Archive for October, 2008

8. the high cost of living 1

clouds above queens

flying out of laguardia airport, august 23, 2008
Welcome to my new site. Please read the about page to see what this is all about. See also, the companion photo site, lyrical photography

I think the whole world’s gone mad.
Uh-Uh. It’s always been like this. You probably just don’t get out enough.

Sexton and Death in Neil Gaiman’s Death: High Cost of Living

Death is probably right. But in Sexton’s defense, he has never seen the world before with Death as his guide.

Most of us go through life seeing the world only through our own eyes. This is what I see so this must be the way it is. Your only view of the world is your own interpretation of events and surroundings.

Sexton is one lucky guy. Sure, he’s a despondent, black-souled, angst ridden teenager, just one morose lyric short of being Kurt Cobain. But he gets the delicious treat of meeting Death, the perkiest otherwordly being this side of Katie Couric.

Death - spending her one day a year among the mortals - saves Sexton from a rather dubious exit from life and they make their way together through the city, going off on surreal adventures and playing out a modern, mystical version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

So Sexton gets to see life through Death’s eyes and it turns out that life is pretty magical. Pure irony there, being shown the wonders of life by Death herself, eh?

Imagine if you had a guide; someone who would spend a day walking through cities with you, showing you all the things you didn’t know were there. It’s not enough to take someone else’s eyes and watch what they see, you have to have the mind behind those eyes as well.

Say there are two people laying on the grass, staring up at a cloud. One person sees a fish, another a castle in the same cloud. They can describe what they see so the other person recognizes it as well - see, there’s the fish’s eye, and the fin….oh, yes! I see it! - but the other person can’t see what’s behind the vision. Sure, it’s just a fish, but in the other person’s mind, the fish has already been given a name (Frida) and she’s swimming towards something (sunlight) but the evil dark lord (the cloud behind it) is going to snatch up Frida and eat her for lunch before she can get anywhere near that sunlight.

You keep those things to yourself, mostly. Your friend who is laying on the grass with you won’t get the real feeling of the story. He won’t know why you chose the name Frida or why Frida will never make it to the sun and he certainly won’t know that you will probably spend the rest of the day imaging scenarios between Frida and the dark lord.

Sexton, depressed, morose and suicidal as he is, is quite a lucky guy. He gets to see life through someone else’s mind. He gets to experience the magic that Death experiences. And by doing that, he is able to see the world outside of his narrow view.

The problem is not that Sexton didn’t get out enough; it’s that he didn’t get out of his own mind enough. Yes, the world has always been mad. It’s always been crazy.

Perhaps we can say we do have these guides and they are books and music and all kinds of mass media that let us see into the minds of others, let us travel along their paths and experience their unique experiences.

Yes and no. It is not the same as actually running through the city with Death looking for an old woman’s lost heart. Our guided tours are vicarious.

I assume that when Sexton realized he was hanging out with Death he had to figure they were perfectly matched companions. After all here he was, trying to kill himself. And there she was, Death personified.

Turns out they each had a little more life in them than Sexton realized.

Which all begs a question. Do we really want to see the world through the minds of others? It might be a very uncomfortable thing, to take a day’s journey with someone quite unlike you. It might even be more uncomfortable to see the world through the mind of someone who thinks exactly like you do. And if we are our own guides, how many of us are really comfortable with that?

When I was a child, I had all kinds of daydreams where I would hang out with magical people and live within their magical lives. I’m a bit more grounded in reality now, but not much. I believe the one stark difference between then and now is I no longer wish to see the world laid bare as it really is. I thought, once upon a time, that it would be infinitely cool to have a magical companion who could show me everything that lies beneath the facade, every bit of myth and lore and fantasy that is hidden by the harsh realities of the world. I just knew that underneath all the dirt and grime and everyday boringness of life, there were things happening that only those who possessed a certain magic could see. Things happening right underneath our feet, right in front of our eyes, but we are too wrapped up in the ordinary to see the extraordinary.

The fear is that mixed in with the angels and faeries and exciting, noble creatures of some other realm (where everyone eats chunks of cheese and hunks of bread and golden, crunchy apples, because that is what every hero in every fantasy book eats), there are creatures like devils and ogres and perhaps even grues, waiting to devour you.

I had a dream once, when I was about twelve, that I was being led through a dark passageway by a lighted, winged fairy. Along the walls of the passageway were drawings that would come to life as the fairy’s light landed on them. At first, the passage was filled with the sound of my giddy laughter, as I watched all kinds of funny, mystical creatures take wing and fly around me. But as we rounded a corner, the light played upon a creature so hideous that the site of its face knocked the wind out of me. I fell to the ground and as I did so, I caught site of the creature. He was staring at me through hideous eyes. Now that you have seen me, I will never let you forget me, is what he said. And I didn’t forget him, even now.

And that is my fear. That taking a ride through life through someone else’s vision would reveal hideous ogres that should have been left unseen.

I suppose that one can’t get to see the knights and good witches without seeing the trolls as well. What I would give to run through the city with Death as my companion, living Death’s adventures. What I would give to be Sexton, to have someone shake me and say, look at all the things you didn’t know existed.

Still, would I take the chance that a fleeting glance in a glass building revealed myself to be a monster?

7. fear of doing 10

i, alone

“i, alone” taken december 7, 2007.
Welcome to my new site. Please read the about page to see what this is all about. See also, the companion photo site, lyrical photography

The tree that yesterday had been in full bloom of yellow, red and orange was this morning stripped of all but a small group of leaves that clung together like shipwreck survivors. I arrived home from work this afternoon to see one lone leaf left shuddering on the branch. As I watched, a gust of wind ripped the leaf from its branch and, like that, the tree was bare.

I don’t want to age and die, never having become a tree in full bloom of profound color.

Maybe I’m having a mid-life crisis. I’m feeling restless and dissatisfied with what I’m doing with my life. I have a job. I do not have a career. It’s a decent job; I make good pay, I have great benefits, the hours are good, the work is interesting and I work with, for the most part, very nice people. I never get up in the morning and dread going to work. I should be grateful for that, I suppose.

I’m where I am because of what I’ve done. Or, what I haven’t done. I put things off. I waited too long. I put myself aside. I gave in to my fear of success, as well as my fear of failure. I never did any of the things I set out to do.

And now here I am, at 46, spending my days proofreading warrants and evictions and explaining to people, over and over, how to properly serve a petition. It’s not exactly what I had in mind for myself.

I need a new job. I need to do something creative. I need to have passion for my work.

So why don’t I do that? Why don’t I just quit my job and do something I love?

Simple. Because I have a mortgage. Because I have a kid in college and another going to college in two years. Because I have car payments and insurance. Because my house needs heat and electricity. Because I need to play it safe.

I have wanted to be nothing but a writer since I was seven. Holding a pencil in my hand at that young age made me feel alive and important. It was thrilling to string letters together to make words and string words together to make sentences and how, if you made enough sentences, they could form a story. It felt powerful then. It still does.

I was thinking how I never did anything with that power, how I dismissed every person who encouraged me, how I blew all the chances I had because I am afraid of failure as much as I am afraid of success.

I’m still afraid of those things, but I am more afraid now of not trying. The older I get, the more I feel this restlessness inside me, this yearning to do something more and to be something more.

I spent my recent years a prisoner within myself as well as my home. I feared the outside world. I feared people. I feared conversations and new situations and crowds and empty spaces. All that has changed. I have faced and conquered almost all my fears. I am, for the first time, fully enjoying my life as an adult. And I think that is what’s making the restlessness so profound. I’ve come so far. I’ve gotten over so much. I faced my fear of heights and took a gondola ride up a mountain at Squaw Valley. I faced my fear of water and stood at the front of a boat as we cruised around Lake Tahoe. I started socializing again. I learned how to walk through a crowd of people without anxiety. I learned how to live. So now that I am experiencing life anew, I find myself wanting to experience it fully, to savor every moment, to love everything I do and to do it all it with passion.

It’s really hard to have passion for explaining affidavits of service. Then again, it’s hard to muster up passion for cleaning the bathroom or paying the bills, but I do them. They’re part of my life inasmuch as my job is part of my life.

But does it have to be? Why can’t I do something I’m passionate about? Why can’t I throw caution to the wind and leave my job and just hope that I make enough money to make our ends meet?

Because I’m responsible. Responsible is safe. Responsible is cautious. Responsible is not passionate, is not carefree. Responsible is not a full-time freelance writer.

So what do I do? Do I continue on my chosen path and just live with the restlessness and the knowledge that I’m not living up to my potential? Do I look in the mirror each day and see a tree losing its leaves, but never flourishing?

I don’t want to spend the next ten, twenty years going to a job that I don’t love. I’m not one of those people who can push some papers around on their desk and just count the days until they can start collecting a pension. That’s not life. That’s not living. After all my years of hibernating, after all I’ve been through, after all the depression and fears and anxiety and hiding behind closed doors, I want to live, fully. I want to be all the things I had in mind for myself. I don’t want to get to the end of the road and be angry at myself for never taking that chance, for never trying.

And what if I do take that chance? The thought terrifies me. What if I don’t make enough to survive? What if I never sell anything? What if I’m not as good as all those people said I am? What if I fail? Do I go back to my civil service job with my head hung low and a determination to love processing evictions while waiting out my pension?

I have a happiness I thought I’d never attain. I have a passion for life I never thought possible. But I want fulfillment as well. How do I get that? Does anyone ever get that? How many people get to do what they love?

I ran after that leaf that fell from the tree. I picked it up, brought it inside and put it next to my keyboard as a reminder to ask myself this question daily:

Should I just learn to love what I do, or figure out how to do what I love?

hold the line 2

The year was 1978. It was tumultuous year; the death of Keith Moon, the Jonestown Massacre, the debut of Garlfield, Saturday Night Fever. For a 16 year old, I had an acute awareness of the world outside of my own little high school/town. I knew everything that was going on in the world in regards to culture, politics and news. Too bad I had no inkling what was going on right in front of me, in my own home. I would have put a stop to their evil plans sooner.

I do believe the plan was sprung on me at the last possible minute so as to avoid a protracted, dramatic reaction.

“We’re going to Florida for Christmas!” Dad says this in a tone that is trying to be both firm and jolly. As in: We are going to Florida and I know you think you’ll hate every minute of it but the decision is final and you better make the best of it for the sake of your sisters and your mother or I will kill you.
“But…but….,” I manage to stammer.
“No buts.”

I flee to my room, throw myself on the bed and cry in the way that only a 16 year old who thinks the world is supposed to revolve around her can cry. How dare they not consult me? I have a life, too. I have Christmas parties to go to. I have friends to exchange presents with. I have a boyfriend!

I tried explaining all this to my mother, who just answered me with lines that had obviously been practiced. Your cousins really miss the family. It would be nice to spend a holiday with them. Just think, it will be warm on Christmas! We can go to the beach!

The beach? This is supposed to make me feel better? I’m sure people in warm climates don’t think twice about going to the beach on Christmas, but I am a New Yorker, damn it, and we don’t do sand, surf and sun on a winter holiday! No snow. No wind howling down the chimney. No bulky sweaters. No itchy wool hat pulled down over my eyes as I run through the mall parking lot with my friends, trying to find the right bus home. It just wasn’t right.

Of course, there was the whole boyfriend thing to deal with. Bobby was what I called a Cling-on. He followed me around like a wounded puppy that needed constant petting. I attributed this to his youth. He was, after all, just a 14 year old freshman . I had tried several times to break up with him, but I always backed off when he hinted that it would destroy his very existence if I were to leave him. I hadn’t yet developed my crusty, hardened shell necessary to not care if he slit his wrists. Which was all just puppy boy talk, anyhow. So I figured this would be a breaking point for him. If I were to take off to Florida for the Christmas break, he would get mad and petulant and maybe he would be angry enough to break up with me! Finally, a silver lining in the Christmas in Florida dilemma.

I’m sure my parents were confused about my sudden turnaround. I was all sunshine and smiles as I packed my suitcase for the trip. I had found a way to make this trip work for me, self centered teenager that I was.

After waiting for my little sister to tearfully compose her postcard to Santa informing him that she would be elsewhere for Christmas (she was terrified that Santa wouldn’t forward her presents to Florida), we took off for the great green south.

The first thing I noticed about Pompano Beach, Florida was that everyone within a five mile radius was either a crackhead or a senior citizen. There was no in between. Even my cousins - former New Yorkers - had taken on that slight glow of Florida craziness. Their neighbors to the right had no teeth. Their neighbors to the left had no furniture. The people around the corner sat on their rickety front porch all day and night, drinking beer and throwing rocks at passing cars. Everyone spoke in a slow, monosyballic drawl. No one knew anything about the world outside of their own block. They didn’t know who the Ramones were.

Making matters worse were the palm trees decorated for Christmas. It was a holiday twilight zone. Colored lights strung from coconuts. Flowers blooming amidst the cardboard cut out reindeer. Pictures taken with a surfer Santa on the boardwalk. It was wrong.

I was pining for New York, pining for my friends and, worst of all, pining for Bobby who, while annoying and clingy, at least had all his own teeth and listened to good music.

Music. Oh, there was music playing all the time. My cousins had the radio blasting at all hours. No Christmas music, for which I should have been grateful, but some top 40 radio station where the disc jockeys had fallen in love with Toto’s Hold the Line.

If you’ve never heard that song, be thankful. It’s pop dreck at its worst. The band consisted of several studio musicians who had played with some of the most popular bands of the 70’s (Steely Dan and Cheap Trick to name but two). I think they were using Toto as a pretentious nod to the masses, as if to say “you guys don’t appreciate musical perfection, so maybe if we wrap it up in some dumbed-down lyrics and candy chords, you’ll buy it.” Or maybe they just thought that putting all that talent together in one place meant they would be assured of chart victory. Think of them as the New York Yankees of 70’s radio.

It’s not in the way that you hold me
It’s not in the way you say you care
It’s not in the way you’ve been treating my friends
It’s not in the way that you’ll stay till the end
It’s not in the way you look or the things that you say that you do

Hold the line
Love isn’t always on time

Repeat that to varying degrees for a few minutes and you have Toto’s first hit. It really wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t playing on the radio - I swear to you- every half hour. And it certainly wouldn’t have stuck in my craw the way it did if it wasn’t the background music for my Christmas in Cracktown.

Everyone was singing it. The old, the young, the toothless, the drunk, the surfing Santa. It was almost robotic, in a sense, like these people had been subliminally poisoned into believing that singing Hold the Line was going to make their clothes brighter, their cars faster and their beer stronger. I seemed to be the only one impervious to the horror.

Christmas Day arrived. 80 degrees and sunny was the forecast. I laid in bed that morning dreaming of a White Christmas and not at all anticipating going into the sun room to open presents with the lovely bunch of coconuts on the palm tree peeking in the windows and the warm ocean breeze wafting in.

I took the grin and bear it route for my little sister, who was overjoyed to see that Santa had indeed gotten her postcard and delivered the presents to Florida. Whee. Yay. Merry Christmas, everyone. And the gods of eternal summer bless us all.

Bobby called my aunt’s house Christmas afternoon. He missed me. He wanted me to come home. Christmas was depressing without me. And I was just about to give in and start crying and sniffling that I missed him, too, and I wanted to be home with him right then and he blew it. Completely and utterly blew it.

He told me to hold on, that he had a present for me. I waited. What kind of present could he give me over the phone? This was in the days before anyone heard of phone sex and really, phone heavy petting just doesn’t have the same ring to it. In a few minutes he came back on the line. He was strumming his guitar. Said he had a song to sing for me. Oh, you know what’s coming, don’t you?

It’s not in the way that you hold me. It’s not in the way you say you care….wooOoooo.

Something burst inside me. I could not take it anymore. I thanked Bobby for the song and told him we had to talk when I got back to New York. I hung up and made the decision right there and then to break up with him when I got back, death threats to himself be damned. That song was a sign that things were just not going to work between us.

I spent the rest of Christmas break walking around the streets of Pompano Beach making observances of the strange breed of people that lived there, for future novel-writing reference. I was relieved to finally get home to the cold, gray New York snow. I think I kissed the ground at the airport.

I broke up with Bobby the night I got home. I said nothing of Hold the Line. I just told him honestly, in a 16 year old’s version of honest which is, I guess, brutal, that he was too clingy and whiny and he was smothering me. He responded by singing Hold the Line into the phone until I hung up. Oh, and he did try to kill himself, sort of. Rumor had it that he spent five hours under the sunlamp in his bathroom thinking he could burn himself to death. Which would explain why he came back to school looking like he took a bath with a cooking lobster.

I’ve carefully avoided the Toto song until now. And I have no one but myself to blame that it’s careening through my brain at the moment, bringing back all kinds of memories of surfing Santas, lit up palm trees and crackhead Floridians.

4. unresolved 3

the soul's migration

the soul’s migration: december, 2007

Welcome to my new site. Please read the about page to see what this is all about. See also, the companion photo site, lyrical photography

I dream about him. I wake up in the middle of the night and he is on my mind. I think I hear the side door open and for a second I think it’s him, going outside in the middle of the night like he used to. I hear the garage door swing in the wind, I hear footsteps coming down the stairs, I see a shadow slide past the back bedroom window. At 3am, it’s always him, not the wind, not the trees, not the radiator making noise. My half awake mind thinks he is still alive and this is still 18 months ago or three years ago and I panic for a second, thinking that everything has been a vivid dream. Then I’m fully awake and aware of the present and my mind does that thinkthinkthink thing, where I can’t turn it off and I wish for a sleep mode, where I can just push a button and my brain doesn’t freight train through a thousand things like daughtergoingtocollege - carypaymentdue - heartpalpitations - whatifyoudidn’tgivehimyourcarthatday…

And it begins. Every time you push one thing further down, your subconscious is like springy foam, soaking up what you don’t want, but pushing something else back up at you in the process, like it can only hold so much down at one time. At 3am, everything is a problem, everything seems insurmountable, everything is a crisis.

I wish I didn’t think of him so much, but I suppose he will be there like a ghost until I can exorcise all the guilt and unresolved feelings that are there. I can’t imagine what my sister goes through every night. If I’m laying there awake reliving the experience of seeing him dead, I wonder what she is seeing? That image will never leave me. The sounds will never leave me. Her screaming, the baby crying, running up the stairs, meeting her halfway as she collapses on the middle step, crying. Tell her to stay there, run up the rest of the stairs with her behind me and….I remember his hand. So white. Stiff looking and white. My eyes won’t run over the rest of his body just yet. Then the baby cries again from the other room and I’m jolted and I look. His legs, still in jeans at 5am, hanging over the end of the bed. He has his jacket on. Where was he going? Oh, I know where. I know. His face is serene. His arms at his side. He’s sleeping. He’s dead. My sister is feeling his body, looking for warmth, feeling for a heartbeat, a pulse, all the while sobbing, knowing it’s no use and I just pull her back as she starts screaming again, pull her away from her dead husband and I grab the baby out of his crib, run downstairs, blather something to Todd, who is already throwing his pants on and stumbling toward the stairs. About 30 seconds have passed since I flew out of bed.

Then there’s a blur of ambulances and the coroner and policemen, people in my house, on my couch, in my kitchen. His mother, his aunt, my parents, my other sister. Gawking neighbors peering out their windows at 6am on a Saturday, neighbors with genuine concern being told nothing more than, he’s dead. Waiting for them to take him away. Holding the baby, shaking my head to clear it, consoling my son, being grateful the daughter slept out the night before. Waiting for everyone to leave and then the blank look in everyone’s eyes. The “what now” look. My sister being carted off to my parent’s house. The wondering. The what ifs.

What if he stayed in rehab another week or so? What if I didn’t give him my car to go to a meeting when he got home because I don’t think he really went to a meeting. What if I tried harder? What more could we have done? Did we give him too many chances? Was she too easy on his mistakes? What if I had been tougher on him those last, turbulent months instead of always forgiving, always wanting to believe that he meant it, this would be the last time, he’d get better?

The wake, the funeral, the tears, the sorrow for my sister and the baby. Days fly by, months come and go, birthdays, holidays, anniversaries. Each one brings pain for her, each one brings tears and cries of why. Each day is like a hole for her and she crawls into it, shutting out the light, shutting out everything. Eventually, she crawls out, but the hole is always there and sometimes I see her inching toward it. I pull her from it the way I pulled her from his body.

The summer comes and the yard is wrecked then revitalized and there’s flowers and life and a swingset for the baby and I stand in the backyard and hold Todd’s hand and admire the beauty and I know sometimes she is looking from upstairs and I wonder, mostly this is what I wonder at 3am, does she resent my happiness? Why do I feel guilty for being in love, for enjoying the yard, for enjoying life and being happy after so many years of being miserable and empty? Is Todd’s success at overcoming addiction a slap to her, an acknowledgment that her husband failed where other people didn’t? Is our relationship, played out right in front of her, like a ghost of what could have been, showing her what she’s missed out on because my brother in law couldn’t save himself from himself, couldn’t bring himself to live for the sake of his child and his wife?

I vacillate between guilt and anger, between sadness and complacency. Sometimes I forget that he’s dead, sometimes I forget the burden he was while he was alive. Sometimes I think about the person that was deep inside him, the kind, gentle, loving, generous person with a quick smile and quirky sense of humor and a forgiving, calm nature. Where did that person go? What more could we have done to keep him from drowning within himself? Why would he let all that go? And why would he do that in his own home, with his wife and baby right there? Why didn’t he go off himself in a back alley where people who loved him wouldn’t find him stiff and breathless and out of life?

When I hear the noise at 3am and I think he’s out there, even if it’s his ghost, I want to go out there and kick his ass and scream at him. A few deep breaths and I want to apologize to him for not caring that last time, for giving up, even though I took him back and reached my hand out to him a hundred times before. I want to say I’m sorry for laying in bed that Friday night wondering if this weekend would be the end and would I feel relieved and if I did, so what, it would probably be a relief to my sister in the long run. I’m sorry but I’m not. I’m angry but I’m not. I’m guilty but I’m not.

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