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Neighbors

April 24, 2019

It has been a long time since we had a cat, but AJ has been pestering us for one for a while now. He’s fallen for his friends’ cats and wanted one at his house. “You are leaving for college in four months. Why now?” I’ve missed having cats around the house, but I was also feeling like with AJ away, it was our chance to do some spur of the moment traveling without worrying about someone back home. But AJ is persistent. He wore down Mr. Spy first, which is amazing because he is not particularly pet oriented. He didn’t grow up with animals and, since he works at home, tends to be the one who spends the most time with them. But he liked the idea and we finally decided to try it.

AJ and I went to a local no-kill animal shelter with a great reputation a few weeks ago, but the cats looked sad and ill and it didn’t feel very friendly to us. We waited a few weeks and the weekend before Easter went to an adoption event at a pet store run by another animal rescue not-for profit. This organization specializes in cat rescue and doesn’t have a shelter. All their animals are fostered. AJ and I both fell in love with a black and white kitten at first but she needed to be adopted into a home that already had a cat, which wasn’t us. Then AJ spotted a tiny black cat, full grown but kittenish, all black with a tiny white spot on her chest. Her name was Jaguar. Jaguar charmed AJ immediately and we put in an application. Just under a week later, she moved in and now we wonder how we survived without her. She’s approximately 70% cuddles and 30% ninja, which is about right. When I come home from work, she meets me at the door and when I sack out on my bed in the evening, She jumps up and sits on me purring. Somewhere in between, she generally likes to hide behind our bedskirt and leap out at passing feet. Also, she is a champion napper. She was purring up a storm when I took this photo.

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We are glad she’s here. And I think she’s glad too.

* * * * *

I’ve taken a few days off this week to get my head together after a pretty grueling few months at work. Mr. Spy is away for a few days with his baseball team. AJ is on spring break and is getting himself to and from baseball games and working at a baseball break-week camp in the park. I am spring cleaning.

The weather is perfect today, so I started on the front porch, watering the plants, washing the windows, attempting to mend the table that inexplicably has shed several screws over the winter. I was in the middle of the latter task when I heard someone say hello. I looked up and saw a small woman, maybe about my mother’s age standing on my steps. “I’m Estelle.”

* * * * *

Our first spring in the house, Mr. Spy texted me one Friday while I was kayaking in the park. “Estelle stopped by. She likes your flowers.”

“Who’s Estelle?”
“She knew someone who used to live in our apartment and they had flowers too.”
I had just filled the windowboxes attached to our front porch rail with herbs and purple petunias. She was happy to see them.

The whole thing had made me smile. I was sorry not to have been home. Stopping by to admire the flowers seemed like something Mr. Spy’s mother would have done, and she was rich in neighbors and friends.

* * * * *

One of the traditions where I went to college was Friday afternoon tea. We would all pile down into the living room of our dorm and drink tea and eat cookies and catch up with each other on our week. It was a relic from long ago and we all loved it. On VisageTome, there is an alum group devoted to Friday tea. Every Friday, people from all over post their college dorm and year, what “tea” they are drinking, the best thing that happened this week, and the worst, and a photo of the tea (or sometimes of something else). It is an amazingly lovely space, a moving history of women’s experiences in the world, the remarkable and the mundane. We are learning each other’s stories. One day last year I was working at the table I was trying to fix today on my front porch. I took a picture of the cup of coffee on my porch looking down the street. Someone commented on my photo. “I know this sounds crazy, but I think my aunt used to live in your apartment.”

She wasn’t crazy. Her aunt did live in our apartment. Her aunt was Estelle’s sister. Estelle is her mother. And she herself lives a few blocks from me.

* * * * *

“I’m so glad to meet you!” I said to Estelle. “I’ve heard so much about you. Would you like to come in?”

Estelle was amazed to see the place. It had been carpeted before and she didn’t know about the intricately patterned wood floors. Her sister’s husband was an editor. “Like me,” I said. Our dining room had been his office. “It’s good there are still a lot of books here.” Her sister had been a weaver and our bedroom was the loom room. “There were floor to ceiling shelves full of beautiful wools there,” she aid, gesturing toward the wall behind the headboard of our bed. She told me how after her sister had died, she’d had to figure out how to dispose of all of her weavings. “I heard about a place in Massachusetts where they were asking for volunteers to make shawls for the residents.” She sent them 40 shawls. “I like thinking about them having another life.” In the kitchen she told us that the refrigerator had been in the closet that now houses our washer and dryer and how when her sister’s husband was ill and in the hospital she came over to check on things and discovered the freezer was a solid block of ice.

“I came over to take care the cat. She was called Pearl because she was a little black cat with a tiny white spot right here,” and she pointed to her heart.” Just then Jaguar walked in.

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“Just like our cat.”

“Wow, that’s spooky. She looks just like Pearl.”

* * * * *

Like most cats, Jaguar is a little spooky. She has been with us for less than a week and she already seems to know who needs her the most at any given moment. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of her nine lives was as Pearl the cat who used to live here. She’s our benevolent household spirit, currently snoozing in the armchair in the corner. I wonder what she is dreaming about.

Lookout

February 3, 2019

One of the things I love about my apartment is the windows. Our last apartment had a row of windows over the street in the front room and a skylight that brought in light from above. AJ’s bedroom looked down the narrow walkway between our building and the one next door and he could see the top of a tree in the yard behind and a sliver of sky, a real Brooklyn view. Our bedroom looked into a dim airshaft, darkened further by the mesh covering to keep the pigeons out and the air conditioner that blocked most of the window. Our current apartment is a full floor of a freestanding house, so we have windows all the way around. 17 of them. It seemed important to count when we moved in. Windows are a luxury. I did laps around the house, looking out each one.

The kitchen has two windows—well, three if you count the tiny one in the laundry closet. They overlook the backyard of our net door neighbor, Louise. Louise grew up in the neighborhood and has lived in her house since she was 10 (she is now, I’d guess, somewhere around 80). Louise’s backyard is mostly cement. Her driveway runs between our buildings into a garage. There is an unused brick grill, some cement statues of children carrying umbrellas, a few white plastic chairs, and clotheslines. She hangs out her laundry a couple of times a week and also the plastic bags that she washes and saves. A large fig tree grows along the chain link fence on the far side of her yard. In the summer, just visible around the edge of her garage, roses grow against its far wall.

Beyond Louise’s yard is a view to the apartment buildings one street over. I occasionally see people smoking on their balconies or shaking out their rugs or having a cold beer on a hot day. At this time of year, there are cheerful lights on the balconies. Between the buildings and the trees on the street I can see a patch of sky. Out the rest of the windows in the house, I see trees and birds and people walking dogs, but I love the view out the kitchen with its layers and abstract angles. I find myself looking out those windows a lot.

Last night as I was puttering around the kitchen and listening to a podcast, I looked up to see the room bathed in a pink-gold light that made even the white plastic chairs look elegant. It didn’t last long and felt like such a privilege to see it. I walked to the next room to get Mr. Spy but by the time we came back it had already changed.

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The beak of the hawk

January 26, 2019

It is cold in New York. Not Chicago cold, but cold enough that it requires the big parka with the furry hood. Cold and sunny. Every Saturday I head to my old neighborhood to go to the Grand Army Plaza farmer’s market with my college friend Cranky. Now that Cranky’s daughter J is old enough, she stays home on our Saturday mornings when the weather doesn’t suit her. And so today Cranky and I took the long way home through the park, past fat corgis and wiener dogs in parkas and ducks skating flat-footed on the pond, around the hill and up the other side where we spotted a hawk in a tree and a nearly brave and stupid squirrel who briefly considered running at the hawk and then, once peering at his beak from inches away, swiftly spun and scurried away.

* * * * *

Let me catch you up.

Spy headquarters is still in Brooklyn. We’ve been here more than six years now, in this apartment for nearly two, and I’m coming up on my eighth anniversary at The Toy Factory this summer. My job has changed over the years, but not all of it. Mostly every so often they pile on some more responsibilities and, if I’m lucky, give me a raise. I still love the job, but I’m getting a little restless. I’ve never worked anywhere this long before. I’m not unhappy, but I’m starting to wonder if I should want to move on. I’m feeling lately more like the squirrel, alternately confidently striding forwards and hesitating, mistrusting my abilities. some days I’m staring at the cloudless sky, others at the hawk’s beak.

Part of this restlessness is driven, I think, by looking forward to all the changes ahead for AJ and for us. He was accepted and has committed to his first choice college. I think it’s a perfect fit and I’m excited for him. His new campus is stunning and a beautiful drive from here, close enough to go up and back in a day, far enough to not want to do that all the time. It’s reassuring.

AJ had a bit of a tough time in high school. After having his pick of schools for high school, he chose a school known for math and science. This wasn’t surprising. Math and science were always his strongest subjects, until suddenly they weren’t. And while he loved the people he met at school, the test-driven curriculum felt like a grind. His grades tanked. But he got himself out of the hole he dug in a fairly spectacular way. He’s turned out to be a very talented writer, musician and entrepreneur. Go figure. He’s composing and producing albums where he plays all the instruments, producing art and music events, and engineering others’ recordings. I learned most of this from reading his college essays. He plays his cards close to the vest. It’s a pleasure to continue to get to know him. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Mr. Spy is still writing and also coaching baseball. His book is now almost a year old and is just out in paperback and he’s doing another round of book events.

* * * * *

Here are some of the things I worry about as a parent in New York City: drugs, muggers, crazy people, school bureaucracy, irresponsible sex, dumb decisions, budget cuts, subway breakdowns, dirty tattoo needles. Here is what I don’t worry about: drinking while driving, drugs while driving, texting while driving, driving. Here is what I feel bad about: we haven’t made AJ learn to drive. There was always something better to do.

* * * * *

I have a word document of things I want to make sure AJ knows before he goes to school. I add to it whenever something springs to mind. Here is what it currently says:

How to do your laundry
How to make your bed
What to do when you are sick
What to do when you are sad
How to keep track of your work
How to cook one simple but impressive meal
How to survive when broke
How to open a bank account
How to keep track of your money
How to drive
How to get help in any situation
How to sew a button
How to iron a shirt
How to tie a tie
How much I love you

It is a year of lists and more lists. The preparation for AJ’s next act is half running forward to see the future, half running away and holding tight to these last months together. It will take me that long to get my head around it and then a month or two longer. Exciting times ahead.

Rethreading

January 19, 2019

It has been nearly two years since I’ve written here. After 7+ years of writing nearly daily across a couple of different platforms, I fizzled, succumbed to an ever-expanding day job, family life, my guitar, a million distractions of the big city. The blog community was breaking up anyhow. The demise of google reader with no viable replacement was the last straw, I think, but Facebook and twitter had already drawn us away.

But for a million reasons, I’m feeling dissatisfied. I’ve Konmaried my drawers. Now I need to spark some joy in my own head. I miss writing longer strings of sentences. I’m sticking my toe back in the water. I make no promises.

I started my first blog back when AJ was 2 and just starting preschool. So there’s some poetic balance in considering beginning again, now that he’s about to graduate from high school and head to college. I’m starting to feel some space in my head again, but — or maybe because — the ground is shifting. More unrest. I have been just over seven years at the Toy Factory and am starting to understand why the concept of sabbatical exists. A major project is almost complete. I am trying to relearn my job as I used to do it and am finding I am a little burnt out, a little dissatisfied, unreasonably irked by petty things. I am trying to get my groove back, trying to figure out my next act. The blog has helped me navigate uncharted waters before. Perhaps it will again. Still, I make no promises, neither to myself (yet), nor to anyone else.

What drove me here today, though, was not nostalgia for this space per se, but by an assignment I had 35 years ago in my HS sophomore year English class.

I think about this assignment surprisingly often. I probably think about this class once a week how it changed my life in many ways, opening my world in a way that has not happened on that scale before or since. We’d been reading short stories. Richard Brautigan. Robert Coover. John Cheever. Donald Barthelme. I don’t remember which story it was that led us to this assignment exactly, maybe Barthelme’s “The Glass Mountain,” maybe something I can’t recall. But the assignment was to write a short story where the narrative was told with a mix of encyclopedic facts and narrative. My kind of story. There was research involved. I still have the result, a story of a girl choosing artistic ambition over love. It was terrible. Well, maybe not terrible — I got an A+ — but, well, sophomoric. It’s painful to read in much the same way that my 7th grade journal, the blue one with the silver unicorn on the cover, is painful to read. It will always have a metastory about a nerdy suburban high school sophomore who wants to be a sophisticated writer-musician in the city.

This time, I was thinking about this assignment because I am reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book (which is wonderful and you should all read it too). Mr. Spy gave it to me for Christmas. It is the kind of writing I wanted to do when I was that sophomore in high school and that I find I still want to do today. It tells the story of the 1986 fire that gutted the Los Angeles Central Library and in so telling reveals what matters to us about libraries. It is impeccably researched with archival work and secondary sources but also first person accounts from a million different perspectives. It is full of small details that another writer might not think to mention but which are like bolts to the reader’s heart, drawing you in to find out about that handbag left behind, the temperature of the ceiling, the way the glossy pages of art books dissolve in a flood, the Dewey decimal numbers for any number of books. I am only a third of the way through and I am already reading slower and slower, not wanting it to end.

There were many assignments I loved in that English class. I wrote better papers that year, but this is the one I come back to again and again and I realized while reading The Library Book (I take pleasure in the fact that it is not, in fact A library book), it’s because that’s the moment where the pleasure of research and the pleasure of telling a story could come together. It was the beginning of the work that’s followed me ever since that I’ve never quite managed to put together.

Still no promises, but food for thought. It’s time to start writing again. This book is maybe showing me a way forward.

Just before Christmas, I encountered my sophomore English teacher in the comments on a high school friend’s Facebook post. The friend was the inspiration for the main character in my story. She is an actress now and was writing about seaweed. We met in that English class. I took the opportunity to tell my teacher how much that class meant to me. I don’t know if he remembers me. But I will always remember him. He was clearly pleased. “That course was where I first understood how amazing kids were, and how interestingly they could think.”

This year, finally, in his last year of high school, AJ seems to have found a teacher like this. He can definitely think interestingly and seems to be turning into a writer himself. I make no promises about him either, though. His world should be wide open right now. Wide open with a spark.

As for my friend, she did choose ambition over love, but in the end she found both. Sometimes there are happy endings. And sometimes there are conflagrations and new things built from the ashes, a mosaic of tiny facts reassembled, stitched together. But still no promises of what next.

30 days

March 29, 2017

On February 28th, our landlord informed us that she wanted to sell our apartment and wanted us out in 30 days. While this adheres to the letter of New York law for this type of apartment, it is just not done. Finding housing in New York City is hard. The last time we tried, there was exactly one apartment available in our price range that came close to meeting our needs and we were living in it.

18 days later, we were moved into a new place that is twice as big in a neighborhood we love and has the same rent. We’re not quite sure how we did it. The place is gorgeous, with spectacular 1920s inlaid wood floors, a stained glass window in the entry way, a huge front porch overlooking a street of painted Victorian houses and a shorter commute to work. We can’t believe our luck.

The thing that has been most interesting to me, though, is how fast our habits have changed. A little more space has meant we all seem happier, sniping at each other less, all eating dinner together because there’s more room to coexist. We miss being right next to the park but very little else. I thought I was going to miss the sound of ships on the bay but the other evening when we sat on our front porch with a glass of wine, we heard one, a low, comforting foghorn that reminds you the ocean is not far away.

We moved last Saturday and early Wednesday morning, I left for Montreal to attend a conference. It was the first time I’d been there since my honeymoon. I spent most of my time working, but some of that work involved dining out and one night was spent stomping through the driving snowstorm to a bar with 400 kinds of beer, hockey on a giant screen, and poutine, which was much more delicious than you might expect from looking at it.

Among the useful things that happened was I found a writing partner. We had our first meeting over Skype today and I think this is going to be good. We’ll be able to help each other through our projects. We’re in similar places in our lives with too many things to do and our own research always ending up on the back burner. It is good to have allies.

When I came back, I had to clean out the old apartment. Going back, it looked so tiny and dingy. We are wondering how we lasted so long. Climbing the stairs to the roof one last time, I knew I’d miss the view of Manhattan, the planes lining up for Laguardia, the music drifting up from the bandshell in the summer time, the smell of lighter fluid coming from the grills in the park.

But we are looking forward to planting the window boxes on the porch railing, finally hanging up the hammock we’ve been carrying around with us, drinking mojito’s on the porch, playing guitar in the book-lined living room. We are thinking of buying bikes so we can ride to the park or to Coney Island in the summer. The new apartment is for making plans. I like plans.

Now is the cool of the day.

February 5, 2017

I led the music at tonight’s Mass with my guitar, so our organist could attend an organ recital in Manhattan. Sunday night Mass is what we call the “jazz Mass.” As far as I can tell, the only thing that connotes jazz is that one of the parishioners plays snare drum behind every song. But in general, there’s a little more leeway to what we can do musicwise. I did a bunch of Irish and Welsh hymn tunes and sang Jean Ritchie’s lovely “Now is the Cool of the Day” for the Communion anthem, which is about as political as I can get in church. The other thing that distinguishes the jazz Mass is audience participation. At the offertory, the congregation brings their gifts forward to a basket in front of the altar, instead of people going to them to collect. And for the prayers of the people, after the prescribed text for the week, the officiant takes a mike out into the congregation and people stand up and state their prayers to which we all respond, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Tonight the snare drummer’s wife stood up and prayed for refugees and immigrants affected by the ban, that they might receive comfort and safety and care. “Lord, hear our prayer,” we all said. Note that our parish is very liberal, more liberal than any Catholic church with which I’ve ever been involved (and being a church musician, that’s been quite a few). At the very first Mass we attended there, the rector explicitly welcomed gay couples and got about as close to stating a pro-choice position that a priest can do. But across the aisle of the church, a tall man crossed his arms across his chest and frowned. When the mic came toward him, he raised his hand. “I pray that we don’t let everyone in, that we don’t let terrorists in.” There was a pause and then some mumbled obediently, “Lord hear our prayer.”

It was a little shocking but it probably shouldn’t have been. We are a church, not the Democratic National Committee. We are open to all. And we are in this place in this country for a reason. But in the moment it felt raw. We felt raw. And the prayers petered out because no one knew what to say. When the priest and his mic passed by me, I said nothing. On the way home, I realized what it was I wanted to say. I pray that we never feel so afraid that we can’t act with compassion, generosity, and love. I pray that we realize that when our actions come from a place of fear that it is we who are the terrorists. And also the victims. And just to be clear, that includes both my wishes for this man and his fear-driven prayer but also to me and my fear of the man and of his prayers.

I was thinking about this when I sang the last verse of Jean Ritchie’s beautiful song.

My Lord, he said unto me,
“Do you like my garden so free?
You may live in my garden
If you keep the people free.”
And he walks in his garden,
In the cool of the day.
And we walk in his garden,
In the cool of the day.

In case you don’t know this song, here is Kathy Mattea’s rendition:

And I’m going to be writing more about this song over at song, so check back there in a day or so.

Song

February 1, 2017

Hello to anyone still reading here. Over the years, I’ve written a lot about music and done a number of memes about songs (including a couple linked at the top of this page). I’ve really enjoyed writing about songs and my attempts to play them. Over the past two years as I’ve fallen more deeply in love with guitar playing, songs have become an increasing obsession. As I’m learning more about improvising and gigging with a couple of bands, I find myself wanting to learn how to write a song, one that I don’t hate.

As you may have noticed, with my posts here getting fewer and farther between, this process has taken me away from writing somewhat, as practice and rehearsal cuts into my writing time. So I’ve started a separate blog where I can chronicle the process I’m going through. I plan to keep at it until I write the song I want to write, hopefully by the end of the year. As with much of my writing about song here, it’s likely to be (and already is) a mix of memoir and musicology. I’m aiming to write twice a week, but the political distractions being what they are at the moment, I’m not quite reaching that goal as yet, and I’m plundering some of my older posts from this space to fill in the gaps.

I’m not planning on abandoning this space — the other blog is project focused. I have things I want to achieve and a long list of planned posts to cover the ground I want to cover. This will remain a space for other things (and there are increasingly things demanding to be written about…). But I hope you’ll also join me at the new blog, song.