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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.

By the chimney

December 19, 2016

Has it really been six months since I’ve written here? Things have gotten out of hand. Let’s see, where was I?

* Big project at the Toy Factory that was supposed to launch in November, no January no February is now…scheduleless. I’m placing my bets on May. Which is sad, because my life is very stressful until it’s over. On the plus side, I got promoted.

* Still playing a lot of fiddle and guitar. Not so much with the band, alas, which has been on hiatus for months. But the two other guitarists of my group at work left (one laid off, the other retired) and I’m holding it together on my own now. It was terrifying, but I’m gaining confidence (possibly without any merit). I’m also making my own tabs and arrangements now, which is much more fun than I would have expected.

* I am no longer reading the news. For my sanity. I have, however, joined a local grassroots community action group. It surprises me but it also helps.

There. Now you’re all caught up.

That’s not what I wanted to write about though. What I wanted to write about is this:

Every day, on my way to work, I get off at the Herald Square stop and walk east on 35th St. Right outside the exit to the station is a building perpetually covered in scaffolding under which are the back doors to the clothing stores on 34th Street. Over the last few months, nearly a year maybe, a homeless encampment has set up there. They build shelters out of the discarded clothing boxes every night and almost every morning, someone tears them down or hoses them away. They build their shelters between the poles of the scaffolding. The shelves of the scaffolding hide, but don’t completely block, the large old fashioned projecting lintels over the shop doors and the people who live in the boxes stash their belongings there in shopping bags.

This morning when I came up from the train, it was cold, maybe 20 degrees, the coldest day we’ve had in NY this winter so far. As I walked by, the boxes were piled extra thickly with all access routes covered. And on the front of each box was a bright red Christmas stocking.

Where did the stockings come from? They are empty. I am tempted to fill them. What would you put in them? I thought maybe gift cards to a nearby restaurant, but I wonder how many would welcome the people who live in the boxes. What would you do?