Thursday, June 11, 2009

In Which "Success" Is A Four-Letter Word

If "schadenfreude" is the word for the wonderful happy feeling you get when something bad happens to someone else, what is the term for when someone else's happiness makes you feel like shit?

I was on the second leg of my two-bus commute to work yesterday afternoon, reading a magazine, when I noticed the article I was perusing was written by someone with whom I had graduated from college. We had been somewhat-friends when we were freshmen, until this person did something which I had considered tantamount to a betrayal of my trust. Ever since, though I was always cordial in their presence, I never again entertained any sort of fondness for them. Fast forward five years: we are a year out of college, I am on my way to my part-time job, and what do I see but a definite indication of this person's success?

My initial reaction, of course was, "Fuck. We're one year out of college, and this person is writing for a nationally-acclaimed and highly respected magazine, while I'm nowhere closer to even having an idea of what I want to do with my life." That feeling, I can tell you, is a day-ruiner. But I knew it was my primitive brain talking (my primitive brain is prone to swearing) and soon my intellectual brain kicked in: how, it rationalized, can I even compare my own success with this person's, when our goals are so drastically different? I may not be entirely sure what, exactly, my life goal is, but journalism it is not. I ruled that one out a long time ago. The comparison, therefore, is illogical.

As the day went on, I was eventually able to kick that initial feeling of crappiness and align myself with my intellectual brain's argument. But the truth is that success is so much easier to measure in other people than in oneself. Others may sweat and toil to achieve their goals, but if they do, their peers rarely see it. It is assumed that success is merely handed to them, while we ourselves, like so many Sisyphuses, continue to struggle with no end in sight. In a way, my primitive brain, in its crazy outburst of emotion, made some kind of sense.

I'd like to say that I've learned my lesson and I will never compare myself to other people again and I will live happily ever after, the end. But that's not true. Even when (and if) I do reach my goal - whatever that goal may be - I'll probably still compare my success to others', because that's part of the human condition, the pain of progress. So the grass will continue to be greener in someone else's yard. What I can hope for, though, is that I'll be able to see that mine is plenty green enough.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

In Which The Past Is Revisited

What grief it is to love some people like your own
blood, and then to see them simply disappear;
to feel time bearing us away
one boxcar at a time.

-Tony Hoagland, "Two Trains"

I was awakened one morning last week by a phone call from a number I didn't know. It had a Cleveland area code, and when I answered it, it turned out to be a friend from high school, with whom I haven't spoken - or even heard of (she's not on Facebook) - in about five years. She told me she'd gotten my phone number from a mutual friend, and we spent a few minutes (she was on her way to work) catching up.

It was good to hear from her. We were very good friends "back in the day," as it were, who had fallen out of touch almost by necessity: she is a year younger than me, and when I went off to college, she was a senior in high school. I had often thought and wondered what had become of her, but because the concerns of the present almost inevitably carry more weight than those of the past, I never, whilst ensconced in my day-to-day life, found opportunity to contact her.

It would have been impossible to inform her about all the goings on of the last five years in the small amount of time we had to talk, so I didn't even try, and kept my answers to her questions general. Before we hung up she asked if I live anywhere near Corning, New York, because she will be there next weekend for a glass-blowing convention. I've never even heard of Corning, New York, and told her I would look it up. Though I guess the ball is in my court now, I haven't called her back yet.

Here's the thing: I have come to accept, for better or worse, that one of the inevitable truths of life is that we fall out of touch with people - even people we love, people we don't necessarily want to lose. I do not say that this is right, or that I am happy with it, only that, for me at least - and many other people, I think - it's the way it is. I believe that there are different friends and acquaintances for different seasons of our lives, and for someone like me, who grew up in one place but currently resides in another - one that is much farther away - this is especially true. I did not want these people to leave my life: it just happened.

When I think about why this happens, I think about the world as it is today: ironically, though more options for getting in touch with someone are available now than at any other point in human history, for some reason, we don't really take proper advantage of them. Think about it: this week you'll write "happy birthday" on half a dozen Facebook walls, but will you really be saying anything? Furthermore, whose walls will they be - those of your true friends, the people who know your secrets and your history and your hopes, or those of someone you knew in high school, with whom you have never had a direct, face-to-face conversation?

People in bygone eras, of course, didn't have this problem. If you lived in the same village all your life, you never had to say goodbye to anyone. Losing touch, therefore, is part of the price we pay for progress: the more advanced, the more "civilized" we get, the more we retreat into (as Auden would put it) "the cell of [ourselves]."

Well. I did not mean for this to be so sad. Then again, as everyone knows, not everything in life is happiness. I have not yet decided if I will call my friend back - or even look up the location of Corning, New York. Someday, maybe, I will find the time and energy to contact all those people who, though they mean so much to me, I have not properly kept in touch with. But for now, like Tony Hoagland's train, my life keeps rolling on.

Monday, May 25, 2009

In Which Happiness Is A Warm Apartment

When I looked at my phone last Wednesday night, I saw that I had a voice mail, which was preceded by a text message. The missed call was from my father; I first checked the text message, which was from my sister, and which said only, "Have you talked to Dad?" That was all I needed to know exactly what the voice mail was about.

After nearly 13 years of being unmarried, my father proposed to his girlfriend of 5 1/2 years. Coincidentally, he did it a few days before they were scheduled to fly out and visit me in Boston, so I was able to - quite genuinely - give them my congratulations when they arrived at Logan on Friday morning. I am happy for them; though in an ideal world, my father would still be married to my mother, I can say with certainty (especially after this weekend) that my dad and his fiancee are not only suited to each other, but truly in love. Logistically, marriage makes sense; they are both selling their houses to buy one together (a process which started about a year and a half ago) so they might as well be married while living together as not. And since I live in Boston and they live in Cleveland, the arrangement has no real bearing on my life anyway.

In any case, we were able to spend a very fine celebratory long weekend together. After arriving they got to see my apartment for the first time, and my father declared it to be just like my sister's. Having never seen my sister's apartment, I decided to take this as a good thing. That night we went to dinner at Legal Sea Food with my mother's sister and her family. After dinner we (just the three of us) stopped at the Sunset for a drink, where my dad and his fiancee thoroughly enjoyed both the beer and the spinach dip.

On Saturday we had lunch at the Paris Creperie in Coolidge Corner, then drove to Harvard Square, where we experienced a small parking catastrophe: while perusing the streets for a parking space, we saw a garage; the gate was open so we drove in, then, seeing the rates, decided to try els
ewhere, but when we tried to leave, the attendant wouldn't let us out without paying $28, the fee for a lost ticket. She didn't believe that the gate had been open, and thought we were trying to get out for free. After much deliberation, we decided to park there, since we would have to pay almost 30 bucks anyway. And that's why you don't drive in Harvard Square.

On Saturday night my dad and his fiancee came to The Comedy Studio for what was a truly spectacular show, possibly made all the more awesome because I got to run the booth. Afte
r the show I introduced them to Rick Jenkins, the owner.

"She's great," he said to my father of me, "she basically runs the show!"
[Note: not true].

"Well then maybe you should think about paying her," my dad said, in a tone which I recognized as joking, but knew could sound quite serious to those who don't know him. I was m
ortified; luckily, Rick didn't mention anything later.

On Sunday we had breakfast at Dunkin' Donuts, because I thought it would be blasphemy to visit Boston without eating at one. Then we took the T to Government Center and
walked around the North End, where my dad took a lot of pictures and generally looked as much like a tourist as possible. We got lunch at Quincy Market, which was, of course, packed beyond occupancy with people, then walked through Downtown Crossing to Boston Common. After taking a post-thunderstorm stroll through the Common we were all tired, and went home to rest before having dinner with my roommate's parents that evening. This morning (Monday) we went to Target, after which they left for the airport.

"You seem really happy," my dad said as he hugged me goodbye in my third-floor apartment, the standing fan in the corner a flimsy attempt to combat the late-May heat. "I think this is the happiest I've seen you in a long time."

I think he's right. It's been a year since I've graduated from college (!), and I think life is going pretty well, all things considered. Sure, I don't have everything I want, and this isn't really where I envisioned myself when I thought of the future a few years ago. But to invoke the words of a dozen Hallmark cards, "happiness is a journey, not a destination." Why shouldn't I enjoy this pit stop?

Obama is cool, but my dad posing with this life-sized cut out of him
at Newbury Comics is even cooler!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

In Which Facebook Acts As The Messenger Of Hymen

[Hymen: in ancient Greek mythology, Hymen (or Hymenaeus) was the god of marriage.]

Last night I logged on to Facebook, as I (regrettably) do more than once in a twenty-four hour period. As do many people, I have a very love-hate relationship with every twentysomething's favorite social networking site: it allows me to keep up with the lives of people I might otherwise have lost touch with. On the other hand, it allows me to keep up with the lives of people I might otherwise have lost touch with. It's a double-edged sword.

In any case, as I began to scour my News Feed for tidbits of information I desperately needed/didn't need at all, I came upon a thumbnail of a picture of a friend from high school and her boyfriend. My friend and I were fairly close in our high school days, but as is wont to happen, drifted apart after we went to college, and (as is also wont to happen) have maintained what is left of our friendship by sporadically contacting one another through - wait for it - Facebook. Now, this picture wouldn't have caught my fancy had it not been for the fact that my friend, with her boyfriend's arm around her, had her left hand laid across his chest. I recognized it immediately as prime bling-displaying position.

I clicked the thumbnail and, sure enough, there were three things staring back at me: a young man, a young woman, and a nice-sized rock on the young woman's ring finger. Now, my friend and her boyfriend have been together since we were all juniors in high school. Even then they were a sickeningly perfect couple, but so obviously meant for each other that it was impossible to begrudge them their happiness. They went to the same college and remained together throughout, so it's really been more a question of "when" than "if" regarding their marriage plans. Needless to say I am very happy for them; anyone who knows them has probably known for some time that this was going to happen. But as I looked at that picture I felt an entirely selfish, if unwanted, emotion: self-pity.

Now, for purposes of clarification, I should mention that I am in no way ready, nor do I now desire, to get married. I feel too young, and that there is still so much I want to do before doing that, and besides, the thought of living with someone every day for the rest of my life is currently unfathomable. It probably also has to do with the fact that I am not right now in love with another person. Just to get the record straight, however, I'm not looking to receive a ring anytime soon. But this is not the first Facebook engagement or marriage I have witnessed. In fact, this one comes closely on the heels of the marriage of my high school crush - the BIG high school crush, the one all my other crushes, had they known or cared, would have bowed down before. And, quite frankly, I'm getting tired of it.

I know I'm only 23, and that is very young. But (although exceptions must be allowed for the change of times) the thought has crossed my mind more than once that my mother, when she married my father, was 23. And now, it seems like all these people I know who are 22, 23, 24, are taking that step as well. I think what bothers me the most - and I shall try to make this succinct, as I think whining about one's love life is just about the most trite (and annoying) thing possible - is that for as long (and longer) as my friend and her now-fiance have been together, I have been single. The logical answer to this way of thinking is that in consideration of circumstances, it is ridiculous to compare onself to other people. But to that I say this: if I didn't compare myself to others, what kind of human would I be? Answer: none at all.

So to all the couples I know who have or are going to announce their nuptials on Facebook: accept my sincerest congratulations and wishes for happiness, but don't expect much sympathy from me beyond those initial wishes. Maybe, just maybe, you'll someday be able to ogle over my wedding photos electronically as I have done yours. Then again, I'm just not sure if a Facebook wedding is for me.

Monday, April 20, 2009

In Which The Dog I Left Behind Me Is Lamented

When a child leaves the "paternal nest," as it wer
e, to strike out on their own (whether for college or whatever), the expectation is that there will be some amount of homesickness, and to a greater or lesser extent, that's usually the case. When I first arrived at college (what seems, by this point, a lifetime ago), I spent the time between unpacking my belongings and rushing off to orientation activities (yes, I went to them) missing my family, my friends from home, and the way of life I had hitherto lived. Luckily, I learned to enjoy college so thoroughly that this initial homesickness didn't last very long.

Over time, as I have gotten older and grown into my less family-centric life, I have come to miss them less and less; I can talk to them whenever I wa
nt through the multifarious communication technologies available to us (which, with my siblings, more often than not means text messaging). Even the desire to go home, to the house and city in which I grew up, has grown weaker over the years, especially since my father's preparation and subsequent (ongoing) execution of selling our house. But there is one separation that has never gotten less difficult for me, and one that I think we seldom regard as legitimate: that between me and my dog.

We got Bagel, our Boston terrier, in August of 1999, when I was 13 years old. I remember driving out to Kent (Ohio), to the breeders', to pick him up. He was five months old and weighed a whopping 12 pounds. He has been a focal point of my life ever since; anyone who has known me during any point in the last 10 years also knows about Bagel.

Bagel is, to put it lightly, an unusual dog. He doesn't bark. He can - we've heard it - he just chooses not to. He's probably the laziest creature I've ever seen; while most dogs run to greet their masters when they hear the door open, Bagel barely opens an eyelid from his perch
on one of the pillows on the couch, which are now permanently indented from years of his napping on them. He sleeps 20 hours a day, and at night, sleeps in someone's bed with them. He also insists not only on sleeping under the covers, but cuddled up next to the person he's sleeping with, which can make for a rather cramped night in a twin bed. (My dad, in his infinite wisdom, says this need for closeness is Bagel's pack-animal instinct manifesting itself.) Due to his pushed-in nose, Bagel is also a chronic snorer. He loves tennis balls, but not playing with them: he likes to suck on them; like a baby with a pacifier he holds them in his mouth, leaving a large drool spot on whatever surface is beneath him (usually the couch). We don't give him tennis balls often.

For these reasons and a million others, the intensity with which I miss Bagel has never lessened since the day I left him for college. For propriety's sake I like to think that the reason I miss my dog more than my relatives is because I can't talk to him on the phone
. But in my heart I know it's more complicated than that: as any pet (especially dog) owner can attest, the affection that exists between a human and their animal is unique. It is unconditional. It is irreplaceable.

Since going away to college, I have only seen Bagel two or three times a year. Since he just celebrated his 10th birthday in March (or, rather, my father and I realized the day after his 10th birthday that we had missed it), it is even more troubling to me that I so seldom see him. Luckily, for an old dog, he is in perfect health - his eyesight excepted. A year or two ago, we began to notice a cataract forming in his right eye. Then one started up in his left eye, and they have grown progressively worse ever since. Today I talked to my father, who told me he thinks Bagel has officially gone blind - but infor
med me, upon my inquiry, that he still exhibits the same "vigor" for life that he always has. I think the loss of Bagel's eyesight is harder on me than it is on him - a fact for which, assuming it is true, I am grateful.

I don't know when I'll next see my dog. If my work sc
hedule allows it, I may be able to spend a few days in Cleveland at the end of the summer, which will be the first time I see him since December. My dad, in a not unusual moment of wry humor, assured me he (Bagel) would know me by sense of smell.

How handsome!
(Note cataract in right eye)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

In Which A Light Is Put Out

"For indeed I myself have seen, with my own eyes, the Sibyl hanging in a bottle at Cumae, and when those boys would say to her: 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she replied, 'I w
ant to die.'"

-Petronius, Satyricon

The Sibyl at Cumae was loved by the god Apollo, and he told her he would grant her a wish in exchange for her virginity. She lifted up a handful of sand and asked to live as many years as there were grains. When she later refused his advances, Apollo still granted her wish for near-eternal life, but without eternal youth, for which she had not asked. She lived so long that she was eventually no more than a piece of shrivelled flesh in a bottle, left to hang in the Cumaean caves.

The last time I saw my great grandmother was in November. She was hunched
over, her lower lip hanging loosely from her face, her unseeing eyes hidden behind a pair of oversized glasses. Before we had even sat down she offered us an array of cookies and chocolates and would not rest until we had each partaken of them. Despite the change in her physical appearance - compared to now, she had been lively and spry the last time I had seen her, at her one hundredth birthday party two years before - her personality was unchanged, and I was relieved to see that.

"How does it feel to be one hundred and two?" my sister asked her wh
en we had finished our cookies. She was quiet for a moment; at first I thought she had not heard the question, but unlike her eyesight, which had failed, her hearing was still sharp. "It is enough," she said after a minute, and the words were heartbreaking. She was ready to die. When we left that day, I knew I would not see her again.

Last Wednesday, my great grandmother (called "Oma," the German word for "grandma," by her great grandchildren), died the way she wanted to; peacefully in her sleep. By the time of her death she had been witness to over a century of both global and personal history. In 1936, with her husband incarcerated in a Nazi prison, she left Germany with two children under the age of 5 and no knowledge of the English language to seek asylum in New York (my great grandfather, and most of her immediate family, were luckily later able to join her there). She saw the births of two daughters, five grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren and the deaths of her parents, husband (whom she outlived by forty years), siblings, and a grandchild (whom she outlived by almost thirteen). She lived through two world wars, the Holocaust, the Korean, Vietnam, and both Iraq wars, 9/11 and the election of the first black president.

Her funeral, an affair as simple and unpretentious as the life she lived (she had planned all the details and paid all the expenses years beforehand), was today, and I do not think I have yet begun to miss her as I will in the years to come. She has been a fixture in my life for the entirety of it and the matriarch of our family for even longer. She embodied selflessness, living her life for her family. Oma always knew the whereabouts and accomplishments of her grandchildren and great grandchildren, and took no small pleasure in telling her friends about them. It was her capacity for love, true and unconditional love, that distinguished her from so many other people in this world.

I do not know what happens after death. I suspect it might be nothing, and am okay with that. Whatever it is, I know that Oma, long-loving and ever-uncomplaining, is a
t peace.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In Which Fortune Favors The Bold

For my birthday last month my roommates, Rachel and Kenny, took me to The Comedy Studio in Cambridge. Hidden on the third floor of a Chinese restaurant
, The Comedy Studio doesn't do any traditional advertising, preferring the word-of-mouth method; hence, I had never heard of it. I enjoyed the show and the experience so thoroughly that I actually caught myself thinking, during it, that I had to somehow be a part of it.

My first foray into the Boston comedy scene was less than successful, involving more plumbing and heavy lifting than actually comedy, but I was so inspired by the show at The Comedy Studio that I wanted to give it another try. I decided right then and there to go up to the owner afterwards and ask for a job. When I told Kenny my plan, he suggested I come back on a Wednesday, the night when they audition new talent (and when the audiences are naturally more sparse than the bustling Saturday-night crowd) and try my luck then.

Every Wednesday for about a month, I found an excuse not to go: I was too tired from work, it would take too long to get there, etc. Finally, a week and a half ago, I bit the bullet and decided if I didn't do it that Wednesday, I wouldn't do it at all. Fueling me was the fact that I had nothing to lose. So, armed with a resume and a peanut butter sandwich to eat on the train between work and Cambridge, I set out.

The show itself was alright. Some of the comedians were better than others. The audience, unfortunately, was terrible. I really felt for the performers. With the post-show music still blaring and audience members hanging around finishing their drinks, I realized I would have to wait until everyone cleared out till I could speak with the owner, and that's when I almost chickened out. But I knew I would regret not waiting.

When everyone had finally left and the music was turned off, I went up to the owner. After what I determined to be an appropriate amount of small talk regarding how the show had gone that evening, I went for it.

"I like this place," I told the owner. "This is my second time here, and I like the way you do things." I was quick to add, "And I'm not just saying that to flatter you; I don't think you need the flattery."

"Of course," he agreed.

"And I want to work for you," I blurted out. There was a beat, and I couldn't tell from his expression what he was thinking.

"In what capacity?" he asked slowly. "Do you do stand-up?"

"No," I quickly assured him. "I think when I grow up [Note: I actually said "when I grow up"] I want to be a producer, and I want to somehow work in comedy. I think I want to do what you do."

He looked at me. "Well," he said, "we can start you off working the door, then we can see where things go from there. When can you start?"

On the T ride to Cambridge, I had anticipated every possible scenario, worked out how I would cope with any sort of rejection he could possibly give me. But it hadn't crossed my mind that he would actually give me a job on the spot, and when it happened, it seemed too easy. When I got home and told Kenny, he suggested that maybe I had made an impression on the owner by putting myself out there, which seems likely. But still too easy. I had risked all (or nothing, depending on how you look at it) - and actually won.