Cross Purposes

A challenging routine, its abrupt end, and a pledge to do better next time. 

Last month, my nearly two-year streak of solving the NY Times crossword puzzle came to an accidental end.  It really wasn’t my fault.

Here’s what happened: the crossword comes out each day at 10pm, or 6pm on weekends (daylight savings time wreaks havoc on this schedule, so let’s leave it at that).  Credit is given for completing the puzzle before midnight the next day.

On my way to a Saturday evening event, I realized that I hadn’t yet done the crossword, so I opened it, and Kelsey and I got it done over the course of twenty-or-so minutes.

Unfortunately, neither of us realized that the puzzle we were doing was the Sunday puzzle- which should have been obvious, as it’s a larger puzzle grid.  The Saturday puzzle was not complete, as I would learn the following day, when I looked for the Sunday puzzle and was informed that it was complete, the first installment of my new streak.

In many ways, the crossword puzzle is a perfect hobby for me.  As someone blessed with mild OCD, I thrive on daily tasks.  Each day’s puzzle is a new challenge, growing progressively more difficult from Monday through Saturday, and easing up with a large, enjoyable grid on Sundays.

The puzzle’s test of trivia, wordplay, and pattern recognition also appeals to me.  My brain, notorious for forgetting names of people I have just met, excels at remembering inane trivia several decades removed from practical relevance.

I am also blessed to have Kelsey as my solving buddy.  Not only does she have a knowledge base that covers many of my blind spots, she greets puzzle puns with the most satisfying groans of anyone I know.  Between the two of us, we can usually crack the grid at a good clip.

Those times when the answers just aren’t coming- I remember one frustrating puzzle where every CLUE was an anagram, and until you figured that out, you were lost- we are both shameless about asking friends, colleagues, or friendly-looking strangers.  You would be amazed how many people can identify, for instance, ballroom dancer Castle (IRENE), Nixon’s “In the _____,” (ARENA), or a relative of Calliope (ERATO).

Over time, as the streak grew longer and longer, it became of corresponding greater importance to me that it continue.  On days where I would be out of cell reception, I made sure to complete the puzzle when I had signal.  During my trips back to Lexington, I would impress my parents and sibs into service to get the puzzle done over coffee.  My day didn’t feel complete- didn’t feel right- until the puzzle was done.

That said, it was perhaps surprising that the loss of the streak came not with anger or devastation, but with mild sadness, and a resolution to start a new, even longer streak.  I’ve realized that, while the streak had a motivational impact that scratched my OCD itch, it is really the process I enjoy: the puzzles themselves.

So, after going back and finishing that regrettably-missed Saturday grid (the functionality of the app is truly amazing), I immediately resumed puzzle solving as my daily task.  The streak is now back in double-digits, and given time, I’m sure it will grow back to something more substantial.

People tell me that crossword puzzles are good for the brain, and may help keep our minds sharp as we age.  I don’t know about all that.  To me, they’re really more about assuming challenges, and doing everything necessary to overcome them.  The moment the grid is complete, and the app plays the little “success” jingle, feels like enough of a wholesome reward to keep me consistently coming back.

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Published in: on September 5, 2018 at 12:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Graduation Day

Some thoughts and remembrances of Uncle Lucius’ final show

On Friday, March 23rd, Austin-based country rock band Uncle Lucius held their final live show.  The venue, Gruen Hall in New Braunfels, Texas, purports to be the oldest dancehall in the Lonestar State.  My brother, Jon, has been Uncle Lucius’ keyboard player for the last seven years.

About two weeks before the show, I booked the shortest vacation of my life.  I would fly in two hours before the show, surprise my brother, and leave the following afternoon.  My time in transit would approximately equal my time on the ground. Even so, I had to take a day off work; my schedule, particularly given the last-minute nature of this trip, necessitated a very brief visit.  

The first leg of the flight was the most uncomfortable flying experience I have ever had…and I was once on a plane in China that nearly crashed.  This time it was a United flight, and my middle seat had so little room that I couldn’t properly extend a book in front of my face without hitting the seat in front of me.  It served as an important reminder of why I don’t voluntarily fly on United Airlines.

As New Braunfels is between Austin and San Antonio, getting there necessitated renting a car, which I did in my chosen port of arrival, San Antonio.  Though I am out of practice driving, I got there in one piece. After leaving the interstate, the navigation took me through mile after mile of utter nothingness.  Then, all of a sudden, a village appeared, with cars lining both sides of the street and a huge, mostly full parking lot. I had arrived.

My logistical connection with the band- the bassist, Johann- hadn’t gotten back to me, so I was concerned about how to get into the sold-out show.  It was a few minutes before the opening act was scheduled to start, and the line extended around the block. All I knew was that Johann had put me on the guest list, but so that my brother wouldn’t see it, he put me down as his girlfriend’s plus-one.  I imagined getting to the front of the line and telling the security guard, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m on the list…Johann’s girlfriend’s plus-one….her name? I dunno…”

Fortunately, in the outdoor area on the other side of the fence, I spotted my brother.  I asked a brusque-looking security person to get his attention for me, a request he ignored until I mentioned our relation.  A sudden, full grin erupted across his face. “You’re a GROSSMAN? You want…JONNY KEYS?!”

Jon and I had a warm, brotherly reunion.  He smuggled me into the venue through sheer force of will.  

Unbeknownst to me, Jon was sitting in with the opening act, so he only had a few minutes before he had to go on stage.  He was ebullient, introducing me to everyone, as though my full name was “my-brother-who-came-from-New-York-and-surprised-me.”  

In my experience, fans of Uncle Lucius are all big fans of Jonny Keys.  They bought me beers, shook my hand, gave me hugs, all because I had a connection with him.  For the last seven years, Jon has been a musical virtuoso with the band, bringing his frenetic, colorful style to the stage.  He plays the keyboard with impossible fluency. In the opening act, he was playing songs he had first learned the night before, and was able to freestyle and complement their arrangement seamlessly.  

I stood front-row-center for most of the show.  The entire thing was wonderful, with three distinct high points, from my vantage point.  The first was Jon surprising me with a performance of my favorite Uncle Lucius song, New Drug.  It wasn’t on the original set list, but he added it at my request. The song rocked, and the crowd’s applause was deafening.  Then, the band covered Tom Petty’s “It’s Good to be King,” one of my favorites from the late, great bard. Lead singer Kevin’s voice is perfectly suited for that song, and it was fantastic.  Finally, the band played “Wolves,” a song written by Kevin as a tribute to his dad. His dad, who I met earlier in the evening (and bought me a beer) stood next to me in front during that song, a moving emotional high near the close of the set.  

The crowd lingered long after the boys took their final bows.  Merchandise was snatched up, photos were taken, and there were so many tears.  Several fans of Uncle Lucius had followed the band for various stretches, and seen hundreds of their shows.  During the past seven years, I had only seen them thrice, a pretty paltry attendance record for a big brother.  

We spent the evening in the pool area of the band’s hotel, about two miles from the venue.  We talked and laughed and told stories until the sun came up. I had a grand total of two hours of sleep on my twenty-four hour stay, crashing in Jon’s unused hotel room.  

In the days that followed, Jon and I exchanged very nice emails.  We don’t keep in touch particularly well, but our relationship remains close.  Even if six months pass between conversations, we fall right back into our usual camaraderie without missing a beat.  

The Uncle Lucius years saw Jon move out of our hometown, tour the country and Europe, sharpen his musical skills, network with world-class musicians, and ultimately, join their ranks.  It also saw a fair share of challenge, from health problems to the uncertainty of housing and life on the road. He came out the other side thriving, with a world of possibilities in front of him, and a fan base filled with adoring admirers.    

I’m terribly proud of my kid brother.  He set out to make wonderful music, and he went and did it.  Very few people can stick to a dream with such constant focus. He inspires me to pursue my own dream of becoming a successful writer.  

Uncle Lucius may have played their final show, but their music lives on, as does the impact they had on so many people who followed their long tenure as a touring band.  I’m so glad I was able to be there to see the final show, and to watch those five musicians end such a successful chapter of their musical careers.

~AG

Published in: on March 29, 2018 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Repeal and Replace

It’s time to repeal the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution

Our Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, enacted in 1791, reads as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

While there has been much legal wrangling over whether this right is individual or has something to do with militias, I believe the interpretation is clear, even if the wording is sloppy: under the 2nd Amendment, the government can’t infringe on people’s right to have arms.

At the time it was passed, the amendment was likely prompted by two motivating factors: to serve as a check on the power of the federal government, and in response to gun regulations imposed prior to independence by our formal colonial power, England.  The taste of revolution was still fresh in the mouths of the drafters, and there is probably some truth to the notion that the purpose of the amendment was to reserve to the people the power to, if need be, overthrow the government.

Many things have changed in the ensuing 227 years (eleven score and 7 years ago, if you want to be fancy).  For one, our government cannot be overthrown by armed civilians.  The military sciences have evolved to the point where governments are largely immune from direct attacks by their citizenry: it would take military cooperation for a new revolution to succeed.  In an age of nuclear weapons, air forces, and tanks, an armed citizenry wouldn’t stand a chance.

Moreover, the scope of “arms” has changed dramatically.  The muskets of our founding gave way to rifles, to machine guns, to assault weapons.  As pernicious as the much-maligned AR-15 may be in the media, people forget that it isn’t even an automatic weapon: it’s essentially a cosmetically-upgraded hunting rifle.  Our guns have gotten more powerful, and with our population density and the rise of mental illness, mass shootings have become commonplace.

I know that many people identify strongly with the right to own guns.  Blaming the NRA is foolish: contrary to popular belief, they don’t contribute very much money at all to politicians.  They are powerful because people support them.  A lot of people.  Many of them are motivated to vote based on gun rights, and see the waxing and waning cries for regulation as the opening salvos in an attempt to strip them of their legally-owned guns.

While the issue of liberty versus regulation may well be a zero-sum game- every regulation results in a corresponding decrease in gun ownership liberty- it’s not a binary choice.  There can be a middle ground, in which gun ownership is legal but highly regulated.  However, that middle ground is fundamentally inconsistent with the 2nd Amendment, which proscribes any infringement on gun ownership rights.

We need a full and unencumbered discussion on what gun ownership should look like in the 21st century.  I don’t know what the shape of that regime should look like; I personally hate and fear firearms, but don’t believe my personal views should be foisted upon everyone else.  I do think I should be given a voice, as should the other stakeholders- including, most especially, passionate and responsible gun owners.

In order to have that discussion, and implement substantial new regulations, we need to repeal the 2nd Amendment.  It’s presence guarantees a court battle over every rule, and if we’re reading it dispassionately, the plain language of the amendment is likely to invalidate any meaningful gun control or regulation as an infringement on the right to bear arms.

You hardly need me to recount the extent of the gun violence problem in the United States.  It’s unique to us, and it is unacceptable.  Our allegiance to liberal gun policies makes violence worse, and more widespread.  We simply cannot continue living with mass shootings as a regular occurrence.

The historic justifications for the 2nd Amendment have long since passed into history, and repealing that amendment does not mean taking away everyone’s guns.  It means lifting a broad prohibition on any meaningful gun control.  Gun owners should be licensed, tested, and safety-screened, as they are in other countries.  We can and must work together to accommodate the concerns of lawful gun owners with the concerns of the millions of us who will not accept routine mass shootings as a cost of living in the United States.

The time for repeal has come; perhaps our leaders can summon the courage to act before the anger of the populace sweeps them from office.

-AG

 

Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 12:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Even a Broken Clock

The decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was long-overdue.  

I am not a fan of our current president.  I’m sure that does not come as much of a surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with my writing.  My political views place great value on open-mindedness, humility, civility, and the role of objective facts and analysis.  Consequently, I think the current occupant of the White House is unqualified and dangerous.

Due in large part to the self-selection of social media, geography, and real-life society, a vast majority of my friends share this view.  Unfortunately, many of us make the mistake of concluding that because the president is dangerous and unqualified, anything he says or does must be wrong.

Admittedly, that formula produces accurate results in the large majority of cases.  However, over the last month, the president did something that- while controversial- I believe was exactly the correct course of action to move the Middle East closer to peace.

He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Naturally, as soon as this decision was announced, it was decried as dangerous folly by my fellow Trump critics.  After all, failing to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a bipartisan norm for our chief executives.  Official recognition of Jerusalem, coupled with moving our embassy there, has been one of the largest carrots we have dangled in front of the Israelis for decades, in hopes of persuading them into making a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

In a sense, this policy shift reminds me of President Obama’s steps to de-isolate Cuba.  In that case, as now, a long-held, bipartisan foreign policy position was being forfeited by a new chief executive with limited governing experience.  The president’s critics- then and now- immediately proclaimed it a mistake.  Then, as now, those critics accused the president of giving up leverage and compromising our long-term strategic goals.

One persistent error in American foreign policy has been our failure to recognize when our policies are not working.  The Cuban embargo lasted for decades, and did nothing to resolve our tensions with their government.  Our refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not compel Israel to make hard concessions for peace over the decades.

There is no final peace agreement that does not include an Israeli capital in Jerusalem.  Our stubborn refusal to acknowledge that reality does nothing to bend Israel to our will.  If you telegraph so persistently- as we have- that you are going to give the horse the carrot eventually, no matter what, it ceases to serve as an effective incentive.  It did, however, provide Palestinians with the hope- however remote- that Israel would be forced to cede Jerusalem to some international body, or that the city might be a shared capital of both countries.

Our president’s move effectively takes this issue off the table.  The predicted violent uproar in response largely failed to materialize.  The Palestinians have announced that they are unwilling to continue working with the United States, but they must recognize even now that will be an untenable position in the long term, as only the United States has sufficient influence on Israel to facilitate a comprehensive settlement.

The idea that this compromises our perceived neutrality in the conflict ignores reality; we have been compromised since at least the 1980s.  No international observer truly believes that we are impartial in this dispute.  The United States has been and remains Israel’s closest ally in the world.  That is not a surprising revelation to anyone following the abortive peace efforts over the years, least of all to the Palestinians.

There is a more subtle aspect to this policy shift.  It represents, for the first time, the United States intervening to settle a disputed issue unilaterally.  Israel was quite pleased at this particular outcome, but they must surely realize that the next issue could go the other way, particularly with our volatile and unpredictable president at the helm.

Perhaps the United States will decide that large swaths of Israeli settlements must be demolished in the West Bank, or that a certain number of Palestinian refugees must be readmitted to Israel.  We have the leverage to force compliance, should we so choose.  Consequently, this new precedent of unilateral decision-making should give Israel pause.

The message sent by this policy shift is that the status quo cannot be indefinitely sustained.  The current Israeli leadership seems satisfied to remain in stalemate, and the Palestinians still have not consolidated the necessary collective will to make a meaningful peace.  This unilateral move undermines that status quo, and signals that the United States is committed to moving towards peace, with or without the participation of the primary governments involved.

I do not believe- and this may be my anti-Trump bias, but it’s based on his other governing decisions- that the president considered all of the implications of his decision before making the announcement.  I am not convinced that he is a leader who understands nuance, foreign policy, or long-term strategy.  More likely, he was convinced to make this announcement at the behest of one of his pro-Israel supporters or family members; perhaps the recently-disclosed financial arrangements between Israel and his son-in-law played a role.

Regardless of his motives, however, I do believe that in this case, the president got it right.  Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and our refusal to recognize it as such was nothing more than a relic of a negotiating tactic that produced no results over the decades it had been our policy.  Just like the Cuba embargo, its time has passed, and we need to move on from ineffective foreign policy decisions.

To paraphrase an old saying, even a broken president is right twice a term.

-AG

Published in: on January 10, 2018 at 9:45 am  Comments (1)  
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Pox

For Halloween, some horror fiction for y’all.  

I must have needed sleep real bad last night. I tried to get up at 7 like before- old habits die hard- but my body felt heavy and gravity felt strong. It’s not the sickness, thank God for that, it was just that I felt tired. Bone tired.

My brain was slow to wake up, too. I put on the radio, and it must’ve played for fifteen minutes before I realized it was the same newscast from yesterday morning. Or was it the day before?  No, it had to be yesterday, because it had that thing about the power grid that scared me and Amy so bad.

At first I thought it was just the same story- I mean, it’s an important one, and if we’re gonna lose power soon we have a right to know- but there was this phrase the anchor used, barring some change, soon, the CDC won’t be the only ones in the dark. I remember that phrase, and that little self-satisfied public radio announcer tone she put on it. It was the same broadcast. The news was on reruns.

Now what the hell does that mean?

Amy was still sleeping, thank God for that, too.  She’d curled herself up into a little ball.  She had to eat something, or else she’d be more likely to catch it, they say a weak immune system puts a body at risk.  I pushed my feet over the bed, a little trick to let the gravity work just a bit in my favor, and got up.  I decided to go fuss around in the kitchen, maybe I could find something to fix for her to eat.  Maybe we just missed something yesterday, and there’s still some food left over.  

I pulled myself upright, feet on the ground.  I could hear this yowling sound, seemed like it was coming from the apartment above us, definitely a cat.  Never heard that before, not in this apartment.  Maybe its owner got sick.  Poor thing was probably hungry.  

Then I noticed something else- the traffic noises.  Junction Boulevard was usually loud as hell, especially too early in the morning.  People honked at each other all the time, no regard for all the folks sleeping in the tall residential buildings like mine.  It wasn’t just horns, either, it was motorcycles, blaring subwoofers, shouted conversations in a hundred different languages.  But now it was quiet.  That couldn’t be good.

I figured I should probably turn on the lights.  It wouldn’t bother Amy, she could sleep through anything.  I got about a foot or so from the switch but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  What if we’ve already lost power?  The thought terrified me.  I stood there a minute and lost my nerve.

The cat was still yowling, but it was the silence from outside the window that bothered me more.  I could see daylight poking around the side of the window shades, decided that opening them would work just as well as turning on the lights, minus the paralyzing fear.  

I pulled the curtain open, and light flooded into the room.  It was true what they say, the sun still rises.  I had to blink a few times to let my eyes adjust.  The first thing I noticed was that the streetlight was still on, and a few apartments across 35th Avenue had their lights on.  That meant we probably still had our power, too.  

I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye.  It was coming from the sidewalk across the street, this woman was making her way down the block, using the side of the apartment building there for support.  She was obviously sick, you could tell by the way she was moving.  It was more of an amble than a walk, like her inner ears had forgotten how to balance her.  I watched for a minute, and then she startled, straightened up, and started running into the street at a long angle.  

I moved my head higher up on the frame to see what had her attention.  Then, another person appeared, a short Latino man, running right at her.  Their paths met in the middle of the street, and they started circling each other, just inches apart, frantically coughing into each other’s faces.  It only lasted a few seconds.  Then they stopped, like they realized the other person was also sick, and turned away from each other, parting ways.    

It was goddamned terrifying.  

I looked down at the street.  Nobody was driving, and no cars were running, but they were lined up as usual along both curbs, parked both legally and illegally.  That wasn’t unusual; that was just Queens.  

There was one big white van, though, that was parked right in the middle of the street, and at an angle, too, that asshole.  Totally blocking the street.  My first thought was that it must have been an accident, maybe the driver got sick and lost consciousness or something, but I could see that the driver seat was empty, and his door was just a little bit open.  No, this special snowflake just stopped their car there and got out.  Guess they figured there weren’t many police around, and those that were had other things to care about than an illegally parked car.  

I pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt from the hamper.  I didn’t plan on going anywhere today, so it didn’t much matter what I wore, but it was a little cold to just walk around naked.  I started for the kitchen, and as I passed the lightswitch again I flipped it- light came on- and then flipped it back off again, just checking, funny I had been so scared to do that before.  

The kitchen cabinets were already open.  We’d done this same thing yesterday.  I looked inside, hoping against hope there was going to be, I don’t know, a jar of peanut butter or a can of tuna, something substantial.  I couldn’t see anything but bags of tea, spices, and some baking supplies.  I stood there, ramrod still, for almost half a minute, just looking into the dark recesses of the cabinet, and decided to just empty it out and sort things.  Maybe something would turn up.

I was shuttling cylinders of dried spices to the kitchen table when I heard a tapping sound, so I stopped to listen.  I could still hear that damn cat.  The tapping came again, louder, sounded like somebody was at my door.  I put down the spices and went to take a look through the peephole.

It was Helen, our upstairs neighbor.  

-Helen?

-Oh, I’m so glad you’re here.  Let me in!

She was speaking in a stage whisper. I hesitated.

-Uh, are you sick?

-No, please, just open the door.

-Sorry, but…how do I know you’re not sick?

-Sick people don’t talk.

I thought for a second, trying to remember if I had ever heard about sick people talking.  My mind was blank.

-I don’t know that.

She let out a breath like she was exasperated with me.

-Look, I can’t stay out here.  Please, let me in.  I’m not sick I swear!

Something about the sound of the word “swear” with her British accent convinced me, I still don’t know why, and I opened the door.  As soon as I did, I realized what a foolish risk it was, and half-expected her to start coughing in my face.  She did come up to me real fast, but instead of coughing gave me a big hug.  She took off a bulging backpack and set it down in the entryway.  

-Is Amy okay?

-Yeah, she’s sleeping.

-I’m glad to see you.  

-Have you been outside?  How bad is it?

-It’s bad.  I haven’t even left the building, but everyone is either sick, dead, gone, or barring their doors.  

-I think we might have to leave soon.  We’re out of food.  I was just looking around to make sure I haven’t missed anything.  

She followed me into the kitchen, where I resumed emptying out the cabinet while we talked.  

-How has Amy been doing?

-Not great.  She’s sleeping a lot, and she won’t eat unless I remind her.  

-Do you want me to talk to her?  

-Yeah, I’m sure she’d like that.  Mostly she just needs to eat something.  I’m gonna figure out if there’s any calories to be had and bring it to her.

-I have some crackers in my bag.

I perked up at the word “crackers.”

-Oh!  In that case, yeah, she could really use that.

-Okay.

She walked back into the entryway and pulled a small package of peanut butter crackers out of a side pocket of her backpack.  She set the bag back down and started to walk away.  Then, she saw me watching her.  She gave me a funny look, and picked up the bag, taking it with her.  

-Uh, Helen, would you mind if I…

-Sure.

She opened the small package, pulled off two crackers, and handed them to me.  

-Thank you.

She smiled and started for the bedroom.

I ate the crackers slowly, letting each bite sit on my tongue until it turned moist and sweet.  I tried not to think about how long it had been since my last true meal.

It took me about five minutes to finish emptying out the cabinet.  I opened the fridge, but there was nothing except a half-pint of spoiled half-and-half.  I checked the sink- the water was still running.  That was good.  We had filled the bathtub yesterday just in case. 

Helen came back down the hall.  

-How is she?

-She ate.  She knew who I was.  She isn’t sick.

-A very clinical answer.  

-You can take the scientist out of the laboratory…

I laughed.  

-Well, I finished taking a food inventory.  We don’t have anything to eat, really.  

-Can I look?

-Sure.

She came into the kitchen and scanned the counter.

-You have a jar of flour.

-Yeah, but no butter, milk, or anything else.  We don’t even have sugar left.

-True, but you can eat flour.  Just put it in a little water.  

-Ew.  Isn’t that dangerous?

She thought about it for a second.

-You can get sick from raw flour, sure.  But it’s a small chance.  Whereas, if you don’t eat anything at all, you have a quite high chance of starving to death.  

-Fair point.  How much do you eat?

-You might find this hard to believe, but I’ve never studied the recommended daily allowances of raw flour.  I’d just eat as much as you need.  But don’t overdo it.  Just have a spoonful at a time, and then wait awhile.  It might take some time to get into your system, and you don’t have a lot of it.  

-We’re gonna have to go out eventually.  There’s probably still food at the store, but if we wait too long other people are gonna clear it out.  

-I agree.  That’s part of the reason I came down.

-You want to go together?

-No, uh, how should I put this?  I’m not sure you’d be tremendously helpful, if I’m being honest.

-That wasn’t it.

-Pardon?

-Whatever you were trying to say, that wasn’t how you should have put it.  

She missed the humor.

-Right, well, I think I remember that you and Amy go camping, and have camping supplies, right?

-Yeah.

-You mentioned a machete once.  Do you still have it?

-A machete? Yeah, we do, but why?

-In case somebody tries to infect me.  I’d rather have three feet of steel between me and them.  

-So your plan is to go shopping, and to chop up anybody who gets in your way?

She smiled.  

-Something like that.  

-Why not just find a gun?

-This is New York City.  Where do you expect I’d find a gun?

I shrugged.

-Besides, guns are loud, and I don’t want to attract attention.  Now, can I please borrow your machete?

I fetched it from the closet.

-I’m bringing a big backpack; I’ll grab you some supplies as well.  If it goes well I’ll make a bunch of trips while it’s light out.  

-Be careful.  

-I will.  That’s what this is for.

She brandished the weapon and struck a martial pose with it.

-I’ll be back.

The door closed.  

I went back into the kitchen, feeling a little sore at Helen’s lack of confidence.  Why didn’t she think I’d be helpful?  I mean, I’m not exactly the fighting sort, but I could at least have helped carry things back.  

I looked at the sad stacks of spices and teas.  Tea would be nice, at least it has flavor.  The gas had been off for three days, after a few explosions elsewhere in Jackson Heights.  I could put some tea in cold water and shake it around, it would be something to do.  

I heard creaking in the hallway, and went to look.  It was Amy.

-Hey!  You’re up!

-I couldn’t sleep.  There’s this cat screaming upstairs.

-Yeah, I heard him earlier.

-Where’s Helen?

-She went on a mission to get some food from the store.

-She did?!  Is that safe?

-Not really.  She borrowed our machete.

-Are you serious?  

-Yep.

There was a brief pause, and then she started laughing, shaking in her purple bathrobe.  It was contagious, and we both doubled over.

-I’m just imagining her like the tomb raider or something, cleaving her way through zombies and fetching the hidden treasures in the canned soup aisle.

-Do you want some cold tea?

-That sounds lovely.  

I made a second cup, using the cocktail shaker to steep it faster.  We sat in the living room near the window and clinked mugs.  The tea tasted bitter.

-Did she say when she’d be back?

-Soon.  She’s gonna make a bunch of trips.  

-I want to check on that cat upstairs.

Amy, we can’t.  It’s too dangerous.  

-If Helen can go to the supermarket, we can go up a flight of stairs.

-And kick through the door?

-I mean, maybe.

-That’s going to draw attention from anyone in earshot.  Also, she has our machete.  

She thought about that and frowned.

-Well, maybe when she gets back we can ask her.  

I doubted that level-headed Helen would be receptive to a “save the cat” mission, especially when food was already in short supply, but I figured it wasn’t worth the battle.

-Sure, sweetie, we’ll ask her.

-Is there any news?

-No, cable’s still down, so there’s no internet.  And NPR is running yesterday’s news on a loop.  

-That’s weird.

-Yeah.  Doesn’t sound great.  

We sat there in silence and nursed our tea.

-Helen should be back by now.  

-Maybe she took a load back to her place first.  She likes to be prepared.  

-Yeah, maybe.  

I pulled the curtains open and looked out on the street.  It was empty.  

-How long do you think this is going to last?

-I don’t want to guess.  I think we should just get as much food as we need for as long as we can.  They’ll probably have to send in the military or something to clean this up, and I’m guessing we’ll want to just be hunkered down at home until that happens.  

 

We finished our tea. There wasn’t much more to talk about.  I pulled a book off the shelf, some vampire story by Anne Rice, one of the newer ones. I was about twenty pages into it when Amy called from by the window.

-Uh, baby?  

-Yeah?

-Can you take a look at this?

I put a bookmark in and closed the novel, crossing the room to her.  She pointed out the window.

-Is that ours?

At first I didn’t see anything.  Then I saw a glint of light coming from the intersection, barely within view.  It was a machete on the ground.

-Oh, shit.

Amy took three fast, deep breaths and began to cry.  I was stunned.  

-What are we going to do?

I couldn’t think of any good response.  

-Do you think she maybe made it back inside?

-Probably not.  She wouldn’t have left her weapon.  

-Maybe she dropped it so she could run faster.

That sounded unlikely.

-Maybe.

We sat on the couch, holding each other.  I was staring at the wall, unable to will myself into action.  Amy curled into a ball next to me.  I listed for the cat, and didn’t hear it yelling anymore.  After a few minutes, I heard another noise.

-I think there’s someone in the hallway.

She didn’t respond.  I carefully disentangled myself from her body and walked to the door.  There was definitely somebody moving around on our floor. I opened the peephole.  

I could see the back of an unfamiliar head just five feet from our door.  I leaned into get a closer look, and made a dull thud as the door leaned forward in its frame.  The head turned around sharply, and I saw the rheumy eyes of a sick person.  

All at once, he lurched forward and started violently coughing toward the peephole.  I jumped back, grateful for the small piece of glass that had just saved me from certain infection.  I heard the sound of running in the hallway, and then the sounds of several more sick people coughing insistently at the closed door.  They pushed against it, but not hard, and it was bolted from the inside.

-What’s going on?

Amy was standing in the living room.  She looked concerned, and the concern turned to fear when she saw my face.

-Is that…?

-Yeah.  Let’s stay away from the door.

-Can they get in?

-I don’t think so.

The coughing didn’t stop, a wheezing, rasping series of explosive hacks separated from us by just a few slabs of plywood.  

The lights turned off, flickered on again, and then went out for good.

Amy walked up to me and enveloped me in her bathrobe, the purple terrycloth warm against the gooseflesh of my arms.

-I’m scared.

-Yeah, baby, I’m scared too.

 

Published in: on October 24, 2017 at 11:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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Splitting Hairs

Wherein I learn to pick my battles. 

Over the past several years, I have become increasingly aware of the system of oppression and enabling that is broadly called rape culture.  A few weeks ago, if you had asked me how many women I know have been either assaulted or harassed, I probably would have guessed almost all of them.

Then, this past week, the “me too” movement hit social media.  I was and am dumbstruck to read so many stories and testimonials about the horrible experiences inflicted on women I know, women I love.  I am absolutely disgusted that harassment and assault are so widespread, and am beginning to understand why some women are mistrustful of men as a default.

The movement has also caused me to be introspective in two ways.  First, and most difficult, is examining and acknowledging the ways in which I, as a male, have contributed directly to rape culture.  I know I have made thousands of jokes or joking remarks that were insensitive, offensive, and even potentially traumatizing if the listener has abuse in their past.  I have advanced stereotypes that serve to protect the status quo, and reinforce oppressive gender roles.

The second introspection has been focused on what I can do to help fix this pervasive cultural problem.  Frankly, social media has been shit help with this.  Almost every day, I see some well-meaning dude getting piled on for responding to “me too” by expressing sympathy, clicking “like,” clicking “sad face,” asking victims for advice on how to do better, or a wide range of other engagements.  I’m not saying the criticism those men are receiving is off-base, but it is daunting to observe, and makes it feel risky to engage at all.

There isn’t any truly good guidance on what men should do, leaving me to extrapolate from the negative space around tried and objectionable approaches.  I saw one article that was moderately helpful, and shared it, in the hope that other men might find it useful.  One of its major takeaways was that men need to learn to say “not cool,” and “that’s inappropriate” as a response to sexist or oppressive comments.  I know this is an area where I have been personally lacking, so I resolved to keep those responses at the ready going forward.

In a completely separate train of thought, I have been long neglecting to get my hair cut, so today, I finally set some time aside around lunch and made my way to the barber shop near my office.  This particular barber shop is inexpensive, plays reruns of How I Met Your Mother on a loop, and generally gets my hair cut moderately well in about fifteen minutes.

Today, however, I had a new barber.  He told me he’s been there for a few months, but we hadn’t yet crossed paths.  I gave him his marching orders- No. 2 buzz on the sides and back, short scissor cut on top- and he got started.

Now, in my experience, barbers come in two flavors: those that like to do their work in silence, and talkers.  Most of the barbers in this shop speak primarily Russian, which is fine by me, as they leave me to my thoughts.  This guy, however, was a talker.  While I tried to appreciate Ted’s shenanigans on the small screen in front of me, he asked about my job, where I live, how often I come, all that stuff.  Then, he stumbled on a topic we could both engage on to some degree, sports.

Specifically, we talked about the recent injury of my favorite quarterback, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who is likely  out for the season with a broken collar bone.

New Barber Guy told me that he used to play basketball, and had been injured lots of times.  He asked if I could guess what injury hurt the worst.  I shrugged.

“My pinky got fractured, man.  That was the worst.  I cried like a little bitch.”

My eyes widened: I had my moment.

“Not cool.”

“Huh?  What’s not cool?”

“That’s inappropriate.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Saying you cried like a little bitch.  You shouldn’t say that.”

“Why not?”

I had reached the end of my rote script, and had to improv.

“Uh, well, two reasons.  You shouldn’t call women bitches, and also, you should say that women are weak and cry and stuff.”

I was not being particularly articulate, and won’t clean it up for this recounting.  For context, though, the barber to whom I was speaking had about a foot of height and at least 75 pounds on me.  He was also doing the edges of my beard with a straight razor.

There was a long silence.

“I dunno, man,” he finally said.  He proceeded to continue cutting my hair in complete silence.  I felt uncomfortable, but a quick glance at my watch told me that there was only about five minutes of hair cutting left.

That assumption was wildly off-base.  Unnamed Barber Guy took forty-five more minutes- for a total of nearly an hour- cutting my hair in awkward silence.  He didn’t say another word throughout it. When it was done, he pulled off my apron, and then pulled down a small mirror to show me the back.

I thanked him, overtipped, and went back to the office, my entire lunch break now squandered.  Later in the afternoon, catching a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror, I noticed that the front of my hair is completely wrong- he left a big poof where no big poof is supposed to be.  I have decided this was probably on purpose.

My first reaction to this was to say “well, next time pick your battles, don’t fuck with the barber, particularly while he’s cutting your hair!”

But it occurs to me that the little bit of discomfort that caused me pales in comparison to the constant oppression that the women in my life are going through every day because we have normalized shitty behavior.  It’s going to be uncomfortable from time to time, but that’s really no excuse when silence is complicity.

So yeah, pick your battles.  I’m gonna try to pick all of them.

-AG

Published in: on October 18, 2017 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Technicolor

I’m still having a hard time believing this is real.  

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, I had a small but close-knit group of friends.  One of our favorite pastimes on evenings and weekends was to smoke copious amounts of pot.  I’m not particularly proud of that fact, nor am I ashamed of it; it was something we did, and we did in great abundance.  It was an escape, particularly well-suited to being a young adult in the sleepy confines of Lexington, Kentucky, a small city with an anemic nightlife and few opportunities for better entertainment.

On rare occasion, we would also try other drugs, but these were far and few between.  On a handful of occasions one of my friends procured sativa, which is a helluva drug.  We tried mushrooms once or twice, but they never did a damn thing for me, since I couldn’t keep them in my stomach.  I still remember the wretched taste, both going down and, inevitably, coming back up.

On two occasions, I had the chance to try LSD.  On one of those occasions- the first time, in fact- I had what I believed was a singular experience: I saw red.

As I have discussed previously in these pages, I have been colorblind since birth.  It’s not an eye thing, it’s a brain thing.  Something about that acid trip temporarily fixed it.  For the twelve hours or so that I was tripping, I could see red very distinctly from the gray/green it had always appeared to me.  It was a truly memorable experience.

It has been fifteen years since that time, and my life is much different.  I don’t smoke pot anymore.  That isn’t for any reason of moral judgment, or because I made some personal-responsibility choice to give it up: in the years between then and now, it started affecting me differently, and the high wasn’t fun anymore.  I gave it up entirely during law school for that reason, and don’t smoke today.  I also don’t use any other illicit drugs; as it turns out, the moderate consumption of alcohol gives me everything I need as far as altered consciousness goes.

This summer, a group of my friends planned a weekend getaway, and a few of them decided to trip some acid.  With an attitude of eh, why the hell not? I agreed to join them.  I paid my ten bucks, and got my hit of acid, this one somehow contained within a sugar cube.  As it turned out, I was sick that weekend- as were a few other attendees-, so I didn’t end up doing it.  I took it home instead.

Which brings my story, at long last, to Labor Day weekend.  By some miracle of oversight, I had not a thing planned for it, and decided I would give the acid hit a try.  I don’t want to spend this space glorifying drug use too much, but I will dutifully report that it was a worthwhile, very positive experience.  In particular- and this is what I want to tell you about- I could see red again.  And orange.  And purple.  And pink, brown, turquoise, copper, gold, lavender.  Everything.  It was brilliant.

Just as before, the high lasted about twelve hours, after which I promptly went to sleep.  When I woke up the next morning, the color still hadn’t faded, and didn’t throughout the day.  I figured it was a residual effect.

The following morning, as I had suspected, it was gone.  I woke up to my regular world of five colors, and took a long, hot shower.  I put my contact lenses in, and just then, I caught a flare of color in my peripheral vision.  I blinked heavily twice, and felt the colors rushing back into my perception.  It was back.

That was eleven days ago.  It hasn’t wavered since.

I am increasingly convinced that this is not a temporary phenomenon, and that my color vision is here to stay.  I took one of those color tests online, and aced it.  It appears that I can now distinguish colors just as the majority of people do.  It has been two weeks since that acid trip, and I don’t think this is the result of any lingering chemicals in my system.  I think the LSD fixed my color perception.

The few people with whom I have confided this story always want to know what it’s like to suddenly have enhanced color vision.  The best way I can describe it is that the world seems like those old movies and television shows, when technicolor was new and everything was super-saturated.  You can get used to it, and stop noticing it after awhile, but when it’s pointed out, you think “oh yeah, that is a bit odd…”

I would also like to observe, as a color-vision newbie, that orange is a ridiculous color.

I’m  heading to the Met tomorrow, to visit a dear friend and to see some of my favorite works of art with a newly-enhanced spectrum.  I anticipate a surreal experience.

A few hours of Google research revealed that this phenomenon has been frequently reported by people before, but there are no studies or research papers out there.  As LSD is not approved for any medical use, it has not been studied.  Most of the references are “I have a friend who…” or “some people have reported…”  I haven’t seen any good, solid firsthand accounts.  So I decided to write one.  Thanks for reading it.

~AG

Published in: on September 15, 2017 at 8:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Red Tie

The six month statute of limitations having passed, this is a story I wrote about a really great first date.  I’m changing the names, of course, so as not to be gauche.  The relationship didn’t pan out for a variety of reasons- I think we made it to date #4 before things petered out.  But the story remains, and was written at a time when I was twitterpated and happy, seeing everything through the lens of NRE.  It is also not a piece I wrote intending to publicly share, so it lays bare a lot of insecurity and awkwardness.  

The movie, in case you wonder, was La La Land.   Anyway, here’s the story: 

Somewhere on the bus between Main Street, Flushing and the corner of Bell and Northern, my tie snagged on the seat in front of me and ripped.  Not just any tie: a red and white tie with blue accents, these little diamond-patterned splashes of color that bent from light to dark, matching any shirt my colorblind eyes chose to pair with it on any given morning.  My favorite tie.

On any other day, that would have been cause for a momentary frown, and a mental note to buy a replacement favorite tie.  I would consider promoting from within, of course, but knowing the past performance of the various leading candidates, a Macy’s trip seemed likely.  

That day, though, that day it seemed more like an omen than a minor misfortune.  My favorite tie wasn’t supposed to be around my neck that day; that wasn’t its place in the rotation.  It had been pulled off the bench, substituted in for the heavy woolen plaid tie on deck, because that day was an occasion.  

I had a date.

As a poly guy active in the community, this shouldn’t have been a big deal.  I had, after all, one primary partner, and incidental relationships with at least a half dozen other girls in the past year.  Those interactions, mostly at parties, were light and fun.  Some were great.  Others, less so.  

Those interactions were like sips of champagne, all bubbles and sweetness.  By contrast, Kayla was like a top shelf whiskey, more substance and umami, seizing my attention and enveloping my palate.  

We met at a cocktail party, appropriately enough.  She came with one of my closest male friends, and he introduced us.  Within minutes, we began talking, pinching a conversation away from the circle of friends, like a cell dividing.  

Within an hour we were seated on adjacent couches, knees inches apart, talking about music and movies and god-knows-what.  Just making conversation.  She had a quick wit, and we fenced for awhile, each trying to make the other laugh with a clever retort or timely call-back.  She gave as good as she got.  

That conversation could have lasted for hours, but for my partner’s need to depart, desperate to escape a creepy man who was attempting to lure her into his tractor beam.  We exchanged information just as we parted.

We started chatting the next day on social media.  Within a dozen or so volleys, I managed to clumsily ask her to the movies.  Perhaps unsure if I intended it as a date, she offered to buy tickets, cleverly inquiring whether I would prefer one large pod for two, or individual seats.  

Over the next few days, we exchanged hundreds of messages.  It was interesting, getting to know a person in that level of detail even before we had properly met for a date.  She told me about her life, her career aspirations, her frustrations with living in the city.  Past relationships, favorite bands, travel goals: we talked about everything.  The conversations were easy and open.  We held up our shared anxieties and laughed about them, set them aside, pretended that they didn’t matter.  

Then, finally, the day of the date arrived.  A recent movie, well-reviewed, chosen in part for its soundtrack, and in part because it seemed like a good date movie, based on nothing more than the trailer.  I picked out my sharpest looking suit, and paired it with my favorite tie.  The tie that now had a fatal rip, and was on its last day of service.  

I left work early and caught a train.  I arrived at the bar she had chosen about twenty minutes ahead of her.  I put music on the jukebox.  Hand-picked tunes to lull the butterflies to sleep.  The bartender asked for my order.  I told her I was waiting.  I got chatty.  I talk when I’m nervous.  I told her it was a date.  She wondered aloud, every two minutes from that point, if I was being stood up.  I was pretty sure I wasn’t, but the commentary didn’t help.

Kayla arrived fashionable, and late.  I greeted her with a hug.  We nursed a couple of drinks over an hour and a half, just chatting.  I was glad to be with her.  She didn’t make eye contact when she was speaking, looking behind me and to her left.  Her eyes only connected with mine in little moments, bouncing on the recognition, flitting away.  

We walked to the theater, getting lost on the way.  We were the first ones in the auditorium.  Our seat was right in the front.  The seat had us fully recline, a table support between our knees.  I angled my upper body towards her, and then thought better of it; it was a first date, after all, no need to act desperate.  

We talked during the previews, judging each coming attraction, joking about the trailers.  The movie started.  Our commentary became less frequent, but more intimate, little whispered snippets of conversation into each other’s ears.  

I glanced at her periodically through the first half of the film.  The movie had her full attention.  Her arms were bare, but clothed in tattoos.  Joan Jett, the lyrics to a Smith Street Band song, a veritable playlist on her skin.  

I visualized leaning towards her, saying softly “May I kiss you?”  Once, I even mouthed the words to myself, waited for the right moment.  Right moments are elusive.  Compromising with my anxiety, I asked if we could scoot closer together, as I was feeling a chill in the theater, and she was closer than my jacket.  She obliged, taking my hand in hers.  We held hands for the rest of the movie. Her skin was soft.  Mine felt electric against it.  

It finished near midnight.  We both had to work the next morning, and set off for the train.  Along the way we passed a small park, then another.  I thought I saw a cat, pointed it out, knowing she loves animals.  It was a rat.  Not the mood I was intending.  I took her hand in mine again, we walked through the empty streets that way.  

There was a moment, just as we started to descend into the subway, where the perfect line came to me, but it was literally l’esprit de l’escalier, as she descended ahead of me.  “Hey, subway stations are so not romantic, so can I kiss you here before we go down?” a bolder me would have said.  

We parted with a quick, chaste peck that she initiated, texting minutes later an apology for the awkward kiss.  I was glad for that text; the closed-mouth, rushed kiss emboldened my insecurity to internally opine that perhaps she felt a lack of chemistry, and that was a literal kiss-off.  

There will be a second date, and perhaps more.  Perhaps I’ll even get a chance to see her other tattoos up close, test whether they shudder to life under the gentle glide of a fingertip.  

Next time, I will kiss her, probably the very moment we meet up.  Having tested my ability to overcome anxiety and found it wanting, I will prepare.  I might even get pre-clearance consent, if the moment presents itself.  

But that tie, man, that tie is just shot to hell.  It can’t be replaced, I checked, the line was discontinued.  A moment of silence, then, for a good tie that served me well, and gave its life in the pursuit of a romance that was, to be fair, very much worth pursuing.  

-AG

Published in: on August 28, 2017 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Baby Doesn’t Come to You; You Come to Baby

Parents should know better than to bring infant twins on a red-eye flight.  

Last week, I finished up a twelve-day visit to the West Coast.  It was my first time returning to my old stomping grounds since moving to New York over four years ago, and I really enjoyed catching up with old friends, making some new ones, and taking a break from the frenetic routine of life.

On the way home, Kelsey and I took the Sunday night/Monday morning red-eye.  The flight was thankfully direct, and I counted on getting at least a few hours of moderate-quality sleep to lessen the impact of jet lag.

As soon as we boarded, it became apparent that sleep would not be on the menu.  A couple seated in the row in front of us decided to bring their children.  Twins.  Infant twins.

Flying is, of course, not the most physically comfortable experience.  For one thing, it’s loud.  For another, air pressure changes make our ears pop, and can cause a great deal of pain.  Many of us have learned a few tricks- chewing gum, yawning, pounding on the side of one’s head with a rubber-coated hammer- to lessen the discomfort.  Experienced flyers know to expect it, and each of us deals with it in our own way.

Infants, on the other hand, have no way of understanding or coping with the experience.  Consequently, they often scream.  The trope about sitting next to a baby on a flight is so common it is almost cliche.

In our case, however, it wasn’t a baby.  It was two babies, probably under six months old, and they screamed throughout the entire overnight flight.  When one took a break, the other started.  The parents- who hardly seemed to notice, much less care- didn’t do a thing about it.

In a perfect world, vocal cords would be the last things to develop.  These kids were LOUD.  I wanted to ask the flight attendants if I could buy the kids a whiskey.  The earplugs provided by the airline didn’t make a dent in the piercing assault on my ears.  I didn’t sleep a wink.

Since that time, I have been mulling over this question: is it appropriate to bring infant children on a flight?  My immediate reaction was to say “no, hell no, and definitely not, especially on red-eyes.”  However, I could quite easily predict objections from parents of small children: there’s nothing they can do about the screaming; that’s just something babies do.  Red-eye flights are often the cheapest option, and it’s not easy for a family with young children to afford airfare.  Privileged people like me should shut the hell up, because we have literally no idea what it’s like living with small babies, and families with babies have just as much right to be on a flight as we do.

Having considered those predicted objections, and having spent a week thinking through both sides of this, I still strongly believe that babies should not be on airplanes, particularly on red-eyes, and most particularly, on the Sunday-to-Monday red-eyes.

Any flight spent in proximity to a screaming infant is miserable.  Baby screams have literally evolved to be upsetting for adults.  As bad as the experience is for the adjacent passengers, the flight is clearly much worse for the babies themselves.  They have no idea what is going on, and suddenly find themselves in a loud pressure chamber that pops their ears and makes their heads hurt. It is not only unfair to the other passengers, it is unfair to the babies.

By purchasing less-expensive tickets on an overnight flight, parents of infants are essentially economizing at the expense of every other passenger’s comfort.  Red-eye flights, particularly the ones landing on Monday morning, are frequented by people who have to be at work the next day.  There is an understanding that people will be sleeping: the lights are turned out, and each passenger is given an eye mask and earplugs.  It’s hard enough to reconcile oneself to sleeping fewer hours, at a lower quality, while on the plane.  Having screaming infants makes the experience downright miserable.

Of course, screaming infants are a part of society, and we are all accustomed to occasionally encountering them on public transit, at restaurants, or in any public places, really.  Airplanes are fundamentally different.  Other passengers are trapped; we can’t switch seats, we can’t get up and leave.  We are required to simply sit there and take it.  It is unbelievably selfish of parents to decide that the comfort of everyone else should be suborned to their own desire to fly with babies.

When extended families live out of town or even overseas, many parents feel compelled to travel.  I would propose a simple rule for those parents: for the first year of its life, Baby doesn’t come to you; you come to Baby.  If it is not possible or feasible for you to come to Baby, wait until the kid is at least old enough to have a rudimentary understanding of what flying is, so that the parents can communicate about the ear-popping and noise, and how to cope with them.  It won’t always work- there are plenty of instances of badly-behaved toddlers  and small children, as well- but those inconveniences pale in comparison to the anger and helplessness we feel in the presence of screaming infants.

If you absolutely must fly with your baby, do so on a daytime flight, not a red-eye.  Have a minimal amount of respect for your fellow passengers.

~AG

 

 

Published in: on May 27, 2017 at 11:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Independable

A short vignette about some people that I used to know. 

As the warm season finally arrives in the city, and in anticipation of beach trips to come, I am sharing a brief writing about the time I went to Coney Island on the Fourth of July with some close friends, to watch the hot dog eating contest, laze on the beach, and watch the fireworks.  For reasons unrelated to this piece, I am only still in touch with one of them, so this is, for me, a bittersweet memory of a time we spent together in the sunshine:

The first sense I had of the day- memory has a way of purging the diurnal tasks of waking, showering, coffee, and cat-petting- took place at the 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue subway platform.  As the train came to a stop, I was confronted by a sardine can of people, a metal vessel so crowded that when the doors slid open in front of me, masses of humanity expanded past the containment and onto the platform.  This motile cattle car was labeled “F,” which stood for “Fuck, I’ve gotta ride this thing?”

Against my sense of self-preservation and possibly in violation of elementary physics, I boarded the train.  Though it was a holiday, and this particular train ran between three boroughs to arrive at the most popular celebration spot in town, MTA did not think it appropriate to add trains, so limited holiday service created a quasi-Darwinian competitive transit environment, where the skinny and deft thrived and the overweight and elderly likely perished.  

We were on the train for approximately seven hours, by my reckoning.  Though there may be some tongue-in-cheek hyperbole there, it is accurate to report that the trip took significantly longer than usual, because at each stop we repeated the same ritual: doors opened, people spilled onto the platform.  They returned, squishing their way inside, as many many more people tried to add their humanity to the tin.  The conductor sternly warned about blocking the doors, people ignored him, after two or three minutes the doors finally closed, and we moved along.  

The crowd did not dissipate, not even a little, as it made its rounds.  When it finally arrived at its penultimate stop, the can burst, and fleshy blobs of pent-up skin and sweat flooded out of the train and onto the expansive platform, each exhaling the stale train air at once.  

We maneuvered with haste through the dazed crowd, finding our place of rendezvous.  It was fifteen minutes until the contest, and I would not be denied.  

We met our friends in waves. A familiar witticism about herding cats passed through my mind, but the thought-bubble popped before I could push the words out past my teeth.  The clothing theme of the day was strange hats, evidently.  And bathing suits, under dresses and casual wear.  

While the mass of our friends- strangely disinterested by the prospect of watching adults frantically consume phallic meat alloy- made for the sand, Ashley and I pushed and elbowed our way to a view of the stage.  The women competed first, with the winner promptly barfing all over the announcer, and her own clothing.  The men approached the contest with unbelievable intensity and focus, and the winner set a new record, another in his longstanding streak of wins.  There was much merriment.  

I got hungry.

We found our friends, now perched in the sand.  Each wore a strange hat, and varying sizes of sunglasses.  It was Hot.  We had a beach umbrella, but the wind off the ocean was preventing it from holding a position blocking the sun, so it sat there, useless, an empty gesture of passive resistance to the blazing sunshine.  

Along with my friend Nate, I went off in search of phallic meat alloys of our own, having taken the orders of our other four friends.  One might think that after watching adult humans literally engorge themselves on these unnatural creations to the point of exhaustion or expulsion, the crowd might consider a different dining option.  One would be wrong about that.  The line took over an hour.  

By the time we returned to the sands with our bounty of alleged meat, the beach was getting crowded.  Now, this was Coney Island, so “crowded” is a relative term.  This was the beach equivalent of the F train, too many souls competing for sandy real estate.  

Swimwear at a New York beach, particularly this particular beach, serves no apparent function.  Though the material and design anticipates swimming, no beachgoer with even a minimal sense of self-preservation would ever consider swimming in the water.  It is dirty, polluted, and freezing cold, even in July.  The beachwear has served its function as long as it permits ankle-depth immersion by walking along the shoreline, running sharply inward when a wave pushes the water up into the sand.

It was greatly amusing to watch the towel-and-umbrella camps set up closest to the water.  I imagined the special snowflakes who built these camps were surprised that so much prime real estate was available to them, especially with the beach so crowded.  I further imagine their moment of recognition, when the fast-encroaching tides pushed the water up past their towel lines, causing them to hurriedly pack up and head for higher ground.  Finally, I imagined the poor souls who were swimming- like, actually swimming in the water- with their low-lying camps unattended as the tide came in, in one case causing plastic beach chairs to be pulled out to sea.  

As for us, we left one person as a sentry to hold our spot, while the rest wandered down to the shore, dodging the incoming waves and putting just our feet into the cold water and the sinking, moist sands.  We posed for the obligatory social media pictures, learning once again that when crowds gather, cellphone reception flounders.  

After a time, we meandered back to our little camp.  The umbrella was just then providing a perfect shade over a portion of the blanket, just as a broken clock is right, twice a day.  I laid down, feeling lazy and sated, feeling the sand squishing between my toes, the glare of the hot sun reflecting and refracting off countless surfaces on the crowded beach.  The ladies re-applied sunscreen, a ritual that took the better part of fifteen minutes and required carefully administered assistance from the gentlemen, and each other.  

We sat there on the sands, reading and talking in turn, until the sun began to set.  Just moments after it winked out on the western horizon, the fireworks started, announced with a few small explosions and then picking up the tempo into a choreographed dance of light and sound.  

There is a still frame, at that moment, a sharp memory of being present as the sky was ribboned in light, the calm sea blowing cold and uneven gusts of wind, and all around me, friendly faces, eyes turned upward, feet sinking into the sand.  We stood there, as though in formation, watching the show and feeling the shared delight of the holiday.

Four year later, after the vicissitudes of fate and choice had torn our group apart, one of the last relics I keep from that era of my life is that moment, etched in my mind as though carved into obsidian.  

-AG

Published in: on May 4, 2017 at 8:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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