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.

On Other Dimensions, Old Friends, Greta and Me

My two oldest friends looked at each other from across the wooden table.

They turned to look at me.

I looked at the restaurant floor. Shrugged. Finally, stammered: “Can you ask more specific questions?”

The three of us were eating dinner at a spacious Greek restaurant on University, sharing plates of hummus and cucumber salad and celebrating their upcoming birthdays and my recent return from Minnesota, where, I had told them, but just barely, that I had met someone, and that, despite my initial certainty that they wouldn’t, things had gotten serious–serious enough for me to be considering, again, a cross-country move.

They wanted to know more.

A moment earlier, I had tried to dodge their inquiry.

“I kind of don’t feel like talking about it,” I said–the comment that had prompted their stunned stares, and all our collective bafflement.

“Never in your life have you not wanted to talk about a boy,” S said. “What’s going on?”

I wasn’t sure. Cooperative, they asked particular questions (“Um, what’s he like?”); apologetic, I did my best.

By the end of the meal, of course, I was eagerly slipping anecdotes into conversation: the time he sweetly over-hyped my love of bacon, how gamely he had come along for brunch with my ex.

And after dinner and gelato and dispatching R to the subway at West 4th, S and I hugged goodbye in Union Square Park.

“Do you think it’s a good or bad thing?” I asked. “That I don’t want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But it’s definitely different.”

The best rationale I could summon was that I feel, rather terminally, like the “girl who cried boy”: so many times have I come to friends bearing certain, over-exuberant, and, often, fast-fleeting affections–how could I expect them to trust me now?

*

There’s a scene in the new movie Frances Ha where Greta Gerwig‘s character, drunk and disoriented at a dinner party far more adult than she feels, delivers a monologue on what she’s looking for in life, or love, she isn’t sure, but, you know: it’s that moment, she says, when you and your partner are out at a party and both of you are engaging with other people and all of a sudden you catch one another’s eye and exchange a knowing glance–not driven by jealousy, or lust, but the simple knowledge that you are there together, and that between you there is a fierce but invisible bond; a “secret world,” she calls it, like one of those dimensions we know exist but can’t percieve.

I share this for a couple of reasons. First, as a vehicle to announce that I am undergoing a period of Greta Gerwig Envy presently exhibiting as a delusion that she and I are essentially the same. Discuss.

And, less narcissistically, second, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the utter, impenetrable mystery of what goes on between two people.

*

I have focused much of the past year on investigating a woman who died before I was born. I have searched for her in interviews and letters and transcripts and diaries, but the interviews have been what I’ve liked best. Some have led to new friendships; one in particular, this woman’s closest friend, I’ve grown, even, to love.

We’d known each other before. But in this process we’ve grown closer. A few months ago we sat together on her couch in the Ocean Beach section of San Diego drinking red wine and fumbling to operate an ill-designed slideviewer, and I felt a sudden awareness of the  lively, happy energy between us, the product of shared moments and space. It occurred to me that was something I’d never experience with the woman whose photographs we spent that weekend digging up. But in the moment, I didn’t feel that particular loss so much as a celebratory delight in what else I’d found: a new appreciation for the specialness of human connection.

*

What grows in the space between two people does seem another dimension: a force field of sidelong looks and kinds of touch and accumulated scraps of shared things. And it is impossible to explain. Even to understand it as a participant is challenging–but to express that field, that energy, all that stuff to another person?

I don’t know how.

And as I try to fathom my resistance to describing this new intimacy I’ve found, this lovely, dynamic,  growing thing, I wonder if the answer is as simple as that.

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.