Eighty-nine degrees and sunny, humid, in Central Park. Twenty-something slim women wearing midriff sports bra tops running in one direction, men by themselves and in pairs, topless and beaded with sweat, running in the opposite direction, eyes hidden by sunglasses.
When Karen, the boys and I moved back to NYC in late 2007 leaving a four-bedroom home on a ½ acre of land in Massachusetts and squeezing into an Upper West Side Manhattan 2-bedroom apartment, we had to lose the cat and the gas grill. I was over the cat after about three weeks. I still pine for the grill.
Lest you think me some feline hater, let me assure you that in addition to having a healthy respect for all lesser species—having faithfully watched Animal Planet’s “Untamed and Uncut” show with the boys on Saturdays, and seeing on Nickelodeon what an unruly yellow sponge can do to a quiet sea bottom village when in collusion with a reckless starfish—I also had a Siamese cat named Pip for 21 years. Well, Mom and Dad had him, but I was there for his first ten years or so until I left for college.
I love animals.
I cried when my grandfather’s English setter named Dickie died—Poppa had three in a row from this breed, all named Dickie. When I was in first grade, I used to sit next to Poppa’s brown leather recliner in the library while watching TV and seeing the smoke from his filterless Camels form a ceiling at around three feet above the floor, and I would stroke Dickie’s fringe on his forearms. Poppa instructed me to say, “Nice fringe, Dickie. Nice fringe.” So I’d do that for an entire episode of “I Love Lucy.” Probably drove Poppa batty, but Dickie loved it. I found it soothing.
As an adult, I had a black and white cat named Bandol, who died of some disease I can’t even remember when he was five. I had to make the decision to put him down. One of the toughest things I’ve done, since the day before he went into a tailspin he was as lively as a teenager. There was a chance he would have survived a little longer, but at the time it seemed the most humane thing to do. There are many cruel leaders and people in this world I’d like to put down, especially if the outlook is good for them to have a long life. But Bandol…that was a tough one. I lived with that for a while.
It was in fact a black and white cat whom we had to give away before moving to West 84th Street. We got him for Bennett’s sixth birthday, for he had desperately wanted a cat, and we knew it would make him supremely happy. Karen had scoured Craig’s List and other online ads, and we found “Figaro” from a woman about 25 minutes from us. She was single and was moving back home and had to find him a new family to live with. Karen and this young lady hit it off, and she gladly let us become the new keepers of Figaro. He was about a year old, and when we presented him to Bennett, the young boy’s eyes popped and a smile of complete abandon and surprise lit up his face. He couldn’t believe a live animal was in his home, to stay, and was his to take care of. He renamed him “Oreo” on the spot. Oreo adjusted to his surroundings and came out from under the couch after ten days, and we all grew to love him. Bennett loved to play with him, especially with this feather-thingy on the end of a plastic stick that he would jump five feet in the air and twist toward in order to bite it. He was a wonderful playmate to all of us, with Bennett and Karen becoming the closest to him. I even forgave the little critter’s habit of leaving dark hairs all over my nice sleeping couch, because he ravished me so with his slow blinking eyes when I stroked his sleek black back and vibrated my hand with his 8-cylinder purr.
Next summer, I took a new job and started commuting from Boston to New York each week. By November, we had found a great brownstone apartment on the Upper West Side, yet there was a catch. Because of the building’s forced air, everyone could hear and smell the floor above and below. Therefore: no smoking (not a problem), and no pets (problem). I learned this at the lease-signing. After some conversation and with Karen’s full assent, I signed nonetheless, and we made plans to break the news to Bennett.
Thirty minutes passed and Karen called me when I got back to work. “Is it too late to change our minds?” she says, and I hear wailing in the background. “Bennett is absolutely heartbroken [this boy was not one to get overly emotional about things under normal circumstances] and is weeping uncontrollably, saying that we can’t move without Oreo. Is there any way we can get out of this lease?”
The good thing about the phone is that the caller cannot see the callee’s facial reaction. I am good at controlling my voice but my face wriggles like jello when I receive news or communication data that I find disagreeable. My Dad told me that my dimple always betrayed my lies when I was a child, and my frustration or anger as an adult have always shone through with some less cute feature.
“Let me call our real estate agent—” I started, figuring I was buying some time and also could have him play the heavy, “—and I’ll call you back.”
I called the guy, a single man, and after explaining the situation and asking if we were locked in, he asked me if I was familiar with a particular book on parenting that Karen and I had skimmed early in our life with kids, eight years prior.
There was a pause, mainly for me to take in that I had just heard a single man at least ten or fifteen years my younger suggest I read a parenting book because I was trying to understand how watertight our lease was in light of my middle son’s meltdown 250 miles away, which I could not witness or be there for to comfort him or his mother.
I felt like putting this man down like a sick cat.
“I don’t think you understand the situation,” I said.
We ended the conversation on a positive note, and he wrote an email immediately apologizing for any offense. He’s a good man and made a good book recommendation but at a lousy time. Oh… Having child custody trouble? Have you ever seen Kramer vs. Kramer?
We were locked into the lease, and regardless of that, Karen and I loved the apartment and knew the neighborhood worked for the boys because of the school, so Oreo had to go. This all transpired in early November 2007.
Fast forward a month later. Moving day. Everything has reached 84th Street on the truck with Gentle Giant, a company we’ve used twice (local and interstate) and which I highly recommend. By the way, never…NEVER…use a NYC-based company that has ever done business as “White Glove Moving and Storage.” My brother and I got scammed by them but bad, and this time I interviewed no fewer than ten movers. (Karen will tell you that I am normally not one to shop around: Need a white cotton button down shirt for work? Go to Filene’s Basement, laser-direct the eye sockets toward the shirt bin, find a 17 neck on a shirt that’s not a blend, purchase at the nearest cash wrap even if it’s in women’s lingerie, and you’re in and out in less than four minutes. Shopping with me is like the Navy SEALs extracting a hostage from Menswear.)
So back to Moving Day. I get a call from Karen. She is in NYC receiving the truck while I am in Massachusetts with the kids.
“Please go online and check the nyc.gov website,” she says. “I don’t know if we can have gas grills here.”
I have been assuring her for weeks that it won’t be a problem. I even went online before the move and learned that you can’t transport a propane tank across any bridges or through tunnels. I took care of that and got rid of ours, leaving just the grill. I’ll get a new tank, I figured. They’re only about $25. The information on tanks was in the first paragraph about grills and as most men will tell you, the first paragraph of anything—the owner’s manual to the Honda Odyssey, the claims section of my Health Plan—is the only part you really need to read. The rest is intuitive. Unfortunately, intuition helps more with automotive mechanics and dealing with customer service agents than with the New York City municipal code.
I go back online. Deeper into the text it states that gas grills may not be used within 20 feet of a structure in Manhattan. Charcoal grills okay. Gas grills, bad. Our terrace extends about 12 feet. The people across the courtyard have a gas grill on a terrace that is about three feet wide and to date (now 18 months after moving here) no one has been led away in handcuffs—neither for that nor for the two times my kids have seen naked women prancing around in front of the window, once while dusting appliances and lamps. Then again, such activity is fully legal and even encouraged in some circles.
But I, the intuitive yet legalistic type, decide the risk isn’t worth it and having realized the Law is against me, say to Karen, “Give it to the movers.”
I realize now we could have brought it up onto our terrace and sold it later to someone in Queens with a backyard—or I could have sold it to the Naked Duster with the three-foot terrace since she is a lawless hussy. But I wasn’t thinking straight and I wanted to get the move done then and there.
It was a blue and silver Vermont Castings. After buying it from Home Depot, I spent four hours in my backyard assembling it. And I am not handy. But for this tool, I made an exception and did a stupendous job. It was a beauty. On it I had prepared many a steak, chicken, fish, even lobster, corn, asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes, of course scads of hamburgers and hotdogs and sausages. It was what you did in the summer. It was the collecting place around which men stood. And talked. Flipped. Presided. A grill is where you, the Grill Chef, determine how well your family eats and what they eat and how pleasurable the evening turns out for them and any guests. A grill is infinitely more precious to me than, say, a farm animal that cannot comprehend that it is better off marinated and then seared to perfection. Hear me: a well prepared steak is that cow’s destiny, even its complete sanctification.
A cat? Well, in my culture I would not eat one, nor have I heard how they do when blackened.
Oreo would have either jumped off our terrace (four flights up), or ran onto the roof and escaped to another building (ours and five others are connected roof to roof) or simply died somehow of some death and made us all miserable. That’s the way these things with animals happen. I would have cried. Karen would have cried. Bennett would have cried for days. Instead, we found Oreo a wonderful home with our neighbors in Massachusetts, who had two cats which became wonderful playmates. For about a month, that is, until Oreo started terrorizing the female cat so that she peed on our neighbors’ carpet all the time. Oreo therefore had to go to another loving home, where he is now. You see? Four loving homes. Lotsa love.
Nobody asks how I’m doing with this.
Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once, upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeem our loss, Alleluia!
Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!
Unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia!
Who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia!
Sinners to redeem and save, Alleluia!
But the pains which He endured, Alleluia!
Our salvation hath procured, Alleluia!
Now above the sky He’s king, Alleluia!
Where the angels ever sing, Alleluia!
Sing we to our God above, Alleluia!
Praise eternal as His love, Alleluia!
Praise Him, all you heavenly host, Alleluia!
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia!
Lyrics: John Arnold & Charles Wesley
Photo: Old Shoe Woman
I don’t know all the reasons or causes for this recent protracted and, in some ways, most intense major depressive episode, but it is appropriate that it lift just before Good Friday.
It arrived—unwanted and largely unannounced, as always, like your slovenly relative who eats all the food in the refrigerator and then invoices you for the co-pay—in late January or early February. Granted, there were respites: blue-signed Rest Areas along the Interstate that came somewhat randomly, had limited parking and modest facilities, yet from which you know you had to drive away if you were to get to your destination, even if—as is the case with depression—you are not sure what exactly the destination is or when you’ll get there. This is exactly why children are so miserable on long car rides and why Honda and others put DVD players into their minivans. Being strapped into a booster seat for the length of Star Wars II gives definition to the void.
And yet, while I don’t know the reasons for the bout, I do know one benefit. It has given me a tiny shard of recognition, identification, of what Jesus went through on the cross. So, today, as Christians celebrate Good Friday, in anticipation of the very good news of Easter Sunday, and as I am coming out of this within the last 36 hours, I can say that I am joyful to be able to identify with our God, who suffered more severely and totally than I ever will or could imagine.
I once had an hallucination. It was February 1995 and three o’clock in the morning, and I was working with one other co-worker in a printing plant on the south side of Atlanta. I later learned that this hallucination was the first of two psychotic breaks (the other was the next month), which hours later landed me in Riverwoods Psychiatric Hospital for ten days. The average stay at Riverwoods was a week. I was alone in a near-darkened reception area, except for the glow of a red “EXIT” sign. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows reflected the crimson tint, yet through them I could see the black of the sky and charcoal grey of the streets. For the past several hours, I had been having apocalyptic thoughts, and for the past several weeks since I started working third shift I had not been sleeping well. Six months earlier, I had stopped drinking and was at two or more AA meetings per day. I was on what is called “a pink cloud.” This February night, I had a nagging sense that I was to get up from my workstation, go to the reception area, and call my pastor Mark to say, “Meet me and Joe [a mutual friend] tonight in paradise.” It was a nonsensical statement with respect to these two guys and, looking back, I’m sure Mark would have thought I was joking, if even he had answered the call. I left my co-worker to go to the only available phone, in the reception area, and started to dial. I paused as I dialed, like I was reconsidering what I was about to do, and then I found I could not get through to Mark.
That number is no longer in service, the recording informed me.
I tried again, with the same result. The break occurred at that instant.
I was convinced that I had been transported to hell and would never escape. The hallucination was auditory only and my mind was clear and unclouded, like feeling the Autumn coolness for the first time in the season. I said out loud, “Oh, no.” And I heard a voice in my ear say, “Oh, yes.” I assumed that was the devil.
For twenty seconds, maybe only fifteen, all I knew was this: I had been stripped of all of my dreams, all of my friends and loved ones, and I was forever destined to walk this now-horrifying and eternally dark earth. I imagined my co-worker in the next room had become a hideous monster who was soon to torture me. I looked outside again. The trees, still leafless in late winter, looked like sentries more than signposts of a coming spring.
There was a chasm—to use a word from the Bible but which never had full meaning to me before then—between where I stood and where all whom I loved, and God, were. No matter what I tried or pleaded, I could not bridge that gulf. The knowledge of this endlessness and hopelessness was utter, and complete. It was final. It was indisputable. I had no recourse. I felt like I was fully aware of a new existence more than I had been of my old existence before I picked up the phone. It was as if this new state was what my life had been on a trajectory toward; I had merely crossed the threshold.
A short while later, once removed from that hallucination, and still to this day, I do not wish that 20-second period on my worst enemy. I recall when it was more raw in my memory not wishing it even on history’s most abominable figures. I can only imagine what it must be like to experience it for five minutes, or three hours. (Who can speak of this consciousness being eternal?)
It was not the prospect or fear of dying that caused the terror of those moments; it was the sensation of being consciously dead and never living again. Fear had no purpose or usefulness. It had run its course.
On the first Good Friday, Jesus experienced some form of anguish which exceeds any pain I or anyone has encountered. When he was dying on the cross, his Father in Heaven turned his back on him, and Jesus’ cry was “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?!”
All we can gather is that Jesus experienced eternal separation from God the Father, conscious spiritual death, to be followed by physical death. This was Jesus, God’s own Son, who had done nothing to ever displease the Father. At least I had some rationale for going through a quasi-hell. I had contributed to why this world is broken, why there is indeed such a thing as sin.
Today I celebrate a perfect King who died for his defiant subjects. A Shepherd who died for his wayward sheep. An Author who entered his own novel in person and sacrificed his life, so that his flawed characters could live.
It doesn’t make sense.
But then, true love rarely does.
photo: A. Guandalini
“That’s what I miss,” my friend at work said a couple weeks ago. I recalled this while driving west on the Mass Pike toward I-84 South.
“What’s that?” I had asked, noticing he was reminiscing in a slightly uncharacteristic way. He was not one to romanticize the past, as I do in almost every post here.
“Singing out loud. In the car. You know, when you’re listening to the radio. I miss that.”
True enough, we both now have been silenced going to and from work, unless we want to regurgitate to our fellow subway riders what we’re listening to on our iPods. My friend has produced and sung on several CDs; he might get some spare change and even bills from straphangers. I would be lucky enough to be kicked by a 20-something blonde in Pradas.
So, now in our trusty Honda Odyssey, since my 10-year-year son had fallen soundly asleep behind me—having claimed he’d been awake all night as he played NBA 2K7 on the Xbox with his best friend, Ben T.—I decided to give Sara Evans some back-up support as she sang “Perfect” on WKLB-FM, Country 102.5.
It was a perfect ride in a way. Carter was sitting sideways in his seat in the middle row—Odysseys come with three rows of seats for the 2.2-kid-Nuclear-Family-challenged (we have 3.0 kids and 2.0 adults). He was semi-fetal, his head slumped against his pillow that had the Mater cartoon figure from Pixar’s “Cars” movie printed on the pillowcase.
Moments before, he had been sleeping facing forward, and I had pushed the rearview mirror to the right with my thumb, so I could glance at him while still being a responsible driver. (Being a parent while driving requires two conflicting activities: watching the road ahead for traffic and cops while simultaneously conversing with however many children are behind you—often sight unseen, sometimes in the swiveling rear-view—and acting alternatively as Sage, Diplomat, Supreme Court Judge and Imminent Grim Reaper If There Is No Peace and Quiet. This is a task made all the more difficult for fathers, as opposed to mothers, who do, in fact—as we all know, both from our experience as kids if not women’s own testimony—have eyes on the backs of their heads.
I moved the mirror to compensate for my male evolutionary shortcoming. His mouth was slightly agape; his lips, pink and smooth, looked like they did when he was four, or two, or younger. His face was relaxed and betrayed no sign that he had ever been disobedient or mean-spirited to Karen or me or his two younger brothers. It was a blank slate, and I wrote what judgment I wanted on it according to my feelings over the last decade since he came into the world on the 11th floor of Roosevelt Hospital on New York’s West Side. This is one of the many joys of parenting: that an unexpected moment watching one’s child can encapsulate all that has come before as well as the hope of what’s to come. Time does not matter, for the parent can see all ages and experiences of the child up to that point, in a look.
I now recalled Karen’s nine months of watchfulness and nine hours of pain and labor on March 18. I recall earlier, in August 1998, when Carter was at five months’ gestation, and Karen got dehydrated, started bleeding, and we rushed to Roosevelt to have her hooked up to an I.V. and Carter up to a fetal ECG machine. I remember sitting there next to Karen, on her back, for five or so hours, celebrating each time his heart rate increased to where it needed to be, praying when it dipped. I remember later from the amniocentesis that, as first-time parents in our mid- to late-30s—we wanted just to be prepared—learning that one of the ventricles in Carter’s brain was enlarged and how that was a possible sign of birth defects, and thinking that medical technology gives us so much good yet also saddles us with unnecessary and often burdensome awareness of outcomes, however distant or unlikely they might be. Some of our times in the hospital reminded me that, as King Solomon once wrote, “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” I remember when we lived in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, walking in the early morning with Karen and our second child, Bennett, just an infant, and Carter when he was just over two, and he—spotting some feathery mist hovering inches above the grass—said, “This is ominous.”
This mysterious ability to utter a lovely word in context at age two is a bead on a necklace of memory with the ECG and amnio, with the sucking motion of his lips and wide eyes when he appeared at 9:11 a.m. on March 18, with the use of “buh–” at 14 months to describe any solid object from a house to a boat to his younger brother, with the pride in his eyes at age eight when he passed the 4-hour test for his karate black belt, with the loneliness and despair when his new class at PS 9 in New York found him to be the butt of jokes and not source of them, with more recently finding a friend who promised to teach him two Hebrew words per day, with reuniting with old friends and learning that having one group of buddies doesn’t preclude having another group.
The visor of the Odyssey shielded my eyes as we rode away from Carter’s sleepover at Ben T’s and his birthday pizza party and playground romp with Ben, along with Eric, Ben C., Griffin, Ethan, and JoJo. The smiles and laughs had not been heard all together since December 2007, when Carter moved back to New York City and left at least one of his Third Grade friends in tears. On the walk from Hamilton House of Pizza over to Pingree Park, this same friend said in typical exaggerated yet sincere youthful passion, “I am SO glad to see Carter. I thought I would NEVER see him again!” And at the playground as they formed two teams—uneven at four on one side and three on another, even with the tallest boy on the team with four—to play a game of War with dried pinecones, I spoke with the Lovely K on my cell and she said, “If it was me with my friends, I’d be sad to know that I’d be leaving soon. I couldn’t enjoy it fully. That’s the thing with kids. They are totally in the moment.”
To be sure, there was not a pinecone flung or squeal and flashing glance that seemed to be aware that in 45 minutes the parents would descend. After the playground crew dispersed, and back at his host’s house, Carter stood across from Ben T., both boys not sure whether to high-five, hug, shake hands, fist-bump or—as Carter admitted later in a mature observation—cry: awkward pre-adolescent emotions of separation, closeness, undying devotion borne of the struggles of growing up and of playground rivalries and bonds, of an all-nighter fueled by Coca-Cola and microwave popcorn while trouncing your opponent with half-court dunks over animated 6’9” heads on the Xbox. All that matters is that we are friends and we are here, you and I.