Brinksmanship

There was this thing we did when the first cold snap hit. We’d watch as the kids from the South and the West started to shiver, realizing that during this, their freshman year, they were woefully ill equipped for the New England winter ahead. We’d breathe in the Boston air, slowly, allowing it to fill our lungs. Chuckle, almost silently, telling them Just wait, this is nothing. You don’t know cold it can get. We would go on to tell them, our friends, how there would be a day in the not-so-distant future where their hair would freeze because they hadn’t fully dried it and, well, temperatures being what they are at that time of year…

It’s happened to me every year since that one. I’ve left my house thinking that I’m ready for the day only to discover otherwise. This year, it was in August. Covered in layers and less than one hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, it turns out, I didn’t how cold it can get.

It’s a learning experience, as most things are. Years ago, I was practicing sort of brinksmanship, colored by the arrogance of youth. These days? Well, things circle back on themselves.

Last year, I was talking about hurricanes and new homes. Or of rebuilding, anyway. Before that, it was new hearts.

Last week, I walked the main floor of Presbetyre in New Orleans’s Jackson Square immersed in the details of how Katrina transformed the city. Of the levees breaking and the Superdome. Of the people stranded on their roofs for days on end. I had to step away from the images in order to catch my breath. It was a year to the day that I had finally made it back to New York after being stranded in London for almost a week because of Sandy. Suddenly, I was back on the flight, suspended over Manhattan, circling the city, unsure of what I might see once I landed but desperate to see it.

Patterns emerge if you look closely enough.

It’s time for another. Four years ago today, my father received a new heart. In the years that have followed, I’ve written about it here and here), always with same request. It’s time again: register to be an organ donor.

I can’t remember where I started this thought. I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll get back there eventually.

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Takk fyrir

Mostly, I wanted to tell you about the light.

About how, on my last day in London, it glistened on the River Thames, making everything seem sepia-toned. Making us all nostalgic for events even as they were happening.

Is there a term for that?

No matter.

I went back to the Tate Modern’s Rothko room, where I had spent so many hours so many months prior. A friend of mine commented on the quiet that surrounded us when we walked in, and I spoke of waiting there back in late October; of how I took solace from the hushed tones and subdued images. Being back was like revisiting a favorite book. The plot the same but my reading different, colored by the intervening time, because I had been.

It felt good to return and even to be leaving since it was on my own terms this time. Even so, it was far too soon. But, I was off.

When we arrived in Reykjavik, it past midnight and looked like it was barely dusk—midnight sun and all that.

Again it comes down to the light.

If I could write the way that J.M. Turner painted, I would conjure up images of clear skies and endless open vistas and tell of how the days seemed long in all the right ways; satisfying and tiring and filled with exploration.

Þingvellir National Park

Instead, I’m stuck with the same hackneyed phrases and a new found appreciation for Monet’s haystacks, which previously stuck me as pointless and, frankly, evidence of his failing eyesight. I think that, at last, I understand the appeal. When we were standing atop the first lookout point at Þingvellir National Park, my friend Mike commented on the radiance around us. It was, he said, the sort of thing that none of us would have taken notice of when we were younger.  So, it seems, we’ve all grown.

On that first night in the city, we four were determined to stay up to watch the rising sun. The hours passed until it was just me and Ben, the ice cubes slowly melting in our drinks, making the bouquet more and more fragrant. I thought then about how the last time we had done this was the weekend of his wedding, sitting beside a roaring fire in the Scottish Fall, the air charged with the excitement of things about to unfold. I thought, too, of how it took me being stuck in London to want to return so desperately.

We missed the sunrise by all of a quarter hour. In the end, it didn’t really matter; it had never really set.

osar

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There were things I forgot.

It’s hard to know what to say after being gone so long. Harder still with each day’s passing.

So I didn’t. And each day it became easier and easier to remain silent, until I thought that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t come back.

Instead, I traveled. I opened myself up to new things and new people or, at the very least, I tried. I made elaborate plans and followed through. I continued to cook, scouring the local market until the root vegetables gave way to the first ramps of the season, made into a fragrant pesto and stowed away for cooler days. I didn’t tell you about any of it.

A few days ago, looking for something to read, I stumbled upon a old favorite. The well worn pages had darkened around the edges, curing up at the corners. The book smelled like only old books can, as if, in a long stagnant room, someone has finally opened a window. I remembered taking the book from Long Island to London, Boston to Barcelona, but I couldn’t remember basic plot points. All I could recall was this quote—What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies. (Jack Kerouac, On the Road)—and the feeling of first reading it at sixteen, thinking it a worthy philosophy. At sixteen, when you’re focused on the thrill of the open road, it is. Sixteen years after that you realize that it’s not a philosophy at all, so much as an articulation fear.

Put more bluntly: there I was, leaning forward to avoid looking back.

And, then suddenly, I found myself on streets once so familiar in my small college town. Except that found isn’t quite the right word since it was of my own volition. There had been plans made and tickets bought. Sometimes, I think, we return to places we no longer belong to remind ourselves of reasons why we once did.

As I walked around my campus, I thought about leaving ten years earlier for the last time. Of my father’s offer to drive me around for one last look, as it might be the last time that I would be there, at least in a way that felt like it was home. I can’t remember now if I took him up on it, although I’m inclined to think that I said no. I can imagine myself, twenty-two and headstrong, determined to lean forward into the next thing, although I didn’t yet know what it was. Yet I remember the offer, all of these years later. Ultimately it’s the small kindnesses that add up, including the more recent few that have, at least indirectly lead me back here. Consider it a homecoming of sorts.

There was this quote, too, from another volume nestled next to On the Road: perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition. (James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room)

It will hardly come as a surprise that I’ve long forgotten the plot of that book as well. But, the binding is cracked to open to that very page—page 121 of the Laurel edition, printed in 1956, in case you were wondering. It’s in danger of falling out, getting closer still with each reading.

I’ll be here. Maybe haltingly, at first. You’ll have to be a little patient with me. I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

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And, then there’s this…

I stumbled upon this from a long ago corner of the internet where I had once, briefly, taken up residence. And, well:

“The writer finds himself in this more and more comical condition—of having nothing to write, of having no means of writing it, and of being forced by extreme necessity to keep writing it.”
—Maurice Blanchot

I’m not sure that it requires any elaboration except to say: watch this space.

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Ghost Signs

They’re called ghost signs.

The hand-lettered relics of a bygone era, when people still hand-painted things, dotting the upper reaches of the old buildings of Manhattan and beyond.

ghost sign

I’ve written about change here before. Every day, a new crane goes up. I’m waking up to the sound of pneumatic drills again. Progress abounds.

Hypothetically speaking, I don’t mind.

Except, well, this corner of Manhattan feels a bit like a construction site on the weekend. Maybe it’s all this talk of hurricanes and heart transplants of late. It’s hard to know what to say next.

I had hoped to tell you of many things—of Edinburgh and waking up in a castle. Of London. Walking down streets once so familiar so timidly at first, getting my bearings. Then, thinking Yes. I lived here once. Thinking, Yes, this still feels like home.

And, then after the latest in a series of befores and afters it hardly seemed to matter. After I got stranded, it seemed so long ago. After there was just a nagging sense of how difficult it would be to reintegrate myself into my life. I had been gone too long. There was the odd sensation of coming back home for the holidays, except not being able to go home. After finally making it back to the house being assaulted by the smell of mildew, burrowing into every surface. The strange exercise of going through so much from my childhood and seeing what was salvageable.

More than I originally thought, in fact.

There was this: a memory from the early fall, from before, of walking the streets of TriBeCa on a tour about these very artifacts. Of seeing people peering out their windows as curious about what was going on just beneath their windows as I was about what going on just beyond them. Wondering then how many lives have been lived in the shadow of these signs, as they slowly fade into oblivion, whispers of what they once were.

As usual, I was inappropriately dressed for the weather. The rain was pouring, my socks so wet they had colored my feet blue. My teeth were chattering, and I was unwilling go inside. I wanted to see more.

Then, this, too: after when I was finally back in New York, I was walking through the streets of Chelsea. Streets so familiar, I hardly needed to look at where I was headed, or to look up at all. Except that, in finally doing so, I spotted a ghost of the Griffon sign, where my grandfather had once been the comptroller.

Some interesting facts: the most vibrant colors—the blues and the purples—are the quickest to fade, but owing to the lead in the paints, they’re absorbed differently. With enough rain, the paler colors stand out against the rain-soaked bricks in sharp relief.

There are conclusions to be made here, I’m sure.

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It’s time.

This is my annual post.

It was three years ago. Actually four from diagnosis through listing through transplant, but really so many more when my father slipped into a yet unnamed heart failure.

I haven’t talked about it all that much. I’ve mentioned it, and talked around it, asked you to sign up to be an organ donor. But I’ve never talked about it.  Not in any meaningful way. I think it’s time.

In the end, it’s a series of details strung together: of how my sister just happened to be driving right by my apartment at the time, so we could head up to the hospital together. The surreal feeling of leaving my friend a message telling her I can’t make it to dinner, my father got a heart. Having someone there, unexpectedly, keeping vigil with me. And, when it was all over, how I sobbed in the waiting room, unable to catch my breath after a year of holding it.

When you hear about transplants, there are all sorts of facts and figures: the wait time depending on blood type, how long an organ is viable outside the donor’s body. For a heart, it’s four to six hours. You think it will be a manic process, going in, and, yet as with everything before, there’s an element of hurry up and wait. The heart is the last organ harvested—yes, harvested. An odd word choice, but at this point in the process, my vocabulary had expanded in so many unexpected directions I hardly took notice.

The heart remains, pumping, keeping the rest of the viable organs alive until they can be harvested for their intended recipients. We heard that night that a woman in another room, in some other hall, would be receiving the lungs. I thought then about how so many lives would be saved by the unexpected loss of one.

And, so we waited, in the hospital waiting rooms that, by now, had grown as familiar to me as a relative’s apartment. And, the staff let us sleep on the couches, though we could not. And, then, there was a different kind of waiting, while the surgery went on.

The next day, when my father was placed in the step-down unit, we were able to go in once we had suited up, covering almost every surface of our skin to keep out any toxins that were on it. It was an odd family portrait—my father hooked up to IVs and my mother, sister, and I wearing shower caps, gloves and masks, but we were intact and it felt like the hardest part just might be behind us.

I would have to go back to work, and my day-to-day life soon, but not then. That day, close friends of my parents brought us bags of food to eat in the waiting room. And, my best friend, an ophthalmologist, came by to keep us company and give my mother a much needed eye exam—the stress of everything had caused some blood vessels in her eye to burst. As for me, I stared at my book, turning the same phrases over and over in my head, searching for meaning, not in a metaphorical sense. Quite literally, I couldn’t focus on anything. This went on for days.

I’ve heard that a crisis brings out the best in people. I’m not sure I agree. Rather, I think that you become more of how you already are. There’s a challenge, as it were, and you rise to it.

There’s no denying it, from start to finish, I changed. In the immediate aftermath, it wasn’t necessarily in the best of ways—after so much time waiting by the phone and thinking that time was so limited, I forgot what it was like to be spontaneous, to not have to account for every hour. I was skittish, just plain tired all of the time, and at times angry at everything. I’d like to think that those days are past me. I’d like to think, too, that they’ve made me more empathetic towards others.

I’ve been humbled by the past few years. Yes, that’s a good phrase. I’ve been humbled. I’ve realized that I can’t do things alone, and there’s no shame in asking for help—or asking something of someone.

And, so, I’m asking.

Hopefully not for me, not for my family, but maybe for one of yours. Sign up to be an organ donor.

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Anatomy of a storm.

What happens is this: First, there’s the sense of panic. It’s physical, and you find yourself short of breath although you’ve been in one place. You’re gasping for air, bit by bit in shallow swallows. You need to get home immediately. Except that home is more than three thousand miles away, and you’ve had several flights cancelled already.

Instead, it’s a grey day in London and getting colder and by the time that you get back to your friend’s house, it’s only a few short hours before the storm is predicted to make landfall. So, you do the only thing that you can from afar: check in with your family to make sure that they’re prepared.

It happens just as your father is reassuring you and telling you that everyone will be okay. It is a sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Like thunder and every dish you’ve ever owned breaking and walls coming down and splitting apart. It is a tree falling through the side of the house where your parents live.

After that, things happen quickly, and off screen. You can hear the wind and the fireman who has arrived at the house, but as you stare through your FaceTime app, all you can see is darkness. Next, they’re evacuating and you’ll have to wait as they drive to your grandmother’s house in winds that were strong enough to fell a tree that’s been on the property more than sixty years.

So, you wait, hoping to hear that they’ve made it safely. Time moves interminably slow. In the meantime, trying to deal with the mess of your lost luggage if only to distract yourself from the fact that the storm is getting closer and closer to land and they’re still out on the road. It doesn’t work.

When you receive word that they’re arrived in one piece, you attempt to sleep, only managing a few short fitful hours, haunted by the sound of all of the breaking. When you wake up, the storm is still raging on another coast, and you begin scouring the internet obsessively again, trying to find out whatever you can. It doesn’t look good: A transformer has exploded, leaving large swaths of Manhattan, including where you live, in the dark, and Manhattan is completely cut off from the rest of the city. Elsewhere, large stretches of the Jersey shore have washed away and an entire neighborhood in Queens has gone up in smoke.

That morning, when your friend who is unexpectedly hosting you for an undefined period of time asks about your family, you break down in tears. As far as you know, the house is gone, and you are completely stranded. You’re dripping wet, having just showered and idea of simply getting dressed, let alone going to another friend’s house, is too much to bear. She takes the morning off of work and sits with you, so you won’t be alone and tells you to stay where you are. You’re overwhelmed, with the loss and the unknowing, yes, but also with the act of kindness. You don’t know what to say. So you sit and stare off into the distance, feeling further from home than you’ve ever been.

You start to see reports that the worst is over, and again, you’re waiting, this time until it’s a more reasonable time to call your family in New York to make sure that they’re okay. You last until 7 am EST, when you wake up your sister who is one of the luckier ones—trapped in Manhattan. She calls your parents with you on the phone, since you can’t call the states on your phone. As she holds the corded phone up to her iPad so that you can hear your father speak, you think, this would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. You start to hear responses from the roll call you sent out to your friends. They’ve made it through.

You attempt to sleep, unsuccessfully. Throughout the day and the week that follows, you’ll speak to your sister every few hours. After the initial shock has subsided, you’ll start to catalog things in the house, that are likely lost—your birth announcement, her research, all of your mother’s work and projects for her classroom and your father’s stamp collection. Ultimately, it’s just a list of stuff, but this is also the house you grew up in, and the one your parents live in still. It’s filled with memories, including one of your family huddling together in the house twenty five years earlier as Hurricane Gloria raged on.

When it’s late in the day, you think that maybe, just maybe you’ll be able to sleep that night. No day will be as bad as this one, and although it will be days before you can go home, it’s true. Elsewhere, there are people who have lost their lives, whose homes have washed away or burned to the ground. For now, your family and friends are all accounted for.

You finally make it out on Friday, six days after your flight was originally scheduled to depart. The flight that ultimately sticks is the fifth one that you’ve been placed on.

As your plane circles New York, preparing to land, you’re shaking again. You’re almost back and it feels as if you’ve been gone far too long. You’ll have to wait to go back to your home, as your neighborhood is still without power. And, instead of the usual twenty minutes to get from the airport to Manhattan, it takes many hours. On the way, you see people waiting in lines that span city blocks simply to get on a bus. And, when your bus stops on East 39th Street, you see that the north side of the street is completely illuminated while the south side and beyond has been plunged into darkness.

Still, you’re in New York. And, a day later, the tree has been removed from your parents’ house and it has been pronounced salvageable. It may take months or a year, but it’s there. As are all of you. And, ultimately you feel lucky, because you have so much, when others have so little.

To help with the relief efforts, there are many charities accepting donations, including The Mayor’s Fund and The Red Cross.

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