Another love letter to New York

There are a few things I truly dislike about New York, and I encountered most of them between 5:30 and 8:00 a.m. the day I arrived.   Stubbornly anti-cab, I spent the bulk of that 150 minutes on frigid platforms, awaiting imaginary trains, and–much later–pressed into a rush-hour train car with my great piles of luggage, sandwiched firmly between Freakishly Annoying Man and Mr. Clearly Shat Himself.  It is difficult for me to remember now, days later, but I had been so tired and hungry and cold that it seemed better to stay on that godforsaken train than battle the crowds and wait for the next one.

But then I suddenly emerged in sunny Brooklyn, around the corner from my old apartment.  I am wearing my scarf and ready for an adventure.

I love this place more than is really possible.

Being here is just as much about being in the past as in the present, and if I close my eyes, I am right back there in Central Park on the last day of my first year of teaching.  The Neville Brothers are there, too, and a lovely police officer asking us to please move a bit farther away so he won’t have to look into our coolers and confiscate our revelry.

My dear friend Alan is there, around the corner, throwing the key out the window and waiting for me to walk up.  He has a new mix tape, a new book, and a new way to look at the world today.

I am riding the train to work in the morning, darting off to throw up in the garbage cans and race back to reclaim my seat–a subway miracle.  I am wandering around the west village again, wondering why they keep reorganizing it so I can never find Arthur’s Tavern.  I am running late, running for trains, running out of steam, running amok.

I am meeting acquaintances for drinks, unfamiliar with bars with no signage at all–only really there if you know where to look.  I am ordering the wrong thing, I am wearing the wrong thing, I am likely saying the wrong thing, but it is ok because there is room for everyone.

Things have changed, of course.  It’s no longer MY city.  I can no longer eat bagels, and the Kentile Floor sign refuses to light up.  But the city is still full, magical, and heart-stopping. There are flirty barista boys and Indian restaurants so bedazzled it is impossible to stand up.  There are secret notes written on tickets; there is King Kong; there is the most exquisite pair of shoes I have ever laid eyes on.  There is Alan Rickman just yards away, and row after row of Brownstones, huddled together against the elements.  And there is a cafe playing an album I haven’t heard in so many years, resurfacing things long unfelt and unthought, seemingly forgotten.  It is all still here.

I remember why I moved.  I do.  New York can be a desolate and unfriendly place, even soulless.  A person has to expend so much energy looking out for herself that little remains to offer others.

Once safely nestled back on the West Coast, however, only the stardust lingers.

Oh, to go back.  I can’t wait.

Aim low kid.

In days of yore, I studied life drawing at a little studio with an engraved brass plate on the door reading:  ‘entree des artistes.’  My teacher was crotchety and demanding, fussing in equal amounts about cake crumbs and his bad back.  He was wonderful, actually; I miss that place like crazy.

It was in crotchety man’s drawing class that I became acquainted with a guy named Doug.

Doug was a profoundly talented artist with an adoring posse, a portfolio filled with exceptional drawings, and a model or two clamoring to sleep with him at all times.  He was also a bit of an asshole.  I loved drawing next to him–peering over his shoulder for inspiration and hoping his muse might take an interest in me–but at break-time I tried to steer clear of him.  His self-absorbed ruminations and general lack of interest in anything I said or did were off-putting. Mainly, though, I wanted to avoid hearing about the challenges of maintaining dreads when you have soft, golden hair.  You have to get beeswax!  Oh, the daily ratting, teasing struggle of it all!  It was more than I could bear.  I never suspected that Doug would teach me anything of value about life outside the studio, let alone the secret to New Year’s resolutions.

Then one January evening, years ago, I found myself stuck next to him in the line for the bathroom.  After an uncomfortable silence, I finally asked him what I ask everyone at that time of year.  “Did you make any resolutions?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Less motherfucker and more jive turkey.”

Brilliant, really.

Here was a guy who obviously had plenty of room for improvement, merely planning on swearing a bit less.  I responded enthusiastically–perhaps embarrassingly so–but Doug was nonplussed.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Last year my goal was to learn how to cook fish.”  Herein lies Doug’s secret to meaningful New Year’s resolutions:  HE SETS VERY SPECIFIC GOALS HE CAN ACHIEVE.

For years I had been making resolutions like,  “Read all the books I’ve been meaning to read,” “Exercise five times a week,” and “Find balance.”  These were resolutions I had proven myself to be incapable of achieving.  Setting the same elusive goals year after year was only making me feel inadequate and frustrated.  How exactly was that helpful?

Shortly after our conversation, I threw out “achieve harmony between life and work” and wrote down the following:  “#1:  In the middle of every day I will sit down quietly for 20 minutes.  Maybe I will eat.  #2:  If I have been working for 12 hours, I will leave work immediately WITHOUT bringing any work home.”  Most of my friends found these resolutions to be terribly pathetic, but I found them revolutionary.  I had put on paper two tiny steps toward carving space in the day for myself, thereby greatly improving my daily life.  With a few minor exceptions–an art show, finals, major deadlines–I can sustain these goals and turn my attention to other areas that I would like to address.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying to set your sights low for work or love.  Not at all.  But resolutions are most often about the habits and patterns of thought we hold that serve as obstacles to our health, happiness, and sense of well-being.  Setting reasonable, achievable, and sustainable goals requires a substantial shift in mindset.  I no longer consider myself a project, or some sort of approximation of the person I would like to become.  Instead, how liberating to consider oneself a decent person, doing what decent people do:  learning from last year’s experiences and working to make the coming year even better.

In the process of writing this post, I heard about Silvi Alcivar, who had always wanted to be a writer–even called herself a writer–but could not make herself write regularly as she thought a writer should.  She decided to set a goal of writing THREE MINUTES a day.  Now she she meets people all over and has very focused, intense conversations.  Then she writes them tiny, mind-blowing, three-minute poems.  I got a little weepy watching her video, but that is not surprising, I suppose.  I cried at a Keds’ commercial once.  Check Silvi out now at The Poetry Store.

In the meantime, you may be hoping that I’m planning a year with less motherfucker as well, but I have other small fish to fry.  Sorry, mom.

Fuzzy Logic

I’ve discovered that I need a lot more structure than I would like to admit.  For a long time, I couldn’t even sit down at the keyboard unless someone told me what to write and when it was due.  That worked well until I graduated; now I have to kick my own ass.  After months of trying to write, and thinking about writing, and wishing I was writing, I publicly pledged to write 1,667 words a day for thirty days straight.  It’s amazing.  As the kind folks from National Novel Writing Month say, “The looming specter of personal humiliation is a very reliable muse.”

It’s working so well, I tried to give myself a daily photo challenge as well.

Unfortunately, I got out there today and had zero inspiration.  The light was all wrong, I didn’t have enough time, and everything around me looked boring.  I couldn’t make myself take a single photograph.  This has happened before, countless times, but today the face of my crazy old drawing teacher appeared.  I remembered him looking at a stack of my lifeless drawings and saying, “I think you’re going to need to take off your glasses.  The way you’re looking at things is interfering with the way you are seeing.”  Say what?

Well, I wasn’t about to take off my glasses today.  I’m blind, blind, blind, and the last thing I wanted to do was run into a tree with my camera or trip over a car.  So, I threw that contraption out of focus instead.  While I’m not completely sold on any of the resulting images, the process was transformed.  The world was boiled down into geometry and light, and suddenly I wanted come out and play.

Novel excerpt: Bad Parenting 101

I cannot account for the drive to swap ‘most embarrassing moments.’ Perhaps it is just a “misery loves company” sort of phenomenon, or a chance to release old baggage and laugh at ourselves in the process.  I do know that it is more enjoyable if you follow certain rules.  You have to pick the right sort of person with whom to share, and then make sure to speak last—just in case. Gauge the level of trust based on how heinous your friend’s story is.  Personally, I have such an accumulation of humiliating moments that I like to select one that is only very slightly less mortifying than my companion’s.  I was about to share a truly devastating, ego-crushing debacle with an acquaintance, but LUCKILY I made her share first.  Since when does accidentally running a load of laundry twice through the wash count as embarrassing?  I immediately reneged on my promised reciprocation.  After that lame-ass, milquetoast non-revelation, there was no way was I going to talk about what happened to me in a port-a-potty once at a rock concert.  NO WAY.

Swapping bad parenting stories follows the same principles, and it feels even more liberating to get that shit off your chest and begin to forgive yourself–especially if your friend did something even worse.  That feels great.

I was once in a terribly uncomfortable situation…trapped in a station wagon with a gallery-owner I had never met, despite the fact that I had been interning at his place for months.  He was driving around downtown like a maniac.  My job was to run into places and pick up ridiculously valuable objects here and there, and toss them into the trunk while he double-parked and stared at me vaguely.  “WHO are you, again?” he asked for the third time.  I realized he would never get the hang of my name, so I changed my tactic:  “I’m the fool who found out I was pregnant 3 weeks into art school and has been trying to finish ever since.”  Suddenly, his vision cleared and he started talking with me like a real person, to my great relief.

We talked about everything:  art, philosophy, truth, but mostly parenting. When I told him my two year old threw down her crayon and yelled “fuck it,” when she got frustrated, he just laughed and said, “That’s nothing.  On his first day of kindergarten, my son turned to his neighbor at the lunch table and said—in front of the teacher and half a dozen other parents–‘Wanna toke of my cookie?’”

He won that round, but lately I’ve been working on some seriously competitive material.

Novel Excerpt: Dangers of Parenting

Parenting is dangerous work.  Kids will do, throw, and say things that make it impossible to watch where you are going, by foot or by car.  Thanks to legions of alert drivers ahead and behind, we have avoided countless close calls.  Small people seem strangely intent on committing suicide.  They throw themselves off of slides and into the street on a regular basis.  They eat rocks and shiny metal objects.  They put small round things up their nose.  They choke on all manner of harmless-looking food items.  Meanwhile, schlepping their tiny bodies and their disproportionate mounds of accompanying crap screws up your back and shoulders.  Even playing with them can be treacherous.  I once threw out my neck playing Oogie Boogie.  I got physically stuck in a maze of tunnels ten feet off the ground while pregnant with #2.  No one had explained that being pregnant while raising a toddler is a Herculean task.  Instead of resting when you get sick or tired, you take a whiney child to the zoo, and carry them around when they refuse to walk or sit in the stroller.  The needs of a pregnant woman and her eighteen month old are diametrically opposed.   As they get older, they start to walk reliably, but it’s still dicey.  That last round of spanky tag got so heated I twisted my ankle and had some discomfort sitting down to ice it for the next hour or so.

Yet long-term sleep deprivation is by far the most hazardous aspect of parenting.  It endangers life, limb, sanity, and all personal relationships. You snap at your spouse.  You can’t tell your friends from your frenemies.  You become bitter and stupid.  You can’t finish a thought, let alone a sentence.  You drop things, spill things, break things, and lose things, especially your shit.  I once got out of the car while it was running to wander around and rummage in the trunk.  It took a moment before I realized that the car was still in reverse and careening backwards down Potrero Hill with my babbling child inside.  As I stared dumbly at the unfolding debacle, I knocked myself over with the door I had left open.  Though secretly impressed by my wonder woman leap to the rescue of surrounding people and property, I never told anyone about the incident until now.  I’m pretty sure it is more indicative of my stupidity than any sort of heroism, but it does illustrate nicely why sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique.  You become completely unglued and irrational.

The NEW and IMPROVED plan

As you may know, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month, which means I have to spew 1,667 words every single day during the month of November.  Also, the words are supposed to relate to each other in a sort of novel-y way.  Not just meaningless blather.  Still, a portion of what is excreted each day is serious crap.  Finding a fresh little nugget to excerpt each day looks to be a bit of a challenge.  Furthermore, I don’t have many words left after all that.  I seem to hit my quota and then HIT THE WALL, so squeezing 400 more words out of me in not a possibility. Consequently, I have a NEW and IMPROVED plan for my daily post challenge.  I will post a photograph.  This makes me happy.  I get to dust off my camera.

Day two: another excerpt

But baby was born and she was just perfectly beautiful. She latched on and started nursing eagerly, and I thought, “when she’s done, we’ll just sleep and sleep and sleep.” She didn’t finish, though. She was insatiable. And, it turns out you have to do stacks of paperwork before they let you go to the room. It took hours to fill it all out, administer exams, tests, shots, eye drops, the whole nine yards. When we finally headed to the room around 4 am for some sleep, guess what? Baby did not want to sleep. Baby wanted to scream. She wanted to nurse. She would not be put down. This frustrated me to no end. I had made a rational and informed decision that the baby would sleep in her own crib from day one so I wouldn’t ruin sleep patterns for the whole family as well as end my sex life. It had never occurred to me that the baby might have her own opinion on the matter. She wanted to be held. At all times. She nursed relentlessly, and when the colostrom was gone and my milk had not yet come in, she bit at me until my nipples bled. “See?” I thought to myself. “It’s because you weren’t well-centered enough throughout the pregnancy. You didn’t do enough yoga. You harbored bad thoughts about your hippie birthing coach. You didn’t sing stupid twinkle songs to the fetus. Now you’re fucked.”

Ooh! Today’s novel excerpt!

“My main concern about art school was a vision of quirky painter types, holing up in their studios and spewing arty masturbations about their tiny inner lives onto giant canvases.  What if I got sucked into their self-indulgent little cult?  Ugh.  But I was studying photography!  I would journey out into reality, recording lives legions away from my inner world.

Sadly, when I found out I was pregnant, I felt tremendous pressure to turn the lens on myself.  “If not now, when?” my teachers queried.  Here was this tremendous opportunity for self-exploration, they persisted, a once in a lifetime chance!  And so my work devolved into self-indulgent arty masturbations about my tiny inner life.  As I transformed into my own worst nightmare, at least I was too broke to make the ginormous prints that would have reified the accompanying self-loathing.”

Why you may want to wait and have that baby AFTER art school

It’s too late for me, obviously, but you could save yourself.

Nota bene:

*Maternity pants do not look quite right with the art uniform.

*Morning sickness does not mix well with photo chemistry.  Plus, using a ventilator mask only exacerbates the feeling that you are being invaded by aliens.

*It’s unwieldy and uncomfortable to schlepp lights, view cameras, tripods, stands, drawing boards, toolboxes, and power packs around with a basketball-sized babe lodged in your uterus.

*Being surrounded by photo students means you are pretty much guaranteed to see your child’s birth canal plastered all over somebody’s senior thesis show.  That’s right. Imagine standing in a room full of 20 year olds staring at your vagina blown up to 30 x 40. Awkward.

*It is impossible to care about footnoting properly when suffering from post-partum depression.

*Babies do not amuse themselves and/or sleep soundly just because you have a gigantic critique the next day.  EVEN WHEN YOU ASK NICELY.

*6 hour studio classes mean you have to sit on the nasty floor of the bathroom and pump during the break.

There are loads of other reasons, the most heinous of which I have gladly repressed. On the other hand, a baby provides a cheap and available model for many of your projects, and lots of sleep-deprived angst to channel into something creative. If you can drag school out for a few extra years, it just might work for you. Besides, during those moments when they’re not tired, cranky, hungry, or expelling something from one end or the other, babies are really quite charming.