Thursday, October 1, 2009

Running to Stand Still

I got an unexpected package the other day. It was on the stoop when I got home from Target, where I’d gone to buy humidifiers in preparation for the swine flu pandemic. I had to take the first one I bought back, because it didn’t have automatic shut-off. The instructions said:

The humidifier tank empties in 6 hours. Be sure to turn it off when the tank is empty.

I don’t see the point of turning on a machine that’s supposed to help you sleep, if you have to wake up in the middle of the night to turn it off. Mike told me not to worry about consumer warnings like that, because “they’re written by attorneys who are paid to quantify the risk of unlikely outcomes.” Mike talks like that because he’s paid to work as an attorney. It’s true that nobody has ever told me a tragic tale about a humidifier that ran out of water and blew up. But I don’t need examples from real life to convince me of things. I base most of my decisions on the anticipation of a worst-case scenario, even if it’s one I make up in my head.À Why should a humidifier be any different?

My sister recommended Target because they sell humidifiers in animal shapes. Target’s pharmaceutical department had not one animal-shaped humidifier for sale but three: an elephant, a penguin, and a frog. All had automatic shut off functionality. I liked that the mist sprays out of the animals’ faces too, even though from an anatomical standpoint, it really only makes sense with the elephant. The penguin just looks like it’s exhaling.

I know this because I bought the penguin and the elephant. I spurned the frog. I have disliked frogs since ninth grade biology, when I was handed one soaked in formaldehyde and fastened to a plate with stick pins. Nothing turns you onto a species like slicing into its hard, cold, rubbery body. After we dissected the amphibian, in fact, we advanced to a fetal pig. Only two things crossed my mind as I cut into that pig. One was whether pathologists, over time, develop an aversion to living humans. The other was that the fetal pig looked a fair amount like the raw pork loin my mom used to pat down with burger seasoning and put in the oven. I can’t imagine why those heady days of scientific inquiry failed to make a scientist out of me. Or why I hate frogs but don’t mind pigs. At least they didn’t make a pig humidifier. A pig that spits water vapor from its mouth wouldn't seem to be a hot seller during a swine flu outbreak.

In any case, the humidifiers were not my only purchase. It’s taken me over a year to realize that I buy too much when I go to Target. People say they love Target because it’s cheap. I don’t think Target is that cheap. But more to the point, any store is expensive if you spend enough there. I’ve come to believe that the secret to Target’s success is a simple formula, like a ratio of store size to the quantity of merchandise. If you pack enough stuff onto the shelves, and make people walk five or ten city blocks to find the items they need, the average consumer will at some point just start throwing stuff into their cart that they don’t need. Shopaholics start even earlier. My cart the other day was full before I even got to the animal humidifiers. My sister only came to Target to help me pick out the humidifiers, and she left with 125 dollars worth of stuff.

The real key to the Target formula, I think, is tidy stacking. Everything in a suburban superstore is stacked so neatly that it doesn’t appear to be the retail dumping ground that it is. My friend Kate recently wrote me that she overshops at Target because it represents possibility for her. When she’s there, she thinks: that melamine platter and sno-cone machine will be perfect for outdoor entertaining! When she gets home, though, the melamine cracks and the sno-cone machine jams and her hostessing dreams fade to black.B But, of course, she also mentioned the baskets -- the eternal possibility of getting organized. Have you ever wondered why Target sells so many different things you can stack and store stuff in? Is it because stacking bins stack well, so there’s a lot of room to sell them? Maybe, or else they’re meant to sell the promise of stacking at home. The promise of stacking means the prospect of buying more stuff. All those bins and baskets somehow convince you that your house will actually be neater when you bring more stuff home. Target doesn’t care that when you finally get the stacking stuff to your own house where you don’t have shelves the length of a football field to stack your stuff on, you’ll feel disappointed. They don’t care if you bring most of the stuff back. Because broken retail dreams only breed longing for new possibilities. Once you’re inside Target to return something, resistance is futile.

It’s not a coincidence that I started overshopping at Target when I moved to the Midwest. At our Target in New York, the Formula was just not in play. Meaning, if you go to 225th street in the Bronx, you get a glimpse of what happens at Target when stuff is not packed on the shelves, and not neatly stacked. On weekends, it’s so busy and crowded in there that it’s hard to even find stuff you need, let alone stuff you don’t need. When Target isn’t tidy, all that stuff of glittering promise just looks like a bunch of manufactured plastic crap. You don’t want to stroll through the aisles and stock up on paper products or party supplies. You don’t want to take a little more time to look at wicker laundry hampers or composite wood nesting tables. You pretty much just want to buy what you came for and leave.Ë

All of which gets me back to the package on my stoop. After I put my five Target bags down, and the disappointment started to set in, I brought the box in to open it. It was a box of assorted sweet things from Zabar’s, a belated birthday gift, it turned out, from a friend in New York. There was a chocolate babka, a sack of cinnamon rugelach, a little bag of almond biscotti, and a plastic tub of Chris’s Cookies in the shape of tiny sandals, half-eaten watermelons, and hot dogs. All of it was kosher, even the hot dog shaped cookies. My favorite part of the gift was a Chinese take-out container filled with New York themed fortune cookies. They weren’t your typical fortune cookies. One side of the fortune actually bestowed a bit of trivia about New York, like who is New York’s official sister city and how big is the Public Library. The other side had the fortunes.

Starved from my long walk through Target, I opened one immediately and ate it. The fortune read thus:

If you go only once around the room, you are wiser than he who stands still.

I liked it…. a metaphor for life, or at least a reminder that it’s better to do something than do nothing. But then – drained and disenchanted as I stared into the center of a big red bulls eye -- I reconsidered. Are those really words to live by? It depends. If the room in question is on fire, and you need to find a way out of it, it’s definitely better not to stand in a corner and wait for backup. But if the room you’re talking about is say, Target, then this could be a bad personal philosophy. From a budgetary standpoint, standing still is the better path.

Since I wasn’t satisfied with my ambiguous fortune, I decided to try another one. I reached into the container and opened a second cookie. My second fortune read thus:

Before taking steps the wise man knows the object and end of his journey.

W.E.B. DuBois.

I don’t know if W.E.B. Du Bois actually wrote that. I also don’t know how often you get a fortune that contradicts the previous one. But plotting a careful course is pretty much the opposite of walking around the room to keep busy. The Fates must have known that Du Bois is one of my favorite writers of all time. He’s on my short list of people smart enough to be in fortune cookies. Since that other fortune didn’t even have a footnote, I had to conclude that the Fates were actually trying to tell me something.

People don’t overshop the same way in the city because there’s no space anywhere. As I said, I didn't roam aimlessly around the Bronx Target --or Zabar’s. They’re crowded and there’s no room for dillydallying. The slightest hesitation in your step at Fairway can result in violent confrontation, or trampling. But you also can’t shlep a ton of stuff home that easily in the city. Even if you take a cab or have a car, no miracle of stacking bins can change the fact that you still live in an apartment. There’s a certain sustainability about being all crammed together.

City people sometimes lament the consumptive excess of the suburbs, with the mega shopping malls and fast food restaurants on every corner. I don’t think urbanites always look that clearly at the crass consumptive excess they’re part of. But the suburban superstore really isn’t helping us as much as it wants us to think. It doesn’t need so much time and attention. We are wiser, I think, to follow the advice of the venerable W.E.B. Du Bois, who once wrote about shopping at Target: get what you need and get out.

À A friend of ours, Seth, uses the term “fear-based person."

B I embellished the thing about hostess dreams, but the rest is verbatim.

Ë If you want to read some more nuanced opinions about the Bronx Target, and you can stomach all the racism, you might consult this website, where people like Alexandros O and Driesler B spend their free time writing customer reviews. There is also anecdotal proof of my tidy shelves theory.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mastering the Art of Not Working

The morning of my fortieth birthday I slept in. If you’d call “sleeping in” an activity that was over by 7:30 am. A decade or two ago, I'd have called it “waking up early.” But a decade or two ago, I didn’t talk about my life in terms of decades.

The best part of sleeping in was that Mike brought me a cup of coffee in bed. Having coffee in bed is delightful to me, and always makes me think fondly of the year I spent living near Union Square in a microscopic studio apartment. My bed was jammed up so close to the kitchenette that I could reach over and turn on the coffee maker without setting foot on the floor. I pretty much had to drink the coffee in bed too, because it was one of the only pieces of furniture in the apartment. Sometimes I was also just lazy -- I didn’t wake up early enough, or lounged around in bed so long that I was late for work. It’s not like I was out drinking speedball cocktails every night. I was juggling two jobs. But one of them was for the city. Almost everyone in my office – including the guy in the cubicle next to me who moonlighted as a DJ in a strip club – seemed to think our work day had a flexible start time anyway.

The morning of my birthday, I woke up with two things on my mind. One was death. The other was my anxiety dream. It wasn’t my standard issue anxiety dream – where I’m about to take a final exam in a French class I never actually attended. In this anxiety dream, I was back in New York, in the stairwell of a downtown subway stop. My kids were running around, and I was trying to hold up the top heavy Maclaren stroller with my knee, while I rifled through my wallet for my Metro card. Irritated people were pushing past us. As the bell for the next train started going off, I swiped my card and found it was empty. In a rush, I pulled out a ten dollar bill, and fed it into the machine.

Just as the bill slipped out of my fingers, though, I realized that there was another ten stuck to it, underneath. I tried in desperation to get it back. But the card machine didn’t give me the credit. Then, I missed the train. And there I was, standing on the platform -- ten dollars short, with two kids, going nowhere.

I thought about the dream as I sat there that morning, anxiously sipping my fortieth birthday coffee. I couldn’t figure out what it was about the dream that bothered me so much. Missing a train is annoying. But it’s not like missing an entire French class, which could set you up for a lifetime of underachievement. Later that day we took to the kids to the zoo, and I thought about the dream again while I sat on a bench, watching people walk by with choco tacos and goat feed. The dream, I realized then, was completely unrealistic. I do have children. And a Maclaren. But there were other things about it that were too bogus to be taken literally.

New York does have an extensive public transportation system, for example. But I did not take my children on it. It is my opinion that disabled people are the only people who have a harder time getting around on the subway than mothers with small children. There are a lot of good Samaritans in New York who are willing to carry strollers and hold doors. But many of the apparently able-bodied men who ride the subway must secretly suffer from fibromyalgia. Because once you finally do make it down the stairs, through the gate, and into the train lugging your bags, your kids, and your stroller, these tender gents will sit for the entire stretch of Manhattan, watching you and your exhausted children cling to the pole for dear life. The best you can hope for at that point is that another man will finish clipping his fingernails onto the floor in front of you and get off at the next stop. Rather than subject all these well groomed men to my monstrous offspring, I chose to mostly take cabs, where I could strap them into mostly functional seat belts and pay someone to be a good samaritan in the form of a big tip.

Even if I had relied on the subway to get around, though, there was still the matter of the ten dollar bill. I don’t know anybody in New York who buys their metro cards with cash, in such a small denomination. Four rides and several hands of clipped fingernails later, you’d be right back where you started. If you know how to use the touch screen --and the MTA hasn’t set the machine to malfunction mode -- you can buy a new card in less than a minute, and still have time to stroll over to the kiosk and buy some tictacs before the train comes.

And that’s when I realized it. It was exactly ten years from the time I started graduate school in New York, to the time I decided to leave my career as a history professor and stay home full time with my kids. Well -- technically what happened was -- I decided to work part time, and my job decided to let me stay home full time with my kids. But now, after more years than I ever imagined would go by, I haven’t gone right back. Instead, I just get a lot of anxiety when anyone asks me if I’ll “ever work again” – as if staying home with your kids not only isn’t work, but might, in fact, be a terminal condition. I know it’s not true just because my subconscious dreamed it up. But part of me is starting to suspect that those ten years of professionalizing may end up going -- for lack of a better word -- nowhere.

So, maybe that particular career train is already pulling out of the station. I like to think that somehow, the work thing will just work out. But in the end, mastering the art of not working – for me -- might not be about catching up with that train. It might just be about figuring out a new way to get around.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Remember me to Herald Square

Our Whole Foods has a sign in front of each register that says “we card anyone who looks under 40.” I understand the spirit of this policy. People in Wisconsin are concerned about the state’s perpetually lofty numbers of binge drinkers and drunk drivers. I can also see how a young grocery cashier might not be able to distinguish adequately between a thirty-one year old lifeguard in flip flops, and an underage college junior on route to a Coldplay concert. I myself did, on one occasion in high school, dress up in my friend’s mother’s clothes and attempt to buy beer in a liquor store. When I got carded the other day, however, I had to question if they’re going too far. If I’d been trying to buy alcohol illegally, would I walk into a grocery store with two kids and dark circles under my eyes, load up the cart with organic sour cream and fruit bunnies, and use a credit card in my own name? C’mon -- one bottle of wine isn’t enough for one mother to get over a grocery store trip with both her kids, anyway. Standing there with my ID out, I couldn’t resist paraphrasing – quietly, of course, and under my breath -- Craig Robinson’s character from Knocked Up. “You carding old pregnant bitches in here now?”

In your thirties, getting carded can be flattering. But when you’re old as f---, it’s just a nuisance. I’m also starting to feel a little awkward – not to mention unlawful -- about the fact that I haven’t given up my New York state drivers’ license. Before we moved here, Mike had never thought of Wisconsin as a place people move to. If anyone should be clinging to the trappings of our former life, it should be him. He only got a Wisconsin license because his old one expired, it’s true. But it’s still somewhat odd that he’s walking around town with an ID ornamented with a small red barn, while I’m still impersonating an out of towner. Adding insult to injury, I haven’t given up my New York city cell number either, while his blackberry is now a local call.

If I told a New Yorker I was avoiding a trip to the DMV, they’d get right behind my fraudulent choice. Going to the DMV in the city is like going to a third world nation run by a fascist military junta that has kicked both human rights watch, and all of its building mechanics, out of the country. If you can manage to follow the obscure signs through the filthy Herald square building to the section cordoned off for the DMV, you’re rewarded by being packed like sweaty pickles into a single elevator, riding slowing down into the bowels of the building, and getting dumped out right onto a long line of people queued up into the hallway, waiting to be told where to go and wait even longer. Once you’re assigned a number, you go and sit down in a huge cavernous room that feels a bit like a train depot to nowhere, with all the seats facing the same way. All you have to stare at, besides the flashing numbers above the windows, are the angry faces of the DMV people, who only look increasingly enraged with the approach of each new customer.

I had to visit this midtown panopticon once when I was eight months pregnant. I went to register our car, but hadn’t realized that we owed hundreds of dollars in sales tax for buying the car in a neighboring state. I’ll never forget the look on the agent’s face when I finally got to the window, after almost two hours on hot summer’s day. The perceptible glimmer in her eye was one of exhilaration, when she informed me that I didn’t have the correct documentation, and would have to return the next day to endure another round.

The DMV near to our house here is another world altogether. It’s calm, relatively uncrowded, and operated by people who seem to be on the right side of humanity’s survival. I’m not avoiding going there now because I’m lazy, or logistically challenged. A recent New York Times article revealed that some people buy iphones to help organize their lives. But I don’t get behind in my email, overlook appointments, forget my mom’s birthday, or neglect to pick up milk on the way home. For one thing, I don’t have a demanding work life. I’m also too obsessive compulsive to get too caught up in something enjoyable.

I’m just having trouble parting with these last few, remaining markers of my life in Manhattan. I’ve been carrying this ID and phone number with me every day for so many years that they almost feel like part of me. When I look at my pink license with New York State in big aqua letters, and the eight-year old picture of me taken in that Herald Square Hades, I feel nostalgic for a time when I was younger, when I didn’t yet have children, and when I got carded for reasons that make actual sense. When I think of my phone number, I can recall how long it took me – and everyone else -- to get used to the 646 area code, after the phone company ran out of available numbers for 212 and 917. I’ve practically had the same number since I got my first cell phone. There’s even a Seinfeld episode about my area code, which means, I think, that’s it’s now sort of a valuable cultural artifact.

Mike once told me that he held on to his California license for years after he moved to New York. He didn’t drive then, and he didn’t own a car, so it didn’t really matter whether he identified with New York officially or not. But I think a New York license also didn’t fit with his vision of himself at that time. Giving up my pink license for one with a little red barn on it doesn’t really fit with my vision of myself either. But then again – and to paraphrase another scene from Knocked Up -- life doesn’t really care much about your vision. I drive a Subaru now, and buy wine at Whole Foods. I’ll be forty next month, and officially old as f----. How much worse could the red barn really be?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Going Native

Mike told me at dinner Sunday that he had developed a new appreciation for cole slaw since moving to Wisconsin. As he said this, he took a big swig of his micro brew.   What about beer? I asked.   Oh yeah, beer too.   I thought this was all good news.  

The real test will be the brats, though.  When we first moved here last year, our brother in law -- who is from Milwaukee and can build a canoe -- was surprised to learn that Mike really didn't like brats.  

"Interesting," he said, looking as if he were contemplating a paradigm shift.   "Brats are like a way of life here.  To you, they're like, just a word."  

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where have all the good doormen gone?

A few years ago, we rented a beach house in Jamesport, New York. Jamesport is on the south shore of the north fork of Long Island. This distinguishes it from being on the south shore of the south fork of Long Island. The south fork is where one finds East Hampton, catered tiki beach parties, and celebrity megamansions. The north fork has, among other things, an outlet mall, a west nile virus research lab, and an abandoned nuclear power plant. People who vacation on the north fork can sit on the beach and watch the sun set over the south fork. Looking south from East Hampton, though, it’s not even clear that you are part of a forked environment. As far as East Hampton dwellers are concerned, Long Island might well be shaped like a knife.

We preferred the north fork for several reasons. True, there were fewer opportunities to wait in line at a Manhattan-owned gourmet market for coffee and a boysenberry muffin. We were unlikely to spot Alec Baldwin eating a sandwich. But if the north fork wasn’t quite as fancy, it was more affordable. We once rented a cottage out there for an entire summer, which we could manage not only because it was the size of an East Hampton tool shed, but also because the defunct nuclear plant was down the road. The hulking nuclear reactors did tarnish the natural landscape somewhat. But they were an innocuous blight. After a decade of construction, people had decided that all that energy was not worth the cost of a potential evacuation, which would require them to travel 60 miles and cross through New York City to reach the mainland. The thought of fighting traffic at the Holland Tunnel alone must have killed the project.

We only rented the house in Jamesport for one, short week. But it stands out in my memory because of something my older daughter said the day we arrived there. Driving out from the city late on a Friday evening, we were greeted on the front steps by the man who owned the property. He opened the door for us, kindly helped us to bring in some bags, and showed us around a bit before he left. When our daughter returned to the front room a few minutes later and found him gone, she asked, “Where did the doorman go?”

Funny as it was, her confusion also made me realize that my daughters were actually true New Yorkers in a way I never was. Their perception of the world was fundamentally defined by that everyday urban experience. I was thinking recently how odd it must be for the kids that we haven’t seen a single doorman since we moved to Wisconsin. That we almost never ride in an elevator here, despite having taken one up twelve floors several times a day to get to our apartment. That we’ve not heard a single ambulance or fire truck speed past our house blasting a horn. That the playgrounds are not packed with kids, and buzzing with activity. That we never walk to the bagel store after school for a snack. That we never really walk – at least not for functional reasons, or with a lot of other people around.

The kids are happy here. But I do wonder sometimes if this new reality has been a bit jarring for them, at a visceral level. On our recent trip to New York, we stopped in to see Dio, our former doorman. When he opened our cab door, our older daughter got out and threw her arms around him. One of these days, I know, she’ll start to forget him. But somehow I am also sure that the potted plant that now hides our front door key will never elicit the same affectionate response.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sometimes it Snows in April

We just returned from a short visit to New York, our first since we moved away nine months ago. I had a hard time packing for the trip. We had a lot of different activities planned, but it’s also April. The idea of spring in New York can conjure images of blooming crocuses and strappy heels. In fact, April weather is a capricious mix of early spring and late winter. There are long and sunny days, but they still share the stage with heavy rain, blustery frigid air, and sometimes even snow. The weekend weather forecast called for both strappy shoes and rain boots.

But my suitcase chronicles weren’t really about the weather, so much as my identity. I just wasn’t ready to show up in New York feeling like I came from another place. I needed my wardrobe to announce my sense of belonging: I AM BACK, and NOTHING HAS CHANGED.

In many ways, nothing had changed. We were not treated like tourists. Other than a new name for the Triboro bridge, and the bizarre spectacle of moving trucks leaving Manhattan with corporate furniture by the fleet, everything in New York looked very familiar. Our friends were all available to see us. They assured us that we had not been forgotten. Our children are still fond of each other. One of them still refers to our new home as “Misconsin,” and I find that comforting.

Our favorite haunts haven’t changed either. At Balthazar on Friday for lunch, I found myself again amidst crowds of beautiful, well-dressed people who have no apparent need to be at any kind of day job. I celebrated a friend’s birthday for close to three hours. We drank champagne. The birthday girl toasted her inner circle. After the toast, my mind wandered back to another lunch she and I had there, celebrating a different milestone. There we all were, I thought happily to myself -- my old and dear friend, the beautiful jobless people, and me. Just like old times.

We arrived home after the weekend to find that our car battery was dead, and it had snowed the day before. Packing for the trip had been tricky. But unpacking was like a bad hangover. For several nights afterward, I sat on the couch flipping channels like a sullen teenager, trying to talk myself out of alternating feelings of boredom, anger, and buyer’s remorse.

I'm sure we’ll make good memories here. I know we’ll meet more people, and they will eventually come to think of us as good friends. The weather will get warm soon. We will rediscover the joy of having a backyard. The crocuses I planted last fall are already starting to bloom. And I love looking out my window at them, despite the fact that every time I do, they make me think of New York.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

When I first moved to New York City in 1994, it was a game of survival. The chaos and scuffle and enormity of everyday life was such a shock to my system that for a long time, I couldn’t figure out whether I was actually happy there or not. In fact, I recall someone telling me around that time, that it takes a year of living in New York before you even realize how much you hate it. But of course, I can’t remember who that was – it’s all a blur.

I’m sure that narrative of survival doesn’t hold true for everyone. People move to the city for all different reasons, from all different places in life. They are working actors, or unemployed; they don’t know a soul, or they move to be with a girlfriend; they go for school, or to open an art studio with their trust fund; they are illegal immigrants, or foreign consultants; they are gay and move all the way from Ohio, or they’re Irish and grew up in Great Neck. Your identity shapes your sense of place -- how well you adjust to living in a city of millions of people, and skyscrapers so high that the weather is different from top to bottom.

But I suppose the reverse is also true: over time, your sense of place shapes your identity. I think a lot of people who move to New York stay there for the same reasons. The things that they hate about the city become things they can tolerate, while the things they love come to feel like things they can’t live without. The scuffle feels more like a dance over time; there is order in the chaos; and the enormity of the city becomes highly localized. There is no place quite like Madison Avenue, or Astoria, Queens. The Brooklyn Bridge is glorious every time you see it. Central Park is a magical wonderland in the autumn, with winding passageways of vivid color against a backdrop of glistening glass and steel. All year round, there are a zillion places to eat, many open late at night. Perhaps the most addicting thing is the incredible output of creative talent everywhere and always around you in New York, in every professional field. People stay there to be part of that creative buzz. Maybe they came there because they already were.

Over time, I came to think of myself as a New Yorker. But like a library book, it turned out that identity for me was borrowed. It had a time stamp on it. Graduate school turned into work, dating turning into a family, and some of the very things I used to think I couldn’t live without became reasons I wanted to leave. (When all those smart and creative people need to get their kids into preschool, for example, buzz and stress blend suddenly and curiously into one). As magical as Central Park is, the buildings around it came to feel a bit more like barriers to nature than a backdrop for natural beauty.

Last year, after almost 15 years in New York city, I packed up my family and moved back to Wisconsin, where I grew up. Now, it turns out, I find that I feel more like a New Yorker than I might have guessed. Maybe in a year, I’ll figure out how much I hate it here. In the meantime, what I want to do in this blog is something I wish we could have done from the time I moved to New York – examine the process of change and adjustment more closely, so it’s not such a blur. And find as much humor in the transition as possible. People leave New York for all kinds of reasons, but I’m guessing that what we’ll find is that our experiences of life after New York are surprisingly common.