Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Welcome to My World" is in the World

Okay, so this Work From Home Mom thing is rewarding when I can actually get around to doing some work from home. In this new anthology, which just hit Amazon this week, thirteen bloggers (myself included) wrestle with their various life situations, whether chosen or hoisted upon them. What makes our different situations work, and what makes them fall apart? Somehow the landscapes of our busy lives are navigated. While it's not exactly rocket science, it is a delicate balancing act that can become unhinged faster than you can say, in my case anyway, "where's his other shoe?" or "trading deadlines for doctor's appointments" or "second shift after bedtime."

My essay is called "Robot Moms in the Closet", which is a reference to a Science Fiction world I imagined in which I could pull various selves out of storage to accomplish various tasks. The fantastical efficiency of it was appealing to me until I realized that giving up my chaos would mean giving up the subtle rewards of the seemingly mundane tasks at hand. You only get to fold Onesies out of the drier for like five seconds before it's gone forever.

I'm going to take a close read at the essays of my peers and report back on a favorite. In the meantime, you can pick up the Kindle version here on Amazon, and soon on the Nook. This is my first experience of having something published in eBook form, and while it's strange not to have an actual book in hand, the easy dispersement of it is appealing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Painted Bird

I've not read Jerzy Kosinski before now. I was browsing books at the "Unoppressive Non- Imperialist Bargain Bookshop" on Carmine Street, when his 1965 novel The Painted Bird caught my eye. I liked the poetic title, and the idea that I could immerse myself in a tense story of a young boy's survival following being abandoned by his parents in World War II. Who doesn't want to read an inspiring yarn like that from time to time? The "gypsy or Jewish stray" as he's called, moves through villages that reviewers assumed were scattered throughout Poland. He moves through winters wearing nothing but scraps of rags and various pieces of animal hides, witnessing and being the victim of unimaginable cruelty. His keepers are many, and each more imaginatively cruel than the previous one. No sooner after being taken in by a random farmer at the insistence of a priest would the cruelty cycle begin again. The exception was Kasinski's Old Woman Sage archetype, who appears as several different characters in the book. Each time, she's knowledgable about homeopathic witchery (the childlike confidence he has in her time again is chilling, because in reality she makes potions and lotions with removed abscesses, animal parts, etc.). The Sages care for the boy, but the small comforts can never last as each one moves from one horrific fate to the next.

I put it down a few times, but kept going back, thinking that if I could finish it, the senselessness of the violence might come to an end and move into a field of philosophic reflection and human redemption, a la Victor Frankl. It just couldn't keep going in this way.

After moving through the first few chapters, I began to research Kosinski's history a bit. The only thing I'd been exposed to growing up was his film Being There, with Peter Sellers, which I barely remember but remember liking. His introduction to this edition of The Painted Bird had been odd; he basically defended the fact that it was meant to be a work of fiction, not autobiographical, and that he and his family had endured so much hatred following the publication that he'd had to move his mother to another town. He wrote a lot about how his wife was dying, and that was so off topic that it seemed like he was trying to garner his readers' sympathies before they even cracked the story.

It didn't take long to get through the first few grafs of his Wiki biography to realize he was exposed as a fraud, time and time again, and even considered a psychotic borderline personality. In his mini bio was an anecdote about his literary life of lingering at elegant dinner parties with book editors waxing on about his horrific youth and tales of survival during WW2.

Such realizations made me want to put the book down, because suddenly the stomach churning cruelty and abuse were formed not from his own history, but from his imagination. Finishing the book was an exercise of endurance on my part, but I wanted to finish it so I could find out if there was any redeeming aspect to humanity whatsoever for his suffering protagonist. What would I glean about survival and humanity after putting his book down? When would the relief come? At the midway point of the story, the boy becomes a mute, but regains his voice in the end, so at least there's that. I was glad to hear him utter sounds again, to literally come back to life again from his horrors, in the last pages. But I also felt like burning the book, literally setting it on fire and watching it turn to ash.

I felt that way after seeing the 1995 film Seven, too-- that it depicted such gratuitous horror that it seemed a waste of resources to put it into the world. The film wasn't created or shaped to make people act on good will or kindness; it seemed to me that it was irresponsibly put out into the world just to make money depicting senseless violence and sociopathic disconnect. Seven gruesome murders based on seven deadly sins; well, Kosinski trumps that with probably 7,000. It's no wonder to me that he could no longer tolerate his life and committed suicide in 1991.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Anniversaries, Part 2

I'd left my apartment on East 4th Street, only to see my neighbor, Maritza (now gone; I miss her and the lovebirds that hung from her fire escape, and the way she'd say about Jamie, "He's gonna be a football playah"). She told me a plane had hit; a small gathering of people stood on the corner of East 4th Street and Bowery looking up at the billowing black smoke. I went back home to tell Jim so he'd come and look with me. It was unbelievable was that some guy, probably an amateur pilot, had crashed into the building. We gawked. Then I walked to the subway and went to work. The day, as is described by everyone recollecting it, was the most beautiful clear crisp day. The sky was so blue.

I got onto the F train and there was a Hasidic man who'd just come over a bridge and was visibly distressed said that he'd been crossing the bridge (which one?) when he saw a second plane hit. Everyone was talking about it. The next part of the day is a blur. I had to attend an editorial meeting at CosmoGirl, and we all felt agitated that we didn't know what was going on. A TV went on at some point.

Towers fell; work ended; subways shut down. The walk home from 57th Street was chaotic. My memory's of the whole day are an impressionistic patchwork. Here are some of the random swipes of memory: strangers on 7th Avenue in the 50's handing out water bottles to pedestrians. Moving south down Bowery I saw the the waves of people moving uptown by foot, covered in ash. People pouring up Bowery, many holding their shoes, covered in ash, scratches, blood. Stunned. Men in business suits holding their briefcases, white from head to toe with ash, everyone walking as a unit and each somehow separate in their shock; the picture of the man is what every other third person walking north looked like.

Jim and I eventually connected. He had seen the first tower fall from a corner of Washington Park South. That night we sat at an outdoor cafe or bar on Second Avenue, having gathered with friends. I don't remember if we'd called one another, or just run into each other because everyone was out. We watched a convoy of pick up trucks headed downtown, filled with nothing but upright shovels, obviously new. The smell was that of an electric fire, and lasted for weeks. Checkpoints were set up very quickly; for a day or two we had to show ID to get as far downtown as we lived.

At some point we ended up at Union Square, and I can't remember if it was that night or the next that the piles of candles started burning in impromptu memorials, and fliers with faces of the missing began showing up posted everywhere. Missing: Any kind of face you could imagine, faces you'd see anywhere in a cross-section of people. Old and young, black, white, hispanic. Most of the faces were snapshots that were hastily used to create the fliers, so most of them were smiling, probably on vacation or at birthday parties, standing next to Christmas trees. Men had their arms around children; Grandmas smiled. The people poured out in the nighttime to Union Square, and strangers hugged. I just remember feeling like I needed to be around other people to help me absorb what had happened.

A particularly ugly memory I have is that the next morning I got a phone call from my Managing Editor telling me that work was on, "It's business as usual." It was so upsetting that Jim called her back and said, "The next time you call someone you might want to ask them how they are or if they lost anyone." It was difficult to understand how clueless and disconnected she was, and how much pressure she must have felt from her bosses to have to call her staff with a chirpy tone like that to tell them to come into work.

In 1998, I was Managing Editor at Balliett and Fitzgerald, a book packaging company located two blocks north of the towers on Warren Street. On the coldest winter days I'd spend my lunch hours at the WTC, knocking around the shopping concourse beneath the towers, or hanging out at the giant Borders. The clean lines and wide open space of it was a respite of sorts from the quirky lines of the East Village; the Mall-feel of the concourse was also atypical of my normal stomping grounds. The mundane nature of the Bath & Body Works; Sharper Image; Gap stores, and other familiar franchisey places were appealing in a way.

I didn't know anyone who died. I know that our Firehouse on Great Jones took a big hit, and the firehouse on 12th Street and every other firehouse within walking distance. For weeks you'd see giant memorials of flowers outside the firehouses, and every year on September 11th you still do. Ultimately, something happens when I try to write about this; a spaced out zoning where I can't remember what I wanted to say, what I was thinking. The zoned out state is how I cope with other things, so it doesn't surprise me that I can't put a linear thought together. The smell and the ash lingered for so long, so when I remember those days, smell is a sense that is invoked. It's my hope that today the heroism and bravery in the face of it all will rise above the horror and sadness.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Anniversaries, Part 1

This post is about my wedding anniversary, which is today. My next post may be about that other anniversary that everyone is thinking about this weekend, though I'm not sure if I'm going to put that day into words.

On September 9, 2000, Jim and I were married in my sister in law Patti's pre-Revolutionary barn in Exton, Pennsylvania. Our wedding was tiny- there were 40 people there- and a decade-plus gone by means that a handful aren't living anymore. Jim's father, his Aunt Dooley and Uncle Tad, and the sister who hosted our wedding in the first place, have all passed on.

So, this Marriage Thing. I was always an independent soul, and have written a lot about growing up with a single mother, and the added responsibilities of co-raising my little brother. Our home was as love-filled as a home ever could be, it was just structured in a different way, without a marriage to watch and learn from day in and day out. However, there were marriages that I witnessed over the years which meant more to me than I realized at the time, particularly my stand-in New Mexico grandparents, Bob and Marylou Mayhew, who used to take us to their Taos cabin when we needed a getaway. When I was 12 years old, Bob taught me how to catch rainbow trout and gut them, a skill that I used to impress Jim during our first dating days. Their names ran together: "Bob and Marylou."

I've heard that marriages that do best happen when one spouse is from a broken home, and the other is from a stable one. I can see why this is the case: the stable home gives you something to model up to when times get rough, and the broken home allows you not to take your stability for granted. Now that we've been together for 15 years, 11 of them married, I have some of my own ideas about marriage that have evolved with our relationship.

The most important epiphany to me has been to understand that you can't expect your husband or wife to give you everything you need to make you happy. That's lazy, and it's not fair. When we planned our wedding, I'd read that you should pick two things that are most important to you to spend your wedding budget on. We wanted to 1) serve a beautiful meal and 2) take a memorable trip together. We did both, and we filled in the other spaces with frugal creativity and other people's unwavering generosity. The dishes we used at our wedding were our family's China sets that we dusted off and put to use; antique pink roses were bought in bulk from a flower market the day before and kept in the cool spring house next door overnight; my mother in law sewed dresses for our flower girls; and a photographer cousin's gift to us was a set of professional photographs.

Over the years, the two things we've come to prioritize, and these developed as our lives and needs changed, are freedom and travel. Our freedom comes by making daily lifestyle decisions, like driving used cars, wearing what we can afford, and living in a small space (the smallest space within both of our families, actually). Who said "More Rooms, More Problems"? I loved working full-time, but when I did I wasn't free. When CosmoGirl folded, my whole world opened up by being able to structure my time differently, and my relationship with Jim and Jamie blossomed in ways that I couldn't have predicted. As far as travel goes, our last two summers in France required frugal creativity (apartment swapping), and I love that I'm married to someone who thinks it's as important as I do to show our kid the world and see new things whenever possible.

We also know better now than we did when we married that life is fragile. Since 2000, we've seen relatives we love die of cancer, and I nearly died when I was pregnant with Jamie. When that happened, all of our little problems fell away and we had to pull together and be strong to get through it. There was some depression, and I rose up to treat it. We forgave each other for not necessarily being our best in those hard times. How could we be? Jim was there to take care of me in ways that I wouldn't have wished upon him on my dying days. That's another story I'll post some day. Those are the times that show you someone's true character, and I'd happily put myself in Jim's hands if my life depended on it, because I already have.

We've now been together long enough to have seen many marriages crumble, many of them couples who met and courted around the same time that we did. These events shake me up more than they do Jim. Jim's parents met when they were teenagers and stayed together till the day he died, but I lived through, first hand, what can happen when they crash and burn. Some were family, some were friends, and all had to go through unimaginable struggles in different ways. But in 100% of those cases, friends and family have seemed healthier and happier cutting themselves free from their chronic unhappiness. I've been surprised to learn how constant the pain had been in those marriages; you never know, after all, what goes on between two people behind closed doors. Those marriages went down in the flames of substance abuse, love affairs, lack of personal growth or room for new challenges, or bitter disagreements that became so infected the marriage had to end before healing could take place. I don't believe people should stay married if they're chronically unhappy. For those who say they "Stay for the kids," how is it good for the kids to see the two people who are raising them be miserable? I've done my best to honor those relationships that have ended by learning something from each and every one of them.

If I were writing this as a formulaic service piece, I'd end it with this "Bottom Line": Keep growing, or perish. I'll try if you try, but as Bruce Springsteen said, "If I should fall behind, will you wait for me?"

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Magic Simile

Tonight Jim and Jamie and I were sitting at Nho Trang, our favorite Vietnamese joint on Baxter Street, when a little girl and her family walked into the restaurant. Said little girl promptly approached a gumball machine at the cashier's bar and cranked the dispenser, taking the candy that it deposited into her hand over to the table where the rest of her family had been seated.

Jamie observed this injustice and stood up to do the same thing, but I stopped him and told him he had to eat his dinner first. We told him that he would probably have a chance to take a piece of candy at the end of the meal, like when he gets a lollipop at the end of a haircut. "I hate that stupid girl," he said in a stage whisper. Since I was apparently already feeling preachy, I launched into some diatribe about how Hate is such a strong word, and it's such a terrible emotion that it can make people sick after they decide to cling to those feelings, so maybe let's not toss around the word Hate about the girl who took the candy before she ate her dinner. I was on a roll. "Let's come up with ten things you could say besides Hate, like maybe she annoyed you, or it didn't seem fair, or" .... Like I said... a real diatribe. And to pile it on, something I'm quite good at, "People have the choice of whether to live out their lives as negative people or positive people" and yada yada yada; could I shut up, already?

Later, when we'd found our way back into the car, despite the three pieces of candy he'd managed to snag after his second crank of the dispenser, he began to complain once again about "the stupid" girl. I fell into my half of our bickering cycle. Then, out of his mouth came this:

"I'm not trying be filled with negativity, but it's really hard. I can't stop thinking about things sometimes. Like when I got punched in the stomach two years ago on the playground and I still think about it. It's like a magician's trick when they pull the everlasting scarf from their mouth and it never stops.... But then I tell myself to look at something else, like that beautiful stoplight, and it can go away for a second, but then it comes back."

These moments have the effect of instantaneously shifting something inside of me. Often, what shifts is simply my perspective, realizing that there's a fully formed creature in front of me with his own thoughts and ideas and opinions and we're quite separate and it's changing so quickly and I can't stop the train. Or, in this case, the thing that shifted was my understanding of the depth of his feelings, and the insight that it's important to give him space to discuss his magic scarf similes without being overbearing. Finally, the "magician's everlasting scarf" simile struck me as such an adult way to understand the process of rehashing things, but it was stated with such a child like image. I love this age of eight years old. We're perched on a ledge that drops over into God knows where, but I'm happy to straddle the Child to Tween time as long as we can. I only hope that I can shut my own mouth long enough so that I can hear the other things he's saying to me every day.