Having lived in Manhattan and then LA, I made peace with the fact that I would never be able to afford owning a home.  Moving to Paris was no threat to that peace process because surely I wouldn’t own anything in a foreign country and, besides, who knew how long I’d be staying?  Luc works in education and I in publishing, the math isn’t even supposed to work out for us to own anything in a major capital.  So imagine my choc when we bought a one-bedroom apartment in 2007.

After visiting 45 apartments in the two neighborhoods we were willing to live in that were still affordable and gentrified-ready, we found our new home.  Luc and I could afford to buy after all because France is very generous towards first time homeowners who are under a certain age and who earn under a certain income.  The overachievers that we are, we were seemingly so poor that we scored ourselves 60,000€ in loans at 0% interest.  When our banker first told us about these special loans, one offered by the city of Paris and the other by the federal government, I didn’t understand.

“What?! Why would the government do that?” I expressed with amazed consternation.  Luc did not look at me to kill, but to annihilate.

Two months after we ditched our 248 sq. ft. studio for our 441 sq. ft. palace, it was time for our annual homeowner associations meeting.  Since Luc could not leave work early, I would be forced to attend and represent our domestic interests.  Gulp.  I went with two missions.

Firstly, we had to do something about those pesky pigeons; the ones that seemed to live just above us in the attic and wake us up each morning with their cooing and heavy footsteps.  Since we had somehow not met any of our neighbors up to that point  I was extremely anxious about going to a formal meeting and having to speak in front of them, no matter what the subject matter.  While high school French classes prepared me to ask for the check and find out where the restrooms are in any establishment they did not prepare me for talking about bothersome pigeons in the attic.

My second task was to suss out how the others felt about our building’s common stairwell that doesn’t seem to have been renovated since Joanie loved Chachi.  The wall is neither covered with paint nor wallpaper; it is carpeted, an interior design scheme I didn’t know existed.  While not shag, Luc and I were still determined to make it go away.

I believe the professionals refer to this color as Sunset Vomit.

 

I spent the whole day at work panicked about how to bring up these two atypical topics in front of strangers.  Although I was 98.2% fluent by then (with a 3 point margin of error), when I am in uncomfortable situations I never know what will come out of mouth.  I find it frustrating to not always be able to use the exact word I’m looking for because it is often nowhere to be found.  In certain circumstances, my sentence structures are like those of a 10 year old and I therefore must come across as an idiot.   (No offense to any 10 year olds.) And when my insecurities reach defcon 1, my accent falls apart.  For someone who finally learned how to survive public speaking in English my anxiety over speaking in French could be debilitating.

Luckily, my neighbors were out in small numbers that evening and I realized quickly that those present were not so intimidating.  In fact, they barely spoke at all.  Since they didn’t bring up certain issues I found my mojo and with it the courage to speak.  Someone had to.

An opening to discuss the carpeted walls presented itself and I was surprised when another new resident supported the idea of taking it down.  (I decided then and there that she would quickly become my new best friend.)  Apparently, though, we couldn’t just decide like that to take down the carpeting.  We would have to get estimates for the cost and vote on the work to be done at the next meeting, next year.   (Incidentally, I later lost interest in my new best friend because of a pointless cat story she billed as hilarious.  It wasn’t even about her own cat.)

When it came time to vote for the condo’s board members, I was surprised to learn that we even had a board.  When we moved in, they did not send Luc and me a welcome basket of croissants and cheese.  It turns out that the previous owner of our apartment was the board’s president so somebody needed to take his place.  Were there any volunteers?  Silence.   My cowardly neighbors were all looking down so as not to be called on.  Surely I couldn’t be president, I didn’t understand half of the things we talked about.  Heck, we were in the middle of two lawsuits because of unpaid maintenance fees and I started to think for a second that I might be one of the defendants.

Not one single person wanted to assure the proper functioning of our home.   “Ok, this could make for a good story at our next dinner party,” I thought to myself, and volunteered to run.  Someone had to.  However, I agreed to do so only if my neighbors agreed not to knock on our door at two in the morning because of plumbing issues.  I was swiftly voted in and to this day my constituency has kept up its side of the bargain.

High from the rush of my newfound power, I found the courage to bring up the pigeon problem later on in the meeting.  It is not acceptable for a president to be hassled by pigeons.  They must be dealt with.  And so they were…

When I got home that night, Luc beamed with pride at my news.  I went to the meeting terrified, and returned a president.  In his eyes, it was almost as as if I joined a union.

My first task as president was well suited for an American — I had to fire the substitute cleaning lady because she was bleeding us dry.  Before Luc and I moved in, the building hired our original cleaning lady, Mme Dubois, directly as an employee which was much more expensive than going through a cleaning service.  Not only did we pay her salary, we had to pay the notoriously high social taxes that went along with it.

Mme Dubois had been on extended sick leave because of a bad back.  (I hope she didn’t vacuum the walls.)  Her replacement was earning 150% of her salary because her job was considered to be “precarious”, as in she could lose it at any moment if Mme Dubois came back to work.    None of the neighbors could stomach paying such a high salary so we managed to fire the temp, cut Mme Dubois loose and change over to a cleaning service which saved our building 6000€ per year.  I was off to an effective start.  I made note to consider presiding over other neighboring condo boards.

There are 12 units in our building and most everyone keeps to themself.  Our most colorful neighbor is the crazy man on the ground floor.  He is notorious for yelling at crying kids in our and neighboring buildings, pleading with them to shut the fuck up.  He also takes to screaming at himself, often on Saturday afternoons while listening to The Beatles.  One of our friends had the misfortune of bringing a bike into the building once.  After we buzzed him in, he crossed our neighbor’s path and asked him where he could put his bike.

“Up your ass,” came the reply.

In the summer of 2010, having completed my third term as president, I was amused and dismayed to be the only person present at the annual homeowner’s association meeting.  Everyone whines about being busy and not having the time to come to one meeting per year.  We’re all busy; how can I find the time and not them?  As far as I know, I have no special powers.  This in spite of years of countless birthday wishes.

That evening, I had a few proxy votes so managed to sail through the agenda with the rep from our management company.  Unfortunately, that was the year we finally got our act together to vote on taking down the carpet and painting the walls.  Despite my bitter resentment towards my neighbors, I did not feel comfortable voting in favor of making them spend a total of 14,000€.   If only I didn’t care.

Then it came time to vote for president.  I surveyed the empty room of potential candidates.  While it felt weird at first, I naturally nominated myself and then proceeded to vote, for me.  In an instant, our building became an autocratic democracy and I was the corrupt, democratically elected dictator.

This was also the year I found out that the building had lead in its pipes.  While the levels were not dangerous, they would be in 2013 once the laws changed.   No need to worry about my health until then.  That’s a relief.   Changing the pipes is sure to cost a pretty centîme so I have French kissed my dreams of an uncarpeted wall goodbye.  We won’t be able to afford both projects and I fear that lead trumps carpet.

This past year, I was tasked with finding us a new management company because ours was too far from home and a bit more expensive than the average.  The hope was that more people would come to our annual meetings if they were held in our neighborhood.  In any event, the turnouts couldn’t get worse.

I had targeted four companies within a 10 minute walking distance from our building and met with representatives from each of them.  The first company I met with ended up being more expensive than our current company so they were out.  The man at the second company wore a bright red suit to our meeting. Uh…no.  The guy at the third company came to the building to meet me, which I thought was a nice touch.  The fourth company just didn’t seem to care.

In my mind, company Number 3 was the obvious (and cheapest) choice, but careful not to be the autocratic ruler I elected myself to be, I had to consult with the two other members of our condo board.  They were mostly silent members.  The fees involved with these companies are quite complex as are the services they provide so in order to help my two neighbors easily compare and contrast the four proposals, I spent hours creating a spreadsheet.  Luc and I had them over on a Sunday afternoon and I was dismayed when they barely looked over their spreadsheets.  They absent-mindedly listened to what I had to say and agreed to go with company Number 3.  I realized that they wanted someone to decide for them, and like any good dictator I played the role well.  With the dirty business out of the way, they then went on to discuss equally important matters — gossip about people who don’t even live in the building anymore.  At that point, they might as well have thrown in a cat story.

A change in one’s management company happens during the annual homeowner association meetings.  At this year’s meeting, held in our management company’s office, as usual, we had to vote against renewing their contract and then vote in favor of hiring company Number 3.   Through a tireless lobbying effort, I managed to get enough neighbors to attend the meeting.  Once the vote fell, the rep from our original company left her office and the person from Number 3 came in to finish the meeting with us.  No, that wasn’t awkward.

Now that I’ve fired the cleaning lady and our management company, I’m setting my sights on my next target.  The crazy neighbor seems like an obvious choice.  I’m feeling confident about getting him evicted.

 

 


7.  Our dog Pierre, a black French poodle, came to us from a wealthy acquaintance of my father ( we learned a little later, Dad had also borrowed money from him). He was well behaved and groomed in the shape of an hourglass but after only a few months he resembled a bushy sheep. From empty fields we trekked through he got thistles and thorns and fleas. Every few months we’d dump some laundry detergent on him and hose him down for a shower. When we camped out in the backyard in the summer, Pierre slept between us, a kid brother. My brother and I would fight over who loved him best: He’s my dog, I’d tell him; He’s my dog, he’d tell me.

 

A year after we got Pierre, my dad told us that the owner wanted him back; “The bastard,” my father muttered, “over a few lousy bucks.” The next evening, the man rolled up in a big car. My dad slipped a finger beneath Pierre’s collar and dragged him outside. I heard the two men exchange words. Then my dad walked back in the house with Pierre.

“He’s yours for keeps.”

We cheered, and jumped on Pierre: “Thanks Dad!”

My mom came out from the bedroom, where the shame of our family debt had sent her.

“What’s happening?”

“I’ll be frank with you all. The guy took one look and kinda choked; I guess ol’ Pierre is so shabby looking he don’t want no part of him anymore.”

 

We must’ve had Pierre two three years before he got sick. His poop was the color of charcoal and the back porch was crisscrossed with bloody skid marks. His stopped eating his dog food.   Lying there on his side he’d take us in with an eye and sigh. He seemed to be saying, “Help.” At night he howled. So that he wouldn’t wake the neighbors, it got so that we had to shove him in the garage at night, what we’d nicknamed “the dungeon.” Come morning we’d run out to fetch him from “the dungeon.” Pierre, Pierre, we’d sadly sing. He’d meet us at the door, his tail wagging barely, shivering all over.

 

It was a Saturday morning when we found him dead in “the dungeon.” My dad came out of the house to make sure. We cried~~our world would never be the same without Pierre. We grabbed a couple of shovels, and start digging next to the fig tree. We planned to go six feet, but stopped at three, plenty deep, it seemed. Now we had to get Pierre, still in the dungeon into the hole. My brother said he’d do it.  I was relieved because I didn’t know if I had what it took to carry his corpse. When he stepped out of the garage with dead Pierre in his arms, I was in awe of my brother’s courage. He dropped Pierre in and we start shoveling. When the dirt reached our feet, we packed it all down with the shovel’s flat side, and out of two sticks and twine, we made a cross and drove it into the ground.

I asked our Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Chamichian, where animals go after they die.

“Since they have no souls,” she said; “nowhere.”

“Even dogs?” I asked.

“Yes.”

Did this mean that I’d never see Pierre again?

“No. But you will see your grandparents, and uncles and aunts.”

When we got home, my brother and I yanked out the cross above Pierre’s grave. Since he had no soul we were afraid it was a sin to leave it there.  After the winter rain, I thought, after all the earth gets churned, there will be no spotting Pierre’s grave. The seasons will erase his resting place. After we are gone, nobody will know he is there. All we’ll be able tell the next set of kids is, “Pierre, our dog, is buried beneath the fig tree.” But who knows whether they’ll believe us, no matter what we say, what matter what history we leave behind. Who knows whether they’ll even care?

 

8.  Around age ten, we got real guns for Christmas; a revolutionary addition to our arsenal, which up until then was confined to slingshots. From a small cylindrical carton we’d pour BBs into the barrel’s spout and with just a few ratchets of the handle the gun would get pregnant with enough pressure to kill.  Its like we were sorcerers, the guns our magic wands, and the bb’s our evil spells.  We would strike things down from a world away.

 

Sparrows were all over the yard. From one branch to the next we’d watch them hop, their tidy little bodies turning this way, then that. The first one I shot fell from the tree and hit the ground like an overripe peach. We hardly found a mark on the bird; only a bead of blood swelled from its breast. I was disappointed: I expected something more dramatic. It hardly seemed worth it. Outside of its twiggy legs, politely folded up against its chest, it was unremarkable, common looking as the dirt upon which it lay. After turning it over and studying it’s every feature, we buried the sparrow. Above us, in the trees, dozens of its fellows were busy doing whatever it was that birds do. Strange how they hardly noticed when one of their own was gone.

 

9.  On TV, the Vietnam was on. It was part of our lives, like the San Francisco Giants, except the war respected no season. They showed bodies lying in a field, or in a ditch. It was always raining, and looked very far away.

“What a shame,” my Dad said.

When they posted that day’s score, it was never close: we always killed twice as many as they killed. I kept waiting for the Americans to win. In any game I played, either time ran out or there were no more pieces on the board. How else did you decide when the game is over?

 

10.  Up from our house the miser Madame Hovanessian, who handed out walnuts for Halloween, lived. Her stockings, the color of rubber bands, gathered in rings round fat ankles, and she had several wiry whiskers sprouting from her chin. Three stubby palm trees where pigeons, plump as cantaloupes, roosted ran alongside her driveway, and even though you couldn’t see them, the whole crown of the tree boiled with their voices. We’d gather rocks on our way home from school and from the alleyway we’d sling them into the fronds. After a week of trying, not only had we failed to kill a pigeon, not a single one even flew away in fright. Only their warbling suddenly stopped. One second the air was full of their voices, and the next second it was dead quiet, just like when a teacher suddenly hollers at a classroom of kids. After a while, we couldn’t care less if we killed the pigeons. This was another kind of game. Silencing them.

 

 


I have had much more difficult commutes.  The 50-mile trip between Willimantic and Mystic was pretty exhausting (and nerve-wracking during snowstorms). The journey between New Brunswick and Iselin was only about 10 miles, but it took an hour each way. (That’s New Jersey for you.)  I’ve had daily travels that are far more trying than the 8/10 of a mile between my house and Real Art Ways.

That’s right. It’s less than a mile. And I drive it far more frequently than I walk it.

Don’t look at me like that – you would too, if you were faced with walking through that neighborhood alone after 8 p.m.

It’s not the commute itself, I think, that’s getting to me. It’s something about me at this point and how I manage to align myself with and against the unending ennui of modern life.

I should provide a bit of context, perhaps, on my relationship to boredom. My mother told me throughout my childhood, much in the manner of John Berryman’s mother, that to say you’re bored suggests that you aren’t intelligent enough to make your situation stimulating. So, for me, this is a topic filled with landmines and the discussion of it is in itself stimulating. Take that, boredom!

In his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm provides us with a description of the “compensated boredom” that occurs on such a large scale in modern life. He writes:

There are several probable reasons that chronic, compensated boredom is generally not considered pathological. Perhaps the main reason is that in contemporary industrial society most people are bored, and a shared pathology – the “pathology of normalcy” – is not experienced as pathology. Furthermore, “normal” boredom is usually not conscious. Most people succeed in compensating for it by participating in a great number of “activities” that prevent them from consciously feeling bored. Eight hours of the day they are busy making a living; when the boredom would threaten to become conscious, after business hours, they avoid this danger by the numerous means that prevent manifest boredom: drinking, watching television, taking a ride, going to parties, engaging in sexual activities, and, the more recent fashion, taking drugs. Eventually their natural need for sleep takes over, and the day is ended successfully if boredom has not been experienced consciously at any point. (273-274).

This makes a lot of sense to me, especially as I consider the way I approach my days. For instance, during my most recent “vacation” (by which I mean the period during which my office was closed – not some kind of trip I might have taken), I filled each hour with an activity. For example, here’s December 30, 2008:

  • 8 – 9 a.m.: Wake up, morning routine, coffee, time to read the paper
  • 9 – 11 a.m.: Read Michelle’s dissertation prospectus, collect thoughts
  • 11 a.m. – noon: Read Heart of Darkness
  • noon – 1 p.m.: Read Superdove
  • 1 – 2 p.m.: Draft response to Michelle
  • 2 – 5 p.m.: Gym (with travel and showering time included)
  • 5 – 6 p.m.: Work on TNB post (Hi!)
  • 6 – 8 p.m.: Work on New Wave Eve mix
  • 8 – 9 p.m.: Dinner
  • 9 – 11 p.m.: Watch La Haine
  • 11 p.m. – midnight: Catch up on emails

I made myself an hourly schedule for my time off.

Fromm proposes why this method might be unsuccessful at staving off the effects of boredom:

in the superficial relief from boredom, the whole person, and particularly his deeper feeling, his imagination, his reason, in short all his essential facilities and psychic potentialities remain untouched; they are not brought to life; the boredom-compensating means are like a bulky food without any nutritional value. The person continues to feel “empty” and unmoved on a deeper level. He “anesthetizes” this uncomfortable feeling by momentary excitation, “thrill,” “fun,” liquor, or sex – but unconsciously he remains bored. (275)

So, while it might seem that filling my day with art history, literature, writing, and film would lead to “deeper feeling” that engages my “essential facilities and psychic potentialities,” the very way I go about filling the day gives rise to a feeling of emptiness. I imagine the reason I so often can’t sleep at night has something to do with a need to provide myself with still time – quiet, unconstrained time – during which I can reflect.

When one is bored, time stretches out; it becomes languid and difficult to grasp onto. Meaning seems to me to work like knots in a rope. Lars Svendsen, who’s written a philosophic overview on boredom, describes it thus: “Where there is a lack of personal meaning, all sorts of diversions have to create a substitute – an ersatz-meaning” (26). Perhaps it isn’t surprising that to ballast myself up against this onslaught of repetitive and unceasing routine, I find ways of exercising my fancy, ways of tying knots. I feel better during those fleeting moments each day in my car, on my 0.8-mile commute, when I see the flock of pigeons, than how I feel when I’m being productive.

From Sylvia Plaths copy of The Great Gatsby

DAILY THOUGHTS ON SERPENTINING SUPERDOVES

Every morning, somewhere above the buildings near the southeast corner of Farmington and Sisson, a flock of pigeons serpentines again and again. I watch them as I’m stopped at Hartford’s second most annoying traffic light.

You can look at the superdoves here. This was all perfectly safe, of course.

My mother isn’t crazy about birds. That’s not entirely true. My mother isn’t crazy about large flocks of birds. I think this probably has something to do with the age she was – thirteen and impressionable – whenThe Birds came out. She particularly dislikes pigeons and generally puts them in the category of dirty pests. I have what I consider to be a healthy streak of contrariness, so I like pigeons. I would probably never do this:

liz plus pig(eons)

but I’ve always liked those little iridescent bits at their necks and the fluttering sound their wings make and their cooing.

And I have particular affection for groups of birds – everything from the family of mallards that live in our stream each spring, to the Vs of geese that I’d crane my neck to see as a girl, to the murder of crows that lives in Hartford in the winters. On a recent trip to Prince Edward Island, I walked right into the ocean to get closer to some plummeting Gannets.

Pigeons weren’t always considered pests – in fact, they’re non-native to the US, so their entire existence on this continent is, it turns out, evidence of their former status. Courtney Humphries’ lovely and excellently-titled book Superdove outlines the social role of Columbia livia in American history. Keeping pigeons was something of a class marker, so naturally the aristocrats and statesmen who eventually made their way to America wanted to bring their pigeons along. These landlords’ birds propagated and propagated, and they served to mark their owner’s class as much as they also filled his gut.

Restaurants – mostly high-end ones – still serve pigeon meat. Apparently, it’s quite good.

But pigeon appreciation – can I make up a word for this? palomaphilia – wasn’t strictly observed by the leisurely classes.  Darwin only felt prepared to publish The Origin of Species after working extensively with pigeons. He actually grew quite fond of his little doves. As he states in a letter to a friend: “I am getting on with my Pigeon Fancy and now have pairs of nine very distinct varieties, and I love them to that extent that I cannot bear to kill and skeletonise them.”

The armed forces of many countries have put pigeons to work saving battalions and winning battles. In more prosperous days, when wire services were less reliable, financiers and market traders depended upon news that traveled by pigeon; they were called Pigeon Men.

They were once so honored! It seems to me to be so arbitrary, the favor in and out of which groups fall with humans.

As I sit at that damned stoplight, I make myself feel better by making up stories about my serpentining superdoves. Here are some theories:

  • sometimes I imagine they’re being trained to deliver crack
  • sometimes that they’re a colony of obsessive-compulsive birds who must perform serpentines en masse, before dispersing for the day to find food
  • sometimes that they live under their own small fascist state and that the flying pattern is part of daily required morning exercises
  • sometimes that they are carefully tracing the paths of some maniacally swooping mice on the ground below
  • or perhaps that the people who live in the nearby retirement community are out for wheelchair grace training (the superdoves are super-empaths)
  • Another flight of fancy is that they are actually passenger pigeons and that I am some kind of brilliant ornithologist savant who has discovered the only surviving flock!

Another possibility: Maybe this fascination, this weaving of unlikely narrative, has more to do with an affinity I feel for pigeons. If we define animals in relation to ourselves, our identities, our own lives, then the essence of the pigeon, the entire reason we fostered them through the centuries, is their love of home and their seemingly boundless will to return home. They are fellow commuters.