three things: 1/5/17

1)  I once knew a very bitter old woman named Ann-Marie who said NO, no matter what you asked. Back when her kids were almost teenagers (she was in her late 70s when I met her), she had gotten tired of doing for everyone, of always being the one who sacrificed, and so she decided that whatever they asked her, she would say no. “Will you take me there?” NO. “Can you bring—” “NO.” There was almost nothing they could ask her that would get a yes answer. She stuck with it too, to a truly remarkable degree. Even in her dying years, she would still say no to almost any request. It was stunning, and sobering, and her bitterness is the main thing I remember about her. My kids were pre-teens when I met her, and she became a cautionary tale for me, about the poison of years-long, intense self-sacrifice. As with all things, it’s a balance and we all have to find our own way, but I know I’ve too-easily felt like I gave away the farm, like I just said yes, sure, I will, OK, whatever you want way too often. And the underneath of that (the “the dark, tarry smear” of it, to steal a bit of a quote that Peggy shared yesterday, by Amy Bloom) is resentment. And resentment is definitely a poison. I tell my daughters all the time not to constantly set themselves aside. To get themselves a new shirt when they need one, instead of wearing a ratty old one but buying another toy for their babies. To go out for some time to themselves.

So at the guided meditation at MoMA yesterday, when the meditation teacher asked us to think of a characteristic we might want to focus on in the coming year, I heard in a very quiet but clear voice that I want two things: (a) quiet, and (b) selfishness. And by that I mean that I want to privilege myself in the coming year, I want to pause before every commitment and allow my own needs and desires to be my first consideration. I’m a pleaser and a sacrificer so it’ll be hard and that probably means I don’t have to worry too much about becoming the bad kind of selfish; privileging myself will just help me course-correct and bring me a little closer to some illusory middleground. It’s hard even to say this! I don’t want to be like Anne-Marie, obviously, but this is something that will be helpful to me, I hope. YES. I say yes to this.

I would ask if this is something you struggle with, but since everyone who reads this (as far as I know) is a woman, I imagine the answer is yes. And to the degree it’s less true for you, I also imagine that’s because you pointedly worked on it. Yes?

2)  Tonight I’m meeting my friend Craig for dinner at an Indian food restaurant, but before then I’m going to the main New York Public Library because the Rose Reading Room reopened in October after an extended period of renovation. I’ll take my moleskine and my beautiful pen and sit at a long table with a low light, underneath the magnificent ceiling, and write for a while. That will be a slug of beauty in my day, for sure. My friend Anne mentioned seeking out a beautiful thing to photograph every day, and January in NYC makes it pretty tough but I am sure I’ll find a corner, a bit of architectural detail, a book jacket, something to relish.

Ceiling detail
Isn’t it so lovely? And it’s even more lovely when there are people reading and working there.

3) So, my new theory. Going to MoMA for the Quiet Morning event was as juvenating (not rejuvenating because I was so low in the trough there was no juvenation to re-ignite) as I’d hoped and maybe even more. This depression, this new kind, isn’t about my deep psyche, and so I imagine that’s exactly why art is working. My depression is about the world, the bitter cold wind of it, the tyrant-coming of it, the fear and dread. Because every day brings new terribleness, it’s hard to find space to catch my breath and get my head above the depressed water. But art is still in the world, and artists. Poetry, and poets. Music, and composers and performers. Dance, and dancers. Beautiful novels, and novelists. That’s all still there, too. And so are blue skies (just not where I am, FOR REAL) and all my favorite clouds, and Bali, and Vietnam and Laos, and all the places I’ve loved. To help with this depression, those are the medicine, soaking them in, being reminded. Unusually, my people aren’t the direct medicine this time, because the dread world is going to steamroll all of them and so they remind me even more of my fear and dread — oh no, not them too, please. Please.

I’ve already bought my ticket for the next Quiet Morning at MoMA, February 1, and in between I am planning to keep inoculating myself with art. I think I’ll pick an artist for each week, and a poet for each week, and sort of assign myself to soak them up in a more focused way.  OR I could choose a color for a week, here and there — brilliant golden-yellow, find art that features that color, maybe, or crimson, or blues (OH MY the blues, I saw some extraordinary blues at MoMA yesterday).

I cried like a BABY. I stared at all his brush strokes and thought about his own suffering, and his ecstasy, and how I could feel his and my own. This was the third time I’ve seen it in person and it’s never less than the same electric experience.

And that reminds me of a thing Sherlock used to do, back in the pre-digital camera days. I did this with him one Saturday our first year of graduate school I think, and it was fabulous. Before we set out with our cameras loaded with a roll of film (36 pictures, if I recall), we each chose a theme. Circles, maybe. Red. Words. Something abstract like that. Then we just drove. We drove through the countryside, we stopped in very small towns, and we took photographs of whatever fit our theme. When we’d taken all our pictures, we dropped off the film to be developed and printed, and we went out for lunch while we waited. It was so much fun, I remember it still (and that was probably 1999, which is….what? No, really? Eighteen years ago??).

Republicans don’t appear to think so, but we need art. We need beauty. We need the abstract. We need the Big. xoxox

so very different

crowded
Yup. There’s nothing to do but plow into the crowd.

Of all the ways life in Austin and New York City are different, the most immediate one isn’t the crowds, the noise, the bustle — it’s the way you get around and live your life. Some people just take cabs everywhere, but like most people I take the subway. You see everything on the subway. People coming home from a big food shopping trip at Trader Joe’s or Fairway, schlepping several overstuffed grocery bags, standing with them all around and between their legs and feet on a crowded car, then fighting their way off the train through the crowds, having to carry all the bags at once. Carrying home a window air conditioning unit. Giant boxes. Huge bags of things from Target and Bed Bath & Beyond. Giant bags of toilet paper. Big flat screen televisions. And the ordinariness of it is what’s so extraordinary. What do you mean, how else am I gonna get my new flat screen TV home?

Last night I had dinner with my dear friend Craig, in the East Village at a vegetarian restaurant called Dirt Candy. It’s a sign of how much I love him that I’d meet him there because that part of town could hardly be more difficult to get to from where I am. I had to take the 1 to 96th, change to the 2 to 14th, then transfer to the L. WELL, changing to the L at 14th is one of the few places you can’t just transfer underground — you have to go up above ground, walk a couple of blocks and go back down into the L station. It’s bitter cold here, and extremely windy last night. When I went above ground at 14th I got turned around and couldn’t find the L stop and in my ordinary bass-ackward sense of direction I walked several blocks in the wrong direction. I finally gave up because I was a frozen popsicle and hailed a gypsy cab. I had no idea where I was, and no idea where the restaurant was relative to my location, so when I asked the driver how much and he said $20, I just waved him off. Nope, I’ll wait for a regular cab. “$15,” he countered, “I hate to see you standing there in the cold.” Well, mister, not as much as I hate standing there in the cold so we had a deal.

Turned out I was a very long way from the restaurant. A very long way. But I got there and so did Craig, and we had a wonderful dinner then shared a cab back to the Port Authority, where I easily caught a 1 train back uptown.

As I sat on the train home, full of delicious yummy vegetarian food and more than just a little bit of white wine and feeling plenty warm, I decided to watch people instead of read, for a change. To be honest, I decided to do that because of what happened. There were two young boys roughhousing in the aisle and the train lurched and one kind of fell on a passenger sitting down. The dad said to his kid, “What are you, a tourist?” That cracked me up. The youngest one wore a cub scout uniform so they were just heading home from a den meeting, perfectly ordinary night in the subway. You see these very little kids, 3 years old, 4 years old, and they are old pros at riding the subway. They have their subway legs, they know their stop without being told, the subway is just their normal transportation, as our car was for my kids. What a different world.

And you see young kids riding the train to school — if they’re very young a parent is with them, but by middle elementary school they’re alone with a few friends. Such a different world.

I have a folder full of apps on my phone for the subway — HopStop of course, to plan how to get from here to there and back again, another app that informs me of train delays, one that tells me when the next train is arriving, one with maps of all the subway lines. On the weekends right now, the 1 train, which is just at the next corner and goes up and down the west side of town, along Broadway more or less — and the train we use to go anywhere — is shut down for going downtown because of repairs or something. OH what a pain. To go downtown, we have to take the 1 UPtown 58 blocks to 168th, and then cross over to catch the downtown train. To take any other train we have to walk a lot of blocks east and up or down, and it’s a royal pain in the butt.

And then sometimes the local train will mysteriously stop running local and just go express, which means it may not stop at your stop, so you either have to get off early and wait for a local train that IS making local stops, walk or take a bus, or go uptown, cross over, and take the train back downtown. You just know these things, and you dial them into your plans for going anywhere.

OR, in Austin, I walk into my garage, start my car and drive to where I want to go. Traffic might make a 15-minute trip into a 1 hour and 45 minute trip, so it’s not like Austin is magic and better, necessarily. It’s not like “I have control” in Austin in a way I don’t in New York. I have my hands on the wheel, but that don’t mean Jack necessarily. My plans are at the mercy of forces bigger than me in both places, so in that way they’re the same.

I love the subway I hate the subway. I will always be a New Yorker.

Happy Friday y’all! I hope it’s a good one, filled with a whole lot of beautiful whiles. xo

Damocles

the painting itself
the painting itself

You know that big thing that’s been hanging over my head for the last few months? The reason I now have a lawyer? If I make it through today without being served, it all just might be over. I am apparently too superstitious to say more, so I’ll just say this and move on for now.

Counting down days, soon counting down hours. My good sleep seems to have vanished, but I always knew it was temporary and I enjoyed the hell out of it while I had it.  Seeing friends, finishing work, it’s all good and I am tired and distracted by the sword.

Yesterday I made a trip I’ve made so many times before. I wondered if I’d remember all the little tricks — the 1 to Times Square, the shuttle to Grand Central Station, the 6 down to 23rd. That’s not the tricky part. Hell, Hopstop can route that trip, or even Google Maps. The tricky part is remembering that I need to walk to the uptown end of the platform and get in the very last car on the 1, because that puts me right by the stairs at Times Square and it’s a short walk to the shuttle. The tricky part is remembering to hang back a little and wait for the announcement about the shuttle — track 1? 2? 3? — and then making a dash for the right platform and getting all the way down to the far end because that puts me in the right place in Grand Central Station. Walk through GCS, past the place musicians always play (yuck, the one today was disgusting) and head to the far end of the 6 platform so I exit right by the turnstile to put me by the correct set of stairs. It’s those kinds of things you learn when you take the subway all the time — which particular car, which particular door, how to position yourself at the last express stop before your local stop so you aren’t trapped in the middle of car and can’t get to the door. You learn that when you transfer across the platform from the express train to the local (or vice versa of course), you just walk straight across the platform and you’ll be lined up at a door when the train pulls in.

You learn that when there’s a very long delay for your train and there’s another one 1 or 2 minutes behind, you don’t take the first one, even though it’s been a long wait. No, you don’t do that. It’s going to be jammed up, so crowded you’ll be miserable, if you can even get on. No, you wait a minute for the next one, which will be almost entirely empty.

You learn that if a particular car seems strangely empty but the others are not, there is a reason, so you don’t get on it, even though the other cars are full. Perhaps it’s boiling hot. Perhaps someone puked and it’s sloshing around. Perhaps there’s a true homeless guy sleeping and the whole car is permeated by that specific gagging fungal smell that characterizes the poor people who are truly, truly, truly in trouble. If you’re on the 1 and you’re headed to South Ferry, you absolutely have to be in the first couple of cars or you won’t be able to exit there.

You learn how to walk straight through a buzzing chaotic crowd where all the subway lines are intersecting at Times Square or Grand Central — you just look straight ahead, not around you, you don’t look anyone in the eye, you just walk straight through and somehow we all do it and no one crashes into anyone else. This prolonged practice made it so easy to cross the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City, or Phnom Penh, or even Hanoi. No crosswalks, no Walk signals, just thousands of motorbikes coming from both directions and you just start crossing. Yeah, walking through the Times Square station taught me how to do that.

I wondered if I’d remember all these tiny little things that used to be entirely automatic. There is that old bicycle metaphor, but getting around Austin couldn’t be more different, and driving my own car has been part of my experience for decades more than taking the subway. Which would prevail? Would it be like riding a bicycle, and I’d somehow just remember? I did remember, even if I didn’t know I would remember as I was going along, and was just kind of following myself a step behind. My body somehow remembered and put me in the right place before my mind remembered to tell me. That felt pretty great. Yep, still a New Yorker. A part-time New Yorker, maybe, but still a New Yorker. And that made me really happy. What is it about this place? We dwell on the allure of it when we are away, but what’s really strange is that we dwell on the allure of it even when we are in the midst of it.

Anyway. Hoping that hair holds the sword steady just one more day……brunch with a friend, dinner with another friend, and then home safe, no more sword. Fingers crossed, y’all.

coda

Yesterday when I was walking to meet my beautiful friend Traci for lunch, I was absorbed by my surroundings, as I usually am here. So much to look at, down every block, UP (never forget to look up when you’re here!), what I’m passing, the people coming toward me. I was thinking about Traci, thinking about what we’d talk about, thinking about what I wanted to ask her, when I walked over a grating in the sidewalk. They’re ubiquitous, you just kind of forget to even notice them. But as I walked over it, a train was passing through the tunnel underneath my feet and I got a very different awareness, of the living pulse of New York.

livePeople who want to talk about New York often reference the speed of things here, how fast everything moves. To be honest, I find the sidewalk pace way too slow for my sanity. People in their own neighborhoods are out for strolls, to talk with each other, and they’re poking along. Tourists poke along, perhaps because it’s their speed or perhaps because they’re a little overwhelmed. And then clots of people slow things down. So the whole speed thing has always seemed funny to me.

For me, the thing to talk about with New York is how alive it is. Not only are there pulsing crowds of people from all over the world, literally, and various scenes — the publishing scene, the Wall Street crowd, the music scene, the art scene, the social set scene, the rich-and-famous scene, blah blah blah — but it’s always moving. (Although when I came here the first time, when I was in graduate school, my flight had landed quite late and I was hungry and just wanted a bagel. I walked down the block from my hotel and the bagel joint was closed. I remember thinking What? Isn’t this the city that never sleeps?! It definitely does sleep, it just goes to bed late.) The thing the subway underneath my feet reminded me is that there’s a whole entire world under the streets, at all times. Trains moving up and down the island, out into the boroughs, diagonally in the lower part, crossways between Times Square and Grand Central Station. And all the people who work down there, and the people just wanting to get home, or to work, or to shop, or whatever they’re doing. That’s going on 24 hours/day, all that life underground.

chryslerIt’s so easy to forget to look up, but you have to! You’ll miss dazzling architectural details, gargoyles, oddities. The Chrysler Building looks like nothing at street level, true of most of the beautiful buildings. You have to look up. And when you do, you realize that people live and work on all those floors up above, some you can barely see, they’re so high. Tall buildings filled with apartments, hundreds and hundreds of people stored inside, living individual lives, living out the things we all do — eating, fighting, watching tv, playing online, talking to someone else, sleeping — all around. Up, down, and around.

In my old neighborhood, we sometimes hear the train heading north; it goes underground along the Hudson near my place, on its way upstate or to Connecticut. That beautiful lonely sound of a train, and that’s going on too, right over there, underground.

aliveThe place teems. I think that word was surely created for New York City. It’s teeming all the time, down below, up above, and all around. It IS alive. And I love that, I truly do. You get used to the noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s always OK. For instance, last night I slept a total of 2 hours, in several 20-minute segments, so I’m thoroughly exhausted today and just not in the mood. But on the street right outside the window (on the street level) there are jackhammers and drills and hammers going nonstop on metal; in the courtyard there is the same. There are workmen shouting at each other, and they’re also going up and down the face of the building and also on the building across the street. Trucks are moving in reverse so there’s nonstop beeping (how long can they possibly drive in reverse! SERIOUSLY.).

Happy Friday, y’all. I hope it’s a beautiful day for you, and I hope you have good weekend plans. I do! Sherlock and Peggy are driving down tomorrow for brunch with me, lucky lucky me. xo

leviathan

I love that word, leviathan, especially when it’s used to refer to whales. I’ve always loved whales, as almost everyone does — and isn’t that curious? Maybe because they’re so huge and mysterious, maybe because they’re not usually harmful to peoplemaybe because they delight us with their tails when they dive, and their spouts when they blow. Maybe because they seem like us in some very strange way. My love for them deepened dramatically when I finally read Moby Dick a few years ago, after hearing Marnie talk about it so passionately. (And in fact, the name of her press is taken from a chapter in Moby Dick.) I didn’t read it until I was 50, because I was a-scared. Isn’t that the silliest thing? Scared of a book? And yet I was. I was scared I wouldn’t be smart enough to read it, scared I’d be put off by what was always described as ‘all those chapters about all the stuff, knots and taxonomy and stuff.’ Scared of feeling daunted by a book, and you know that just gets right at my identity. I ain’t a-scared a no book. Not me, nosirree.

And it wasn’t scary at all. It is the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. ‘All those chapters’ are entirely relevant, and get at larger themes. ‘All those chapters’ are interesting, and never felt like they slowed the story. It is so not a story of Ahab’s revenge; I mean, it kind of is, but if that’s what you take away from it you’ve missed the whole book. Over the years it has been so beautifully illustrated in so many ways — covers and endpapers and interior art, and then Matt Kish’s gorgeous art book featuring one amazing illustration on every single page. Jeff and I were talking about it last week and he said it’s American Shakespeare, and it really is. The first time I read it, I couldn’t read anything else for weeks, because nothing else was so beautiful, so huge, so deep, nothing else was such a complete world. The images, the breathtaking first page, and sure, the story. Sigh. Time to read it again.

But the book gave me an over-the-top connection to these whales, so when I heard about the whale exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I had to go. I’d read this truly beautiful piece in the Paris Review about the exhibit, and was struck by the author’s love of Moby Dick and how he experienced the exhibit. He quoted a couple of bits of Moby Dick that really are relevant:

“For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape.”

“How vain and foolish, then, thought I,” Ishmael says, “for timid untraveled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton… No. Only in the heart of the quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly found out.”

I had a similar experience to the author of that Paris Review piece (and to Ishmael). Seeing the giant skeletons — here, let me show you:

whales
male skeleton in the back, female in the front. sperm whales, both.

Be sure to notice the person in the picture to get a sense of scale. They weren’t suspended in the air, they were low, floating over a reflective black surface. They did not look like whales, they looked like some kind of strange bird, and yet standing there, they made me cry. The skeletons made me cry, and I don’t know why. Maybe it was nothing more than the connecting experience to Ishmael, to Melville, I don’t know. Maybe it was seeing the mechanical bits which entirely miss the animal in the world. The things that make a sperm whale so unique — that giant head filled with spermaceti, for instance — are stripped away, which kind of left me feeling that what matters about us can’t be found by looking at the various bits. Bits are just bits, even if they are magnificent. Even if they’re strange and unexpected. There were no whales there.

But it was a wonderful exhibit. They had a full-sized model of a sperm whale’s heart, which came up to the bridge of my nose (and I’m ~5’10”), and was big enough to crawl around in. They had listening rooms, round spaces you enter and listen to the sounds made by all the different kinds of whales. And that made me cry. The magnificence of those creatures prowling the giant oceans, differentiating each other, singing for each other, caring for babies. The exhibit came from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington (a second New Zealand wonder for me this week, after learning that Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize, a very young writer from New Zealand — go Kiwis!). They had whale art of all kinds (including a copy of Moby Dick and a beautiful scrimshawed small skull, and various ornaments carved from whale bone).

All those things captured my attention, but lightly. I returned again and again to stand by those skeletons, in a kind of wonder. What are those creatures — mammals we say, but a chapter in Moby Dick addresses the thorny questions of taxonomy, and the difficulty of making those distinctions. What are those creatures that wander the enormous face of the earth? What are those creatures that communicate across hundreds of miles with subsonic booms, with vibrating clicks, with incredible song? Why do we run to the beach when one strands, so utterly desperate to help it get back, and experience such grief if it dies? You won’t find any answers in the skeleton.

charm

charmEven in my depression — perhaps because it’s mild-ish — I am not immune to the various charms of New York City. And perhaps my lack of immunity stems from the fact that I live in Austin. I remember being frequently exhausted by and pissed off at New York when I lived here, so knowing both places allows me to relish their different charms. I always want to share the wonderful things about both places so my friends in both places get to know each place, because both are important to me, part of me. So, to wit:

New York: Walking, oh the walking. Sure, you could go down the stairs into the stinky subway, stand on the crowded platform, get in the even more crowded train (sometimes boiling hot, sometimes freezing, sometimes reeking of the homeless guy or vomit or unexplainable liquids), and traverse the city with relative ease. The price of a trip has gone up, but it’s relatively cheap and easy, especially after you learn the different lines.  Sometimes you have to do that. But when you can, it’s a walker’s paradise. Sunday night I walked from the area around Columbia University all the way down to Chelsea, about 1.5 hours, more or less, 88 blocks. I walked past  Lincoln Center, Columbus Circle, Times Square (ugh), Madison Square Garden, and into Chelsea. There was always something to see, and I rarely had to stop except for the crowds in Times Square. I could’ve walked along Central Park West for a good portion, another fine walk. Last night I walked home from Columbus Circle, 55 blocks. Every day I take at least one walk in gorgeous Riverside Park, usually 2-3 miles. You can’t help but walk in New York, even if you take a subway. There are great places to walk in Austin — your own neighborhood, the hike and bike trail, various greenbelts, but mostly you have to drive to them (and often it’s sweltering). It’s an effort. The NYC down side: You have to do this no matter the weather. In the summer the place reeks of pee and trash and homeless people, the subway platforms are dank and hot, and you still have blocks to walk to your destination when you leave the subway. The streets and buildings hold and radiate the heat. In the winter, you do this in ice and snow and bleak and whistling crosstown winds. Brrr.

the fruit and vegetable stand on my corner, one of several in a couple-block radius
the fruit and vegetable stand on my corner, one of several in a couple-block radius

Shopping: Of course you can get anything here. There are districts for things. Need a button? Go to the BUTTON DISTRICT. Yes, there is a button district. Want some fabric, some flowers, some meat, whatever? There is a district just for that thing. Want to do the most fancy shopping? Fifth Avenue, there you go. But even better, oh so much better, the daily shopping is just wonderful. Walking down Broadway you’ll pass table after table stacked high with used books. And usually small tables in between with people playing chess. Or table after table of handmade jewelry. Small stands selling clothing, hats, stockings, hats, scarves. In the winter they shift to warm gloves and scarves and hats. When it’s rainy, out come the umbrellas. One stand after another. Just need a fresh avocado, some bananas, lettuce, potatoes, cherries, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, anything? Walk over to the corner, this one or that one, competing fruit and vegetable stands. Pick your produce, the guy weighs it, you give him cash, he puts it in a little bag, and you walk home. Done. If you need regular groceries, walk to the other corner to the market. Sometimes you go to big markets, like Westside or Fairway or Trader Joe’s, giant places with everything. And “everything” (especially at Fairway) means everything, every kind of ethnic ingredient or food you could want.  Or, of course, you could go to Chinatown, or little India, or any of the multitude of ethnic neighborhoods for anything under the sun. The NYC downside: Sometimes you just need a mall! You don’t know what kind of outfit you want but you’ll know it when you see it, so you wander the mall and go in and out of all the stores until you find it. Here you have to walk around in the weather, and maybe you’ll find it in the shops in one neighborhood but maybe you’ll have to keep moving to other neighborhoods.

a range of very good Mexican food trucks!
a range of very good Mexican food trucks!

Eating. Anything. ‘Nuff said. The most amazing restaurants in the world, neighborhood restaurants, any kind of ethnic food you might ever want (except Tex-Mex! Come up here, Chuy’s!). Flor de Mayo, a Cuban/Chinese restaurant, all kinds of fusions, little holes in the wall, neighborhood stalwarts. Just within a couple of blocks of my apartment there are a few Ethiopian restaurants, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Turkish, diners, Japanese, fried chicken, Lebanese, Cuban, Mexican (interior!), health food, those just off the top of my head. Within a couple-of-blocks radius, and my street butts up against Riverside Park so it’s not even a full circle. And then there are the little trucks; I prefer to get my Lebanese food from the truck on the corner than the restaurant. My old neighborhood Greek restaurant is pretty shady (we prefer to go to one in Astoria Queens), but Marc has been going to it since he went to Sarah Lawrence in the very early 1970s. The downside: Can’t think of one.

People. People in New York are generally warm and friendly — it just might not look, on the surface, like it looks in other places. But if you’re on the street and lost, you can ask anyone and they’ll direct you. If you’re on the train, you can just ask generally and all kinds of people will chime in and give you great directions. Sometimes the New Yorkers will start debating various options to give you the best advice. Once, before I moved here, I was on a train and lost, and a woman overheard me. She got off the train with me, walked me to the right place, and told me where to go. Then she went back to her own train, I guess. Yesterday Marc and I were walking in Riverside Park and I saw a key hanging by a ribbon from a fence; we guessed that someone must have dropped their key, someone else found it, and hung it on the fence post in case the owner came back looking for it, so they’d spot it easily. It touched me a lot. We all live in each other’s faces, in a way, and while we know how to erect a bubble around ourselves when we need to, we’re all kind of the same in some way. Women put on their make-up in the mornings on the train. In late winter, people sleep, heads back and mouths open, in their now-tired winter clothes, and it’s so easy to see the children they used to be. People talk and laugh, sing, sometimes cry, they read, they close their eyes, they look exhausted or happy or bored. I really love that. The NYC downsideSorry, but New Yorkers are pretty parochial. Texans, you’ll get this: they think the world drops off at the Manhattan borders, and no place else matters. (I know. Texans think the same thing.) I actually love that about both groups, but Texans are more often open to New York than New Yorkers are open to Texas. In both places, when I mention the other place the response is “you must be glad to be out of there,” but in Texas they first say, “Welcome back!”  But I love you both, and find people in both places to be real and warm and open and longing to connect.

711Everything else. You have to learn how to tune your eyes, but it’s all there. That 7-11 is just part of the block, as are McDonald’s and Burger Kings and Dunkin Donuts, but they’re very easy to miss because the place is big and tall and dazzling. There are SO many churches here — synagogues and dazzlingly huge Catholic churches and Baptist churches and Korean Baptist churches and Methodist churches and Lutheran churches and mosques. It’s all here, but they’re kind of blended into the surroundings until you learn how to see them.

johnAnd in my very near old  neighborhood is the glory of St John the Divine, a glorious Gothic cathedral. For a couple of years I went to the Winter Solstice concert that I’d listened to for years on NPR — a thrill to be in the audience — and one year I went to the Summer Solstice concert. One year I went to Christmas Eve services to hear the choir. The gardens around it are amazing, as are the various sculptures. I’ll take pictures sometime.

The deal is that everything is here, but you have to learn how to see it. It’s much easier to see in Austin, spread out as it is.

This morning I’m heading over to the Museum of Natural History to see the sperm whale/Moby Dick exhibit, and I cannot wait. Pictures to follow! I write this post so my Austin friends will learn why I love New York City so much (and know that many of you love it too, and may even come here when I’m here, which would be amazing!), just as I write about Austin so my New York friends learn about it (though they are almost all unwilling to venture into Texas, even to see me, which frankly annoys me a lot).

Happy Wednesday, everyone. I love you all. xo

crawling around

scholarSo last Saturday night I eagerly went to my first event of the evening’s Lit Crawl. The session was called “Worst!” (or something like that) and the point was going to be people telling a variety of stories about the worst this or that. The worst haircut, the worst break-up, you get the picture. Of the sessions in that time slot, it wasn’t the one I was most eager to attend, but I was happy to go since Marc was interested in that event, and none of this was really his cup of tea but he was accompanying me all evening. It was held at a little LES bar called The Thirsty Scholar, and like most places in Manhattan, it was much smaller than you’d think, much older, much less comfortable, darker, dingier, OLD. That’s part of its charm, of course, but still. It was a long, low-ceilinged narrow place, and just light coming in from the front door and a window next to the front door.

crowdIn we go, and get a spot next to the wall for easy leaning. More and more people piled in, my arms had to move closer and closer to my body until my elbows were jabbing my own damn ribs and I was getting HOT and it was getting kind of airless in my little corner against the wall. By the time they were ready to start, I could no longer see the tiny little stage by the front door, but that was OK because the sound system was good enough.

And here’s where it all went south for me. The first storyteller — the organizer of this session, as best I can tell — was good. She did just read from pages she’d written, but she acted it out, it wasn’t presented as a monotone. I didn’t yet realize how much I loved her for caring about crafting a real story. That realization would come a few performers later, when a loud jangly woman leaped onto the stage and just started talking. It was a rambling ridiculous thing full of “oh wait, I need to go backs” and “um, yeah, so I should have told you this” and cackles and digressions and it was a ridiculously long rambling thing that had no story form whatsoever. She seemed to think that the crowd would just be fascinated by the words that tumbled from her lips, by her sheer magnetic presence, by the power of HER. At first I thought it was just me, sweating and with an achey back, but I started looking around and not one face was smiling. People were looking at their phones, or staring blankly at the performer. The energy level in the place plummeted and I think we all felt trapped in that tiny dark airless space, held hostage by a narcissist.

STORYTELLING, yo. Telling a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Perform a story you have taken at least a bit of care with, for an audience of people who made a specific choice — of all the choices — to come listen to you. I know that in this era of The Moth, and poetry slams, people are now used to watching someone flail around, they no longer expect purely professional performances at things like this. But for a storytelling event, I do expect you to craft a story for me. I just do. Otherwise I’m eventually going to feel ripped off and annoyed and then I’ll just decide to give up on the whole damn thing and skip ALL the sessions and decide instead to go eat some Sri Lankan food. Which I did. And it was good.

standing on the street — that’s Sigiri, up the flight of stairs. That little orange jewel box of a window is so inviting isn’t it!

Remember how I said that places here are small, and cramped, and tiny, and less than you think they’ll be? It may be true about the space itself, but sometimes it’s not true at all about the experience. if you’re ever in New York and want Sri Lankan food — and I cannot recommend it heartily enough, on which more in a sec — you have to go to Sigiri, at 91 1st Ave.

Sri Lankan food does feature curries, like Indian food, but the spices are much different, the heat level is OFF THE CHARTS WHOO BOY (unlike Indian food), and they have some foods that are entirely unique to them, like hoppers. Egg hoppers are a kind of fermented rice-crepe bowl with a steamed/poached egg resting inside, and you pour on the condiments. String hoppers use the same batter but it’s run it through a little net to make something like noodles, and again you pile on the condiments. I had something called kotthu roti and I suspect (prediction coming with great confidence in its accuracy) that’s all I’ll eat when I’m in Sri Lanka. It’s chopped vegetables and chopped roti, with lots of spices, cooked and chopped chopped chopped chopped. It isn’t a gorgeous dish to look at (but it is, if you look closely at all the little bits), but it’s just utterly delicious. Marc and I agreed that we’d never tasted anything like it, anywhere we’ve been in the world.

I didn’t regret for one minute skipping the rest of the Lit Crawl events. I didn’t really realize it was going to be slams — and not all the sessions were! Some were really about literature, authors, etc. But most were storytellers standing at a microphone, and there was a lot of amazing Sri Lankan food waiting for me at Sigiri, as it turned out, so the choice was very easy.

Happy Wednesday, y’all. How is time flying so very fast?!