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Archive for June, 2012

Kelly

It’s a beautiful Friday evening here in Ithaca–temperate, breezy-green, calm. The air finally cooled down after a sweltering couple of days, and I’m hoping the forecast is right in predicting a week of cool weather and even showers. I felt like I was trying to sleep in some stranger’s hot armpit. Not sleep-friendly without air conditioning.

Tonight, on a friend’s recommendation, I strolled around the corner to check out a place called Felicia’s. Cute spot, with a live Old Tyme band playing inside, and folks milling on the sidewalks. They serve reasonably priced creative cocktails, $2 hot dogs with homemade ketchup, and pizzas assembled from local garden ingredients. I ordered something with caraway, vodka, and grapefruit juice–not exactly awful, but tasted a bit like dumping rye bread and a grapefruit in a blender. (I think green cardamom would have worked better.) Supposedly Felicia’s is “the lesbian bar” in town, but all I could see were hippies and beatniks and scruffy, middle-aged locals dancing their own varied jigs to the washboard and standup bass. Boulder, Santa Cruz, Ashland, Ithaca: Is there some kind of Ameri-pass circuit I don’t know about?

At any rate, I wedged into a bar stool and promptly had to text my restaurant-recommending friend, so as to sketch my neighbor to the right. He was sporting: long hair; a bright red ball cap with a $ sign on the front; thick prescription glasses with wacky banana-yellow frames; and a speckled chihuahua peeking out of a shoulder bag. (Text version abbreviated.) When I asked how the dog got to hang in restaurants, he explained, “Oh, I’m crazy, so he’s magic!” Somehow that made sense.

Kelly and I talked for the next ninety minutes. Or he mostly talked and I asked questions. Like me, he was returning to Ithaca after some time, “to regroup,” he said. But as his story unfolded I got the sense that regrouping was kind of an ongoing and layered process for Kelly. Most recently he’d been in New York City for six months, helping an old friend “start a business”–until the friend turned out to be a hard-core meth addict and went ballistic on him one day. Kelly barely made it out of the city with $6 and the dog, thanks to a friend who bought him a bus ticket to Ithaca to stay with her. He was hoping the friend would get clean and apologize. Before that fiasco he’d lived in San Francisco for almost a decade, working for an Internet company until it was bought out by Amazon and he got laid off. He made reference to mental illness (information conveyed in my first impression anyway), but didn’t get into details. It was clear that he was smart and articulate. He’d gone to Cornell, studied writing, lived a relatively functional existence for awhile. He’d been in rehab once, for alcohol. “But, like, my low was the softest low in the group. I went in because I once blacked out and peed the bed.”

His life, he said, was nothing like he thought it would turn out. “Like, I thought I’d be…you know, a little more stable, a little more…like an adult by the time I was forty.” Last week, though, the contents of the storage locker he had in San Francisco had been auctioned. “I had no choice but to let it go. I didn’t have the money! So literally now all I have to my name is what I carried with me when I got out of New York. Talk about tabula rasa. I’m working for a catering business–which is ok, but I mean…And I’m afraid to even ask the universe what’s next! After some of the stuff I’ve been through, I don’t think I even want to know.” (If you haven’t detected, Kelly was, in fact, the Gay in Gay Bar.)

I asked him what he wanted if he could have it. He wasn’t sure. He’d always liked writing, and been good at it, considered himself (with an embarrassed shrug) a writer. I brainstormed with him a little about maybe offering editing services to local college students. He brightened at the suggestions, thanked me, apologized for “talking about my whole story this whole time,” asked what I did. Then somehow we got on the subject of George Jones, and mid-sentence (my sentence) he suddenly ran off to get some tobacco at some shop nearby. I waited a few minutes and paid my bill, went back to my place. The bartender said she’d hold his seat. I figured I’d probably see him again.

Kelly obviously has some issues. But still. I remember that lost feeling, not that long ago and sometimes now, here and there. It’s strange to find myself on the other side in that conversation, the side of “success” and adulthood, relative stability, a career with a title. But there is no denying that I am on that side, even if sometimes I’ve felt like I was clawing my way there on my belly. I feel just barely there now. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve had resources–family support, basic self-esteem, the ability to stay focused, no major addictions–and having those resources has so much to do with dumb luck. I work hard, but I’m lucky. I could have been less lucky, more lost, much more lost. So easily.

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T.Y.L.

When I was in high school, my friends and I fancied ourselves masters of a sarcastic parlance only we fully understood. We coded our language in opposites, like “yeah right, this bikini makes me look real skinny,” when we meant “totally fat, just look at the cellulite on my thighs, you guys!” A lot of it was inflection: “I like your dad, he’s real niii-hice” could mean “you know, your dad’s a real bible-thumping dick” (which is what it usually meant with my dad). Anyway, one of our favorites was “TYL,” which meant “Ten Years Later,” or, translated into Newport Beach teen talk, “you couldn’t possibly be taking longer if David Bowie was about to make out with you, ya big loser.”

So, I know, TYL since my last post. So sue me, I was trying to keep my job and finish some stuff. Still trying, never finished.

Also: TYL since I was living in Ithaca, New York. Or, to be precise: eleven years since I last arrived in this town, nine since I left. Which is weirdly unbelievable, in the way that the movement of time itself becomes hard to believe as you move from definitely young to middle-er age.* So much has happened in the intervening years, and yet (can’t see a way around the cliché here) when I get back here it really seems like just the other day that I left.

I actually remember the day I left, in May 2003. I had hauled my Penske truck up to campus and parked it outside the building, White Hall, that housed “my” office. Loaded the truck up with boxes of books and papers that had probably doubled in the time I was doing my post-doc, and then sat on this bench and said a prayerful goodbye and thank you to the place and the opportunity.

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Rock of ages.

It was one of those rare moments when you actually have a sense of the significance of something. My 2-year paid post-doc at Cornell was, I remember thinking on that bench, like having been invited to live in a distant, rich uncle’s castle, where you got to live in luxurious surroundings and no one paid you much heed. You had the run of the place and it was freedom and comfort and once-in-a-lifetime. I swam in the quarries, drank the wine, ate the food, slept in (and worked a lot), was lonely some, learned to cook, made friends, fumbled my way through the aftermath of September 11th, trying to figure out what it meant to be an American and a citizen of the world, and an academic. It certainly hadn’t been stress-free, but it was for sure one of the best things in my life up to that point. I knew it had been profound. When I set off back for Denver, I had no idea how/whether the next chapter would come into focus (in fact, it turned out to be a total dark-night-of-the-soul year).

Who would have thought that 9 years later almost to the week I’d be returning for a paid, 6-week course in the famous summer School of Criticism and Theory, where I’d get to be a student–which, by now, had become a tremendous, rare relief. That I would have traded in the Honda I bought in Ithaca for, finally, a new one and come back to campus tenured, with a fair amount under my belt and a pretty damn happy life in Denver. Lots of ups and downs in between, you all know, but over time, it turned out, I was building a life.

Yesterday I saw the campus again for the first time. I felt as awed as when I first visited at the beauty and bounty of this Ivy League outpost, and surprised by my own much greater confidence, weatheredness, humility, fragility/strength. I had to set up the self-timer when I saw the bench, because capturing these moments seems much more urgent now:

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I age much faster than rock.

Even waiting for that image to upload I think, it’s not that it’s more urgent all the time, to capture the moment, because there’s no possible way when you’re in the middle of your 80 m.p.h. life that you can. That’s why this blog has been TYL for four years (and maybe also because I’m still a big loser). I couldn’t always capture it while I was trying to do the million things on time/in time. But in those fleeting moments when I catch my breath it seems critical to get it down somehow. Because I am 10 years younger now than I will be in a decade! Because time is flying by and I am a forty-four year-old person on this planet already, and I was thirty-three just a second ago, and my eighteen year-old students did not seem that much younger than me then, but now they really do. I actually texted one of my first students, with whom I am still vaguely in touch, yesterday, to tell him I was revisiting campus, and he replied that he’d just done the same thing. Sometimes you have to go back, see what’s happened, and even if it’s good and really good it will freak you the hell out and simultaneously inspire a good kind of stillness inside you.

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Waterfall falling, right THEN.

Anyway, no way to capture all of the existential profundity I’m feeling in pictures or words. Meanwhile, life goes on: Paco, who was with me 10 years ago and 1 week ago is missing back in Denver, and I’m worried. He has been a tremendous comfort to me for a dozen years, and yet I know that all this ends in ways we can’t always control. And emails have to be written, and books read, and things finished, and dishes done. And it does really come down to this moment, and are we paying attention, because in just a split sec it’s going to be TYL?

* I once shot an oral history of my maternal grandmother on videotape. One of the few things I distinctly remember her talking about is how time moves differently with each decade. “When you’re fifteen,” she told me, “you think sixteen will NEVER come. But when you’re 20, time starts moving faster. When you’re 30, a year goes by before you realize it. When you’re sixty, a whole decade goes by in the blink of an eye.” She laughed, but she was clearly, visibly, stunned by this.

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