Saturday, December 31, 2011

Swimming to Reality

When I first get in, it's a shock. It's cold, and I think, What am I doing? And then I begin to swim.

A hundred yards of freestyle. A hundred yards of breaststroke (aka reststroke). Fifty yards of freestyle kick. Then another round of all. At the end, fifty yards of freestyle, as fast as I can go. It erases everything in my brain, except for the thought: You can do it. You can do anything, as long as you know there is an end, eventually. Then I see it, under the moving blue, the line that tells me there are just two more revolutions of the arms. Finally, I touch the wall.

Actually, I hit the wall before I in fact hit the wall. At some point, there will be the place where swimming and thought merge. Where skin and outside temperature have no boundary. Then, there is realization.

Last week at the Y, I realized something that had been there all along, something that had underlay my entire life up to that point. There are things we think that are as the concrete foundation under the house, unseen but holding it up nonetheless. As usual, the sudden realization hit me in a fully formed sentence, words to an assumption that had never been spoken, all these years. If only I had been born with a perfect body, I would find someone to love.

I almost laughed underwater (not a good idea in a public pool) at the absurd idea. A perfect example of magical thinking. But yet it is what I believed. All my troubles, all my life, in fearing that I might never find the perfect union, had been about my imperfect genetics. If only I had been one of those women with lithe and shapely legs, there never would have been any of that heartache. There never would have been those years of dearth, those thousands of nights alone in city apartments, wondering if there was anyone, ever, who would lie beside me, take my hand, say the simple words I thought would mean the end of loneliness.

Now I know that wasn't the problem. Or perhaps it just complicated the problem for me. Because, according to the cover story in this month's The Atlantic, the problem is men. Or rather, economics, imbalanced numbers, and the freefall that ensues.

The author of the piece is pictured on the cover, as if to prove a point: She's very attractive. And she's obviously smart. She just didn't quite know what she was dealing with. So she's alone now, on the sharp edge of forty.

She was attracted to the same sort that I was at her age: the dark artist. The poet, or the painter. The kind who goes out with you for six months, then announces: Uh, not yet. I'm not ready.

Turns out they're never ready, until they're fifty-five or so, at which point they're ready . . . for a thirty-five-year-old. So they get it all--decades of banging scores of beautiful women (see, here's where my realization really hit: many of them do have perfect bodies, and see where it gets them?), and then, just under the wire, "commitment." And a family. Their old girlfriends, all the six-month wonders? They get to spend their fifties coming to terms with what it means to be well and truly alone, to know that they will never experience the touch of another again, and to feel the empty pride of knowing they are capable enough to be able to go out in the middle of the night while a freezing windstorm rages and get the generator in the garage started and hook it up so the basement doesn't flood. Quite a feeling of accomplishment.

There are not enough men, and always enough women twenty years younger. So there's always a lost generation of women who put their fine educations to use in constructing justifications: Hey, I've got my friends. My work. My hobbies. That's so much!

And indeed it is. Gratitude abounds. But what of the creeping bitterness? The little nagging hatefulness that comes on at nine on a Friday night, just you and the newspaper and a glass of wine? What to do with the wish, just once, for someone with whom to talk over the wisdom of this car over that, saying this to your child instead of that, staying in for dinner or going out? Well, you shouldn't feel it.

Usually, the people who tell you this with such conviction are those who are paired. (And the notion of pairing: It just feels so natural, so like the summer rain; all of those millions of us in our separate households, with our separate bills, might be excused for a primitive wail into the silence: Isn't this stupid?) They usually tell you, a little too quickly, how sick they are of their husbands' neediness, their selfishness, their bursts of critical unhappiness. At least you don't have to deal with that. But I tried to explain it to one of them once like this. If you get a flat tire, who's the first person you call? And if you find a fifty-dollar bill on the sidewalk, who's the first person you call? It's the same person, isn't it? Well, some of us have no one to call. We share it with no one. The frustration and the happiness both. A closed system of one.

The author of the piece, after explaining the causes for this state of affairs, ends at the same place as the apologists of the single lifestyle. Isn't it wonderful to be in the company of other lonely women?

She never contends with the simple, central issue--what to do about the primate, its inborn needs and its skin? You can't talk that away. Flowers, a ring. Another. You can't think that away. You can only swim.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

These Too Are Gifts

We went down to the city of the past and the present. We rode the bus. One of the aims, besides encountering the serendipities a visit to the place always provides, was to see the bonsai collection at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; the boy has become fascinated with these frozen moments, these living paintings. One thing led to another. We arrived a half hour before closing time, in a foggy gray drizzle. Only it wasn't a half hour before closing, it turned out. We walked past the windows, through which we could see people standing in the room of miniatures, gazing in silence, and when we reached the door we found it locked. A guard stood on the other side, shaking his head.

Because I had, for inscrutable and unfortunate reasons, seen the tree at Rockefeller Center by myself while the boy was still downtown, and I was saddened that he had not had the experience, I was now determined he should not miss another thing. He would especially not miss this, for which we had spent hours of travel time. I stood there and gestured, with what I hoped was a pleasant but pleading look on my face. "We're closed," he said as he cracked open the door.

I won't retail all that I said, but it was a lot. And, though he hesitated--"If I get in trouble for letting you in . . ."; "Then I'll tell them that it was all my fault," now that my foot was almost literally in the door--he relented. "Thank you. You've made a child very happy."

And indeed he had. The quiet beauty of the trees resisted time. Amazing us. Yet only five minutes had passed. On our way out, I touched the guard's arm. "You are a good man. Merry Christmas."

We walked down the street, entered the museum next. After we had wandered through four floors, just aimless and seeing what we felt like seeing, not talking too much, we went back down and sat for a moment in front of a temporary piece in the atrium. "Movable Garden," it was titled: a long brick trough of dirt in which hundreds of variously colored roses had been stuck. If you took one, the placard instructed, the t
hing to do was to pass it along to a stranger.

I called Tony on my phone. This was another aim of the trip: to say goodbye to Fannie, Tony's dog and my god-dog. Fourteen years before, we had found her as a puppy wandering alone in Prospect Park. She found us within five minutes of each other, almost simultaneously, even though we were not aware at the time, being on other ends of the park, and she further bound us together. She had always been one of those extraordinary beings, a spirit dog. We loved her with e
verything we had. And now she was dying.

Tony picked us up in his van. We didn't have long before we had to get on the subway again, to make our bus home. Fannie had lost so much weight. Her bones stuck out, and her fur was coming out in clumps. I am not sure if she recognized me. The boy put his arms around her; he loved dogs almost as if he were one. He gave Tony the white
rose he had selected.

While the boy ate some pizza at a table indoors, I finished mine outside on the sidewalk while Tony and I tried hard not to cry. I do not like goodbyes. He said Fannie would barely eat. Not even pizza, or cheese? No, not even that. But I held out a piece of crust; her eyes had been distant, but now she took it gingerly in her mouth. And chewed.

To a passerby with a dog who stopped to chat, Tony recited from memory the inscription on a stone in Greenwood Cemetery. Underneath the aged soil rested a dog, the only one in this graveyard. She had belonged to Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine. Tony had named his dog after Howe's. Fannie.

Only a dog, do you say, Sir Critic?
Only a dog, but as
truth I prize
The truest love I have won in living
Lay in the deeps of her limpid eyes

Frosts of the winters, nor heat of the summer
Could make her fail if my footsteps led
And memory holds in its treasure casket
The name of my d
arling who lieth dead

Tony could not see me at that moment, but hearing him was my goodbye. And tears fell then.

Soon we were on the bus north, to home. The boy fell asleep against my shoulder, and all was as it was supposed to be. Beginnings, endings, and in between the gifts.

Tony, right; Jupiter, in Santa's lap; Fannie, center. Prospect Park, 2009.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Oh! Tanenbaum

When I was a kid in the city (of course, I never was a kid in the city, but 24 looks sufficiently childlike at this remove, when I thought I was an adult but I was living instead in that netherworld between youth and adulthood, walking a swaying bridge between the two), I always celebrated my birthday the same way. I gave myself a tree.

Out I would venture in the dark to some otherwise barren quarter of Hoboken, where a December tree seller had set up shop on a street corner. The trees had appeared in the nighttime bringing with them the scent of elsewhere, the perfume of a place I called nature. Breathe deep; close the eyes. The animals of the woodland creep closer. Inhale the piney freedom. Then open the eyes. Hoboken's wildlife--rats, chihuahuas on leash, and teenage boys bearing boomboxes as big as steamer trunks on their shoulders--reappears. Oh well.

Inside my railroad flat the tree would unleash its smell, and I would get busy decorating. Some of the ornaments had been made by friends, and delivered to a tree-trimming party that was probably the smallest gathering the world has ever known, as my apartment was something like two hundred square feet. The tree--even the smallest one I could find, from the $15 rack--now occupied one-fourth of the available real estate.

No matter. I proudly, happily, placed dead center my favorite friend-made ornament: the logo from a Ritz cracker box, a bit of red yarn glued to it, and to that a small caption: "Robert Venturi is God!" Can you guess the profession of its maker? Three and two don't count. Yes, architect.

Oh, and the other tree-trimming tradition: "Messiah" pouring from the stereo. Good thing I was alone, because I sang along. Always. Loudly.

Christmas trees date back some five hundred years, to eastern Europe. At first, people would sing around a tree in the public square, then light it on fire. Later, this would sometimes happen in people's living rooms, as evergreens were decorated with live candles. But that almost seemed worth the danger to me; although I only ever got as far as white mini-bulbs, I envied the few friends who braved the risk for an incomparable, transporting vision of a green tree alight with dancing flames.

My tree this year, as ever since I moved here, comes from the advancing woods retaking the open fields. A giveback, then. And even more of one to me, since all this land is now owned by New York City. I'm sure they wouldn't mind, right? The tree is always lopsided, having grown toward the sun on its own terms, with two crowns.

We just finished reading a book on the Christmas truce of 1914, my boy and me. What a cheering, and depressing, story. The former, because it proves that when we come to know one another as men, as friends, we no longer wish to kill. The "enemy" is destroyed, when he is no longer the vilified unknown, when he is just like you--sick and tired of senseless slaughter. And it is the latter, because in the true story, the officers outlawed friendship. Finally, after months of pressure later, the men were convinced to kill again. The enemy was restored.

But for a brief while, lighted trees stood on the ground of No Man's Land, bringing peace.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Occupy Their Shoes

Why did it take so long? Why were we not in the streets, with our placards and our anguished shouts, before this? It took nearly a fifth of us out of work--no hope of it returning, either, because it had been slipped out of our pockets while we were watching the parade, entertained by today's official clowns (ever more team sports to show us how to be mindless followers, happy pills that simultaneously pacify us and put billions in the coffers of Big Pharma, brilliant!, the little screens in all our hands giving the illusion of Connection to Friends, jobs disappearing incrementally into automation)--before we thought to rise up. What the encampments will bring, no one yet knows. Change, one hopes. But hopes are sometimes dashed.

My coat, anyway, now sports the button I had been long wishing someone would stamp and a million wear: "I want Roosevelt again." Or at least someone with the courage to do what is necessary, no matter how unpopular, and then to proclaim (as in 1936): "They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred." Only bravery like this, and a willingness to put the country before a desire to be liked, aka reelected, can effect the change we need now. Because, truly, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little" (second inaugural).

I was in the presence of a few who seemed to have too much, on Saturday evening. The venue was the grand new luxury hotel built by the man who has brought high-stakes horse shows to the banks of the Hudson; he had to build the hotel, he explained to a magazine reporter, because there was no place in these parts that offered the kind of lodgings the extremely well-heeled horsey set demands as a matter of right. And so he built a place that exudes the right sort of silky anonymity, with high thread-count sheets and turn-down service, that is expected by the one percent. He is also the parent of children in my son's new school, and that is why I was seated near the fireplace at a large table at the lavish buffet in his hotel's two-story banquet room, for the school's annual fundraising auction.

The items bid upon ranged from gift baskets prepared by every class (the seventh grade's was a game basket, for which I'd bought Scrabble and a dictionary), a chance to be headmaster for a day, a custom-made dining table (value, $9000), a Cape Cod house for a week (value, $2700), lunch with Entrepreneur of the Year (value, priceless), and a "dream car tour," enabling one to take for a spin, one after the other, a Lamborghini, Bentley, Aston Martin, Maserati, and Mercedes. The one I wished for, though, was "Fighter Pilot for a Day," at the controls of an Italian light attack fighter. Then I could die, feeling complete.

The paddles were raised all around the room, blinking on and off like explosions in a video game war. And indeed it was a game, only played with real money (we had given our credit card coordinates before being seated). I noted the frequent bidders always sat back in their chairs, as if resting while servants (volunteers
with clipboards and fast pens) recorded their thousands tossed off with an insouciant flick of the wrist. They seemed to enjoy it. The next thing I knew, auction fever spiked my temperature for a brief, hysterical moment, and in a single flash of my paddle--wait, who did that?--I had given away money I didn't have, so that the kids might have a weather station with Mac and six iPads and dock. Then I came to my senses. I went back for some paella and put the paddle safely into my bag so no more temptations would call me out of my place firmly with the 99 percent. Those who had no access to an open bar and chocolate-covered cheesecake slices.

For one night, I stood in their shoes. And I knew why they didn't want to give this up. But I also knew why we must fight so that they will.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Greener Grass

I finally found peace. Or at least for the duration of the eight-CD set I did. As soon as I switched on the ignition, for those many and dreaded car trips that always split the day into shards, the car was flooded with the very substance of peace. It came in the form of the milky, sober intonations of Eckhart Tolle's voice reading the absolute sense and logic of his hybrid Buddhism.

It is simple to judge a book by its cover, and his books had previously seemed to be that most loathsome and easy to ridicule variety, "self-help," that at which the intellect police snort before tossing onto the garbage heap along with chick lit and Snow Falling on Cedars. But I had been wrong. Of course. As wrong as the ignorant always are before being hit with the force of truth. Now I know that contained in his credo--Now is the only time there is--was the only thing that could matter. I wish I could let you hear it now ("the eh-go-ick self," that trickster wretch who leads us astray again and again--half-whispered in a Germanic accent). It makes you feel good about life, just settling into the calming air filling the interior of the car. It makes you feel good about all that you lack--because you really lack nothing.

It took a while to go through all of them, during the multiple twenty-minute trips to the dump, the library, the bus stop. And while the discs were with me (for too long, no doubt angering the lengthening list of library patrons who had put holds on the New Earth set while I drove all over Ulster County with them) I was able to conquer my persistent, strenuous wishing. Every time something upset me, whether my child losing something, my dog running away, my possessions breaking or tearing, my prospects dwindling (that one always seems permanent to me: there's never going to be another chance! my egoic child cries, though it's funny that it never seems to work in reverse, where I believe my enlarging prospects will remain better forever), I said to myself: That's okay! They don't matter. They are not me. They are not my life's purpose. My ego wants me to believe they're important, and I mustn't give in to that damaging whiner.

Although I knew dear Eckhart would have been disappointed in me, I secretly felt a little proud when I did so. I could let go of so much! And in such a short time! My, what a quick study. Full enlightenment seemed only weeks away--why, just a little more practice, and I will be there! I would no longer care about anything. I would never again be imprisoned by worry. Not about the years reeling by, pulling me by the hair; not about the want of things, which are never quite good enough so that I must want more.

The thought occurred that I should buy my own set: I was doing well so long as I kept listening. But I worried that finally I might tune my teacher out, after so many replays. I would become bored, on the seventh hearing, with having to think so hard about sorting out the real feeling from the egoic feeling. Right from wrong; right from wrong, like those boxes we give to babies so that they might put the plastic triangle into the triangular hole, where only it will fit. So much to correct! And I might just want to listen to some classic rock on WDST instead.

Then, they went back to the library. Back, to go to the next eager student, the next vaguely unhappy person wanting more--not more stuff, at last, but more peace. And while they were getting happier, I--I was going back.

I went back to where I was. Back, and back, through the years, to my original packaging: dissatisfied. Oh, happy in bursts, certainly: grateful for them, the ability to feel happinesses and even to call them by name. I still made lists, on an almost daily basis, of all the gratitudes I felt. But then I dreamed.

I was walking through the front hall of the house I grew up in, the only place I think of as "home." I passed from the door of the kitchen (first going by the powder room, off a short hall onto which the back staircase also let) into the heart of the house. It was a place of passage, naturally. One did not linger there, for it was transitional. See, house as metaphor. There I glanced at the nineteenth-century portrait in a gilt frame of some English personage in uniform whose name on the plate was spelled "Peirson." Underneath the painting was a three-drawer chest in which we stored family pictures, baby books (mine blank after the first page, testimony to tired parents and second-child status). I looked left, up the staircase. Then right, to the leaded-glass door of the library. Beyond, the living room. And in my dream, I heard myself think: There will never be a place as perfect to me as this.

My longing returned anew, CDs a vapor carried away by the wind. When I had company over last week, and there was no place to sit for drinks, we stood awkwardly since there had been no room to put a table near the couch in this imperfect house. Two days earlier, the sump pump had broken, followed quickly by the furnace (again) and then the fireplace door's glass, irreplaceable because old and painted in a way that gave this place one of its few touches of charm.

I realize only now that the pattern on the glass reminded me of the diamond-shaped leading in the windows of that other, lost, house. It was like losing it all over again.

Desire is the problem. It is the devil, urging us to walk into the fire that will consume us. The rocks that will splinter the hull, while the Sirens sing on.

I put in my request last night. Whenever they are returned to the library, another CD set will be laid aside for me, my name on a slip of paper stuck between the discs that, when played in the car as I drive, will teach me that the loss, too, is not as I had feared.