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Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Photo by Steve Stone.

To relax on the weekends, my boyfriend Mark and I have become vegetables watching animals. The television shows we enjoy feature exotic fish, hippy scientists stalking poisonous serpents, and the secret lives of dangerous beasts (lions, tigers, cheetahs and the occasional water buffalo).

Never are we offered the secret lives of antelopes or three-toed sloths. Antelopes and three-toed sloths make for non-violent programming, and that’s not entertainment. Someone always has to die. I reflect on the numbing effect that tv has, compared to how shocking its content is. It’s like drinking a rum and coke, the upper and downer canceling each other out.

By the time the hippy scientist makes his appearance, I am on speaking terms with the tv. ‘Just put the snake down and walk away’, I say. ‘Put the snake down.’

I imagine a handful of snakes slithering around in the brush, each taking its turn to be held by the tail and dangled in mid-air. The hippy scientist takes photographs, twirls the specimen around, and talks excitedly about how poisonous the snake is, before finally setting it free. Just moments later, it finds itself upside down again, dangled by the next hippy scientist crashing through the rainforest.

When does the snake have the time to gobble up its victims, I wonder. When does it have time to stalk its prey, launch itself in mid-air, wrestle its victim, expand its jaws and digest? When is does it have time to simply be a snake?

All this I contemplate from the comfort of the couch. The watery rattle of the radiator tells me the heat is on. It is February, and a slushy snow remains on the ground outside. I count the hours left to Sunday before it’s Monday again, and the whole, frenzied week repeats itself. Another weekend has come and gone. Life creeps forward, so far, without bloodshed.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Strangers on a Train

Photo by Eye2eye.

This afternoon I stood in the open air of the Smith and 9th Street station, waiting for the F train. It's only eight miles between Greenpoint and Park Slope, Brooklyn, but today's commute took a good hour and a half. Across the way, the platform was littered with people headed toward the city. We looked at each other sullenly across four rows of train tracks.

Ten feet away, navy windbreaker guy was talking with visiting friends or relatives. His audience was obviously from another place, because they talked loudly and wore colorful clothes. Navy windbreaker guy kept whirling about on one leg, stopping to check me out, then whirling again. I pretended to be engrossed in my magazine.

Just moments earlier, I’d been lost in thought on the G train. The train had jerked to a stop, and I was startled to find myself staring at the crotch of navy windbreaker guy. This sent me thinking about the differences between men and women: when a woman looks at a man, it means something, but when a man says ‘I’ll call you’ it means nothing.

This afternoon, I wanted to turn to the twirling man and swap roles. I wanted to wave and say: ‘Hey. I’ll call you. Really.’ But the train came round the bend at that moment, its orange sign cutting through the grey afternoon. I felt a surge of hope and forgot what I was thinking. We took to boarding the train - the twirling man, his visiting friends and I - and the moment was lost.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Confessions of a TV Junkie

Photo by Pvera.

Lately, the stress at work has driven me to eat vast quantities of chocolate during the day. Many nights, I find myself parked in front of the television. The lights are off, the sound cranked up. I’ve taken to watching emotionally charged shows, and my current drug of choice is 'Homicide'. I am officially addicted.

Sometimes I watch three episodes of Homicide in a row, fast forwarding through the commercial breaks. By the end, it is late, and I am wrung dry. The day is left behind. The stuff that’s due tomorrow has been replaced with crime, Baltimore, and the benign ring of the squad room telephone.

Watching tv is so much easier than writing. Instead of trying to figure out a subject, I am swept away by each episode. I am infatuated with the characters. The homicide detectives pursue Truth with passion and tenacity. Each is burdened with his or her personal turmoil. Each deals with death and danger every day at the job. It puts my life in perspective.

I’ve discovered that other shows I love share similar traits. I went through an addiction to 'Top Chef', for instance. It was weeks into the Second Season, before I could emotionally detach myself from the contestants of the first. Chefs are like homicide detectives. They are intense. They live in the moment and obey their instincts. They have an inherent sense of right and wrong.

There are only 122 episodes of Homicide, after seven seasons on the air. At present, there is no end to Top Chef. It is inevitable, though, that I will exhaust these escape mechanisms. The writer part of me hopes this happens soon. I’m hoping that watching people pursue their passions will bore me, or awaken my own desire. Writing is nothing like murder, but under the right conditions, it can feel like life and death.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Photo by Bluewave.

A fellow at my workplace greeted me the other day.

‘What’s that?’ His forefinger tapped my right cheekbone.

‘What? What do you mean?’

His blue eyes stared down at me, unblinking, coming close to my face. I held my breath.

‘It’s a rough patch, the color of pre-cancerous skin.’

I suppose this was a gesture of care on his part, but it was Monday and not yet noon.

‘You should get that checked out’. The eyeball withdrew and its owner patted me sympathetically on the head.

I was doomed.


Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Endless Summer

Photo by Sixtyeightfeet.

Tonight I watched Charlie Rose interview Norman Mailer.

Mailer is eighty-something years old. He sat back in his chair wearing a half-smile, his ears sticking widely out from his head. He needed a haircut. He talked at length about writing and his life, emphasizing select phrases with a raised hand.

I wrote a paper on Mailer’s Executioner's Song for English class, back in high school. Much of my semester grade depended on the paper, and because of that, and because I was young, I chose to write about the longest book I could find. Then I kept putting it off and it wasn't until a week before it was due that I finally started reading the book.

Mailer’s novel is over a thousand pages long. It's about a man named Gary Gilmore and what was going on in his head during and after the murders he committed. The story just kept going on in painful detail about things I didn’t find interesting. Egad.

I was expecting to be mesmerized by the psychology of this killer, but the narrative wore my patience down to a nub. I skimmed through, trying to make the deadline, trying to get a general idea of what the book was about.

For several nights, I sat on the floor of my bedroom closet, wrapped in a blanket with the overhead light on. I took Sudafed to keep myself awake. I churned out a poorly written paper about how poorly I felt Mailer’s book was written. Fortunately, my English teacher was merciful.

Tonight I surprised myself by hanging onto every word Mailer had to say. Here was this man who was saying he might have another three years of good writing left. Here was this man plotting the three next years of his life, how he would spend them, and which story he would tell. It will probably be the last major story he will ever tell. I thought Mailer was brave to speak about such things. It was as if he were planning his own funeral, and it was going to be a gigantic party.

Why was I so interested in what this man had to say, when I so disliked what he’d written? I suppose because he’s been through a lot. He’s lived life. He’s written books. People spend money to buy his books, wanting to read what he has to say.

Mailer’s enthusiasm tonight was infectious. It’s hard to explain what I felt, listening to him. I was fixated. It was like being a kid and sitting up late, soaking up the stories the camp counselors had from past. The crazy car ride at night. The near escape. The overturned boat. The jubilant, ecstatic summer that no one thought would ever end.


Tuesday, February 6, 2007


Photo of the New York skyline by Edward Sudentas.

Like many New Yorkers, I hate crowds. On the other hand, I’m lost when I’m alone. When I find myself in a deserted place, tiny pinpricks run up my arms. My hands turn clammy and my breathing runs shallow. Shadowy corners swarm with potential attackers, even during the daylight hours.

I imagine myself cast as the innocent gazelle, chewing on a mouthful of grass. As I lift my head, my long ears twitch compulsively. I survey the landscape in 360 degrees, but I see nothing and I am calm. The camera holds on me for a beat before panning to the leopard hidden in the nearby grasses.

I fear ignorance the most. I’d rather be overly alert for danger, because then I’d be halfway prepared. I place myself in the middle of the herd rather than on the periphery, because when you’re alone, there are no witnesses.

For that reason, I find Riverside Drive terrifying. The Upper West Side, however, isn’t known to be dangerous. It’s idyllic. It’s remote enough that tourists don’t bother, but convenient enough to be extremely desirable. The cost per square foot for real estate is higher on the Upper West Side than any other neighborhood in Manhattan. It’s a wonderful place to live.

During the years I spent living in the area, I never heard of anything bad happening. I lived on a historic block where every townhouse was painted a different color – yellow ochre, brick red, charcoal, sage green. Movie crews routinely blocked off the street. On weekends, I took long aimless walks, admiring the mix of old townhouses and apartment buildings.

At night, Riverside Drive is deserted, but for lone figures walking their dogs. One side of the street looks out at the park, the West Side Highway and the water beyond. You can’t help but know that you’re on the edge of something very big.

Walking along, my ears would be attuned to everything. My mind would swarm with thoughts. ‘Is this my last breath?’ I’d ask myself. ‘Is this it? Is this it?’ I'd prepare myself for the ambush. I'd imagine a brief and violent struggle, followed by silence. I would vanish from humanity and the world would just go on.

Rationally I know the chance of such a thing happening is remote. As a New Yorker, I know that if you look like you know what you’re doing and you’re careful, it isn’t so a scary a place. It’s the mind of the New Yorker that is truly frightening. The mind can transform the mundane into a world that is fantastic and danger-filled.

I first saw the scary part of my mind during a visit to my parents a couple years ago. They live in the mountains, about an hour outside downtown Los Angeles. None of their neighbors own cats or small dogs, since rattlesnakes live in the brush. Hummingbirds appear at dusk to defend their territory. At night, startled coyotes howl when the lights are turned on. Their mad yipping and yapping sounds are other worldly and wild.

During the visit, a violent storm passed through. It was the season for the Santa Ana winds, and outside, the trees were battering themselves against the house. I sat in my bedroom, waiting for it to pass. Suddenly, the lights went out. We’d lost power.

The first thing I did, being the resourceful city person I am, was to run downstairs and make sure the front door was locked. It was common sense, after all, to protect oneself against the masses of crazy people outside, trying to break in.

Later on, I thought about what happened with much embarrassment. I told my parents about my fears, and they could not relate to me. They were used to living in a big house, where you could be in the bedroom and have no idea what was happening on the floor below. They were used to living with the closest neighbors several hundred feet away.

In contrast, I like my apartment because it feels like an extension of my body. It’s not large enough to creak on its own. There are no mysterious shadowy corners. I feel safe because I can see everything all the time. I know there are people across the hall and people above and below me. I might scream and they might not do anything about it, but at least I’ll be heard.

My fears come with me, wherever I go. I find the California mountains are too quiet. The city is too overwhelming. I didn’t used to be so paranoid, and there’s little reason to be so fearful. The city is safer than it’s ever been. Living in New York has done something to me. I am forever changed.


Saturday, February 3, 2007

Pushing Myself Up

I emailed the January 18th entry, 'Next Stop Brooklyn', to a newspaper and received a response from the Managing Editor:

‘I would love to consider your piece, but we require them to be between 750 and 850 words. Yours is only around 325. If you wish us to still consider it, please add to it and resend. Thanks.’

I decided to write something different for my second attempt. Instead of doing as I usually do, (having a glimmer of an idea, jumping in and letting the thing take on a life of its own), I followed Mark’s suggestion. I created an outline beforehand.

I was armed with a plan and a direction, which is good. I wrote with more intellect than instinct, which is bad. What I wrote was boring. It sounded like a school essay. I thought about it again while soaking in the bath tonight and decided on a different angle. Tonight, I am starting yet again.

I tell myself that rewriting is not a loss. It’s normal. This is what writing is. What I’m going through is like doing push ups. At first, you struggle with your body. There is pain. The next time you do push ups, you’re a little better. The struggle is less terrible, the pain less.

You try and you try. Eventually you’re pushing up and pushing up, and before you know it, you’re putting one arm behind your back, easy as pie.


Thursday, February 1, 2007

Tricks are for Kids

Ben, my friend’s 4-year old, can tell the difference between a BMW and a Mercedes. He twisted his mouth in concentration yesterday, when his dad asked about the car next to us. We were idling at a red light.

‘That’s…that's a Volvo!’ he said, after a moment of concerted silence. His head rolled back and forth, and his legs knocked restlessly against the carseat.

‘Yes, Benji. A Volvo. Very good.’

In a city where people are measured by designer clout, how could Benji’s talent be surprising?

I laughed a little and wondered what the next trick could possibly be. Anxiously, I fingered the turquoise ‘Kate Spade’ tote I’d gotten from a tiny stall on Canal Street. I felt like an airport hijacker surrounded by bomb sniffing dogs.

I opened the window a crack. ‘Benji’s such a smart little kid.’

‘Yeah. Kids are sponges. They don’t know what they’re saying.’

I nodded and forgave Ben for not knowing what a Toyota was. This was probably a passing fad and all would be forgotten in a couple months.

When I turned to look at Ben in the back seat, he was humming tunelessly and looking out the window. Seeing him like that made me smile.

Photo by ReyGuy.