Monday, December 21, 2009

My Favorite Phone Call Ever

I'm working on a story for Slashfood about a man who claims to have found a piece of a rat's jaw inside a package of frozen vegetables he bought at a local Walmart.

So, I google the man's name and come up with one listing in Texas... I don't take the time, as a good reporter perhaps should have, to figure out if the town it says this man lives in is anywhere near the one that is listed as his hometown in the local news report.

But I put on my headset and dial the number. A pleasant, older-sounding man answers the phone and I introduce myself and tell him why I'm calling... A man with his name says he found a rat jawbone in his veggies.

"Do you think the Democrats did it?" he asks me, joking, but I get the feeling also somewhat serious.

I have no idea how to respond to this... "Uh, I don't know, sir," I say, wishing he had let me make a graceful exit when I told him I must have the wrong number.

"I bet those Senators are sneaking them in there for us Texans," he says.

I'm not even sure where to go with this. If I play along, what the hell am I talking about with this old man who is probably just screwing with me because I happened to call him on a random Monday afternoon. But I hate being impolite when I make work calls, so I just kind of flounder until he laughs and says goodbye.

Weird. Weird. Weird.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sometimes Things Just Don't Work Out

Simon went back to the ASPCA on Monday, taking a good chunk of skin out of my palm on his way.

We just weren't meant to be. Mostly because he liked to bite me and pee on my sofa and my bed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hello. My Name Is...


Which was the name I gave him the moment I met him. And I tried to pick him up -- this regal, orange tabby cat with light green eyes and, it turns out, a flair for mischief. And when I tried to pick him up, he tried to bite and scratch me at the same time.

"Too soon..." the volunteer said, reaching to take him away. 

But of all the cats that had tried to, or succeeded in, biting me that day at the ASPCA in Manhattan, this was the only one whose bite didn't bother me. He was still purring. Purring when I put him down and he kept his distance, but still leaned his head toward me so that I could scratch. One. Two. Ouch! There come the teeth.

And his teeth don't bite. They just touch my skin. Even now when he's acclimated enough to want to jump onto the bed when I'm going to sleep (he still leaves) and when he springs up when I wake and he wants me to scratch his head (yet not moving my body... once I do he bolts.) He reminds me we're new. He throws down the boundaries with the human in the only way he can. Nibble nibble.

He has peed on my couch twice and my bed once. (Thank God for water-proof mattress covers.) His poo is the stinkiest as he has some kind of... issue. And he does still bite me after a handful of pets, and nearly took my eyes out when I went to trim his front claws. Lordy.

But I had forgotten how an animal unwinds around his human. I remembered the best parts of Harold taking to me. Not the way he would sit behind me and stare at the wall. Not the scars on my arms and chest from trying to clip his nails so that he would stop ruining my sofa, my rug, my legs. Because once you're in love with your pet, you take what it gives you and you shrug and hope its not afraid. At least I think that's how you feel if you take in shelter animals.

The shelters are overflowing. And all these little critters want is a safe place to sleep. A clean place. A few hugs and to forget that it's possible to be hungry. Everything that we take in deserves that. Animals in the wild starve. Suffer. But some animals we humans have chosen to take in and make our own. To use our skills to make them depend on us. To love us. To be our family.

But they are still animals and take their time trusting. Simon (who Alyce and I dubbed Pee-Cat for his talent for peeing in inappropriate places...) ventures closer to me every day. I reprimand him when he does something "bad" but I still am affectionate. I try to make him feel safe, but to know that "behind the television" or "on the windowsill past the pots near the screen" are not good places to be.

So, a new little man lives in my house. We are learning each others edges. We're approaching two weeks together. It's like an entire high school relationship. And I find myself sometimes angry and wanting to give him back. And at other times just melt in his wee presence. And I know that with time, we'll be buddies.

I can't replace Harold, my beloved departed cat, and that relationship. So I am trying not to hold it against Simon... not being Harold. Not being like Harold. And I'm learning to accept him for who he is, and to enjoy that. I am having to let go of my expectations and just see who he is. And do my best to make him as happy and as comfortable as he can be. I took him in. His safety, his life... is my responsibility now. I choose him. I owe him.

Welcome Home, new kid.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Magnets, Magazines and Gentleness

I have a special place in my heart for the cheesy and sentimental, and on my refrigerator I have one of those "quotable" magnets -- the kind that make hipsters and self-styled artsy-types cringe.

Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. - Max Ehrmann

When I open the door to refill my water bottle or take out the half-and-half when I make coffee, I read it and I smile, and I try to heed its advice.

Make choices, but do not be hasty, it says to me. Trees don't grow overnight. Neither must I.

I don't know if I've recounted this story before, but I was on the subway in Cambridge once - the red line to Harvard Square - when a kid came up to me. He was maybe 16, and obviously stoned. His eyes were red, but he looked at me with a suddenly alert compassion.

"What happened to you," he asked, looking up at my forehead.

I told him.

He exhaled, mumbled something, and said to me,"You better spend the rest of your life taking it easy."

When I have told that story to people, they bristled. "Don't let that make you think you can be lazy."

At those times, I would stammer that of course not. I was a hard worker. I was responsible. I was what I was supposed to be. I follow the rules. Yes, sir. Why people in my life have been so convinced that on the inside I'm somehow deeply lazy is a topic for another day, but what I should have said was more akin to "fuck off."

Because I think I finally understand what that boy was telling me. Be gentle with yourself.

When people ask what I'm going to do next, I tell them I am freelancing. And I am. I will. I fully intend to make it happen. But then they ask how its going, and really. I've been back in the country for three weeks and lost my pet to cancer. I'm not exactly trying to pitch anyone right now. I'm mostly trying to feel like this life I've thrust myself into is in some way my own.

Which I confess involves a lot of sitting around looking at the spines of books, half-reading New York Times columns and watching episodes of Criminal Minds. I make stacks of things I intend to read. Herodotus. Henry Miller. The new Oprah magazine. I wonder for the thousandth time if Netflix is worth it. I make protein shakes with berries because I can't be bothered to think about actually making food. I wonder how the hell I'm supposed to figure out what to charge people for taking pictures of their kids or their weddings. I wonder if I have any idea what I'm doing.

Today I came across an article in that Oprah magazine by Anne Lamott, a writer whose book "Bird by Bird" -- about life and writing -- was a staple in grad school feature writing. Her article was about finding out who you really are... and it somehow reminded me of that gentleness I had decided to show myself to choose deliberately, without panic.

"I can't tell you what your next action will be, but mine involved a full stop. I had to stop living unconsciously, as if I had all the time in the world. The love and good and the wild and the peace and creation that are you will reveal themselves, but it is harder when they have to catch up to you in roadrunner mode. So one day I did stop. I began consciously to break the rules I learned in childhood: I wasted more time, as a radical act. I stared off into space more, into the middle distance, like a cat. This is when I have my best ideas, my deepest insights," Lamott writes.

I smiled at her words. I've had bosses sigh with exasperation as I've gone shoe shopping while on deadline. When I've flipped through photographs, stared off into space, gone walking around Newburyport and come back with a 42oz. Diet Coke because I didn't have my story nailed down in my head yet -- I'd done all the work except the writing, but the writing -- the figuring out of structure, tone, cadence, nuance... Those things happen when you're not thinking about writing. Some other part of the brain shifts through the information and then poof.

It's time to begin. Thankfully, when on deadline, you can make yourself move faster, but for me it has always involved that seeming waste of time...

So here I sit, on a cool autumn afternoon, listening to the Decemberists. I have vacuumed my apartment. I have done some laundry. I have made lists in my head of all of the things I need to organize, to throw away, to create. And I will do those things. Even a cup of coffee can't be forced into being before its done brewing.

And I will write that damned book I have had in my head all this time, so maybe someday I will get to sit and read my own words in Oprah magazine talking about how sometimes stepping forward means stepping away.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Harold (??? - Oct. 15, 2009)

I remember the day I brought him home from the ASPCA shelter on E. 92nd St. in Manhattan, way back in September 2004. I had moved to New York in August, and then I went on vacation in Turkey -- boat trip again -- and when I came back, I was going to get a cat.

So, I poked around on the Interwebs, looking at who was available at the shelter. I thought this orange cat Felix looked like a good choice. He was playful, from his description, frisky... But then I went to the shelter. I filled out the forms. Julie came with me, so my dad was my character reference... who reassured them everything was fine even though at the time I worried I was allergic to cats (I am not).

I walked through the shelter, meeting all the little ones in their cages. Then I went into the "Diva Room," which had scratching posts, lounging pads and a tiered area where the cats could sprawl, all with a window out onto 92nd St.

That's where I found Harold.

He was skinny. Mangy. His hair was matted and greasy. He had a stuffy nose, a scrawny face and the moment his bright green eyes met mine, I fell in love. He began purring as I scratched his head. He did his little head-butt thing, moving my hand to where he wanted it.

He wasn't the cleanest cat, nor was he the prettiest. But I can express it no other way than to say that he picked me. I went to see the rest of the cats, and when the volunteer asked who I liked, I said Harold... She was surprised. "Really?"

"Yeah. I'll take him..."

And so we finished the paperwork and they put him in a cardboard carrier. Julie and I walked him home down First Avenue. I had gotten litter, a box and some food the day before. I was ready.

I carried him up to my fifth-floor walk-up and put down the box. I opened its flaps and he jumped out. The cat book said to let them meet their space slowly -- I figured my entire 320 square-foot apartment was probably small enough to warrant giving him free reign.

He walked from end to end, jumped on my bed, and found the brown cat bed I had put on the windowsill. He turned around in it once. Looked at me. Lay down. Closed his eyes. He was home.

And he was happy there. Sleeping in bed with me, his butt always touching my back... at minimum. As long as he was touching me, he was happy. I could fall asleep with my hand resting on him, or he could be nuzzled against me from behind. That's all he ever asked of me. To sleep by my side.

We moved to Brooklyn. We had some roommates who loved him and gave him good head scratches. They were won over by his persistent affection and his oddly old-man savoir faire. He had style, that kitten.

We moved to our own place, and he took to it immediately. Our home. Mine and the beast. Because when you live with an animal, you really don't live alone. You share your space, your time and your heart with another living, breathing creature who depends on you and who loves you. And who you grow to love like he's your family. Because he is. Because the sun rises and sets in his world when you walk into the room. And because no matter what's wrong, when you scratch his head and he purrs, reassuring you that he's there... you know you'll be okay.

And most of the time you just hang out. I pet him. I brush him. He taps my mouth to let me know he's hungry. He swings around to roll over, but still wants to be touching my back with his... I woke up one night on my side, with a man pressed against my front and Harold stretched out, pressed against my back. He was having none of this intruder stealing me away. I just smiled and felt loved.

And today, after what must have been a long, long sickness, which only alarmed me in the past few weeks, Harold passed away.

The vet did an autopsy on him this evening and found out he had very advanced liver cancer -- incurable and un-survivable. A tumor had burst and he was bleeding internally. It probably all happened in the 15 minute panic between his first alarmed meows and me taking his limp, struggling body and running through the rain to the vet's office five blocks away. I saw him and I knew he was dying.

He was tired all day. But he purred when I pet him. I sat right next to him all morning. I slept next to him on the sofa all week. I was trying to love him better. But you can't beat cancer when it really takes hold. We all know that.

When I got him in 2004, the ASPCA thought Harold was about 5. So, I told the vet he was around 9. They told me he was at least 12. So, much older... had lived much longer before I got him than I had known. But I did what I could to make his last years happy years. And, for better or for worse, I haven't really had any work to do this week, so I spent the chilly gray days sitting here on the sofa with Harold. Reading, watching movies, petting him. Trying to make him comfortable, I thought, as he recovered from an infection.

I believed, until yesterday, he was getting better. And today, his tiny body finally gave up its fight. The vet was shocked that a cat with that much cancer was still alive... but he was alive, alert and purring this morning. So I know he had a happy life here with me.

The vet left me the nicest message. He is a good man. He kept telling me not to blame myself. And I don't. I can't. Animals, like people, die. It's the dark, cold truth that comes with being alive. But... oh God... what I wouldn't do to actually feel his warm little furry body in my arms, all tense because he hated being picked up, and just nuzzle his cheek and tell him I love him... Just one more time. The little sounds he made that let me know he felt safe and happy.

But I can't. I just wiped his stray hairs from my keyboard. They're all over my home. I put his litter box, his brown cat bed, other things too into the trash tonight. The scratching post he never scratched (it was where I was to dump the cat nip so he could rub his face in it...) The post is still in the corner. I had to keep something. But I had to make it one thing. There will be enough I stumble on to break my heart in the coming days and weeks.

So, I toast with the very expensive special-occasion wine I opened tonight in honor of Harold. Because he existed, was wonderful and I loved him.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Famous Last Words

Tomorrow/tonight (the drawback of the night shift is that evening to you is the middle of the night to respectable society...) Anyway...

She told me I came and sprinkled fairy dust on her... And Tom told me my laugh was contagious. I am sorry to leave them. I do so like them all.

The first night we really worked together I made her listen to a random song I'd fallen in love with on monkey speakers (Ruchi again!) plugged into my iPhone. "Snails" by The Format, a total indie rock band. Apparently she was wigged out by the old lady who played 'country music' for her on stuffed-monkey speakers on their Sunday night shift.

That damned song was stuck in my head for days. Days I say!

But as the months passed, and we were isolated from our lives on the night shift together, we got to know each other very well... And I'm blessed to have her in my life. Taryn. And Avinash. My snarky comerade in late-night banter. They kept me sane as the sun set, reflected against Manhattan office towers, as I sat and wondered what more...

And I could say so much, but what I want to do most is leave a little shard of... both wisdom and advice seem arrogant... but perhaps I leave ideas to ponder as you pursue your careers, life, love, happiness and fulfillment.

1) Always do your best. No matter what your task, even as a lame duck, do the best you can do despite unfairness, others not pulling their own weight or feeling inadequate. Show that you are putting 100% in, and you can't fail. You will always know that you gave it your all, and that is invaluable.

2) Life is not fair, but never tolerate abuse. Sometimes you will find yourself being taken advantage of, or you will realize that someone has drawn a longer stick than you in the lottery of... Yes. That sucks. It's shit. But life is not fair. Priviledge and inheritence and just straight up luck exist. But never let anyone cross the line and manipulate you. Tolerate unfair until you can either rectify it or move on, but don't tolerate anyone taking advantage of you. That you control.

3) You control your own life. We have our parents, friends, bosses, lovers. But the only person whose head you will ever have to occupy or whose life you will really experience is your own. Fight like hell to make it what you want to experience. If what you do is not fulfilling, change it. If how you are isn't making you happy, change it. The universe is essentially flexible. Shit happens that we must endure, but how you handle that is always your own choice.

4) Respect your own ideas. Throw them out there. Some will be shit. Some will be stellar. But who knows if they only live in your head? Don't be afraid to be shot down.

5) Fucking laugh all the time. Things might suck, but embrace any moment of joy you can. It makes things way more fun.

I will miss you guys. Spending our nights shooting the shit and dreaming bigger. But I promise to push you to make "bigger" your reality. You will, of course. Change is inevitable. But I wish for you purposeful change when it can be achieved. Sometimes it cannot. Sometimes it is thrust upon us.

But when we get to have -- and exercise -- our ability to choose...

We can walk into the unknown without fear.

Trust yourselves. Always. You do know. You do.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Tipping Point

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

I read those words at my high school graduation, during a speech about living without regret. At the time, it was mostly a speech to myself, about how I was going to not dwell on the things I'd suffered in the years before. I was going to college. I was being reborn.

But as my high school English teacher Linda Prady told us as we read "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Neale Hurston... as you move through life things change meaning based on who you become when you experience them.

When I was in Italy last month I re-read "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," and was surprised to find it a bit flat. Uninspiring. In my memory, it was an astounding novel. Having read more. Written more. Lived more... Its revelations were the revelations of my youth. Maybe in the 20 years since it was written our ideas about time, love, sex and history are different. Or perhaps in the 10 since I last read it my own have changed.

Perhaps both are true.

Two road diverged... diverge... At times we stand on a precipice, and we are forced to decide which path we will chose.

In three days I will turn in my ID badge and my Blackberry and I will have officially chosen to walk away from a very safe, very comfortable, very respectable job with a national cable news network, having been given sole responsibility for the contests of its web site two nights a week and written dozens of articles... I am walking away from something thousands would fight for... Forgive me.

But I will walk away to see what it is that I've been so furiously trying to make.

I am a cynical scientist, but I am also vulnerable to belief in something... greater? To call it that seems naive. But I believe I know when we've done right by ourselves. By others. By the world. I know something more exists than myself and that which I can see.

I want to make a gallery of double-exposure Holga photographs. I want to learn all about The Blues. I want to read Herodotus. I want to absorb everything. I want to let myself believe...

I lay on the sofa in my grandmother's sunroom, sleeping, before my grandfather's funeral. And at 3:33 a.m., the lights and television turned themselves on. They did. I had turned them off. It was a funeral. I had not been drinking. I had fallen asleep in the dark, after turning the television off.

They came back on. They woke me. At 3:33 a.m. the lights and television turned on in a dark room and woke me. Me. The skeptic.

I mentioned it at brunch, uneasy... maybe I was wrong? But even if I were wrong, it had happened. My mother told me it was him. My grandfather. His favorite number was 333.

I don't know if I can accept that. This ghost story. All I know is that the lights and television went on just then. And nowhere else in the house.

My mother swears its a sign. From him -- the man who believed I'd be an actor until he saw me sing at my graduation from Dartmouth -- I was one of the performers in the tavern the night before graduation. Singing and playing my guitar. Then he thought I'd play music. Until I went to India... When he shoved a National Geographic in my face to show me how they were having a drought, it wasn't safe...

I promised I'd be safe. I was going with the chief of pediactric infectious diseases from NYU, or some such title (Ruchi?), and they were not going to let anything happen to me... I was taking photographs.

I took photographs of strangers going through the motions of their lives. I had studied photojournalism, and I was fresh from my internship with I was a maniac. I think I shot 25 rolls? Back when people took pictures with film. That shit cost money.

But I let it go... I let it go for a man and a dream and a life that never came to be, and followed my writing down another path, because it came with both easier acceptance and less threat. I can craft a paragraph like nobody's business.

I have just torn my apartment apart looking for a photograph from Istanbul that I wanted to scan... What could I have done with it?

When I find it, I will post it.

But I digress.

Two roads diverged, and I gave myself a deadline. I gave myself until August 6 to jump, or else who knows how long I would have waited. But I did it.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What Matters to You?

Tell me.

I want to know what you think before I go on... What forces are the strongest when you make a choice that will change things? Because I am wondering if I have been following the right ones, the wrong ones or if right and wrong don't actually even matter at the end of the day.

(Not in an "I am a criminal way".. more of an "Is this me, or is this me being afraid" way.)

I could have turned in so many ways, but I turned in the directions I did. Wound up with the things I have. The choices and the consequences. Am I unhappy? With some of them. In the grand scheme???

I would have imagined a different set of things, but I don't have those things. But what I do have was never a choice I would have known I would have...

I don't know if I make sense. I am swimming in ideas. Regrets. A half-baked state of affairs. I usually wait longer to write, until I have set something in motion.

But right now, am recently off my first break from the place of business -- a vacation in Italy with dear friends -- the first that had been on the horizon in a long time. My last was in New Jersey. Before that, the Spainish Inquisition. (God bless my lawyer.)

I again saw New Jersey -- down the shore. And I saw it as I had never seen it before. As a place I belonged. As a place that was meant to be a part of me, not a place I had to flee to make myself important.

Who could flee such a thing?

Surely not a woman who spent most of her life dreaming about the ocean, the sea, lapping waves.

The most soothing sound will always be that of the ocean. The best smell the salt marshes when you finally hit the right spot on the Garden State Parkway. Ocean, salt, sand. Coconut-laced sunscreen. Sweat and tennis practice. Bathing suits and the crunch between your teeth of a beach-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

How far we come, to go back home.

Monday, July 20, 2009

La Vie Boheme

I come from a line of artists. My mother paints, photographs and creates jewelry, among other things. Her passion for creating things -- above and beyond creating four lovely daughters -- is almost insatiable.

My father, a surgeon, apparently dreams of both fishing and painting -- making paintings. I had seen a small painting in his closet, when I was a child, of a... was it an old mill on a river? I just remember its colors.

But they share that thing.

My father's father was an artist. He designed cars. Planes. Machines. Created.

And my mother's father told me before he died that he thought I'd be a musician, but for some reason that art has always intimidated me more than the others. I can sing. I can play. I can feel my way through a song. But I never had the training one needs to do it for real. I resent that a little. My piano lessons fell by the wayside when my teacher moved when I was 11. I want to learn classical guitar. I think I shall.

I almost went to art school. Instead, I went to Dartmouth.

And now -- now I find myself wondering how to leverage these eyes. The hazel/olive/golden-green eyes that, I think, maybe, can see things. I pushed myself to study photojournalism. I claimed writing came easier... but it comes the same. In fact, the pictures -- framing, seeing, making art -- comes more easily than the words. I can make pictures every day. The writing must fester in this over-wrought brain. I feel self indulgent tonight. I'm certain to annoy. Solipsistic. Je suis l'etat.

We sometimes make choices because we think we need to prove ourselves. To whom, when we really get down to business, often exposes our insecurities.

I do what I do because I needed to show everyone -- to show myself -- that I could. That I can. But it is not enough.

It is far, far from enough.

My circumstances have given me the gift of choice, but I have always chosen the safe, mainstream, "right-for-my-career" path. But I have never chosen the path that was right for my heart and soul. For the things that long for release. Sharing the things I see.

Thinking about my last post, it echoes the same hesitancy to feel superior/important/listen-to-me that I shun.

We carry our parents burdens. My own feel a class disparity that I fall on the wrong side of, to some in my family. I was picking up a low-budget purple chenille sofa from a discount furniture store with my parents, in the Jeep SUV that I would eventually trade for the cost of "towing it off the lot because the cabin filled with fumes... thanks parents..."

My father turned to my mother and all I remember was "and your family were the workers..."

Not even the exact words, but I remember. And she was furious. It was the first time I had seen him breach that divide. Iron and steelworkers. Wonderful, talented people.But the teams were not the same. My grandfather never went to college, yet he built Temple University's stadium. But my father's father was also Ivy League. Got a degree from Penn. In 1929.

If I could meet one person... I would choose him. I am certain we would know each other.

I think he could unlock so many of my secrets that I ache to know what that man -- that man who Alma, my grandmother, stole from his girlfriend because she "set her hat on him," according to my mother's grandmother. Immigrant Polish Philadelphia was incestuous. Love? If not, at least a premonition.

And by some mercy, my father's parents made my father at the same time my mother's parents made my mother... Although they were more than half a generation apart in age.

And knowing the love I feel for my niece, my next-sister's daughter, our only offspring -- of course last weekend when I joked about moving into the house next door to my parents' to stay hear -- and my father turned and told me that I already had a dock and a boat and a home. Theirs was mine. I never assumed so.

Even now, how much my father loves me can crush me.

And seeing how much I love Diana, my precious, gorgeous, perfect niece, I fear crushing my own children with the weight of my love, seeing how tightly I just want to squeeze her. (I don't.) I would give her anything I could even remotely lay a claim to.

Which brings me back to the title of this essay: La Vie Boheme.

I -- for the first time -- am seeing my choices through the eyes of someone who will judge me, and I get to choose what she/he/they/our family's babies see as "Jennifer." I am a writer/photographer/artist/firecracker or I am the woman-who-makes-safe-choices....

(Yes, they are going to Dartmouth regardless. All of them. If I have to buy every admission with donations. Get used to it.)

What I am choosing requires tremendous faith in myself. And I think I have always lacked that -- and I think may of you will be surprised by that. Several of you will say "yeah, dork..." And others will mumble "it's about fucking time...."

I will spend most of my savings on my mortgage, building maintenance payments and my health insurance. Those are my absolutes.

But with the weight of every stranger's gaze I meet weighting down on me, why else was I given this gift? But it is not a philosophical essay I seek to make my end game right now.

I want to capture your soul in a picture. Let me.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


It was nearing 11 p.m., and I walked into the restroom at work, and she was there, beginning to wash the sinks. On some nights, she and I are the only two people left on the 14th floor at this hour. We never speak.

She is older than I am. Maybe in her early 40s, maybe older, maybe younger. She has frazzled hair, cut into a messy bob, dyed a dark honey blonde color. But it's fading. And her roots are gray and black. She is heavyset, 5'2'' at most, and she has dark, sad eyes. She has deep wrinkles around those eyes. Rough skin. And she wears an ill-fitting, shapeless blue dress -- her uniform -- as she cleans our office at night.

I was wearing heels. Pants. A cashmere sweater. I was thinking about whether I had time to get a manicure before visiting my niece tomorrow and whether I should bring my flat iron to Italy when I went on vacation Friday...

And I felt like a terrible person, watching out of the corner of my eye as she wrung out a rag. I don't know what language she speaks, but she knows little English. We look away from each other a lot. As I edit our Web site, she tries to vacuum around my bag on the floor. I feel torn between picking it up to make it easier for her and feeling like picking it up makes it worse.

"You missed a spot."

See? That made you cringe. I feel like an ass having written it.

But so often I forget exactly how privileged I am in this world, and this woman brings it to the front of my mind, mostly because the look on her face every night, tired, worn out... We work in the same place at the same time, but I have never less "together" in someone's presence. And its particular to her. I wonder what it is that I see in her that makes me feel so... so much like I need to apologize to her for existing.

I have not had an easy life, but compared to most of this planet, I was born into a life of ease. I will likely never be truly hungry. I have a home. I have a good family that loves me that would take me in if I needed them to. I have money to travel to interesting places. I can spend $13 on a cocktail just because it looks delicious. I have an amazing education and have been given and earned extraordinary opportunities... I work in a fancy building. Eat in fancy restaurants. Can spend hundreds on a handbag and it just makes me feel embarrassed. It doesn't change a thing about my life.

Sometimes I dwell on the things that make me grouchy -- I almost wrote "unhappy," but its hard to really claim to be "unhappy," even with my current set of tribulations. And I have the luxury of walking away if the cost begins to outweigh the reward.

I am a fifth-generation American living in a posh neighborhood of New York City in the 21st Century.

I am what my ancestors came here to give their children the chance to become.

I wish we could show them.

There is a photograph of me as an infant. We are on the balcony of my great-great grandmother's apartment, above the family's bar in Manayunk, in Philadelphia. In this photograph: my great-great grandmother Sophia, my great-grandmother Helen, my grandmother Doris, my mother Karen, and me, Jennifer.

Five generations of women. Mother and daughter. From Poland to Philadelphia. From the Old World to the New. A chain of hope and optimism and striving to give your little girl a life without the things you endured.

Sitting in my grandmother's house in Saturday, in between my cousin's wedding and the reception, another photograph was taken.

My sister held her two-week-old daughter, Diana, sitting between my mother and my grandmother. Four generations of my family, smiling as I snapped my camera, looking at an echo of my own life, captured in a moment full of hope. Marriage. Birth. Future. Past. All at once.

And our wee girl, my beloved niece, has also been born into a world of privilege. She sleeps in safe, secure homes. She doesn't go hungry. She has more than enough clothes. When she is awake, around her family, we can't put her down.

We will do whatever we can to teach her, and to teach her cousins, my own children, and the rest of her generation, how to be compassionate and generous and loving. And to strive to be better and to leave things better than they found them. To encourage all that is noble in ourselves and to try and hide the ugly things until they must be confronted. She will someday squirm, forced to deal with who she is and how she fits into the world. And we will try to make that easier.

Until she was born, my thinking on these things centered on myself. On what I could do to feel less guilt over feeling I'd gotten off easy in this world in so many ways... But now I wonder how to make it even easier for someone else. But also question how to make sure she can still see. Can still know that what she has took generations to achieve. And that everyone that came before her built the world as best they could so that she could sleep peacefully at night, well fed on a soft pillow.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Older, yes. Wiser, maybe?

I have a Polaroid photograph of myself, standing in the Ocean City High School library wearing a worn gray acrylic sweater that I found at a thrift store, because I so desperately wanted to fit in with my oh-so-edgy girlfriends at the time that I wore frumpy, $2 thrift store sweaters and listened to Tom Waits because that's where I had tried to fit in.

I have kept this photograph on my book shelf, half-way hidden behind a small box of Japanese incense sticks and a handful of "important' receipts, for perhaps a year. Occasionally I look at it, and I stare at my smile and wonder why I ever thought I wasn't beautiful. Why when I was that girl, I thought I was a just the most awkward, unloveable girl ever born, and should probably just stay that way. And it seemed I was confirmed. One evening at a friend's house, she turned to me and said, "I think we're good enough friends now... They say you used to be such a pretty girl. What happened to you?"


Exactly. I have a scar on my forehead. Even if an evil zealot threw acid on my face because I tried to go to school (try being a girl in Afghanistan), I would be a minor flicker on the world's list of "people messed up by sh*t that just happened."

The girl in the ill-fitting gray cheap thrift-store sweater is the one who answered that question with a blanched look of panic and a "Uh, I had an accident." And when she pressed for more of an answer, I actually felt myself shut down. I answered through a veil of post-traumatic stress disorder and shame. The double-sided coin of being different, even if it is something that hurt YOU. Not any other way, lest the other way around.

I was so self conscious, I heard those words and felt like I might as well have died. I should have died. Spared everyone and myself the horror of having to look at the lines that marked my darkest, direst days.

And here we fast forward. To a time when I had finally decided that the girl in the picture, the one who was so shy she hid her hands, even though she was the "smartest girl in the whole school" and was going to the Ivy League. Even though she had the lead in the play and was the captain of the tennis team. That girl was so shy, she stood to pose for a photograph in the library and hid her hands in the sleeves of her shirt. To reach for anything would be absurd.

Who grants gifts to broken things?

Apparently time does heal all wounds. Or at least make them bearable. Less sinister. More relational. We learn to take what we can from how things change us. I, for example, have no ability to differentiate between a look from someone who thinks I'm attractive and someone who thinks I'm a spectacle, unless they catch my eyes. Our eyes don't lie. So much else in our faces can though. It's astounding.

I see people stare at me, and I judge whether its because I am different or because I am beautiful depending on my mood. If I feel strong, I get shy under the glances of admirers. If I feel ashamed, I imagine they are horrified at my scars. I am a monster. Wrecked.

When the truth is, who the hell knows what anyone is thinking when they look at you.

He could be grimacing about a fight with his wife. About laundry. About a daughter asking an embarrassing question.

She could be shy about having kissed him too soon. Too wrapped up in pleasing her boss to even actually see the woman she's staring at and scowling towards.

We all assume the reactions of others are rooted in the things we worry about ourselves, and we are seldom right.

I wish I could tell the girl in that picture that someday, the woman she would become would look at her and think she was exquisite, and to reach out and embrace every inch of her life. Thrust those hands out of those sleeves and stand proud.

Because that had always been the right thing to do. The way things should have been.

A shining, beautiful smile gracing a child -- who would one day become a woman who would look back at herself and wish for things to have been different, but know that things happened as they did to make today. And realize the elegance of a revelation that leads to self forgiveness.

And rejoice.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

For My Own True Love... Lost at Sea...

The heart makes its own decisions.

Whether it lasts or not, I believe that we know what is right, who we love and what is real. Just because. Whether things are chemistry or inevitable love, we know a kindred spirit when we first say hello. We may doubt and wait for proof, but in the end, we knew.

I knew you and I would adore each other from the moment I saw you...

(I remember so may of those moments -- my "first friend date" with Vanessa, when we went to lunch, dressed nicely because we felt like it mattered that this went well... Kathy at Governor's School, the coolest girl there, in my eyes, who thought the same about me... Riding the bus reading Euripides with Michael... The look in my eyes in that photograph of when I was 2, holding freshly-born Julie in my arms like I had the biggest prize in the whole world. And yes. I did. "Look what I got!" Yes indeed.)

A certain fellow has been on my mind a lot lately, and I confess, I feel like he's the one that got away, even if he was a vanishing jerk... Whatever was there was overwhelming, although it was brief... It should have been of little consequence, and yet... Yet I find he has re-emerged in my mind and the wild beating of my heart in his presence is the standard against which I judge all others...

I had woken up and his forehead was pressed against mine and we were sleeping touching noses... THAT's what I want. Just with someone who stays...

I've been a little bit obsessive with music lately -- listening to the same handful of Decemberists songs over and over and over for like 2 weeks...

One, called "A Record Year for Rainfall" has lines in the chorus: What’s the use of all of this? It’s to remember you in the entire/ Cause I’m watching it slip away...

And it reminds me of my last night with him... when I lied to myself, but I knew.

I knew I wouldn't see him again, even though we'd make love twice again before we had to get up. I lay there, memorizing his face. I wanted to remember it. Every line. Every curve. No one has ever hit me that hard just by existing...

I have no idea how or why these things happen.

So I lay there, on my stomach, wrapped in his arms as he slept, and I learned his face so that I would remember when he was gone, because I knew he wouldn't be back... And later when he left, he kissed me hard. And as he went down the stairs, his eyes never leaving mine, he blew me a kiss... and it just felt like goodbye. I died inside a little. And I pretended I hadn't felt that... seen what I had seen flash in that action... I didn't trust my instincts. Maybe, maybe he didn't mean that.

But twice I knew. Twice I tried to lie to myself in one night... and it came to pass that he did slip into wherever it is he went... Funny. In the day to day, maybe I wouldn't even like that man. But in those hours at night in my bed, the intensity of it blew me away.

I have had awkward nights. I have faked enthusiasm for a kiss. But when that bolt of lightening hits you, you can't pretend it was something else... Too bad it sometimes strikes at the very wrongest, least useful time.

Maybe it's a flaw, but I get attached very quickly to people who touch my soul, and I do not let go easily. Some get through slowly. Some hit like a wrecking ball and I am powerless to resist them -- but would never have wanted to. And unfortunately for me, I still think the best of people even when they've long since turned from honey into poison... Even as I saw. I knew.

I fought a million goodbyes from men not worth the time it took to hear them say it... Because I couldn't believe they were leaving. Thinking the problem was me. Not beautiful or captivating or worth keeping. I let my fear and insecurity cloud that voice that knew right from wrong, yes from no. That fought to cling to things that were oh so bad that I tried to make good, and saw the good in things that should have turned badly.

I knew he would go before he went. And when he did, I tried to deceive myself. Because in those moments, with his eyes closed and his mind deep in sleep, a small smile lingered on his face, cradling me close, and my heart was lost to him. Somewhere in that night though, I lost him.

I'm trying to follow my heart, so to speak, these days. Do what feels right... And I've found the signs look better than when I was emotionally fighting my lot in life. I find myself in a state of watchful waiting, and I wonder what will come to be.

Hopefully, I will learn to trust myself more as it passes.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

My Own Stuff White People Like: Cinco de Mayo

Every year on May 5, white people flock to Mexican restaurants and Irish pubs to celebrate what they assume to be Mexico's Independence Day: Cinco de Mayo.

White people love Cinco de Mayo because it combines several of their favorite things: multiculturalism, diversity, nachos, being an expert on other cultures and binge drinking. However, Cinco de Mayo is a potential minefield when it comes to offending white people, which they love. But when they're drinking, it can get messy.

For example, telling a white person that Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates Mexico's victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 will most likely result in blank, slightly hostile stares, because white people hate to be corrected.

Therefore, when hanging out with a white person on Cinco de Mayo, it's best to ignore this fact and simply buy them a Corona, a shot of tequila or a frozen Margarita, the official white-person drinks of Cinco de Mayo. White people will appreciate both the free drink and the fact that you're celebrating Mexico's freedom from Spain with them.

If you do bring it up and upset a white person, you can correct the situation by telling them you only learned that fact because of your foreign study program in Mexico. This then gives them an opportunity to tell you about their foreign study program, thus alleviating any further tension because they will have forgotten all about you as they reminisce about the price of beer in Prague.

At no point should you draw attention to the actual Mexicans bringing the white person the nachos and clearing away the empty Corona bottles. White people become uncomfortable when they think about poor immigrants doing menial labor for them. However, take heart. The more tequila a white person drinks on Cinco de Mayo the more likely they are to begin over-tipping, which will help alleviate the guilt they feel over NAFTA.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Lasts, Firsts

It's the stuff of movies, of novels, of fiction. It is a thing you never think will actually happen -- that thing so cliched that its reality stuns you with the force of a lightening bolt.

When she knew she was dying, she wrote me a letter.

Pen on paper.

And she left it for me.

A woman knew she was dying, and she wrote the things she wanted me to know. The last things she would say to me. The last thing I would hear. If there are ever words you should heed, they are these.

I have been thinking about this letter lately, because I'm at a bit of a crossroads. There are things I want to create. To write. To photograph. Things I want my life to be. The way I want to spend my days.

And there is the lonely, cold way that they are.

And I wonder, sometimes, if I pulled this scribbled letter out, whether it would lift me or crush me.

In my mind, I see the page. I see her always terrible, yet now lazy handwriting. The effort she put into pushing the pen onto that notepad. She left her last words on pretentious paper. So typical. So perfect. I know where I keep it.

In a brown paper envelope, it sits among a funeral notice and photographs I can't bear to look at, because maybe almost four years later I am still not whole again.

But maybe each death will leave us less whole. Each birth replenish us.

My niece will be born in three months, god willing. And I have never anticipated anyone as much.

I anticipate my own family. Lover. Husband. Children. But for now, baby niece, sweet soon-to-be Diana, rules the universe of us all. The first of our next generation. As the first of the last generation, I hope to help her on. And am glad for my own daughters that they won't bear that burden. Perhaps being the first, I chose my hesitation.

For maybe half a day I resented my younger sister marrying first. And since that day, I have gladly taken my place among the "not in front."

I have had enough standing out. Next Friday I will see her in a 3-D ultrasound image for the first time. And I'm quite excited.

The turn of this post I confess is unanticipated.

I watched a show that made me think about Phatiwe's letter. But instead, I turned towards a tangible and coming future. I meant to talk about last words, but instead found first words...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On Books

I have an unnaturally strong attachment to books.

To me, they are the things, aside from photographs, that if your house were burning, you might run back and try to save. There may be a million copies of 'Song of Solomon' but that is the one that made me shiver. That copy of 'Sula', with its "Circles and circles of sorrow" changed how I thought, how I feel, how I am. Who knew? Who knew there was a word for what I felt, and that someone else had taken those feelings, those exact same feelings, and put them more exquisitely than I could have fathomed... Until I read it.

And then I knew.

I knew those feelings. That sorrow. That spiral. That prayer/poem/hymn/cry.

They are things that can evoke in us spiritual responses. Feeling that touch us so deeply that we maybe sometimes make bad decisions.

To hold on to sentences. Phrases. Paragraphs. As objects on a page. As pages in a book. As a book that we have held. As a thing, we have touched, that has touched us.

Therein lies the mystery of books, of reading and of language.

We have created this system of symbols that mean our words. Our words are symbols themselves. We take collections of lines, put them together, and through the glorious invention of writing, you are reading this. You know what I wanted to tell you. You know. Because these symbols, these lines, mean something to us.

So these things on my shelves, these cumbersome, space-sucking books... these worlds, these ideas, these revelations... I will have to pare down. I don't live in a proper house, so I have just the few shelves I own now, and the space I might use to add a new one is very small. I am New-York-City-Maxed-Out.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Ego vs. Facebook

This may surprise some of you, I've realized, but I always feel painfully awkward when I discover that someone has remembered me. When someone does something for me that shows they were obviously thinking about me -- about what I like, what would be very nice for me to have, what would make me laugh -- it kind of breaks my heart.

That sentiment may be echoed in the last post's story about the ring, but Facebook, oddly enough, is forcing me to confront a character flaw of sorts. One that is a bit of an irony coming from someone vain enough to blog.

It really does surprise me that people find me -- significant. That I mattered or had any impact on their lives. I keep being delightfully surprised by contact from people I haven't heard from in 2, 5, 15 years...

I'm somewhat cursed with an ability to remember most things. Conversations. Lectures. Books. Articles. Shows. Probably most of the things you ever said to me. (Remember, Matt Jenkins and Vanessa when we were eating pizza on the stoop of 1426 and the cops came because we were blasting Tribe Called Quest out the window at 2 a.m.?)If my eyes caught it, I probably can't shake it. And I remember slights. Embarrassments. We all do. I still feel shame sometimes over things I did long, long ago.

Case in point: Sunshine Forest Pre-School. 1981? 1982? It's general play-time. I go up to Alyssa - and I tell her, very matter-of-factly, that this afternoon, I am going to Robin's house to play. And YOU, are not.

Even at 4 years old, there was this insecurity. This contest. The need to violently throw myself into the world and hope it noticed me. "Screw you four year old!"

That was also the first time I was publicly punished. Banned from snack time. No "Zesta" crackers and apple juice for me (another problem with the memory, remembering a forbidden snack from 27 years ago... great. I wish I knew where I'd put my checkbook...)

Returning to my point -- you can tell this is awkward because I'm storytelling instead -- I've heard from people who I would have thought I was too insignificant to be noticed by. I get Friend Requests (which I think should be a proper noun) from people who I am stunned remember who I was. Someone I always felt was too cool, too beautiful, too sophisticated...

Example -- at the New Jersey Governor's School of the Sciences in 1994 -- when I'd been nominated by my high school for being the person they thought could get in -- the girl I thought was the most beautiful, most fascinating, coolest person wound up being my best friend there. She seemed to like being with me as much as I did her, and I admired her so. She sang and played music. She's now a marine biologist, and I'm a little bit jealous of that. I felt so lucky.

I was even excited to be her friend on Facebook. We always worship those we once adored, I suppose. Not in the way we ardently throw ourselves into the blood and guts of family love, but in that "how does someone like you like someone like me" crazytown way.

Unfortunately for me, I have always fallen in love with men who fall into the second category. Only a few have been the blood and guts love kind. I miss them always.

My therapist in Boston once asked why I assumed I had been so insignificant to the men I'd loved -- why I was shocked when one of them would reach out to me after our usually catastrophic break-up. I'd been so convinced, somehow, that fleeing me was the only natural thing to do. That they were back because they felt sorry for me. Pitiful me. Sad, leave-able me.

I have no explanation.

A few faces have re-emerged lately, not my doing -- which means they found me somehow. Maybe through others. But still. For the young'uns, Facebook is a chronicle of everyone in college they ever spoke to. But when you've got a few years under your belt (not that many) there are faces that come back that surprise you.

This isn't meant as a litany to my insecurities. Because I'm very detatched writing it -- and it's something that was preoccupying me so much so I actually put down the third book in the 'Twilight' series to think, have a glass of wine and write.

It's more of a why and a how. How do we wind up like this?

I now sit in an office almost alone at night, News Editor for a Web site (note my AP style!) Yet with one, maybe two or three other people, which is kind of torture for someone who has thrown herself at the world with such force, because she always insists on being noticed and in the fray... Who thrives on having a partner at all times.

Who needs the maddening crowd. But who oddly doesn't think she will be remembered. How does this even make sense?

Weird, right? Mostly unexplicapable and irrational.

I would bet cash money that none of you would ever bet that I'd be shocked by a gift of lemons in a plastic cup -- left on my desk at work because someone cared enough about me to notice something about me -- something I enjoyed -- and wanted me to have that.

So much so that when I wasn't around, he remembered to do it.

You've had those days.

Even if it was the tiniest gesture, it was for you and about you.

I think it started on that train platform, listening to my father's music. And then I heard from someone I was flattered to be remembered by -- on the Facebook. Not even because we'd had some intense relationship. We had been neighbors for one year. He married. Had a daughter. I moved to New York. Someone for whom I assumed I wouldn't even register.

I first started writing a "maybe" sentence, but that would have been a lie.

I love without caution, but have always assumed I was somewhat invisible.

I delight in feeling like a fool. Maybe just this time. But I wanted to get it off my chest.

Something is about to happen.