Once In A Lifetime

I was driving from Warren to Camden the other night when it washed over me: I feel like I’m living inside a David Byrne song: as if some large bird swooped down 10 months ago, lifted me on its back and deposited me squarely in this new life.  Or maybe just the opposite – not in a midlife crisis kind of way, but in a finally! all is well, but how did it happen so effortlessly kind of way?

Who ARE these people? How DID I get here? (and, strangest of all, why does it feel so much like coming home?)

   “You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
     And you may find yourself in another part of the world
     And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
     You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
     You may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”

Too often, men (never women, make your own conclusions here) ask me: “Soooo, how is it that an attractive woman such as yourself has never been married?” Statistics trumpeting the benefits of marriage to our esteemed male population aside, I’m often stymied as to what they’re really asking. Am I lesbian? A radical feminist? Unlovable? A runaway bride, perhaps? A maneater? Or maybe too choosy or demanding?

I always find this question partly annoying (why am I not asked if I’ve ever run a business, had children, or, even been in a long-term relationship?), and partly amusing (it gives me a chance to don my contrarian outfit, poking around to find out how much they’ve really given the venerable institution serious thought). I guess I’ve just heard one too many stories of someone walking down the aisle like it’s a plank.

Once, I learned a man was asking because he was on the way out of his 8 year marriage, claiming he’d just been riding the wave of … isn’t-this-what-people-do-when-they’re-in-love? … “We met, dated, moved in, and next thing you knew we had a wedding, a mortgage, and … there I was, wondering, My god! How did I get here?” I think he was desperately seeking permission to leave, and that it would all be okay in the end.

     “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
     Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
     Into the blue again, after the money’s gone
     Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

Looking back on my childhood in the 70’s, there weren’t many successful models of happily ever after around me, so I never idolized some future wedding, frosted with buttercream and white lace. There was nothing I particularly wanted to be when I grew up, either.  Those pressures of today – prepping at preschool for the Ivy League – were absent. Instead, life then was much like it is now, like all good spiraling cycles do, coming back around and placing happiness in the form that we learned it first, at our blessed feet. I learned young to be content and interested and make my own excitements;  the independence that followed led me on grand adventures both far flung and romantically. For that, I am thankful my (divorced) parents left the big picture choices for me to paint, never imposing their successes and failures, but granting me the wherewithal to navigate by pointing out the moon and the stars and the sky above.

    “And you may ask yourself, “How do I work this?”
     And you may ask yourself, “Where is that large automobile?”
     And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful house”
     And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful wife”

When I was eighteen or nineteen, underage at a local bar, I chatted up a guy who’d graduated a few years before me. I had a crush on him in high school, and now that I was all grown up (in my mind), I wanted to impress him with my college sophistication. But right out of the gate, in answer to my eager and bouncy greeting, “How ARE you?” he replied, “Same old, same old.” Regrettably that was not the last time I heard those words. Disappointment crashed like a Ming vase.

     “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was

Perhaps I only entered into relationships that had an expiration date, for fear I’d end up fighting and married, despondent and divorced, or like the sad sacks at the bars I tended. If I wasn’t heading into the mystic, nevertheless, I had love and lust and sweet guys and bad boys and romance both lengthy and fleeting, but I always knew deep down that I wasn’t a keeper.

     “Water dissolving and water removing
      There is water at the bottom of the ocean
      Under the water, carry the water
      Remove the water from the bottom of the ocean
      Water dissolving and water removing

Or was I? Whenever accused of being noncommittal, I resisted the notion. I’ve developed decades-long friendships, deep loyalties to my workplace, and a steadfast curiosity about the world that I indulge with vigor. Yes, I had my Houdini moments; I could bolt with the best of them. But over the years I explored the wheels and dials of my inner timepiece and discovered lasting commitment to truth, freedom and aliveness. Socrates, Jefferson, and Emerson left nourishment and I ate at their examined table. Once I put myself first, deliberately instead of haphazardly, peace reigned.

     “You may ask yourself, “What is that beautiful house?”
     You may ask yourself, “Where does that highway go to?”
     You may ask yourself, “Am I right, am I wrong?”
     You may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

Recently, a charming and itinerant man asked me how I ended up here. Believing he might understand why I’d move somewhere not knowing anyone, I described the complete reliance on intuition and seizing of the right moment. Instead, he pressed me to ‘come clean’ that I was, in fact, running away from some uncloseted demon or such. Are we so accustomed to fight or flight behaviors that we are unable to recognize a step forward, a Constitutionally protected pursuit, an embrace of beauty and destiny? Is drowning that common?

      “Time isn’t holding up, time isn’t after us
       Same as it ever was, same as it ever was
       Same as it ever was, same as it ever was
       Same as it ever was, hey let’s all twist our thumbs
       Here comes the twister”

My oldest friend once said that given my propensity for the obscure destinations I head off to and unexpected life choices I make, that the only thing that would surprise her would be if I were to settle down with a husband and raise a gaggle of rugrats. At the time, we laughed at the absurdity, but wouldn’t that be the kicker, the ultimate rebellious move?

     “Letting the days go by
      Letting the days go by
      Once in a lifetime
      Let the water hold me down
      Letting the days go by”

What is true is that I’m at my best in the company of those I care about, especially when in a loving and mutual relationship. I thrive in the sunshine of security. It may just be that I have always believed in only doing it once. And, watch. That’s what will come pass.

Nester Versus Nomad. Which Are You?

Snowfall has its silent beauty, but as March days breath deeper, the first rains of spring patter and tap the poetry of awakening.  The rhythmic rattle on the cellar bulkhead hypnotized me into a sleepy haze last night, and I dreamt of eddys and gushes and gurgles and whirlpools, but when I woke this morning at my sister’s house, the romance of thaw and melt drowned like the Wicked Witch of the West.  Streams cut gorges down the driveway, carrying away gravel and gutting a narrow bend down to axle-width.  Dirt roads are gullied, riverbanks ragged and schools shuttered.  In the basement, a laundry basket and litter box bob next to flower pots, scrap lumber and that last bottle of Chardonnay we were saving.  Worst of all, the furnace, hot water heater, washer, dryer and dehumidifier are Katrina’d under more than a foot of murky water.  Lucky for us there’s cordwood and a sump pump to rent.  But wouldn’t it be nice to just call the landlord?

My real estate obsession began in the mid-nineties as I fantasized about buying, renovating, and selling houses as a means to a financial end.  I audited the New York State realtor’s class and skipped certification because I didn’t want to sell houses as a vocation, I just wanted to understand the process and the legalities.  After years of renting, I finally bought a charming 1929 Arts & Crafts Bungalow with hand-milled kitchen cabinets, (now extinct) American Chestnut trim, and gorgeous hardwood floors on a corner lot.  What a feeling to own a little piece of the world!  It was all mine.  No downstairs neighbors, no sharing the driveway, no cheap remodels.

But you know the story…

When I finally sold it, almost 10 years later, I was glad to be rid of it:  shovelling the sidewalk, replacing the roof, painting the clapboard, cleaning the attic, spackling the plaster, replacing cracked windows, mowing the lawn, spring/fall cleanup, paying for insurance, fixing the plumbing…if you’ve owned property, then you know:  all mine means ALL mine.  Picking out Bee Balm Red to paint the library is fun, cleaning up the electrician’s mess is not.

Although a happy renter now, I can still imagine doing it again…shopping at Brimfield Antiques Market for treasures, finding just the right shade of Farrow and Ball, designing the Japanese bath I’ve always wanted.  I can picture an orchard of peach, plum and crabapple trees, rows of raspberry bushes and the long table set for 12 with handmade napkins and vases of wildflowers.  I see the writers and artists retreat in the renovated barn and a couple of guest cottages down a stone pathway.  However, visualizing your dream home is like visualizing your soulmate – we don’t conjure the hiccups and crashes, just the bear-skin rug in front of a wood-burning fireplace.

So I wonder…is it worth it?

As the coda of my hibernation approaches, I think of how I want to spend my money and my time.  Spring signals a new cycle, and I contemplate the lightness of living simply versus the responsibility of stewardship and maintenance.  Both have their merits and drawbacks.

Given your druthers, which would you prefer? To be or not to be – Lord of the Manor?

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Dismantling Youth

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin. My soul.  Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo. Lee. Ta.”

When I was 20, maybe 21, signing up for yet another semester of Humanities at the local community college, adulthood perpetually as imminent as the red button, the Cold War was unknowingly about to end.  In a desperate ploy to hang on to childish things, to look cool in the eyes of others, I graffiti’d a pair of white Vans with titles of Vladimir Nabokov novels in red magic marker.  Save for that  stunning opening paragraph that even now astounds me by its physical lyricism, I hardly knew who Nabokov was, much less Stanley Kubrick or James Mason, who together brought Lolita to the screen.  Smitten as I was with the younger intellectual skateboarding boys on campus – with their long hair and side-parts, lanky surfer bodies and West Coast fantasies – I scrawled ‘Bend Sinister’ across the left shoe and ‘Invitation To A Beheading’ across the right, in true contrarian embrace-the-enemy fashion.  What’s that mean? they’d ask, as we’d hang out in concrete basement bars, pretending we were old enough to be there, but not so grown up to be confused with the proletariat drinking their dollar and a half draughts during dusky happy hours.

God forbid our fraud should slip.

While Michael, boyishly cute and charming and the one I had the maddest crush on, played aloof, I did my wiliest to mirror his nonchalance (therefore showing him how much he really wanted me) and instead tried impressing his friends with arcane Soviet trivia.  When I found them gawking over stacks of nudie magazines one afternoon after class, I casually mentioned Nabokov’s penchant for getting published in Playboy, proving that yes, men really did read it for the articles and they should, too.  Were any of us planning on graduating and growing up at some point?

We never saw that our restless energy was held in check by end-of-the-world-as-we-knew-it propaganda.  What young adult wanted to stake claim in an era of Reagan and Gorbachev and the crisis of missiles?  We did as we were told:  good little Communist-haters, except that we weren’t.  We were too naive, still, to really understand anything, so we played on both sides of the rail, never knowing when the train was going to race down the tracks and split everything in two.

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Meanwhile, I taught them to play chess, (the Russians were masters, right?) and we’d plot moves until dawn, taking rooks and pawns and they taught me to say “Prost!” as we toasted with cheap vodka;  it wasn’t until I went to Germany years later did I realize that I didn’t have a trademark on affectation.  In time, our attempts to dazzle each other with bluster and bloc fizzled, but as the breezes of destiny blew, it turned out we all just really loved being together.  Especially Michael and I.  Ultimately, we paired off, whirling around in a magical wonderland with passionate abandon, leaving the group behind.  For months, we were intoxicated by the blindness of bliss, closing our eyes and diving deep enough inside to feel lo. lee. ta.  in each other’s mouths.

Eventually, the other boys all said goodbye, scattering off to four-year universities or low-paying jobs in nearby towns.  Michael and I remained, still partly caught in the stickiness of our infatuation, but somehow sensing a shift in the wind.  That fall, with legs entwined, curled up in front of the TV, we watched the Berlin Wall come down, governments toppling like dominos, the only world we ever knew crumbling, and we tried to imagine life without impending nuclear catastrophe and its fear we unwittingly swallowed. The structures that had defined us were no longer.  Where do you go when you can go anywhere?

As we planned our escape to California, as far from New York as we could  imagine, tragedy struck.  There was an accident and his brother died.  All spells broke.  The world had changed;  nothing would ever be the same.

The stranglehold of the eighties loosened and catapulted us into our futures.  The cocoon of youth dissolved.

He left for Hollywood, alone.  I never saw him again.

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Need A Penny? Take A Penny. Got Life? Save A Life.

Tragedy hits.  What do you do?  Freeze or take action?

I tend to jump in, wanting to help.  More than most anything else, I thrive on feeling useful;  it gives meaning to my life.  A gimme-the-reins kind of person, I prioritize well, delegate easily, and know to apply direct pressure when the blood starts to spurt ( a scary story I’ll save for another time).  However, I’m not really trained in the finer points of crisis management;  in many life-threatening emergencies, apart from dialing 9-1-1, I am often helpless.

Once when my nephew was very small, he had something in his mouth and I feared he might be choking.  I was nearly paralyzed, except to run to my sister, whose pragmatic nature would surely take over.  He was fine, she was fine, it was me who panicked.  I just couldn’t think my way through the fear, because he is so beloved to me.  What I needed was a skill set to fall back on, a clear set of steps to follow so that I could accurately assess and manage a traumatic situation, and keep those pesky emotions at bay.  I needed emergency training.

A friend who lived in New York City on 9/11 metabolized that disaster in a similar manner.  She didn’t just want to be of general service, donating money or time, she targeted a specific goal and became EMS-trained.  No small response, it was an honorable and inspired action.  Her commitment to civic duty surfaced in my memory this past autumn when I saw a man dying in Central Park.  (Read about it here.)  Afterwards, I vowed to learn first aid and CPR, so being a mere bystander wouldn’t be an option anymore.  While my instincts to jump in are strong, I needed competency to be effective.

This discovery of duty, of harboring a strong sense of social responsiblity surprised me.  Duty had never surfaced before;  in fact, besides the military and medical fields, duty seems to rub up against the rugged individualism of the United States psyche.  Where does it otherwise reside in such modern democracy?   To each their own, problems and all, right?  Well, my evolution from dependent child to (sometimes too) independent adult has been bumpy, and I’m happily embracing a new relationship with my inner citizen.  So, this past weekend I followed through, turning my vow into action and became CPR/AED-certified, the first of many steps to lead a more politically engaged and community-minded life.  Oh, how many others have gone before.

Now, I can approach someone in distress and offer trained help.  I am capable of opening someone’s blocked airway, breathing for someone when they can’t, keeping a heart pumping and if necessary, even use a defibrillator.  When someone chokes, suffers a stroke or heart attack, or just needs comfort until the medical professionals arrive and do the real work, I am prepared.  I just hope it never comes to that.

 

How An Acupuncturist Taught Me To Roast My Vegetables And Relax

Working in Japan was a pain in the neck, literally.  From my shoulder blades to the base of my brain, I had been in persistent agony for several months by the time I got desperate enough to call an acupuncturist.  My neck had petrified into one frozen, stony mess.  I was a stranger in a strange land on assignment in Tokyo back in 2007 and irrationally worried that if I didn’t get help, I might never be able to turn my head freely again.  Not that I necessarily wanted to, because everywhere I looked, all I saw loomed cold, lonesome and aloof.

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I missed my old restaurant job.  I missed understanding snippets of conversation on the train.  I even missed the F train – you know it’s bad when you ride the world’s cleanest, most efficient metro system and you long for the Jamaica-to-Coney Island local.  More than anything, though, I missed the flexibility that carried me through past adventures around the globe.  Where did it go?  What had happened to me? I was tight in the grip of physical and mental paralysis.  I finally called an English-speaking doctor and booked an appointment.  Must. Have. Relief. Now.

Have I mention my trypanophobia?  Come near me with a needle and I have a meltdown. I have actually skipped college matriculation just to avoid the required MMR inoculation and would almost rather get my teeth drilled sans Novocaine.  I’ll pretty much do anything to avoid the dreaded syringe.  Here I am then, lying on an acupuncturist’s table in a foreign country with a man in a white lab coat sticking needles in my neck and down my spine, trying to convince me there’s really nothing to be afraid of.  That’s how bad my neck felt.  Pain is relative, I tell myself, but I surrender as best I can to 2,200 years of Eastern orthodoxy and hope I don’t hyperventilate or start weeping uncontrollably, although that’s probably just what I need to do – breathing and crying can be great relief in times of debilitation, but I’m unable to unclench my body or my mind.

“OK, now just lie here while your body adjusts,” the doctor says, as his hands move skillfully down the back of me in a calm, healing manner.  His touch is soothing.  “Your feet are really cold,” he remarks, as he inserts a few more needles along my legs.

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“They’ve been cold lately,” I reply.

“Do you eat a lot of salad?” he asks.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I answer, slightly irritated that he’s focused on the temperature of my feet when clearly it’s my neck that needs his full attention.  I’m suffering;  who cares about my feet?  Make my neck feel better!

“You should cook your vegetables,” he advises.  “Don’t eat them raw.  You need warmth in your food, then your feet won’t be so cold.”

I resisted him; all I could think was that I liked salad.  It’s healthy, quick and easy to prepare and besides, cooking had really not been my forte anyway.  I preferred going out to eat and ordering a garde manger-composed leafy pile of raw vegetables with some fancy vinaigrette.  Or did I?  Was I just on a road that was a little too well-traveled for a contrarian like me?  Perhaps it was time for things in my life to change.  Hey, even my doctor was telling me I had cold feet.

The simple and obvious have often eluded me.  Could it be as easy as that?  Warm begets warm.  I soon came to consider his gentle demeanor and the possible wisdom in his words.  For the rest of my time in Tokyo, I sautéed up lots of greens and experimented with making vegetable miso soups.  I stopped ordering salads when I ate out, even if they sounded nutritious and gourmet.  I considered the radical notion of change and questioned the prudence of stamina.  As I began to relax into cooking, the chill in my feet lessened and the pleasures of the kitchen dawned. Gradually I gained movement in my neck and loosened up other restricted places in my life.

farmer's market Maine organic vegetablesI carried this lesson home with me and now, four years later, I love cooking.  I’ve found warmth in the kitchen and in my life.  I’m roasting  sheetpans of beets, sweet potatoes, and turnips.  I’m simmering cabbage and chard in soups and sauteing kale and garlic with local Maine shrimp and scallops.  As my upper body has slowly recovered from tension and tightness, I have also started to recover from twenty-five years in the restaurant business and its accompanying foodie mentality, which from a certain stance can both be seen as rigid and competitive.  The constant pursuit of the highest rating, the latest dish, the most perfect execution can sap the playful and judicious, leaving us in less than good health.

I don’t reject it all, however.  I do embrace eating seasonal and local, I support healthy school lunches and food security campaigns.  I enjoy the widespread availability of organic produce and all the attention and respect serving and cooking professionally get these days.  The world is a healthier place as the general public becomes more fluent on farm-to-table restaurants, the impact of governmental subsidies for corn and soy, and the environmental consequences of Monsanto-like genetic manipulations.

I’m just not as religious and precious about it anymore.  I’m looser in my approach, less driven and uptight.  This top chef, that obscure ingredient, dissecting what’s on my molecularly gastronomic plate – I leave that for the next generation.  All I really want to do now is breathe, relax, and cook up some beans and greens that warm me from head to feet when it’s cold outside.  I want to break bread that I baked this morning with people I love and turn to them with soft suppleness and toast to our good health.

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