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.


On (Not) Going It Alone

I don’t know why I was so determined to go it alone.

I mean, for the record, I didn’t really want to drive from New Mexico to New York by myself–at least, not at first. I wanted, of course, to drive with the Guy Who I Met Right Before I Left Who, Just Before I Moved, Flaked.

(Every time I move, by the way, I contemplate this precise fantasy, with, roughly, the same guy: what could be more romantic than a cross-country road trip, fueled by budding romance? A lot of things, it turns out, beginning with lunch or dinner at Red Hot Chinese Takeout II. But no one ever told me this.)

And even when said Guy didn’t come through, I had options: friends who weren’t sure they could get the time off work but might have pulled it off with more aggressive coaxing; a brother who told me he’d buy the one-way plane ticket as soon as I gave him the word.

I didn’t, consciously, decide not to. But weeks passed, and then more, until I’d somehow, passively committed to driving by myself. The notion began to sink in that anything less would signal profound personal failure: a lack of maturity, of independence, of ability to be and do alone.

There are a lot of reasons this feeling doesn’t make sense. Mainly, I take pride in my chronic capacity to depend on other people: whether it’s sewing a button or assembling a chair or navigating a city, I’m much sooner to ask for help than try my own hand. I’m good with people and not-so-good at a lot of basic tasks: the approach strikes me as altogether more efficient.

But driving felt like something I could–and, for some reason, should–do.

Until, suddenly, it didn’t. Until, suddenly, the day before my intended departure, my dog ran away (four hours and countless hysterical phone calls later, she appeared, shame-faced, in the backyard); until it became clear that no one was going to buy my car and I’d have to drive the thing, instead of a rental, all the way; until I asked my mechanic what he thought about my VW’s cross-country prospects and he shrugged at me the way a devoted Knicks fan might if you asked them about the team’s 2013 championship odds.

“I’m starting to panic.”

I was standing in the front room of my Albuquerque house, all the doors splayed open in hopes of Bonita’s return, flinging plastic hangers alternately in boxes for shipping and bags for trash–talking, on the phone, to my mother.

She started enumerating options: I could leave my car in Albuquerque with a friend! (Not practical.) I could fly! (The dog.) Finally: “Maybe I should…I don’t know…what if I met you in St. Louis?”

I threw a pink hanger in a box. “I don’t know what to say, Mom.” I swallowed. I didn’t want to say yes. But I didn’t have it in me to say no. “I’m not going to tell you not to.”

“Well, let’s think about it,” she said, and we hung up.

Ten minutes later I was on the phone with one friend as she assured me Bonita would come back and emailing with my sister in law, who had heroically produced Lost Dog flyers, when I got a voicemail from my father: “I guess I’m meeting you in St. Louis!” he said, eager, into the phone. “Call me about flights!” (This, by the way, is apparently how marriage works.)

All day, a part of my brain had begun to hatch elaborate visions of being alone on the highway, smoke piping from the back of my car, oblivious highway drivers refusing to let me pull over. That part, as I heard my father’s message, heaved a sigh of relief.

Another part clung, stubborn, to the fantasy of going it alone: that part clenched and twisted in disappointment.

And then, it began to fade. It began to fade a few hours and less than 400 miles into my journey, when my car stopped accelerating–mysteriously, it turned out, out of oil. It began to fade further when, thanks to a highway closure and a hotel clerk posing as the real-life Kenneth from 30-Rock, it took me three hours and multiple, misdirected stretches of dark, dirt road to drive the last twenty miles into Oklahoma City. More when I clocked nine hours of driving the next day on four hours of sleep. By the time my phone charger and then phone died a couple hours outside St. Louis, that part of me was entirely gone.

“What is the universe telling me!?” I texted a friend. Short of a clear answer, she offered a sequence of cheesy platitudes in reply: “It’s always darkest before the dawn! Tough times never last, tough people do! Stay the course! You want more?”

I didn’t. But I did wonder: why was I so determined to do it myself? What was I trying to prove?

For a long time I’ve felt as though I need to demonstrate my capacity for solitude. Perhaps it’s to counter the self-crafted persona of someone who is always looking for a relationship; “I may really want a companion, but that doesn’t mean I need one!”, I seem desperate to say.

I seem slow to accept that companionship is rarely a matter of need: sure, it was great having my dad with me when the car did, actually, start to smoke nineteen miles outside of Cincinnati. Just as it was great having a friend to help me pack up my minimal supply of kitchen appliances.

If they hadn’t been there, I probably would have figured it out. But damn am I happy I didn’t have to.


Holding Onto What Was Good

You know how it is.

One minute, I feel strong and invincible and sexy: ready to join with Pippa Middleton in effortlessly conquering the male hearts of the world.

The next, I feel small and unwanted and vulnerable: rejected by the handsome, married passenger the row ahead of me on the airplane who I’m pretty sure never saw my face; rejected by the butch bikram yoga teacher who seems concerned with everyone’s alignment but mine.

I’m trying to focus on those former moments–the strong and heady ones–and less than a week post-breakup, there are more and more coming. But still, not quite enough.

So I’m trying to hold onto something S told me, one of the most important things I’ve heard in the last few days.

“You’ve gained so much in this relationship,” she said. “I don’t want to see you lose all that just because it’s over.”

She was referring to a few things–my ability to talk more openly with my mother, for example, and my sharpened focus on certain writing projects–but mostly she was talking about my confidence.

“You’ve just seemed so secure,” she told me. “When you were with him and when you were alone. Please don’t let go of that.”

I’m working on it. It turns out that holding onto the products of a relationship isn’t easy, though, once it’s over.

The small things can feel like the hardest.

Hours after the breakup, I wrote an email to D asking for my things back–dutifully heeding my friend M’s advice to do so “without saying anything about feelings.” The next day, he overnighted them.

Before I got the package, I anticipated how hard it would be–the steep emotional challenge of separating those items I’d kept at his house–a nightgown to sleep in and a sweater, because it was always cold–from the association of him, and from the association of hurt.

But I didn’t cry when I opened it. Instead, I put both things on. (The sweater over the nightgown–as N noted, they happen to pair well together.)

“I have to reclaim these clothes,” I announced to S and N as we stood, solemn-faced, at our kitchen counter.

And of course that’s just the beginning: there’s the sight of the salad tongs in my drawer that D’s mother sent him and he passed on to me. The thoughts of spending time alone this month in Taos, where I’d long imagined being–going to readings, running B, doing crosswords–with him. The sound of the Replacements songs that I put on his mix. (I’m not listening to it intentionally–I’m not that masochistic–but I have been putting on REM, my comfort music, compulsively, and the Replacements come right after in iTunes.)

I don’t know that I’ll ever shirk these associations completely. You never really do. (Though I suppose I should admit that until D, I associated the Replacements with someone else. Something about me and Paul Westerberg, go figure.)

So yeah, the sting will lessen. Someday I’ll be mostly nostalgic instead of mostly hurt. We had something lovely, that–when the anger and sadness wears–will be worth feeling warm and nostalgic for.

But in those moments when the mere sight of a stranger’s wedding ring makes me tear up (it happened, once, in an airport–travel makes me particularly fragile), it’s hard to imagine that time coming very soon.

When I talked to M, I briefly bemoaned the mental ache of returning to the single life.

“It really isn’t that bad,” he said, in that sincere tone I could almost believe. “And you have so much going on. Just keep doing your yoga, keep writing, just keep doing your thing.”

Not the most original advice, but important nonetheless. And so I do. I thank heaven for yoga and for cooking, for unbelievably loving friends and family, for the knowledge that I am committed to being serious about writing

Of course, I’d like to find someone else who makes me happy (and, apparently, mistype) before too long. But that’s one thing I can’t control, and therefore don’t want to think about, right now.

What I can think about are those things I can control: and at the moment that means working to put distance between D and the good things–from salad tongs to self-esteem–that he came with.

And in the meantime, watch out: me and Pippa are coming. Any day now.

On Frazier and Baldessari and Stories of New York

Before leaving New York I caught an exhibit at the Met that, I’m afraid, closed today: a collection of works by the seminal Los Angeles artist John Baldessari. I love his work because it’s conceptual while also being playful—clever and thought-provoking but not at all pretentious.

One of the ideas he plays with is the complex, and sometimes arbitrary way we make meaning. He puts together found, seemingly unconnected images and inserts barriers between them. One piece juxtaposes a stylized photo of a woman with a nosebleed, and a picture of pelicans. Another takes four plain black and white photos with captions and arranges them in every possible permutation.

Adjacent to one of the photos is this quote, from the artist : “As soon as you put together two things you have a story.”

I loved that. And it seemed a perfect coda to end my time in New York.

Allow me, in my usual circuitous fashion, to explain.

For the most part, my experience with the city on this trip tended toward the negative.

First there was the whole stolen wallet thing. Then the twenty minutes it took me to walk two blocks of midtown logjam following my nausea-tinged bus ride. There was the response from one well-meaning employee to my alarm at paying $6.75 for a child-sized popcorn (“It’s freshly popped.”) And that of the horribly sour moviegoer who I asked whether anyone occupied the adjacent seat holding his coat (turning, in slow-motion, to look at me as though I’d interrupted his private meditation with a high-volume shriek).

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On Over (and under) Thinking Happiness

For our final class, my nonfiction professor invited all his over for for a potluck, a book swap, and the (required) opportunity to deposit with him six essay-filled envelopes that he would, the following day, ceremoniously send to literary magazines on our behalf.

Also in attendance (and, presumably, relieved of the above-mentioned duties) were his wife and two young sons: aged eight and ten.

While the rest of us ate dinner–taquitos, calabicitas, salad and pita pizza–I glimpsed the eight-year old, straddling the back of the living room couch with a pile of three Garfield books in his lap. The expression of pure, unadultered, consuming joy I saw–not just in his face but in his whole, lanky little-boy body–awed me. I made eye contact with my professor and gestured with my chin.

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen anyone that genuinely, completely happy,” I said. My professor nodded.

“That one’s kind of an old soul, “ he said.

That moment has been on my mind for the past twenty-four hours, as I’ve walked around Washington DC with an expression not very dissimilar from that ecstatic boy’s.

Last night, snuggling fireside with my friend L on our friend A’s couch, my insides humming with childlike warmth and orange rye punch, I had a doubting moment—the first, it would seem, of several.

“Is it wrong that this feels worth flying across the country for?” I asked, weaving my fingers in and out of his, interrupting a conversation about our latest reading material.

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Conversations On a Plane

In workshop earlier this semester, my wise peers gave me some typically wise advice:

“You’re idealizing relationships too much,” they said.

“The author is smarter than the narrator. You know that romantic love won’t solve everything.”

I do know this. Sort of. But it’s easier to play with point of view and structure and tone than to be more reflective. I promptly ignored them in my revision.

During my trip home to New York today, though, I was reminded of what they said.

Specifically, an 83-year old Delta passenger named Phyllis, seated beside me between Minneapolis and JFK, reminded me.

Phyllis was (actually, probably she still is) on her way to Cairo. She has three grown children, but no interest in spending the holiday with them. She sees them other times of the year. It will not be her first visit to Cairo, either: she told me she’s been to sixty countries.

“Really I’m just going to Egypt so I can get to Syria,” she explained.

“Why do you want to go to Syria?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been yet.”

Phyllis, who lives in Lansing, Michigan–where she raised those three kids, alone (“I had a husband, but I got rid of him”)–spontaneously announced to me, abruptly looking up frrom her Steven Martini thriller, that she loves being single.

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Boys and Bands and Airplanes

I would like to tell you–because I can–that as I write this I am sitting at the cafe on the top floor of the Tate Modern in London: overlooking the Thames river, a decaf espresso and three quarters of an apricot danish. For all of my frustrations with life these days, there are occasional moments that remind me how much I am extraordinarily blessed. This is one of them. I hope you have one like it soon.

Anyhow. So I will get off of the whole “rule” preoccupation soon, I promise. But first, allow me to report one aberration. It took place on the flight here from New York, and frankly was the one good thing American Airlines managed to do for me in the whole ordeal. (Actually the trip was totally painless, but good grief is their service unpleasant! If I could afford to boycott them I would.)

We all know the rule that whoever it is you spot while boarding a plane that looks somewhat interesting or attractive, you will not be sitting next to them. You will be sitting next to a young Orthodox mother or a priest. It is a law of life.

Of course, I’m here to tell you that such laws do get broken, and that by some miracle S and I were in fact seated next to not one but two interesting and somewhat attractive guys our age on the flight. They were together as well, and turned out to be members of a band about to begin a European tour. (For some reason they immediately reminded me of the guys from MGMT; they weren’t, but ended up not being all that different–physically or musically.)

This is all to explain how it is that, the other night, S and I wound up schlepping via commuter train to some remote corner of up-and-coming (emphasis on coming) hipster London to see a rock show featuring three Brooklyn bands. We may as well have been vacationing in Bushwick.

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