Notes from NYC

Henry's Birthday

Because the landlord was still painting, staining, corking and cleaning while we were trying to move in, it took us all day. Not to mention that he wanted to chat a little with every box we walk by his project. We were sweating like wild boars, hungry and a little annoyed. Just when I was about to let sullenness get the best of me, our neighbor Guy showed up. Guy is, well, a Jersey type. Slicked back hair, a tan, barrel- chested meathead with an accent as thick as syrup. “Hey guys, I got twenty minutes, let me help.” He went straight for the heaviest box, and did loads until the lawn was clear. His generosity and pure body mass gave us the momentum we needed to finish in a fraction of the time our sorry butts would have alone. He stood around our records chatting about music for a bit, and then took off as quickly as he should up.

“Thank you so much. I really appreciate your help.”

“No problem,” he shrugged it off. “I am not all homemaker- like. Don’t be expecting no cake or nothing.” He gave what he had- twenty minutes of manual labor to welcome us to town.

We did not want a cake. After a long transition, far away from where we called home, he had just given us the greatest gift in the world.

Bruce Springsteen was walking around campus yesterday looking at the college with his kid. That’s right- The boss himself.

“In art and love, one and one makes three. In music, if it makes two, you’ve failed, my friend. If you’re painting and all you have is the paint and the canvas, you’ve failed. If you’re a musician and you’ve got only your notes, you’ve failed. You have to find that third thing that you don’t completely understand but is coming up from inside you. And you can set [your story] any place, you can choose any type of character, but if you don’t reach down and touch that thing, then you’re just not going to have anything to say, and it’s not going to feel like it has life and breath in it. You’re not going to create something real, and it’s not going to feel authentic.” –Bruce Springsteen from an interview with Elvis Costello

There cannot be two things running simultaneously in our kitchen. So when we run the coffee maker in the morning, we have to turn the refrigerator off so we don’t blow a fuse.

Last night, an old friend of Dan’s was in town for work and invited us over for a drink. We took the train into Manhattan (think rich), headed to the Upper East Side (think really rich) and met him at a bar on 5th Street (think filthy rich) that had $20 cocktails with egg whites in them. We felt underdressed. He proceeded to bring us back to the single nicest home I have ever seen in real life. His brother-in-law owns a $20 million home overlooking Central Park saturated with coffee table books, original art and side tables worth more than my last car. When we ordered pizza the woman, in her great New York accent asked us what apartment. “The tenth floor,” was our answer. It was so fancy, we did not know where to sit or how to work the lights. It is one of two New York properties, and they actually live in Chicago most of the year. I was in awe, conflicted, giddy, confused.

The elevator man brought us downstairs around midnight and the doorman let us out into the early fall air of 5th Avenue. We took the train back to our part of town and wandered into our pistachio colored bathroom to brush our teeth. There, sitting in the sink was our first NY cockroach. I want to say it was as big as my face, but that might be an exaggeration. It was big. We laughed, realizing we were home.

Moving into our apartment was an adventure. We would not say it went smoothly. For one, we were driving twenty-four hours straight into hurricane Irene. Our motto became, “Taking New York by Storm!” willing us to be brave through our cheesy smiles and fist pumps. We were lied to repeatedly about when the filthy, fumy, overly priced apartment would be ready. Ultimately, we lived in a hotel and out of a truck for a week. We took turns being annoyed at the process, not dealing with our fear of a new town and a new life. One night, sipping wine straight from the bottle and eating Dominoes on our Ramada bed while ingesting HBO, I was the positive one. “This is fun!” The next day, Dan dropped me off at orientation in the U haul as if I was a high maintenance first year hoping for a bigger dorm room saying, “This is hilarious!” But feeling homeless and transitional was surprisingly taxing on us both. The smallest of tasks in a new place seemed like a struggle. I made Dan read a stunning graduation speech by David Foster Wallace so we could remind ourselves, “This is water.”

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

He goes on to talk about the moment when you realize that life is made up of “…dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines…. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop….This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

In that week of transition, Dan and I had a lot of annoying, petty and frustrating. We also had a lot of time to think, adjust, be aware and worship. Life is about “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’” There is no destination. There is never a place we get to when life gets easy. Life is a grind! But if we can see the water, we can have control over our sense of awe in the mundane, in life. There is dignity in the struggle, there is beauty in life. We must be aware, take time to think, choose life over death, and find meaning in the stream we are swimming through together.

Last week I had my first Skype date with my two nephews. William is three, and Henry is one. I was struck by how adaptive they are with technology. Henry had never seen Skype before, and we were worried that he would not get it, he would not recognize us, or even worse, he would not care. He looked at Dan and I on the screen for a second, head tilted. We waved and blew kisses and said hello so he would realize it was not just a picture, that it was really us. A smile broke on his face immediately, and he walked right up to the computer and gave it a hug. He touched the screen like he was playing with Dan’s beard, like always. He showed us his new animal noises and blew kisses. William was so creative with Skype that the computer really did not hinder our normal routine at all. He had us give him high fives via the web cam. He asked me to show him what ring I was wearing, and we had to stand up so he could see our whole outfits (William thinks that Dan and I are the stylish ones in the family and is always interested in our look). He showed us all his art and new toys. He danced for us and told us stories from pre-school. He would kill us with fire and we fell opposite ways on the couch, out of the screen’s view, then he would sprinkle us with magic and we would pop back up into the screen. And by the end, he was having Dan hide, and I would walk the laptop around our apartment looking for him so William could play his favorite, Hide and Seek. This is exactly the things we would have been doing if we were with him. I do not know my family on either coast because long distance phone calls used to be so expensive. But William and Henry are growing up knowing nothing but life with Skype. It is amazing to me. Does that make me old? Maybe, but it also means I can grow a relationship with my nephews from across the country. And that was a huge comfort to me.

You know what happens when you sell both your cars and start walking and biking everywhere? You say no to things you do not want to do without feeling guilty. You accomplish less in a more time consuming matter, and feel good about it.

The word essay means to make an attempt, to try. One of its Greek relations is ‘agony’. I write essays to find out what I think about things. I don’t really know what I think until I write it out. But it is agonizing in its very vulnerable, public nature. Inevitably, someone will judge my attempt and disagree with me.

I married a man of few words. More than anyone I have ever met, he exclusively processes internally. He rarely emotes. But I have learned to listen carefully. There is generally profundity in his brevity. In the middle of Time Square he said, “There’s a lot going on here.” In the middle of Greenwich Village he offered, “This is a big city.” And just yesterday, he took the New York sourdough starter out of the fridge, sniffed and reflected, “It smells different here.”