Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Going Beyond...

A neighbor asked me yesterday, "What do you do? Do you work, do you not work?"
I laughed, decided not to get defensive. "I wish there was a word for what I do that I could use to explain it," I said. I did not add, "that I could use to allay people's jealousy or judgment." Despite the fact that I take care of my kids and myself, keeping calm so I can ease the burden of my husband's many work stresses, despite that we are dipping in to our equities so that I can do so in an interesting way, not having to bring in cash daily makes me the envy of many.
"Well, it must be nice," he said, shaking his head at my luck, at the luxurious happy-go-lucky lifestyle he imagines I live. "Someday, I'll stop working and retire," he said.
I just looked at him, sunglasses covering my puffy eyes. I'd had a rough, emotional morning for a whole set of reasons he knew nothing about, cared nothing about, that were none of his business.
"Well," I said, "it's not all it's cracked up to be, so I'd enjoy now."
"I'd like to see for myself and I'll let you know," he said, distrusting that life is a challenge at any stage.
"Fabulous," I responded, walking away. "I'll be curious to know."
I went to Pep Boys to replace a tire with a nail in it, the second new tire of the summer, then headed uptown to pick up my kids from my in-laws, who had taken them overnight so the hubby and I could go out for a belated b-day celebration at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Dan Barber, the chef, is a friend of Geordie's from growing up and he treated us well, even allowing us a peak into the magnificent and crazy kitchen after our many-coursed meal. Quite the experience, a rare one judging by the bill.
After I picked up the kids, we walked in to Central Park and explored all the paths I first travailed after I had my oldest, Eli, and was living up by Columbia. It felt like Deja Vu except I had no stroller, was not wondering where I might end up living or if I'd ever be able to afford to have a car. (Though, after the tire blowouts, I'm beginning to think I still can't.) After hitting the hot spots, like the Reservoir, Belvedere Castle, the boat pond, Alice in Wonderland and the Mall, whose tree-lined path always gives me a grand sense of possibility, we ended up at Victoria Gardens, the amusement park at Wollman Rink. At great expense, the kids whirled and twirled on pint-sized roller coasters and had a blast until the thunder claps came and the rain began to soak the park and everyone in it. Luckily, we were given passes to let us come another day, two for the price of one, I say. We hid out inside until the deluge mostly passed and made our way among other wet park visitors to the nearest street to hail a cab.
"Finally, we're taking a cab!" Oscar said, throwing up his hands, having told me he hated me no fewer than three times on the long walk through the park.
When we got to Central Park West, however, it was off-duty time and no one seemed interested in picking up wet Brooklynites to take them back to their car. Finally, one cab slowed and my anxious 5-year-old jumped out in the street to hail him.
He rolled down his window to say he was off-duty.
"Please!" I begged. "We're just going to 93rd Street, just straight up 30 blocks... and I'll even pay you!" I said. The bedraggled hair and children probably helped and he let us in.
"See," I said, settling in, "you were going this way anyway, right? And now you can make more money?" Nice justification, eh?
"When you're done, you want to go home," he said, and pointed as we passed it to the exit through the park to the East Side, where he would have turned to get home had he not picked us up. We were passing where he needed to go by a good trafficky bit.
"Sorry," I said. "But thanks?!"
When we got out a few minutes later, I let him keep more than the regular amount of change and then remembered. I actually had some gold stars on me!
"Wait, I have something for you," I said, and handed it over. He smiled and looked at it. "A gold star..." he said. "Thanks."
My kids laughed, having never seen me give one out. They waved at the nice driver as he did a U-turn to head back to where he was going, to home. It's nice when people go above or at least just beyond for you, when they think about where you might be coming from or going instead of just themselves. It must make them feel good too, and feeling good is important, working or "retired."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Giving the Husband the Gold Star

I woke up yesterday to a driving rain similar to the one I woke up to 13 years prior, on my wedding day. As the myth goes, rain on your wedding day is good luck and, while I think that is akin to making one feel better about a bird pooping on you (also thought to be good luck), I guess in this case it was true. My hubby and I have managed to weather a lot of storms together and still care for one another, still be there for one another, still love each other. It ain't always easy, that's for sure. But we work on it, both of us, for which I think we deserve gold stars.

Today is my hubby's birthday and I (sorry hon) have done nothing, not yet. It is early in the day though. I also came up with nothing for our anniversary except securing a babysitter for our dinner at Vinegar Hill House, no small feat in the summer when all the young kids seem to be away. He, however, made up for the Mother's Day fiasco where I got zip and he, I like to joke, got a very long lecture. He ponied up with an adorable card AND a jewelry box, which held a delicate shiny white-gold dragonfly. He has always shied away from picking gifts for me who is, arguably, very picky. But just taking the time to think about someone else means so much and I love thinking of him walking into a jewelry store, scared and clueless, and walking away with something to present to me, at 50% off no less, nice! I hate to think of him getting ripped off on my behalf.

I love the necklace, I love dragonflies and I love that he took the leap to buy something for me when I haven't made it very easy. He gets another gold star. And I will sign off to ponder how to earn another myself, how to make his last birthday in his 30s a good one. I know what not to do: get him a raspberry chocolate cake like I did the first three years we were dating. He was so good-natured about it, ate it without a word, until I started gushing about the great combination of raspberry and chocolate the third year and he finally fessed up about hating it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Chance Encounter with Future Fame

I was on a plane in the mid '90s, sitting in coach, travelling to some or another location for my job writing about packaged food marketing, when I struck up a conversation with a woman next to me about the small annoyances of travel. She was a publicist, but she was actually travelling quite a bit not for her own work but for her husband, who had recently written a book and was beginning to promote it.

She was delightful. Funny, warm, sincere. We chatted the whole trip and it made the small annoyance of travel a lot less annoying. I was excited for her and for her husband, who was not with her, about achieving at least some modicum of success with writing a book. It is a major accomplishment, one I value above almost anything else because I know what it takes, having tried valiantly, in vain, to write even a coherent personal essay. Before we departed, I asked the name of the book so I could pick it up. If her husband was half as charming as she, I imagined I'd like it.

"Angela's Ashes," she said. It didn't register but I tried to commit it to memory so I could look for it at the store. When I looked, though, it wasn't hard to find thought it was early days, before the phenomenal memoir catapulted the much older man my airplane cohort had just recently wed to a fame seemingly unexpected for a retired New York City school teacher speaking of his poor Irish childhood. I think Frank McCourt actually made it on to People's Most Beautiful People list later that same year.

I often wonder how this down-to-earth woman was affected by this fame and fortune showered upon her husband and herself so late in life. I saw him once, at the restaurant along the Hudson, at the Boat Basin, and thought of approaching him. Yet he was so famous and my brief encounter with his wife was likely not to matter a whit to him though the experience had really stuck with me. Meeting someone just on the cusp of incredible fame is fascinating, in hindsight. At the time, of course, it was just another chance encounter where no one is aware of what is to come.

Mr. McCourt's recent death is a sadness, likely most of all for his family, for his wife who had a too-short but certainly exciting run with him. Finding fame and fortune so late, things so in contrast with his early life, must have been an amazing study for him and for his wife, clearly smart, insightful people who had had so much time to ponder what such things did to others, what they might be like, good and bad. Of course, we can never really know something until we experience it firsthand. The contrast with Mr. McCourt's life and death and that of someone on whom celebrity was showered much earlier, someone like Michael Jackson, for example, is glaring. Sometimes what seems like a great thing can be terrible if given to someone when it's too early to be understood, to be appreciated, to be handled.

I give Frank McCourt and his wife, Ellen Frey, big gold stars for taking fame humbly, for pressing on and being able to appreciate the positives and negatives of what they received for their efforts, as I imagine they did. I probably wouldn't run into Mrs. McCourt on a plane now. She'd likely be in first class. Or maybe not. Who knows?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Big Gold Star for Brooklyn

I didn't want to leave San Francisco last Sunday. I packed woefully and nearly got back on a plane at Newark airport when the car-service driver arrived after 20 or so minutes and threw up his hands, ranting and raving about the hour and a half it was likely to take us just to get through any one of the tunnels to home.

We had sailed around San Francisco's hills, twisting and turning to avoid traffic, waiting nearly vertical to the sky at stop lights, and enjoying every minute of it. Oscar whooped often as we flew over a hill. "Penis tickle!" he'd cry. Not sure why he feels bumps in his penis rather than in the pit of his stomach like everyone else, but that's not the point. It felt good, wherever. No such luck in NYC. There is usually one long, flat, crowded road to where you are going, the same place, it seems, where everybody else is going too. I wasn't ready to be home.

For the record, even without the incredibly annoying 10/10 winds he blasted out before I not-so-nicely asked him to turn it off or at least down, the neurotic but nice driver got us to our front door in less than an hour with some smart maneuvering. Like most things people freak out about in theory, in practice it wasn't nearly as bad. And, I had to admit, it did feel nice to be back in our own place, warts and all, instead of in our rented San Fran apartment. The broken ice-maker had frozen the freezer shut but, after pouring some water through it, it did actually make ice without us having to fill and twist little plastic trays. A window in our bedroom doesn't have a screen, but at least we could open the others without freezing in July. And we still have no bed frame, but at least that means our mattress doesn't squeek mercilessly when we move even slightly like the antique, too-short frame we had been sleeping on.

Since Monday's return, I've done about a thousand loads of laundry but have, in between, managed to see tons of people I know on my street and in area stores, to get to the beach at Coney Island and to have a picnic with friends listening to the Philharmonic in Prospect Park. I have in these few short days fallen in love with Brooklyn anew. Sorry to Cali, but Brooklyn is home. What's not to love? People yell at you if they want to, but will just as likely smile and tell you they love your dress. Often, it can be the same person, someone who--like me--can be mad as hell then, with the slightest prompting, will soften happily into being sweet. It's more pleasant to be nice I've found. Not that I always remember that, but I try and so it seems, mostly, do others around me in The Brooklyn.

Eli, who is eight months shy of 9 he told me recently, stared at me with his deep brown eyes, holding my hand on vacation and said, "I don't know anyone who's mean Mommy. Everyone I know is nice." I love that he thinks that, that I haven't jaded him with any of my sometimes-vitriolic rants about one or another encounter with another human. I guess I have to agree with him. I don't really know anyone I think is mean. Clueless, annoying, wrong-headed, selfish, thoughtless...the list of other's failings and my own is long, but mean is not usually on it. We're lucky that way. People around us, whatever they might be, are trying. And for that, our lovely Brooklyn, even on the most humid of days, gets a big gold star. And, for the forseeable future, it also gets us.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dolphin Dancing

On California mornings, the surfers dot the ocean like dolphins. Nearsighted, it's hard to tell the difference. It is fun to watch them, poured into their wetsuits, emulating sea animals, straddling their boards in anticipation of a big one. One seems always to be waiting in California, or at least it appears that way to a New Yorker. It is great to slow down in the summer, but it might be too late for me to ever slow down year-round. I'm fearful that the frenetic neuroticism of NYC is in my bones, in my brain. I take it with me wherever I go.

I did slow down, though, on morning walks along the beach. At the end of the pier in Huntington, for example, before the fake-breasted babes were awake, there were only cloaked Chinese fishermen and fisherwomen casting their rods against the wind, a few rows of patient surfers, and dolphins.

As I leaned against the railing, I caught sight of movement in the water, a ripple, another ripple, a fin poking out, then a whole dolphin and then another, dancing in the waves. A bird followed their flight, landing on the water just around them as they played, watching enviously. I was envious too. It's hard to find an easy playmate. There is a dance we all do and finding others who can follow, who want to, is no easy feat. Is it like that for dolphins, I wondered? How do they decide who they will sail off with, away from the pack, to prance and play with? Do they stick with the same partner for life? Do they switch often depending on their mood? Is the decision made by a wise old dolphin leader? Likely we will never know. Scientists might try to understand animals' mating rituals but they are only guessing. Like human relationships, so much is likely inexplicable, innate, instinctual.

The Internet is always rich with answers, offering research that can prove whatever theory one might espouse. In a description of bottlenosed dolphins, a site offers that though they "are gregarious by nature...In some near-shore societies, they appear to stay together for life." Elsewhere, though, another site suggests dolphins are players, spending the summer months wantonly displaying their affections with whomever they might encounter via wrestling, leaping out of the water, even doing forward and backward flips in the air.

"When dolphin are in the intense throws of passion, their white underbellies turn bright pink," kidscruz.com says. "They become very playful and swim excitedly and mate indiscriminately."

If this were an article for a magazine, my lead would lean toward calling dolphins promiscuous rather than monogomous, as my haphazard two-minute online research efforts support this and it is probably as close to the truth as one is going to get. Harmlesslion.com acknowledges that no one knows for sure, but suggests promiscuity looks most likely based on the bulk of scientific evidence. The site offers that "the key to learning more about reproductive habits, as with other social behavior, is the identification and sexing of individuals and long-term monitoring."

What can be said of us two-legged land dwellers? Hard to know, really. Long-term monitoring has proven nothing. We often move so far from our instincts in order to create societies, in order to defer to the greater good, the continuation of mankind. Sometimes it is tiring to move along with the pack. I sometimes want to break free like the dolphins and dance among the rippling waves. Who would go with me? So many profess their desire to dance but can't, say they want to go but won't. Hell, I am often afraid myself. What will people think? How will I look? I'd like to think that dolphins don't worry, they just act. They are driven by their inner core to speed along and, every once in a while, to jump. The fact that they so often jump in unison speaks to their societies' superiority to ours, their ability to let go of their own egos and just move, connect, to really act together. I wish I could have jumped in to the ocean and given them gold stars. They deserve them.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Trying On San Fran

I have to come clean. I have been in California nearly two weeks and I have given away no gold stars. I don't even bring them with me when I go out. I am on vacation and, even though I love my "job" of giving out stars, it has been nice to have a break.

We have been in San Francisco since Monday, since driving here from L.A. after a stop at Pismo Beach and the ocean view motel room at the Kon Tiki Inn, after lunch watching whales and hummingbirds in Big Sur. The drive along Highway 1 is amazing if a little nauseating, the topography of California a true wonder.

It is nice to be in a big, dense city again. We are pretending to be locals, with our own apartment, my hubby taking public transportation to work while I hit the playground in Golden Gate Park with the kids. It is not too far afield from our Brooklyn life. There seem to be even more cafes per capita here than in Park Slope, which is saying something. I have passed Pilates studios and Bikram yoga places that I would try if I had the time and people seem to smile as they pass in a friendly way that makes me think it wouldn't be hard to make a life here. After a little incident Oscar had with a toy at a friends' place the night of our arrival,we have even located a pediatric dentist and a number of Walgreens' pharmacies to pick up prescriptions.

It is fun to imagine picking up and starting anew. That's what summer is for, I think, to live differently than you do the rest of the year. It is, ideally, a time apart, not just for school-age kids but for their parents too, if they can manage it. I am trying this summer, at least so far, to break from the patterns that guide us during other seasons. We all need a break, a little distance from the life we've chosen to determine if it is, indeed, the one we would choose again. Travel provides that opportunity in spades. Today, for example, we will likely hit Alcatraz. Prison is not a lifestyle we'd choose, granted, but it will ideally help us appreciate our freedom to see a place where any personal choice is denied. We are so lucky to have choices. Sometimes it is important to remember that.