My Marathon – Part 2

Sunday, November 2… Race day.

It’s just about a quarter of 11 in the morning, the sky is a pale blue and dense with puffy, white clouds. I’ve been sitting in a heated tent for three hours, waiting for my wave to start and now out of it, I’m cold. I’m bundled in mismatched pieces of clothing that have been picked from the Goodwill bag under my bed and I look a bit like a ragamuffin. But I’ll be tearing this extra layer off soon anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. This is assuming I make it to the starting line.

I’m sprinting through a field in the start village at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, in a state of panic that after five months of training and three thousand dollars of fundraising, I may have messed this up. “I need to find orange,” I say to three volunteers standing in a huddle, shivering, but still smiling. “I’m supposed to be with orange and I’ve been waiting in green.” I think they must be wondering how it is that I’ve been standing in line for ten minutes with the wrong color group. On marathon day, this is no small detail. “That way,” one points. “You’re fine,” another one says, as if she can hear my heart beating out of my chest. In another minute I’m in a mass of runners on the left side of the upper deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, waiting for the cannon.

I take a relieved breath and laugh to myself that it’s a small wonder I’ve made it here. Aside from the color mishap, what was to have been a restful pre-marathon week was hardly that. With my childhood best friend Diana, in town from LA, family flying in from Florida, race day logistics to map out with them and whatever friends would be coming to cheer, miscellaneous details I’d had worked out but were somehow still hanging over me, and worst of all, the sore calf that had me worried I might not be able to even make it through half the race, I was running on far less sleep than I should have been. But not enough sleep is a norm for me, so yes, of course I’ve made it. I have just enough time to ask a woman to get a pre-race shot of me, and then I hear the announcer over the loud speaker. “Runners are you ready?” I am ready for sure. A moment later, we hear the cannon. And we’re off.

My only memories of ever being on this bridge are from childhood, when we would go to visit family on Staten Island, and of course, they are from within a car. To be underneath this great piece of architecture, on foot, so small, is surreal. And as I settle into these first few minutes, in silence, wide-open sky surrounding me, I say to myself, “This is it. You’re running the New York City marathon.” And I can’t help but smile. And considering what it is that I am doing, and the nerves that had rattled me only days before, I’m completely calm. I’m here and I know what I need to do.

We reach the downhill of the bridge and people are passing me on both sides. Swarms of them. I want to race ahead, but I can hear my coaches’ advice and remember that this early in, I still have hours to pass them, and I will. I’m feeling warm and think it’s a good time to strip my extra hoodie, and as I do, I notice my ponytail is loose, and that my hair is slipping. I try looping the rubber band around again to no avail, and realize the one I happened to grab while getting ready, is overstretched and pretty much useless. Having no spare, and knowing I cannot make it the rest of the race with my hair falling from the bundle atop my head, I start weighing my options, and before long, I begin to notice, amidst the light scattering of litter along the road, every few minutes, there is a hair tie. I’m hardly thrilled at the idea of stopping to pick one up, but after passing half a dozen of them, I think this might just be the answer to my conundrum. Just before mile six, I do so; problem solved.

I’m now running behind a guy who is wearing a shirt with a dedication on the back that says: In Memory of Baby Daniel. I get choked up, thinking of this little one; and of how lucky I am to be here, healthy and strong. But with this swell of emotions, my breathing becomes labored. So I veer away from him and turn my focus to the street numbers, knowing that I will see my first cheerleaders very soon.

I spot the C-Town grocery store up ahead on the left. My family is to be two blocks up from it, and I’ve been told, I will probably see them before they see me. When I notice that, on our pre-determined corner, there’s a water station (as we had discussed there might be) I know instead, they will be waiting two more blocks beyond that, as per our [very detailed] plan. When I see them—my mother, my sisters Gabriela and Kristina, my Aunt Dorothy and my cousin Katherine—it is exactly how I dreamed it would be, and I bolt to them with open arms, to hug and kiss each of them. And as I run off, they cheer for Tough Cookie which I’ve emblazoned on the back of my race singlet as a thanks to my mother who taught me to be one. On this day, I hope I am making her proud.

As I continue up through Brooklyn, along 4th Avenue, I stop three more times to meet people there to cheer me on; first my friend Emily from work whose head happens to be down just as I am passing, as she is about to sip her coffee. I surprise her. Then it’s Allie and Jamie and their new little bundle Sam who looks like a sleeping cherub, who I blow a kiss to, this the first I’m seeing him since his birth. And then it’s Lisa with Christina and Leroy. With these three, I jump around in a group hug, screaming and cheering. As I continue on, I see a woman with a sign on her back that says this is her 20th marathon. I think wow, and congratulate her as I run by. Then it’s a woman with a prosthetic blade from one knee down. Talk about believing in yourself! I speed up to meet her and I tell her she is awesome. And then I find my place on the left again where hands are out for high fives and people can see my name and shout for me. Their energy is the fuel that keeps me going.

Soon after entering Williamsburg, I spot a sign with big bold letters that reads GO DRE, and I think it must be for me, this my neighborhood. Sure enough, it’s another pair of friends, Aoife and Jeremy. They ask how I am, and I reply that my legs are a bit tired but that I’m having fun. To think I was feeling tired at mile 11. Ha! If only I’d known what was to come. I continue on, along this stretch that’s been a practice route throughout my training. I’ve just made my way through Greenpoint and here it is, the halfway mark.

I’ve been waiting to get here, to take from my shoelaces the twisted piece of plastic in which I’ve stashed two Tylenol. The pain in my calf has worsened, and my ankles are aching to the point that yes, physically, it would feel better to quit. But of course, I will not. I keep telling myself that I will rest when this is done, but that for now, I’ve still got some work to do. There’s a string of people waiting at the Port-o-Let but I need to pee, so I hop off the course and get into line. And once out of the stall, I grab a cup of water, swig the capsules back and return on my way. This pause, even the short three minutes that it was, is beyond painful to recover from, and I tell myself that from here on, I cannot stop again, except to slow for water, or of course, to say hello, should I see any more friends along the route.

The Pulaski Bridge is just ahead. And though I typically run on the pedestrian sidewalk rather than across its six traffic lanes, I know it well. It’s quick and easy, and will bring us from Brooklyn into Queens. As I round the bend onto 47th Road, my friend Greg is there and again, I stop for a hug. Every time I see a face I know, I’m uplifted. The reminder that so many people are behind me in this goal, is overwhelming. So on this momentary high, I trot along through Long Island City, and next thing I know, I see that we’re approaching the 59th Street (Queensboro) Bridge.

On the advice of a coach, I did a practice run over the bridge a month before. And, in all honesty, I really enjoyed it. The incline here is long but subtle, and the view of downtown Manhattan is stunning. So I wasn’t the least bit worried about running it on race day… Until earlier that morning, when I realized that it isn’t the bridge itself which people find so challenging, but that it comes at 15 miles into the race at which point many runners have been pounding the pavement  for two hours already. I wonder for a minute how I’ll fare, then shrug off my worry, sure I’ll be ok. I’ve maintained an easy pace since the start and the Tylenol from a couple miles before has begun to kick in.

Looking back, the 59th Street Bridge was one of my favorites parts of the race. There is no doubt that for a runner on marathon Sunday, the crowds are invaluable. They are there, along the lonely stretches, in between our family and friends, propelling us to go on. But for a mile, as we traverse the East River from Queens to Manhattan by way of this grand structure, they are absent, and the only sounds are those of our breath and our footsteps, and the footsteps of those around us. And it is peace, and a time to reflect on this goal, which we are about to accomplish.

But, such calm can only be for a short time, of course. Once off the bridge, we’re on First Avenue, and on marathon day, First Avenue is where the wild things are—people spilling out from the bars with pints in hand, cheering, hooting, howling. All along the route, strangers are calling my name, “Come on Dre,” “Keep it up Doctor Dre,” holding their hands out for more high fives. At 111th Street, I find another threesome of familiar faces cheering for me—Rachel and Craig, and Kim who’s crafted a sign that in our group hysteria I don’t even get to read. (Thanks anyway girl.) This time was the seventh that I’d stopped to meet friends, and still I’m not tired of it.

As I run off, waving goodbye to them, I realize that I’m now at a stretch where I might not see anyone else until the end of the race when I reach the bleachers where my family now waits. And this unfortunately, is probably where I need people the most. First Avenue is coming to an end and just ahead, there’s a small bridge that will bring us into the Bronx. It’s the Willis Avenue Bridge, and even though I’d known it was coming, I was not happy finally seeing it. It’s a fraction of the Queensboro, but the incline is immediate, and sharp, and my legs are screaming. But then out from the sidelines, just before I reach the start of it, one of my coaches catches a glimpse of my neon yellow singlet and runs up to me. “Hey sister,” he says, placing an arm around me. “You know where we are?” I nod my head. “Almost done?” He’s running with me and tells me, “After this bridge you’re at mile 20.” Ah yes, I think. Mile 20, where people ‘hit the wall.’ I have told myself that I will not, but of course, no one’s mind ever wants to quit, but sometimes, the body just can’t continue. With his arm still around me, he says to me: “This is what I want you to do. You’ve got six miles to go. For each one, I want you to think of someone and dedicate that mile to them.” I said ok, and that’s what I did.

The bridge was as awful as I imagined it would be upon seeing it; but when at the end, I heard a voice calling my name and saw another friend Laura waving from 138th Street, whatever pain I’d been feeling had—at least for a few moments—vanished. But soon enough I’m onto Fifth Avenue battling another long, slow uphill. At about mile 23, from the crowd along the sidelines, another coach spots me. “Go Team For Kids,” she yells. And then she runs up to me, and jogging at my side, she says, “I want you to Keep that pace!; Keep that pace!” And as I continue, I know if I am going to finish strong, I need to do just that. So as I move on to my next dedication, I say to myself, “Keep that pace. Keep that pace.” It’s mile 24 now. I think as far as I’ve come, what’s two more miles? So I’m racing along, and again from the sidelines, I hear my name. Surely, out of 50,000 I’m not the only Andrea… Probably not even the only [On-DRAY-uh], but somehow—maybe because I wanted it to be—I knew the call was for me. And there amongst the crowd, is Diana in town from LA with her sister, who by some crazy stroke of luck, just so happens to be passing though New York this weekend. I stop, this time for a hug and a picture, and then I continue on my way.

We’ve cut into the park from Fifth Avenue, and I can see Central Park South up ahead, and I know that just beyond, I’ll be approaching the finish. But I’m feeling weak, in need of one last push. Knowing that for sure, no one else I know will be waiting along the route, I move to the left and put my hand out. It’s high fives the whole way. I need them. “Go Dre,” one girl says. “You’re kicking this race’s ass!” …As if we’d been friends for years. Finally, I am rounding the corner, back into Central Park, and I remember that it is now time to go fishing. ‘Go fishing’ as my coach says—pick out a runner that’s fifty feet ahead and catch them. I’d spotted her minutes before— jet-black bob, hot-pink tank top. My eyes are on her but she won’t let up. On top of this, I’ve got nothing left. I’m well into the bleachers now, and having not seen my family, I’m assuming I’ve missed them. Then I hear my name, and when I turn, I see my sister in a ruby red pea coat, the rest of them jumping around her. I flash a smile and raise my arms out to wave. Well, I guess that was the boost that I needed, because when I turn my head back to the finish line, I’m passing the woman with the jet-black bob in hot pink. And then there I am, my arms raised high above my head, and I am crossing the finish.

Again, it felt like a dream. Except, that now, after 26.2 miles, from my hips to my feet, it feels as if my body is broken, and I am reminded that it’s real—that I have done it. I shuffle along with the rest of the crowd, more uncomfortable walking than I had been running. A few times I think I might keel over. “Move along,” they tell us, as runners behind us continued to pour across the finish. A volunteer drapes a medal around my neck, its weight pleasantly substantial. I stop for a few photos and continue on to where another volunteer wraps me in a HeatSheet. A few steps beyond her, another tapes this metallic cape that is supposed to keep me warm shut. I can exit the park here and find my family, but I want to visit my charity tent, even though it’s tucked a little further into the park and will take a bit of extra walking to get there. How I wish, at this moment, that I could fly.

I’m hobbling, (no joke, pulling one leg up by my pant), and a text rolls in from my cousin. 4:22:58. Awesome! Yes awesome, but I am puzzled, recalling that I had seen 4:46 on the clock. So, 4:46 was a minute past my goal time, but hey, I was still standing. I’d take it.  But 4:22:58… I’ll really take that… if I can!

Finally arriving at the tent, bundled now in a heavyweight cape and warm, I get to catch up with a couple of friends from my team. They explain to me how there were four clocks; one for each of the four waves. (Duh!) I was likely looking at the wrong one. So it was 4:23, which means I finished seven minutes earlier than I’d hoped, even with nine stops for hugs. I feel a current of pride run through me.

We sit together for a while, basking in the splendor of our collective achievement, recounting the highs and lows—the camaraderie on the course, the fans’ support, the aches, the pains, the wind! Then one of them asks: “So will you do it again? Without a minute’s pause I look up from my swollen feet and tell her no. “It was really hard,” I reply. “I did it. I can cross it off my list. And I’m so happy. But I think once is enough.” And she looks at me with a knowing grin and says, “Wait until tomorrow.”

Sure enough, when ‘tomorrow’ came, I knew immediately I wanted to do it again. I told my sister I imagine (having never been through it myself) that it’s like giving birth—utterly painful, but so worth it.

I went in to the race knowing that people have said running the New York City marathon was the best day of their life. Naturally, I wondered if I would think the same. It’s a big statement to say that a day—one particular day—is the best of your life. I think I was almost afraid to give this designation away. But for now, I think I have to agree. It was a day filled with so much joy; one that I look back on with such a happy heart. I am so thankful for every part of it—for my body that carried me, my mind that wouldn’t let me quit, for my family, and my friends, that came to be there with me, and for those that couldn’t be there, but still supported me; for my teammates and coaches that ran beside me; for this great city that was the greatest host, and for our beautiful earth, its blue sky and sun, and even for the wind.

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My Marathon – Part 1

Every autumn in New York, as October’s end draws near, as the air begins to cool, and leaves in vermilion and goldenrod begin to fall from the trees, before shop windows are decked with their bows of holly, there’s a rumble that begins. In the subway stations and on bus shelters, bills are posted; along certain streets, banners are hung, and amongst the city’s 8 million, thousands wait in quiet anticipation for what some consider the best day of their life.

Marathon Day.

I’ve been an athlete for as long as I can remember. At seven, I was mistaken for a boy, with my pixie haircut on the soccer field, and I played sports all through grade school and high school. But I never considered myself a runner. Sure, I ran track for two years and gave cross-country a go, but I used to fake injury to get out of practice. In my defense, it was Florida, and after-school temperatures usually measured somewhere in high 90s, but still… I think what it really boiled down to, was that I just didn’t like running.

Even so, every year that I’ve gone out to watch the marathon, I’ve heard this little voice from somewhere in the back of my head, saying to me, “One day. That will be you.”

It all started fifteen years ago, at my first job out of college. A woman I worked with, whom I trusted and looked up to, told me once, to make a list of my life goals, to keep it near, and look at it every now and then to check on my progress. So I did, and though the physical piece of paper disappeared soon after, I can still see the list—every line I scribbled—very clearly in my mind, now with a couple of things crossed off, a few notes in the margin, explaining why my first attempt at one or another might have been unsuccessful, or that I will try for it again, and others still far from being accomplished. One of the things I wrote was that I wanted to run a marathon. I’m not sure I knew at the time, but as I cheered on the sidelines last year, in the city that’s been home to me for almost two decades, I knew that it wouldn’t be just any marathon, but the New York City Marathon. So when I got home that night, I went online to see what I had to do to sign up.

Well, it is New York. So of course, it wasn’t just a click. In NYC, there are three ways to get in to this race of all races. One, (and this is for people who don’t decide on marathon day [like me] that they want to run the next year, but do so much further in advance) you can run nine races with New York Road Runners and volunteer once, and you’ve got guaranteed entry. Next, you can enter your name in the lottery (with thousands of others from New York and across the world) and cross your fingers and pray to high heaven that your name gets drawn. And then, you can run for a charity—raise money for them, you’re in the race. So, knowing option one was out, I entered the lottery. And of course, I didn’t get chosen. I could have used the year to run enough races for guaranteed entry in 2015, but suddenly, there was this little fire inside me and I didn’t want to wait. So I went, what I initially thought was the least favorable route and signed up with a charity. I say this because I loathe asking people for money; and being horrible at sales, it’s not like I could naturally make people just want to give. The charity I chose was Team For Kids, which raises money to provide health and fitness programs to children who have little or no access to regular physical activity. Being one who, growing up, always had a team to play on or a class to be part of, and open space to run and play never too far out of my reach (and surely taking all of it for granted), I thought it a good cause.

But yes, I was a bit daunted by the fact that I had to raise $2600, and for a second, I asked myself if committing to do so, just to run this race, was worth it. But knowing I’d have a lot of people behind me, and wanting to help kids learn to love being healthy and active, I told myself that it would be ok. And so, my journey to the marathon had begun.

From the start, I knew I needed to train. But exactly what that meant, I wasn’t so sure. So I started researching it. After waiting for 15 years to do this, there was no way I was going in unprepared. I wanted, not only to start the race, but to finish it too. Little did I know, some people don’t. So I mapped out a timeline, moving backwards from race day, and made a plan to up my workouts from 3-4 times per week to 5-6, and switch from my typical mix of running, spin class, yoga and Physique 57 DVDs (ok and yes, the occasional Buns of Steel video circa 1980-something), to solely running. By mid-June, I was logging 35+ miles a week. I had never run so much in my entire life. And though I still wasn’t sure I loved it, I was driven to continue, by the challenge. When six miles became a breeze and eight miles not so tough, I only wanted to get to the double digits. Even if it meant spending three hours early on a Saturday, pounding pavement until my legs felt like jelly, I began to feel excited about 11 or 13 or 15 miles.

The funny thing, when I look back, is that all of this time when I was training alone, I could have been doing it with a team. I’d signed up with this charity after all. Hundreds of people are part of it. It makes sense though, really. Whether it’s due to having lived in this city so long, or because I’m single, or because I’m really an introvert at heart, outside of work, most of what I do is by myself. I never work out with friends; I can’t stand shopping with friends; I go to the movies alone, I sit at coffee shops alone, I stay home to work on my writing or painting, and I do it alone. I’ve come to be very comfortable doing things on my own, so why would this be any different?

Well then I blinked, and it was September—the big day only a month-and-a-half away, and the 18-mile marathon tune-up staring me in the face. Three loops around Central Park. The nerves set in. And I suppose maybe as a result, I started to think it might be nice to have some support. So having recalled seeing a charity team email about a pre-race group stretch on a particular hill, the morning of, I headed out to join them. And I realized then, that all this time, I’d been missing out on something really great—a team, made up of people whose goal was the same as mine, who could challenge me; and coaches, most of them seasoned marathoners, who would teach me.

So from that day forward I trained with them whenever I could. And I saw a whole new side to running for a charity. Sure, I was still begging for money, posting pleas to friends on Facebook, asking for donations for as little as four dollars, losing sleep over the worry that I wouldn’t meet my fundraising goal. But there was a whole positive side to it too. With the team, instead of routes I’d run a half-dozen times alone and grown bored with, I ran ones I would have never mapped out myself, in neighborhoods I didn’t know or wouldn’t dream of running through alone. One day, it was back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan four times across three bridges. And another it was a day trip to Pennsylvania to run along the Delaware River. Soon 10 miles was a breeze; then 15 was ok; then 20 didn’t frighten me. I even started to like it. And though I never thought I would do this, I started to run without music, and instead with only my thoughts and the sound of my own breath.

Before I knew it, the race was weeks away. I’d finished my two 20-mile training runs in pouring rain, and was ready for whatever Mother Nature had in store for me. I’d raised all of my money, even surpassing my goal, and my family was on their way to cheer me on. Race day was clear in sight. And as much as my thoughts centered around what was to come, I naturally reflected on the months leading up to it. I thought about how doubts along the way had turned to belief. I thought about goals on my list still not completed—that cannot be until that special person comes along—but how this goal, I could achieve without him. I thought about the power of the human spirit that says ‘I will’ and the wonder of the human body that says ‘I can’. And I thought about how, as I was about to conquer 26.2 miles, the skinny legs I’ve wanted all my life were suddenly so much less appealing to me than the strong ones I was born with, that will carry me.

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Moving Forward

September 11, 2014

Even as sensitive a person as I am, I’m always a little surprised that I still cry when this morning comes around; that for not having lost any loved ones and having merely been a witness, on this day every year, the memories still sit at the forefront of my mind. I suppose though, when the wound is so severe, the scars never really do go away. Thankfully, despite never forgetting, we do go on, tending to our busy lives—our current projects, and the tasks of the present.

One of my ‘current projects’ is training for this year’s New York City marathon. And one of my to-do’s for the day, was a long run. I’ve been lucky, with this summer’s unusually pleasant temperatures, to have logged most of my miles outside, but of course, I’ve had to rely on the treadmill here and there too. The treadmill has it’s plusses—the soft surface, no wind to battle—but for nine miles, it’s just boring. So it was my plan, leaving home this morning, assuming there would be no rain, that my long run would actually be a run home from work. Well, unlike the perfect blue sky we awoke to 13 years ago, the one this September 11th morning was overcast and gloomy. And all afternoon, the threat of a storm seemed to linger above us. But at 6:30, to my surprise and delight, the mighty sun had made its way out from behind the dense canopy of clouds. So I would get my fresh air.

But I couldn’t just bolt like that. See, these long runs, I’ve learned, require preparation. And the preparation requires focus, because if even only one thing is forgotten, I could be in for misery at some point along the way– say, for example, last month’s matching half-dollar size blisters, or the other day when I locked my keys inside my apartment and had to wait, sweaty and exhausted after a two-hour run, for my super to come and save me. So first, it’s a lengthy bandaging and wrapping of both of my feet; then, it’s securing my hair back with a strategic placement of bobby pins so to avoid annoying mid-run fly-aways. And then I have to gather my little pack of essentials—my headphones (must have music), ID (in case of emergency), handkerchief (because I always have the sniffles), energy chews (fuel for the journey), and of course keys. So, I went through the routine, did a double-check that I’d covered everything, and then I was off.

Outside, my mind quickly began to wander, assessing my latest aches and pains, mapping my route and water stops and where I’d be when darkness would fall. And in all of my thinking, ironically, I’d sort of forgotten the day, or that it wasn’t just any day, but 9/11. But then at around Gansevoort Street, the running path on the Hudson River Promenade juts a little further westward and the view of downtown Manhattan opens up. So out of nowhere, suddenly right in front of me, I see the Freedom Tower. And the sky, instead of its earlier, sad grey, was now the most beautiful backdrop, in swirls of pink and white and blue, like cotton candy. Almost instinctively, my arm went up in a fist, like a “woop woop” cheer. And then, worried someone might have seen it and misinterpreted it, I brought it down as quickly as it had shot up. Of course, I wasn’t cheering for the day, but that we’re still here, rebuilt, standing strong.

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I continued on my way as the sun set. And as I curved around the southern-most tip of the island to begin heading northward, I was stopped again, this time to see the tower aglow against the night sky, and to its right, the illuminations of the former towers, reaching upward. I know it sounds sappy, but it took my breath away.

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And then from the bridge, looing back at Manhattan…

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As I write this, again I think it’s strange, that after my morning in tears, as the day went on, I’d almost forgotten it was September 11th. I will never associate the word happy with this date, but on my run, I was glad to have been reminded of it again, seeing the Freedom Tower before me, and glad that instead of feeling sad, I felt propelled to move forward, with my head lifted, proud and strong.

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Afternoon in the Park

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Whenever I whine to my sister about distractions that seem to constantly be getting in the way of my writing, she says that if I want to really finish my manuscript—which I’ve been talking about and toiling over, for way too long now—I need to work like I’m on a deadline. I have to act as if I’m turning it in for a grade. And sometimes, I need to say no, even if I really want to say yes. Like this past weekend, Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend of beach season…where everyone in New York City gets out of town.

I got on the pale-skin bandwagon at least a decade ago, after years in Florida, striving to achieve a permanent honey brown. These days, I accept my naturally fluorescent-white complexion (that has only become more blinding by living in the north), and have gotten used to the ritual of tanning by way of a bottle. Still, a little Vitamin D will always do a body good, and who doesn’t love a day at the beach? So when my friend invited me to head out with her on Monday, I jumped. But then the scene of me standing on the rooftop, shouting that I have FINALLY FINISHED MY BOOK flashed in my head. And though I really wanted to say yes, I had suck it up and politely decline. Because as much peace as the beach is to me, the hot sun on my skin, the powdery sand the most comfortable bed, it’s a place to shut off and not feel guilty about doing so.

So I’d turned down Robert Moses, but I still needed a plan. Finally seeing sunshine after the long, grey, winter, almost overnight, the trees alive again with lacy leaves, the sky a comforting, chalky blue, I felt like I’d be sinning, staying cooped up inside my apartment, or anywhere inside for that matter. But ‘outside’ in New York City pretty much means a day at the park, and a day at the park—be it Central Park or Prospect Park, Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, or even Washington Square Park (though the bravery quotient in the squirrels there has me a little on edge)—means a day of napping in the grass. But then it came to me—Bryant Park. I’ve been there countless times for summer movies, and I tell myself I should visit more during the weekday lunch hour so to maybe find my husband, but I don’t think I’ve really ever given it enough credit. It really is a masterpiece, with the feel more of a classic garden than your typical city park. Aside from its central lawn, that is the only part of it I’ve really ever paid attention to, there’s a bubbling fountain, two grand tree allées, ping pong tables and Pétanque, a carousel, a reading room, and best… for a writer… café tables and chairs lined all along its promenade. So as my friend headed to the beach, I packed my bag…and headed for midtown.

When I arrived at the Bryant Park subway station, it being one I rarely travel through, I was clueless as to which staircase would lead me where, above ground. So I chose the nearest one, and lucky me, I landed in a quiet corner where an empty table was calling my name. I sat down and positioned my chair inward, so that just beyond the sprawling blanket of wild—or at least wild-looking—ivy in front of me, there was the lawn with families picnicking, children skipping, an intermediate yogi repeatedly practicing his headstand and tumbling; and bordering that, the park’s perimeter trees, behind which stands a wall of city buildings. The trees planted in Bryant Park are London plane trees, the same species in one of my favorite places in Paris, the Jardin des Tuileries. They can grow to be 120 feet tall. I sat under one so high I couldn’t see the top of it, I thought it must’ve been at least that. Tiny sparrows played in the shrubs, pigeons pecked at crumbs near my feet, and high above, a covey of others sang songs to one another from tree to tree, and zoomed in flight from lamppost to lamppost, making me jealous, wishing I too could fly. The sun peaked through the canopy of leafy branches, warming the shady ground where a father and son played chess, and two wrinkly, white-haired ladies gossiped with iced teas, and an odd couple walked hand-in-hand. I wrote, alone in my green corner, and in between words, would pick my head up to just watch, in awe of the beauty surrounding me, even despite the city bustling fifty feet away. It was perfect…

Almost perfect…

About an hour in, at one of my pauses, I noticed a man approaching my table. He was in his early 60s I would guess, dressed nicely, appearing clean. There was nothing about him that alarmed me. I figured he had a question; needed directions, or the time. After all, I am the one people pick out amongst a crowd at the post office to ask if I think their package has enough postage on it. I’m used to strangers. “I noticed you’re writing,” he said. “And I just couldn’t help but admire the magical quality you have, here on this beautiful day, working so peacefully. I used to write poetry and I know, sometimes you can be searching for the perfect word for hours, and it helps to just look into the distance.” Ok. Not what I expected, but he kind of nailed it! It was, in fact, a beautiful day, and the scene to me, did feel magical. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s really perfect.” And then I remembered his mint green pants and his fedora. I’d seen him earlier, walking around with a younger man at his side. Thieves? I reached, nonchalantly, down to my bag that I’d nestled in between my ankles, making sure it was still there; that his chit-chat wasn’t really a way of distracting me while his pick-pocket sidekick got to work. After years in New York, as sad a truth it is, you learn to watch out for this. But my bag was there. All good. “So are you writing poetry?” he asked. “A novel,” I replied. “Wow,” he said back with a bow of his head. “Great that you have a novel in you at your age. You’re not writing the sequel to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ are you?” Seriously? Never mind the fact that I’m pretty sure there’s already a sequel, and maybe even a third volume—Eewww!! Where was he hoping this would go? “No. I’m working on something of my own,” I replied with a disapproving shake of my head. After another two minutes of trying to engage me, he got the hint, offered his best wishes and finally parted.

A while later, a homeless lady came up to me asking for change, and then a toothless man asking to borrow my pen. Ok, fine. Minor distractions. Back to work. Then some time later, a pasty kid with a choppy Mohawk and an array of haphazardly placed tattoos and a pierced septum came up and introduced himself as an image consultant and tried to convince me to take his card. Yeah, thanks but no thanks. I think I’ll stick to the path I’m on…image wise. Soon enough, he noticed my disinterest and walked away and again, I got back to work. Then the man two tables down from me, who had been quiet and keeping to himself the whole afternoon, started rummaging through belongings he had stuffed into a collection of tattered, plastic grocery bags. And then he broke out in a fit of maniacal laughter. And that sent me packing.

I closed my notebook, happy with what I’d accomplished for the day, feeling ok to call it quits. It was six o’clock and I was hungry. I took a look around once more before leaving, and felt thankful—for the beauty surrounding me…and even for some of the crazy. I mean, after all, that’s New York.

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Thoughts From a Wise Old Fish

Last week, as I scrolled through my feeds on Twitter and Facebook, I came across a flurry of posts with links to lists of the best commencement speeches from the last three decades. One that appeared more than once, that I had heard of, (having found it in book form a few years back), but had not actually ever heard, was David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address to Kenyon College titled “This is Water.”

Having been curious as to what it was about since thumbing quickly through the hardcover version, I decided one night after settling under the covers before bed, to listen to the twenty-two minute video of it on YouTube. When it was finished, beyond feeling disappointment that it hadn’t been the speech at my own graduation, I wished that somehow it could become required listening—or the transcript, required reading—something that every human being, in order to move along, onto adulthood was required to ingest. The speech begins with Wallace bringing up the cliché that a liberal arts education is about teaching students how to think, and from there he moves on to talk about how, how to think translates in what to think about. He talks about how in order not to be ‘dead’ while here on this earth, we need to redirect our thoughts from being focused on ourselves and be aware of the people and the world around us; need to veer away from the automatic tendency to see everything as being about us and thus be bothered or irritated when things are a way we don’t like, or an inconvenience to us.

I was tempted to play it again, it was that compelling, and though Mr. Wallace starts out by saying he is not a wise old fish, his are words of wisdom. With my eyes falling shut, I decided that instead of listening again right then, I might schedule a monthly recurring appointment to play it, so to always have it in mind, and because it’s probably one of those things that every time you hear it, you get a little something different out of it. My take-away that night was recognizing that yes, living in this crazy, non-stop, crowded city, I am constantly irritable and maybe, it would be worth my while to try to not be. I would actually love to become good at walking into an annoying situation (hmmm, let me think of one) and not be bothered by it… to maybe even find some morsel of joy in it.

So I decided that the next morning, I would start practicing. I would try, as Mr. Wallace said, to take the focus away from myself and really be aware of my surroundings. And I would make a conscious effort to reprogram my automatic reaction to whatever it was I was confronted with, and maybe look at it a different way. So I started with a situation that on a daily basis drives me almost to the point of insanity. And that is my commute.

I have written about life on the L before. Of all the trains that have been part of my quotidian ritual throughout my nearly two decades of living in New York City, I think, in terms of the morning rush hour, it just may be the worst. This is no exaggeration. The morning L train commute was one of the first cons on my list years ago, when I was struggling with the decision of whether or not to finally make the move to Brooklyn. The early-morning crowd is almost always near intolerable, with people clogging up the doorways, unwilling to move so that others can board. And the bikes and backpacks! Let us not forget the bikes and backpacks.

So there I was waiting on the platform. When the train pulled up and the doors opened, I did as I normally do and pushed my way into the car in search of an empty patch of floor. Once in place, I rearranged my bags, taking one from my shoulder and positioning it in between my calves so to make room for the surrounding bodies. And as others behind me did the same—pushing to get in too—I noticed one area that appeared empty and had me thinking “Why isn’t anyone filling up all of that space?” I realized soon after, that it was occupied by two small people who didn’t stand tall enough to immediately be seen. It was a pair of little girls, the older one probably nine, the little one maybe six. Their mother stood a few inches away.

I guessed from their attire that they were Orthodox Jews, the mother with no visible hair on her head, wearing a turban and the girls dressed, not in neon jeans and sparkly sneakers like most of the mini-gals I see in the city, but sweetly—or conservatively—in long skirts, tights and Mary Jane-style shoes, and blouses with cardigan sweaters. They both wore glasses and had their fuzzy, wheat-colored curls, pulled back in short ponytails.

 

When the train leaves the Bedford Avenue station in Williamsburg, it traverses the East River to Manhattan and does so underwater, which makes for a rather bumpy ride that lasts a solid two minutes at least. As I always make sure to before this long stretch, I reached for what empty space there was on the pole next to me and held on with a strained grip. The mother, standing right beside me, was barely secure, at the same pole but instead of holding onto it, leaning against it with her shoulder. We took off and soon the car was shaking turbulently as the train barreled through the tunnel. I saw that neither of the girls was holding onto anything. I wasn’t sure if this was out of comfort or fearlessness, the two of them—little New Yorkers—likely accustomed to riding the subway, or if it was them simply being aloof. I thought immediately upon seeing the three of them, that they sort of looked to be in a world all to themselves.

We rode along. And about midway through the river, I noticed the mother reach into her bag and begin digging around. Of course! Her daughters were hungry. After a few seconds of rummaging, she pulled out and handed to each of them, a peeled and ready-to-eat hard-boiled egg. A pungent, sulfurous odor entered the airspace. Faces winced as the waft hit them. But not one of the three so much as batted a lash. So with eggs in hand—as if it they were microphones, because that’s how kids hold hard-boiled eggs—the girls simultaneously sunk their teeth into the soft whites.

The ride through the tunnel was beginning to feel eternal what with some stranger’s pillowy backside resting too comfortably on my hip, and my hunger intensifying at an uncomfortable rate as it often does at this hour of the morning. As we sped on, the older girl continued to eat slowly. She looked to be enjoying the snack, or at least that she was satisfied by every bite and eager for the next one. But she was captivated by something else within her view, not paying attention the dry, 13-minute yolk that crumbled onto her hand and down to the floor that I, or one of my fellow passengers might later step on and track across the train car. The younger girl, though still holding onto her egg, had given up on it and was instead, half a finger deep into her nose, digging like it was the bottom of a frosting can, trying to scoop out the last of the sugary goodness. And then, just as I expected, though I will never understand why they do this—kids again—she pulled it from her nose and stuck it in her mouth and began to suck, as if it were a lollipop direct from Candyland. And then, as if she hadn’t quite gotten her fill, she repeated the whole thing in the other nostril.

Finally, I felt the train’s deceleration underfoot as we approached First Avenue. The mother lifted her shoulder from the pole and signaled to the girls that this was their stop. The little one was stuck in la-la land excavating. The older one was still munching on her egg, but as the train transitioned from the dark tunnel into the illuminated station, recognizing that break time was in fact up, she pushed what remained of it into her mouth with an open palm, where it settled into one cheek, producing a comical bulge from underneath her paperwhite skin. And concerned perhaps, by how far from ladylike this emergency act was, she moved a delicate hand in front of her face as she worked to finish chewing.

As the mother ushered her daughters out of the train at First Avenue and the new batch of commuters stepped in to merge with the rest of us, I made eye contact with a guy who I had noticed earlier, who had witnessed the whole thing alongside me. He smiled and then we quietly chuckled.

There I was on the L, not annoyed, but actually smiling. I made an effort to look at the situation differently and managed to find a morsel of joy. And really, it wasn’t so difficult.

So…Thank you Mr. Wallace for your thoughts. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that you are missed. Likewise, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that you were, whether you ever thought it or not, indeed, a wise old fish.

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On Compliments

On a recent visit home, I had a chance to see a group of friends from childhood, one of which is expecting a baby with his wife. He, I’ve known since the first grade; she, I met five years ago when they first started dating. But she is pure loveliness and fits in so well, I feel like I’ve known her my whole life. One evening, as she and I were chatting about her impending motherhood and I was waiting with my hands on her belly hoping for a kick, I told her husband that he found a really great woman and I was a happy to have her in our circle. As he thanked me, I went on to thank him for not letting her get away. And I told him that it felt really good to be able to say that and genuinely mean it. He delivered a second [this time modest] thank you as if taken aback by the sincerity of it all. And then I told him the story of when I first learned the importance of giving compliments.

I was probably six years old, and my sister Kristina five. We were with our mother at the checkout in the local grocery store, this rinky-dink place called Pantry Pride where everything was a little dingy and seeing a pretty face was like seeing sunshine after weeks of gloomy weather. The cashier—I remember her like she’s in front of me now—was a petite but slightly plump woman that I’m guessing was around 60 (though who really knows, because how accurately can a six year old gauge one’s age?). She had dark grey shoulder-length hair that she wore in big curls like from hot rollers, and thin wire-frame glasses that sat on the end of her nose. Her cheeks were a soft pink, like the color of raspberry sherbet, and her lipstick, a few shades darker. She had pale blue eye shadow on her eyelids and her eyelashes were long and lush. It sounds garish I know—first for a 60-year-old woman, next, for the grocery store—but it wasn’t. Honestly, she looked just like Mrs. Claus to me, but of course, in a different outfit.

Kristina was mesmerized the woman’s beauty as she watched her ringing up our groceries. She tugged at our mom’s arm and whispered up to her, “Mommy she’s pretty.” My mother looked back at her and replied, “She is pretty honey, but you need to tell her. If you don’t, she’ll never know.” So Kristina (who usually was not shy, but here, so in awe, was hiding behind our mom) mustered up the courage to lift her little head up to the woman and said, “You’re pretty.”

The woman beamed.

“See?” my mother said on the way out of the store. “Did you notice how she smiled when you told her? Whenever you have something nice to say about someone, you should say it to them. If you keep it to yourself, how will they know?” We nodded, acknowledging her instructions. “When you give a person a compliment, it makes them happy.”

I tell this story often, and whenever I do, I think yes, how wonderful it is that with something as simple as a few kind words, we are able to make one another happy, even if we’re strangers. As far away as that day in the grocery store is, I will never forget it. What a great lesson I learned from my mother that afternoon.

I have carried it with me ever since.

I’ve been absent for some time I know. A friend asked at dinner a few nights ago, “What happened to your blog? I haven’t seen a post in forever.” He pushed. “Are you done? Finished with it? On to something new?”

I hated hearing that anyone would ever think I just quit.

It’s not possible that I could ever run out of things to talk about and want to write them. It’s more that I sometimes lack the motivation to get my thoughts out and into words. And in time, I begin to doubt whether they are even worthy of being shared.

Thankfully, I always bounce back. The time away—the period of inactivity—can in itself become the motivation. You’re on a break with no plans of getting up and starting again and then one day you wake up and think: It’s been so long. I miss it. I must get back!

And so here I am… with some good things to come, that hopefully you, my dear readers, will find worthy of me sharing.

Hello Again

Blackout!

Never will a New York City summer go by that I don’t think back to those two days ten years ago, when against the black sky, the city lights were dark, and instead we could see the stars; when outside we sat on our stoops drinking beer, and in our apartments, where the air was hot and still, cold-water showers were our only relief: The Blackout of 2003.

At the time, I was working at a small design studio that occupied the garage of an old brick building in the West Village. Our space was simple and spare with concrete floors, white walls, and industrial divided-light windows high overhead. It was typical, throughout the day, when clouds would shift in the sky, that the sunshine, which often spilled down on us, would disappear intermittently.

It was a little after four in the afternoon, while I was away from my desk, that the dimness rolled in that day. Initially, I thought it was just another dense fleet of clouds, but then realized that the lights had actually gone off. And my co-worker, who typically sat quietly clicking away in AutoCAD was suddenly banging his mouse in a fit of frustration, shouting obscenities at his monitor.

During the blackout of ‘77, the two of us were crawling around in diapers, so at the lights going out —even at seeing our neighbors standing in their doorways—I don’t think either of us imagined a power outage spread across New York and a good chunk of the Northeast. Aside from that, memories of September 11th still echoed pretty clearly and I know that I for one, was still on edge. So like a dirty drug in the bloodstream, within seconds, panic was coursing through my veins, and my mind naturally went to thinking that they were at it again, and that this was only the beginning of something much larger and much darker.

I felt a tingling in my palms and then that familiar clamminess that haunts me when my fight-or-flight defenses kick in. I reached for the phone to call home, but the line was quiet and cell service was out. Then I remembered: My sister Kristina who had been up for a quick trip with her, at the time, on-again-off-again boyfriend Paul, was still in the city, scheduled to fly home that evening. My heart was on the floor. Thoughts of terrorists and planes ran rampant in my head. And then my co-worker relayed news that it appeared to be nothing more than a good old-fashioned blackout, and I could breathe again.

Still, I worried about my sister. But then, as if it was being confirmed that we did indeed possess the telepathic abilities we so very much believed in as children, Kristina walked in. A chill ran the length of my body. Only moments before, the thought had crossed my mind that I might never see her again. “How did you know to come here?” She looked at me, shaking her head, her sapphire eyes beginning to water. “There’s no way I was leaving you here and never seeing you again.” She burst into tears. And as I did too, I grabbed her in my arms, knowing the root of her worry was the same as mine had been. “It’s not terrorists Kris,” I said, gasping through sobs. “It’s just a blackout.”

We cried until we came to our senses, finally realizing, we didn’t have time to waste. We had work to do. Our first mission? To pick up Kristina and Paul’s luggage that was in storage for them, at their hotel…in Times Square.

Everyone who’s visited New York knows it’s a pedestrian city (note: this was pre-Citi Bike), and everyone who lives here is accustomed to walking every day. But when the buses are overcrowded and the subways are at a halt, traffic lights are down and walking is the only option, it’s a whole other story—more like a citywide march that everyone participates in. So they we were, under the still scorching sun, on a 30-block hike uptown, amongst the hot…sweaty…complaining masses.

After another hour, as we headed back, down to Soho where I was living, reality had really set in. First, there was the question of dinner, our collective hunger growing steadily with each stride, and the fact that any food I had at home could not be cooked. Then there was the heat and the more unfortunate fact that no power meant no AC in my studio apartment where we would sleep like sardines. I would need to locate candles. And then it dawned on us, more importantly, we needed to locate Taryn, another friend in town, scheduled to fly out that night, who at that point, was most certainly stranded as well.

As we turned down Thompson Street, I looked to the bench outside my building, and to my relief, saw that familiar head of brown curls, the lanky pair of legs and the converse high tops. She was there. We rushed to meet her, and for a second, I felt like a mother bear, with all my cubs, safely in my care.

After a quick regroup, we pooled what cash we had in our wallets and split up. Kristina and Paul made a beer run to the deli and Taryn and I headed to Ben’s Pizza, that thanks to a wood-burning oven and a guy named Tito who had lived in my building for 25 years and was manning the door for the sake of crowd control, was one of the few places open for business. T and I lucked out standing next to a skinny, model couple that wasn’t as concerned about eating as we had been. When they overheard our frustration at the 2-slice per person limit they said that we could have their extra two. Great! Because in our minds, yes, there was the worry that it might be some time before we would eat again. So we split six slices between the four of us. [Never mind the fact that this cost us $30 because the man behind the counter took payment from each of us and when we tried to dispute, threatened, “You no pay, you no get pizza.”] 

Back at my building, we drank beers on the front stoop and were content with plain old conversation as entertainment. Above us, the sky was one black dome of stars, which for anyone who knows this city, is a rare spectacle and one of amazing beauty. At one point, someone said they were worried there might be looting, like there had been back in ’77. I shook my head, knowing that after what we had been through two summers before, there was a solidarity in the city that no one, no matter how down-and-out they were, would dare disrespect.

After a second trip to the deli later in the night, not for beer again, but to lean, for a few seconds, against the still cool refrigerator doors, Kristina and I stopped at a payphone at the end of the block to call our parents. In front of us, there was a man, that by the sound of it, was also reaching out to a loved one. At his mention of being able to see the stars, I recognized his unmistakable voice as belonging to none other than Wallace Shawn. Well of course—because what’s a night in New York without at least one celebrity run-in, right?

In the stairwell of my building, a kind neighbor lit the way with votive candles that we were beyond thankful for, climbing four flights in pitch-black darkness. Inside my apartment, I lit whatever candles I could find, and we took turns taking cold showers. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve welcomed water at an Arctic temperature raining down on me. When it came time to go to sleep, Paul, for some odd reason, was awarded my twin bed, while Kristina, Taryn and I slept on layers of blankets and pillows spread out across the tiled kitchen floor. As with any slumber party, we stayed up talking until our eyes finally fell shut.

I look back on that summer ten years ago and think how lucky I was that the day a blackout hit, I had three friends there with me. When I would have been all alone, probably scared to death in the dark, I wasn’t. Would I have ever imagined, with the heat, the hunger, no money, no subway, that this saga would turn out one I’d someday laugh reminiscing about? Had you told me this was how it would unfold, I probably would have waved a hand, tossed my head and said something along the lines of such an idea being far-fetched, or ‘never in a million years’. Or maybe I’d just look back at you straight and say that I thought it was absolutely, totally and in all other ways, ‘inconceivable’.

*For a great visual trip down memory lane, see Gothamist’s look back here.

 

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Home Sweet City

home sweet city

On a recent weekend out of the city, a young cousin of mine asked me a question every New Yorker has asked their self at least once—a question I have asked myself more times than I care to think about: Will I live in New York City forever? I looked out the car window, past his puerile face to the bucolic scene in blues and greens—the perfect azure sky, the rolling hills dotted with lush, leafy trees. I shrugged my shoulders, flashed a face of doubt and said simply, “I don’t know.”

It’s not that I can’t bring myself to imagine ever living elsewhere. I daydream about faraway places all the time—about living in a quaint Parisian apartment on a narrow cobblestone street in Montmartre, or a charming, light-filled flat in London, or even packing up and heading somewhere closer to home like Chicago or Seattle, just to see what it’s like. But what James was asking was not so much could I leave New York, but could I ever leave the city. I knew this because of the way he asked—the sweet innocence in his voice, as if he wondered how anyone could prefer urban chaos over rural quietude. I turned to him and asked, “Do you like New York?” He said back gently, but assuredly, “No. I like it here.”

As a child, when I would sit down with my paper and pencil to draw, it was rolling hills and barns that came to life on my page– this despite having grown up on the beach where palm trees stood instead of pines. Was there was a longing within me? Maybe. But then along came Seventeen magazine and its editorials that pictured young city gals in Bohemian dresses carrying brown paper bags of vegetables down Soho streets. Those images made my heart skip a beat. As soon as I could go, I headed for Manhattan. And as many times as the question of staying forever has crossed my mind, here I still am.

I tried explaining to James what it is about the city that gets me…what it is that, as backwards as it sounds, actually puts me at ease. I’m not sure he grasped it—perhaps for no reason other than at twelve, knowing home only to be the quiet country suburbs, he simply can’t relate. I know I’m not alone however, in my love for city life. Just last week I came across this letter in an old issue of AD Russia, a printout of the English translation literally falling from the magazine while I sat thumbing through it in search of an article for my boss. Eugenia Mikulina, who at the time was editor, gets it exactly…

 

The City

 

Well put Ms. Mikulina.

As for my future, well– I don’t know where life is going to take me, or if I’ll ever feel a pull to any place quite like the one I felt that brought me here. But I like to go with the flow, take whatever comes my way. So if an opportunity for a new place to call home ever does come around– even if it is the country– I’ll consider. Until then, I’ll be content here, in the city…with its uneven pavement (on which I get to walk each and every day) and crowded subways (where I get to see faces and overhear stories I would otherwise never know)… the tiny, expensive apartments (where I have learned to find happiness living with less)…the bumper to bumper traffic (where I sit back and enjoy the ride) the noises, the smells… the glitz and glam and grit and grime that makes the city what it is… the place for now at least, that I call home.

Well I’m A Middle Child, So…

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When you are born a middle child, like I was (second in a line of three girls), people are never shy in sharing with you, their thoughts on why you are the way you are. You’re sensitive; you need a lot of attention; and my favorite, which I heard just last week: you’re dealing with a Jan Brady complex. A lot of it, I laugh off, but on occasion, I do find it interesting to analyze what effect my birth order actually did have on me. Maybe it is because I wasn’t the eldest, who was trusted, and handed all of the responsibility by mom and dad, or because I wasn’t the youngest, who was always given that extra nudge, coddled just a little more, that I played alone as a child and that it was me who decided to go to school 1100 miles away from home and be ok on my own for the next two decades. Perhaps there is a correlation; I really don’t know. But one thing I am pretty sure is a result of being stuck in the middle all those years, is that I always need that pat on the back that says I’ve done well—that little bit of reassurance to bolster my confidence, even when it’s for something I have no doubt I’ve executed without a hitch.

Case in point:

It was last week, when my boss put me on the task of organizing the menu for a working dinner with a new project team which included, in addition to him and a few of my co-workers, two outside consultants and a [very important] client from China. Sure, I could do this, no problem. If there is anything that I know for certain I’m good at, it’s preparing a beautiful meal. From choosing the dinner plates and table linens to arranging the flowers, and writing the place cards and crafting the menu itself, I’m your girl. I love to do it and I know I do it well.

So the meeting was on Friday and I got word end of day Wednesday. Fine. A day to plan was plenty. Before leaving for the evening I sent a kind inquiry to my point person for the Chinese client, asking if they had any preferences for our dinner, or, more importantly, if they had any dietary restrictions.

Mid-morning the following day, I received a note back that read something along the lines of: “Healthy, not too greasy…Greasy food is not good choice… Small pieces of beef are ok…as long as not greasy.”

I kid you not.

I read it three times, during which my mind toggled back and forth between pictures of a raw, Gwyneth Paltrow-style spread of “healthy” food, and the carnivore’s delight: a juicy, rare steak. I was sure that this dinner meeting with our Chinese client was not the occasion to experiment with either extreme however, so I started thinking of more universally appealing options– a menu that fell somewhere sort of in between crazy-healthy and indulgent. Ideas began swirling. I started looking at websites for all of the local ‘purveyors of fine foods’, browsing catering menus. Nothing seemed quite right. It was that “small pieces of beef” line that kept throwing me. Would he mention beef if he didn’t want beef? No! He wanted beef. Beef, beef! Citarella had a Filet Mignon platter and at Dean & DeLuca there was a Provence Grill platter or a Pan-Asian platter. (Though, a Pan-Asian platter is weird for a Chinese client, right?) Anyway, a group of eight was really too small to go the catered platters route, so I figured I’d put something together myself, prepared of course, as I don’t have a working kitchen at my disposal.

I took a venture to the nearby Whole Foods thinking skewers, and made a beeline to the dinner-ready window. Et voila! There they were, piled high, calling my name. I would do a few chicken, a few beef, a mixed greens salad and a nice side of grilled veg for the non-meat eaters, and a summer pearl couscous (or some equally delicious starch). Well, my hopes were dashed as fast as the brilliant plan had come to me—when the man behind the counter explained that the skewers need to be reheated and that the recommended method of doing so is low heat on a stovetop. Ok, so skewers were out and it was on to Plan B. At least I got the starch and the salad.

On the walk back to the office I shuffled through the list of restos in the vicinity that with some sweet-talking might make me exactly what I wanted and deliver it hot. Then back at my desk it was a call to a new place just around that corner at which I’d recently discovered (and I say this because it’s a sports bar) a surprisingly good menu that includes, what else but skewers.  So after trying to explain to two lovely Irish gals what exactly I wanted to do [and getting nowhere] I was finally connected to the chef himself.

“So I’ll take four orders of the chicken skewers… and…do you have any beef?”

“We don’t have beef skewers but we’ve got steak.”

“Hmmm. Steak could work. What kind of steak?”

“Steak Frites with an herb butter. It’s a prime-aged, grass-fed hangar steak.”

“Is that what I see in the picture on your website?”

“Yes it is.”

“Well that does look delicious. Can you make me three of those medium-rare hold the frites?”

“Three of those, medium-rare, hold the frites. Sure thing.”

“And do you have any sort of vegetable?”

“I got a roasted vegetable– chickpea, tomato, artichoke hearts, asparagus…”

“I’ll take three!”

And at that, everything had fallen into place.

At 6:30 my culinary work of art was finished—the paper takeout cartons were traded for ceramic serving dishes and made pretty with sprigs of watercress and bright purple leaves of radicchio, and under the lights, gently dimmed for effect, our minimal black dinnerware looked elegant. The glasses had a delicate sparkle to them, and somehow the silverware looked shinier than usual. Any trace of Whole Foods or sports bar menu had disappeared, and now it was nothing less than a gorgeous feast. I opened a bottle of white and a bottle of red, fluffed the lettuce greens one last time and smiled to myself, content with my little masterpiece, pleased with my mission accomplished. But of course, there was still one thing I would wait for….

The next morning at work, there were the expected rumblings around the office about how the meeting had gone, and from the boss-man, there were a handful of thank yous—to everyone on the team, for all the hours they’d put in, for all the hard work. Of course, my contribution was minor in comparison—a day of my life instead of weeks—but when it came to me, there was no acknowledgement at all, like the dinner had never happened…or better, as if I’d tossed my hands up and served McDonald’s to our guests, paper wrappers and Happy Meal boxes included. So I fixed dinner. Still, it was my effort. And I wanted that reassurance that my effort was appreciated; maybe even impressive. When noontime came, there was still not a word. Was it that he had forgotten? Or had he said nothing on purpose? Was my version of beautiful so far from his? My ‘masterpiece’ really nothing so special at all? My mind began in a downward spiral. But wait… There was still hope. The day was not over. There was still his goodbye.

And then there before me, it happened. Or… it didn’t. “Good night,” he said, buttoning his raincoat. “I’ll see you Monday.” My heart sank. And from behind my blank-faced “goodnight” in reply, my inner Jan Brady set off in hysterics—one part frustrated, one part confused and the rest just sad. And I felt like chasing after him in search of an explanation.

Wait a minute here? What about me? Did I not do well? Didn’t you mean to thank me?

It was an hour later when the note came. Via email. A thanks for a beautiful dinner and a job well done.

So, in the end, however late it arrived, I got what I wanted… or, being the middle child I am, what I needed. I guess that the lesson this time—because there’s always a lesson, no matter how grown up we are— is that beyond always trying to do my best, I should learn to live with the possibility that I might not get the pat on the back and feel content enough with the knowledge that I have done the job well.

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