Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Commitment is hard. It is hard enough to make the most basic decisions in one’s day, what to wear, what to do…even at the office, I used to sit, staring, for a while before I figured how to juggle the day’s work, the week’s. Now, with far less structure, it is often overwhelming.

So it was that when I saw my friend and neighbor Victoria, asked her what was new, and she told me that she had an “appointment” with friends, it seemed a strange way to phrase it, but not overly so. It becomes harder and harder, at pace with the outgrowth of exponential forms of communiqué, to actually see others, to commit to doing so, so calling it an appointment seemed apt. But, then, she explained. It wasn’t just verbiage. She and two friends actually were meeting up, had actual “appointments” to get tattoos.

“Yay!” I said. “So…are you getting a …”

She rolled her eyes and nodded yes. “Of course.”

We had talked so often of her dragonfly tattoo, ever since I had gotten mine and she had said she was partial to the same image, had thought about adding it to the one she already had. But she was nervous, still and all, despite the appointment, despite the support of friends.

“I don’t like pain…” she said. And she was still unsure where, exactly, to get it, how big…lots of decisions yet to make before the deed was done, before she even got to the pain.

I gave her a gold star for good luck, for trying, and she put it on her chest. It shone brightly next to the gold dragonfly charm on her necklace.

“It’ll be great,” I said. She had wanted it for so long but, sometimes, I know, right before we get to the goal, we thwart ourselves, we stop short of reaching the final stage we’ve long fantasized about. Cause what then? What’s next? We have to come up with a new goal, something else to satisfy.

Speaking of goals, I had been meaning for a while to make my way through a book I’d bought, Cafe Life New York, An Insider's Guide to the City's Neighborhood Cafes, to make it to the various spots it outlined. I decided, yesterday, to commit. I started, first, with Harlem, a neighborhood I was long overdue in visiting.

I drove up the East River Drive, beautiful, especially when uncrowded, and soon found myself circling around Society Coffee Lounge on Frederick Douglass Blvd and 114th looking for parking.

I finally double parked and walked under the scaffolding, inside. It was a while before anyone wanting to chat sat down at the big square communal table, long after I’d finished my killer shrimp and grits.

The man felt compelled to explain why his phone was speaking out despite having headphones plugged in, something his girl friend (girlfriend?) had pointed out as strange. He had downloaded an application for hands-free listening to text messages, where a voice of his choosing would read out the messages.

“Wow,” I said, “this is getting scary.”

He had nodded, taking off his sunglasses, eager now to discuss technology and its affect on people, on society.

“I’m all about interaction,” he said passionately. “And this…this” he gestured at his device. “This doesn’t work for that, not really.”

I nodded in agreement. “It’s a big topic for me,” I said. “In the end, though, I don’t think it changes things. People still want to love and be loved, they still want this…” and I gestured to them, to us, to people around sitting face to face, talking.

He has been in Harlem ten years, long enough to see the major changes unfold. He shrugged off any naysayers of the gentrification, the influx of whites.

“It’s better that we’re all together…” he said.

I agreed wholeheartedly. “Much harder to hate that way.”

I’m glad I got to Harlem, glad I got to sit with Nigel and Casey, chat live and give them their gold stars. It is a commitment, community, keeping up one’s “appointments” even with strangers. And it’s an important one.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Back to Work...

I have been woefully absent, not necessarily from giving out gold stars but from reporting on my efforts. I should have been writing every day, as I have learned much in my travels from Maine to Chicago to Iowa.

It is clear that while people may be surrounded by different terrain, have different accents or different cultural norms, they are the same in that they appreciate being rewarded for their efforts, they love it when someone else notices that they are trying.

From the gentleman gripping tight to the armrest on the puddle-jumper from New York to Chicago to the one who sat next to me as I gripped myself and cursed mightily on the little plane that dipped and dropped all the way from Iowa City to Chi-town, I encountered a lot of instances of people needing and people giving.

Summertime is like any other time in that we are so very focused on ourselves, on what we have to get done in order to complete our tasks, to get to the fun. So much of the time, if we are not careful, such self-focus makes us oblivious to others. I know I am a culprit, caught up in my own head so much so that I don't think in a moment of others' thoughts or feelings.

Back in Brooklyn, faced with a multitude of new faces, the absence of others (gone like I have been to escape the city in the heat) I am presented anew with opportunities to get out of myself and give out gold stars. I am always amazed at the smiles brought out simply with a kind word, a noticing of someone's...something, anything. It's just important to notice.

This morning, my lovely husband's 40th Birthday a fond memory, kids happily ensconced in camp, I am clearing out and cleaning up, getting ready to get back to work, writing and rewarding others, at least for a few weeks, before we get on a plane yet again to foreign lands. It will be fun to see if people in France and England get the gold star thing...We'll see! 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Much More Than Just Cornfields: Iowa City

I never had any desire to come to Iowa, had never thought much about it. I think that’s true of a lot of people, which is why Iowa is great. It is authentic. It is not burdened by a tourist board version of what to expect from the State, of what it is. It just is.

“We grow three crops here: corn, soy and writers,” said playwright and University of Iowa professor Kate Aspengren to the crowd of eager writers at the kickoff of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival weekend I attended.

I had passed many fields filled with corn and soy on my way in to Iowa City from the airport in Moline, Illinois, fields I had seen from the air as we landed. The intense greenery had made me giggle, plots empty as far as the eye could see being such a distinct and dramatic change from the Big City from which I’d flown. That the two coexist mere hours away from one another by air is amazing.

I had put my friend and former boss, a native of Iowa and the tour guide for my trip, on the job of seeking out an old turquoise pick-up for me upon my arrival. He had not found any but as we drove, I found not one but two on our path. I'm still in the process of considering whether or not to pick one up for real, to drive it home to Brooklyn filled with the awesome rusty vestiges of the lives lived here.

As Ms. Aspengren had noted, the University of Iowa was the first to offer degrees in creative fields like writing and music. That heritage is alive and well in town, as the arts are well represented, more books and music and art than most cities have across a far larger span. A piano sits in the pedestrian mall outside my hotel, beseeching passersby to play, which we did.

A man stopped to listen.

"Beautiful..." he said. "How long have you been playing together?" We smiled and laughed.

"This is the first time," I said.

The man, Mark, a self-named "spiritual poet," commented on us, on how "alive" we were. And, indeed, playing piano on the pedestrian mall, practicing my writing "voice" in the terrific class I took with professor Gordon Mennenga, I did feel very much alive. I gave Mark a gold star for his appreciation of our efforts and for his own efforts, for his meditations and examination of his own and others' lives.

Iowa City in general gets a HUGE gold star, not the least for its bread, which is thick, grainy, buttered and lightly toasted to absolute perfection, the best I've ever had, and for the sheer genuine nature of its people, like the waitress who served us the famous oversized pork tenderloin sandwich and shrugged when I asked if we could get a mix of fried cauliflower and mushrooms. "I don't give a shit..." she said.

For those and many other reasons, I will definitely be back.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chicago Hope

The news was playing as we scooted in to the black car, on the way to the airport. It was 1010 Winds, guaranteed to make you sad and stressed. I didn't say anything, though, as I sometimes do when trying to protect my children from the harsh realities of the world, digested for what reason I am never quite sure. As much as those close to me might disagree, I don't actually like telling people what they can and cannot do.

As it turns out, the driver was indeed sensitive to our needs for, after a short while, clearly having cottoned on to where we were headed, the news turned into music, a particular song he thought we might enjoy. All of a sudden, tales of terrible things were replaced by Frank Sinatra belting out: "MY KIND OF TOWN, CHICAGO IS..."

I laughed. "Thanks!" I said. Turns out the driver had never been to Chicago, was an East Coast man like Sinatra himself, had lived 60-some years in Park Slope. He regaled us with memories of Brooklyn days past, of the heyday when the Dodgers played, lived locally among their fans. His enthusiasm showed in his voice and in his eyes, that darted back to make contact in the rearview.

It was a great send-off to the town where I went to school, where my mother is from and now lives (the view above is the one from her balcony), a city that I was married in and lived in as a newlywed, playing house, preparing to be an adult. (I am still preparing...)

On arrival, a dragonfly greeted us and led us downtown on the highway, a harbinger of the friendly reception of Chicagoans in general.

"What are you doing today?" the girl at Starbucks asked me, as if we were old friends.

Shopping, as I like to do, I encountered Meliqua at the Marshall's checkout. She understood my addiction. As she rang me up, she shook her head.

"They took my first three paychecks," she said sadly, but her frown quickly turned upside down as she told me enthusiastically, "but I have a lot of great shoes!!" It was a great line, one I couldn't help but reward with a gold star.

I miss Chicago, the friendly bar scene, the big hangover hot spots for breakfast and the beautiful skyline. From the lakeside as I ran yesterday, looking up at the city once consumed by fire, rebuilt, my 9-year-old history buff reminds me by the best and brightest architects who donated their services after the tragedy, I was struck by how amazing cities are, how full of hope and possibility, how full of people, all trying in their various ways. Chicago is my kind of town, it's true.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Combatting Lonely Liberty: Olga

I was caught out, stereotyping again. Luckily, stereotypes are so often true.

"I couldn't help but overhear...and it's so, so true...," the woman at the next table at Parco said.

The tables are so close together that one can never even pretend privacy and I'm certainly not quiet, but still. I hadn't even paid enough attention to see who was there before I started on my rant about the beauty and challenges of the Mexican culture to my friend and French roomie, Jeanne. The upshot was that the culture was so warm and lovely but that people there, from a young age, were forced from circumstance to be extremely crafty, to do whatever it took to take care of themselves.

"The little kids there, on the street, would come up with all kinds of elaborate ruses to sell us 'chicle'..." I recalled, picturing as I said it the little kids, younger than even a young me, running up to us on the streets of Nogales, coaxing and cajoling me to pay top dollar for their little packets of Violeta-flavored gum that actually tasted like the flower it was named for.

That was the moment when Olga had piped up. It turns out she is from Cuba, came to this country in 1967. She could relate to what I was saying about the forced necessity of fending for oneself in cultures where corruption reigns. She told me stories of people who had come here to America and, out of habit, had stolen things unnecessarily, recognizing only afterward what they had done so instinctively, out of habit, out of having to.

"We are so lucky to be in this country..." Olga said.

I smiled but couldn't wholeheartedly agree. Of course we are so lucky in so many ways. But it is the warmth piece I had mentioned about Mexican culture, Latin American culture in general and a trait prevalent in so many otherwise difficult countries, that is often so lacking in this puritanical place. We have the self motivation bit down, surely, but where, I wondered aloud to my new friend, "Where is the community? Where is the connectedness?" That, I'm afraid, we are so often lacking, in spades.

Olga tries in her own way to keep her culture of connectedness alive. Her son, for example, lives with her well past the age most Americans might tsk tsk that he isn't pushed out on his own. Why do we push people we love into forced isolation? What lesson are we trying to teach exactly? Independence is a hallmark, a trait the good ol U.S. of A is predicated on, but it is so often taken too far.

That's why I gave Olga her gold star, for trying to maintain the best aspects of her culture, for joining in the conversation, for trying to connect. She was so pleased, and thanked me profusely before giving me the address of her apartment around the corner.

"Come over, anytime," she said. Aaah, how I wish we could all be so kind and warm-hearted. Liberty can be so lonely.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bravely Being Who She Is: Anthea

"I love your hair," I said, holding the door for her as she walked out of the cafe in Booth Bay Harbor. I am partial to afros, especially big ones.

"Thank you!" she said heartily. "But it's not really liking me today, it's not behaving."

I looked again. It looked great to me. "What's the matter with it?" I asked.

"Not enough poof..." she said.

I doubled over. It was a great line. Looking around us, seeing the mostly coiffed hairdos in Maine, I would say her poof was plentiful. But it was all relative. To her, it was not enough.

"I have to give you a gold star for that," I said, "for wanting MORE poof, for not having to tame yourself, to try to fit in."

She laughed and pointed at herself. "There's no way I'm fitting in here anyway," she said.

We introduced ourselves. Anthea Butler was, not surprisingly, in Booth Bay from out of town, from Philadelphia, where she is an assistant professor of religious studies at University of Pennsylvania.

I knew how she felt. My poof was likewise larger than the normal New England hair around me, my outfits more New Yorker than Mainer. But I, like Anthea, was trying to be myself rather than fit the image of the place where I was. It is not always easy.

Like with religion, we have to decide who we want to be, which is hard enough, and then have the guts to stand up for who we are when others might have much to say about it, might try to dissuade you from being different because of what it might mean about their own decisions.

Anthea and I talked briefly about religion, I about my putting my kids in hebrew school despite not exactly being a devout Jew, she of her status as a "dissenting catholic."

"Well," I said, "people are always going to choose something...we need to believe, right?"

Anthea agreed, nodding her head with what I would say was a great deal of fabulous poof!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"Do you want to see something beautiful?" asked the man in the hat behind the table of beautiful jewelry I could already see was all my style.

He held up the mirror then, as if to show me myself.

"Nice..." I said, blocking the mirror with my hand.

As usual, I was frustrated at the Montsweag Flea, arriving late subconsciously on purpose as to not frustrate myself further by seeing the best items, the ones cheap enough to buy but too big for my Subaru. Every year I threaten to buy or at least rent a truck to bring home all the goods and chattel I could easily collect at low cost, certainly far lower than in New York. And it is all my style, rusted and worn, perfect in its imperfection.

My new friend here, Mark, could help me. What he sold was small, could easily fit in my bag, even if I bought a lot of it. And, from the first, I could see he was a consummate salesman.

"Oh, that's very feminine," he said of one silver filigree bracelet. "That one," he said, pointing to a bicycle chain bracelet, "is a great balance between feminine and masculine, vulnerable but strong..."

I laughed. At $75, it could be the perfect balance, but it was out of my price range. I loved, though, how Mark was able to see me, to try, if only to sell me something I liked. It is a skill some possess, that of seeing, and he clearly had a knack. And I'm not saying that simply because he told me I had to have been a Queen in a former life.

I took mock offense. "But I am a Queen, my own mind," I said, laughing. The jewelry I bought from him, a necklace, an anklet, four bracelets, a ring and a silver diaper pin, will certainly make me feel royal, luckily, at a royal subject's price.

And that's why I gave Mark a gold star.