Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Two people have told me (Justine in person, and Jennifer in a Facebook update) how much they love Friday Night Lights. I didn't even know what it was, but I respect both of them so much that I decided to watch it cold, with no prep -- not even knowing the topic.
So imagine my delight when it turned out to be a sports show. High school football in Texas, to be precise. Which had a number of plot elements that were surprisingly relevant to my own personal life. Speaking of which ... I don't know exactly what I'm going to write about in this blog post, but I feel pretty confident that it will contain spoilers, so if you don't want to know what's in the 2006 pilot, stop reading now.
The show follows a coach, several members of the football team, a cheerleader, their families, and community as they head into a season in which its (for some reason) really important that they make it to the State Championships. We see them on Monday, and then on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday and Thursday, and finally at the big game on Friday. One of the players is a drunk, one of them takes care of his grandmother, one of them is African American and touchy about his deceased father. The star quarterback is dating the head cheerleader, and has also been close to the coach since he was a Pee Wee. We get the sense that this team, and this season are particularly important for the coach, but we (at least I) don't yet understand why. From the cinematography and a little of the plot, we get the clear message that this is going to be about race and class as much as it's going to be about football. Also, there's something up with the relationships between the girls and the boys that makes me think it might go deeper than the usual who's dating who.
However, even considering all it had going for it, I spent the first 30 minutes wondering how this show got made, because at its core, it just seemed like another high school sports show. And then it happened. In the middle of the big game, just when we thought the tension was about whether their second half slump was going to result in a loss, the star quarterback -- the one the Notre Dame scout said is the best high school player he'd ever seen, threw a wobbly pass that got intercepted, and when the opponent ran it down the field, he (the quarterback) was the only guy around to block him, and he went down. Hard. And didn't get back up again.
That happened to me too. I wasn't a star, and I wasn't in a big important game, but I was a completely dedicated high school basketball point guard, and I was good. I wasn't amazing, but I was good. I worked incredibly hard at it, and I was playing Varsity in my sophomore year, and I was taking a jump shot, and something happened and I went down in the most pain I had ever felt. I didn't know it at the time, but I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and both meniscus, and also my quadriceps tendon. I was a mess. When I saw in the show that the ambulance was coming for the injured star, and the way that time stopped, I was immediately thrown back to the moment of my injury. I just remember a couple things. I think I screamed fuck and was later made fun of for that, and I remember that nothing really mattered to me except that I was very hurt. I knew a game had to go on, but it wasn't my concern. My concern was that I needed help, and I couldn't move.
My classmate Bruce Maisel took a photo of the moment (which if I were home I would try to find, scan, and post) -- with my left leg splayed out on the floor, and the school nurse Betty Bergendahl tending to me. I've actually found that photo incredibly helpful over the years -- it reminds me of the stillness that I felt in that moment. The stillness that was captured beautifully in Friday Night Lights. One young man's life completely changing; everyone slowing down to care for him, but only long enough to send him elsewhere for care, and then the game must go on.
The other image from the show that brought up a very deep memory was the image of the doctor screwing a halo brace into this young man's head, to stabilize his neck after his spinal cord injury. You know what the halo brace is -- it's the one that sits on the shoulders, and is screwed into the head. My father had one after he had cervical disc surgery. Again, I wish I were home and could scan the photo of him dancing at Claire's wedding with a halo brace screwed into his head. (That's love, Claire.) I wasn't in the room when the halo was put on -- they do that in surgery -- but I was the one who took my dad to the doctor to finally have it removed, and I think it might have been the most vulnerable I had ever seen my father, all because the doctor decided to make a really dumb joke.
The thing is literally screwed into the skull with a cordless Makita drill. I was a carpenter at the time, and used my Makita all the time, so to see something that quotidien being used in such a delicate medical operation was a surprise. But the greater surprise was that after my father had been warned for weeks that one false move, and those screws could enter his skull too far and injure his brain, the doctor "joked" -- as he revved up the drill -- that he couldn't tell which was was forward and which was reverse.
The rage and powerlessness that flashed in my father's eyes were heartbreaking to me, and at the same time, this was the first opportunity I ever had to stand up and protect my father. I took it. I told the jovial young doctor that this was not a moment to joke -- to please remove the screws immediately and with great care. He did, and we left, and my father, though shaken, put the incident behind him. But that moment sealed something between us, and although we never spoke about it over the next 15 years, I know that the fact that I witnessed his vulnerability was a deep part of our bond.
And so I'm hoping that Friday Night Lights might also be about personal vulnerability, as well as racial and economic vulnerability. I have to finish Battlestar Galactica and keep watching Breaking Bad, but I think I'm hooked on yet another show.
Monday, May 30, 2011
When I come to Potomac to visit Josh's mom, I always try to take advantage of the fact that we're in the suburbs -- go to REI, swim in the huge and empty-laned Montgomery Aquatics Club, or, like I'm going to do on this trip, getting a no-hassle, no-wait appointment at the Apple Store genius bar. (My computer has been crashing -- randomly going blue and then rebooting without actually rebooting. It's scaring me.) Also on this trip, fresh off my difficult swim, I decided to take refuge in something I know I can do: run in the woods.
This is my favorite kind of running. I love that the dirt paths are softened by pine needles, and that they are tripped up with rocks and roots. I love the attention it takes to place ones feet while keeping up a steady pace. I love the smells in the woods, and the hundreds of greens and browns, and I love making mental notes of the the path, so I can safely loop back to the start.
Except when I can't.
I wanted to go for a 50-minute run, which is 7-minutes longer than I've done so far, but is what my group is up to, and I decided to go in the Cabin John Park Trail, along the Cabin John creek. I was still having an extremely tough time breathing (even when not exercising) but I brought my inhaler, and figured I could stop and walk whenever I needed to. I chose a path that started out flat along the creek, and set out at a slow steady pace for about 10 minutes before it started to climb. It was lovely. It wasn't wild forest, but it was a world away from the brick McMansions and strip malls. I ran quite well, although my lungs made me walk up most of the steep inclines. After 25 minutes, I had descended to the creek again, and I could hear a road, but I didn't know if it was the right road. I still had time to turn around and follow the blue-marked trail back, but I had a feeling there was going to be a different way to go -- a flatter, creek-side way that would keep me running instead of walking up the hills.
So I decided to explore a little. I have a great sense of direction, and I still had 30 minutes before I was supposed to call Josh and his family to make a plan for dinner. I arrived quickly to a park entrance, with a posted sign with trail info on it, but it lacked the one thing I most needed: YOU ARE HERE. I chose the path that followed the creek, and eventually crossed paths with a man and his dog. I asked him how far I was from my car, and told him how I had come, and he let me know that there was in fact a faster way back -- if I would follow the creek the other direction, I was just an easy mile and half from my entrance.
So I turned around, and kept running, hugging the creek like the man said, and thought about how we trust people we don't know, even when (especially when?) we're out of our element.
Anyhow, I followed his advice, and after about 10 minutes, the creek looked like it looked where I had come in, and I could hear the road ahead. I was feeling good. And then.
Just about where I thought I should head out to the road, I couldn't find a way out of the woods. The path kept going, up a sharp incline, and further south than I thought I should go. But it was the only path I could see, so I followed. And came out to a giant field under miles of power lines. The path I was on ended, and huge brambles prevented me from following the creek. It was the time I said I would call in to make a plan to go to a dinner (at a cafe in a strip mall) but (did I not mention this earlier?) I had left my cell phone in the car, so I could carry water instead. This was the moment when I realized I was lost in a suburban woods.
I decided to follow the power lines to see if there was another clue. I went the way I thought was wrong geographically, but right instinctively -- now really pushing my stamina, because it was coming to the 45 minute mark of running. Way up ahead, I saw some trucks parked under the power lines, and realized that might mean there was a road nearby, so I kept heading in that direction, when suddenly I heard 70s rock music blaring from what seemed like the middle of the woods. I followed a path that led in that direction, and before long I could see glimpses of cars in what I thought was a field, and I pictured a Memorial Day party, full of drunk guys my age pretending they were still in high school. I pictured myself emerging, sweaty, out of the woods and asking for directions, when I came up out of the woods and it was a sports recreation facility and a giant parking lot and a lot of nice suburban parents watching their nice suburban kids play baseball.
I told one of the nice suburban mothers that I was late and had gotten lost, and she told me where I was. It turned out my sense of direction had been flawless, even if my ability to use it had been useless -- I was 1/2 mile away from my car, along two major suburban roads. I wanted her to offer to give me a lift, but she looked at me and said, You look like you want to run. I said, Actually, I've been running for an hour, and she smiled and turned away and got into her SUV.
There was a time when I lived in England when I was traveling around with the Green Road Show, and they were all caravanning from one peace and music festival to the next, and leaving me alone to hitchhike. I've written about it before; my hitchhikes often ended badly, and somehow I was still not able to just come out and ask my friends for the help I needed, and somehow they were all willing to drive away waving -- see you at Glastonbury! Granted, this was a different situation (they were my community; she had never laid eyes on me) but how hard would it have been for this woman to give me a lift 2 minutes down the road, when she knew I was late and tired, instead of leaving me to sort it out on my own? Apparently too hard, and so she drove off, waving, and I set off out to the road.
It all worked out. I called in about 25 minutes late, and nobody minded. They told me which chain restaurant in which strip mall we were going to. I got over there 10 minutes before they arrived, and did my warm-down stretches in the parking lot. All the while thinking about what the barriers are to my really asking for help when I need it.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
I wanted to get in the Hudson River well before the triathlon so I could get a feel for what it is like to swim in the river before I do the triathlon in August. I knew of course that it would be a lot colder now than then, but I wanted to feel the chop, and the pull of the tide, and most of all -- what it is like to swim in a wetsuit -- so I signed up for three open water swims this summer -- the Great Hudson River Swim in the Hudson, a The Pancake spring triathlon in Raritan Bay, and the Brooklyn Bridge Swim in the East River.
The Great Hudson River Swim is a "beginner-friendly" (as per the NYC Swim website) 1.6 miles in the Hudson, from Christopher Street Pier 45 to Battery Park City. I was was worried about it being cold, and worried about what it would be like to swim in a wetsuit, and quite nervous about the start, when I'd been told people would jump in and swim on top of me -- but I was pretty confident about the swim itself. I've swim long distances before, I love the open water, I am in great shape right now -- and doing especially well in the pool.
Still, as I approached the sign-in area at 6 AM, I had knots in my stomach. I wasn't sure why I was nervous, because this wasn't a race for me; it was an experiment. My nerves calmed down as I signed in (first person to get my number: 208) penned in Sharpie onto the backs of my hands. They calmed down more as I waited an hour and a half for the swim to start, put on my wetsuit, and joked and talked with other swimmers.
Finally it was time to jump off the Pier, into the Hudson. Everyone says that the hardest part is the beginning, when other people are jumping in on top of you, so I made a deal with the person in front of me and behind me -- told them I wouldn't jump on them, and they shouldn't jump on me. It loosened things up a little bit, and made me feel better to have that level of human connection about the scariest part.
I was in the second wave of swimmers, so I got to see other people jump in and gather together to wait for the start. When my turn came, it felt otherworldly. I was on the edge of the dock, I was told to jump in, I hesitated for maybe 1 second and the man running the show told me to hurry, and so I jumped -- over my own natural tendency to take a little more time -- but I jumped. My goggles stayed on, and the water was chilly but not unbearably cold. (I had a sleeveless wetsuit, and that was just fine.) We waited a good 10 minutes in the water before our heat took off, and during that time I talked with the other swimmers, and waved to Josh who was supporting me from the pier, and thought cockily to myself, Well the hardest part is over. Nobody jumped on top of me, and this water is not too cold.
Finally we heard the countdown and the horn, and we were off -- and it immediately got hard. I set out nice and slow, and within a minute someone was swimming on top of me. I just pulled aside to let them pass, and started again -- and again, someone started to flail on top of me. It felt strange -- there was plenty of room for us to spread out, so I wasn't sure why they were on me, unless they couldn't see or they were panicking or they were assholes. (Probably it was at least one of those reasons.)
Meanwhile, I already hated the wetsuit. It was tight around my neck, and I was having a tough time breathing. Not from exertion -- I had barely exerted yet -- but I think from the compression of the wetsuit combined with my already-compromised lungs combined with the water temperature combined with my reaction to other people swimming on top of me. I couldn't take a significant breath, and I just wanted to rip the wetsuit off from around my neck and chest. I slowed down and let everyone pass, and just tested out what it was like to swim without anyone around. The strokes felt fine, but I could not breathe right. I didn't feel panicked at all -- I just knew that without breath, I wouldn't be able to swim a mile and a half. With a sinking feeling (metaphorically, not literally) I swam over to one of the rescue kayaks and told the guy in it that I shouldn't do this. I felt really disappointed, and also realistic.
He pointed me to the big rescue motor boat, and asked if I needed help getting there. I didn't -- I could swim over there just fine. (I mean, as fine as you are when you can't get a breath and you want to rip off your wetsuit, but really actually fine.) On my way over, it occurred to me that I could take off my wetsuit and get back in the water -- that this didn't actually mean the swim was over for me. So when I got up on the boat, I took off my suit, and asked the rescue captain if that was fine. He wasn't actually a race official, so didn't really care one way or the other. So I did it -- I jumped back into the Hudson without a wetsuit, and set back out on the course. Again, the water temp was fine on my limbs, and it felt great to be in my element without the wetsuit on, but I still couldn't get a breath. (In the end, all day and night passed without my being able to take a significant breath, so the fact that I couldn't get it in 62 degree water isn't a surprise.)
I went through the same process of disappointment and reality all over again, swam back to the rescue boat, and climbed back up. My Great Hudson River Swim was over. Lung fail.
But it turned out it wasn't over. Because I stayed on that boat -- with the two captains and the three other swimmers who got picked up -- for another 45 minutes. I tried to talk with the other swimmers, but they were pretty sulky. One of them had a cut hand, one of them was "off his game" and the other one wouldn't even talk. A sorry bunch, feeling sorry for themselves, while meanwhile, I felt surprisingly emotionally OK. I watched the swimmers in the water, and the rescue kayak culture -- trying to learn as much as I could from my unexpected vantage point. I felt a lot of appreciation for the boating support team. I watched the slow swimmers and noticed how good they were at taking their time, and also that they actually had support kayaks boating next to them. Had I understood that I would have had that level of close support, I would have stayed in the water, and while that increased my disappointment that I had gotten out, it also felt like it was still the point of doing the swim in the first place -- to experiment and to to learn.
In other words, I decided to practice Humility: Seek wisdom from others, and not to sink into humiliation.
Until later, once I was on land again, and I started to feel my confidence tank. If you've been around me over the past months, you've heard me sound pretty cocky about the swim -- saying again and again that the swimming part of the triathlon is no problem. I'm a great swimmer. My weak sports will be biking and running. Well damn, if I can't breathe in a wetsuit, it doesn't matter how good a swimmer I am.
I told Josh about all of this on the way home, and we discussed the etymological roots of the words humility and humiliation because I wanted to know how closely related the two things are. We weren't actually sure about the derivation, but Josh gave me a wonderful definition of what he felt I'd been through: Humiliation is being dragged kicking and screaming into a state of humility.
Later in day, he went out while I was napping, and came home with a beautiful spray freesias, and a redefinition of my entire race day. He said there were 6 waves of races: 5 waves of swimmers, and one boating wave. And then he said that I placed first in the boating wave, because I practiced so much equanimity and patience and humility.
Now I just have to keep practicing all three, as I strategize my way forward. Can I swim without a wetsuit? If I do that, do I just swim in my tri shorts and top? What about wearing a neoprine vest? Or maybe a one-piece trisuit? And maybe more importantly than all that, what is really going on with my lungs? Why does it feel like the rest of my body is getting stronger and stronger, while I can't get a full breath? I think it's time to practice diligence, and take my compromised lungs to the doctor. Onward.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Sometimes I write shadow posts when the real thing I did was too personal for me or someone else to write about. So, I did something today for the first time that is too personal for me or someone else for me to write about. But, it was a very Mussar-like thing to do. Very much about balancing the needs of self and other. But enough about me ...
And then after that, I rode 15 miles on Pam's bike for the first time, with my feet clipped in to the pedals (not for the first time, but for the first time on a longish ride.) And I still haven't fallen over. But everyone says I will eventually.
And then after that, Brett and I knocked out a rough assembly of our video for Sandy Pope, and it's better than I feared and still has a long way to go, and in the middle of the work day, I was nodding off and trying desperately to stay awake, and I eventually just asked Brett if he minded if I would take a nap. He didn't mind -- he was assembling video clips, and while I could have been useful, I wasn't essential. And so for the first time ever, I napped in the middle of a work session with a colleague other than Josh. (It was great, by the way. I woke up completely revived, and ready to go.)
I think we all know that mid-day moment when we are just too tired to function. I think most people reach for caffeine, but I don't drink the stuff. Sometimes some raisins will give me a little boost, but not today. Today I was on the shut-eye train, and I knew that if I were at home, I would lie down and sleep for 20 minutes, and wake up refreshed. For maybe 10 minutes I was trying to follow what we were doing, and really doing a bad job. A bad job paying attention, and a bad job faking it too. Then it occurred to me that I was working with one of the most relaxed and flexible people I know, and I just asked him if I minded if I would fall asleep. I did feel a little guilty, but I also knew that staying awake wasn't exactly productive.
This weeks' mide (middah) is Diligence: Always find something to do. There's an exercise that goes along with this practice -- every hour for a week, stop what you are doing, and log how you spent the past hour. Then, use some kind of assessment -- it could be the Urgency Matrix from Stephen R. Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which Rabbi Alissa Wise recommends (and I really like) or it could be something else that is meaningful to you. I haven't actually done this logging exercise, but now I'm going to. If I'm really brave, I'll post my hourly log in this blog. But first, the thing I want to say about diligence, for all you hard-working, over-scheduled 21st century over-achievers, is that resting is doing something. Let me say that again. Resting is doing something. Sometimes the thing we need to find to do is just stop, and rest, and recover. And sometimes the thing we need to do is get off our asses and write that screenplay, or bake bread, or make that scary phone call, or go for a run. But sometimes, we need to rest. This morning I got up at 4 AM because I am going to go swim in the Hudson for the first time ever, and then I'm going to have brunch with Eric and Jessica (who I have never yet met) -- and after that, I am going to rest. Come on over if you want. I'll be on the couch.
Friday, May 27, 2011
I went into Jackrabbit Sports in Park Slope to see if they would consider taking back some running shoes that, when I went to my sports doctor to see why my feet hurt while running, she pointed out had stiffer soles than my former pair. I asked even though 1) it's way past their return window and 2) I have worn them out running enough times to know that they hurt my feet. So I didn't actually expect Jackrabbit to take them back, but I thought it might be possible, and so I asked.
Long story short, they did. But not before they tried to make me feel guilty for even asking, and they tried to pull some strange passive aggressive shit like, "Come back with your physical therapist, because if you're going to trust her over us, then she should come in and tell you what shoes to buy." Normally that would have incensed me -- first of all, because I told him my doctor is a sports phsyiologist -- an MD -- not a PT, and he reduced her. (Not that I think PT's are any less wonderful than MD's, but come on, the woman went through medical school -- can we give her credit for that?) Second of all, he was pulling a power play, and I don't usually react well when men pull power plays. (Who does?)
But this time I did. I saw that he was doing me a giant favor -- probably because I've been spending a significant amount of money in his store. I also saw that he wanted some credit for doing me a giant favor. In fact, he went so far as to say "Write a Yelp review." To which I responded, "OK, I will." And he said, "No you won't. They never do."
But I did.
And I even left out all the negative things I could have said (including all the times I've been treated like I'm invisible and sub-athletic when I've gone in there, including that time years ago that made me stop going there because they were so rude and dismissive to me, and that I am only going now because we have a discount through Team In Training, and it's close to my apartment) -- and instead just gave him credit for doing a mentshy thing for me by taking my shoes back.
Oh wait, did I just undo all that generosity of spirit by blogging honestly?
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Don't get me wrong -- I've donated to public radio many times, but always in Maine, Massachusetts, or Oregon. This was the first time I put my money into a New York station. I think it's because I'm rarely in the car, and at home I can listen to internet public radio, so I listen out of state. But I was in the car, heading over to pick up Brett for a day of filming the Sandy Pope video, and I heard a snippet of a pledge drive, along with an enticing raffle for a trip to Paris. A trip to Paris! One lucky winner! That could be me, I thought. I could do the right thing AND get a trip to Paris!
So I called up and donated. I mean, I pay for other NYC news and entertainment sources: The New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Magazine -- so why do I feel like I shouldn't pay for New York City public radio? I think I know the answer. I think it's not that I don't think I should pay for it, because I do still donate to Maine Public Broadcasting Network. I think it's that I don't feel connected to the voices on the other end of the dial. The Maine broadcasters are like old friends to me. Kristian Foden-Vencil, AJ Higgins, Josie Huang, Jennifer Mitchell. I hear them talk, and I literally feel calmer, more rooted, and more connected. I also remember what it felt like when I first got out of college and moved up to Skowhegan, Maine -- in the middle of the winter -- into my first apartment all alone -- to take a job at Family Planning -- and I was lonely. Maine winter lonely. And you know who kept me company? Yes, you do. Maine Public Radio.
On the other hand, I'm afraid I can't actually name any of the WNYC reporters, and I can't call up their voices in my head. Partly it's that I listen to a lot less radio than I used to, and truth be told, I am no longer lonely. As we said, I don't drive the car very often anymore, and when I do I'm usually with someone, embarking on a long trip or going to work. And when I'm home, I'm usually writing, which isn't conducive to listening to the radio. But I do listen sometimes -- and like I said, when I do I tend to listen to MPBN.
So it looks like we have yet another example of me living in New York, but acting like I don't. I can't really think if we have a mide (middah) about living in the here and now, unless maybe it would be a reinterpretation of Order: All actions and possessions shall have a set place and time. The reinterpretation would be something about my own accurate sense of myself in an accurate place and time. I think that every step I take that acknowledges that I really do live here helps me not to pretend I don't. Also, winning a trip to Paris wouldn't hurt.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
It was random and last minute. Josh and I were sitting down to a late dinner. I had had a long work day, and then a hard running practice, and it was about 8:50 before we got dinner together. (But whoa, what a great salad I made! Grated beets, carrots, jicama, radish, and cucumber. Chopped mint and garlic. All on a bed of pea tendrils. Amazing.) I flipped on the TV to see if there was anything I might want to see, and I noticed that it was the last 10 minutes of the last episode of American Idol. Now, I haven't watched ANY of this season of American Idol, but I read over enough people's shoulders on the subway, and I look at Google News enough that I knew someone had just been eliminated, and that it was down to two.
But did I know that it was an all-teen season? No. Did I know that J.Lo is a judge? Actually, I didn't. Did I know that Steven Tyler is so creepy? Well, I could have guessed, but no.
Lauren Alaina was about to perform her last song when I tuned in, and so I got to hear the entire insipid, emotionally vapid performance. And when it was finally over, I got to hear all three judges sing her praises. All I could think was that the other guy must be really bad if this performance so definitively wrapped up the competition in her favor. But then they showed clips of Scotty singing, and while he wasn't my favorite, he had a strong point of view (country singer) and he had a surprisingly mature voice, and I didn't think he was as bad as she was.
Then Ryan Seacrest came on and told us, literally, "If you've never voted before, go to your phone and text us your vote. Or you can vote online at AmericanIdol.com." I mean, sometimes opportunity just knocks on your door. It's not like I was sitting around waiting for my chance to vote on American Idol, but come on, when Ryan Seacrest looks out into TV land and says "If you've never voted before ..." then you make an uninformed, impulsive decision and text in your vote.
But is it ethical? To influence two people's lives without so much as watching one inspirational video? Without knowing what adversity they've overcome? Without knowing what kind of wardrobe failures they suffered right before the finale? (As it turned out, I discovered later when I read US Magazine online, that it was not a wardrobe failure she suffered right before the finale, but laryngitis.) Actually, I think so. Because I actually know something about singing and performance, and I actually had an opinion. And so I voted against the judge's recommendations, and I voted for Scotty McCreery based on a couple video clips they showed of his earlier performances.
Hey, there's enough room in the world for lots of mediocre performers. I just helped change the course of history for two of them.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
When I moved across the country at the age of 28, my mother told me it would be a permanent move. At the time, I was not thinking in terms of permanence, and in retrospect, I was not thinking much at all. I went because my partner at the time was from Corvallis, Oregon, and he really wanted to go back, and I had spent enough time in Oregon to love swimming in rivers, picking blackberries, and living without deer flies. I wasn't worried about finding work; it was 1990, and work was abundant. I thought I was going for my next phase.
As soon as we got to Corvallis -- literally within a week or arriving -- he broke up with me, and told me he preferred I wouldn't stay in the area, because he didn't want to have to feel responsible for me. Rather than turn around and go back to Maine, where I had everything I'd ever wanted, I headed up to Portland (which was for me at the time a very big city) and started to forge a new life. I rented an apartment from a sign I found at a food coop; I got a job as a barista while I went through the carpenter's union apprenticeship training program; I joined New Jewish Agenda; I got involved in the anti-white supremacy activism that was forming in the wake of the recent murder of Mulegeta Seraw; I started to play Zimbabwean marimba and eventually was invited to play in a band; I started working as a carpenter -- first for a bunch of contractors who were building suburban monstrosities and then for a contractor who did high-end work in Portland and then along with my then-girlfriend, in our own residential remodeling company; I bought a house with a good friend; I hurt my back and went to work for Workers Organizing Committee doing low-wage worker organizing with mostly immigrant workers; I was one of the early people in the Argentine tango scene in Portland .... and at some point I realized that my mother was right. I was building permanent connections, and a permanent life.
One of the people I grew to know, love, and respect in those years is Marcy Westerling, who founded Rural Organizing Project -- a statewide organization of locally-based groups that work to create communities accountable to a standard of human dignity: the belief in the equal worth of all people, the need for equal access to justice, and the right to self-determination. Starting in 1992, ROP's challenges to the anti-democratic right have earned ROP a national reputation for being an effective grassroots organization that takes on the hard issues. The catalyst for ROP was the Oregon Citizens Alliance and their outrageous Abnormal Behaviors Initiative, which targeted gay and lesbian Oregonians for legalized second-class citizenship. Oregonians in small towns across the state were mobilized, many for the first time, as basic tenets of the Constitution were at risk through this ballot initiative. ROP stepped into this organizing opportunity to fill a niche the radical right was trying to claim.
That part in italics was all taken from the ROP website. In my words, Rural Organizing Project is brilliant because it treats rural people as an important, unified voice (and voting block and organizing base) -- while also recognizing that there are as many rural constituencies as there are urban ones, and that power and justice comes from understanding and backing each others' issues.
As you all know because I say it incessantly, I grew up in rural New England, and I still feel caught off guard that I ended up living in cities. As you can see from what I just wrote, going to Portland was ill-considered, but ultimately wonderful for me. And coming to NYC was similarly so -- I came for grad school and expected to go back to Portland (my permanent home) but ended up staying because I realized that when you change careers in mid-life, you also have to build new collegial relationships in your new field. But I miss rural life. Not just fields and rivers and flowers and people dropping by with a bag full of zucchini, but the sense of interconnectedness that comes from living near each other but not on top of each other, and that comes at the end of a long summer after a dry winter when there's no water in anyone's wells.
I think one of the reasons that rural people know that our issues are interconnected is because there's one sun and one storm cloud and they affect our orchards and fields and wells equally. Well, almost equally. Because one person could have a lot of money and be able to dig a really deep well, and another person might not. But you know what might often happen in that situation? The person with water might give water to the person without water. Which is not an organizing for justice and equality solution, but it does take empathy, and empathy is one of the first steps in building unity for each others' issues.
This is what Marcy understood from the start -- along with the fact that rural people can be quite brilliant global thinkers (but are often dismissed as provincial) -- and this is what led her to found one of the most effective and visionary organizations I've ever known.
I thought that was the end of the post, except then I realized I didn't say anything about actually seeing Marcy in NYC. She's a fellow at Open Society Institute (OSI) -- more colloquially known as the George Soros foundation, and she had some time in between appointments, and I had some time after a wonderful video shoot with the brilliant social psychologist Claude Steele, and we did that New York thing where we squeezed in a visit. Never mind that we hadn't seen each other in probably 10 years, it was Marcy, and I'm me, and it didn't take long before she was connected me to someone and I was connecting her to someone else and we had an idea for an entire new organization. I think I get smarter when I'm around her. Is there a social psychologist out there who can explain that to me?
Monday, May 23, 2011
Never Done: I rode (a bike) in toe clips
One thing I like about training for the triathlon is that it pushes me up against physical challenges that are just a little bit of a stretch for me. Within reach, but a little bit of a stretch -- usually physically, and also usually mentally. Today's stretch was trying out toe clips for the first time. People say that everyone falls three times when they start riding with toe clips. (Toe clips are not the little cages you put your feet into, but the mechanisms that require special shoes that you actually clip onto the pedal, making it so if you need to stop riding, you have to make sure to get your foot unclipped first, or else ... fall over.)
I've always slightly feared riding with toe clips. I think it's just your garden-variety fear of being trapped, but it's kept me from it all these years. When I started training for the triathlon though, I was advised pretty quickly that I would want to use them, so I've been mentally preparing myself for a couple months. But mentally preparing and actually doing are two different things, and what is interesting for me is that (at least in this case) the fear actually drained away as soon as I stepped over the threshold and actually tried. It charted out like this:
Scared thinking about it
Scared thinking about it
Scared thinking about how I'd be doing it soon
Scared thinking about how I'd be doing it soon
I'm about to do it -- time to just figure it out and stop worrying
Doing it -- not actually scared at all
As is so often the case, doing something is easier than perseverating about doing something. Or, as we say in Mussar, Patience: don't aggravate a situation with wasted grief.
So let's see if I can internalize that lesson. I tried on a wetsuit today because a week from tomorrow I am going to swim in the Great Hudson River Swim. Here's what I've been perseverating about: I should have gotten one with sleeves, the water is going to be really cold, I am going to swallow too much water, I should get better goggles, how do I use Glide (this anti-chafing stuff that comes in a container that looks like deodorant,) what if the tide is going the wrong direction? Do you think maybe it's all going to be fine? Or if it isn't, that it's still going to be fine? I mean, I'm in really good shape. If something goes wrong, I can just stop. And the whole reason I am doing it is to get used to swimming in the Hudson before the triathlon. Also, because I thought it would be fun to swim in all the waters around NYC this summer. Hear that, psyche? Fun!
So in that spirit, I am going to try to spend the week anticipating the physical and mental challenge of the swim next weekend, and working up a head of giddy excitement that I am going to swim in the Hudson on Memorial Day weekend.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Growing up in New England, I canoed on lots of ponds and rivers. Mostly we kept our canoe under our house, and easily hoisted it onto our orange Volvo station wagon when we wanted to bring it somewhere, but I remember for a period of time we kept it on someone's land (Barba's?) on Bare Hill Pond, so I could go out on the pond without my parents (before I knew how to drive.)
I canoed well into my early adulthood too; I remember once when I was in my twenties and living in Maine, I was canoeing with a friend on one of the Belgrade Lakes (about 1/2 mile from where I lived) when we paddled over a loon swimming below the surface. It was one of the most beautiful and other-worldly things I'd ever seen -- this was before I'd ever gone snorkeling, and understood what it's like to see the usually-hidden underwater dimension of our world.
Later, once I moved to Oregon, I discovered the delights of kayaking when I spent time on Sauvie Island. I remember the first time I paddled into a shallow marsh, where a canoe could never have gotten without getting caught on the bottom -- and I got to glide up to a bittern on the shore, without disturbing it. Since that day, I've rarely been back in a canoe, but I've gone kayaking dozens of times, always when I leave New York City -- usually in Maine or Oregon. Until Abigail and Josh and I went to the Sebago Canoe Club open house, and got to go out kayaking into Jamaica Bay.
Every year on Rosh Hashanah, I try to go somewhere beautiful and outdoors for reflection, and one year I went to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where I remember gazing out at Jamaica Bay and wondering how I could get out there in a kayak. But I didn't pursue it until my Never Done Year, in which ... Mich brought Abigail into Brooklyn Soup Swap, and Abigail and I became friends, and Abigail invited me to Thanksgiving in April, where I met L, who took me hiking on Staten Island, and told me about Sebago Canoe Club. Voila! Getting out and doing stuff helps you get out and do stuff!
Except that it isn't in my back yard, Sebago feels like a big communal back yard with gardens and BBQ and boat storage and a dock. I tried to picture it on a day when it wasn't full of people (like me) checking it out, and then it felt even more like a communal back yard. And if you're wondering why I'm not talking about being out on the water yet, it's because our experience of being at Sebago was mostly about being on land -- we got there around noon, and signed up to go out on boats, and then hung out for 2 hours before our group was called. We hung out on the dock, we ate grilled meat, we sat on the grass, we met people, and finally we were called to get fit with life jackets and kayaks and get out on the water.
The first thing that happened when I got in my boat is that a man put my boat in the water facing the wrong way. I noticed it, but knew it would be no problem for me to back it out instead of paddle out front-ways. But when I got in, he had a little freak out. "Oh no, that isn't right. No, no, not like that." I reassured him that I would be just fine, that I could back the boat out. But it turned out he was trying to tell me that I hadn't gotten into the boat correctly. When I asked him how to correctly get into the boat, he couldn't actually articulate it, and just told me that I would have capsized if I'd gotten in the way I did (contradicting of course the fact that I just did get in that way and didn't capsize.) I told him I'd never gotten into a kayak from a dock before (true -- I've always gotten in from shore, although I've gotten into lots of canoes from docks) and told him I'd love to learn how. Instead of explaining, he got flustered, and pushed me off.
As soon as I got into the water, I was enveloped in a familiar calm. Maybe it was the negative ions from the water, or maybe just the physical memory of immersion, but I felt at home out there -- almost. It felt wonderful, but it looked and sounded urban. We were within sight of the Belt Parkway, with a steady stream of traffic -- and in fact we ended up paddling right under the Belt, as we entered into Jamaica Bay. When we got out into the Bay (and granted, we didn't get too far in) it felt to wild water as Prospect Park feels to wild woods. Yeah -- it felt like we were in a big, wonderful city park. Which, in fact I think we were.
I'm not sure which mide (middah) would be most appropriate to help me accept that I do actually live in one of the biggest cities in the world, and that it's not in fact a wild natural area, and that if I want to live in a wild natural area, I need to move away from New York City, but that if I want to live in New York City, I should probably stop trying to compare the parks and waterways to New England and Oregon natural forests and waterways. Patience? Equanimity? Truth?
Patience, I think: Do not aggravate a situation with wasted grief. Take in the sense of calm, the negative ions. Look out into the bay, and not over to the littered shore. Get qualified to kayak out to one of the islands and see if maybe the human impact is less obvious out there. Take trips out of the city as often as I can, and let them fill my soul for the times I am here.
I practiced this as best I could out on the water. And I did enjoy myself very much -- and practiced looking past the blemishes for the beauty. And just as I was starting to relax into that groove, it was time to turn around and go back.
When I reached the dock and was ready to get out of the kayak, I watched the people in front of me do it, so I could learn if there's anything special about getting out onto a dock. The woman who was helping me could not articulate what she wanted me to do, and kept saying "No, you go like this. No, like this." But she couldn't show me what part of my body she was trying to adjust. Finally, I did what I thought she was telling me, and easily got out onto the dock, but she was not happy with my dismount. I decided to practice Calmness: Words of the wise are gently stated, and Humility: Seek wisdom from everyone, and sat on the dock and asked her to show me what she had tried to show me. She did try, but she still couldn't articulate what she was trying to, so I did not in fact end up learning what she was trying to teach. But at least I didn't get unsettled about it; I just figured that I did something unorthodox, and the sun was out, a breeze was blowing, I had just kayaked in New York City, and I was safely on the dock.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
I want to learn how to make underpants out of old t-shirts, so I went on Etsy to see if I could buy a pair to deconstruct and then reconstruct. I didn't actually find any t-shirt undies (although I've seen them before) but I did find some other really cute pairs that inspired me to make my own undies out of pretty floral fabric, which is, admittedly, not the same as upcycling an old t-shirt, but for those of us who have stacks of beautiful fabric which we've saving for just the perfect project, I think it's the moral equivalent of upcycling an old t-shirt. We already have it kicking around, and it's time to put it to good use.
And it just so happens that this week's mide (middah) is Frugality: Be careful with your money. And nice underwear is expensive! Not that I wear nice underwear. I wear Hanes cotton briefs. But I wish I wore nice underwear. I have one pair of nice underwear. They were sort of a joke, and sort of not a joke present for my mother, about four months before she died. About three or four years before she died (that's just a time marker -- this story had nothing to do with her being sick -- in fact it happened when she was perfectly well) she suddenly couldn't find three items. A blue nightie, some black undies, and her family bible -- the one with all the ancestors' names in it. She looked everywhere. She couldn't figure out what could have happened to them. She asked everyone. It turned into a joke she made at her own expense.
Then one year I drew her name in the annual Christmas gift exchange (I've written about this before -- we used to, at the end of every Passover seder, draw names for the Christmas gift exchange) and I decided to give her a new nightie, some new undies, and a new bible. When I was in Atlanta, I went into a lingerie store and bought her a really beautiful pair of Ed Hardy designer cotton briefs, and I also found her a beautiful Hebrew bible, and a lovely blue nightie. She wore the nightie, she liked the bible, and by the time she got the undies she had some medical stuff going on that made it impractical for her to wear them. After she died, and I was going through her clothes, I took the Ed Hardy gatkes, and they are now my special gatkes. And now I have this other pair, also special, which basically means I will hand wash, and I won't wear when I have my period.
But I want to learn how to make special undies for everyday use -- because really, shouldn't I always feel good about myself if, as my grandmother used to say, I should get hit by a bus -- or in less of a disaster scenario, shouldn't I get to enjoy a glimpse of pretty summer flowers on my panties? So I'm going to learn how to make them, and I still want to learn how to make them out of old t-shirts too. And if you want to help me figure out how to do it, please come on over. (We can even put a bird on it.)
Friday, May 20, 2011
Two months ago, I wrote a blog post called I asked someone to mentor me, in which I wrote that I'd seen a Facebook status update by my favorite web series writer with a link to an article called Why We Must Mentor Other Women, and that after some consideration, I wrote to her to ask her if she would consider mentoring me on both the business and writing end as I write a web series I've been working on for a couple of months. I didn't want to name her without her permission, but now that we had a wonderful coffee date, I can tell you that it was Susan Miller -- multi-award-winning playwright, television writer, screenwriter and web series writer.
Susan's most prominent current project is Anyone But Me -- a web series about New York teens coming of age in a post 9/11 world. The main character is Vivian, an out lesbian NYC teenager who along with her firefighter father moves to Westchester, after his lungs got messed up on 9/11. When she moves out of the city, she is driven back into the closet, and the show follows her, her girlfriend, and her new community as she navigates the uncharted waters of being a gay city teen in the suburbs. It's good. Really good. (You can watch it if you follow the link I posted.)
So Susan wrote back to me and said yes, she'd be happy to meet with me. In the time before we had our date, I watched interviews she'd given, and in one of them (or maybe it was an acceptance speech?) she talked about how she and her current writing/producer partner, Tina Cesa Ward, met, which was simply that Tina cold-called Susan, and Susan answered her phone. In the anecdote, Susan advises the audience not to screen calls -- to be a person who actually picks up the phone, and I remember thinking, What good advice. I remember the days I eagerly awaited phone calls. Now I screen them relentlessly, afraid of what might push in on my overly-scheduled day. This calls up the mide (middah) of Righteousness: What is hateful to you, do not to do others, as well as the hokey metaphysical Law of Attraction, and makes me think that if I want people to answer my calls, I better start answering theirs.
And so it seems that before I even met her, Susan had become my mentor. And then we met, and it just got better (as Dan Savage said it would.) She was incredibly generous with her wide range of knowledge, and answered my questions about the business end of producing a web series (ads, sponsorship, budget, how does the writer get paid?) as well as the writing end (structure, structure, structure.) She made it incredibly easy to practice humility: seek wisdom from everyone, by being relaxed and open, but also genuinely interested in me and what I'm up to. Plus, she is a warm, smart, funny, kind person -- and so web series writing aside, I just plain enjoyed her company.
I came away from the meeting encouraged and invigorated to get on with my project -- as well as empowered with good, clear information and a growing network of support. I also came away more committed to offering my own knowledge, skills, and expertise to others when asked. What about you -- are you in a position to offer the same?
Thursday, May 19, 2011
And it turns out that somehow I've never even seen it from the outside! How is that possible? I've been coming to New York on a regular basis since 1993, and I've been living here since 2002. I've been to the Met. I've been to the Jewish Museum. Presumably I've walked right past the Guggenheim, and what? Didn't notice it? Again, how is that possible??
Well anyhow, thanks to Groupon, I finally went. And I think it's my favorite museum I've ever been in, with the possible exception of the smallest film museum in the world, which is in the south of Sweden, which now that I think about it, I just peered at from the outside so that doesn't count, and even if it did, it really doesn't compare to the Guggenheim anyhow.
I went in without knowing anything really, so the fact that you get to walk up a gently ascending interior spiral while viewing all of the art was a delightful surprise to me. I expected the interior of the Guggenheim to be huge -- with a bunch of rooms and separate galleries. (Only one gallery was open when I was there -- the others seemed to have work being installed in them.) I didn't expect it to be so compact (and yet spacious) and I didn't expect it to be so centralized (and yet decentralized.) I guess I just didn't expect to like it so much.
I can't actually think of a time I've enjoyed being in a museum -- any museum -- as much as I enjoyed being in the Guggenheim. Usually I get tired, or overwhelmed, or lost, or my feet get tired, or I feel like I should want to see more. But at the Guggenheim, you just keep walking. And if you want to stop and spend a lot of time with a painting, you do -- and if you want to keep walking, you just keep walking. There aren't irretrievable choices -- doors you go in that might lead you out to completely other parts of the museum. You just go up ... or down. And occasionally you go in, but then you come back out the same way you went in, and you get to go up or down again. It's brilliant. My feet didn't even get tired.
The show that's up right now is called The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918. It's full of paintings by Chagall, Kandinsky, Marc, Picasso, Delauney. I'm not even much of an art historian, and I felt like I was in the company of old friends. I particularly love Chagall, and I saw two of his paintings I'd only ever seen before in reproductions: The Soldier Drinks, and The Flying Carriage. I walked right up to them and looked at the brushstrokes. There was so much sense of space in the museum that I could do that without being in someone else's way, and I did it again when I came upon something by Van Gogh, whose up-close brush strokes are incredibly moving to me.
So what's this all about? I think it's about Diligence: Always find something to do. Here I live in this vibrant cultural center, and after almost 20 years of spending time here, I have never been to the Guggenheim Museum. Now, it's not like I sit around all day watching Survivor (actually, I have never watched Survivor. Shit, does that mean that now I have to?) but I think I could be more diligent about discovering New York. I should ask all the New Yorkers I know to make me a list of their favorite things to do here, and I should check to see if I've ever done them. I know some things I've never done: I've never gone to the Bronx Zoo, or to City Island, or to Roosevelt Island. I've never eaten street meat, or gone into FAO Schwarz, or swum in the Hudson (but I have plans to quite soon!) I'll make you a deal. For every idea that you give me that I've never done, I will 1) do it and publicly thank you for the idea, and 2) the day I do your thing, I will not complain about the things that usually make me complain about New York. Deal?
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
It's a little thing, but once a month I get a snobby burger somewhere I've never been before. Snobby = organic, grass fed, free range, antibiotic free, lovingly read Goodnight Moon every night. In other words, it's not snobby; I am.
This month I planned my outing for after a running session, so I would be good and hungry. And I invited both Mich and Josh to join me at Lot 2, a snooty little locavore joint only about 10 blocks from my apartment. The burger is fabled to be one of the best around, served with duck fat fries and house-made pickles.
To cut to the chase, it has now either moved into first place (surpassing Flatbush Farm) or it's in a close second. It's been so long since I had the burger at Flatbush Farm that I'll have to go back soon for comparison's sake....
What I really liked though was that because there were three of us, and we also wanted some gorgeous salads they had to offer, we ended up splitting three burgers two ways. Actually, Josh and I ended up splitting one, and Mich and Josh ended up splitting the other, so I ended up with one half, which turns out to be a perfect amount of burger for me. I'll be splitting from now on.
Which is, if you expand your definition of frugality to include all resources and not just money, interesting from an ethics perspective. Why consume more than I need to, if I have the option to consume the right amount? After all, a hamburger was once part of a cow, so why would I want to waste any part of it? Especially such a lovingly-raised, highly literate cow!
I once read an interview with the Dalai Lama in which he came out as an omnivore -- who eats hamburgers! He said that he would rather eat part of a cow -- one sentient being that can feed many people, rather than eat a plate full of shrimp (that was the example he gave) -- which he saw as a plate full of many sentient beings. I loved the interview, partly because it was so surprising, and also because it led me to understand that everyone gets to choose their own morality -- as long as it's founded in a deep personal ethics, and doesn't impinge upon someone else's freedoms.
Me? I was a vegetarian for 12 years, and while it made perfect sense for me politically, it wasn't right for me physically. Me cholesterol was high because I ate too much cheese and ice cream, I was super anemic, and I was generally not in balance. Now mostly I eat lots of veggies and rice and fish and turkey and tofu, and once a month I eat a burger. And if you want to join me next month, I'll split it with you.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
When we formed, we decided that Alissa would start out leading it, because she's a bona fide rabbi, and she had more Mussar experience than any of us in the group. But we also said from the start that we would eventually move to a model of shared facilitation. Which we finally did, just a few weeks ago.
I noticed that I hesitated to volunteer to facilitate for the first couple of weeks, and was relieved to let other people do it. I wasn't sure why, exactly -- since I have facilitated hundreds (if not thousands) of meetings in my life. Also, we have a fairly set structure to our group, so it's not like I would be pushed to come up with innovative new ways to explore Mussar. I think it's indicative of a way that I've pulled back my public performative persona since coming to NYC. I haven't performed since living here, and I don't do trainings any more, which is also quite performative. It's not that I'm afraid -- I think if I had a show to do tomorrow, I would jump right in with probably greater confidence than I had ten years ago. I think it's more that I've come to prefer to think more and talk less, and that's led me off the stage and into the wings.
Which I think has been a good thing for me. Instead of throwing myself into situations where I have to sink or swim, I've had a lot more time to reflect and choose (which I've had less life practice at than sinking or swimming.) Still, if I'm honest, when I noticed that I had any hesitation to step up and do something as simple as facilitate our Mussar group, I was a little concerned that the pendulum might have swung too far in the other direction.
I don't think there's anything to be concerned about. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of preparing, choosing a text on this coming week's mide (middah): Frugality: Be careful with your money, and leading the group. Again, this is a simple group to lead -- we check in about our practice (did you journal? did you check in with your partner? did you practice your daily ritual?) and then we spend the bulk of our time checking in about anything that came up for us during our week of practice -- anything we'd like the group's help with. (Last week's practice was on Righteousness: What is hateful to you, do not to do others.) Then we do a text study to help prepare us for the coming week, and then we close.
In case you would like to practice frugality with us this week, here are some things to think about. "Be careful with your money" doesn't necessarily mean "spend less." I might suggest changing the word "careful" to "thoughtful" -- and spending some time considering your own relationship to money, and what would be meaningful to you. Were you raised to soothe feelings by buying things? Then maybe you should spend a week facing your feelings in a different way. Were you raised without enough money for the basic necessities? Then maybe your path is to be thoughtful about the ways you could use money for sheer enjoyment of life. Do you have a hard time saving? Try writing down everything you spend money on this week, so you can have an honest accounting of how much you spend and on what. Actually -- that's a good practice for anyone. Do you have a plan for your long-term financial well-being? Do you give money to causes you care about? Do you tip well? If you employ people -- in or out of the home -- do you pay them fairly? Are you paid fairly for your work? Do you harbor any shame or other feelings about your class background that prevents you from speaking honestly about your life? This is such a rich topic, with plenty to reflect upon.
Finally, think about developing a practice around money that you can take with you all day, every day. Maybe you want to give money to people every time you are asked. Maybe you want to write down everything you spend. Maybe you want to stop using credit cards and only use cash. Maybe you want to offer to pay for your friends all week long. Maybe you want to ask for a raise if you need one. Maybe you want to always be honest when asked how much you earn. And then -- as always -- reflect, reflect, reflect. How does this feel? When do you fail to keep up your practice? What's going on for you in those instances?
If you feel comfortable doing this, please write your practice in the comments here -- and we can all support each other to become more thoughtful about money. Mine is dual: I am going to give a gift every day, and I am going to look for new work every day until I get enough to meet my NYC expenses without dipping into savings.
Monday, May 16, 2011
I love macarons -- have loved them since before the macaron craze, but the craze hasn't put me off one bit -- the more places to buy wonderful French macarons, the better. It didn't occur to me that I could just make them until a little over a year ago, at a community passover seder, when Mich brought a beautiful batch. I had noticed her during the ceremony part of the seder, because she said something that felt wise and integrated -- integrated between her self that had clearly had a traditional Jewish education and her thoughtful community self. I made a mental note to go meet her during the potluck portion of the seder. When we got to the potluck, I took a macaron, not knowing who had made it, and was blown away. So delicious, so perfect, so ... French! I asked around to find out who made them, and it turned out to be Mich. I went over to talk with her, and we've pretty much been friends ever since.
The first plan we ever made together was for her to teach me how to make French macarons. It's also the plan we've made together that's taken the longest to execute (over a year.) But when we finally landed on May 15 as a possibility, I thought it was perfect, because it is my mom's (would have been) 81st birthday, and she would have loved to be here and bake with us. Also, it just happened to land on a day that Abigail could also be with us, as well as Mich's good friend V.
My mom would have adored Mich and Abigail (and my friendship with them) -- which is something I thought about a lot while we were baking. My mom had close cross-generational friendships. It wasn't something she necessarily named as such; it just came naturally to her to want to spend time with the people she liked the best, regardless of their age. She was naturally attuned to Righteousness: What is hateful to you, do not do to others -- and she found age discrimination particularly hateful. As we spent hours together making meringue and french butter cream (make a sugar syrup, blend it with beaten eggs until it cools to room temperature, and then add an entire pound of butter, chunk by chunk, until the whole thing breaks down and looks separated and wrong, and then suddenly it all comes together into a thick butter creamy spread, which we then flavored in five batches: chocolate hazelnut, vanilla, caramel, lingonberry, and coconut) and wandering away from each other to read sections of the New York Times, and wandering back again to assemble macarons, I noticed how much I love these two women, and how I hope and expect I'll be close with them forever, how I rarely think about our 15-20 year age differences. I get it, Mom.
So the macarons came out of the oven, and we let them cool, and we filled one with chocolate hazelnut butter cream, and we shared it, and it tasted so ... Jewish. Not like a French macaron at all, but like a chewy, toothy Jewish meringue macaroon. I was disappointed -- I didn't like how it tasted, and I didn't remember Mich's first batch tasting like this. We passed it around for a second bite, and none of us liked it as much as we like the ones from Bouchon or Madeleine (and we were even using the Bouchon recipe.) As we tried to figure out what went wrong (did we make them too big? Was it the humidity in the air?) someone suggested that perhaps the problem was that we were self-hating, to love the French macaron more than the Jewish macaron. To which I say, "Pas vrai. C'est seulement que les macarons francais sont meilleurs!"
But the French macarons shouldn't get too righteous about it.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
When I woke up, eight weeks into training for the triathlon, I had two bikes in the hallway, and neither of them was right for the race. Mine is a wonderful little folding bike with only 7 gears -- great for commuting, but definitely not for racing. The other is a loaner from Mich (making her third appearance in as many days in this blog, and keep reading tomorrow, when she will makes it four out of four) that she'll be taking away for the summer.
When I went to sleep, I had three bikes in the hallway, none of which would work for the triathlon, and a yet fourth on loan which looks like it will. It takes a village to complete the biking portion of a triathlon.
About two weeks ago, after much measuring and remeasuring and discussion and rediscussion, Kara shipped her gorgeous Bianchi Eros across the country for me. I had it sent to 718 Cyclery to get it built up, because I like the owner, Joe, and the low-key, personalized philosophy of his shop. I had to wait a couple weeks to get an appointment with him, because he is a full-time architect in the city and owns and runs a bike store on the side, (oh, what people won't do to follow their passion) but the wait was worth it. When I got there, he had already assembled the bike, and was ready to adjust to my size. Only there was a hitch. We couldn't adjust the bike, which has 650 wheels (which are smaller than the wheels you are used to seeing, and thus also the frame is smaller) to the dimensions I need. There's some crucial magic triangle in bike fitting, involving the seat height, the length from the seat to the handlebars, and the relative height of the seat to the handlebars. We could get two of the three measurements right, but we couldn't get all three. Kind of like adjusting the spaghetti and the sauce and the parmesan cheese -- you add some sauce, and then you don't have enough spaghetti, and then you add spaghetti and you need more cheese. Only harder and greasier.
So we got it as good as we could get it, but not as good as we wanted, and then Joe suggested I just go out and ride and see how it works. Because the numbers on the paper aren't as good an indicator as just hopping on and seeing how it feels. So I went out, and within seconds I knew this was not a good fit. But I rode it for a while -- into the park, around the loop, and up a hill -- before going back to the shop and breaking the bad news. Everything hurts. My neck, my mid back, my lower back. Also, the bike was hard to handle, and I had a hard time working the brakes and the gears from the main hand position on the handlebars.
Joe sort of nodded. I think he had already known. He used a great word -- said that 650 wheels are twitchy -- meaning that you feel every bump and every pothole, and that every little turn of the handlebars makes a significant steering adjustment. I'm not sure why my little bike with even smaller wheels isn't twitchy, but he was right about this one. But there was really nothing we could do, so he suggested I take it and ride it, and that I could come back as often as I need to make adjustments to try to make it work. As I was leaving the store, he once again admired the beauty of the bike and its components, and wished me luck.
I came home, feeling defeated, and just wanted to literally crawl into bed. But instead I finished some work on a screenplay treatment that I was massively overdue to work on (sorry partner!) and decided to go back out and ride the little bike. Josh and I decided to combine that with looking at a house for sale near some friends of ours, so we took a ride into the park and down to the other side, and past this house, and then decided to see if our friends were home and wanted a visit. Well, I only knew one half of the couple, so they weren't both our friends yet, but they were home and told us to drop by.
You know when you really, really, really like one half of a couple and you hope you'll like the other half even half as much? I couldn't have told you before we went over, but that was going on for me. I have known D for 10 years -- we occasionally work together, and I love it when we do. He's funny and warm and sees the big picture of even the smallest things and a couple of weeks ago reduced my personality in the most perceptive way anyone has ever tried to reduce my personality. (Something along the lines of, One minute we're working through a task list, then we're taking a mental break to go off on a tangent, and the next thing you know we're back to Type A again.) It turns out that P is quite different from D, and equally (yet uniquely) wonderful. And I'm not just saying that because she offered to lend me her bike for my triathlon. Say what? She is going to lend me her bike for not only my triathlon, but for the training. She's going to give me a key to her house, and let me come and take it on training rides, and then use it for the race. This, after knowing me for 45 minutes.
She let me try it out, with its fancy clippy shoes, and it felt great. After all that fitting and measuring and shipping and building and more fitting and riding and feeling despondent on the couch and getting my ass off the couch, I randomly showed up at someone's house who offered to lend me a bike that seems to fit me perfectly. Both the coincidence and the generosity are a little hard to come to terms with, but I'm just trying to take it in the spirit of this week's mide (middah): Righteousness: What is hateful to you do not do to others, or put another way, treat others the way you wish to be treated. Believe me, I am already thinking of ways to repay her, hopefully in ways that will enrich her life as much as her offering will enrich mine.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
I had a long day. Meetings, meetings, setting up meetings. Editing, writing, reading. Sore tooth, sore lungs, fragile soul.
And amidst all that, I managed to make it to my acupuncture session. I was 15 minutes late, but I made it. I'm never sure which practitioner I'm going to get (it's a community acupuncture practice so I get seen by whichever of five practitioners is there when I had time in my schedule) and I've had excellent experiences with everyone there, with one slight caveat. I say slight, because the person who I found to be a little rough with the needles has a brilliant, funny, open, exuberant personality that I find incredibly refreshing in the solemnity of eastern medicine. She was there.
I told her what's going on with my lungs, and I told her I feel embarrassed and fragile about it, but also that whatever's going on, I seem to be ready to deal with it. I told her I had noticed that after they took my pulses, that they always ask me how my lungs are, and that I don't know why I always minimized how they really felt. So she took my pulses, and she said that yes, they're weak (the pulses, not the lungs -- but maybe both?)
When she started putting needles in, the first couple were OK, and then one of them hurt a lot -- in a deep and unsettling way. She took it right out, but I was shaken. She was careful as she proceeded, and then asked if she could put needles on these spots on my shoulders where I've had them before. I didn't see why not, and she explained something to me about what they were for, but since she was also making paper sounds from unwrapping the needle, I didn't hear what she said. I often don't hear what people say (I've had hearing loss since I was born) and so I just figured I'd ask later.
But when she put the needle in my left shoulder, about ten things happened at once. My muscle seized around it, something felt like it broke open up and down my back, and I started to shake and cry. I knew that was OK -- good even -- but I was also two feet away from another patient who was in the lie-there-and-relax phase of her treatment. My practitioner told me not to worry about the other woman. I tried not to, but I couldn't completely not worry about her. I mean, my body was ready for a full-on sob. You know, the kind that makes a lot of noise. Plus, I was gasping for breath, so I'm sure I sounded loud, upset, and unable to breathe. If that was happening 2 feet from me, I think I would have trouble relaxing.
I struggled with it the whole time, wondering if I should really do what my practitioner was saying and just not worry about the other person, and just let it all out. But the Mussar practice encourages us to balance my needs against (my perception of) the needs of another, and so I let my body do what it needed to, but as quietly as possible.
I stayed in an emotionally and physically tenuous place the rest of the day, but I also had a lot of work to get done. So again, I played a balancing game between my needs and the needs of others. If I could have, I would have just gone to sleep in the afternoon, but instead I bundled up in fleece, and cranked through work, until it was time to go to a lovely picnic in the park with Mich and friends.
Mich had promised to bring home a peak flow meter, to measure my ability to blow out air, to help determine what might be happening in my lungs. She also had an Albuterol inhaler for me to try. We joked about doing the peak flow as a party game, but in the end, we waited til we got back to her apartment and did it in private. She had me try the peak flow three times, and the highest of the three times, I scored (I know, I know, it's not a competition) 350 on this chart, which says that 410 would be "normal" for my height and age. 350 is 83% of normal, which according to another chart, tells me that if I do in fact have asthma, it is not in any sort of danger zone.
Then I tried using the inhaler, which reminded me a lot of inhaling helium at Emily's party a couple weeks ago, except that it didn't make my voice sound funny, and I forgot to say the Shehekianu after the Albuterol. But really, after a lifetime of not inhaling any gasses (other than New York City environmental gasses, which might be what got me into this mess in the first place) into my lungs, I've recently inhaled two -- and neither of them were as freaky as I thought they might be. With the inhaler, I didn't notice an earth shattering difference, but I did notice that my chest loosened up and relaxed a little. It wasn't a magic cure, but it was something, and it was a great comfort to try it out under Mich's knowledgeable eye.
I don't know what Big Path I've started down, but as long as I've started inhaling things, I think I should catch up with the (15 years ago) times, and go to an oxygen bar. Or Vermont. Let me know if you want to come.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Never Done: I realized I probably have asthma
But, it's not something I want to write about publicly, so I am going to write about something else entirely, that has actually been unfolding for months, and then revealed itself this week.
I have been having trouble breathing. Tuesday night, I had a particularly hard practice (running hills again) and I ended up really gasping for breath. I assumed it was because running hills is hard, and went home for dinner, and ended up coughing and coughing and coughing. Then the next morning I woke up super dizzy and still had trouble breathing. I mentioned it to Mich (who is a nurse practitioner) that night, and she asked me some questions about when it happens and what triggers it and what else happens along with it. Everything I said, she was just nodding her head. "What?" I asked. "It sounds like exercise induced asthma."
Whoa. My mind threw a lot of arguments back at her. I don't have trouble breathing. My lungs aren't weak. Running hills is hard. And then before I knew it, my mind rearranged my past 10 years with this new possibility, and suddenly the nights I would wake up desperately gasping for air, and the times I would be out of breath at the top of the subway stairs, and the times I would tell people I just don't run up hills, and the times I had panic attacks (mostly in the months leading up to both parents' deaths) that left me unable to breath, and the way I cough and cough after laughing, and the way my lungs hurt when I take a deep breath -- this all fell into place. They aren't just anomalies that I should soldier through. They are actually uncomfortable, sometimes terrifying, and I actually have had trouble breathing for years now. I just didn't notice.
How could I not notice? In, out, in, out, in, out, in, out. It's happening constantly, and sometimes with great difficulty. Over the past 8 weeks, when my lungs have actually been hurting pretty steadily, my acupuncturist has asked me repeatedly how they are. Instead of saying, Well actually, they hurt, and I'm having trouble breathing, I've said, They're strong. Isn't denial astonishing?
And isn't the pulling off of the veil equally so? Because since Mich suggested the possibility of asthma, I feel like a textbook case (as described on WebMD):
Coughing, especially at night
Shortness of breath
Chest tightness, pain, or pressure
I don't want to say I feel stupid, but I feel ... well, isn't denial astonishing?
And might I venture, isn't denial less than ethical? Because if ethics are about caring for ourselves as well as we care for others, it's disheartening to think about how long I've been neglecting to take care of myself. Neglecting to even mention any of this to anyone. Explaining away dozens of perfectly clear full-blown attacks (anxiety, bad dream, dust got caught in my throat and somehow closed down my airways.) On the other hand, the wonderful thing about an ethical practice is that every day brings a new chance to act in a new way. And so I have, and so I will. I brought it up with someone I trust. She gave me good information. Now I will face the embarrassment of admitting to my doctor that this has been going on for years without my mentioning it. And hopefully she'll choose an ethical path, and she'll engage with me and treat me without making me feel, well I don't way to say stupid, but ...
Thursday, May 12, 2011
One of the most common "compliments" I receive on this blog is that I am not rigid about doing something new every day -- like, sometimes I just write about having seen a new movie, or play.
This makes me just a teeny bit defensive. It makes me want to say things like, "Have you tried doing something new every day for a year? And writing about it? It's actually hard!" And while it's true that I love movies and plays, and it's true that it's easier to see one in New York than it is to go hot air ballooning (for which I bought a Groupon, and which I will be doing sometime, probably in the late summer/early Fall) it's still a choice. In fact, it took quite a negotiation to get the time free to see Bill Cunningham New York -- I even had to cancel another plan that Josh and I had already made. So I want to say all those things, but I usually just keep those thoughts to myself, because -- really? I'm going to complain about my own ambitious life project? That doesn't make any sense. And if I feel like I'm not getting enough credit for my own ambitious life project that is based in a reflective process about how to be a good person, then it seems like I might should go reflect upon why I need credit.
So it was with all this chatter going on in my head that I went to see Bill Cunningham New York, and let me tell you, the chatter had completely subsided by the time I emerged, wiping the tears from my eyes. The man is a genius with a highly evolved personal ethics. (For those of you who don't know, Bill Cunningham is the photographer who takes photographs of street fashion for the New York Times.) Born in 1929 in Boston (the same year and place my mother was born) he still talks with a delicious Boston accent, which somehow fits his beaming boyish smile. Bill rides his bike around New York City looking for trends in beauty. His relentless pursuit of beauty is -- I'm sorry if this sounds trite -- inspirational. I left the film committed to wearing something other than my jeans, committed to actually wearing the hats in my great hat collection, committed to finding shirts to go with my fun skirts, and to adding color to the world instead of blending.
Bill himself wears the same thing every day. A simple blue smock that French sanitation workers wear. He's frugal in every way -- rides a bike, eats simply, dresses simply, lives simply. He made a decision very early in his career that he would not accept even a glass of water from the society events he attends, because he has never wanted anyone to own him. And it would appear that nobody does, because he appears to be genuinely happy with his life and his pursuit, which seem to be fairly interchangeable.
There are things I could tell you about what is revealed about him in the film, but I think I'd be doing a disservice. I think you should actually go see this film if you get the chance, and if you want to be inspired to look, to really look, at what's around you, including how deeply you are engaging with your own life, pursuit of happiness, and appreciation of beauty.
And, if you're like me, and you need to examine your own motives for creating art, you could receive no better guidance than from Bill Cunningham.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
I've only been to New Orleans once, with my wonderful friend Ellen, for (as I recall) about 24 hours. 24 hours is long enough to eat really good gumbo, and to fall in love with the second-floor terraces. That's pretty much all I remember from our time together, except for the emotional content of what was happening there, which was high (not between me and Ellen -- in fact, I think that the calm emotional content of what was going on between me and Ellen helped the high emotional content of what else was going on.)
It was before Katrina. Just before. I had been wanting to go to NOLA for years, and after seeing it for such a short bit, I have wanted to go back since. And now I feel like I have.
Before Kathleen and I went to Germany, I downloaded some TV series, in case we had flight delays, or even if we just needed some TV down time. Then it didn't all fit on my computer (running out of disk space) so I chose one thing, and brought it: Treme. I'd heard mixed reviews, but I wanted to watch it because I'd heard it was one of the best musical TV shows ever created, and because I'd heard that it did not shy away from race issues.
I've now watched the entire first season. Music? Check. Race? Check. Oh, and so much more that this white northerner knew nothing -- I'm saying nothing -- about. Mardi Gras Indians, people being shut out of perfectly liveable homes after Katrina, and just details. Details about what it meant to live in NOLA after the flood. Like blocked gas lines, and lost instruments, and tiny acts of desperation.
I usually think of film as the medium that helps me learn about the history and culture of the broader world that's outside my purview, but these 10 episodes were just as informative as any PBS documentary, and more entertaining than some. (I am NOT dissing PBS documentaries here. I love PBS documentaries. I hope to someday make a PBS documentary. I am just saying that some cable television is as closely observed as a good documentary film, and sometimes more entertaining.)
I wonder if I observe anything in my world(s) as closely as Overmyer and Simon observed New Orleans. If I look around right now, what details in my environment would I pick to describe something significant about me? A running bra on the coffee table next to the New York Times, a ChiRunning video, and some Tintin comic books I meant to send to a young friend two days ago. A water bottle next to the orchid I am housesitting for my landlord. Props from the immigrant rights/environmentalism video shoot still on the floor in the living room, but I don't know what that would mean to someone looking without context (although the matching WWW.IMAGINE2050.NET on the mantle might help with context.) A custom-made grass green and cow-fabric hoola hoop against the fireplace and old dried-up plants in the fireplace. 14 plastic boxes of papers on shelves all around my desk and stacks of video tape on my desk. An unfinished knitting project that I meant to finish for my friend's birthday back in March. Probably the most misleading of all: six bottles of booze on the shelf next to the television (misleading because it's been out and untouched since the Oscars party in February, not out because it's in constant use.) Play-Doh, Twister, Banagrams. A sheepskin rug. A paper cut-out of a menorah on the window.
Does it add up? Does it say rural New Englander living in Brooklyn? Writer-filmmaker-aspiring triathlete? Order-freak who lives in a too-small space? Busy, fun-loving radical Jew? What if I would look further -- into the pantry area full of empty Ball canning jars -- would you know I started a Soup Swap? Of course not, but that detail could be revealed in episode three of the first season. If you closely observe your space, does it fit your image of yourself? Do you feel like a stranger in a strange apartment? I feel a little of both, and I think my next move will be to meditate on the mide (middah) of Order: All actions and possessions shall have a set place and time, and see what I need to remove from and bring into my living space, to make me feel like I am acting in a premium cable television show about the life I want to be living.