Did you plagiarize any of Numb?

Next question.

There are any number of reasons to refuse friendship to someone.

They range from the practical to the personal and will certainly vary by individual.  Here are some examples:

Lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, cursing, getting too drunk, not getting drunk enough, being obnoxious, being dull, being too smart, being too stupid, being heartless, being homeless, farting in public, flirting in public, grabbing your ass, grabbing other people’s asses, being a junkie, being a jerk, getting you in trouble, getting other people in trouble, being unpopular with your girlfriend/boyfriend/mother/father/friends, running with shady characters, running with the Rainbow Family of Living Light, being too dangerous, playing too safe, breaking your shit, taking your shit, giving you shit, talking shit, involvement in domestic spying for a barbaric totalitarian communist regime…

The list goes on.

For me, personally, most of these are not reasons, categorically, to not be friends with someone. Some are.  I do my best to be flexible, but I try to steer clear of any murderers or potential murderers who aren’t state-sanctioned, for example.

I’ll be friends with an army sniper, but I probably wouldn’t want to be friends with Jeffrey Dahmer.

Maybe that’s hypocrisy.

Or maybe it’s just a strict anti-cannibalism or anti-dead-person policy.

The following story struck me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that literature, as a scene, does not usually involve high international drama and espionage of this obvious a nature:

Nobel Prize winner Herta Mueller recently went public with the revelation that the real-life inspiration for Atemschaukel, her latest anti-totalitarian novel about a homosexual man who is held captive in a Soviet gulag, turned out to be, in fact, an informant for the totalitarians.

No one was so shocked as Mueller.  Apparently she had no idea.  He was a man with whom she had become dear friends as they worked closely during her time writing the fictionalized account of his story.

From what I can tell, this man–his name was Oskar Pastior (he died in 2006)–had been granted some kind of amnesty when he defected–or was seized–to the west.

From what little I’ve read, it’s not clear whether or not he was in fact a communist sympathizer or whether he had no choice but to do what he did, but he is listed as a Securitate informant in dossiers and other corroborating documents.

“Over the years [Mueller] has clashed with Romania’s post-communist intellectuals with her remorseless campaign against former Securitate informers, demanding that writers and theatre people who were on the police payroll be unmasked and punished.”

DAMN.

This means that Oskar, at some point, was watching his friend–in whom he had confided the details of, potentially, the most difficult time in his life and who was writing a book about him and his heroic ordeal–call for his public revelation, humiliation, and eventual punishment (of what type, I don’t know).

Or, not his, really, since she didn’t know he was one of them.  She was calling for these things, but she thought she was doing it, in part, in his defense and for restoration of justice to people like him (including herself).

But he certainly must have known that had he told her the truth, she would have probably ended their friendship, certainly would not have finished the book (or at least not as planned), and may, potentially, have publicly outed him and destroyed whatever life he’d made for himself since leaving the world of political intrigue and espionage.

Or wouldn’t she have?  After all, what kind of friend would do that?  What kind of monstrous person would offer up her own friend for filleting at the hands of the post-communist public?  How blind must you be to basic interpersonal loyalties and friendship to serve up some one you care about, ostensibly, in the service of state and other relative strangers?

I mention Herta first only because the next consideration is much more obvious:  Were Oskar alive, we could–and should–ask him a series of nearly identical questions surrounding his time as an informant.

And I was thinking about it, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, sort out who was guilty of wrong-doing in that friendship scenario or if both were or if anyone was guilty at all.

What a clusterfuck.

Poor Herta for not being able to confront Oskar.  Poor Oskar, who will never have the chance to explain himself to Herta.

And it suggests a mundane question in fairly dramatic fashion:  To what extent do or should one’s political inclinations or political behaviors, past or present, affect whether or not we choose to be friends with them, interact with them, date them, or consider their experiences and their general presence valuable?  At what point do beliefs and behaviors nullify relationships?

We ask these types of questions with regard to people’s overall past and habits in a very general way, but I don’t hear people talk about them much in a political way.

This question is constantly at the fore of my mind.  I live, basically, in a liberal world.  Because of where I work, because I like to write, because I have what are likely academic ambitions, I am mostly surrounded by leftward-leaning people.

I don’t consider myself a victim by any means.  I interact with the people I interact with by choice and, I think, to my benefit.  This isn’t a complaint lodged against liberalism in the arts, and I don’t consider myself persecuted.

Nevertheless, it is something that I am aware of.  Just all of the time.  Whether or not and when it is advisable to reveal my political leanings, what the consequences might be, etc.

About 16 months ago, a meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin noted that people actively seek out information that agrees with them.  That is to say, they don’t necessarily fail to be exposed to different points of view just because they’re surrounded by like-minded people or because the information available is necessarily skewed.  People are not passive in maintaining and honing their views; they actively go looking for information and perspectives that allow them to go on “living the lives they’re living.”

And it appears to be true for liberals and conservatives alike.

The consensus seems to be that on items of political import, morality, and values, 70% of the time, most people will choose to hear views that agree with them.

Those most likely to seek out opposing views tend to be a) the most confident in their own views and/or b) in need of awareness of opposing views in order to defend against objections to public declarations of their own views (politicians, media personalities, etc.).

In turn, the people least likely to seek opposing viewpoints tend to also be the least confident in their own views.

None of this is altogether shocking.

But more to the point of Herta and Oskar, I have noticed–though few people are willing to state it explicitly–that there is at least some indication that a political lean may be, for many, among the friendship deal-breakers listed above.  That is, people actively search for and/or exclude others from their social circles based on whether or not those people agree with them, just like they seek out agreeable news stories and other types of information resources.  Strictly from my perspective, such sentiments appear to be on the rise.  Or they appear to be more firmly and less self-critically held.

If my impressions are correct–if they are true at all–I’m sure they’re true straight across the political spectrum.  Basic political behaviors, if not the politics themselves, tend to be fairly uniform across humanity, whether people care to admit it or not.

The conundrum is complex:  At what point do a person’s politics and ideology reveal in them some other, fundamental, deal-breaking character flaw?  On the other hand, at what point does a person’s exclusion of others from their sphere of awareness based on politics and ideology reveal in them a fundamental, deal-breaking character flaw?

Where is the line, exactly, between the personal and political, and what are the implications?

For example:  How has the value of a fictional account of Oskar’s story changed, given Herta’s revelation?  How has the value of his real-life story changed because of it?  And most importantly, is their friendship–Oskar’s death notwithstanding–invalidated?

On the topic, Herta hasn’t said much except that she felt slapped in the face and that she is now in a period of mourning.  This suggests to me that she has left or lost something some way or another, but only Herta can say what.

Last but not least, had Oskar been forthcoming with the information from the outset, would there even have been a book?  A friendship?

If an ideology is willful and can be synonymous with a character flaw, then does that mean an ideology IS a willful character flaw, and if so, what then? What might we do with such people?


My feeling is that otherizing–the act of identifying and alleging a dichotomy between “us” and “them” –is at the very heart of how Herta and Oskar ever even found themselves in the predicament they did.  It may, by some leaps (great or small, take your pick), be at the heart of the very existence of the USSR.  Between Herta’s otherizing and Oskar’s participation in Securitate otherizing, the stage was set for a karmic kill-strike of dazzling irony.

Maybe, in a way, they deserved the fate that befell their friendship.  Both of them.  Or maybe neither of them did.  Maybe they were both victims of something well beyond their control.

At any rate, it appears that the two of them, both separately and in their joint war against ‘the other,’ were eachother’s ‘other’ and eachother all along.


This essay used to end here.

I didn’t like it ending here because I didn’t think I’d made my point, but I wasn’t sure what else to say.

Then John Cusack posted a tweet leading to this article. He called it “strong, clear thinking.”

“We have to build that independent left. It has to be so strong and so radical and so militant and so powerful that it becomes irresistible.”

Militant, radical, powerful, irresistible.  “Left” is not the word that worries me here.

And just last week, at the dentist’s office, I picked up a recent issue of Time magazine with a cover story about the Tea Party’s rattling of the conservative establishment (and the political establishment, period).

There’s nothing too fascinating or groundbreaking in the article save one thing, and it is unfortunately treated as minor–a passing thought–by the article’s author:  The suggestion that the solution to extreme, reactionary conservative politics may be for liberals to create their own extreme, reactionary politics with the expressed intent of doing battle with the conservatives of a similarly pissed-off, bloodthirsty, and unthinking sort.

I find this progression troubling.  I find it troubling that some people believe and are increasingly fervent that the answer to extremism and reactionism is more of the same.  Escalation, basically.  A call to balkanization.  I find it wrong-headed and obviously so under almost any circumstances. I think most people–certainly most liberals and conservatives, asked independently of a discourse on politics–would find it wrong-headed as well.

But here we are.


I suspect that there will be no call for radical moderation. I just hope we can all still be friends.


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (from galaxies that are far, far away), I worked in IT.

I supported a massive financial software system at a billion dollar company that spanned several continents and nearly thirty countries.  I was part of a large international team that was constantly fixing, configuring, and testing the accounting system and then training employees on how to use it.*

From time to time, the software manufacturer would release a bigger and better version of the software package and when that happened, the company would ask us to upgrade the financial system to the latest and greatest version.

The accounting systems of billion dollar companies are monitored and maintained with mind-melting precision.  Whenever you change the tiniest configuration in the most insignificant area of an application, you need to present incontrovertible proof that you have tested the change exhaustively and that having done so, you would wager your children’s eyeballs that in making this teensy little change, you have not fucked up everything all to hell.

To change the whole blessed system is NASA-esque in its complexity.  Such an upgrade is a multi-million dollar project that requires roughly a year of planning, testing, re-configuring, data conversions, etc.

It’s a big fucking deal.

***

The upgrade of our company’s system was an international project coordinated from our corporate headquarters on the east coast, where I worked at the time.

After a year of preparation, we were ready to “go live.”  This meant that we would turn off the company’s financial and manufacturing systems at the end of business on a Friday, and then all hands in the IT department would work around the clock and through the weekend to install the new software, configure it, move all the old data into the new system, and then test the bejesus out of it to  ensure that when our European colleagues showed up for work on Monday morning, all systems were error-free and fully-functional.

The database guys would do their thing all night Friday and all day Saturday.  When the new software was installed, it was time for my team and me to do our thing.

On Sunday morning, my two co-workers and I would march into HQ with bucket-sized coffees and boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and we would run through a series of test scripts over the course of a few hours.  We would have a TV on somewhere so we could watch football, as the test script process was fairly mindless by this point:  “Click this button,” <check>, “Open this window,” <check>, “Enter a transaction,” <check>, etc.

But as anyone who has ever owned a computer knows, shit will always crash at the worst possible time.

***

Brian, Hammer**, and I all performed similar roles within our team, each specializing in a different area of finance.  We had worked together for a couple of years and we were sarcastic, disrespectful, profane, and apathetic.  And that was just towards the employees we were hired to support.

We arrived on Sunday morning at around nine a.m., ready to go.

The project manager greeted us with, “there’s been a little problem guys.”

He advised that late on Saturday evening, a rather significant step in the upgrade had gone quite disastrously.  He further advised that the delay in troubleshooting this issue had pushed the entire project plan back several hours.

He suggested that we go get some breakfast and be back at noon.

***

Upon arrival at the Irish pub down the street, we noticed that the Sunday brunch menu included drink specials.

“What time do you guys start serving,” asked Brian.

“Eleven,” said our waiter.

At approximately 11:00:15 a.m., the pints hit our table, and two subsequent rounds arrived in quick succession.

We were pretty comfortable in the pub, and with the beers going down like water, we decided to check in with the upgrade team and make sure they still wanted us back at noon.  Hammer called in to the office.

“What?  You’re kidding?  That’s horrible,” Hammer said into his phone while smiling and giving us a thumbs up.  “Two o’clock?  Yeah, OK, we’ll see you then.”  He hung up.

“Yeah, they’re fucked.  Let’s get another round.”

***

We finished a few more rounds and then I opted to run home to check in on my dogs.  Hammer and Brian relocated to another pub near our office, and I agreed to meet them there for one last round before we’d all go to work at two o’clock.

As I drove home from breakfast, it occurred to me that I had no business driving.

It was about 12:30 p.m.

***

When I arrived back at the pub an hour later, Hammer and Brian were steaming drunk.  The empty glasses in front of them told a story that their glassy eyes and slurs confirmed.

I had quite a bit of catching up to do.

“Hey, can we get some Jameson’s chilled over here?” I called out to the bartender before even removing my jacket and sitting down.

By the time I had satisfied myself that I was sufficiently caught up with my colleagues, we learned that while some progress on the upgrade had been made, delays persisted.  Nonetheless, we should report back to the office for a team meeting.

This would have been an appropriate time for us to order a couple baskets of fries and Cokes to sober up before returning to work.

Instead, we agreed, “yeah, we have time for one more.”

***

When we arrived back at the office, the rest of the team was gathered in a semi-circle of swivel chairs in a large, open area of the floor.  The project manager’s horrified expression indicated that he understood how we had spent our day.  Certainly the odor of booze was a strong indicator but if anyone harbored any lingering doubts, it was likely removed when Brian kicked Hammer’s ankle from behind as he walked towards a chair, sending all of Hammer’s two hundred plus pounds crashing to the floor in front of the whole team.

Our total inability to stop laughing at this seemed to somewhat irritate our sober colleagues.

We were advised that the issue would likely soon be resolved and that our testing should begin shortly.  However, the risk of failure was sufficiently high that the vice president of our department was driving in from the suburbs to receive a full briefing.  Should the upgrade fail, he would be required to face the CEO in the morning, hat in hand, to explain why millions of dollars had just been urinated out the window.  In such dire circumstances, terminations would almost certainly ensue.

Therefore our inebriation was met with some concern by both our supervisor and the project manager.

It was suggested that we get some food, in the somewhat likely event that we find ourselves in a team meeting with the vice president.

“Hey, what about the pub at the Marriott next door?” I asked.

***

Our boss was a good-natured, quiet type who generally gave us wide leeway to do our jobs, so long as we eventually got our work done.  However, in the throes of a disaster-plagued upgrade, his patience was thinner than the ice on which we were skating.

He enthusiastically discouraged us from visiting the pub at the Marriott for dinner and suggested we repair to our cubicles to come up with a better choice for dinner- preferably a place without a liquor license.

It was on the way to our cubicles that our vice president arrived on the floor, almost bumping into us.

He took one look at us, shook his head, and said, “You guys should go get some food,” before storming down the hall in search of our boss.

***

While we sat in our cubicles, trying to resolve the food dilemma, Hammer and I indulged in a name-calling contest that ended when he abruptly leapt out of his chair and dove into my cubicle, pile driving me out of my chair, onto the floor, and practically folding me in half.

It felt like my spine was going to snap and so I unleashed a torrent of screams and profanity that generally accompany particularly graphic murders.

Our boss soon careened around the corner to see what had happened.  Unbeknown to the three of us, he, the vice president, and the project manager were in the room across the hall from us, with the door open.  They had been listening to the entire incident.

He glared at us, suggesting that we find something to do that didn’t involve wrestling, and retreated back into his meeting, probably five years older.

***

As we sat in our cubicles, twiddling our thumbs waiting for our blood alcohol contents to decrease, we still had no plan for food.  Brian had been asking where we wanted to eat, but we were ignoring him.  Just because.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the huge un-potted plant fly over the wall from Brian’s cubicle into Hammer’s.  It was a volleyball-sized mass of leaves, vines, and a large clump of roots caked by about five pounds of dry soil that seemed to fly in slow motion.

When Brian inherited his cubicle, there were four potted plants hanging along the side.  These plants were likely never watered, and I doubt if anyone had ever paid attention to them.  Until then.

The plant hit Hammer’s bald head with a dusty thud, sending dirt and leaves everywhere- all over his keyboard, his desk, his clothing, and his floor.

Before I could fully process what had just happened, Hammer calmly stood up, walked over to Brian’s cubicle, removed the rack containing the remaining three plants, and hurled them at Brian, point blank.

Dried soil and profanity flew, and Brian looked like someone had just dumped a wheelbarrow full of dirt on him.  He sprung up and advanced on Hammer.

I had just jumped up and ran over to assess the disaster, when our boss again came storming out of the conference room.

“What the fuck are you guys doing?” he demanded as his final nerves unraveled.  We stood there weaving, slurring, and blaming each other.

Then, releasing his hands from Hammer’s neck, Brian, drunk as a hobo and covered in dirt, looked around and replied without a shred of irony, “You know, Chief- I can’t help but feel partially responsible for this.”

We were asked to leave the building until the executives completed their meeting.

We decided that our only viable option was the bar at the Marriott next door.

***

At ten p.m., we had yet to begin our testing, and the three of us were drinking at the hotel bar, waiting for them to call us back to work.

Suddenly our boss stormed in, pointed at the village of empty beer bottles in front of us and inquired why we were not answering our phone.  He had apparently been calling us for the better part of an hour before finally put two and two together and walking over to the nearest bar to find us.

He directed us to put our beers down and get back to the office, toute de suite.

Brian gamely offered that we’d meet him over there as soon as we finished our beers.

To say that this comment did not go over well would be a spectacular understatement.

We weaved back to the office and began working.

***

Somehow the testing was completed without further incident and the system was turned on just in time for our European colleagues to log in on Monday morning.  Despite all of the excitement, the upgrade was ultimately a success and our group was commended for our diligence and perseverance through the challenges we had endured during the weekend.

Our team even threw a party to celebrate going live.

Our boss eventually forgave us, although on his final day with the company, he admitted that the one time that he ever got really mad at us was when he had to go pull us out of the bar to do our jobs and we said we’d be over as soon as we finished our beers.

I think back on that comment from time to time and feel shitty and embarrassed about how selfish and immature we were that day.  We were disrespectful to our boss, to our colleagues, and to ourselves.  I would have to guess that most people in our shoes would have made very different choices that day- ones that didn’t involve 12 hour drinking binges, wrestling during meetings, and office vandalism.   In fact, when I look back on all the problems that occurred that day and take an honest look at my part in everything, I too can’t help but feel partially responsible.





*To this day I have very little understanding of computers, networks, servers, and the like.  Back then, I didn’t know a UNIX script from a movie script.  I could not install printers, and when people would call my desk looking for help mapping to a network drive, I would change my voice, adopt a vague foreign accent, and replied “Joe’s not here.  You call someone else,” before hanging up and going to lunch.

**Names have been changed


Monday 9/19/10 09:30AM
FROM: “John Polcheck” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Daniel Baird
Deputy Director of Records,
Department of Limbic Involvement

Chuck Pierce, Deputy Liason of Auditory Cortex has noted that Audio Artifact 9443 (A.K.A. Madonna‘s hit song “Ray of Light”) has officially exceeded the Prescribed Number of Auditory Samplings (P.N.A.S.). The violation occurred on 9/16/10, 14:26 in Berkeley, CA in the check-out line at the Safeway on Shattuck Avenue, when A.A. 9443 played over the P.A. This being the 611th sampling, all enjoyment of A.A. 9443 was officially exhausted. No enjoyment shall heretofore be derived from the artifact in question. For details concerning the variability of P.N.A.S., please see Appendix C as attached to the handbook for cerebral function. The ruling of the Department of Prefrontal Involvement that the brain at large has become sick of A.A. 9443 takes effect immediately.

John H. Polcheck
Quality Control Representative,
Department of Prefrontal Involvement
a.d.t. Undersecretary to the Dept.

* * *

Monday 9/19/10 12:14PM
FROM: “Barry Steinberg” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Hey Dan,

I just heard about the “Ray of Light” ruling… But don’t fret. I’ve got some pull with the Prefrontals. The Deputy-Director owes me from when I fudged a review. Remember when their department forgot to set the alarm clock and the brain overslept last week? When the body missed that meeting? Let’s just say the Guilt Review for that got postponed indefinitely… Whatever. Catholicism, Shmatholicism. And I’ll just pile it on when the Prefrontals decide we’re in a big hurry and park in a handicapped space again.

Anyway, I’ll see if I can’t bend Polcheck’s ear about the ruling. But go ahead and file an appeal just to be sure.

Barry

* * *

Tuesday 9/20/10 11:12AM
FROM: “Jennifer Sherwood” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Danny,

So not fair about “Ray of Light!” Boo! Have you opened the file yet? Make sure you label everything correctly. That baby’s gonna fly out of there on Nostalgia Review. Look what happened with all those Tears for Fears songs!

Love, Jenny

* * *

Monday 9/26/10 9:30AM
FROM: “John Polcheck” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Daniel Baird
Deputy Secretary of Records
Department of Prefrontal Involvement

The recently filed appeal request, RE: A.A. 9443 has been denied. Artifact will be filed in Subconscious Memory Database (S.M.D.) as scheduled, based on cerebral bylaw no. 1187, which states that P.N.A.S. violations are subject to appeal only after petitions for continuation of enjoyment have been filed with the Department of Prefrontal Involvement.

Please refer to Appeals F.A.Q. in the handbook for further questions, or contact your Director.

Thank you,

John H. Polcheck
Quality Control Representative,
Department of Prefrontal Involvement
a.d.t. Undersecretary to the Dept.

* * *

Monday 9/26/10 11:24AM
FROM: “Barry Steinberg” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Danny Boy,

Well, my so-called friends in the Prefrontal System have bailed on me about the “Ray of Light” ruling. But I am not deterred. But it’s especially lame that this is being handed down now, of all times, right when vacation’s coming up. AND we just got that Post-“Vogue” Madonna mixtape. Don’t think I haven’t thought about that. I’m gonna see about filing a petition. Do you think we can get the signatures in time for vaca?

Laters,

Barry

* * *

Tuesday 9/27/10 2:44PM
FROM: “Jennifer Sherwood” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Dan,

I heard about Barry’s petition against the “Ray of Light” ruling! I am soooo signing, and I’m getting all my girls to sign, too. You guys are the coolest for doing this! Fight the power! Speaking of which, you guys should look into petitioning for “Fight the Power,” too. Can you believe the P.N.A.S. on that one? Those Prefrontals are slipping.

Kisses,

Jenny

* * *

Wednesday 9/28/10 10:22AM
FROM: “Sherman Georen” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Dan the Man! Good on you and Barry’s petition! You coming to Gina’s party on Saturday? Peace, Sherm

* * *

Wednesday 9/28/10 12:03PM
FROM: [email protected]
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Ray of Liiiiiight!!! Nice job fellas! Just signed the petition!

* * *

Wednesday 9/28/10 12:53PM
FROM: “Blake Harring” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Really? Madonna? What happened when, “Radio, Radio” got the ax last week? I seem to recall “My Funny Valentine” going not too long before that. If you’re going to challenge the Prefrontals, you could at least pick something decent to fight over. Blake

* * *

Wednesday 9/28/10 12:58PM
FROM: “Matt Ortt” <[email protected]>

And I feeeeeeel! Like I just got home! And I feeeeeel! Did you move your cubicle? I was walking around like an asshole for like ten minutes at lunch. Matt

* * *

Wednesday 9/28/10 1:23PM
FROM: “Barry Steinberg” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Danny,

Dude, there’s like fifty people filing past my desk right now signing our petition! It’s totally happening. And by “people,” I mean hot assistants. But really, you should come down here.

Barry

* * *

Monday 10/2/10 9:30AM
FROM: “John Polcheck” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

Daniel Baird
Deputy Director of Records,
Department of Limbic Involvement

The ruling that A.A. 9443 be filed into Subconscious Memory Database has been officially overturned, due to a successful petition and appeals process by several junior employees in the D.L.I. The P.N.A.S. requirements for A.A. 9443 are under review and will be issued next quarter.

John H. Polcheck
Quality Control Representative,
Department of Prefrontal Involvement
a.d.t. Undersecretary to the Dept.

* * *

Monday 10/2/10 9:54AM
FROM: “Barry Steinberg” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

TO: “Daniel Baird” [email protected]>

U-S-A! U-S-A! Dude, if we don’t leverage this to get back some of those Springsteen songs, we’re not men. Are we not men, Danny Boy? And that Sherry chick asked about you. She’s a Madonna fan, that one.

* * *

Monday 10/2/10 12:37PM
FROM: “Matt Ortt” <[email protected]>
TO: “Daniel Baird” <[email protected]>

She’s got herself a universe! And I feeeeeeeeeeeeel! Nice work, Man.

 

I’ll Only Leave Manhattan in a Body Bag

 

Is it me or is the word suburbia loaded?

Like ‘stay-at-home mom’ or ‘Britney Spears’, suburbia has its fans, satirists, detractors. Until 2005, I was smugly ensconced in the third category, a self-styled city slicker who wore black garb, told cabbies the best route to get across town, exchanged intimacies with people riding elevators. Typical New Yorker. Suburbia to me — a psychologically-scarred Brooklyn-born kid whose family never ‘made it’ to Long Island — was an aseptic construct where women over 40 lost their edge and their calf muscles because they spent their days driving to the strip mall and schlepping kids to soccer practice.

“That will never be me,” I’d swear to my husband driving over the George Washington Bridge after visiting friends who lived in cavernous colonials with marbled foyers and Labrador retrievers. “Never!”

My lifelong scorn for suburbia enabled me to put up with every city-related inconvenience or absurdity. Circling like a hungry buzzard for a parking spot or keeping windows shut on hot summer nights to drown out whining sirens or the occasional gunshot. Even when I was tripping over my toddler’s loot, I believed IKEA was the solution to our ever-shrinking 700-square-foot apartment.

We could not afford a bigger apartment in a steroidal real estate market but I would not contemplate suburbia.

I was mentally and physically asphyxiated by my long-held beliefs that the sticks were filled with people who stopped going to independent films and who ate dinner before 7. Sure I was yearning for room and trees and a driveway but my childhood demons were ninjas. It all started the day my family piled into the yellow Cadillac to see the white house for sale in Long Island. At ten, this was the most glamorous house I’d ever stepped inside of – it was nothing like the cramped ones in Brooklyn. My mother wanted this house and this life more than anything in the world. My father didn’t. He thought a Cadillac in his driveway and a detached house in Canarsie was good enough. My mother’s brooding and envy for greener pastures turned into scorn for all-things-suburban. An emotionally resourceful woman, she came up with plan B: raise her daughters to worship Manhattan.

Throughout college, I tacked up in every dorm room I lived in a famous New Yorker Magazine poster that put Manhattan as the center of the universe. Then I went about spending my whole adult life there, becoming the quintessential New Yorker. You know, Woody Allen’s template.

Disturbingly at 43, for the first time in my life, my romance with Manhattan was wilting. Sept 11 had crushed me. The apartment walls were closing in on me. I wanted to step on Elmo’s face every time he said “Elmo loves you.” I was growing unrecognizable. I began to think my daughter needed a bedroom (rather than a creative space) of her own more than a first-class education on the Impressionists at the MET. I started to dream about what it would be like if she could distinguish between lavender and salvia. I thought about how delightful it would be to wake up to the whata-cheer-cheer-cheer of Northern Cardinals rather than screaming sirens.

My husband knew not to suggest suburbia – I considered it a four-letter word. Instead, Mr. Tactically Brilliant got me to spend long stretches of time in the country.

 

 

Call of the Wild

 

I am a city kid. Born in Brooklyn, I hung out on stoops, played kickball in the street, could hear neighbors when they fought.

But every summer, my parents shipped me off for eight weeks to sleep-away camp in the mountains. There I pulled a blanket over my head at night because I was afraid the bats in the rafters would sweep down and weave nests in my waist-length hair. At night, dark, black starry nights, I worried a bug-eyed country loon with a warm rifle would do us in. But each morning the sun rose and I plunged happily into the serene lake and was sad only when the sun set.

I was even sadder when the camp bus returned me to Brooklyn’s hot streets eight weeks later.

Three decades later, the country is a container of youthful memories. Julia was two when we rented a summer house in the Catskill Mountains. The little Arts-and-Crafts two-story cottage was set back from the dusty dirt road near a lake. I felt my chest expand every time we drove up on a Friday afternoon. Turning up the steep road after Ellenville, we’d pass hulking hotels, abandoned riding stables, bungalow colonies – some lived in, others reminders of days when the Catskills drew New York’s urban Jews by the droves. Sheep and goats grazed behind wire fences. This down-and-out depressed area is a no-man’s land to some but to a down-and-out stressed out urbanite it looks like paradise.

The cottage was rickety and unfinished – wires hanging where the owner meant to install a fixture – but the diaphanous lake seen through our window was like an Impressionist painting, changing colors with the hours of the day, altering perspectives with the opening and closing of the waterlillies on the lake’s surface.

I found unexpected peace and pleasure. I woke to bird song. My daughter and I yanked wild flowers, especially tiger lilies from the side of the road. We gathered bouquets in bunches and put them in tall skinny glasses. The day I swam across the lake to a tiny sandy beach on the other side I was transported back to my teen years at sleep-away camp, a time when I had felt most alive. The lake was telling me something. I had only to listen.

One day our landlord told us she was thinking of selling the cottage.

“Do you guys have any interest in buying it?” she asked.

My first instinct was to throw my arms around her and say “yes, yes, please, yes” but instead my husband said “We’d need to think about that.”

That night, after we tucked Julia into her crib, we went out on the deck. We crawled into a sleeping bag and gazed at a sky of diamonds. I think we were both afraid to start the conversation.

“So, have you given the idea any thought?” he asked.

“I love the idea but we can’t afford to maintain the apartment and a summer cottage,” I said.

“Yeah, I know, but it would be nice,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “If we could at least escape on weekends, I’d probably be a nicer person,” I said, wistfully.

“Maybe we should move up here permanently,” he said.

I thought he was joking, and left it at that.

In early September, on our final ride back to Manhattan in our car stuffed to the brim like the Beverly Hillbillies, I blubbered like a baby.

“Why is mommy crying?” my daughter asked my husband.

“She doesn’t like to leave the country,” he explained.

There it was—the simple truth. I wanted to be immersed in nature, to quiet the noise, to slow down the pace.

That September misery became a gauzy shroud. I secretly began scouring real estate listings on the Internet – unable to admit to my husband or myself I was thinking about leaving Manhattan’s hallowed ground. But viewing houses for sale on the Internet is additive. It was only so long before I’d break down and admit I had to live in one of those old farmhouses that looked so inviting on my computer screen.

The old house we bought was a total wreck. It had been on and off the market for five years. We viewed it on a January day, tramping through waist-deep snow. It was covered in cobwebs. Every window was broken, every door was warped, every wall was crooked. But a great brick hearth, strands of light pouring through skylights and a wall of windows facing acres of woods said “rescue me.” Deer grazing outside the window might have sealed the deal.

Taking in a shallow jittery breath, I said “I’ll take it.”

“Are you sure?” the broker asked. “This is a money pit.”

She wasn’t wrong but we jumped. Sometimes it is those insane decisions you make for the wrong reasons (or at least those your mother would say are the wrong reasons) that end up putting your life in the right direction.

The house needed a four-month top-to-bottom renovation. In that short span of time, I learned I had a knack for rebuilding a house. I discovered how good I can be under pressure. I figured out how the innards of a house work. I learned the alphabet soup of HVAC and BTUs. Four months gave me a life-time of experience, and at the end, a house that held my DNA.

During the renovation, we lived in the Catskills cottage. One night, I told my husband there was a drunk intruder stumbling around outside. We closed the lights in the house and peered outside. He was big, all right—I’d say about 400 pounds—and he didn’t give a rat’s bottom when we shone a flashlight into his beady silver eyes. He just looked up and presumably said, “Hey, I’m eating dinner. Buzz off.”

I accelerated the renovation, bringing down the whip even harder on the contractor. A week later we packed the car and drove HOME.

I cried again as we wended down the mountain.

“Why is mommy crying?” my daughter said.

“She’s crying tears of joy because we’re not going back to the city,” my husband explained.

 

***The rest of the collection is availabe on Amazon for $2.99.

 

 

This past week, I got a Kindle. I have not been so changed by a reading experience since Stephen King’s Needful Things, which was the book that made me realize I wanted to tell stories. It’s the sort of genius-level device that demonstrates the fact that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly wonderful.