Thursday, August 12, 2010

This memory came to me while I was reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy on the plane back to New York

When I was in middle school, I had a habit of turning tests in very early. On some days, I'd finish within the first 20 minutes of a 45-minute class period. I never felt that I was rushing. I just took the test as it was, systematically answering questions as I knew them and skipping them if I didn't. Although I don't really remember ever skipping any questions.

One day in my 7th grade Life Science class, I shuffled up to the front of the room to hand my completed exam to Ms. Poliner. Most of my classmates were only turning to the second page, it seemed.

"You're done?" she asked, impressed (I projected) but incredulous.

"Yeah," I answered softly, wondering whether or not to start doubting my answers. I looked at her briefly. "What should I do until class is over?" I asked, not wanting to sit idly about or do something that wasn't expected of me.

"Well, you can start working on your chapter 12 homework assignment, I guess. Or you can just sit and ponder the expanse of the universe," she mused. She was the type of teacher to suggest these things to seventh graders, knowing full well that most of them would rather be hiding behind giggles at the mall, or playing video games in a room far away from their parents.

I nodded, and returned to my seat. What followed was the first existential crisis I remember having.

I reclined in my chair and began to picture what an infinite expanse of space might look like, what it might mean to be outside that expanse of space, or to traverse it. I wondered, knowing that there wasn't a higher power in the universe, how something might have come of nothing.

I looked around the science lab uneasily. Most of my classmates were still working on the test; some were going over their answers.

Should I have done that? I felt guilty for a moment.

Returning to my thoughts, I closed my eyes and breathed in the darkness. Suddenly very disoriented, I put my head down on my desk.

I shivered, opened my eyes, and took out my textbook. Methodically, I turned the pages to the introduction of Chapter 12.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Writing (the first of many related posts I'm sure)

It's taken me three days to write one sentence. And no, not this sentence (and by that I mean the previous one), but the opening sentence to a white paper I'm writing at work. I've been struggling with its composition, tone, and message. I've looked to other papers for ideas. I've deleted nearly ten drafts of it. And, for the sake of full disclosure, as of this moment I still have not completed the sentence in question.

I find myself questioning the decision to take this job quite often - usually around 4:00 in the afternoon on weekdays, as the late-fall sun sets over Chelsea and my caffeine levels drop - and it wasn't until just moments ago that I was able to understand both the reason and the answer. The source of my frustration is actually the reason I know I'm learning: it's taken me three days to write one sentence.

I don't write about software or business continuity - or about most of my job for that matter - because I enjoy these things specifically, but because the process of writing itself gives me a thrill. I'm a certified control-freak, and the idea that I get to represent any part of our world in permanent ink gives me a (probably unhealthy) amount of satisfaction. (And as I write that, I ask whether I might be refering to the physical permanence of print media or the digital permanence of the internet.)

Our control of language is just as exciting as the control that languages exert over us. In writing, I routinely confront (either accepting or overcoming) the limitations that our languages place on the expression of thought and experience. And I learn new languages to see what limitations change accross borders of translation. I can't translate awkward out of English, but I can't translate unheimlich out of German either. I like that there are limits, and that some words or constructions have more of an effect than others.

When reading Strunk and White curtly dismiss the use of "utilize" in The Elements of Style, I smile. I've never liked that word. And when reading their criticism of my common errors, I quietly judge myself, take note, and do my best to remember them next time I'm crafting a sentence.

And while the art of writing is certainly a craft, it's not a craft that should (or can?) ever be entirely mastered. I don't think we'll ever run out of experiences to represent on paper - or on iphone screens for that matter - and humans are (thankfully) prone to errors.

What are some of my errors? Overusing parentheses. And writing this post instead of that one sentence.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

If you give a mouse a cookie

This year, I'll be spending Christmas without my family for the first time. When I initially made the decision to stay in the city, I embraced the opportunity as a way to confirm my newfound, recent-graduate independence. My brother could easily shake off family Christmas traditions, so why couldn't I?

But, as I started to make plans for a celebration among friends in New York City, I took a moment to consider if I might be missing out on anything. Santa's been out of the picture for a while - it was a snowmobile accident, I was told - , and, as a child of divorce, I haven't spent a Christmas with all members of my immediate family since the early 2000s. I've celebrated the holidays with my uncle's family in Germany a couple of times, and those have certainly been the most memorable in recent years, but I haven't been there enough to consider it tradition. So, I decided, I wasn't really missing out on anything by celebrating in Manhattan. I'll fly to California in February, I thought, and spend time with my family when the flights are cheaper.

But then it hit me, as I was perusing my recipe binder two days before Thanksgiving. The one tradition that's actually been passed down through several generations in my mother's family: the plaetzchen. These German Christmas cookies - and yes, they actually have a separate word for them - are a staple of the advent season. They are generally baked in November, in massive quantities, by wholesome German families gathered together around the fire, drinking mulled wine, and singing O Tanenbaum in perfect harmony. Ok, well maybe they don't always sing, but my 28 year old cousin and his wife
did drive over two hours to my uncle's house this year just to engage in the ritual.

Since I can first remember, my uncle has sent my mother (and thereby me and my brother) a tin of these homemade cookies every year at Christmastime. We generally devour them within hours, while opening our presents by the tree. By the time we get to them, they're usually broken and crumb-y from the long haul over the Atlantic, but that doesn't stop us from fighting over the last bits of our favorite ones (they're dipped in chocolate).

The recipes are so important to my uncle that he's even spent time teaching me how to bake the cookies during my visits to his house in the summer. My cousins had a difficult time understanding the smell of Christmas in July, but we assured them it was all in the name of family tradition. Yes, you're confused, I'm encroaching on your memories . . . have a cookie?

But this year, as I was preparing for the first of the great holiday meals, it dawned on me that I would not be able to savor even one almond-y, chocolate-y Spritzgebaeck cookie on Christmas Eve without flying to San Diego first. My heart sank at the first thought of it. I quickly abandoned the idea of baking my own when I remembered that I don't even have half of the proper equipment to press out the cookie form, and I knew better than to ask my mom to send me some of hers.

So, after much deliberation, I cast aside my long-standing fear of stern German men and sent my uncle a plaintive email, expounding on my love for his cookies and my need to feel at least some family connection at Christmas this year. For some reason, I was expecting a curt response - again, I inexplicably fear the silent wrath of older Germans -, and resigned myself to a plaetzchen-less holiday season.

But, my loving uncle has hinted that he might, in fact, be sending me my own tin of cookies his year. Christmas will remain a plaetzchen-ful occasion. Huzzah! And my happiness is once again secured through food.

Now, if I can only find a Chrismukkah bush and that gospel copy of the Messiah...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mitigating Distraction

I leave my apartment this morning in a hurry, my hair still warm from the blow dryer. Reaching into my bag to check for my keys and phone, I say a quick goodbye to my roommate as I run out the door. Instinctivly, I reach for the buds of my iPod headphones, and select the morning's first song as I make my way down the stairs. I've recently discovered that Led Zeppelin made some surprisingly good walking music.

As I shuffle down the street towards the subway entrance, my hearbeat quickens. I up my pace and glance at the streetlights to make sure I don't cross Clinton on red. I pass teenagers walking to school, mothers taking their children to day-care, shopkeepers waiting for their first customers, and locals chatting on streetcorners, outside of bodegas. I don't actually look at any of them this morning, but I know they're there.

I'm about to break a sweat as I fumble for my metrocard at the Delancy Essex platform of the JMZ. Fighting the crowd coming from the recently departed J, I hop down the stairs to the F train. Though my iPod is blasting an electronic beat in my ears, I hear the familiar sound of the cars approaching, and walk as quickly as I can towards the tracks. In the moments it takes for the train to come to a full stop, I pause for a sartorial examination of the passenger waiting next to me. And as we stand clear of the closing doors, I realize she's the first person I've actually taken notice of since leaving the apartment.

What am I doing, listening to my music all the time? Am I blocking myself off from some part of the world? I don't know what I'd do without it, to say the least. I recently spent time crafting a new iTunes playlist, exclusively for the purpose of commuting, and have been addicted to it since. I can't describe its contents, as it varies from Miley Cirus and Daft Punk to Otis Redding and the Notorious B.I.G. I do know, however, that the songs keep me moving.

So as I'm standing in the F train on the way to our next stop, it hits me. I don't listen to music to distract me from the nasty, brutish and overwhelming energy of the city. I listen to music to prevent myself from getting distracted by it. Because I'm not just an ordinary space cadet. I'm the captain of my own fleet.

When I'm walking in New York, I'm painfully susceptible to wandering, both mental and physical. But by listening to targeted music, I remind myself that I'm going somewhere, and that I need to be there soon. When I'm just walking for fun, I go soundtrack-free, and when I forget my iPod, getting where I need to be - on time - is difficult. I simply think too much to let myself function.

My natural state seems to be distraction, and I'm slowly coming to terms with that. The most difficult project I'm facing at the moment is learning how to sit at my cubicle desk for 8 hours straight without working myself into a fit of existential anxiety at the end of each workday. My bosses are happy with what I'm writing for them, but I spend about half of my day reading anything and everything online, planning the next two years of my life, and contemplating the components of a meaningful existence. So yeah, still working on that whole taking-control-of-my-mind thing...

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I've always known Thanksgiving to be one of the quietest days of the year. In high school, I remember riding my bike down to my father's house after eating with my mom, and counting only three cars on the entire (and otherwise busy) two mile ride down to his neighborhood. It was a silence I would have described as eerie, had I not known the circumstances. I considered the empty road, and smiled. It made me happy to know that the holiday was capable of slowing people down, if only for a day. But it also made me feel guilty, somehow, as if I had left the shelter of my home as a voyeuristic child, illicitly seeking the sights of the mid-day ghost town. The street was reserved only for cars taking last-minute shoppers to buy more wine, or rolls.

"You're not supposed to be out here," the silence seemed to tell me, "go back to your family, take a nap, eat more."
"My parents are divorced," I wanted to reply, as I pedaled faster down the hill.

I didn't think of that moment again until last Thanksgiving in New York, as I stepped out of my dorm with my roommate, to buy a roasting pan for our Turkey. We had gathered a modest crew of Californians and international students for the big day, and had plans to cook the entire meal in our suite.

Walking out of our building, I was struck by the silence of 114th street. The block, which I was fortunate enough to call home for three years, was otherwise populated by overbooked Columbia students, fraternity boys, delivery trucks, and ambulances. It was only when living on the 12th floor of the adjacent building three years earlier that I had been immune to the noise. On this morning, the roar of New York city had been reduced to a whisper, as if the only sounds being made were unintentional. I had rarely ever felt so calm so close to campus.

My roommate and I enjoyed the seemingly empty streets, not only on that Thursday, but for the rest of the weekend as well. We attributed the peace to the exodus of college students to their homes in the suburbs, and not to the holiday itself. For the first time in my undergraduate career (the only other was to be during spring break of that same year), I felt like I had time. With classes on break, and my social world out of town, I was free to spend three entire days with my roommate, working in the library, going to the gym, and watching TV. We were incredibly productive, and not only academically. We finished over ten movies, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If I had tried doing that at any other time during the semester, I might have had a panic attack.

But none of this was the reason I thought to write today. What was more striking than that bike ride, and the stillness on campus last fall, was my trip to the bus this morning. I woke up earlier than usual to finish packing my suitcase (and to watch an episode of 30 Rock) before deciding to take a cab to Chelsea, where the Bolt Bus was temporarily picking up passengers. And after carrying my bags down four flights of stairs, I exited the cage of 85 Pitt St. not to find the usual cast of characters chatting or drinking Colt 45's next to the stoop, but to an almost empty block, save one woman crossing the street nearly 20 feet away. Now I know the Lower East Side tends not to wake up early, but at 8am on a weekday, I expect to hear some noise. My roommate complains about the construction and yelling that starts at 6 every morning, and I'm never surprised to hear the newest Reggaeton beats blasting through our window from the cars passing below.

As I walked down Rivington this morning, I could have sworn I heard the trees move. The trees. In New York.

I was worried that I wouldn't be able to find a cab (a silly thought in retrospect, as the Thanksgiving stillness actually increased the ratio of pedestrians to cabs to nearly 1:1), so I rushed down to Clinton St., dragging my suitcase and bag of Trader Joe's groceries with me. I had a taxi within seconds, though, and was soon making my way across the island. As we continued on Houston, I couldn't help but stare out of the car windows at the near-empty streets. I had never seen Lower Manhattan so deserted in the daylight, and suddenly noticed buildings I'd never thought to look at before. Heading into Chelsea, the expanse of 8th avenue, a straight and massive road leading all the way up to Central Park, stood out to me in an entirely new way. The sudden halt in skyscrapers at the park entrance actually looked like the edge of the world. The city had managed to slow down, and I once again felt an odd guilt for watching it.

I'm on the bus right now, heading down to D.C. for the weekend. Most of my fellow passengers are asleep, in keeping with the day's quiet character. I didn't think about it until just now, but I think the calm I'm so attracted to on Thanksgiving is the same calm I find when I travel. In both, time comes as close as it can to standing still. Of course, nothing really changes. But sitting on a bus or a plane forces you to stop for a moment, just in the way that tryptophan forces you to stay at home, and off the streets for just one day.