Friday, October 29, 2010

Losing hold of the story

I feel like I lost hold of the story somehow, like I can't continue the one I began. I feel the urge to relegate this first, early draft of something called Last American Childhood to to the box of old papers Eli and I had once begun to write and assemble and call the Parts I Haven't Read, a name given to us in the Plough and the Stars by my then sort of mentor, Mark Sternman. I hesitate to write even this, because I fear it would appear as if I want all the ridiculing imaginary readers to write in and say, “Keep going. We want to find out what happened next.” So that’s the holding pattern I am in now, a bit frustrated, all the while advising others that holding patterns are sometimes okay. I'll close the comments, just so there's no pressure at all to write in and respond. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

How alive are you willing to be?

Got home from Iowa at just after 11 last night. House quiet. Peered into Wally's crib first thing and saw Elmo's face (on his t-shirt) peering back at me. Wonderful. Alex asleep too, though not intentionally (i.e., splayed across couch, street clothes on, no blanket). These days that's the usual "Can't wait to see you" pose that one finds the other in. I'd been exhausted in Minneapolis, running to catch up with gate changes and short transfers, and nearly hit rock bottom on bus from Laguardia to Harlem (every stop was "get friendly, there's more people gettin' on") but once home I felt fully energized and almost at loose ends with a kind of electricity. Don't know if it was just the 20L of Cherry Coke kicking in, or the happiness of seeing Wally cozy in bed (still have that mind set that no one else will be able to take care of him), or something inherited in this apartment -- last call can never come before midnight -- a tradition Alex lately carries on more often than me.

I've been hesitant to post again on my blog, however, and I'm struggling to figure out why. There's this vague irritation with blog Rachel -- concern that it's a separate person from real Rachel (how could it not be?) -- and wonder if the incredible "gift" the blog offered (helping me work through mom identity crisis and general anxiety over others' perceptions) now makes it obsolete. Like a good teacher -- if he does the job well, you won't need him anymore. 

I like the questioning on it, people questioning me, asking for explanations, calling me out on one thing or another, "But you said...". I like being forced to come up with another reason, a new one, admitting to an altered perspective, or allowing myself to be grateful even if it feels corny and Midwestern (no offense to Iowa; probably should not have made fun of that state yet again in wedding toast at my second wedding there). And in making fun of Iowa, our perceptions of it, I am really just making fun of myself too. For being surprised that we fly through Minnesota, that it's so close to Wisconsin. For "going to the finest schools all right miss lonely" but not knowing really basic stuff. And there's a part of the general hesitation. Kidding in person is one thing. But in written form, who knows how it translates, or how much I'm held to something I wrote, even if it's in my own head. (But you you better...). Then again I'd like to hold myself to higher standards, in terms of creativity and productivity and mom-hood and as a sister/daughter/aunt/cousin/friend/girlfriend, so maybe that isn't a bad thing. Having things written down, and trying to live up to what you say are your ideals.

It comes down to, like Anne Lamott says about writing at the end of Bird by Bird, after talking through all the frustration and aggravation and scariness and disappointment of the craft: "Why again do we write?" And her answer is that, basically, we don't have to, but it depends on how alive we want to be. 

And I keep coming back to that, too. Even while I get annoyed, not just at Blog Rachel, but at some amorphous, imagined, amalgam of a reader out there, like an impatient editor, or school child, who says in a testy voice, "But you already said that," or "Well you shouldn't worry so much" or "You overthink stuff". And in my head I have these imagined frustrating conversations, spitting back to that amorphous, imagined, dim-witted reader: "But you repeat yourself all the time", and then a corkscrew, high-pitched, defensive, laugh, "But you worry about so much more than me! You're worried about making money and looking good and ironing your shirt and people making fun of the way you dance-- those are all things I don't care about one wink." And not one person I've ever met who doesn't overthink wouldn't benefit from thinking a little more. Or, that voice: "But you shouldn't second-guess yourself so much." To which I reply: "Well I wish you'd first guess yourself every now and then." And then I hear real live people saying, as of course they do and should, some of that stuff I wrote isn't really that good and isn't really that true. And then I get stubborn and resistant and say "Most of the stuff you're doing isn't really that good and isn't really that true, but you're not putting yourself out there to be judged and criticized."

And except for the artists and musicians and writers and loudmouths and moonwalkers among those real and imagined readers, maybe the answer will simply be "You're right. I'm not. But you are." 

But I am. I am just always doing it. Whether it's on the steps of the China Ruby or the high school bleachers (what do you call those things -- that we stood on in chorus -- where I fainted off the back and cracked my head on the stage then slipped down to the rug beneath while the choir kept along singing Billy Joel "And so it goes") or in food court or inappropriate wedding toasts or at Brownies or at CBGBs or in the Music Trivia book or on the blog. In really tiny ways. Really small town ways. And maybe the 125 people who check the blog a day are all really the same person (that raspy imaginary reader, laughing himself sick) checking from different computers. 

"Why again do we write?"

It comes up with running too (This feels awful--why again am I doing this?), with kids (Why again do we have them), with relationships (Why on earth would anyone put this much effort into something?), at times.

And then at other times, we just can't not. We're just born to do it -- to run, to have kids, to have relationships, and to try to express ourselves in some meaningful way.

So no matter how many times I really put my foot down in these silent conversations ("Rach, you really do sound crazy"/ "But everyone knows you're 1000 times crazier than me!") and say I'm not going to continue

it's not really true. Cause I just can't imagine not wanting that examined life, that aliveness, that unnameable electricity of being a bit too open--with myself, with everyone--so that I can feel my way through sadness, irritation, and frustration, and find out if there is some way to get better. I just can't imagine being enough alive -- we only have a short time as it is -- without finding the meaning in the events, without pushing and pulling and trying to get more out of it. As long as I'm also able to let go. It does bother me that people think I'm crazy (especially when I know for a fact they're nuts). But it'd bother me more not to be honest about it. Not to stay up and wake up and be alive to it, and look at it in the face. Even if it's Elmo staring back.

Friday, October 22, 2010

See you boys

Off to Iowa provided no flight plans get lost, no captains time out. See you boys on the other side. (Not sure what I mean by that, but it was a sign-off we used to use in college. I guess we meant -- See you when we're grown up, and can't spend the days and nights singing blue light special and traipsing through the snow and showing up hungover in food court on Saturdays at noon to see what we remembered. So in that sense, I guess we are now, on that other side.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lady, you were right

Wally had this great stretch of almost two weeks where he was finally, drum-roll please, at 2 years 8 months, pretty much sleeping through the night. And things felt kind of sane and normal. We weren't always running out of milk and always wandering around in piles or laundry, clean and dirty getting all mixed together. There wasn't play-doh all over the floor, crammed into the carpet. But the past few nights he's been up again, in a cute way I have to admit. Getting out of the crib and padding over to us (me, Alex is always allowed to sleep) and asking to play trains at 1:40, then 2, then 3. Then putting in a good solid two hours before getting up for the day.

So this morning walking with Wally outside I was in that sort of fragile, oversensitive, the tiniest thing is going to push me over mood, and I felt like I should really say something to the wife I never met of a drummer I barely knew. Alex wrote in the comments section recently (on "It's over, let it go") about how a drummer Jon left his band once, with the parting words, "I feel like telling you to go f&ck yourself." Jon had been struggling to manage rehearsals on top of a full-time job and two little kids at home. We found it hilarious to leave in the qualifier, "I feel like telling you", but we thought the guy was kind of an idiot. Back then we were in our easy, carefree, "What are you doing tonight?" "Let's worry about that later" (it's only 9 PM) phase. Meanwhile Jon the drummer could never stay to the end of rehearsals because his wife would interrupt with desperate phones calls, needing help the boys -- a baby and toddler.

In private, Alex and I would put her down for her incompetence and refusal to let Jon prioritize the band even two nights a week. What was so hard about taking care of two toddlers? My nieces were no problem, now that they were out of newborn wailing stage. At that time, Alex was regularly babysitting Eliana and Leah, both under 3. We also laughed at the image Jon also described of having to change diapers while the boys ran around the house. "Who does that?" We'd say to each other. "Those people have no control over their kids!"

If/when we ever had kids, they'd lie down for diaper changes, eat what we put in front of them, and after dinner they'd play independently and let us clean up until it was time for PJs, which they'd probably be able to put on themselves by 1 year or so. It'd be, you know, tiring in certain ways, but nothing one able-bodied adult couldn't easily manage all while writing new songs and keeping up an active social life. All I have to do is go back and read over any single entry of my blog to be hit in the face with a resounding "Lady, you were wrong". Going into it you think -- I've watched babies before, I babysat when I was 12, I've changed diapers, I've read stories to them before they went to sleep. NOT THE SAME THING.

Recently my friend Eli said she told her mom how surprised she was that I'd become such a different person, in just the short time since I started the blog, really, the beginning of the summer. She said I seem to have done a 180 when it comes to motherhood. Her mom told her that you fundamentally change when you become a parent "so if you feel like you are talking to a different person now, you are." It just took me a while longer to change than it takes most people. I think I worried about that for a long time. Becoming a different person, becoming unrecognizable to my friends, the people who had been so valuable and at the center of my life for so long. And now I'd be terrified of not changing, not growing, not adapting to something so enormous coming into my life. Like some anonymous person wrote in the comments a while back, "You've changed (I wonder why)."

If we ever run into that drummer Jon again, or his frantic wife, I'll tell him that now we kinda understand a little bit better. And that if Jon still feels like it, he's welcome to say he feels like telling Alex know.

(My grandmother Miriam used to love to tell stories where the last line was another person telling her, (after doubting that she knew the best way to get across town during a parade down 5th, or where to get the best Challah-French Toast, or whether or not the schlock store was open), "Lady, you were right." So anyway, Alex and my sister and I use the expression a lot, to each other, when someone is vindicated. I don't even know the name of that lady, Jon's wife, but maybe she was a little bit right.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Getting a rush out of rushing

As I've written about a lot recently, I no longer get a rush out of rushing, but I kinda understand the spell of it a little bit more. It used to be a thrill to jump on a train at Penn Station just as it was about to pull away or start a paper the night before it was due, or to only have a half hour to get somewhere that takes an hour to get to, but somehow just about make it. Once I had Wally, I stopped getting a thrill out of it, because it's literally not possible. You can't sprint for the train; you miss it. You can't get somewhere in less time than it takes on a good day (try double), you can't say "I'll figure it out when I get there" because you'll have forgotten something essential.

At the end of July I went out to stay overnight at my friend's cabin on Long Island. I got to the bus absurdly early (20 minutes or so). I was used to giving myself extra time, because with Wally I need it. Just little things -- pushing a stroller you can't dash across the street as the light is changing. This time I didn't need the extra time, hence the early arrival. I thought about buying a coffee or taking a walk, but I was kind of curious about the novelty of being the first one on the bus. I got on, and was one of the last, with only a handful of seats left to choose from. As I sat down on the aisle next to someone with a giant iced coffee, headphones on, and a newspaper spread out, I felt two things: 1) confusion at why so many people chose to spend even part of a beautiful Saturday morning that they didn't have to sitting silently on a dark bus 2) a sense of defeat.

I know there are people who just like to show up early, and be prepared, and slug enormous iced lattes like their lives depend on getting the whole thing down their throat in under five minutes. And in general, yes, earlier is better than late. It's more considerate of others too, not to be last-minute holding things up. Plus there's nowhere to sit around there, it's one of the buses that picks you up on some random street corner. But the second feeling I had to think about a bit.

Getting somewhere too early = defeat.

The thing is this. People sometimes used to think I was New England tough because I  wore a t-shirt through most of the winter even outside. (I don't know why New Englanders get so much credit and Midwesterners always have to explain that their warmest day is our coldest.) But I wasn't that tough, I was just often in a hurry, printing out last-minute papers, scurrying off too meet someone. I was in that overheated, panicky rush mode, so I didn't need a jacket.

When you're told boarding your flight "Hurry, you're the last one", when you just barely get that paper in on time that you started the night before, when you catch Fed-ex just as the truck is leaving, in short when you squeak by, in a little, tiny way, you've kind of defeated time. You've tricked it. You did something that should have taken longer in a shorter time, you caught a flight you should have missed, judging by the hands on your clock. You didn't do anything like walk a high-wire between the Twin Towers, but in a microscopic way you did something impossible, or so it felt to me. I stretched out time.

It's a rush, to do that, to say an hour is not an hour, it's actually a little bit more. Three activities is not too much for one evening, throw another one on there. It's my dad's favorite expression when everyone starts heading off to bed, "The night is young." (His mom, too, never went to bed until every last person was fast asleep. Into her 90s she was up to 1 in the morning, doing dishes, putting away folding chairs. The day was never over. It was never time to let go.) The juggling act we're all performing, trying to balance too much and saying, "Yeah, sure, throw one more in there, I can manage" is that too. Whereas getting somewhere early, saying, "That's too much, I really can't manage that" -- that's complying with the laws of time and space. Noncompliance is a kind of drug. Jamming everything in is like getting more out of life than you reasonably should. Time flies, but not as fast as I do! Except sometimes, for me anyway, it's really not. It's the opposite. It's a store called "Everything for Everybody" that doesn't sell anything to anyone. I'll save that for my next post.

(Oh, and I'll probably wear a bona-fide winter jacket around this year, but it's very likely I'll slide right back into rushing as soon as I'm able to. Hopefully not, but can't promise.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

"It's over, let go"

“It’s over, let go.” I like that phrase, from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. (Committed a pretty good read, as well). The kind of book that's fun and insightful, well-written but not amazing, the kind you wish you’d written. The kind you enjoy, and even learn from, but the whole time you’re reading it you feel this low level of gnawing irritation that you didn’t write it. Notice I didn’t say “couldn’t” or “wouldn’t”, just didn’t, as it’s totally passive and not due to lack of talent or tenacity or ability. Just, “Oh, I was going to write that book, but she beat me to it.” Also makes me think of an ex-boss who always said to people whose phone calls she did not return, “I was going to call you back, but it didn’t happen.” I love that one. I was going to put more effort into my relationship, but it didn’t happen. I was going to get you something for your birthday...the list could go on and on. It’s great. I was going to not punch you, but it didn’t happen. At that point, maybe the friendship is over. Let go.  

The world's fastest Emperor's Waltz

Still stuck on this speed idea (so much so that I'm writing in fragments). It's obviously part of the culture -- faster is better, racing ahead, wanting more stuff, newer stuff, faster gadgets, things that die out quickly and need to be replaced. Always the sense of not keeping up, not doing enough. Not having enough. The gratitude lists some people do -- they can seem corny -- but I think they're kind of magical. It really does change your mood, as quickly as a glass of good pinot noir, to list 5 or 10 things you are grateful for in that moment. It also feels great to say -- this is enough. Back in May there was a street fair nearby and we did two rides with Wally, a giant slide and then little looping cars, and then we headed home to play in the yard. I felt bad because all the other kids were going on tons of rides and getting all-day passes. Alex said, (he really is not always the voice of reason, but) two rides is enough for a 2-year-old. Of course. Just like when I told a therapist I felt bad that the music class had not worked out for us and she said, "Did you take music?" I started to answer yes -- I have over the years taken piano, guitar, voice....she meant, as a 2-year-old, did you take a music class? Of course not. No one we know would have dreamed of anything like that.

In so many ways, saying "this is enough" feels better. Shopping -- putting things back on the shelf that you considered buying. No, I don't really need this. It's just one more thing to take care of. To have cluttering up the house. (I always want to do a New Yorker-style cartoon of people trying to make room on the shelves for books on simplifying and decluttering.) Even like in Michael Pollan's Food Rules, eat until you're not hungry anymore, not until you are full. And in lifestyle choices too. Last weekend my sister said something fantastic -- this whole "women can have it all" thing is misleading. You can have any of it, she was saying, but not all at once. She's right. The having-it-all all at once illusion is making many of us crazy.

Still, despite the shared societal aspects of speed, and wanting more, overbooking our schedules which my cousin Leah calls "hoarding" (love that, it's so unpleasant, gross even, that ever since she said it I've been much better at not overbooking because of that image, a spilling-over calendar like a spilling-over closet), I do have some strange addiction to it that I don't see others necessarily sharing. Or do you? I remember being told at my junior year piano recital by somebody else's dad, "That was the fastest Emperor's Waltz I've ever heard." I took it as an enormous compliment and walked away beaming. News Flash, 17-year-old Rachel: I don't think he meant it that way. It was fast. It wasn't necessarily good. It may have been impressive in a certain way, like doing well on a test you didn't study enough for, but it's not really that impressive in the long run.

When it comes to writing, as I mentioned in the last post, I am addicted to rough drafts, and moving on. I was growing increasingly mad at myself for not being more committed to writing, but I recently realized I write all the time, throw stuff out and replace and rewrite it, but what I don't do is send things out. Every time I look at writer's guidelines, my eyes glaze over. Formatting, headers, self-addressed stamped envelopes, deadlines, simultaneous submissions...too complicated, too boring. "You know what?" I inevitably say to myself after a few minutes, "I'll skip it." Requires too much discipline and a spreadsheet and not being careless. In rough drafts you can be careless but in final drafts, in submissions, you have to be so damn careful. You have to pay too much attention. And it's not that I can't do it. Many times I had to copyedit at B&N and found it offered its own zen pleasures. But it requires slowing down, saying -- I might not finish this today, and that's all right. The point of ludicrousness this reached in my personal work is that I usually don't copy stuff I handwrite into the computer. So I have chapters of novels written in various notebooks and on loose pages all over the place, and I will not take the time to transcribe them. It feels like wasting time. And that's the crazy part, I know.

So my one little positive step for right now is not to -- as much as I feel compelled and want to -- jump into Nanowrimo again this year (writing a novel in a month) but instead to rewrite the novel I wrote last November. Discipline. Restraint. Not burying myself in more drafts. (That in itself is a kind of hoarding, I suppose.) Not the world's fastest Emperor's Waltz. Doing one small thing better.

So what about the oars?

Growing up, we used to rent summer houses in New Hampshire or Vermont for a few weeks with family friends. We'd swim in the lakes, have big groups dinners and marathon Round Robin ping pong matches, and sing The Hour When the Ship Comes In every night. Big Alan is one of my dad's best friends, and Little Alan (LA) was the son of another close friend. LA was even more impulsive than me. Even more bent on speed and leaving all kinds of careless mistakes in his wake, so much so that one afternoon when we got to the lake he ran full speed down the beach into a row boat, plunging it out 30 feet or more with the barreling force of his body jumping in, only to realize he'd forgotten the oars. He was out there in the middle of the water in a boat, but in his headlong excitement he'd forgotten one thing. In a similar vein to "Why wasn't your hand under my chin?" LA screamed at the rest of us, just then finding a spot to put down our towels, "Where are the oars? Where the hell are the oars?"

Trying to have it all, you never get all of it. You just won't get to choose which parts you don't get. Racing ahead, you don't get more, you just jump through hoops, maybe getting a little charge out of it, and end up with nothing much to show but sore knees from the landings you didn't stick. It is enough, I am telling myself, some days, to spend that precious little time you have for writing doing something anyone can do, copying your notes from yesterday into the computer so you have something coherent to work on and revise tomorrow. That's enough. Race ahead, and you risk going up a creek without paddles. Or ending up with 100 rough drafts, and nothing worth reading. It goes back to what I was saying yesterday, and Eli wrote in about -- not appreciating hard work. It's like "Anyone can practice hard and play the piece fairly well. How about not practicing much at all and playing it super fast, with a few clunky mistakes in there that no one will really notice because it's all flying by in such a mad rush? Can you do that?"

"No," maybe that slow, patient, resilient, hard-working wood chopper inside us will say back someday. "And why would I want to?"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where the hell are the oars?

I realized recently that I always have the sense that someone is bearing down on me. And living steps from Penn Station and Herald Square, that is usually true. I cannot possibly stop to pick up Wally's water bottle if he drops (flings) it without first running along 15 feet or so then pulling off to the side. What's stranger is that I feel it psychologically, even in calm spaces like the YMCA locker room. I always sense that someone is rushing me, and somebody, I guess, is. I think it's related to the idea that other people's opinions are more important, so too is their physical space. I'm always feeling in the way. Maybe they're trying to get to the locker next to mine or see the yogurt that I'm looking at in the store. I have that awful kneejerk of saying "Sorry" when someone bumps into me. Now that I'm aware of this bearing down feeling, I'm starting to get out from under it. I think part of it too is that weird, New England, Puritanical fear of wasting even a second. But then it's totally part of the old haste makes waste -- throwing the keys into your bag and dashing off, only to be forced to dump the contents out on the street on to find them on your way back in.

Things that force me to slow down sometimes scare me. I like "slow cooking", slow days, I'm an absurdly slow reader but still enjoy it immensely, like wandering slowly in the park, even mindful cleaning sometimes. I'm not one of those, "What's next? Where should we go? What should we do?" type people. But there is this element of slowing down, I guess when it comes to work, that strikes a panicky feeling through me. I'd always rather race on ahead, do something poorly, but fast. I'm a total junkie for first drafts and then moving on to a brand new project and never going back. Same thing for songwriting. It's terrible. My friend Eli and I used to idealize not working hard. It seemed to us the only way to "prove" your intelligence was to not work too hard, but to still do well. Finding that perfect ratio between time spent and success achieved, small to big. Plus we loved to argue and compete over who had less time after school to commit to studying. It was so backward -- getting an A without even reading the book was something we valued. We prided ourselves on careless mistakes. I think I should probably make a list soon of all the things I used to think of that are just completely dead wrong. Or at least, things I don't agree with at all anymore. Hard work is more impressive than any kind of lightning-bolt talent or good luck. Even Einstein -- even EINSTEIN -- said 99% of the time his conclusions were wrong. It's crazy how much we all expect to come to us so quickly. Or if it doesn't, "Oh well, that didn't work, moving on." Again, the hard part isn't always the hard part, often it's just the ploughing through, the chopping wood, bird by bird. (If you haven't read it, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott, you must.) So that is part of the shadowy figure bearing down on me. This fear of slowing down, doing something carefully, because then there's the chance that you'll do it carefully and it will still be terrible. If you rewrite a paper 5 times, if you say, this is the absolute best I can do, it better be pretty freakin' amazing, right? So much easier to say, I could have done better, but...and I guess that's all part of being busy on purpose. Losing the keys, forgetting the bills, never finishing the album, the novel, the livingroom design, not following through on important plans, not prioritizing what you say are priorities -- those were all careless mistakes. I just didn't have enough time.

That's me in the middle, Heather in the yellow/red combo, and 
Eli in the denim skirt. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

A brand new start of it

A New York minute is so at odds with a toddler minute. True in both cases the goal is to cram in as much in as possible, but to New Yorkers, toddlers are always in the way. Though little kids want to run and bounce off walls, they don't want to hurry. As my friend Morning put it, being with a toddler is great as long as you're not rushing. A cousin of mine, once she had kids, gave up meeting people at definite times all together; it's really the only sensible thing to do. Like in the Halloween post, "I'll see you out there sometime in the late afternoon."

I was trying to buy diapers recently, and the store did not have any left on the rack of the kind I wanted, even though the price was listed. The guy working there said he'd go look in the back if I could wait. I would normally have tried another store, but that's the only one that has the Earth Friendly (supposedly) kind. So I waited. Then later when I was a few minutes late to meet Hein I told her that the guy had asked, "Can you wait?".

"Can you wait?" Hein repeated, incredulously. "He's asking if a New Yorker can wait? Of course not. It doesn't matter if you have anywhere you have to go. The answer is always no."

So that is a central collision. New Yorkers cannot wait for anything. Trains, vodka gimlets, movies, news, answers, Chinese food. Whatever they want has to be there that second. Yet with a little kid you are always waiting. Waiting to get out of house (captured perfectly in link Rhonda sent a while back), waiting for crying to stop so you can sleep, waiting for them to finish putting their pants on. On the one hand, there's the expectation that your bagel order no matter how complex with tofu-lite cream cheese, half toasted, sliced tomato, salt no pepper, will be ready in the 10 seconds it takes for you to walk from the guy who took the order to the guy taking your money. On the other is a preschooler who is somehhow still chewing the half peanut butter & jelly sandwich no crusts she started eating an hour ago. Move or you'll get run over versus you better have the patience of a saint or you'll  start banging your head into walls. And in so many ways that I've mentioned before this blog, New York just doesn't seem a natural place for kids to get to be kids. As my friend's mom put it when describing how they moved from Park Slope, where my friend was born, to Massachusetts, raising a kid in New York did not fit her vision of an "american childhood".

It was in the rushing, pushing, dark, I-can't-stand-New York mood that I set off with Wally for sensory gym on Tuesday morning. In this same mood that I glared back at all the people who gave exasperated looks that I was taking up too much space carrying the stroller up and down the subway stairs by myself. But then, after the gym, we stepped out into this pale beautiful New York morning on the edge of Central Park. There was that great hot dog vendor smell. (I have been a vegetarian since I was 6 -- Eliana's age -- with no slipups that I know of except the accident of anchovy-stuffed olives on my French foreign study. Yet I still really love the smell of certain things -- bacon, hot dogs, and sometimes whatever is cooking on holiday dinners.)

The air felt so perfect, warm enough for t-shirts but in a kind of magical, sleight of hand way, like you knew any second that perfectly comfortable feeling would vanish. I let Wally loose and he ran around on the statue of Columbus, pointing at the boats with the musical names that pleased him. As he stepped around the guys who sleep out there, he said, "Be careful", a reminder to himself not to step on them, or to the guys not to roll off the giant concrete steps, or maybe both. College girls interviewing business people eating an early lunch were laughing at Wally as he darted through their conversations. The fountains were in full swing. It was great in that crazy way New York moments are great. I was able to even step back for a second and think about where we were. Walk a few minutes in any direction and we'd have hit the Natural History museum, the MOMA, Lincoln Center, the Plaza Hotel, and of course all of Central Park stretched out before us. And the great thing is how I've been enjoying these things again, going to museums and parks I haven't been to in ten years. Making time for things I haven't done since first moving to the city. When I was telling my friend Anon that having a baby was the impetus for NYC Take 2 and that we were off to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden that morning, he wrote this:

"Love how babies love the classics: parks, botanical gardens, zoos, old fashioned ice cream, pizza places... there is something a little "last american childhood" in their natural inclinations."  

Certainly plenty of those to be found a stone's throw from any block you happen to be on in old New York. Perhaps in this city of millions of people fighting their way through cavernous streets, this little unrushed 2-year-old, one who wakes up (so ridiculously early) every day in the city that never sleeps, will have to be my guide. 

You still have eternity

Do people who believe in an afterlife prioritize spending time with people they don't think they'll see there? You know like killers, kidnappers, atheists and people who believe the wrong thing? If you have a limited amount of time with some people, but will likely see others ad infinitum, it'd make sense to do that. Like at a party, where one guest is a doctor and has to leave early, whereas others are staying for the weekend and are always hanging around anyway. This isn't meant to sound satirical (though I feel like it's coming out that way), but it's really something I wonder. 

I wish I believed in an afterlife -- a good one, I mean. It would take one gigantic, overbearing thing I have to worry about and eliminate it altogether. Can you imagine being able to cross that worry (dying) off your list? No wonder Jews are hunched over and spend lots of free time wondering about what might possibly go or have gone wrong. The stakes are higher. One wrong step and that's it. Even less drastic stuff, like spending 40 years in a job you didn't like, it's a bigger deal. You look back and think -- I wasted half my life --  whereas believers get to say, "Forty years? A drop in the bucket. We've still got eternity.” Even a centenarian believer gets to say, "Onward and upward" and mean it. And for those whose life was cut short, it’s really just a party the neighbors called the cops on. So it ended a little early. It was fun while it lasted.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Zen Nieces

My younger niece Leah was the one who said, "Let go" when I said I was stuck trying to do my arm trick. My older niece Eliana had a great piece of wisdom this weekend when they slept over. The next day after lunch we were eating cookie dough ice cream, sitting in the living room in a circle. Eliana was sitting on a little red plastic chair with her legs crossed. Leah was sitting on the floor.

"Why are you sitting like that?" Leah asked her sister.

Eliana laughed a little. "What do you mean?"

"Why are you sitting with your legs crossed to the side?"

"Because I am. Why are you sitting like that?"

I think that will be my new strategy when asked things I don't want to answer or don't need to answer. "Why are you wearing that schmatta*? Why are you letting Wally eat crackers before dinner? Why are you living in New York with a kid?"

Because I am.

*Someone actually asked me that at the YMCA this weekend. It took all the courage I could summon to say, "Why does it matter?"

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ready to Begin

Ever since my dad gave me that beat-up copy of The Self-Coached Runner, I've been trying to get to the point where I could follow one of the training schedules. That is the main thrust of the book. But I was so far away from even the lightest, easiest one, even the one for like, "We know your stamina run is the jog to the diner on the corner, but here's a pretend practice schedule you can follow" that it never made sense to even attempt any. The only day I could manage on any schedule was the rest day. So I kept to The Philosophy and Practice of Training and skimmed through a little bit about Form although that's so far beyond what I need to worry about really. Some seasons I would try to stick to a practice schedule, and I finally trained for a few races last fall that Alex, Dara, my dad and my cousins also ran. (My cousin Will won best for his age, doing better than 7-minute-miles. Whenever I am making good progress I'm hit with the image of Will sailing along for 6 miles at that speed! Alternately motivates and infuriates.)

Nothing requiring any physical strength or skill comes easily to me. I did love to ride my bike as a kid, climb trees, go to dance class, and even played a few seasons of soccer ending in a memorable if dubious slide kick (well-placed slip in the mud?)  in the 11th hour of a vicious, rain-soaked game. I am so much the antithesis of an athlete that for years my friends have told the story that back in high school I was the clumsy kid in the bleachers always getting hit on the head with a basketball, as if the lack of athleticism was so fierce it drew stray balls to me like a magnet. I stopped protesting the myth after it took on regular rotation in 3 am conversations, both because it amused me and because it was true enough, if not entirely accurate.

Still off and on since college I've always had these bursts of trying to get in shape. Yet after a few weeks, the reasons not to go would spiral out:  It’s hot, my running shoes are worn out, I don't have time to shop for groceries let alone run. Or the expectations could inflate to absurd proportions–-I want to train for the marathon–-and cancel the whole thing out. Actually going out and running would expose just how far I was from my goal, and therefore felt in some twisted way like a step backward. 

Something finally broke through, and it's connected to other "breakthroughs". The sense of not having control over one's time or one's life, when really we have so much. The reason I quit going to my therapist M. was because she would just about literally roll her eyes at most things I said. I wasn't writing enough. "Write more." I wasn't able to say no to people. "Say no." I wasn't sure if I wanted to live in New York. "Move." Alex annoyed me today. "Are you sure you're in the right relationship?" True she was great about deeper stuff, but rarely wanted to "Go there" although she gave wonderful Freudian dream analysis that was most deeply connected to the various breakthroughs and turning points. Yet the real behavioral change did come in simply changing my behavior. This dumb motto that I'd come up with "The only difference between doing it and not doing it is doing it." (I told you it was dumb.)

So, for the first time in my life, again with major gaps and time off (like most of the summer), I have been dedicated to becoming a better runner. And the other day I did something not amazing in any way at all, but something which puts me on the map. I ran 4 ten-minute-miles. To anyone who runs or jogs to the corner diner, you may think there's a typo. But six years ago, when I received that battered book with schedules and goals so far away from my reach, my goal for an entire summer was to run ONE ten-minute-mile. I did it, huffing and puffing and red-faced for an hour afterward and just trying really really hard. But this time, the 4 miles was nothing. It wasn't even a reach. I would have gone on longer, but I had to be somewhere else. A lot of times the milestones I reach are not within my reach, as in I spend a minute or more literally gagging after I'm done as I attempt to "walk it off". I've never pushed myself very hard in many areas of my life, but in this one area, in keeping myself going around some impossible blurry final stretch, I do. That one 4-mile run alone doesn't qualify me for the slowest schedule in the book, but on a really good day, I can just about make the markers that say training for a 55-minute 10K is attainable. With gagging. And almost falling over. And people next to me who look like hell asking, "Are you okay?"

After 6 years, after basically wrestling with myself on and off, mostly off, but many good, hard, tiring, "Why do I want to run again?" days on, I am now ready to begin.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Keeping things little, so the world can be big

Heather wrote, inviting us to celebrate Halloween in the "back country" of New Hampshire. Here is how she described the festivities:

"They are doing a costume parade/snacks for little ones at the school in town in the late afternoon and then a hayride to the farm next door where there is a corn maze. The students from the theater group at the local college dress up and hand out candy in the maze and then you walk down Main Street a little bit back to the school and trick or treat at those houses if you want on the way back to the car."

I keep reading that little description, those two sentences, and almost tearing up. That is what I mean by a lost american childhood. What I'm trying to get at, to some degree. The parade and hay ride. Local school. College kids dressing up and playing with little kids. A corn maze. Main Street. And the moderation of it. Meet in the late afternoon -- not all day, how much can we cram in to feel like we are really doing something, this isn't kids stuff, this is an event. Nobody selling anything. Moderation even in the trick or treating. You walk down Main Street "a little bit" and trick or treat "if you want to". On the way back to the car. True, the car is problematic, not something to be idealized, and living in a city walking everywhere and sharing resources is certainly more sustainable. But... it's getting dark, or probably dark out already, and you're on the way back to the car. You do a little something to celebrate the holiday, something that's fun for kids, without too much hoopla, without too many photo ops or expectations, and then you go home. You go home. You're not expected to push yourselves and your kids to the last possible second, to the breaking point. You're not expected to spend money you really don't have. Not to Norman Rockwell-ize it, maybe the kids will all buy $80 costumes and get their hair and makeup done for the day, who knows? Maybe the field will be crawling with vendors selling glow-in-the-dark necklaces and plastic pumpkins. Maybe after you get to your car there's a tail-gate party then a baby halloween disco. But it sure sounds simple and lovely. Almost sounds like no time at all would be given to meet. Just, "Oh, we'll see you out there in the late afternoon sometime."

And the trick, for me anyway, is to sieze on things like this that affect me, and take what I can from them. Even if it's only imagining this scene to be something it's not or won't be. What is it that appeals? The idea of simple, homemade and handed-down costumes, the moderation in time and expense, the mix of ages playing together, the willingness to call it a night without wondering "What else is out there? What am I missing?". The smallness that's big. Having something little and feeling fulfilled by it. There are ways to live like this in New York, it's just not as natural sometimes. But you can be just as busy and squeezed and pressured to spend lots of time and money outside of a city as in one. I have a whole other post written about this (in my head).

What that small-town scene conjures up for me is what I want to work toward. So that the childhoods we had, the ones that took place before cell phones, play dates, music classes for 1-year-olds, Facebook and flickr, won't have been the last authentic experience of that magical time. So that we don't trade in the imagination for some dangling carrot of high-achievement for kindergarteners, where soon there will be classes--are there already?--on how to play make-believe. So there will be many new wonderful, shapeless days, with lots of tree-climbing and little gardens and makeshift toys and dirty hands and open time and space. So that we won't try so hard to hold onto being a kid ourselves that we make that particular childhood last far longer than it should have, obscuring the view of the ones that are taking place now. But I also want to be sure to hold onto those elements that make childhood magical, to continue to sing whenever we feel like it, laugh at the wrong times, play music too loud. So that last american childhood won't be mistaken for lost, so that last becomes instead lasting, so that the memories will be imprinted, not just in digital archives but in living, spinning ones, in stories we tell, like the ones Heather and I have -- so many -- from the days when we first met, giggling six-year-olds at a little table by the window, painting glue on tissue-paper fish, staring out at the playground, dreaming about what great things we could run off and do the second the bell rang for recess, and we stepped outside into the sun.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Always the last place you look

I decided to make French Toast this morning out of a rock hard baguette but couldn't find the tiny bit of maple syrup left from the yearly bottle my sister brings from Vermont. When Alex finally emerged blinking into the morning light I told him I was looking for it. He was so appreciative about the breakfast and immediately went on the hunt for the syrup. On a chair to look on top of the fridge, cabinet, spice rack, strictly adhering to the rule of two people in a kitchen -- wherever one is, that's where the other wants to be. It was just irking me so much, plus he has this irritating thing where he always stays to the left rather than right when meeting someone face to face which he claims to have gotten from Tai Chi. So I dart right, he darts left, stalemates all over the place. (How, in 7 years of living together, have we not negotiated a better system for this? Finally today I agreed to try to start darting left.) Wally was throwing Goji berries around, the French Toast was burning, coffee grinds spilling, and at the moment I was going to say Please stop looking, he found that bottle with the nice orange leaf -- so pleased with himself. (Always an easy spot when you can't find it -- in the fridge, top shelf.) My response when he handed it to me, "You had to find it." (As in, you couldn't have just used honey or jam or something else.)

"Well that was the point of looking for it, wasn't it?'

Sometimes around me you really can't win.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

This was not scripted

I just had to post this photo to show that I wasn't exaggerating in #9 on Top 11 Reasons I'm glad I'm a mom. These are my nieces and young cousins at Thanksgiving 2008. They didn't know they were being caught on film by dad up in the loft; this is what they chose to do. Hang out and watch a 9 month old bob and weave for a wooden mouse in his pack n' play. They’ve always paid so much attention to Wally, even before he was born. Three years ago Charlie (now 12) said he couldn't wait for February because that's when Wally would be born, and Leah knocked on my belly and asked when he was coming out. I don't know why they like him so much, but we’re really lucky they do. And we've been so lucky in general just to have these young cousins, which is another benefit of someone having kids on the later side (my uncle, plus it helps that he's 9 years younger than my mom). I always get mixed up and think they're my niece and nephews. After my sister and I were onto rum balls and gifts of the scarf or hand-lotion variety at Christmas, we got to watch these kids open giant UFO frisbees and spy kits and magnetic dolls.  And then we got to play with them. Now they watch our kids open teddy bears and fairy costumes. And after the 3 little kids go to bed, the rest of us play the New Yorker Cartoon game. Holidays always have little people around to laugh when someone spills cranberry sauce. People who greet you out at the driveway and are taller than you expect them to be. People who jump up and down with excitement, at just about anything you suggest.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

New pet peeve:
When you ask someone if his or her partner or spouse is coming along as well and the answer is a brisk, "No, he's in Florida!" with an "of course not" tone as if the impossibility of the person being able to come makes the question stupid.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Wally's World

After a quick shopping trip, Wally and I came in the door at just about 9 this morning to a room where the sun was streaming in and everything looked reasonably clean and very colorful. I felt such a moment of sweeping peace -- Alex's mom hadn't arrived yet, the OT had pushed back her appointment to 9:30, the coffee was already made, and it was the first Friday in three weeks where I wasn't rushing off to another state. Less than an hour earlier it had been decidedly "one of those mornings". Fighting to change Wally's diaper while he was standing up walking around squeezing toothpaste, I told myself that. You just have to allow those mornings. Just like you have to sometimes be "that family". Just like you have to be okay with the terrible, no good, very bad days that happen even in Australia. By 8 a.m. there had already been broken glass, bare feet, Cheerios dumped on the floor, bad moods, lost keys, the realization that we were out of milk, out of juice, and the odious task of carrying two enormous spilling bags of recycling in the packed, rush-hour elevator with a screaming 2-year-old kicking furiously in close range of everyone's shins. Our neighbor Tall Paul gave me sympathetic looks on the way down. "Can't tell him to act his age," he said, "Cause he is."

Wally screamed and bucked around in the stroller until we got to 7th avenue, and there he inexplicably calmed down before I gave him dried peaches to eat (why he prefers fruit dry, I don't know -- it's annoying and not as healthy, but...). Important to make sure they calm down before you give food, right? You can't give it to them to cheer them up, but it's so tempting sometimes. Anyway he was just in the best mood after that. Enjoying the sun and clear fall air. Doing his little joke when I ask him if he's cold (he never seems to be, and always appears underdressed to others). When I ask he shakes very quickly as if to appear cold. It's a little game we have. I guess he probably just does it because I laugh every time. I hope no one is reading this thinking, Lady, maybe he really is cold. Trust me, he's not. Strangers asking, "Did you forget his shoes?" Nope, didn't forget them, just didn't see a need for an extra struggle this morning simply to avoid strangers asking me if I forgot his shoes.

In the line at the grocery we were standing next to a guy with his daughter, a bit younger than Wally. She was beautiful and very sweet, but Wally kept grabbing her hand in what I worried might have been too boisterous a way. (It's never the babies themselves who mind, but rather their parents.) Since Wally has so much mobility in his stroller, he can really tug at other kids at his level. So anyway, I said, "Wally, be gentle" and the dad pulled the little girl out of reach saying, "Wally, you lost your chance to play with Skylar."

I think he was sort of kidding. But I couldn't tell. Normally it would have bothered me. I would have felt a mix of hurt, embarrassed and annoyed. I would have wanted to know: Did you really mean that? But this time it felt so unimportant, so immaterial. Upon Wally's request, I resumed the "ding ding ding" game we'd been doing before Skylar's arrival. All it is is I squeeze Wally's legs saying "ding ding ding" and he bursts out laughing. But the cool thing was it didn't feel like a "F*&k you, we're having a better time without you, see?" It just felt like, wow, this is great. Wally's World is so much fun.

And then back in the apartment I thought about how much I like Wally humming to himself making train sounds, coffee in the morning, lots of empty notebook paper spread out, colorful pens, watering the plants, singing Dinah's in the kitchen --this time with Wally without other people around. I appreciate the therapies so much, and Sueli visiting, and my freelance writing jobs, and the neighborhood moms, and the playgrounds and art and music all around the city. But sometimes I regret how broken up the days have to be. People often ask me why I didn't put Wally in preschool at least a few afternoons a week. But I can't imagine taking any more time away from Wally's World than I already do. It's this little cocoon we have and it won't last long. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

He Speaks

Dave Stack, or simply "Stack" as we referred to him in Hanover, was older, cooler, wiser, and meaner. The Pied Piper of the WDCR DJs, Stack was ubiquitous at food court, banged on pans and played air guitar in various bands, had a moose head in his dorm room, made mix tapes, wrote poetry longhand, and spent most of his time as a cross between an archetype and a memory. I think the last time I ran into him was probably a decade ago at a Built to Spill show but I recently had the chance to find out what Dartmouth's poster-child for not growing up did when he finally kicked it in the sun.

1. What's the worst compliment you've ever gotten on your books?

My Slint-inspired picture book Good Morning Captain got quite a lot of attention online from places like Pitchfork and Flavorpill. New York Magazine called it "the world's most terrifying children's book." I suppose that could be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. If that's true, I'm actually pretty proud of that. I want that on my tombstone. On the Steve Albini's Electrical Audio message boards, a "reviewer" said: "Your book was a blood-retching bit of onanistic diarrhea." But I don't think he meant that as a compliment. 

I should mention that my cute, colorful robot books get the best response from kids. Especially Robot Garden. It has a free song download and kids like to dance along. They love those books. I guess it's best not to care what grown-ups think. 

2. What is one thing you do that makes you certain you haven't jumped the shark into adulthood?

I'm not sure I haven't jumped the shark already. Two kids, a dog, a mortgage, a car payment.... I do still hold onto some fantasies of youth. I want to sell a novel. This year it worked out that I could take some time off to work on a young adult novel. It's about zombies and rock n' roll. I suppose it's a risk in this economy. And I could fall on my face and have nothing to show for it. But it also means I get to be a stay-at-home dad with my 8-month old daughter Lucy -- which is some adulthood I wouldn't trade for anything right now. 

3. Where does the name Posterband come from?

I'm not sure if this a local thing from the music scene in my hometown of Louisville, KY. There wasn't much to do there. Basically every teen wanted to be in a band - even if they didn't know how to play an instrument. So there was a little make-believe scene. Kids would come up with cool band names. But they didn't stop there. They'd also make show-flyers and post them all up and down the telephone poles of Bardstown Road where all the real rockers and skaters hung out. And they'd make album coversand t-shirts. I guess they were just posers. But we called them Posterbands. They had everything a real band had but music. It was all very earnest and ridiculous. But I have always been attracted to that idea of a kind of ceaseless, useless creativity. I find it very hopeful. 

4. What happened to Pedicabo?

Pedicabo was always more of a practical joke than a band. It was a Posterband that somehow came to life and walked the earth for a brief period of time in the mid-90s. But it was never meant to live. It was a depraved and despised monster. It was hunted for sport in the terrible aftermath of adulthood. Supposedly there have been some sightings in the wilds of Brooklyn. But those people are liars desperate for attention. Pedicabo is no more real than Bigfoot or the Chupacabra.

David Martin Stack is the publisher of Posterband - a playlist of cool things for cool kids. David has written several books for children, including four titles forthcoming from Scholastic Education. He has worked in publishing for over fifteen years and has been an editor and reviewer for the National Poetry Series. He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. David grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. He studied poetry and film in New Hampshire at the alma mater of Dr. Seuss and Captain Kangaroo. Now he lives in Brooklyn with his wife, his son and daughter, and a crazy dog. David is currently hard at work putting the final touches on a young adult novel about zombies and rock ‘n roll.