One of the greatest disappointments of my early adulthood was the tragic and distressing realization that, at 24 years old, I was older than the angsty but attractive Gen-Xers in my favorite movie as a teenager, Reality Bites. Although nearly ten years younger than those characters, myself teetering on the Gen X/Y cusp, as a misunderstood fifteen year-old I looked to their hapless attempts at post-collegiate life and romance with envy. I couldn’t wait to be the frustrated creative pixie who would be lured by the well-dressed executive yuppie but ultimately choose my grungy, tortured, goateed musician best friend to fall in love with. I wanted their idiosyncrasies, their irreverent fun and games, I wanted ever third line my friends and I uttered to be a clever sound-byte (“You are a master at the art of time suckage.” “This girl is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” “He’s the reason Cliff’s Notes were invented.”). I didn’t know it at the time, but my role-models may have been the country’s first hipsters.

When I was 19, I chopped off all my hair to replicate Winona Ryder’s ‘do (and found out it didn’t suit me, at 19, at all, despite my current coif). I bought vintage dresses and clunky shoes. I tried to fill my brain with as much esoteric pop-culture as I could get my hands on (not easy for a kid growing up without cable television). When I was 20, I found my first unwashed musician to crush on and rejoiced. When I was 22, I got a real job where I was overworked and under-appreciated by my ego-driven boss. I had dramatic friends, aimless friends and gay friends. I was on the right track to living the life of my bemused idols!

Quickly, though, I got caught up in the right track and where it was leading me. With the job, the friends, and another ill-fated relationship with a musician, time moved quickly. One day I woke up and had turned 24. I was old. I was past the rule-book that Ben Stiller had directed for me, essentially left to my own devices from here on in. Panic.

I’ll admit that as time went on and my adult life took shape, I gave up caring about those fauxhemian ideals that Reality Bites inspired. I created new ideals and discovered that (while I will likely always harbor a favoritism towards dirty-ish musicians) I am happy to have moved on into a more satisfying, self-actualized life than that in which I left Lelaina Pierce. I don’t have it in me to live as dramatically as 23 year old Winona, Ethan, Janeane, Steve or Ben did. Nor do I want to.

But I’d be lying if I said that I’m entirely immune to the allure of the sensational lives that movies and TV present. We may all know better than to expect a dreamy ending… but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is entirely willing to abandon that dream. I may have gotten past expectations of Julia’s “I want the fairy-tale,” declaration when it comes to lurve and romance, there’s still something in the day-to-day that glimpses a sense of the drama that lives only on the Big Screen and Boob Tube.

Drama may be too strong of a word. The quirks of cinematic stories are supposed to be attractive. That’s why we cast beautiful people, even in ugly roles, and why too many people smoke cigarettes. Case in point: my all-nighter dinner of choice during my senior year of college was a bag of microwave popcorn and 3, sometimes 4, cans of Diet Coke. Yes, low-fat popcorn, and yes, diet soda, but a healthy dinner it was not. But look at me! I was just steps away from calling Cheez Doodles and Diet Coke dinner, a la, yes, Reality Bites! O, the glamour!

Beyond ill advised, nutritionally void meal choices, there really is an air of movie magic in certain situations. The other day, I had plans to see a friend and catch up on the last few months—tumultuous months for me, delightfully love-stricken months for her. As the work day was winding down, I looked forward to the evening’s plans and was surprised at what image my tumultuous head conjured up: I saw my friend and I at a delightfully chic cafe, dramatically light with vague and soft lighting filtering through a frosted window, as we sat across from each other at strategically placed angles. The din of the restaurant’s other patrons was muffled as our conversation overflowed with a balance of emotion, humor, sympathy and confidence. There’d probably be some sweet score swelling at the particularly poignant parts of our chat.

Then—POP! Like in a cartoon, the bubble of imagination burst as I realized that what I was considering was not a likely reality. It was what my evening would look like if I were living in my own New York-in-2011, 30 year-old single gal version of Reality Bites. Or, worse, some toned down and less extravagant downtown Sex In The City (perish the thought!). But you know what? Our evening was delightfully cinematic—low lighting, attractive ‘extras,’ indulgent food, smart cocktails and inspiring heart-to-heart . In fact, we even managed to swap a few clever sound-bytes.

Two weeks ago, I had a most fabulous girls’ night out — six dear friends and I gathered to see a powerful Adele concert at the Beacon Theater, we had pre-show beers, post-show wine and cheese, and hours of chatting, dancing, singing, revelry and — dare I say it, bonding. The night’s confabulations hit upon careers, friendships, family, lifestyles, hair styles, love, vacation destinations, the French language, movies, aspirations and relationships. It was the kind of night that Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers and Nicole Holofcener dream of.

Keen observers might notice that this exact line of thinking is the antithesis of what Fear Of Syndication stands for. After all, this blog tries its best to abide by its log-line: The dramatic tales of an anti-drama Brooklyn gal. So why the veneration for Silver Screen imagery? How could I subscribe to that? In a way, I was surprised to see how fast I clung to movie-made beliefs. But then again, since the days when Reality Bites was looping on my VCR and leading through my career in the film industry, I’ve held on to a love of the cinematic life. I may not need the drama (although often it feels like drama needs me), but at the end of the day, everything is better with the right lighting and good sound design.

You know that over-used and abused quote, “You are the hero of your own story”? I’ll be damned if it’s not true… or, at least, mostly true. We may not always be the hero of our stories, but we are the protagonists. I was able to stop rueing the fact that my life is not a mid-90s ‘slacker’ movie because I no longer want that to be my story. I’ve realized that I don’t want my life to resemble any one movie, or even any one genre. The past year has brought me into a romantic comedy, a painful drama, a frightening horror, an empowering against-all-odds tale and, yes, even a chick flick. Every day, the opening credits roll. And the days play out one by one, ultimately amassing into some Divine Comedy.

Yes, I learned the definition of the word irony from Reality Bites. And, thankfully, like Lelaine Pierce, I know it when I see it.

x

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No Woman No Cry

22 November, 2010

Part I

When I was younger, I’d often join my mother and older sister on the couch on what was usually a cold Sunday night to watch the Hallmark Hall-of-Fame weep-a-thon movies that CBS would air to counter-program the sports on other networks. The movies could never hold my attention the whole way through, which was fine, since their plots and formulas were easy enough to anticipate. There were a few favorite templates that were regurgitated with a rotating cast of middle-aged TV actresses: the lonely social worker who fights for custody of orphaned crack baby, the long-lost relative who must care for baby orphaned by war, a host of unrequited love scenarios littered with semi-political but non-offensive themes. They all shared the main idea of Woman Must Fight the System To Do Good Or Fall In Love. My mom and sister seemed partial to the orphaned baby custody movies; a good thing, since there was no shortage of them.

I would float in and out of the family room as they sat huddled on the couch, my mom often with lesson plans sitting forgotten in her lap, as their eyebrows turned towards the heavens with sympathy for the poor orphaned baby and the plight of the woman who wanted to save her. I’d sit and watch for five minutes, and, being a snarky 14 or 15 year old, I’d mutter “Cheesy” or “Lame” at some inopportune time, eliciting glares from my mom and sister. I’d glare back and get up off the couch and continue to wander the house as I put off doing homework. I did like to go back and (silently) watch the end of the movie, just to find out if the woman was successful in her quest to keep the baby, or if the state or the negligent relatives from the backwoods got custody (the movies were always based on true stories, so they said, and there was no telling which outcome would triumph).

Towards the end of the last commercial break before the movie’s gripping conclusion, I’d pop down on the step between the kitchen and family room and try to keep my mouth shut. No matter the fate of the poor orphaned baby and well-intentioned savior, my mom and sister would end the night with tears streaming down their faces, silently weeping over the heartwarming/tragic outcome of the movie. I sat entirely unaffected, and would break the silence of the closing credits by hypothetically asking why the protagonist didn’t just do this thing or that to help her case.

My comments were not exactly welcomed by the tearful lot on the couch. Four wet, angry eyes would stare at me. More often than not, one of them would cry “Don’t you have a heart?!” or “Do you have any feelings?!” or “Where is your soul?!” (I think it was my sister who muttered that last one, through a kind of half-assed sniveling.) Of course, there’s not much to say in reply to something like that. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t try. I’d usually endeavor to reason my way out of it, explaining to them that yes, I have a heart/soul/feelings, but it was all Hollywood make-believe and there’s no reason to cry at an actress, on a set, in front of a crew and a camera.

This always elicited one word of response:

Cynic.

It’s a word that’s stuck with me a long time, and often not by my own designation. It seems some people think that “doesn’t cry at Hallmark movies” also implies “lacks the capacity for emotion.” In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. I am sentimental to a fault, embrace nostalgia and everything it stands for, and harbor as many romantic notions as the next gal, if not more.

I felt for a while like people saw me walking around with my own scarlet letter emblazoned on my aura – a big fat c – and so I’ve decided to redefine the notion for myself:

cynic |ˈsinik| noun – One who is more emotionally moved by reality rather than scripted fare.

(and yes, I fully appreciate that that definition is, in itself, quite cynical.)

My PowerBook's dictionary application segues nicely into Part II.

Part II

The older I get, the more I cry. This makes me very happy. I think I may have cried once or twice in college, and have a distinct memory of tears running down my cheeks when I received a card from my sister while I was studying abroad in London (the same sister who accused me of not having a soul). I know I’ve been moved by plays and performances and felt my cheeks grow hot and a lump in my throat swell. I’ve wept as I watched movies at home on my couch – everything from Jim Sheridan’s woeful In America to Sydney Pollack’s hopeful (the way I see it) The Way We Were (for some reason, most movies with Redford and even the hint of romance can inspire my tear ducts). I considered crying at the final episode of one my favorite TV shows (decided against it, but was impressed with myself for entertaining the possibility). I sobbed when my beloved bicycle was stolen. I bawled during an emotional, depressed breakdown. I’ve had arguments with bosses that have left me sniveling in a darkened bathroom stall. My voice has been known to shake and tears have been known to well when I fight with someone I love, and those tears undoubtedly fall when it’s time for apologies and make-ups. I’ve often curled up in a ball on my bed and let my cheeks grow damp during times I’ve felt alone. My eyes even watered when I watched the lucky passengers walk on the wings of the downed plane in the Hudson. (Take that, Hallmark – reality makes me cry.) I list “introspection” as a hobby – make no mistake, I am acutely aware of my feelings.

Yet there’s one thing that has never caused a single tear to roll down my cheek:   Men.

This has recently proved problematic.

Sometimes, it feels like all of the necessary components are there for a good cry: emotional pain and despondency + the sting of rejection + loneliness + bittersweet memories + confusion, but they all = lump in my throat, at best. If only it were as easy as washing someone out of our hair! With very clean hair but a messy heart, how I’ve longed for the catharsis of crying. But, oh, the frustration when that cry refuses to come out!

Anyone who knows me can probably guess that I do associate a degree of pride with this 100% tear-free record; but it’s a pride that’s inextricably tied to my title of cynic. It feels, sometimes, like the pride of a fool, like someone who doesn’t know enough to understand that they actually should be affected. And sometimes, it feels that to cry is the only way to give a dead relationship its due respect. Not every relationship deserves such respect, of course, nor does every guy who’s ever hurt my feelings deserve my tears – but when the emotional anguish quotient (EAQ?) reaches a certain level, crying seems like the best way to rid my core of the icky, frustrated feelings that are overwhelming it. At those moments, though, tears are magically nowhere to be found.

Thinking back now to a few months ago, while I was facing a rather high EAQ with decidedly dry eyes, it feels as though I was trapped in a room filled with thick, gray smoke, and was forced to rely on a slight draft for ventilation, since I lacked the ability to open a window. My lungs are still recovering.

I’ve never felt like I’ve fought or denied my true feelings; I’ve never suppressed a cry for fear of letting someone get to me. My big bad secret is that a lot of people get to me. My emotional well is certainly not empty – it just often feels so far from flowing over. I’ve tried to piggy-back on to other cries for other reasons, to throw in a sob or two for him, that jerk, whoever he may be, but that seems to be the trick to turn off the waterworks. (I get frustrated when I can’t fool my subconscious.)

There’s little left to do but wait for the reservoir to fill, for the seas to surge. Perhaps I’ve yet to experience a lurve profound enough to warrant tears, or perhaps I need to keep working on forever lowering the rather substantial walls I’ve built around my vulnerable li’l heart.

Until then, maybe I’ll just take to chopping onions for catharsis.

 

x

On Ch-ch-changes

13 November, 2010

“Do you believe people can change?” T asked me earlier this week.

Desperate to articulate rather than ramble, I paused and thought for a while. My instinct was to answer “yes,” but I easily thought of far too many reasons why that was wrong. But to answer “no” made me depressed.

T had been asking because some people seem to disappear from our lives only to reappear again at random intervals, and so can we  – should we – ever learn to trust them when they return?

In a moment of clarity that a steady diet of daytime/nighttime cold medicine had not afforded me for several days, my reply escaped from my lips before I could even digest the thought.

“I think that people’s priorities change, but not their personalities.”

I was instantly pleased with the breakthrough I had stumbled upon.

If it is that we act according to our priorities, then it stands to reason that as our priorities change and shift and grow, so too does our behavior and beliefs, sometimes together, some times in discord (oh, how j’adore cognitive dissonance!). But who we are at our core – beneath the other layers of self, like behavior and beliefs – that which truly comprises our being remains constant.

In thinking about this in recent days, my notion seems to be universal in a comforting way. Suddenly, the behavior of a girl who was my friend in 5th grade but refused to speak to me in 6th made more sense (my memory of the pain I felt at the time is no less acute, but my ability to dismiss this ancient event is now easier). That girl may have been a cruel bitch, but her behavior changed because her priorities – acceptance by a different group of friends – changed. Her personality, which was never all that loyal to begin with, had no problem implementing that change. In more recent events, someone with a self-destructive personality may find a new priority (say, in a short, charming brunette), and so he may sustain behavior that is actually productive and progressive for a while… but he’s ultimately unable to rewire that sense inside of him that simply needs things to be worse instead of better. (I do hope that one day, this someone can find the priority that can maintain its triumph over the personality, but I don’t think that will happen for a long while.)

Of course, I realize that this hypothesis of mine holds true for me as much as it does for people I’ve known (which confirms it’s accuracy). Every single element in my life may shift and change or just up and disappear, and that all shapes me and who and where I want to be in profound and indefinable ways. But these shifts and changes do not alter who I am, they change how I react, this time and next time. They change what I want and how I go about getting it, but they cannot change that it’s me, who I am and who I’ve been, who is wanting it.

I think this way of thinking lends itself to a certain degree of forgiveness for those who come back into our lives, but does not inherently provide an excuse. I remember the first guy I ever dated in New York – I was 23 and he was 40. He did not break my heart, but I had made a substantial emotional investment in him, which made his unexplained withdrawal from my life sting considerably. Six months after the last time I had heard from him, he called me up one evening to let me know that he could not stop thinking about me. Standing on the phone, on the rooftop of the Soho House, nearing the wise old age of 24, I probably first realized what it is about people that changes, and what it is about people that doesn’t (it’s just taken me seven years to be able to articulate that). This guy most likely believed that what he was telling me was true (“I know I didn’t treat you right, but I’ve really changed since then.”), but he had, six months prior, already given me every indication that, at  his core, he was near-sighted and only knew how to go after what he wanted at that very precise moment. His feelings for me had not magically changed so as to make me the kind of priority that would cure him of his out-of-sight-out-of-mind affliction. It was just his loneliness that night that had prompted a lie. Ultimately, I felt sorry for him. Part of me still does.

For a long time, I found the “you can’t teach an old dogs new tricks” adage to be fitting to that old story, but these days, “you can’t make a dollar out of 99 cents” seems more apt. I like to believe that old dogs can pick up new tricks. But when there’s only 99¢ in your pocket, you know can’t turn it into a dollar. Your only option is change your mind so you don’t mind buying the item that was one cent less in the first place.

 

x

Where anecdotes go to die

6 October, 2010

Now there’s a wall between us; something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted; got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn:
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Not that I needed to, but I was able to close out my 20s with a final cross-off the Life Experience List: that silly thing called a “real relationship,” start to finish. At this rate, I’m due for a 6-month relationship which will end right before I turn 60.

Now, not supposing that my experience has been anything typical (for if it was, I’m quitting this dating game right now), but I can certainly appreciate the path of getting-over-it that must be fairly common. There’s frustration and confusion (if you’re me, anyhow), there’s being upset, there’s being angry, there’s being utterly exhausted from being upset and angry. And then, with some mental and emotional stretching and coaxing, there’s a deep breath of air and you look around and realize that you’ve returned to something that resembles normalcy—wherein “normalcy” is whatever your life was like before the other person was a part of it.

But then you’re faced with the challenge of functioning like that “normal” person again—a challenging task no matter what, made worse when suddenly, strange, pesky moments of memory drift into your consciousness, like a subtle but unmistakably familiar aroma, reminders of everything that was, and everything that you must move on from.

That’s a sad part about the end of the relationship.

Once you get past the icky feelings, once you learn that you can swallow the hurt enough to move on, there’s a lingering bittersweetness, that in the right light can seem almost wistful. And for a glorious nanosecond, the warm fuzzies of the relationship return, as you hear a certain song, pass a spot of a memorable date, or remember a ridiculous inside joke. That’s the fleeting sweetness; because in the next moment, the bitter sweeps in with something like the sharp pinch of a mosquito bite. It’s acute, targeted, and even though you know the mosquito’s gone, you know its effects are not.

So now you have a host of these itchy little ‘bites,’ not quite memories, but not quite disposable. They’re things that made the relationship unique and intimate, made you smile throughout the day and your time apart. They’ve become tiny moments that are unavoidable. (If we used to laugh at a certain phrase that my boss used, who do I laugh with the next time he says it?) Sometimes, they’re moments that we need to address, for ourselves, to force our way through them enough times that we become desensitized to their sentimentality. (There are too many songs on the relationship playlist for me to start associating them all with that wonky break-up… And so I refuse to stop listening, no matter how many times we may have fallen asleep to them.) (Songs are really tough; the soundtrack to a good time can easily become the soundtrack to a maudlin montage of memories that beckons forth a depressed nostalgia.)

I’ve never been one for any kind of ultimate finality—for as much as I am a fan of cleansing, the thought of burning items associated with someone else makes me sad. (This is probably why I still have a small shopping bag filled with candy and tea that I had intended to give to Mr. Is-No-More sitting by my front door… Truth is, when I really need to get rid of someone or something, I much prefer to bury over burn.) But these anecdotal moments that have me caught up lately are intangible and powerful; they’re in the air, vapors that are immune to permanent destruction. Yet once they work their way inside, they coalesce and conjure up very real memories, which then play out in my mind like a collage of romantic comedies, poignant and affecting, misty watercolored memories that are easier to indulge in than to fight.

But like most drugs, the indulgent high is followed by an empty low. For, really, all of these little moments wind up meaning precious little. No matter how bitter or sweet, they lead you to the same place: that’s all over, and you’re alone.

And I’ve begun to think that that’s why there’s something that feels good about clinging to these moments when they appear. In some cyclical equation that I’m trying to wrap my head around, these hints of memories of the relationship are the best distraction from the relationship itself. It’s not living in the past; it’s just learning how to not be tormented by it. It’s like that mosquito bite that appears in late autumn—it may not be pleasant, but the thought of summertime is sweet. It’s still jarring when a new little ‘bite’ pops up, like when I heard an old favorite song on the radio the other day, and remembered serenading him with it in the back of a cab while confusing all the lyrics. The memory began to make me sad, but I’m learning how to handle it. I smile. I sigh. I remember. I miss what was.

I move on.

x

On Relativity

1 October, 2010

3 days til 30

A man can’t know where he is on the earth except in relation to the moon or a star. Astronomy comes first; land maps follow because of it. Just the opposite of what you’d expect. If you think about it long enough, it will turn your brain inside-out. A here exists only in relation to a there, not the other way around. There’s this only because there’s that; if we don’t look up, we’ll never know what’s down. Think of it, boy. We find ourselves only by looking to what we’re not. You can’t put your feet on the ground until you’ve touched the sky.  (Moon Palace, Paul Auster)

I’ve spent the past week trying to figure out the appropriate angle for a blog entry about this past week; something in my signature-style of vague if underhanded life lesson that’s disguising some deeper inner turmoil.

In trying to deal with that turmoil, I’ve also spent the past week immersed in a book; perhaps not the most amazing book, but an engaging story with a fast-paced writing style that allows for complete distraction. For that, Paul Auster, I am eternally grateful.

So there’s all this stuff going on in my life right now, and I’ve chosen to include “turning 30” as part of that stuff, because it feels, for some reason, like something to tackle, something that, come Monday morning, I can check off. I have no trepidation about this milestone, I’m simply excited for the next chapter. Yet, in matters that have nothing to do with my age, the past seven days have been fraught with an anchorless emotional anxiety that’s brought many questions and yielded precious few answers (the only answer so far, in fact, has been: Yes, you will get through this).

When I came across the afore-quoted passage in the book, suddenly everything before me was brought into a sharper perspective. I could read each sentence a hundred times over and be equally touched by its accuracy and simplicity each time. My brain was, indeed, beginning to turn itself inside-out. And I found that while my emotional burden was hardly lifted, it was no longer isolated, it was in a context now that brought comfort, too.

Because if we continue the thinking that Mr. Auster began, wouldn’t it be true that there is only happiness because we’ve known sadness, and, inversely, only sadness because we’ve known happiness? As Joni said, “you don’t know what you got til it’s gone;” we only have people and things to miss because we’ve had people and things. Even Tennyson says so. From here, my brain continues: we can only grow from an experience if it’s been profound enough to mark us, profound enough for us to care. Which means that without experience, we do not grow, we do not change. We can own our scars because they are proof of our humanity, of our progression. And that is the most positive spin I could possibly hope to put on this week-of-shittiness, because it says, simply: It was all worth it.

In the larger picture, too, the quote is no less relevant. For as my 30th year rapidly approaches, I am trying (probably too hard) to take stock of who I am, where I am and what I want. These questions exist every day, of course, but on birthdays, I actually try to articulate answers for them. And what gets me about the book’s quote is that this Theory of Relativity (for that is what it is), applies not only to the world around me; Earth to Moon, here to there, but it applies to me to me. I am, now, relative to myself, then.  What Auster writes is true, it’s been the axiom for the past twenty years of my life: “We find ourselves only by looking to what we’re not.” “What we’re not” can certainly apply to how we define ourselves by reacting to others, but, as I’m only now truly starting to understand, it can also mean “what we are no longer.” We can define ourselves in the present by looking at who we were in the past. We are not only amalgamations of our experiences, but we are reshaped by them, parts of ourselves are discarded, or eaten away, or re-molded to reveal an entirely new form, one that bears resemblance to previous forms, but is wholly unique.

And, in looking at things this way, both my recent emotional hiccup and my larger “Who Am I?” issues are addressed: Experience must sometimes break us down so we can rebuild ourselves, strengthened for the next time. We remember what’s passed as emotional and functional: memories, already tinged with bittersweetness, are also lessons, sometimes cautionary tales, sometimes exemplary models. They become notes for our playbooks, what worked, what didn’t, and how to improve for next time. We can look back to last week, last month, ten years ago or twenty-seven years ago (which is about where my memory kicks in). We can even reinterpret previous interpretations of the past. When I was 20, I reacted to my teenage years very differently than I do now. I am shaped by those teenage years, but also by the shape of myself at 20. We are glorious monsters of pastiche.

Every day of the past informs the present. Because of that, we can walk confidently on the ground knowing that our fingers have grazed the sky. We have looked down, and thus can safely look upwards again, knowing what exists in both the depths and the heights of ourselves. We can heal ourselves; we know that the present hurts only because the past didn’t. We can look forward because we know what’s behind us. We are here because we have been there. We are now, because we have been then.

On The Past

7 July, 2010

Call it a crush, a preoccupation, a notion, a flirt, a ‘that-guy’, an ‘I’m-not-quite-sure-what-he-is-to-me’ – it’s fun to have someone in mind, someone that you can allow yourself, every now and then, to stop and think of and smile to yourself, because you know they like you, and you think you like them, too.

So let’s say I got me one of them (yes, it HAS been a while). While I’m hardly filled with the fresh stirrings of unrivaled passion, I’m having fun, and that is always welcome, and, c’est vrai, overdue.

Just a few light weeks into it, I have started to indulge myself in the occasional split-second daydream, the kind that leaves me with a quick sigh and reassurance that someone likes me (in case this sounds trite to you, you are probably lucky enough to have that kind of confidence on a regular basis. I last enjoyed it in 2009).

Imagine my surprise – and utter confusion – when a stolen moment of recalling l’homme nouveau conjured up not his face – but instead the visage of an old, old friend from high school, someone I haven’t seen or heard from since 1998 (possibly 1997). Lordy, was my subconscious messing with my conscious! I stopped myself and carried on my day, but the next time a daydream got the best of me – I once again saw in my head the same face of the boy who liked me in 10th grade.

This old friend – we’ll call him George, which is not his name – has previously been mentioned in this blog, cited for being one of the parties who once-upon-a-time fought over my affection. We had a nice if strange friendship, at least preceding the drama. We had several classes together, and he would pass me notes declaring his deep, true feelings for me, and I would blush and remind him that he had a girlfriend. Unfortunately for him (and me?), I enjoyed his friendship only platonically, and will never forget the shared embarrassment we both felt later that summer when (newly single) he tried to put the moves on me. Still, he remains an integral part of my personal and emotional history – perhaps because he was, I believe, the first person to show that he desired me, maturely, sexually. Of course, 15 year-old me had no idea what to do with that, and waited until those sentiments came from his friend, the victor of their fight, to actually explore them. But when I stop and think about it – as I was forced to do earlier – I do remember the strange, new sense of flattery and confidence that I felt around him, and how that indicated a clear, tender and sweet transition away from innocence.

Still, George has all but disappeared from my life – every 3 years or so, I’ll look him up on the internet, but he seems to be untraceable, free from the confines of Social Networking webs and apparently not doing anything so noteworthy as to wind up in the news.  I don’t think he died (surely, that would be in the news).  Perhaps he changed his name.

His obscurity only aggravates my confusion as to why, when concentrating on conjuring up an image of the new guy in my life, I only see this relic from my past. Physically, I suppose they share the same wavy dark hair – but that’s about where the similarities end.  Upon closer consideration, though, they also share the same awkward approach to me, to whatever we maybe forging – but is my subconscious really so sophisticated as to pull that out from obscurity?  This seems more like the stuff that dreams are made of – surreal, symbolic and suggestive.  But to pop up in a daydream… that’s so overt!  So blatant!  So flummoxing!

I’ve spent a few days trying to figure this out, as it wasn’t until I saw the new guy earlier today that I was able to finally rid George’s face from my association.  I’ve decided that there are more contributing factors to these crossed signals than I had originally thought – all minor, all subtle, but all undeniable.  It’s in the posture, the clumsy confidence that is bolder than it seems, the way they look at me, with eyes that have a lot to say but refuse to utter a word,  small mannerisms, the steady trot, and–perhaps more than anything else–the way they each wanted me, a sweet awkwardness.

All that being said, what surprises me most today is not that my brain drew a connection between these two gentlemen–it’s that it did so even though I have changed so much in these 12, 13 years.  George will always remained fixed in my memory as a 16 year old boy, and I exist in that memory as a 16 year old me, too.  I’d like to think that I have outgrown much of my own maladroit cluelessness and naivete since then, and it’s troublesome to have to wonder if my subconscious hasn’t yet noticed that change.

Having seen the new beau, I think I can more safely keep the two entities separate – one as a memory, the other as a reality.  There is is now an invisible thread endearing the two together, though, and I’ve come to appreciate the way the past has, oddly enough, sweetened the present.

On A New York Memory

2 June, 2010

Wherein I recall a vintage New York soundscape.

Growing up in Central Jersey in the 80s, we lived in the plush suburban periphery of New York City. As the product of two very New York parents (themselves the result of Brooklyn, Queens, Brooklyn and Brooklyn parentage), New York’s cultural legacy runs rich in my blood, but as a girl, my cognitive awareness of the city was fueled by what I saw on TV – the Nightly News more than Night Court.  In my mind, the Center of the Universe was a blend of the stories from the news of drugs, rape, murder, homelessness and filth and Adventures in Babysitting, which only mirrored what I believed the entire city to be.

My family maintained a fairly regular tradition of a monthly dinner in Chinatown, and these journeys were eagerly anticipated – not only for the promise of scallion pancakes and cold noodles with sesame sauce, but for the excitement of spending a few precious (and delicious) hours in the city.

I’ve always had a good memory, and have held on to so many moments from those New York Outings.  I remember the magic of the Lincoln Tunnel, anxiously awaiting the tiled indicator between “New Jersey” and “New York,” and the moment when my parents would, technically, be in New York and my sister and I in the backseat would still be in New Jersey.  I remember the looks on my parents’ faces as we circled Mott Street searching for a parking space – my father would always turn down the radio to help him concentrate.  I remember bouncing up and down on my father’s shoulders as we walked towards the restaurant where our friends would be waiting for us, downtown feeling gritty as could be but often bathed in a warm, orange sunset.  I remember shying away from the headless roasted chickens hanging in steamy windows, the intoxicating smell of a hundred restaurants drowning in brown garlic sauce, and the oil that would cling to my fingers as I greedily devoured scallion pancake after scallion pancake.  (My appetite was as healthy as my memory.)

I have two distinct sound memories from these nights; two, that is, not including the laughter of our party’s conversation and banter.  One is awfully specific – we passed an honest-to-goodness New York rocker (or so I thought), walking down the street with a boom-box balanced on his shoulder.  He wore a denim jacket that was no doubt stone and/or acid washed, and I believe he was wearing sunglasses, despite the late hour and darkness.  This moment may have been my very first validation of coolness as (present-day Me is not so proud to admit this, but I remember how excited 6-year-old Me was) his boom-box was playing the first and only cassette tape that my sister and I owned/shared: Starship’s “Knee Deep in the Hoopla” (not that we knew it was called that), and it was blasting the second ‘best’ song on the album: “Sara.”  I tripped over my words as I interrupted any and all conversations our group was having at that moment to brag that we had that song too!  And to think – we heard it in New York City.

But now – on to what inspired this blog post, on to what it’s really about.  There was one other sound that I associated with growing up and Koch’s New York City; music that was as far as you could get from Blondie or The Ramones, or, gratefully, Starship.

It was the slow, soulful wail of a saxophone, moaning long into the New York City night.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not completely sure if this memory truly mine, or if, too, belongs to the movies and television shows of my youth.  Was not every low-angle shot of a desolate and dirty midtown street accompanied by the wail of a lonesome sax?  Surely.  But somewhere in the recesses of my long and twisted recollection lies the soundtrack to those evenings in New York City as a child, and that soundtrack consists of a low cacophony of languages underscoring the whoosh of cars and far away sirens.  The prominent sound, though, was that of the saxophone, which felt to me like a cry out to the lost souls I imagined roamed the city, uniting the disparate and displaced, the wayward and the worried, those who were still awake it hear it’s howl.

All of this was easily delegated to the corners of my mind, stowed away in my memory with the smell of my grandparent’s old house and the feel of bunnysleepers against my young skin.

Until this afternoon.

This afternoon, I left my office in search of liquid salvation, that sweet ambrosia called Diet Coke.  I walked outside and squinted against the bright June sun and breathed in the warm, heavy air.  Then I heard it – as out of place as a 25 year old memory, yet just as desperate: the whine of a solo saxophone, played by a man who seemed just retro as the tune he played.  In a white tank top tucked into red shorts, a long ponytail pulled at the base of head and a pair of cheap sunglasses wrapped around his head, this man played notes from that long-ago score as few passersby dropped spare change into a neon green case propped up on the sidewalk.

Instantly, I was forced to reconcile present-day awareness – a bustling Chelsea block, the middle of my lackluster workday – with this sound that came straight out of the 80s, out of the place in my brain that lives next to “We Built This City,” and out of nights filled with General Tso’s chicken and Häagen-Dazs.  I circled the block, taking in the fresh if thick air, and the saxophone’s notes followed me, linking my tedious day with an ancient memory of carefree nights.  It was so  glaringly incongruous, yet no one else seemed moved by this, the sound that was as vintage as the high-waisted jeans that have unfortunately come back in fashion.

Once back in my office, through the half-assed windows that let in the winter draft, the sax wafted in, although muted, and filled my afternoon with a strange nostalgia, for a far-away part of my childhood, resurrected by the sound of a New York that I never really knew.

2010: A Different Hope

19 December, 2009

2009 was ushered in on the tails of a Collective Hope – we, as a nation, had spent a huge portion of our energy on ensuring that Barack “Hope” Obama was elected to office, and the celebration that followed his victory in early November lasted roughly 10 weeks, through to his inauguration on that frigid day in January. We felt the pressure of the world on our shoulders, and suddenly, it wasn’t enough just to vote, but we expended a great deal of mental and emotional and sometimes physical energy hoping so damn hard that this one moment would be the change in history that we, as individuals, as a country, as members of the world, so desperately needed. It was the biggest Care Bear Stare in history, as we all gathered to concentrate our Hoping on putting Barack in office.

We succeeded.

And then, we were exhausted.

Last night, at annual holiday dinner party, my friends and I each volunteered what we were thankful for in our lives right now, and what our high points of 2009 had been. No one had very inspired answers; the best being “when I got laid off,” and the worst being “nothing; nothing good has happened in 2009.” It seemed low-points were far more plentiful and easier to conjure.

It got me thinking that maybe what we were missing last year around this time was the hope for ourselves. We were so fixated on the political hope that perhaps we invested too much in that; for although we all believed heartily that Obama’s election would change all of our lives for the better, his message of Hope did not apply to us on a personal level. Hope for the nation, Hope for the world, but what about for us?

I can’t help but wonder if, recession notwithstanding (I realize I’m asking a lot there), we just didn’t have the time or energy to position ourselves in the metaphysical space needed to enter 2009 positively, with optimism for our personal futures, with the knowledge that the ability to make our lives better begins and ends with us. We readily became proud citizens of the country for the first time in eight years, and our energies went towards hoping for better things for the group we belonged to – citizens – rather than for just ourselves, not simply as citizens, but as individuals, as unique snowflakes in this global blizzard.

By beginning the year neglecting our own need for hope (without which we’re pretty much doomed), we all started the year on less stable footing. For some of us, the ground was already fairly shaky and became increasingly worse. For others, the cracks in the once-solid ground came out of nowhere. Either way, as the country sunk into recession, we as individuals descended into depression, realizing that no one was there to hold our hand through these hard times, and despite friendships built on newly available unemployment time, we all had to learn what it was like to be a little more alone. There was an emptiness that grew more vapid as the months wore on, and I’m starting to believe that the void was created by our wearing out our energies too early, on causes other than ourselves.

Going in to 2010, a new decade that couldn’t have come too soon, we are too weary, too jaded, too afraid to invest much faith in anything – but placing faith in the greater picture just seems futile. 2009 was proof of that. Don’t get me wrong – despite the frustrations and disappointments, there’s no other person who should be in office right now other than Obama, and I believe that we did cause that change – but we’ve learned that entrusting so much of our hope in an entity so far out of our hands does not yield a fair exchange. Our Hope Portfolios need more diversification than we were willing to undertake last year; but the safest investment, the one most likely to grant the most returns, is putting our hope for the future in ourselves. Sure, we bear the brunt of the responsibility for it (call me a romantic, but I refuse to take all responsibility for what happens in my life. See “The Traumatic Bike Theft of 2009” for proof), but our accountability is more real, and thus, our rewards are that much greater, that much more fulfilling, that much more meaningful. And that works to renew our hope for another day, another month, another year. 2009 flew by, but each day was a chore, no matter how it was filled. I want 2010 to snowball – whatever hope we can muster to start the year off, as long as its a personal hope, as long as its genuine, to make January better than December, which will make our approach to February that much more positive, which will make it that much easier to wake up in the morning and face the life that awaits us.

On my way home from the dinner party, I sighed to my friend Elaine that 2010 simply had to be better than 2009. She smiled her comforting smile, patted my knee, and said “It already is.”

Do two cowards make a right?

15 December, 2009

I don’t really hate anyone. I am irked by many, disinterested in some, and simply don’t care enough to form an opinion about others. On the whole, though, I’m a lover, not a fighter, I’m a good girl who believes there are better ways to spend our precious time than hating. In fact, even when I have the right to be mad at someone, my overwhelming inability to hold a grudge usually prevents me from doing so.

The past few years have seen one major exception to all that, as there are two people, both former supervisors at an old job, whose callousness and cowardice run so deep in their characters that they are, simply, detestable. I am not at all apologetic that I feel that way, nor have I ever tried to excuse my feelings or hide them. These folks are serpentine, and the enigmatic smile of one and blank, mousy-eyed gaze of the other does little to hide the fact that they are swine.

I won’t go into the details of my grievance with them, save to say that it was in their cowardly and unprofessional approach to management that their sin was committed. Thankfully, I recovered from the incident in question quickly, and had managed to avoid these two slimy beasts for a year and a half, although there’s been a handful of close calls (which were accompanied by panic, shallow breathing and sweaty palms). The panic set in because no matter how far “past” the incident I was, I had little faith in my ability to restrain a verbal barrage of insults from hurling out of my mouth before I had a chance to try and stop them.

Last week, that 18 month bastard-free reign tragically ended. The tragedy was two-fold.
A) the longer I went without seeing either ugly mug, the better, as I was sure that the sight of them would make me ill. (I was correct.)
B) I had long imagined the moment when I was forced to address them face-to-face, and the glory of my damnation, the sweet satisfaction of calling these two milksops out for exactly what they are. But instead of a verbal beat-down and a glowing, virtuous success, I found myself betraying myself! I suddenly succumbed to the pressures of so-called ‘maturity’ and ‘niceties’ and was forced to endure not just the phony, inscrutable smile emitting from the face of a jackass, but – mon dieu – suffer a filthy kiss on the cheek from such a hated man, while trying to swallow the sick that rose up in my throat.

Oh, the heartache. I instantly felt empty, defeated. I had lost my chance at revenge; at accusing the most cowardly man I know of being just that, of kicking him in the shins, both literally and proverbially, all in the name of some godforsaken professionalism.

Was I the bigger person? Or did I commit the sin of playing into his delusional fantasy of being universally-adored, of doing no wrong, of being so in charge that his every whim and wish becomes the law of the land?

I felt dirty and ashamed, felt like I had reneged on and disappointed my pride. Worse yet, I’m afraid I’ll never again have the chance to tell him squarely: “Your behavior towards me proves that the only thing more enormous than your ego is your fear. There was never any dignity in avoiding me, in avoiding the truth, in avoiding bad things in an attempt to believe they’re not really there. Live in misery with the knowledge that whatever your title, salary or role in life, you have acted with a cowardice that will not be forgotten, or forgiven.”

… followed by, at least, a knee to the groin.

So who is the worse person? Him, for being an asshole? Or me, for swallowing my feelings when I’ve never before been so right to express them? The last few days have seen me plagued by thinking of all the biting lines I should have said to him. I need to move on, and learn that although I may have let myself down this once, I can take comfort in knowing that I will never, ever let a such a ripe opportunity to speak my mind pass me by again.

This one’s rated “A” for abstract, kids. Reader tolerance is requested.

There’s no such thing as a single, solitary outlook (on life, on love, on work, on friendships). Anytime a situation, conflict, issue arises, we struggle with the right way to deal with it – ‘right’ taking on a variety of meanings… There’s right to our heart, right to our heads, right to other people, right ethically, morally. So we start to divide our feelings, our approach. That’s when the “If…”s start to rear their curious little heads. We begin to vacillate between the imps and angels on our shoulders (when it’s easy) or we dig deeper and deeper inside ourselves to try to find something that resembles the truth (when it’s not).

Recently, I got tired of mixed emotions – stemming from nearly all parts of my life – running amok inside my head. I needed to find some peace that would afford me sleep, and some degree of comfort. I recalled that a few friends of mine were ardent believers in the power of positive thinking – if not so much as a way to get results, than as an effective approach to not let negativity get the best of them. Desperate for a change, I sucked it up and tried it. I not only placed every part of my life in a positive and forward-thinking context, but I went so far as to project whom I wanted to become in the place that I wanted to be. I even situated other people inside these projections – who do I want to work with, who do I want to spend my time with, and who do I want to be with these people?

It wasn’t easy; in fact the effort was relatively enormous (‘relatively’ being the operative word there, but it’s hardly my fault – times like these do not lend themselves to inherently positive thinking). For about a day, despite the effort exerted, I felt great. I was energized and created a huge map of the road from “now” to “happy place” and spectacular energy abounded in my apartment. The future seemed within reach, and the troublesome, tedious, stressful days of my past were numbered. What joy! What relief! What shit-eating shame that I had to admit my superstitious friends, in their optimistic glory, were right.

24 hours passed. Then, the fissures began to show. First, the effort required to put on a happy face became tiresome – if only because my cynical mind is not used to taking a backseat to blind hopefulness. Second, to me (here’s that cynicism), optimism is often equatable to vulnerability. Expectations are great, investments are high and defenses inevitably come down. This a dangerous place; this is the place that leads to disappointment, to hurt – two familiar and detested emotions.

Still, I was reluctant to break up my fling with positive thinking altogether. I searched for a way to adapt what I still viewed as a naïvely juvenile world view into the more comfortable, if more pessamistic, outlook. I wanted to see the world through purplish-tinted glasses; not quite rosy, but not quite dark. Oddly enough, I found that turning my view completely around – more balanced, even if it did skew towards the negative – helped me get back to a not-unhappy, safe place that I wanted to be. Dissonant, for sure, but not-unhappy, and that felt good.

I tried to explain this to a friend, citing a frequently troublesome and blog-worthy area of my life (hint: it’s not the MTA). My Day 1 outlook on the topic was confident and mature, but sadly, existed in a space that was foreign to me, and so it felt largely inauthentic. My Day 2 outlook reined emotions in to a place where I could embrace whatever may or may not happen, and, importantly, be A-OK no matter what. (Some might argue that this takes the fun, the butterflies out of it. I do not necessarily disagree.) But although I was ready to accept this change as “negative,” I soon realized how much better this safe if contained approach made me feel, and that, friends, is it’s own positive thinking. If you don’t care enough to expect things from people, it’s infinitely more difficult for them to let you down. That may seem callous, but there’s a practicality there too that I’m learning to love.

From that standpoint, I took what seemed to be a tumble downwards, but, again, the so-called fall only served to reinforce something solid and settled. I began to entertain that a certain pesky situation I was in as simply entirely over and done with. Fair enough that you might think that I’ve hit the lowest depths of negativity, and you might be right in wondering what kind of investment I have/had in it at all. (I do not have an answer for you). But by nay-saying (or nay-thinking) I’ve fortified my resolve and secured my sanity. At best, I told my friend, I am pleasantly surprised by what the future holds. At worst, which is hardly worst, I stay no worse off than I am currently. And the safety in realizing this suddenly felt more positive than any allegiance to “The Secret” that my friends extolled. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” my friend summarized. The way I saw it, only good things can come of that, even in matters of the heart.

Of course, it’s too easy for this tirade to end there, with my upside-down, bass-ackwards point of view bringing me undue solace. For I next began to wonder, as I truly did slip down into cynical terrain, how can one prepare for the worst while not projecting those fears? Like brown eyes and dimples, negative thoughts are dominant, and tend to cloud the presence of other emotions. Throw a projection-inclined gal like me into that mix, and suddenly what I had seen as a “rational and safe” approach grew into the scowls and thick walls of a skeptic. I found that neat coincidences could wind up under the “Positive Thinking” banner, but later couldn’t help but think that I was manifesting disappointment by specifying a more negative outlook. Suddenly, my negative-yet-positive vantage point was devolving, turning into a reclusive-and-negative view, conditions that the universe seemed all too eager to satisfy. And this worried me.

If we prepare for the worst, do we not invite panic from our neighbors? If we emotionally cast aside people we once cared for (likely in a veiled attempt to save ourselves from hurt, but that’s a blog for another time), then what’s to stop them from doing the same to us? How do we live a life of caution but convey an attitude of devil-may-care?

It is not so much that I wish to be a rock, an island, to feel no pain or to never cry, but I do sometimes wonder if our outlooks on life – on love, on work, on friendships – would be better suited if equipped with a moat. Not impregnable, but not susceptible; not foreboding, but not exposed. Then, there’d be no reason to choose Positive vs. Negative Thinking, nor to spend hours calculating which is the more effective, tenable and lasting approach. The challenges before us would serve to strengthen us, and the task of others reaching us would prove to be that much more rewarding. We would be safe, but not alone.