Saturday, April 21, 2018

Direction Unclear

I lack direction.

Well, in addition to that, I mean I lack a sense of direction. I have been known to make four right turns and be utterly mystified that I came back to where I was. So negotiating a new place takes practice.

In New York, this is how I leave a subway or a building: I walk outside and strain to see the next street sign over. If I’m at 15th Street, and I can see 16th, I know that way is uptown. I am oriented! If I’m looking for an avenue, that’s harder because they’re longer and you can’t see the next one. So you look for the next street, aim yourself uptown, and then you know the avenues on your right and left. Unless you’re at Broadway, which runs diagonally. Or the avenues which suddenly give up numbers and become Madison, Park, and Lexington. Or Lexington, Madison, then Park? I scramble them every single time.

Invariably, I end up walking the wrong way and asking a stranger which way is Fifth.

Ah, but on the subway, I know my connections! I see a map in my head. That’s ON the subway. IN the subway station is a whole other story. Getting out of a station or transferring to another subway line within a station is a true challenge. Yes, after a while, you get the routine movements down, but a new station is always a new puzzle.

I couldn’t get from the F train to the 6 train until I found a man at an elevator with a little sign on it that said “To 6 platform.” When I got to the platform, other people were arriving, but I have no idea how they got there. I’ve looked and looked, but as far as I know, the elevator is the only way. But that can’t be true.

Some station arrows make it easy. Go up the stairs to the left or right.

But there are arrows that make it confusing. Does this mean you should turn around for the elevator? Or straight ahead and turn right? (Or jump up and down?)

Arrows combined with environmental cues (like stairs) are easier.

I think this one means “go around the big elevator box in the middle of the platform.” But that may explain why I could never find the 6 without the elevator.

Arrows without environmental cues are confusing. This next is the Big One, the source of much subway misdirection: Does this arrow mean up or straight ahead?
I have come across tourists looking for the stairs up where there are none. I have missed going up because I was aiming for straight ahead. The problem is the “up” and “straight ahead” arrows are identical. I propose a solution:

The longer ones mean “Go far ahead, into the distance.” They could even be grayed out as they stretch further ahead. What do you think? Will this work?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Bra Ladies

When I was a teenager, my mother used to take me to Dora Myers Corsetry to buy bras, and I HATED IT. Old ladies with glasses strung on beaded chains would poke and prod at me, and – did I mention I HATED IT? Why couldn’t we just go to Macy’s like all the other girls?

But now I’m in my Third Third … and I travel 4,000 miles to buy my bras at Mary Corsetieres on Long Island. I line up with all the other women who are outside on a cold New York day waiting for Mary to open up at 11 a.m. Yes, I’ve come the furthest, but there are women there from Manhattan, from Massachusetts, from Connecticut. We enter and sign in, and we are prepared to wait several hours. Unless you’re not and you’re new, and then you are horrified by the “terrible customer service,” but we Mary regulars know better.

Because once you’ve been fitted at Mary’s, you can’t go anywhere else.

The fitters at Mary’s – my sisters and I call them the “Bra Ladies” – can just look at you and say things like, “Now you’re a 36 F … in your left breast. So we’ll have to go up for that but adjust it for the right breast.” And this is what distinguishes them, this is why we return like salmon to our spawning grounds: they alter the bras right there, on their sewing machines!
They add a dart here, a line of stitching there. If those straps are uncomfortable, put in different ones. If you’re between sizes, let them take it in and make it a size just for you. The bottom line: you leave with a bra – or three or four because when will you be back? – that fits you and only you perfectly.

Now that I’m in my Third Third, I know the value of that.

I’m sending my Aunt Evelyn there because she needs to have front closure bras. I asked the fitter about that, and she said they can make ANY bra into a front closure for her. Women came with the dresses for their daughters’ weddings so they could get the bra first and have the dress fitted after, only with the right bra.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of my Bra Lady because I was too scrambled remembering the names of my bras, Anita and Freya and Dominique. But as she ran up and downstairs searching out bras for me to try, I eavesdropped on the conversations in the other fitting rooms.

Have we made it all the way into our Third Thirds to be so utterly embarrassed by, ashamed of, and angry at our bodies? Every woman didn’t like her flab or her fat, her breasts or her butt. They didn’t like the sag or the slump, the blob or the bumps, the skin or the hair. Hearing that cacophony of disgust and self-loathing was enough to shut my mouth tight (although I’ve been known to say the same things).

One of my other New York adventures was an exhibit at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology on “The Body: Fashion and Physique.” The exhibit focused on the lack of diversity in and the deception of fashion advertising. A video showed a live shoot with a live model … and then the photo manipulation afterwards – lengthening her thighs, narrowing her waist, lifting her breasts – that would be impossible for a real human’s anatomy to match.

Mary should show that video to all her customers. Through it all, the Bra Ladies were consoling but tough New York psychologists: “You’re 60; you want to not be 60?” “They’re called thighs. They hold you up.” “This is the size you are; you want to be happy in a bra or miserable in one?” And then they would provide a bra that held and supported and made someone look and feel great. And women left restored.

Who wouldn’t travel 4,000 miles for that? I even went home with a swimsuit.

But just in case, Mary’s has my whole bra history – with size, style, and altering notes – on file. If I’m desperate, I can order by mail.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Go Signs

A few days ago, my sister and I were on Long Island at longtime family friend (my mother’s best friend) Gloria’s for dinner. Her daughter, Linda, described how she took a particular course of action because she’d had three signs. You know, SIGNS. Like the universe telling you this is what you should be doing.

So let me tell you about my Signs.

Several years ago, I became enthralled with the notion of transparent art. Something on transparent pages that would say different things depending on what you could or couldn’t see. I couldn’t figure it out. It’s very complicated because, of course, you can see through the pages.

I read Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. A young man commits suicide in the bookstore and leaves his suicide note in clues in a series of books. He cuts out the words in one book, leaving windows. When placed up against the pages of a companion book, the windows expose the words which become his suicide note.
My Bricolage group challenge for last month was “Postcard.” Do anything with postcards: make one, collage one, send one, whatever. That’s how our art challenges work. I look at the postcards I’d sent my mother over the years – which I now have after her death – and they seem to me messages from not only place, but time.

The next email I receive is from the New York Public Library about their 2018 series, NYPL LIVE. Billy Collins, the poet, is a speaker when I’ll be in Manhattan. I buy a ticket.

Suddenly, Billy Collins’ poem, “Forgetfulness,” rises to my consciousness yet again. I’ve mentioned it a few times here because it’s so age-appropriate for us, but now you need to see these first verses:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
And they seem to me to be messages from another time, from other places – postcards to ourselves in the present.

So I take the poem and cut it up. I buy some clear, plastic envelopes and cut them into postcard sizes. I glue the words down to send these messages from the past, from someone who’s gone and retired far away. This is the first postcard I’d send:

And then this:

And then this:

And after eight postcards – all with messages like this – you would have this:

Isn’t that exciting! All the Signs led me to this art project and it worked, so of course I have to show it to Billy Collins. I get to the library very early; I am the first in line. I get a good seat.

Billy Collins is a relaxed, humorous, self-deprecating sort of conversationalist. I thoroughly enjoy myself. Afterwards, I am right in front on his signing line, and I show him my creation. He looks at me, thanks me, is glad to inspire, and then he looks at the 75 people waiting in line and has to usher me away.

I leave happily. The universe told me this was the project for me – all the Signs said so – and they were right. In a world where things go wrong, sometimes they just line up and go right.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks

New York City’s sidewalks aren’t made for klutzes or space cadets. My daughter is waiting for me to fall into a gaping, cellar access door. I’M waiting to fall into a gaping, cellar access door. They start out innocuously enough: they’re just iron plates lying flat on the sidewalk except for their large padlocks.

But when they open, storekeepers can load their stock from the truck and put it right on a ramp or conveyor belt or plain old stairs to get down to the basement. Unfortunately, if you’re looking around, you may wind up in the basement, too. I wonder how many people on smart phones have done that. (I hear they fall off subway platforms in Japan.)
New York City sidewalks are remarkably free of dog poop, but there are plenty of other obstructions. The food carts – the hot dogs, the pretzels, the halal dishes – and the cannoli, gelato, vegetables, depending on the neighborhood – are everywhere. In Chinatown, merchants and their roots and remedies + 7-T-shirts-for-$10 have taken over the sidewalks; in my neighborhood, it’s the fresh flower guys.

The rows of bright blue CitiBikes take up a lot of space, too. I don’t mind any of them; pretzels satisfy the hunger of too much looking around and not enough sitting down and eating, and the CitiBikes come with map posts. Besides, they’re above ground and obvious so I’m less likely to fall over them.

It’s just that the available sidewalk space is getting squished. It’s incredibly clever for businesses to construct arctic entries in front of their doors. It keeps customers warm and saves energy. But they look like dark, soft-sided phone booths – big boxy things – sitting in front of many restaurants. At first, I couldn’t figure out how to walk in, but they’re just like tent vestibules in front of the building, with doors.
I also don’t mind the huge masses of garbage bags and recycling at the curbs. They’re neat, and all their recycling is separated meticulously. New York’s garbage is organized … and it gets picked up.

So organized that wherever you see a trash can, you see a recycling container next to it.

The Mayor of New York’s Vision Zero program is working to reduce street injuries and fatalities to pedestrians with enforcement, speed limits, etc. But the plan also includes changes in street design with things like posts and bollards and … obstructions amenities. So you can be walking along and then suddenly, there are trees. Or benches. Or tables and chairs. Don’t get me wrong – I like to sit; I like benches. It just means I have to pay attention to where I’m walking.

I have to pay attention to where I’m walking because everyone loves a parade. When streets are closed and everyone is kept safely corralled on St. Patrick’s Day or during the March for Our Lives, parade detritus left hundreds of police barricades gathered on sidewalks. I only walked into one batch.

I have to pay attention to where I’m walking because there are interesting things down there! Look down at your feet along lower Broadway, and there are granite commemorations of all the ticker-tape parades held along the route to City Hall.

In SoHo, artist Francoise Schein has created a subway map “articulating the message of the ‘universal declaration of human rights.’” I don’t get it. It doesn’t even look like a subway map to me, but it’s there, on the sidewalk. Where I’m looking. Where there are also subway grates (and my map points out Marilyn Monroe’s famous subway grate).

Another reason to look down and see where your feet are going is to avoid looking up. Looking up is a vertigo experience, a tip-over-and-feel-dizzy experience because there is an awful lot of “up” to look at. I can’t look at all those tall buildings and not think, “What if there were a fire?” Or “Yikes, they’re surrounded by concrete and steel.” So I’m not really looking up when I’m gaping at New York: I’m looking at all the things right there at human scale: shops and food and posters and art and buses.

But every now and then, there’s something up there that truly startles.

What is Lenin doing there on the roof at my corner? It’s a story, a New York story. No matter where I look – at my feet, on the sidewalks, on the rooftops – this place is full of stories.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Living Standard ... or Substandard

When I first arrived at my Airbnb apartment, I freaked out. It wasn’t just the mass of battered trashcans in front or the banged-up front door which couldn’t close securely.
No, it was the row of mailboxes – smashed, broken, and rusted – how could anyone get any mail? The torn-up linoleum and the elevator door opening and shutting at random was just the icing on the cake. What had I done?!? I had paid in advance for a hellhole!

The apartment didn’t reassure me. The bathroom door didn’t open all the way because it crashed into the toilet. Everything was clean – kitchen up-to-date and newish – but there was nothing on the walls except for the nails where something hung once. And one of the lamps – the only lamp, actually – had a burnt-out bulb.

I even phoned Tim to tell him I was freaking out (which is not a thing to do when someone is 4,000 miles away).

I went around the corner to the grocery store. Its doors were a little wonky, too, but wow, their prices were way cheaper than Anchorage! I got a fresh fruit salad, a big Snapple, some organic soups. The people in the store were regular people, New-York-style (an entire subway train can go by without a single blond person on it!).

The man in front of me on the checkout line asked, “How much was your fruit salad?”

“$3. It’s a great deal!”

He showed me what he had in his cart: a jar of not-fresh fruit salad. “$3.99,” he said. “Not as good a deal.”

By the time we got to the check-out machines, he had told me to only shop the sales, they change on Fridays, pick up the circular. When we parted, he called out, “Make sure you get the frequent shopper card.” I did.

Oh, I love New Yorkers! I love how they’ll talk to anyone, ask them anything, offer any advice. Once again, I’m swimming in my own DNA.

Once I unpacked and found places for my things, the apartment didn’t seem so shabby or frightening. My friend Steve mentioned in his blog how he had to get serious about fixing up his home, that “It's easy to get used to a water stain on the ceiling, old worn rugs, cracks in the cement, and other minor problems. …that visitors [must] wonder how we live in such a well worn space.” It’s all about familiarity. When things become part of our lives, we don’t notice their shabbiness any more. Before Tim and I replaced our carpeting, I began to think that visitors might look at our floors and not want to walk around in socks.

And now, here it is just a few days later, and I’m sitting on the couch in the apartment and feeling quite comfortable and homey. It’s snowing outside, and I’m relishing feeling cozy inside. I don’t notice the things that bothered me at first. And mostly, I actually appreciate them.

I appreciate that I am living in an affordable neighborhood. Last time I took my month in New York City, I was in Midtown, on the East Side. I couldn’t afford groceries there and the stores were uninteresting because their merchandise was out of my price range. $800 shoes! I wrote wondering why class warfare hadn’t broken out.

But here, in the Lower East Side, I can get my $3 fresh fruit salad, my 99¢ slice of pizza, and 64 ounces of Snapple for $1.67. The stores are useful for living: hardware and shoe repair, laundromats and school supplies. Yesterday, a man was out power-washing the sidewalk in front of his building. Regular people live here, and I like being among them.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Philosophy on the NY Subway

As I prepared for my month in Manhattan, I discovered that I could get a personalized MetroCard – with a photo! – that would get me half-price on the subways and buses.

You have to know the transit lover in me to know the ecstasy that overtook me. I phoned them up right away: yes, I could come in with two photo IDs even before my birthday and I could get it right then and there. Hooray for turning 65!

So, of course, I took my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, excited self down to 3 Stone Street as soon as I arrived. First, I had to find Stone Street, then I had to find how to travel there. I’m renting in a less-than-familiar part of Manhattan so I’m in the midst of direction-confusion and am back to writing little cheat sheets to myself after I examine all the permutations and combinations of MTA Trip Planner and my maps. Plus, I still have to learn how to lock the doors to where I’m staying.

I waited for my number to be called and headed to Window #1, and I received a gorgeous, yellow, Reduced-Fare MetroCard with my photo on it!

I can’t paint an exact picture of it here because I no longer have it. (Sob!)

After getting my gorgeous, yellow, Reduced-Fare MetroCard with my photo on it, I calculated which was the best deal for purchase. I could pay for a trip costing $1.35/trip; I could get a 7-day Unlimited Ride Reduced-Fare MetroCard for $16 or 11.8 rides in a week, or $2.29/day; or I could get a 30-day Unlimited Ride Reduced-Fare MetroCard for $60.50 which was the best deal in the whole wide world!

So off I went to the nearest subway station, to the fare machine. Nothing about it was intuitively obvious, but I came to the big existential question of the day: Was I going to “Add Value” or “Add Time”?

What would you say?

What would you say if you’d saved the attached quote in your journal for many years?

I can’t add hours to the day. I can’t add more days to a week or a month, but value? I can add value to my card (by putting money on it), value to my ride (by going for the 30-day option), and value to my whole life and the planet!

So I added value. Something didn’t look right. I went back to 3 Stone Street, got a new number and window #5: “You weren’t supposed to Add Value. You were supposed to Add Time. Nothing we can do about that now. We’ll take back your gorgeous, yellow, Reduced-Fare MetroCard with your photo on it and get you a refund in six weeks. Here’s a temporary, boring, plain old card you can go put another $60.50 on.”

Which I did.

Back to the station, I swiped my card in the swiper. It said "expired." I tried again. It said, “Just Used.” I tried another gate: “Just Used.” I’ll spare you all the back and forth trips for remedies. Eventually, a station agent let me in, and I boarded a train, slightly dreading that I wouldn’t be able to get back because my brand-new boring and untested MetroCard wouldn’t work.

But as I swiped it for the return, I saw that the message said, “Pass Expires 4/12/18.” Oh, it wasn’t expired! It was giving me handy consumer information! Bless those tiny little LED-ish messages that can’t be read in dimly lit stations! I just pressed the turnstile and was through.

This was a Big Day in my Third Third:
  • Turning 65 comes with unanticipated thrills! I have unlimited reduced fares on subways, buses, even the Long Island Rail Road. If I’m never heard from again, check with the MTA.
  • I still think I was adding value, not time. In the universe, I’m right. In the MTA, they’re right, and I’m finished arguing even though I did tell them they should have the capability to over-ride the magnetic strip.
  • They say we have to do really difficult things to keep our brains active, and plunging myself into a new environment, negotiating bureaucracies, figuring out how they could have done it better if I were in charge – all while panicking that I’d never get home – are just exercises to avoid cognitive decline. I’m not getting older, I’m getting IQ points.
  • It’s always about the adventure. I took four train trips today. I saw a parking lot with cars on elevators, I went to the Museum of Math on Pi Day, heard the author of Caesar’s Last Breath talk about air, had a 99¢ slice of New York pizza, got a New York Public Library card, and walked more than 70 New York blocks. All possible because I had a temporary, boring, plain old Reduced-Fare MetroCard.

Monday, March 12, 2018

How is getting sick like cheesecake?

Getting sick is like cheesecake.

The first time I had cheesecake, it was a skinny little sliver of a piece in a restaurant. The texture just slid over my tongue, the taste sent fireworks to the back of my mouth, and the pleasure escaped in one big hum of satisfaction. It was gone in five bites.

Every other time I ordered cheesecake, it came in that same measly, pathetic, little sliver size. Then, one day, I discovered a cheesecake recipe. I even went out and bought a spring-form pan, and I made my own cheesecake cake. No slivers there!

I had all the cheesecake I could ever want.

And I haven’t eaten cheesecake since.

There are a lot of things like cheesecake: the too-much-of-a-good-thing story, the all-things-in-moderation story. And for the last week, it’s been the getting-sick story.

I am blessed with a strong constitution and good health. For most of my life, I simply didn’t understand people who missed things because they “had a cold.” Well, blow your nose, I thought; put on a sweatshirt. Then I had a 2-year-old who clung to me with her germ-spewing, hot little body, sneezing and coughing into my face. One red-letter week, that reduced us both to stagnant blobs on the couch. I had never felt so listless, so apathetic, so wrecked. Thank heavens it was just that once.

Sunday was a sunny, glorious day for a ski. Over hill, over dale, up and down, feeling great. Until Monday.

Monday didn’t feel so good. Every time I coughed, things would rattle around in my head till my brain hurt. I took to the couch.

The couch and I have a complex relationship. It is my homey spot, my comfortable spot for reading, for watching Netflix, for just hanging out. But it’s also a lazy spot, an avoidance spot, an I-just-don’t-feel-like-doing-it spot. So sometimes, guilt intrudes on couch good times.

But not if you’re sick! If you’re sick, you get to retreat to the couch to feel better. It’s advisable to lie on the couch so whatever you have doesn’t turn into the crud everyone else has. So first I went to the library to stock up on mysteries (all the brain could bear, sorry Alexander Hamilton). Then I settled in. Take-out for dinner (on the couch); heating pad (on the couch); sweatpants, baggy shirt, and no bra (on the couch).

Welcome to heaven.

Except for the cheesecake analogy. A week and four mysteries later, unlimited couch in actuality is not so much fun as unlimited couch as an idea. I missed two outings with friends, one performance, one party, and a movie. The only times I’d spent this much time on the couch, I was depressed. Was this illness or depression? Was I avoiding something, hiding on the couch rather than tackling it? Was coughing just an excuse to put my head in the sand?

Those questions were too much work for someone who could only manage lying on a couch. The effort seemed monumental. Any effort seemed monumental.

And the only reason you’re reading this is because it finally ended (but may I hold onto the empathy it taught me for other people who might succumb to germs and bacteria and viruses). Except that right now, I just feel relief. And better.

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