JUST WEEKS ago, my daughter’s mother moved out of state. The kid’s been having a tough time with it, and with school, and with her upcoming tenth birthday, which won’t work out the way she hoped. And then, over the weekend, her laptop and mine both broke—hers by cat-and-ginger-ale misfortune, mine by gravity abetted by my stupidity.
To lighten the mood, this morning broke grey, pounding rain. We pulled on our hoodies, scooped up our bodega umbrellas, and shrugged on our backpacks—hers heavy with school books, mine with gym clothes, a camera, and two busted laptops.
We were standing by the elevator when an apartment door burst open and Ava’s best friend in the world sprinted down the hall to hug her good morning. The two girls embraced until the elevator arrived.
The whole dark wet walk to school, my child hummed happily to herself.
Pain is my alarm clock
Today the pain woke me at 5:00 AM. One week ago today I had surgery. While most of me has bounced back, parts look like I disagreed with a mule. There is tenderness where a hernia repair botched by NYU interns 20 years ago finally got fixed. There’s throbbing, tumescent, Tim-Burton-directed pain in other places, where other things were done.
The past 12 months have been … interesting. I fired a client. My lead designer in New York decided to strike out on his own. I woke one morning with a toe the size of Cleveland, and after four months of practitioner hot potato, was diagnosed with gout and osteoarthritis. My dad had heart surgery, and airline incompetence got me to his side after it was over. (Fortunately he survived.) One of my businesses yielded a tax bill I couldn’t pay. I required intensive periodontal care. My hernia, supposedly fixed two decades ago, popped open again.
Somewhere in the middle of this—around Thanksgiving—my beloved wife screwed up the courage to confess that she was unhappy.
A year of couples counseling could not save the marriage. We did, however, save the family. Our child is well, we co-parent beautifully, and, with a lot of work on both sides, the ex and I have become good friends. Better friends, maybe, than when we were husband and wife. Friends for life. Lemonade for 200, Alex.
Holding onto yesterday
The dizzying marital sea change dwarfed everything else. At first I was stunned, like an accident victim. During one of the comic episodes of my toe enlargement mystery, I found myself alone in a hospital gown, about to have an MRI. In the mirror I reminded myself of my hospital-gowned father, whose surgery I had just attended. The doctor bustled in to ask me questions before the test. “How you doing,” he said. It took all my strength not to babble, “My wife is leaving me.”
We threw a Christmas party in the studio. My wife and child were among the guests, the wife looking radiant, the child frolicking adorably. I sensed that people viewed me as lucky and successful, and most were happy for me. They didn’t know that I was about to lose the only thing that matters. In the midst of happy celebrants, I felt alone.
During the inauguration of President Obama, while much of the world experienced hope, I focused on Laura Bush standing beside George Bush, and wondered why their marriage endured, while mine was falling apart.
It was like that. Then it got better.
The love you make
One day I realized I could not change what would happen, but I could influence how it happened. I could be the angry denier, hanging onto what no longer exists. Or I could embrace change with love and no conditions. After all, it was not about me, it was about us. And the most important thing was that the most important one of us be protected and continue to feel safe and loved.
Once you figure that out, the rest is easy, if you have a good partner.
By the time I started letting people know about the divorce, I was almost okay with it. I had stopped feeling that things were happening to me, and started taking control of my life. I enjoyed family time and single time. Although my depressed mother had raised me to view self-love as narcissism, I began taking care of myself. I ate sensibly, exercised, saw friends, took time to relax.
As part of that self-care, I opted not to leave unexploded land mines in my system.
During yesterday’s initial follow-up, the surgeon told me I was doing well—recovering fast. I celebrated by walking three miles down Fifth Avenue and meeting a friend for lunch. Then the pain told me to rush home and lie down, and I did as the pain commanded.
The pain that wakes me is good pain. It is the pain of taking care of yourself. The pain of recovery.
For a childhood fever, the doctor gave me Tetracycline. As a side effect, my adult teeth came in with almost no enamel. Enamel is the shiny, white, smooth, sexy part of the tooth. It would be nice to have some. Dentin, which I have in abundance, is yellow like old bones and permeable like shale, given to breakage and to deep grooves that attract stains. Imagine Keith Richards swilling a blend of coffee and urine and you have an idea of what my teeth came in looking like.
To the normal agonies of adolescence, add teeth that put the viewer in mind of pirates and mummies. (On top of which, I was short, very skinny, afraid of everything, and had blackheads.) As a boy I learned to smile with my lips closed, and I still do so without thinking about it. In photographs, even when I am content, I often appear to be frowning or pondering or merely pretending to smile because of this now conditioned muscular behavior.
I am a public speaker and appearance matters, but there is nothing I can do about the look of my smile. Whitening won’t work because whitening requires enamel. Crowning all my teeth would take at least $40,000, and I never seem to have $40,000 lying around.
Then in my 40s, I developed serious gum disease, complete with rapid bone loss. Left untreated, it would certainly cause me to lose my teeth. It would also, for medical reasons I’m not qualified to summarize, greatly increase the chance of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, and subject me to constant infection (and thereby, as well, to diseases that take advantage of a continually overtaxed immune system). The bone loss means the teeth are not strong enough to support crowns, so even if someone handed me $40,000, I couldn’t use it to build a pretty smile.
I have other health problems but they don’t bug me like the mouth business.
The other thing that pulverizes my self esteem is these Michael Douglas jowls that have somehow attached themselves to my head. They say to me what her spreading hips say to a woman. To make these jowls disappear, I would need to lose all the other fat on my body first. Like the hips, that’s just how it works. Even Steve Jobs has some middle-aged jowl on his otherwise starved frame.
I’m sure even Brad Pitt has something he hates about his body. An elbow that sometimes chafes, for instance. But is he man enough to tell you about it?
While my great grandfather hid in a rain barrel, a Ukrainian villager raped my great grandmother. Some time later, my grandfather was born.
He looked Ukrainian—so much so that he could slip away to the village, pass as a Christian child, and overhear the neighbors scheduling their next attack on the Jews. Then he would scamper back to the shtetl and let his parents know it was time to hide in the woods again.
My father and brother inherited the Ukrainian rapist’s good looks, and I inherited his thirst.
I first learned about the Ukrainian rapist last year, in the context of one of my father’s breakfast table reminiscences. My father mentioned it as if it were one of the old family stories—like the stories about my father’s childhood, or my mother’s father’s death in an airplane crash, or my parents’ marriage. I’ve been hearing those stories since I tasted milk, but the rapist in the family tree was news.
Perhaps because the boy’s face reminded him that he had failed to protect his wife, my great grandfather made a daily exercise of beating my grandfather.
He beat him in Ukraine, he beat him in steerage on the passage to America, he beat him in the new land. He only stopped beating him when my grandfather, with my great grandfather’s written consent, enlisted in the US Army at age fifteen to go fight the Huns.
The US government arranged to have my underage grandfather’s soldier’s pay sent directly to my great grandfather in America.
My grandfather might have thought World War I would be softer than life with Poppa, but if so, he was mistaken. He emerged from trench warfare with a plate in his head, a metal disk in his knee, and certified paranoid schizophrenic as a result of exposure to mustard gas, a chemical agent the civilized nations were using on each other’s soldiers.
When he emerged from the hospitals, the US government gave my grandfather a disability pension, and this time the money went to him. Armed with those small funds, a mentally ill poor man’s talent for the grift, and his striking handsomeness, he won my grandmother and produced two children, one of whom was my father.
In deference to tradition, my grandfather beat my father every day. He extended the tradition by also beating my grandmother.
That stopped when my father, still wearing his Navy uniform, returned from World War II and threw my grandfather out.
In the decades that followed, my grandfather would sometimes appear out of nowhere, creating emotional havoc in my parents’ house until my father gently put him on a train back to New York.
My grandfather married seven women that we know about, but none of the marriages stuck.
He gravitated to the Bowery and probably died there.
We last heard of him in the 1970s when I was in high school. Late one night, the phone rang. I answered. A New York cop told me he had picked up a deranged homeless man claiming to be my father’s father. Could we come pick him up?
We didn’t live in New York; my parents were out of town; as a minor watching my younger brother in my parents’ absence, I couldn’t travel to New York to fetch my grandfather. So I told the policeman that my father’s sister—my grandfather’s daughter—lived in the New York area and gave him her telephone number. Then, very politely, I hung up.
I had a bad feeling, like I should have done more, but what?
We never heard another word about my grandfather.
Kids say the darnedest things. Say the darnedest things. Say the darnedest things.
“Daddy, let’s play dinosaur. You can be the daddy dinosaur, mommy can be the mommy dinosaur, I can be the baby dinosaur, and doggy can be the doggy dinosaur.”
“Daddy, let’s play leprechaun. You can be the daddy leprechaun, mommy can be the mommy leprechaun, I can be the baby leprechaun, and doggy can be the doggy leprechaun.”
“Daddy, let’s play vampire. You can be the daddy vampire, mommy can be the mommy vampire, I can be the baby vampire, and doggy can be the doggy vampire.”
Parenting a four-year-old is like living with Rain Man.
The lessons of September 11, 2002
On September 11, 2002, I found myself in a place as strange as Vegas. I was there to speak at a web conference. They must have gotten a good deal on the rooms, it being the first anniversary of the attacks.
“They’re holding a conference on September 11th?” I had shouted aloud on receiving my emailed invitation to speak at the show. “How could they?”
And how could I, as a New Yorker, respond to such an invitation?
But people told me if we couldn’t hold web design conferences on September 11th, then the terrorists had won. People said many stupid things back then and still do. I don’t know why I heard wisdom, or the call of duty, in this sophistry. But off I went, persuaded that I was somehow taking a stand against the people who had so grievously harmed us.
On September 10th, I gave my talk to a roomful of hungover IT professionals. On September 11th, I slouched around the conference site at Caesars Palace feeling absurd and unreal and painfully missing the woman who is now my wife. (I love you, honey.)
In New York, George Bush was laying a wreath at Ground Zero. In Las Vegas, I was lying on a sedan chair, watching the animated flag on the JumboTron outside the Bellagio. The pixelated call to patriotism felt not merely inadequate but crazily beside the point. Its 60-second cycle seemed to proclaim that our enemies may fly our planes into our buildings, but damn it, we have big-screen animation.
Many of our subsequent responses to 9/11 have felt like that giant LCD—gung-ho about the wrong things, a garish distraction to keep us from seeing and solving our real problems. But on September 11, 2002, I only knew that it was not patriotic or wise to have left my woman alone in New York City on that day.
On Second Avenue, a long-legged woman in a short black skirt dashes past, late to an unknown appointment, her movements fluid and beautiful.
With every step, her skirt bounces, flashing legs at the avenue. Her left hand hangs at her hip, trying to keep the skirt down. But she fails at this, and the attempt only makes the male viewer more aware of the rhythmic, teasing visual.
The whole thing is unconscious. It has the visual semantics, but not the intention, of cheesecake. She is simply late, happens to be beautiful, and isn’t dressed like an Anabaptist. Nevertheless, her passage fractures the Matrix.
Even businessmen who dress like they never so much as take a breath without running a spreadsheet first can’t help turning back to get a second look.
She runs fast and is out of sight in minutes, leaving a trail of pheromones in her wake.
I want to thank her, but I would never catch up, and running after her is probably a bad idea.
Minutes later, approaching Lexington Avenue, I see a mentally ill man hurling racial epithets at the street.
“Fuck you motherfucking niggers,” he shouts.
Did I mention this part? He is black.
In his hand is a beer that a clerk at a nearby convenience store apparently thought was an okay thing to sell him.
He screws up his face into a horror mask and screams nonsense syllables as I pass him.
On the corner with several other people, waiting for the light to change, I feel him sneak up on us, and a moment later he defeats his own sneaking by shouting again.
“Don’t GIVE a fuck!”
A large plastic milk carton sits abandoned on the sidewalk. He grabs it and flings it into the street, just missing us corner-bound pedestrians. The milk carton touches down in a busy lane of traffic. Speeding cars begin changing lanes to avoid smashing into it.
Damn it, I think.
I think this because I know I’m going to get tangentially involved, and past experiences with mentally ill street people have not gone well. There was the guy in DC harassing women on the train. I interceded and he messed with me. DC yuppies, watching the whole thing, moved away rather than help. Then there was the guy— Well, anyway, enough.
I walk into the oncoming traffic, pick up the milk crate, take it back to the sidewalk, and push it down directly in front of the raging drunken mentally ill homeless man.
I look at him, he looks at me.
I don’t know whether my eyes are communicating toughness, compassion, or a kind of inattention—as if, by not focusing on him, he might not focus on me. I have no strategy. I’m moving on instinct and my plan is to disengage.
Whatever happened between us passes. I turn back to the street, the light changes in my favor, I move quickly into the intersection.
Behind me, he throws an abandoned filthy bath rug into the street.
I let him win that one.
[tags]cities, NYC, New York City, urban, living, urban living, street, life, streetlife, myglamorouslife, glamour, zeldman[/tags]
She has calculated, correctly, that if great-grandma can die, anyone she loves is fair game.
Sometimes Ava defies the inescapable logic. She’ll tell a stranger, “My great-grandma died, but my grandma is never going to die.”
At other times, she plea bargains: “Mama,” she says, cuddling on the couch, “I don’t want you to leave me.”
She knows the happy part is that great-grandma is in heaven, but the sad part is that we don’t get to see her any more. And that she can’t talk. Or write letters. Or go to church. Or anything.
In short, she knows that dead is dead. And while she accepts the heaven part, the consolation is abstract.
Novelist Anne Rice lost her daughter in 1972. From the pain of this infinitely unfolding tragedy, she conceived a series of works about vampires, whom she portrays as god-like, immortal beings. In Rice’s vampire novels, a vampire seeking companionship in the dark night of eternity can confer “the dark gift” of immortality on a mortal by biting them just so. The series resonates in part because it darkly mirrors normal human experience. Life itself is a dark gift: every parent knows their child will suffer and die.
Our daughter is not yet on intimate terms with death, but the two have now met and exchanged a few words.
Awake at 4:30 AM at the end of a four-day heat wave. Sweating, but not from the weather. Running a business during a recession gets you out of bed with the chickens.
I have always moved counter to my time. I started Happy Cog as the dot-com boom went bust. We bought our first home in December 2007, as the U.S. mortgage crisis flared to full incandescence. And as the U.S. falls into economic narcolepsy, Happy Cog New York and Happy Cog Philadelphia are moving to newer, bigger, better, more beautiful, more perfectly located, and more expensive offices.
By daylight I hustle and count my blessings. We retire early, tired and contented. But at the first pale light of dawn, I’m awake and wired and already on the mental treadmill.
This morning as I lay there fretting over design and personnel questions, I heard our daughter cry out. I was at her side a moment later. She was dreaming; dreaming about bath time. Talking in her sleep, she gave voice to her nightmare:
“No, Mama, no hair wash. Let me skip it, Mama.”
I put my hand on her shoulder and told her she could skip the hair wash, and she instantly subsided to calm sleep.