Icicles

January 31, 2011

As January closes, Central Connecticut has seen more snow in this month than it ordinarily gets in a year. At first, this onslaught triggered delight and childlike wonder in me. Snow, after all, is beautiful. Sledding is fun. Snowmen and snow forts and systems of slides and tunnels carved into snowbanks are great and magical, and when I watch my children play in the snow architecture I have wrought, I feel like the best dad ever.

But now I have managed somehow to injure the muscles in my left shoulder from so much shoveling, such that I can barely move my arm in some directions. The intersections in my suburb are so steeply shouldered that visibility is obliterated and every stop sign is an opportunity for disaster. In Hartford, the streets are impossibly narrow, four lanes frequently having been winnowed to one, and even on my bicycle I cannot get to work in less than three quarters of an hour, although the journey takes but 20 minutes when the roads are clear. I am over my childlike wonder and fully immersed in snow-exhaustion.

Now, in a sure sign either that there is no God or that He is wrathful beyond measure, more snow is predicted for tomorrow. Lots more. I do not like this prediction one little bit, but since I recognize that complaining on a largely unread blog about the weather is even more ineffectual than complaining on a largely unread blog about anything else, i will endeavor to accentuate the positive. What is the positive? It is icicles.

I do not really understand how the temperature can remain below freezing all day, but somehow the sun can cause snow on rooves to melt, and then, somehow, to freeze while dripping. This is clearly a phenomenon that defies natural law, so we must call it a miracle. And like the best miracles, it is very very beautiful. So rather than dwell on the fact that lost school days and snow are accumulating in equal measure, such that our children will be stuck in class and our streets swaddled in grey slush until the middle of July, I will be glad for all the spectacular ice formations that I see everywhere:

Icicles

Icicles, West Hartford

Icicles

Icicles at Billings Forges, Lawrence Street, Hartford

Icicles

If you’re like me, birthdays tend to be a time for taking stock – especially in the morning. Sure, in the evening you’ll go out for dinner and drinks with friends, maybe dancing or a concert if you don’t have to work tomorrow. But during the day, when you’re going through your usual routine, you can’t help but ask yourself, “How am I doing? Is this where I thought I’d be?” And with today being your 30th birthday, that instinct can only be stronger.

As you know, I hit that milestone not long ago, and I well remember comparing myself to other folks I knew who had recently turned the corner into their fourth decade: Was I as successful as them? As financially secure? As happy? The results of my inquiry were mixed, as you might expect.

As you start out on your big day, I know you’ll be doing the same, and surely somewhere between coffee and a shower and taking out the trash, you will think about me. My 30th birthday is just three and half years behind me, and to all outward appearances, I have it made: a good job (step 3 on the state pay scale!), a beautiful and successful wife (can you believe this June will be our tenth anniversary?!), two gorgeous children, and a three-bedroom house in a comfortable central Connecticut suburb. You will probably wonder if you’re on track to keep pace with your old friend.

All I can say is, don’t worry. You know I got married young, and although it’s worked out for me, it hasn’t been without its struggles. And while you may envy my stability – especially considering some of the breakups you’ve weathered these past few years – remember that everyone is different, and also that you’ve had a lot of fun. (Don’t lie, you have! I’ve seen you in the clubs, remember? I know you’ve enjoyed yourself.)

As for the job, again, give yourself time. I don’t tell this to everyone, but when I switched jobs a little under a year ago, I took a big pay cut that was supposed to be temporary, but the raise ended up getting delayed and delayed, and it was causing all kinds of stress and strife at home, and finally I had to tell my boss I was going to leave – and actually start sending my resume out to other places – to get them to come through. Of course everybody just looks at me and thinks I have this great job, doing what I want to be doing, with state benefits and all that, and that I have my money situation all squared away, but it’s totally not true. So if you look at me and it seems like I have all my ducks in a row, remember: everybody struggles and scrimps and hustles, and I’m still trying to figure stuff out three years after where you are now.

Just remember this: you’re young, you’re talented, and you’re pursuing your dreams. I know when things don’t go your way, it feels like everyone is watching you and judging you, but honestly, there are a lot more people out here rooting for you than you realize, and we’ve all been through the same stuff. So keep plugging along, stay positive, and things will just keep getting better. I had the good fortune to meet the right person before I had even started my career, while you were really focused on your work at that point. But right now, things are going pretty well for you professionally and I think it’s only a matter of time till you meet the right person – in fact, knowing you, I have no doubt about it. So go out and have a good time tonight, and get up tomorrow morning (if you can!) knowing that you’ve done great thus far, and your best days are ahead of you.

P.s., I’ve attached one of my favorite photos of you, just to remind you that life isn’t all about achievements that can be measured against those of other people. It’s also about kicking back and having fun:

Last night my mother-in-law, visiting for a couple days to celebrate our younger son’s fourth birthday, was explaining what I shall call “cosmic reincarnation” to our boys. Prompted, I imagine, by some inquiry about her father’s death (which was the better part of a year ago but still occupies a prominent place in our six-year-old’s abbreviated conception of family history), she told them that when people die, they become stars in the night sky so they can watch over loved ones still living.

Although I am neither religious nor “spritirual” (that latter term being, as best as I can tell, the de rigeur manner by which people describe themselves when they are unswayed by mainstream religion but uncomfortable with the finality of death), I found the notion of reincarnation as a celestial body to be an acceptable salve for the uncertainties of childhood. But then I thought about what it would be like to be a star, burning ferociously and without noticeable response in the cold vastness of space, my closest colleagues many millions of miles away, engaged in their own versions of the same quixotic endeavor. Even if I were somehow able to see the goings on of the mortal coil, and to offer solace to my survivors, I think the business of being a star wouldn’t be for me.

If I get to create my own reincarnation myth, let it be this: That I should come back as a baseball, put into play in with two outs in the top of the fifth inning of a rain-delayed Mets home game, after a ground-rule double by the visiting team. It would be June. The sun would be shining, the grass damp and impossibly green, the stands cleared of all but the die-hards, who would have trickled down to the now abandoned field-level seats. Let me be in the game as the number three batter on the visiting team’s lineup is walked, and let the clean-up hitter line me to short center field. I would scud and slide across the wet grass gladly, for a new baseball is never happier than when it is stained with grass and scuffed by sharp line drives. I would be scooped up by the charging center fielder, momentarily hidden in the leathery darkness of his glove, then hurtle back the way I came and meet the catcher and the lead runner at home plate for a dramatic put-out. While the fielders trotted happily to the dugout and the fans hooted with delight, I would roll contentedly back to the base of the mound.

In the bottom of the fifth, let me be fouled off on a 3-2 count and skip once across the dirt warning track along the first base line before being scooped up once again, this time by a cap held over the fence and low to the ground by a man who started the game in the cheap seats. I would roll dizzily around the inside of the cap, a soft place smelling sweat and damp wool, then be held aloft in triumph before coming to rest in the soft hands of the man’s nine-year-old son. There I would rest for another hour, clutched tightly at times, turned over and examined between innings, bearing quiet witness to the game’s outcome before riding home on the 7 train inside a backpack.

In some apartment tucked into a brick building in Brooklyn, with a pizza parlor downstairs and an argumentative elderly couple upstairs, I would find a home on the boy’s bedside table, to be cherished for a while. Then, on some Saturday in August, the need for a ball would overwhelm any nostalgia in the boy’s heart, and I would find my way into a park, tossed around and batted and fumbled by small hands. All of the letters and signifiers that once adorned me and distinguished me from a store-bought ball would get smudged and scraped and covered in dirt, until the collaboration of twilight and a strong, errant throw landed me in a hidden spot amid weeds and brush and I was abandoned to the encroaching night.

And I could sit there in the park, muddy, unseen, and thoroughly happy. Leaves would cover me, and then snow, and the boy would think about school and basketball and winter things and not remember me at all. The slugger who lined me to center might break his wrist, lose the speed in his swing, and retire to a high school coaching job in Florida. The young prospect who fouled me into the stands, that flashy, fast-running idol who had captured the boy’s imagination, would be traded away and forgotten. But eventually, the snow would melt. The Parks Department would cut back the weeds and mow the grass. And someone else would find me, weathered and unremarkable but certainly good enough for a catch or some batting practice. And I would be born again.

My Latest Project

January 21, 2011

It is true that I don’t really need projects. Lately the continued felicity of my children and marriage, and the acquisition of a more sensible wage in my employment, have proved more than adequate to occupy all of my energies (and that is not to say that wife and progeny are especially difficult nor that familiar happiness in general is especially imperiled of late, but only to concede that even in the best of circumstances, the incidents of an ordinary life are sufficient to fill up ordinary days). But inevitably, my mind seeks solace in silly endeavors, so I have begun creating silly illustrations of craigslist post titles that tickle my fancy. These works are collected at an appropriately named blog: illustratedcraigslist.tumblr.com.

After commencing this enterprise, I discovered that it had already been more successfully executed, although not with quite the same premise, by other people. Nevertheless, the promise of this great and wonderful Internet is nothing if it does not allow your humble correspondent to add his creations to the great and jumbled concourse of modern artistic endeavor.

In which your Humble Correspondent is Excoriated for Dereliction of Parental Duty, Remonstrates, and Later, as is his Custom, Doubts Himself in Particular, and the Human Condition in General

As you may have heard, the Nor’east of these Uni’ed Sta’es was hit with a rather formidable Nor’easter yes’erday, which tempest deposited some two feet of snow in my neighborhood. Today being Reuben’s second day at his new pre-school in the center of our town (a mile from our house), I was presented with the dilemma of how to convey him, given the polar conditions. Although the local authorities and their sundry hired hands have done yeoman’s work in clearing the streets, the fact is that my automobile, a small pickup truck of the rear-wheel-drive variety, is uniquely ill-suited to the sludgy, icy conditions now prevalent, and prone to go careering about, to the risk of both passengers and passersby. My ordinary two-wheeled conveyance is treacherous in like measure, in that bicycles have a tendency to tumble in snow, a consequence that would be both more likely and more calamitous if I were conveying a three-year-old. Naturally, then, I settled on my beloved cargo bicycle, upon which I have previously remarked.

The cargo bike, equipped with two wheels in the front and one in the back, and benefiting from pedal brakes and generous weight, is a perfect mobile for modest trips in snowy conditions: it is stable, it is slow, and it is highly visible, owing to its size and its tendency to be piloted by a large man in a black wool coat. Not surprisingly, then, the trip to the pre-school was uneventful. Reuben was happy to be out in the world, and we chatted on the matters that tend to come easily to the mind of an idle three-year-old (flying cars, principally, and whether there exists a spider capable of eating a rabbit).

Then, within three blocks of our destination, we found ourselves waiting at a light behind a Jeep, or better put, a Jeep brand S.U.V., for it was larger and fancier than the army vehicles of old or their direct progeny. Upon stopping, the driver of this mobile got out of her car and walked to me with determination, announcing that she felt it was very dangerous for me to be conveying my son in the manner already described. Summoning every ounce of civility in my basically pugnacious being, I avoided deploying the sort of colorful rhetorical flourishes that would befit the exchange had it taken place in the Brooklyn of my youth, and instead asked my interlocutor what the problem was, given that my child was secured in both helmet and seat belt. She responded that some driver might slide out of control and hit us. I parried, pointing out that the only other alternative was a rear-wheel drive vehicle that would expose not only me and the boy, but others nearby, to significant danger on snowy roads, which explanation she deemed “not good enough.” Having pronounced judgment thus, she climbed back into her vehicle and absconded, leaving behind a palpable cloud of indignation.

After delivering the perplexed youngster to pre-school, having explained that this lady was a knucklehead, I devoted the next few minutes to two trains of thought, between which I alternated periodically. First, that she was a damn busybody who should mind her own fucking business and worry more about the fact that her stupid S.U.V. would cause more damage to other cars in a crash than a mere sedan; and second, that I should have given her my card, recited to her the number of the DCF child abuse hotline, and told her to call it in.

Later, though, I began to wonder: Am I, in fact, an irresponsible parent? Certainly, there is some truth in Jeep lady’s assertions: I could shield my children from some danger if I avoided carting them in the bicycle on days when road conditions are suboptimal. Would it kill me (so to speak) just to take the damn truck once in a while? There are, I am told, people who think that any ferrying of young children by bicycle is unreasonably dangerous.

On the other hand, it’s hard to draw a sensible line. Is it irresponsible to drive my children around in a station wagon, knowing that a vehicle so low to the ground exposes them to a greater risk of injury than if they were in an S.U.V.? Is it irresponsible for me to commute by bicycle and expose myself to (arguably) higher risk of injury or death, since I would then deprive my children of a father and my family of an income (the latter concern being less pressing, since my life insurance policy would likely stand my children in far better stead than my public servant salary)?

Separate and apart from that, I wonder what it is about things that are different that causes people to take umbrage at them. What I mean is, my carting Reuben on a snowy day is assuredly not the most dangerous thing that lady will see someone do today, but it quite likely is the only one that will move her to scold a stranger. She will not, I imagine (although I’d love to be proved wrong on this point) honk her horn angrily at motorists who talk on their cell phones while driving, wag an angry finger, and shout, “Connecticut General Statutes Section 14-296aa!” Nor would she feel comfortable (I wager) chiding other motorists for smoking with their kids in the car, or for transporting children in vehicles with suboptimal performance in side-impact safety tests, or for getting dinner at the McDonald’s drive-through – because those are dangerous (or less-than-ideal, anyway) activities we see with such frequency that we have placed them in the mental file for life’s necessary evils, while carrying children on bicycles is a (slightly, maybe) dangerous activity that busybodies in West Hartford, Connecticut, apparently never see.

All of which is to say, people are weird and inscrutable. I will continue to take Reuben to school by bike. I think the lady who scolded me is a dope. But there is also a prosecutor who works in the same court where I work who thinks it’s appropriate to go to court wearing moss green Uggs, matching jeans, and some sort of plush housecoat that looks like it was made from a bathmat. That’s dangerous.

If there is one thing that can displace the incessant stream of murders, car crashes, and baby-left-in-car-at-shopping-mall stories that populate the local newscasts here in the Land of Steady Habits, it is the prediction of a coming snowstorm. Experience has shown that whether the meteorological prognostications prove exaggerated or even wholly illusory, that portion of the regional journalistic corps dedicated to less probing but more salacious fare will invariably spring into action, taking up stations beside highways and offices of governmental administration to report LIVE from the sites where events occurred hours earlier (governor’s announcement of disaster preparations) or where they may occur later on (roads to be choked with snow).

I must confess that for all the derision I rightly heap on the local news, I share the unreasonable enthusiasm for coming snow, and last night was no exception: I watched happily as a correspondent, perfectly coiffed and amazingly unflappable despite fat snowflakes and howling winds, reported from atop a twenty-foot pile of plowed snow in Brick Township, NJ, giving unarguable proof that YES, IT IS SNOWING IN NEW JERSEY!! A LOT!!! I thrilled to blurry traffic cam footage later in the newscast, showing that the dread/beloved Nor’easter (is this even a Nor’easter? Is every snowstorm that hits Connecticut a Nor’easter?) HAS REACHED NEW HAVEN!!

I went to sleep with the bedroom shade open so I could watch the first flurries and wake, hopefully, to a fully realized snowpocalypse. And this morning, my faith in meteorology, sensationalist journalism, and climate emerged intact, as the following photos, all taken at great personal risk to my person inasmuch as I was required to draw perilously near to the mighty blizzard, amply demonstrate:


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Land of Snowy Habits

January 9, 2011

A Gift for the New Year

January 9, 2011

Whether the instinct to collect items of evident charm but dubious value is a genetic trait or a practice learned from one’s parents at an early age, I have it, as does my mother. It is, in some regards, a satisfying affliction to suffer when one is young, inclined to foot and bicycle sojourns at all hours, and a resident of New York, for that city, packed as it is with humanity and famed in like portion for the industry and aspirational nature of its denizens, tends to be a great depository for stuff: New Yorkers are always hustling, trading, acquiring, and, ultimately, discarding, and the eagle-eyed pedestrian can, with regularity, happen upon sundry treasures.

One of my wife’s more formidable missions since we began cohabiting nearly twelve years ago, probably second in degree of difficulty only to her efforts to make me reform my lackluster approach to financial matters, has been a campaign to rid our homes of the many fruits of my compulsion to collect. With each successive change of abode, she has succeeded in persuading me to let go of some once-cherished book or cultural artifact, among them Venezuelan Democracy Under Stress, Who’s Who in East Africa, 1968 (a real snapshot of the end of the colonial period!), and a talking Master P doll (press his belly to do like the song says and “make [him] say, ‘unnnnh; na na na na!'” or, once the batteries get depleted, ‘unnnnnnhxgrrrbllttt.’) (Are you looking for footage of a platinum-plated army tank? That video contains the footage!)

I think that collections such as mine must have some sort of critical mass, for as the size of my collection has dissipated, so too has my willingness to fight for the retention of its component parts. That said, there are a few things I will never part with, and one of them is the Almanac for New Yorkers, 1938, a Federal Writers’ Project opus, the cover of which is pictured above.

I came across my dog-eared and moth-nibbled copy of this humorous little tome during my college years, where I found it in uncomfortably close proximity to an impressive collection of pornographic magazines on the blanket of a sidewalk bookseller on lower Broadway. If memory serves, the Almanac, which cost me 50 cents, was attainable more cheaply than any single exemplar of its salacious neighbors, many of which, by their titles, purported to cater to carnal tastes far more unusual and particular than my own. The Almanac, however, contained between its covers something more revealing and unexpected than a reader of the glossy, flesh-colored tomes beside it could ever hope to find:

Notes from one of the authors! At some point, my copy of the Almanac was a gift from Manly Wade Wellman to Doctor Mack Lipkin, who was apparently his creditor at one time (whether in a fiscal or merely amicable way, we will likely never know).

As it turns out, 1938 and 2011 are alike not only in that they are presided over by Stalinist Presidents bent on grinding our free will into the dust with their black-heeled boots (kidding!), but in the fact that their calendars and days of the week line up in the same way. When I realized this (today), I had the idea to scan the Almanac and post it weekly, that it might be put to use. (After all, the book itself announces that it is “ACCOMMODATED TO THE FIVE BOROUGHS BUT MAY WITHOUT SENSIBLE ERROR SERVE FOR THE ENTIRE METROPOLITAN DISTRICT AND EVEN MORE DISTANT POINTS.”) A few pages into this endeavor, however, it occurred to me that I might be duplicating labors already realized, and a quick consultation with my friend, the Internet, revealed that no less an institution than the New York Times has done the dirty work for me.

So, friends, whether this new year finds you in the five boroughs, elsewhere in the metropolitan district, or in even more distant points, enjoy the Almanac for New Yorkers, which is replete with fun historical facts, early bits of work from many famous American writers, and a generally urbane wit and offhanded New York liberalism that is, in my humble opinion, delightful.