Tuesday, January 10, 2017

heroes of the frontier

(or, the first book I read in 2017, a year in which I am removing my phone charger from my bedroom and re-learning to pick up a book before bed)

I loved Dave Eggers from the moment I saw the drawing of a stapler in the preface to A.H.W.O.S.G. in high school, and admired him all the more when I saw him speak about What Is The What with Valentino Achak Deng in Harlem after a harrowing road trip from suburban Philadelphia with my like-minded literary roommate Colleen.  I forced Colleen, and Becky, who we visited in San Francisco, on a pilgrimage to 826 Valencia and the McSweeney's headquarters on an autumn afternoon and years later, a few months after moving to New York, I eagerly attended an orientation for volunteers at 826 Brooklyn.  Unfortunately my all-too-regular 9 to 5 never permitted me to actually volunteer, but the funny thing about all this is that now my apartment in Park Slope is a five minute walk from 826 Brooklyn.

All this to say that it has been a while since I truly enjoyed reading something Dave Eggers has written as much as I enjoyed this novel (The Circle was just a little too... circle-y).  It feels like a good start to the year that has stirred a renewed respect for one of my favorite authors.  I still eat hummus, though (see: About Me).

But soon the riding was comfortable enough and the landscape was drifting by, and because the sun was setting, setting so late, it occurred to her all at once that she'd never been more connected to the land, and nothing around her had ever seemed more alive and glowing and beautiful.  The purple wildflowers, the grey dirt, the smell of the pine needles cooling.  The tall tree halved by lightning.  The waning sun on the hills in the distance, bright blue and white.  Whose bike was she riding, anyway?  A log-hewn fence.  The wail of a faraway truck slowing.  The monotony of an unburned forest on the sun-drenched hillside.  Why did she have to be tipsy before she could notice anything?  A rabbit!  A rabbit was just down the slope from the path, small, tawny, and staying longer than expected, looking at her with absolute recognition of her humanity, of her equal right to this land so long as she remained humble.  After it evaporated loudly into the thicket, there was the metallic hum of crickets.  The butterlight of some cabin in the nearby woods.  The heat of the pavement below her, the faint smell of tar where someone had sutured its tendril cracks.  The click of her gears, the awed hush of the highway beyond the trees, the pointless drama of all its rushing travelers.  "You know what time it is?" asked a voice.

From Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

Monday, December 12, 2016

the capabilities of moonstone

"What sort of stone is that?"  His knees had been irritatingly close to mine, his seat perpendicular to the one where I sat, book in hand, headphones in.  Through Yo La Tengo, I heard him speak to me.

I told him I thought it was moonstone, though I'm not really sure.  I've gotten compliments on this ring before, a large silver ring on the middle finger of my right hand.  During a trip to the Wellfleet flea market during the first summer I went to Cape Cod with Kevin and his family, I mentioned I'd been on the hunt for a new ring to Kevin and twenty minutes later and twenty dollars poorer, the ring was mine.  I've worn it pretty much every day since.  A few years ago, I decided maybe I needed to change "my look" up a bit and rotate through some other jewelry.  Kevin noticed I wasn't wearing the ring he'd given me within an hour and back on my finger it went.  To be honest, I felt strange not wearing it.  Even though he gave me a much shinier ring a year ago, I still love to wear the oversized one on my right hand.

But I digress; back to this morning.  The gentleman complimented my ring and then asked what capabilities and benefits the moonstone had.  I am not up on my crystals so I laughed ignorantly and told him I've been feeling good since I've been wearing it but that I didn't know the specifics.  "Men don't wear moonstone, right?" was his next question.  I shrugged in response.

Of course, I had to look up the properties of moonstone when I got to my desk.  I clicked on the first search result and found myself on www.crystalvaults.com.

Legendary as the Traveler's Stone, Moonstone is especially protective of those who travel by night or upon the water when the moon is shining. Frequent travelers should keep one in the glove compartment... Moonstone opens the heart to nurturing qualities as well as assisting in the acceptance of love. It is an excellent crystal for first or new love.

Go figure.

The man on the train pulled an amethyst out of his pocket and when I told him it was my birthstone, he thought for a moment and said, "Aquarius?"  The amethyst is good for the upper chakras, apparently, and he finds that he brings him calm.  We agreed that it was probably New York City that made us so stressed out all the time.  "The city is full of positive ions, but negative ions are the ones we need," he told me.  That's why he lives near the beach.  More relaxing, better energy, cleaner air.  I agreed that I've always felt more calm when I'm close to bodies of water.  It took me years to define the peace that permeates me when I wake up close to the sea.  My running routes always took me along the East River, and I always stop to stretch at the lake in Prospect Park.  Something about the water makes me still.

He asked if I was from New York originally and when I told him I came from Ireland, he looked at me thoughtfully.  "You should go to Coney Island, you really should.  It would be cold but it's a wonderful place."

When the train arrived at Jay Street, he wished me a good day and stepped onto the platform.  I've been thinking about Coney Island ever since.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


I have been savoring this novel for the past few weeks, not wanting the story to end.  Adichie has, once again, given me so much to think about.  A woman stopped me as I exited the 7 train this morning, the worn book in my gloved hand.  "That's a really good book," she said, her words accented and musical.  "The part about Obinze, though... that was really depressing."

That storyline was depressing, no doubt, but the part that has depressed me the most so far is the characters' reaction to Barack Obama's nomination and eventual election.  Reading it, I recalled my own feelings of hope, elation, and even disbelief in those weeks before and after the 2008 election.  In some ways, they feel so distant now.  A colleague coincidentally pointed me to this editorial by David Brooks published earlier this week, and the collision of my reading this novel and Brooks' editorial is just too timely, in our current political climate, to ignore.

This book has been a depressing, thoughtful, heartfelt read.  I am dreading the last page.

"It puzzled him that she did not mourn all the things she could have been. Was it a quality inherent in women, or did they just learn to shield their personal regrets, to suspend their lives, subsume themselves in child care?"


"When Philip complained about the French couple building a house next to his in Cornwall, Emenike asked, 'Are they between you and the sunset?'
Are they between you and the sunset? It would never occur to Obinze, or to anybody he had grown up with, to ask a question like that."


"She was absorbed and moved by the man she met in those pages, an inquiring and intelligent man, a kind man, a man so utterly, helplessly, winningly humane.  He reminded her of Obinze's expression for people he liked.  Obi ocha.  A clean heart.  She believed Barack Obama.  When Blaine came home, she sat at the dining table, watching him chop fresh basil in the kitchen, and said, 'If only the man who wrote this book could be the president of America'."

From Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adcihie

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

my struggle, book one.

"I liked it though, I had always liked staying the night with other families, having your own room with a freshly made bed, full of unfamiliar objects, with a towel and washcloth nicely laid out, and from there straight into the heart of family life, despite there always being, no matter whom I visited, an uncomfortable side, because even though people always try to keep any existing tensions in the background whenever guests are present, the tensions are still noticeable, and you can never know if it is your presence that has caused them or whether they are just there and indeed your presence is helping to suppress them.  A third possibility is, of course, that all these tensions were just tensions that lived their own lives in my head."

From My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

love in the face of fear.

The past few days have felt like a blur and every morning when I listen to the news, I feel a lump in my throat as my grip on events in this world gets ever looser.  By some miracle, Niamh left Paris early on Friday afternoon to spend the weekend with family in Dublin.  I am grateful for her safety, for that Friday evening she spent sipping champagne with Megan instead of out at her usual haunts, for fortune and fate.  I try not to think about the plain fact that it could have been different.  Niamh has written about returning to her adopted home this weekend and her words make me feel at once sad, thankful, and very very far away, both physically and emotionally.

And here, on a beautiful November day in New York City, I feel a heavy sadness like I have rarely felt before.  Uncertainty has taken the place of comfort and stability.  A man in a van almost ran me over as he turned right into the pedestrian crossing where I walked outside Riverside Park yesterday.  He shook his fist at me in frustration.  Five minutes later, a man yelled at an elderly woman to shut up after she asked him to look ahead instead of down at his phone.  Tears sprang to my eyes.  Why can't we all just get along? I thought.  It's a platitude but since Friday I've been saying it with heart.  Why can't we all just get along?  Here we are in our magnificent neighborhoods, cities, countries, on this incredible planet with countless opportunities to love rather than hate every day.  Too often, too many people choose hate.

I saw someone mention this phrase this morning on social media and it's all I can think about.  A new mantra.  Love, in the face of fear.  Because that's all we can do.


Monday, November 2, 2015

rules of civility

On an October weekend in Beacon, after the most picturesque train ride in recent history, in between leaf peeping and microbrews, we stumbled into a little used bookshop on the main drag. Once the older woman sitting at the little fold-up table told me all the stores's profits went to the upkeep of the library next door, I was sold.  So were two gently used paperbacks.

Much to my surprise, this novel I picked up on a whim and for the greater good of the population of Beacon, NY was an incredibly enjoyable read.  Love, jealousy, parties, regret, success, and crosswords all set against the backdrop of New York in the Thirties.  I kept a pencil tucked behind my ear every time I pulled the book from my bag.  Herein, some of my favorite lines.


"Anyone who has ridden the subway twice a day to earn their bread knows how it goes: When you board, you exhibit the same persona you use with your colleagues and acquaintances.  You've carried it through the turnstile and past the sliding doors, so that your fellow passengers can tell who you are -- cocky or cautious, amorous or indifferent, loaded or on the dole.  But you find yourself a seat and the train gets under way; it comes to one station and then another; people get off and others get on.  And under the influence of the cradlelike rocking of the train, your carefully crafted persona begins to slip away.  The superego dissolves as your mind begins to wander aimlessly over your cares and your dreams; or better yet, it drifts into an ambient hypnosis, where even cares and dreams recede and the peaceful silence of the cosmos pervades.
It happens to all of us.  It's just a question of how many stops it takes.  Two for some.  Three for others.  Sixty-eighth Street.  Fifty-ninth.  Fifty-first.  Grand Central.  What a relief it was, those few minutes with our guard let down and our gaze inexact, finding the one true solace that human isolation allows."


"Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane -- in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath -- she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger."


"... I had the house salad -- a terrific concoction of iceberg greens, cold blue cheese and warm red bacon.  If I were a country, I would have made it my flag."


"... each city has its own romantic season.  Once a year, the city's architectural, cultural, and horticultural variables come into alignment with the solar course in such a way that men and women passing each other on the thoroughfares feel an unusual sense of romantic promise.  Like Christmastime in Vienna, or April in Paris.
That's the way we New Yorkers feel about fall.  Come September, despite the waning hours, despite the leaves succumbing to the weight of gray autumnal rains, there is a certain relief to having the long days of summer behind us; and there's a paradoxical sense of rejuvenation in the air.
... that somehow, despite the coming of winter, autumn in New York promises an effervescent romance which makes one look to the Manhattan skyline with fresh eyes and feel: It's good to live it again."


"What a transcendent diversion a crossword can be.... no matter how vestigial these words are in the body of common English, watching them fit so neatly into the puzzle's machinery, one feels as the archaeologist must feel when assembling a skeleton -- the end of the thighbone fitting so precisely into the socket of the hip bone that it simply has to confirm the existence of an orderly universe, if not divine intention."


"-- How does that happen?  How do you stop telling people where you're from?
  -- By inches."

From Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Friday, October 30, 2015

grand mal on the G train

I left the office early yesterday afternoon to take care of some errands and work from home for a few hours.  The air was warm.  This autumn has been warmer than usual, which I know makes some people really happy but mostly makes me really upset about the inevitability of climate change.  Just call me Debbie Downer.

I followed my usual path home to Greenpoint, joining the construction workers at the subway station finishing their workdays inside Upper West Side brownstones that never seem to be finished.  I hopped on the downtown 2 express to Times Square.  I really do my best to put myself in the shoes of that tourist holding a map and blocking the stairs and on a good day, the perspective makes me shove a little less.  On a less-good day, I'm another commuter with places to be.

The 7 train platform was more crowded than I expected for a Thursday afternoon but I remembered the construction workers' shift and joined them on the train toward Flushing, where the air is spicy and exotic, especially for Queens.  My crossword app wouldn't download any new puzzles which is incredibly frustrating, but it was only 3:30 after all and I was on my way home.  At Court Square, I surrendered my seat and made my way towards the G train.  Instead of boarding in the usual place, I followed the cars all the way to the opposite end so that the post office would be a short walk from the exit at Nassau Ave.  The seats were all taken, but I was happy to post up by the door, leaning my back against the silvery surface to work on a Tuesday crossword from July.

The train lurched out of the station after a few minutes and somewhere between Queens and Brooklyn, the lady sitting across the train car dropped her red tote bag.  It was one of those reusable bags they used to give out at Falvey Library at Villanova when I had too many books to check out for my thesis research.  She seemed not to notice the bag fall, which was surprising considering the thump of it.  A minute passed, and then I made a move to see if she was okay as the guy leaning against the door next to her did the same.  She wasn't okay.  Her face turned and from the books I've read and the episodes of E.R. I've watched, I knew she was having a seizure.

The train car moved to action.  We consulted each other on the merits of pulling the emergency brake versus waiting for the train to pull into the station, and decided to wait rather than be stuck underground.  In the meantime, the woman had slipped from her chair and we gathered around her to catch her as she slumped to the floor.  When the train halted, we banged on the door of the conductor and ran to the window.  She lifted her walkie-talkie and sent for help.  A young guy chewing gum pulled a bandana from his gym bag and then gently slid the bag under the woman's head.  He held her hand and wiped her mouth where spit had gathered and spilled.  I was struck by his kindness.  An older woman came up beside me to see what was going on and told me it looked like a grand mal seizure, not a petit mal one.

After what seemed like an eternity, paramedics arrived and I moved to give them space.  The woman was responsive and seemed understandably freaked out by her new fetal position on the floor of a G train car.  I could only make out moans, but felt relieved to hear something.  Something is better than nothing.

There was nothing more I could do except get in the way, so I began to walk towards the stairs and outside into the Greenpoint evening.  I gulped at the fresh air and blinked back tears.  I stood for a moment, the image of that woman slumping to the floor fresh in my mind, and willed that memory to come forward next time I am on a delayed subway or waiting endlessly for a train to arrive, rolling my eyes and scoffing at the "sick passenger on a train up ahead".