Thursday, December 14, 2006

Another Homecoming

Arriving back in Lebanon yet again is less exciting and more deja vu each time I am on break. This time, the dullness of my hometown is compounded by the total awesomeness (and lack of a close-by replacement) of New York.

I'm afraid that I'm destined to be THAT girl who's like: "Oh my God! Well you think THAT sandwich is good?? AT SIXTH AND TWELFTH IN MANHATTAN I ONCE HAD THIS SANDWICH THAT RIVALED GOD." yackyackyackyack.... It's like when I came back from studying abroad in the south of France and everything was about the Mediterranean and apricots, except this time it's all about the East River and pizza. And oh-mi-god-lemme-tellya-bout-the-pizza-!!-pepperoni-like-you-wouldn't-believe-sister-!!.

And let's face it: I really hated New York for the first month or so I was there. HATED IT.

The crowds. The smells. The subway stabbings. The drug dealing elderly women on my stoop. The cooped-up feeling of a boyfriend-shared, one-bedroom apartment. The yelling on your corner at 2 am. The elbowing for room on Sixth Avenue. The Staten Island accent. Did I mention the crowds?

I once spent the entirety of forty blocks underground on an express train that was crawling more slowly than the local tracks with my nose pressed into one man's armpit and my ass pressed into another man's palm.

I hated New York.

But like every other sucker who moves to the city, I fell for it.

After the sun goes down and the sidewalks radiate heat from the day, a breeze blows in from the Atlantic and it's hard not to love it. By dusk, the city rushes quietly home--by bus, by car--and the din of clinking flatware against white porcelain plates plays like distant hands on ivory keys in Carnegie. Walking along 82nd, the squeaking friction between a wine glass and the terry cloth drying it is louder than your footsteps while the old man holding both these items stares at you through his thick glasses from his fourth floor apartment and you think that it's nice he doesn't live any higher than the fourth floor if he absolutely must live in a ritzy apartment on the Upper West Side and that you have maybe seen him on the subway with a camel-colored briefcase and you know there's only the one wine glass and that he has dined alone.

When the weather cools down, the leaves change color--setting the city afire in oranges and golds. And you love that even after months of becoming a jaded New Yorker, the sight of the Chrysler Building's triangulated, impossible tip first buzzing and then bursting into light like an inverted firecracker against a dark canvas sky still takes your breath away.

There's a lot wrong with New York, but the real problem is that there's too many things right with it. You can't always love it, but you can't leave it either. If you do, you can hear the chk-chk, chk-chk of the subway, the clacking of stilettos against pavement, the honking of taxis and the fizzing, crackling electricity of the city as it turns on its lights. It's too much to bear and you know you'll be back.


Thursday, December 7, 2006

A Christmas Struggle

When I was barely leaving toddler-dom, I asked my mom every night for over a year to read me 'Twas the Night Before Christmas before bed. I loved that book.

The copy I had seemed old to me, which made it special. Its cover was hard and big--I couldn't cover it with both my hands spread on its surface. Like most kids, the idea of this man who lived forever and just made presents all year consumed me. It made sense that he existed. Who wouldn't love just giving gifts for a living and having an army of elves and cavalary of reindeer at your disposal?

But how was Santa the one who got the gig? Had nobody been giving gifts before then? Did Santa start Christmas? No, the baby Jesus did. I had that book, too. Even at this young of an age, the basic commercial and spiritual clash of Christmas was baffling me.

'That's tacky,' my mom said when the apartment across the street from our house put up a 'Happy X-Mas' light-up sign. I asked why and she explained that the 'X' took all the nice things out of Christmas--that it made Christmas all about buying stuff and not about being with family and friends. 'Why bother putting up the sign if it doesn't even spell the whole word out? It's missing the real message.'

So I would return to my studies, poring over the famous Christmas Eve text, looking for clues. After my mom shut the door, I'd pick the book back up from its spot on my bookshelf and, unable to read the majority of the words, I would stare at the pictures. There had to be something I was missing, and once I found it, the whole Santa-Jesus-Christmas thing would become clear to me. Instead, the pictures--out of the context of the story itself--became more confusing.

Most confusing was the last picture in the book. Santa had finished his big night--the gifts delivered, the cookies eaten, the milk drank. But here on the last page, without any words to explain, was Santa--lying out in the sun, stretched onto a beach chair with sunscreen slathered thick and white on his nose. He was holding a drink with a little umbrella in it like the ones that I could get at TGIFriday's with my soda if I asked the waiter nicely. He was on vacation.

A slew of questions arose: Did he stop at home or did he leave the reindeer on their own to get back to the Pole? Where's his suit and does he always wear yellow swim trunks when not in his suit? Where's Mrs. Claus? Does she get a vacation, or do she and the elves slave over the next year's toys beginning on December 26th without any help from Santa? When does his vacation end, does it last a week or until December 23rd of the next year?

After a year, I got tired of trying to figure it out. I had learned to read almost all of the words in the book, I had stared at the pictures for hours on end, and nothing was becoming more clear. Santa, I guessed, would remain a mystery.

Perhaps driving this Christmas quest was my personal relationship with Jesus. I don't, however, mean 'personal relationship' in the way that a Catholic grandmother might mean it. I really mean 'relationship,' to the point where at age four, I had a crush on the Biblical figure and wanted him to be my boyfriend. (Note: Jesus not always this air-blown.) Of all my imaginary playmates ("Charlaines" my five-dollar pink bear bought at KB Toys, Barbie, Grover from Sesame Street, and Elmo too--until I found out he was a 'he' and not a 'she' and I felt terribly cheated), Jesus was my favorite. He was the most real and the nicest.

My friendship with Jesus came crashing down around me my last year in preschool. On a sticky August afternoon, Jesus and I were playing outside under my favorite tree in my backyard. My dad had made the swing--a totally, utterly rough tree swing with rope that would give even the toughest sailors callouses and a flat, hard, butt-numbing board for a seat. I loved it. So on this afternoon, I--willing to be a good friend and share--was pushing Jesus on the swing since it was His turn. Then, something happened. It might have been because I hadn't been spending much time lately looking at the illustrations in my Mom's childhood Bible, or maybe because I had waited so long before I did share the swing with Him, or maybe I was just pushing too hard... But suddenly, unexpected, Jesus flew back much farther than expected and I was hit in the face.

I fell onto my back, knocking my head on the ground. Worst of all was my chin--scraped by either His foot or the butt-numbing swing itself. I ran inside, crying and confused. While I sat in her lap, my mom put Neosporin, gauze and medical tape on my chin and I explained to her what had happened. Through my tears, I made a vow. I was done playing with Jesus.

It wasn't that I didn't believe in Jesus, I concluded, I just wasn't friends with Him anymore. I went back to studying my 'Twas the Night text. Sadly, Santa still wasn't providing explanations or answers as he smiled over his tropical drink. Even more devastating was when, clued in by context about a month after my break-up with Jesus, I found out that Santa was not real.

The details of this horrible revelation I do not remember. According to my mom, I asked for the truth in the car while on an errand drive with her. I asked timidly and in a way that my Mom took to mean that I had figured it all out, and even if she couldn't pull over on Ohio Route 42 to talk about it, she should be honest with me then and there. After she said that I was right, Santa didn't exist, she tried to explain that the spirit of Santa Claus was a real thing while I cried over my second loss. I've done a pretty great job totally repressing this memory. I do remember, however, that afterward I put the 'Twas book on the shelf indefinitely, deciding I was too old for Santa, and feeling more confused than ever about what Christmas really meant.

Things have changed in the last eighteen years. I no longer resent Santa for not being real and I'm not grudging on Jesus for that scrape he gave me on the swing. I don't keep a copy of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas nor of The Holy Bible bedside. I don't believe in Santa, and I'm pretty sure Jesus was an okay guy, but not the son of God or anything.

Some children in France are taught that Santa was
actually St. Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors and pawnbrokers (go figure). On a cold night, three lost children are taken into a warm cottage by a butcher who feeds them heavily and then puts them in bed. Once they fall asleep, he then chops them into bits and pieces, tossing their sliced and now salted remains into a barrel for later. Seven years pass and St. Nicholas happens along the cottage after hearing the sliced and salted remains of the children cry for help, pieces the kids back together and informs the butcher he can repent for his sins and, well, God will set him free. In other versions of the story, he grabs the butcher by the heels and shoves him in the barrel for all eternity (forever and ever, amen), putting a new spin on French children's images of Hell.

I'm not sure at which point Nicholas went from being Saint to being Santa and moved from France to the North Pole, but I'm okay with this story. Granted, it's bloody and dated (from the 1500s actually), but in it, Santa and God coexist and fight together in an epic battle of good versus evil. So I may not be sure how commercially and/or spiritually I want to spend my Christmas this year--the ratio of my time spent mall shopping and knelt praying now escapes me--but either way, they both beat the third alternative--spending seven years salty and in pieces at the bottom of a barrel. And I suppose that's a good reason to celebrate.
Happy Holidays!


Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Exhausted reflection

I'm not feeling particularly creative or witty in the last few days. This could be for a number of reasons:

1.) I took the LSAT on Saturday and am still slowly returning to the state of a normally-functioning human being. More on that later.
2.) This is my last week at work, and I'm depleted. Yoga is just wearing me down right now, and we all know that's not what is supposed to happen.
3.) It's cold.
4.) I don't have any sweet-looking outfits that put sass in my... well... writing.

In case you're just joining us, I've been in New York for six months now. Correction: Six months as of Saturday. I arrived to Harlem, New York on Saturday, June 10, 2006 where I spent the next three months working at TOH at T. I then moved at the end of August to Brooklyn where I have lived for the next three months and worked at YL at R. I will leave very close to exactly six months later, on Tuesday, December 12th--two days after my 22nd birthday.

While I very much hated this city for the first month or so, I've learned that I love it. My time in New York has been less of just a job stint in the city and more of a study abroad experience. This may be a little saccharine and expected, but I really do think I've matured a lot in my time here. I've discovered a lot about what I love about writing, what I hate about magazines, and who I am in general. I've also become something of a New Yorker--albeit, a New Yorker who loves Chicago more...maybe.

Strangely enough, as much about New York still remains a mystery to me (Alphabet City, Williamsburg, Queens...), I still feel like I know more about NYC than I do about Chicago. And I also hate to admit it, but I have grown to love the interconnected incestuousness of New York, complemented by all of its social circle websites that list where the latest art gallery openings and open bars are. I'm still on newsletter mailings for Chicago stuff, but when I receive the Trib's Metromix in my inbox, I roll my eyes because it's yet another week of "Best Bartender" or "Your Pics," and not the everchanging social scene of New York.

Now, I'm not complaining about my social life in Chicago versus my social life in New York (okay, maybe a little), but the vastness of New York eventually got to me. Granted, it took moving to the baby-infested borough of Brooklyn to do that. (Goddamn, I just love their rosy little faces.)

However, I've just come to realize that maybe I won't just be a Chicago bum all my life, moving from the Andersonville/Southport to Near North/Lincoln Park to the 'burbs, as I've always thought would happen. Maybe other things lie before me. And I guess that's pretty cool.


Monday, December 4, 2006

From Brian Doyle's The Hummingbird, to be published next year

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird's heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird's heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird's heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladores, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.

Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmetcrests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant's fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.

Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles -- anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures more than any other living creature. It's expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise, and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.

The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It's as big as a room. It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around in it, head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon. This house of a heart drives a creature a hundred feet long. When this creature is born it is twenty feet long and weighs four tons. It is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs, and arts of the blue whale. There are perhaps ten thousand blue whales in the world, living in every ocean on earth, and of the largest mammal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

Mammals and birds have hearts with four chambers. Reptiles and turtles have hearts with three chambers. Fish have hearts with two chambers. Insects and mollusks have hearts with one chamber. Worms have hearts with one chamber, although they may have as many as eleven single-chambered hearts. Unicellular bacteria have no hearts at all; but even they have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling. No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end -- not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman's second glance, a child's apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother's papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father's voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.