they say life is short

WHERE DOES THE TIME GO? They ask. It’s an honest question, a serious one, a frequent one. “The years just blow by.” But do they? Because when I think of the day when our first daughter was born, it feels like it happened a long time ago. How many homes have we had since then? I care not to count them. The  past decade brims with times and places and things that happened then. How I cradled the newborn in my arms in that hospital corridor in snowed-in Tallinn, or how I ran back and forth over the bridge in Glasgow in the summer of ’05, with the 18-month-old barn on my shoulders, and the sun and wind in our hair. She laughed and loved it. On the Isle of Arran, Epp nursed her in the rare Scottish warmth. We fanned out across the soft green moors, following sheep, searching for standing stones. We changed her diaper in the grass with the midges buzzing about.

Two thousand and five. We lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, that summer. It was hot and crushed-like-sardines urban, the home to which we returned. The other day, I was driving past our old place, coming up over the hill, with Manhattan in the distance, I could almost see myself chasing the little one down the sidewalk on the way to the park. “Lähme kõndima!” She says. It’s an Estonian phrase that means “Let’s go for a walk.” Except on that day, when she yelled it, I wasn’t sure of what it meant. I was listening to melancholic music and began to tear up, not because I was sad, but because it seemed like that scene happened so long ago. Who knows if she remembers any of it. Now, she’s a decade old and tells me that my hat is stupid and that my jokes are bad, and that all the bands I listen to sound like The Beatles, and that I’m just annoying, period. Then she hooks her arm in mine while we are walking, as if she’s afraid to fall.

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what i meant to say was merry christmas

“BIG UP TO YOUR MAN,” said one US Post Office client to the other. “Thank you,” the other client responded from beneath the awnings of her black monkish raincoat. Her voice was gentle and yet restrained and I could see that she had yellow hair and blue eyes, and clean, unmanicured hands, but that’s all I could see. “Yeah, I saw that in The New Yorker‘s ‘Must See’ last week,” said the first one. When she dropped The New Yorker  just like that, before these eyes, I did move closer, to bask at arm’s length in such radiant cosmopolitan awe-some-nim-i-ty. She was a lean client, toward the end of the first half of her projected lifespan, I guessed. American in accent, Anglo in features,  in figure, in husband. Curly in hair. She wore black rubber boots that had a smidgen of tan mud on them. “Nigel’s English, you know,” she said,  “so we’re planning on having a traditional English Christmas out here before we go back to Manhattan.”

She fumbled with her USPO package, troubled by the flaps, the creases, and I offered to help her, but what I really wanted to say was, “You read The New Yorker and know people who appear in it, who are spending their holiday right here, in this town? Why, I’d love to be in The New Yorker, too. A must see. I’ve got some great manuscripts at home, and you know, I’m big in Estonia.” “Estonia?” “That’s right, they just love me over there. Well, some of them at least. Anyway, introduce me to your society friends, I need a book contract, right now. Got ’em all pipelined up — Montreal Demons. Christelle. My Estonia 3. That Italian book I’ve been tinkering with for years. Look, you’ve got to help me. I’m getting spent out of this town. Heh. So is everybody else who isn’t ultra-ri … Oh, excuse me, I didn’t mean that at all, what I meant to say was, Merry Christmas. Do you know Gay Talese?”

Actually, what I said was, “Can I help you with your package?” And she said, “No, thanks, it wouldn’t be much help anyway. I have about ten more to send. Ha ha.” And I said, “Ha ha,” too. That was all. I guess I looked as local as she looked unlocal. The messy stubbly unshaven face, the tan jacket with the dirt on it from crawling beneath the Christmas tree before I sawed it down, the frayed cuffs of my aged jeans. I looked about as ready to greet New Yorker society as I did to greet the pilgrims on Saint Peter’s Square. I looked like one of the old timers who hang out here in the country store and swap stories about wild turkeys and deer. You know, the ones who live here all year round. So I got my packages from the postal worker and was on my way. “Oh well,” I thought and sighed as I stepped out the door. “File under ‘Missed Opportunities.'”

after midnight

"Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster."
“Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster.”

THE FIRST BEFORE MOVIE I saw was Before Sunset, and then I went back and watched Before Sunrise, and cringed at how young Ethan Hawke looked in it, and remembered him in White Fang, which was four years before that. I also cringed because I thought that Julie Delpy was so beautiful in both films, and how easily I fell like a sucker for her French “Celine,” the “European girl in transit.” Then — wait a minute, what the? — I did fall for the “European girl in transit” — And I am married to her, just as Ethan Hawke’s “Jesse” is now.

I confess that I wanted to see the latest film in the trilogy Before Midnight was because I had read early reviews that mentioned painful topics like middle age and transatlantic living, and, oh, how I yearned for that cold realism after all of those sun-tinged memories of romantic yearnings and recalling of baroque alleyway discussions and emotional self immolation of what could have or might have been. Jesse and Celine. They followed their hearts and it led here, to a hotel room in Greece, where they are about to argue about everything and be very mean to each other and threaten to destroy everything in the name of their discontent, as the married often do.

Celine is ever more voluptuous and incisive and weary-euro-trashy-eyed and Jesse looks like those 40-something zombie hipsters I saw at the monkey forest in Bali in April, with the tattered ironic t-shirts and deep grooves in their foreheads and children with pleasant, retro names {“Now, Hank! Now, Cora!”} crawling up their limbs. When I saw the Monkey Forest Hipsters, staring off into the nothingness like jungle wraiths, my only thought was, Oh my God, that’s what I am going to look like in 10 years.

But there were even more suspect parallels in the film. Jesse has written two books about his romance with Celine. I have written two books about those first years with my “European girl in transit” in Estonia, and then someone at the hotel in Greece pulls out their copies of the local translations of Jesse’s This Time and That Time and asks Celine to autograph them,and she demurs and says, “Oh, that’s not really me in there,” {and it isn’t, I know, and at the same time it kind of is} and in their ensuing total conflict Jesse recalls how he promises to never use her likeness or their children’s in his work and at the same time quips, “That’s a good line, I’m going to use it,” when Celine nails him with one. Meantime, he’s taking a leak and arguing at the same time and I am cringing and cringing and cringing more because I have seen it all before …

I also saw in Celine’s character the obsidian residue of the women’s movements of the seventies and the eighties, and what it’s done to the brains of the women of our generation. To comply with Jesse’s wishes is to be subservient. To be subservient, is to violate one’s feminist principles. More than once, Celine mocks this role to Jesse. And he’s trapped, because the same seventies/eighties pseudo-psychological rubble and debris has left him all mopey-eyed, hovering over his 14-year-old son, considering a move to Chicago, because he must do his best to be a good father and these are crucial years, and  in the meantime, the son doesn’t seem that interested in him, and is more excited because he had a teenage fling with a local Greek girl, making it the true “best summer of his life.” Double-you, tee-eff, indeed!

So this conflict is, in some ways, just as much between Celine and Jesse as it is between who Celine and Jesse feel obliged to be. Who we feel compelled to be. Women raised to think that they don’t need men, and yet, they still wind up living with a man. Men raised to think that they must be perfect fathers, to the point that this epic attempt at parental mastery becomes self harm, because — uh, oh/oh, no — nobody is perfect. So what do we do with ourselves then? We can’t undo our paths or the ideas that time has bred into us or the bigger choices that we have made. We’re all sort of like Celine sitting alone along the water in Greece. You could still turn away from it, but toward what, and for what?

I watched this film in the early morning hours on the North Fork, with the wind making the wood of the house bend and creak and hurt. At the end of it, the European girl in transit on the couch across from me said that she didn’t care for the slow pace of its beginning, but that the second half, the argument half, was very good. I was restraining the tears of catharsis and cringing some more at my emotions. Then I went to sleep and slept well and dreamed about the dialogue and situations. It was good to watch a film together. It is so infrequent in these busy days of life’s big demands that we have any time to do simple things like that.

the jewish alps

THE ADDRESS IN THE GARMIN ended with Parksville, New York. But to get from lower New York to upper New York you have to go through New Jersey. The master Garmin sent me through the Lincoln Tunnel, and New York glitz faded into Jersey ruin with each westward avenue. By the time I emerged on the other side of the Hudson, I knew well where I was — Chris Christie’s state, the tax-rich, high-income land of rotten infrastructure. Time-eaten bridges that resemble the weathered limestone of Yucatan archaeological sites, tomb-like wetlands that grow unhappily around electric towers. The sprawl arrives and gives way in pleasant waves of Lowe’s, Home Depot, Michaels, Best Buy, Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Michaels, Best Buy, Shoprite.

But soon you see the hills, the fuzzy gray Ramapo mountains, known for a mysterious triracial isolate — the mountain people — who are thought to descend from local Indians, free Blacks, and Dutch settlers, even Hessian mercenaries from the Revolutionary War. Now you are back in New York State, heading up into Rip Van Winkle country, sleepy hollows of mysteries. The Catskills, little settlements and towns with generic and oddball names. In Sullivan County, there is a ghost town called Neversink. It lies at the bottom of a New York City Reservoir.

Somewhere in the same county I started to encounter large billboards for breads and meats. LIEBER’S: KING OF KOSHER FOODS. MANISCHEWITZ: QUALITY SINCE 1888. Little Orthodox Jewish boys and girls with golden locks and heads covered, eyes revealing the pleasures of rye bread and pastrami. And then the shanty shops built into the hills with the yellow and black signs: WE BUY GOLD. Many miles northwest of Rockefeller Center, where the late autumn fog and moisture at last gave way to sun-kissed cliffs and a light dusting of snow, I had stumbled upon a melange of Crown Heights and Gold Rush Era California.

When I arrived at the maple candies factory, the cheerful ruddy owner asked me how my trip had been and I told him about the signs. “What?” he said, “you mean you haven’t ever heard of the Jewish Alps?” “The Jewish Alps?” I imagined men in long black coats on skis, trailed by faithful Saint Bernards, each of whom bore a barrel of rescue Manischewitz wine around its neck. “Every summer, the population of Sullivan County swells to about 150,000 from 76,000,” the jolly owner said. “They all come up from the city. There are dozens of youth camps, too. Three right down the road from here.” “And they put all those signs up so that Jewish families will be reminded to buy Kosher matzo and wine when they’re driving up?” “You betcha.”

the year the eighties died

IT DIDN’T OCCUR to me growing up that I was living through history. Only later, as I sat  in a classroom in Tartu, Estonia, listening to the professor recount the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romanian regime to 18 and 19 year old students, did I realize that I could remember each moment of the event as it was reported, including the small details, such as the tidbit that hundreds of Romanians had volunteered to carry out the fallen leader’s execution by firing squad. It was Christmas Day, 1989. The Eighties were almost over.

But they weren’t. A few weeks later, in South Africa, a man who had been imprisoned for 28 years emerged from jail. His name was Nelson Mandela and I knew all about him from watching an HBO documentary called Mandela. It starred Danny Glover as the political prisoner.  It took me some time, upon his release, to connect the “fiction” of the 1987 film and the reality of the freed man holding the real Winnie Mandela’s hand {And there was a real Winnie Mandela? And it all really happened?} They looked less Hollywood in real life, but that was okay, because that thing called Apartheid was coming to its deserved end.

Apartheid. It was one of those words floating around when I was a kid, like Glasnost and Perestroika. Later I learned what each word meant and its etymology, but really they were words and ideas onto themselves. To me, Glasnost and Perestroika meant rock concerts in the Soviet Union. To me, Apartheid meant African kids chanting down the streets of dusty ghettos yelling slogans and carrying signs and meeting riot police. {Which looked a lot like the images broadcast from Israel in those days of the Intifada.}

So Nelson Mandela was but one icon of a decade known for big personalities and big words that were large and thick with unsaid messages. Images and words seemed more powerful then. There were fewer of them, and so they stuck with you.

There was soft poetry in that name — Mandela. It sounded like the gentle and grassy hills of the mystery continent. Even if he had backed guerrilla attacks against the South African government, no one saw him, heard of him, and thought of violence just because of who he was and how he looked and what he was called. To compare, think of Margaret Thatcher, the British iron lady, a woman whose very name brought to mind severity and harshness. Which is not to say that many Britons did not welcome it. Thatcher. It sounded like a weapon whipping through the air. It was in the ‘Th,’ the tight ‘a’,  the ‘ch.’ Its true meaning refers to someone who makes and repairs roofs, but it didn’t sound like a roof repairman to my ears. It gave you goosebumps.

Who preceded Thatcher? Wikipedia tells me it was someone named James Callaghan. Remember him? Me neither. And who came after? John Major, of course. But what else can you remember about John Major? Not much, really. No, there was a perfect constellation of personalities in Thatcher and Mandela’s era of charisma. Let’s not forget that the three most important American entertainers of the decade were Michael, Madonna, and Prince. Even older entertainers assumed single-named status. Bruce Springsteen just became “Bruce.” People would say, “I went to see Bruce.” And there was a lot of meaning in that one syllable, “Bruce.” Say “Bruce” or “Madonna” or “Mandela” or “Thatcher” to someone at that time, and a very certain mood would settle in and linger. It wasn’t like today, when a word like “Obama” can mean so many different things. One week it’s a website, the next week it’s a Kenyan uncle, the next week it’s a great speech.

Everything moves ever faster now, though. It’s blur and delirium. I find myself agitated by all the intelligence, the many images on the screens, the sounds of urgency my phone makes when a text message arrives. I crave simplicity, silence. Give me back my safe childhood of dependable names and images, of Apartheid, Glasnost, and Perestroika, of Mandela and Thatcher. Give me some sturdy rocks to latch onto while I am swept down the Information Superhighway. But Mandela’s gone now, Thatcher’s gone. It’s all been washed away.