Pack up all my care and woe…

IMG_7771The title of this post is from Bye Bye Blackbird, which was the favorite song of someone I knew who died from Alzheimer’s — or as my young niece calls it, Old Timer’s. I had a brush with early stages of the disease today in a chance encounter on the street.

It was not unbearably freezing today, and so I decided to walk home from my appointment on 36th and Park. As I walked down Ninth Avenue I saw an elderly man a few paces ahead of me who was standing on the sidewalk looking around. I made eye contact with him and he stopped me and asked if I live in the neighborhood. I said yes, and asked if he was lost. He was – I asked what he was looking for and he said, “My home. I can’t remember where it is.” He was visibly shaken by this. My first thought was to call the authorities, but I didn’t really know which authorities to call. He had his keys in his hand and on his key ring was a CVS customer card. I suggested we might go to the nearest CVS and see if they could scan it and find his address.

Then I asked if he perhaps had id in his wallet; he did – he had a Christmas-themed return address label stuck on the inside. I read the address to him; it was about half a block away, but a long block, and it took us a while to get close to the building. He kept saying how ridiculous it was that he could just forget where he lives, that he’s lived there for years. I asked if he lived with anyone or had family here and he mentioned a daughter, whose name he couldn’t recall. I asked to see his wallet again, and in it found a piece of paper with three names and phone numbers – “Son” and “Daughter” were clearly marked – one with a New Jersey number and one in Brooklyn, he told me. The third name, Stella, was 212. He told me she was his girlfriend so I asked if I could phone her.

Stella was very concerned to hear what was going on and explained that she’d been sick and couldn’t come over to his house – his name is Michael, by the way. She asked if I’d bring him to her, and gave me the address. She lives in the housing projects a few blocks from me that I pass every day and have never been inside.

On the long, slow walk to Stella’s, we passed a friend of mine who lives in the East Village and whom I haven’t seen in years – she was on the phone and we greeted each other and agreed to talk later.

I asked Michael more questions. He estimates he was born in 1925, and clearly recalled that he moved to New York from Naples, Italy, in 1940; shortly after he joined the army and fought with the 69th Infantry Division. He couldn’t understand how he could remember that, but not where he’s been living for the past many decades. I said something about how curious memory is, how sometimes we recall things from childhood but not what we had for breakfast that morning. I asked if he’d eaten anything today and he said no.

I held his arm when we crossed the streets and told him that I was afraid of slipping on the ice myself – and he laughed. But in general he was sad and confused. I said, “This must be very frustrating for you,” and he said, “It’s very frustrating. I just don’t understand.” We talked about the fact that he should probably pay a visit to a doctor – he doesn’t think he’s been to the doctor in quite some time.

We reached Stella’s building and she buzzed us in, though the lock on the main door appeared to be broken. Michael pushed “7” in the elevator – and Stella waited for us with her apartment door opened. They cried on seeing each other – she gave him a big hug and asked what was going on and he said he didn’t understand.

She invited me in – actually, it was more insistence – and we helped him off with his jacket. She asked where his keys were and I said probably in his pocket, so she went through his pockets and pulled out his keys, wallet, a bunch of napkins, and his teeth.

While she made him a cup of tea I called his daughter – who started to cry and told me that this has been going on for a while and has gotten worse and worse and that she’s asked him to come stay with her in Brooklyn but that he’s stubborn. She said she’d call Stella in a few minutes, and I gave her my number and explained that I live in the neighborhood, should they need anything.

While we were in the kitchen Stella said to me, “We’ve known each other for 37 years. This is going to be so hard for me – I am all alone.”

I said whatever I could – tried to be comforting. I told Stella I’d check in with her, and Michael’s daughter said she’d keep me posted. I said my goodbyes and left.

So much to say about all of this but I’m still processing it. My neighborhood – this whole city – is full of elderly people who live on their own. I recently had a conversation with a friend – one whose own elderly mother was in a physical rehabilitation center with apparently deplorable conditions – about the fact that our society has a lot of work to do in terms of how we value and care for our elderly. Michael and Stella have lived in my neighborhood since long before it was filled with new condos and art galleries and night clubs and expensive restaurants – since long before the vast majority of the people who live in my building were born. This is their neighborhood.

I am grateful that I made eye contact with him and that I stopped, because in the wrong hands, things could have turned out much differently. Not only was he confused, he had money and credit cards in his wallet. Mine are far from the only right hands – I know that everyone reading these words would have done the same thing I did. I also know that moments before I saw him I’d been looking at my phone to see if I’d heard back about tomorrow night’s dinner plans, or about what time my Pilates lesson was. Of course we all spend far too much time looking down these days – and once more I’m reminded of the value of looking up. Looking around. From now on I will pay more attention to the many elderly people I see walking around my neighborhood by themselves.

The other takeaway here – and this is important for ALL of us – is to carry ID and a list of contacts. I don’t know if that ICE program is still relevant, but if it is it’s a good one – emergency responders are taught to look through cellphone contacts for anyone marked ICE – “in case of emergency”.

This city is a big and busy place and not everybody is kind; but like the day I had my accident a few years back (I fainted in the street) – today proved that sometimes the kindness of strangers is what separates trauma from tragedy.

Be well, my friends, and look after your loved ones.

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Too cool to bluff

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I was having one of those if-not-for-Lou-I-wouldn’t-leave-the-house mornings. One of those thank-God-there’s-no-cafeteria-for-me-to-sit-alone-in days. A sort of bad mood/existential crisis hybrid. You know what I mean.

But because my dog is so needy I took him out (I kid, I kid, he’s not the needy one) and it was delightful! The neighborhood is very smiley and friendly today – and now I have that line from Scarlet Begonias in my head – and I had a lovely conversation with a French bulldog owner who said of Louie, “Oh my God – what a fox-monkey he is!” At the bank I ran into a woman who used to live in my building – the stunning, tall, ambiguously European blonde who flirts with my boy friends and spends a lot of time unabashedly naked in the locker room at Chelsea Piers – and we had a really good conversation about the neighborhood, the building, and the aforementioned locker room. I didn’t bring up the full-frontal thing. I came back and bought three barstools from a neighbor who is about to move to Amagansett – which sounds so perfect I couldn’t ask him about it for fear of getting in my car and driving east and never looking back.

And now I’m here.

I’m also in the process — several of us are — of saying goodbye to an old friend who is very close to the end of his earthly days. I have lost a lot of people – close and distant – and that is because I have loved a lot of people. Not in the romantic sense, in the soul sense. In the recognizing another’s intrinsic beauty sense. It sucks. It hurts like hell. But I’d rather be someone who loves too much than someone who doesn’t want to love at all. I think I would – I don’t know because I’ve never not been this way. I had this conversation with my sweet new friend/brunch partner yesterday, that as challenging as it is to be someone who walks around with her heart galloping ten feet in front of her, and who throws herself full force into her friendships and relationships, we would rather know that we’ve shown all of our cards and lived authentically reaching for what we want than build walls and wonder what might have been.

But I digress. Our sweet Phil is leaving us soon. I’ve known this man for 20 years and he is part of some of my strongest and greatest memories in that time. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost.

Thank you for reading this. I mean it.

Filling up an idle hour

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I’ve been taking melatonin to help me sleep and one of the side effects I’ve been experiencing is unusually vivid dreams. The other night I dreamt that I was very good friends with Brad Pitt – practically best friends. Nothing was going on between us – I swear – we just spent a lot of time together. Movies, dinners, long phone calls, that sort of thing. You know how it goes. There was plenty of speculation – par for the course when a man and a woman are as close as Brad and I. I often have celebrities in my dreams – James Franco showed up last night, with his longtime girlfriend who turned out to be one of the receptionists at the office. Mel Gibson proposed to me once with sapphire earrings on stage in the theater at my high school. This was the kinder, gentler, Mad Max version of him, not the homophobic anti-Semite. 

I had the rare pleasure of walking Lou at 5:00 this morning; he wasn’t feeling well last night so when he woke me extra early I didn’t pretend to still be asleep. It was nice in a glad-I-don’t-do-it-often kind of way. It was quiet, except for the early morning chirping of the birds and rats, and the cop who was washing his van, and the trio of ne’er-do-wells who were smoking on the corner. I expected to go back to sleep but it didn’t happen. So instead I’ve been reading and writing and running errands.

I’m applying to a program that pairs writers with high school girls who want writing mentors — this is similar to a program I was set to volunteer with a few years ago, before my year of surgeries put me out of commission; by the time I resurfaced, the program’s funding had been cut. One of the questions in this application process is “Why do you want to be part of a writing community?” – That’s an easy one to answer. Writing is an incredibly solitary endeavor, so much so that it can feel lonely at times. This is where having a forum like this blahhhhg is invaluable – knowing that I have a built-in readership, that my words, however imperfect, will have an audience, makes a tremendous difference to me. Not everything I write here is profound or well-written, but it’s necessary in cementing my identity as a writer – something that can feel like an empty promise at times. I’ve been published many times in the form of articles and essays, but it’s been a while. So even this relatively small exercise in self-publishing contributes to my feeling of productivity. I don’t get feedback on this forum often but when I do it encourages me to keep going. When I started this last year – just over a year ago, actually – it served a definite purpose of helping me through a challenging stretch of time; I literally wrote myself out of it . And then I reconnected with a friend (hi, L!) who was going through her own challenging time and she told me how much my words helped her to feel understood. So my writing took on a role outside of a self-motivated one, and so I kept going.

I’ve grown my writing community in recent months – my literary Salon, which has been meeting for about 6 years, continues to be a wonderful outlet and source of inspiration. The fact that I’m doing this with my mom is amazing – when we first began meeting I wasn’t sure how open I could be with my mom as one of my readers – but it’s been really cathartic, I think, for both of us. We were seven in the beginning – three maternity leaves later we are now four – and we work very well together. Last Monday I started a second writing group with five women who were part of the online novel-writing workshop I took earlier this year. There are six of us that live in New York(ish – one lives in Jersey City) and we decided to meet in person and it was amazing. A wonderful dynamic – really smart, talented, strong women – I couldn’t have handpicked a better group. We’re going to try for every two weeks. The feedback they’ve given me on my work-in-progress is incredibly insightful. To have a group of people so invested in my story and in my progress is the loveliest antidote to the solitude of writing. 

Now I have to put the insight and inspiration for my novel into writing … I’m going to do an overhaul of my outline to reflect the new changes. 

But first I’m going to go to the gym. I put it in writing, therefore I must do it. 

Going to LA in two weeks for the first time in a while – there I will hike and beach and commune with “nature” and my family. And write. My version of LA affords me a lot of time and space to do so. Looking forward.

 

This is my generation, baby

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Not to belabor a point, but … Write thank you notes! We’ve just received our second handwritten one from a prospective summer intern – it just so happens that both of these candidates go to Lafayette College, my alma mater. We’re getting down to the wire with the selection process and I realize that the thank you note, virtual or otherwise, serves a secondary purpose of helping us to keep track of our interviewees. We’ve conducted about fifteen interviews, many of them back to back. The thank you note is a necessary step toward keeping one’s hat in the ring. 

I don’t read my horoscope every day but this was from Thursday:

You don’t have to come on strong to make your point –

on the contrary others will be more receptive to what you say

if you say it calmly and clearly and with no hint of a threat.

They want to believe you, so don’t make it difficult for them.

This is good advice for me to follow every day. I can get a bit … emphatic … when I’m worried that my point isn’t getting across; I’ve said before that one of my lifelong struggles has been knowing that I’m being heard and that my opinion is being considered – this comes as much from doubting the strength of my own convictions, or questioning my judgment, as it does from any external forces. As such I tend to “come on strong to make my point” and this can easily backfire. This horoscope echoes one of my favorite quotes, which has become a lengthy mantra of sorts:

Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. 

Lately people have been telling me that I seem much more calm than I used to – this is good news, as I’ve wasted a lot of time being anything but calm. Calm helps me consider things rationally, get the recipe right, find my keys. I wish it helped me write my f’ing novel. I’m having serious writer’s distraction these days. The quote above is from James Allen, by the way.

The other day I had the opportunity to impress a taxi driver – and myself – with my newly gained awareness of professional soccer. He asked me if I knew anything about the sport and I told him that in fact I’d been to a PSG game. Against Bastia. He implied that I likely had a crush on Ibrahimovic, to which I replied that I’m more of a Cavani gal. I went on to say in an offhand, in-the-know way, that Sweden isn’t playing in the World Cup. He said he was going to watch soccer all weekend and I mentioned the Liverpool/Chelsea game Sunday morning. I told him I’d been schooled by an Arsenal fan – and he told me that that’s his team, too, and that he dreamed of seeing them play. I let him know that that dream could come true as they’ll be in NY this summer to play the Red Bulls.

This was fantastic!  This was Kismet! He from Uganda and me from NY with so much in common, so much to talk about … and then he honked at the car in front of us and said, “I knew it – a woman – you women should not have drivers’ licenses. Women do not know how to drive.” I mentioned Danica Patrick but he’d moved on to talk about “the gays”. How gay men are not men, they’re women. From there he segued into Obama, letting me know that if I voted for Obama I must be racist. That anyone who voted for Obama was racist.

I kept my mouth shut and what I hoped was a beatific smile on my face until we reached my destination.

At least we had soccer.

Here by the sea and and, nothing ever goes as planned

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Some merry prankster has taken to writing the words “Bad Luck Spot” in chalk on the street corners by my house. Thanks, buddy. I’m way too superstitious for that. It’s a bizarre little enclave Lou and I live in; the gas station down the road has been temporarily usurped by an “art” installation – there is a white picket fence around it, a few dozen metal sheep, rams and lambs (are these one and the same? I do not know) grazing on astroturf, and a man in head-to-toe black holding a clipboard. The man is real. Maybe the grass is, too. The farm life is definitely not.

This has been a week of things not-quite-going-as-expected: shifted plans, chance encounters, interesting strangers. Today I escorted a visually impaired man to the Verizon store, where I was headed as well; this is the third or fourth time I’ve had occasion to do this. Once it happened while I was fortunate enough to be visiting Paris, beautiful, magical Paris; a blind woman asked me to escort her out of the metro. As we’ve established, I’m afraid of heights and, much to the dismay of anyone who’s been to an airport or shopping mall with me, terrified of escalators — I much prefer the stairs. This was one of these metro stations with a fifteen-story vertical escalator, and the woman grabbed me and asked for assistance just as I was bypassing it. I couldn’t summon the French for “debilitating, irrational fear of moving stairs,” and so I clung to her for dear life and made petite-talk for the 12-minute ride. It was all at once a good deed and extreme sport.

A friend used to tease me that my greatest fear would be riding an escalator without mascara. Which is ridiculous; I’d be fine with just eyeliner. 

So … I might be published in the New York Times! Yep. In the past couple of days I’ve submitted a question/complaint to the Social Q’s column and a found haiku to Metropolitan Diary. Hey, a byline’s a byline – even if every grandparent-of-a-precocious-child-who-takes-public-transport gets one in the Diary.

I am learning a tremendous amount, this year, about how to live in this world. And, as I’ve said aloud to a couple of people in the past few days, my life has been infused with a lot more color than it used to be – in my decor, my wardrobe, my experiences and relationships. What a difference it makes; I spent April 2011 – April 2012 in a series of casts for a fractured scapula (look it up, too tired to explain); because I was x-rayed regularly my cast was changed regularly, and the day I opted for a fuchsia one instead of the standard bone-white, my mood improved dramatically. You learn a lot about human nature when you spend a year in a cast – particularly how intrusive strangers can be. I can’t imagine seeing someone with a broken bone (or black eye or gaping wound) and asking for an explanation, but an amazing number of people NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!!! At first I would explain, in painstaking detail, my official version of events, but I soon learned that if I just said “accident” people would seldom ask me to elaborate. I also learned in that year to type very quickly with one hand (insert obligatory internet porn joke). 

Alright then. I had intended to write about something entirely different, had been thinking about it since this morning, but here by the sea and sand …

Buenas noches a todos. 

 

 

Addendum: I have always depended on the kindness of strangers

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 So this one, obviously, is not a lyric. 

My good day was ruffled a few hours ago, and then it redeemed itself. I was running late due to a miscommunication – typed conversation breeds confusion – and when I got to the train I was asked repeatedly to swipe again; swipe again at this turnstile; too fast; swipe again. I don’t do “flustered” well and I walked in a circle, tried again, and got the same behests. 

Reply hazy, try again.

I watched helplessly as one train, then another, passed me by; I’m not the turnstile-jumping type. I went to the booth and handed the booth-gentleman my card; he did whatever it is he did and said, “This card hasn’t been used since September 19th.” I waited for him to go on, realized he was the one waiting, and said, “I haven’t used it since then!” “What have you been doing?” he asked. “I’ve used another card.” Another train roared through the station and he said something I couldn’t hear. “I’ve been traveling?” He shook his head and asked again how it is that my Metro Card hadn’t been used since the 19th. 

I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t use public transportation as often as I should. It’s not a hygiene or a safety or a mingling-with-the-masses thing at all. It’s that … actually, maybe it is a mingling-with-the-masses thing, but not because I don’t want to do so, because I’m not very good at it. I’m not good at rushing down the stairs, at balancing, at keeping a poker face no matter what’s going on in my head, at finding my way around my hometown. If it’s doable I much prefer walking, but truth be told I spend way too much money on taxis. 

So all of this is swirling through my head while the man’s admonishing me and trains fly past.

“You’re going to have to buy a new card,” he yells.

“Okay!” Another train is pulling into the station and he’s saying something else I can’t hear, though he must realize I’m getting agitated about my thwarted efforts to get to 34th Street. I could have burst into tears and probably looked like I was about to, out of frustration as much as anything else. A young woman who’s been watching for a bit snaps at him, “Stop being so hard on her!” and offers to let me use her card. “I can’t give it to you,” she says, “But I can get you through the turnstile.

By this point it had been about 15 minutes since I was supposed to be where I was supposed to be, and it was fruitless. I thanked her, cast what I’ve no doubt was a pitiful look at the man in the booth, and went home with my tail between my legs. 

Travel snafu and aborted plans notwithstanding, this young woman was lovely to me in a ridiculous moment when I just needed someone to be lovely to me. 

The point of all this: despite what our parents warned us, do talk to strangers if you might be able to make their day a tiny bit brighter. 

I’m going to make a concerted effort to become more comfortable with the MTA.

That’ll show him. 

The littlest things that take me there

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In case you’re wondering, which you probably aren’t, the titles of these posts are lyrics from songs I like that may or may not be pertinent to the writing that follows. 

Now then. 

A few months after I graduated from college, the summer before my freshman year of life, I was in a place of great uncertainty. Like most of us, I assume. I had gotten a Bachelor of Arts in the ultra-employable double major of English Lit and French. No, I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I’d sort of grown up around show business and had a brief flirtation with moving to LA to work at an agency that had just opened there, but I let that one go. I was living more or less alone in the house I’d grown up in in the suburbs, a house that was an albatross for my parents until it finally sold some years later. I commuted up and down the West Side Highway (I drove!) to a job as a production assistant on a short lived talk show hosted by Dr. Ruth. The show was called “Never Too Late” and each episode featured guests who had changed the courses of their lives well into their adult years. It wasn’t about sex, yet somehow it managed to often be about sex. My job entailed things like reading “People” magazine and tracking down the world’s oldest waterskier, babysitting Al Roker’s daughter in the green room, ironing Rue McClanahan’s skirt – it was a glamour job. It would be over at the end of that summer and then I had no idea what was next. I felt lost between a college I’d never really fit into and a completely uncharted life whose purpose was a mystery to me. 

A childhood friend hosted an annual end-of-August party, and that year I had a long conversation with the host’s college friend, who was (is) deaf, very smart, and excellent at reading lips. We talked about what we were doing now that school had ended and I expressed my fears and uncertainties – they hadn’t yet manifested in the bout of depression that would take hold a few months later. I remember this conversation well. The friend – Josh – told me his philosophies on life, one of which has stayed with me over the decades. He said, “I define good days differently than most people” – this was in part, he said, because he’d had more to overcome than many people he knew. He said, “If I have a good conversation with a friend, it’s a good day. If I get to be outside in the sun, it’s a good day.”

In the spirit of Josh’s wisdom, this has been a good day thus far. I finished a draft of my dark and weird short story. I set up a few work-related meetings. I got a response to a query I put out about a project I’m sort of working on (vague enough?). Louie and I took a walk and ran into an old friend and her 1 1/2-year-old son. I drank coffee and read the paper. I had a good conversation with my sister. I gave directions to a lost tourist (it’s the little things!). I did an important errand, and … I got a library card.

A library card! Remember those?!

I can’t recall the last time I had one, but they still give them out. The little branch of the NYPL on my street, the Muhlenberg branch, has about as many books as I do, but I found some good ones and checked them out FREE and I get to keep them for three weeks. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to do this, but I’m in a big reading phase right now so it makes sense. This is one of those things that the interns in my office probably have little to no concept of, like postage stamps, landlines, and albums — record and photo. 

This past weekend I climbed a mountain – to me it’s a mountain, to others it’s a gentle slope – and considering my lifelong fear of heights and of scaling cliff-like things, this is quite an accomplishment. I also went apple-picking, which I’d never done before (I know!). At the end of each calendar year, I make a list of things I did for the first time over the preceding twelve months. A few years ago the list including salsa-dancing in the street and snorkeling in the ocean. This year’s will include the aforementioned, as well as: attending a music festival, visiting Budapest, submitting a book proposal, keeping plants alive for more than a month, and making a quiche. Three more months to add to that list. Three more months of potentially good days.