you feel.”

“How?”

“Well, like if you were to describe how you felt on a horse…”

She played along for a moment—maybe she felt excited, maybe a little bit scared, there was one feeling brought up by jumping, another in that moment right before the jump—but we didn’t get far before her patience ran out.

“Actually, I’m not sure that I want to know after all,” she said, forcing a shrug and a smile, not wanting to let me down too hard.

“That’s okay,” I told her. “You’re only nine.”

But, even at my (rapidly-escalating) age, I know exactly what she means. I sometimes feel as though I live on a precipice: between an urgent compulsion to understand myself, and terror to do just that.

And in these few months away from blogging, that precipice has come into uncommonly clear relief: the urge to write, to connect, alongside that sense of relief–the recognition that I don’t have to connect the dots, don’t have to question everything, don’t have to pull back and ask why things are the way they are.

And I have wanted both.

I have wanted to ask myself: Why this person? Why this place? Why this path and this kind of writing? The kinds of questions that surface for all of us–propelled by shades of doubt or discomfort or those very elusive things whose murky nature compels us to go deeper.

Too, I have wanted to put my head down and just keep moving. To seek shelter from that mode of self-reflection and just be.

I know that I will walk that precipice for the rest of my life. Because it can be terrifying to know what drives us, and it can also be the most compelling thing in the world.

 

On New Love, New York Pizza, and Saying Farewell For Now

“I know you didn’t get upset about pizza. So, what were you really upset about?”

I furrowed my brow. Thought for a second. And looked up at N.

“Um, pizza?”

As my therapist was quick to note (Therapist: “You look shocked.” Me: “I am! Isn’t it shocking?” Therapist: “Well, kind of.”), there are many things that distinguish my relationship with N from those I’ve had previously.

Perhaps most notably, there is the fact that he really, really likes me. When he visited New York this past weekend, he even brought my parents gifts.

“You really don’t need to do that,” I tried to assure him when he texted a photo of a cheese plate. (Would your mom like this?)

“I want to,” he said. “Besides, I’m sleeping with their daughter. Isn’t it the least I can do?”

“Honey,” I replied, gentle. “I have slept with a lot of other men. Pretty sure none of them felt they owed my mother pottery for the privilege.”

Unmoved, he bought her a scarf.

One of the reasons N and I like each other is that we tend to argue. About issues, I mean: our nightly video chats have involved heated debate over things like an Obesity Tax and Capital punishment; the environmental impact of locavorism and gun laws.

But our most personal fight to date, abetted by whiskey, Fernet Branca, and four consecutive days of meeting Everyone I Love, took place over a single, folded slice of Joe’s Pizza.

Or, rather, the fact that N was not impressed.

How can you not like this pizza?” I pleaded.

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” he explained. “I just don’t think it’s that different than other pizza.”

I was beside myself, careening from one desperate, ineffective persuasion attempt to the next: New York pizza is different. It’s the best. This is the most superior slice in the city. How could he not see the difference?

In the morning, I grasped to explain my response.

“I met a ton of friends and family and loved all of them,” he reasoned. “And you’re really upset that I didn’t like a certain food?”

“I know,” I nodded, huddled next to him on a soggy 6 train. “It’s a little crazy.”

Part of it, I explained, was the implication that my Pizza Passion is an outgrowth of New York Elitism: a condition I not only battle against, but find frequent fault with others for buying into. Part of it was that I was overwhelmed. Part of it was that he was leaving. Part of it was that I was drunk.

But, also, really, it was about pizza: when you love someone, you want them to love the same things you do–people and places, books and movies, forms of intellectual debate. And, yes, food items.

Granted, certain of those categories are more important than others. Life with a partner who hates my mother might be a tad more challenging than life with someone who doesn’t, also, require a late-night stop at Joe’s on Fifth. Particularly if, as I’m pretty sure is the case for N, they’re willing to come along, and perhaps hand me a napkin.

But the Pizza Episode also felt symptomatic of one of my life’s present themes: jumping into the Big Things, while fretting, endlessly, over those that seem Incredibly Small.

It took me a matter of weeks, for example, to decide on, yet another, major move. But whether to go to a Zumba class at 12:00 on Lafayette or 1:15 at East 34th Street? I practically lost my shit.

“It makes sense,” Therapist sagely said. “You’ve got to deal with the big stuff some way. So it’s going to come out in the little.”

Allow me one final non-sequitur to inform you of another recent, and rather impulsively made decision: I’ve decided, for now, to stop blogging.

There are a few reasons why. For one, writing about relationships is much more challenging when you’re actually in one. For another, focusing is also hard–and, as you know, for the past year, I’ve been making variously aggressive attempts to focus on a book manuscript. Finally, in solidarity with other Writers Who Ought To Get Paid for What We Do, it seems prudent to at least try placing my essays in venues–unlike this one–where money changes hands.

I don’t want to call it quits forever. I love having this space, I love that you visit it, and the idea of leaving it completely is sad. But I think, for now at least, a Farewell For Now makes sense.

I’ll keep the site up–and post news about other publications as it, hopefully, comes.

Thanks, always, for reading. Be in touch. And see you, somewhere, soon.

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.

 

Notes on Normal

She typified normal.

I was eating lunch with a relative I’d never met before at a sun-soaked lunch spot in Santa Monica, listening to her describe another relative I never knew.

“She just…that’s what she was to me! Normal!”

The woman I sat across from–slender, youthful, with close-cropped hair–is an academic; she thinks more than most about the nuances of language and feeling.

So it surprised me to hear her use that word–normal: one I tend to think of as rather empty. There’s no such thing as an objective “normal,” I thought–the word often slips out without harm, but also without meaning.

I told her that, and, as you’d expect, she replied with great attention and thought: over the course of our conversation, she modified her choice of adjective–we settled on “healthy”: this woman (the one being described) was comfortable in her skin, she was well-adjusted, she knew who she was.

A few hours–and a couple miles of neck-cramping LA traffic later–I lay falling asleep in Culver City; I was staying the night with an old friend of my oldest brother’s, one whose name I’ve long punctuated with the nostalgically prideful phrase, “my first crush!”

He’s married now, to a woman whom–for a multitude of unrelated reasons–I greatly admire; they have a precocious daughter, a spacious, smartly decorated home, and lovely guest room to which I retired feeling distinctly content: in part, for the recognition that I didn’t occupy a totally un-special place in my host’s memory (“You were one of the first babies I knew!”), and, in part, for having spent time in the company of a couple that felt–it was the first word that came to mind–so wonderfully, captivatingly normal.

I knew theirs–like any relationship–falls short of perfect. But watching them laugh together across a table of tacos and and margaritas and pibil, I sensed a striking functionality, a satisfaction, an ease.

And as I lay in their luxuriously-sized guest bed, pondering how terrifically normal their interactions seemed, it occurred to me that such marriages seem anything but: they are, perhaps, as uncommon as people so universally percieved as posessing the poise and confidence my relative had earlier described.

Again, I had confused the word’s meaning: conflating “normal” with a vision of something healthy, desirable. Was that, I wondered, how we sometimes use the word–as a projection of whatever is our own, subjective ideal?

Back in New York a few days later, I was in bed again (this time, my own), absorbed in a third (yes, third) reading of my friend Emily’s (brilliant) new book. There was that word again, in the middle of one of my favorite passages:

Do more, be skinnier, get richer, be famous (and then be even more famous), get a bigger house and a bigger car and a hotter girlfriend and a better life. Be better. When did having a good life mean living one that other people envied? Behind this drive to achieve lurks a deeper desire to be transformed. The standards for what is “normal” have become so formalized and yet so restrictive that people need a break from that horrible feeling of never being able to measure up to whatever it is they think will make them acceptable to other people and therefore to themselves. People get sick with this idea of change. I have been sick with it. We search for transformation in retreats, juice fasts, drugs and alcohol, obsessive exercise, extreme sports, sex. We are all trying to escape our existence, hoping that a better version of us is waiting just behind that promotion, that perfect relationship, that award or accolade, that musical performance, that dress size, that raucous night at a party, that hot night with a new lover. Everyone needs to be pursuing something, right? Otherwise, who are we?

(Right!?!)

Absorbing that passage, I thought about the gulf that often exists between reality and perception, between the external and inside: how little my idea of that marriage probably has to do with the thing itself; how different that relative’s perception of the other’s disposition may have been from how she, herself, felt.

And how, when we define something or someone else as normal, it’s another way of reinforcing that persistent faith that who or what we are can’t ever be enough.

We often think that the negative connotation of normal is “ordinary” or “typical” or “dull.” But I wonder, too, if what we think of as the “positive” meaning isn’t toxic, too: if we often reach for it, as I did, to invoke an aspiration, an ideal, an image of a person or thing–one that says much less about what’s truly “normal” than it does about ourselves.

Goodbye to Ronan: On Change and Loss, Leaps and Love

As is most often the case when any number of my relatives congregate, at the time there were about fourteen conversations going on–such that I coudnt tell which one it was (dying marriages? over/under-sexed Orthodox Jews? Beyonce’s intelligence, or lack thereof?) which led to one brother snapping at his wife in such a way that she replied with a sharp elbow and this comment:

“Geez, an hour ago you were so into me–what happened?”

It didn’t matter. (Rather, to me, not being a member of their marriage, it didn’t).

What did (to me) matter was what caused me to, in turn, elbow her, and trade with her a glance referencing something that happened a couple weeks prior.

The something was a conversation I’d had with a guy–specifically, the guy about whom I wrote this piece. (With which, for the record, he claimed to not totally agree–to which I say, now, also for the record, oh lighten up.)

To his credit, perhaps what he disputes is my implication that things between us ended abruptly and purely at his will–neither of which is (exactly) true.

Regardless, end they did, and, at some point during the unraveling, he submitted this remark: ”I just think the power dynamic is screwed up,” he said, “I feel like I have too much of it, more than I want.”

At the time I was: taken aback, unprepared, and feeling the early stages of a cold. I shrugged.

The next day, my wits returned, I ate pizza with my sister-in-law.

“What a dumb thing to say!” I whined. “Power shifts in relationships all the time!

“Totally,” she agreed. “Like, hour to hour.”

*

On Friday, I woke up to an email that my dear friend Emily’s son had died. Ronan had Tay Sachs, a terribly cruel degenerative disease that kills children born with the wrong genes.

We knew it was coming. Last March Ronan turned two years old, and I’d driven up to Santa Fe from Albuquerque to help celebrate a birthday we all assumed would be his last. A few weeks ago, Em had written that the end was near.

So, at first, the news didn’t shock. It washed over me. I quickly wrote Emily a note. I got up. Walked B. Sat down at my desk and became absorbed in work.

Maybe it was the photos posted on Facebook, prompting memories of that birthday party, of being with Ronan at restaurants and at the house, of his specific beauty–the space between his eyes and the curl of his lips, and all of a sudden the loss struck: I would never see him again. There was an unexpected freshness, a crush, to the finality.

“It’s amazing,” I wrote in an email to my father, “that something this expected can still feel like such a shock.”

“I think the emotional impact of a death, even when it’s expected,” he wrote back, “is not any less than a sudden one.”

My father should know: he’s dealt with death too much in his life, far more than me–a wife, a father, a handful of very close friends. Among my many privileges in life is that my losses, the deaths I’ve known, have so far been few.

And while Ronan’s loss hit me hard, it also didn’t.

On Friday afternoon, I reached to connect with others feeling the loss–friends of Emily’s, her parents. I let myself take some time to feel sad.

And then, again, I got distracted. That evening I wandered around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, immersed myself in photographs and budding romance, and didn’t think about Ronan at all. Walking down 81st street, arm in arm with someone who never knew him, I thought how dramatically my day, my mood, had shifted.

Again and again, I am moved by the fluid nature of things–of compassion, of sympathy, of appetites and desires. The ways, large and small, that we move in and out of experiences and emotions seems, perhaps, the most essential comfort amid challenge.

And yet, death rejects that. It’s permanent, static, final. But still, the ways in which we respond can be as changeable as anything. Perhaps that contrast is among the things that makes loss so grueling to absorb.

It feels wrong to generalize about Ronan’s death. It’s too particular, too cruel, too exceptional a loss to try and connect with others. But as I try to absorb it myself, I can’t help but seek connection with other kinds of experience, other kinds of life.

With why that Girls episode with Patrick Wilson resonated so powerfully, why people come into and out of our lives, why the power in relationships–between lovers, friends–shifts all the time, why longings and hungers and passions can be as fleeting as they are real.

In a few hours I’m going to meet another friend of Emily’s. We’re going to order cocktails and toast Ronan’s life. She’ll go home to her children, I’ll go to my therapy appointment and out to dinner with friends. I’ll think of Ronan later, or tomorrow, or next week, or in ten and twenty years.

The feelings will come and go. His impact will always be.

 

 

 

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.