New York City Redux

Here I am again at Penn Station, on my way back from what has become an annual excursion to the Big Apple. The trip was shorter this time, though somehow it felt longer. I was even bored at points (!), or maybe just immobilized by being unsure of how best to use my time in such an overwhelming place. I feel a bit worn out, no doubt because I’ve walked more in three days than I normally do all month. This is probably why I saw so few portly New Yorkers. And they must blow through shoes every few months. I’d say that I’ve surely lost a few pounds, but then I remember how much I’ve eaten. New York is second only to cruise ships in constant food availability.

My trip consisted mainly of opera performances, two days at the museum, and several dinners with an old friend. My hotel was – interesting. I was trying to keep things affordable, but I might choose to pay up the wazoo next time. You don’t get what you don’t pay for. Hot water would be one of those things (but, presumably, I paid for that).

room

The individual rooms were decorated (I assume for free) by different artists. Mine looked like someone ingested pea soup and then projectile-vomited it all over the room. Everything was slathered in a thick coat of slimey green. A plaque on the wall informed me that the color was called “arsenic.” How fitting. The pukey decor was augmented by images of someone’s trip to uninteresting parts of Asia, complete with paper lanterns and Christmas lights strung  from the ceiling. I felt like I was either in a teenager’s bedroom, or a Martha Stewart nightmare. The room was very hot and noisy, with no way to control either affront to my senses. Sleeping a full night was impossible. It was akin to a night on a park bench in Times Square, except there wasn’t the saving grace of a cool breeze. Of course I didn’t come to New York to sit in my hotel room, but it will be nice to get home to my own digs. Comfy. Quiet. No snot-green anywhere.

When I did leave my room, it was to much more grand surroundings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is amazing. It would take a week just to give everything even a cursory look. I gave it two afternoons. I was amazed at times by the great detail artists were able to give their items (plates, pottery, figurines, furnishings) long before modern techniques to paint or mold them existed, and with the great condition items were in that were hundreds of years old. I frequently asked myself “how did they do that way back then without modern conveniences?” Astounding how talented and creative people can be when they aren’t filling their every moment with mindless electronic distractions.

As for the operas, always a treat. The Met orchestra is top notch, and while there aren’t superstar singers the likes of Pavarotti or Callas these days, the singing is far better than I’d hear most other places availabile to me aside from my own (massive) mp3 collection.

And speaking of Callas (whose voice I adore), my friend (the one I supped with) gave me a biography of her as a gift. I was very touched. And bemused. The thing is huge and weighs about five pounds (it’s hardcover and full of delicious pics), and here I am trying to travel light, knowing I have luggage to lug through the streets, stairwells, and subway tunnels of New York. Good thing I didn’t fly here, as I’d have to buy a seat for the book on the return trip.

Spring is blooming in the city, and the landscape is full of mass plantings of tulips and hydrangeas, as well as cheery clumps of  flowers ringing sidewalk trees in the only garden space most residents  have. Space is at a premium, and everyone makes the best of it. I had wanted to spend some time in the fantastic green (yes, green!) vistas of Central Park, but it didn’t happen this time. At least I wasn’t rained on the whole trip; it was just dreary and gloomy, kind of like my room.

Again, like last year, I didn’t see a single person who I felt threatened by during all my subway rides and street walks. I’m not sure what to make of this. I kept near crowds of regular shmoes like myself, tried to blend in and look confident and blase (“hey, I do this all the time!”), and never felt afraid. I’d be more concerned walking around certain dank areas back home. Here, there are people everywhere at all hours in a city that never sleeps, most of them just going about their business. Kids, moms, tourists, working people, largely unfazed with their surroundings or the hour, interacting more with their smartphones than the people all around them. Just like me (I’m typing this in the waiting area at Penn Station). See how nicely I blend?

I got out of my comparatively rural surroundings for a few days into one much more cosmopolitan. I heard foreign tongues everywhere. I sat next to a young man at the opera who appeared to be, like me, alone, and during the intermission I asked how he was enjoying it. He was European, and had seen the opera (Aida) many times in Vienna and other European cultural centers. I noted that during the performance he didn’t have his seat translator on, so he was likely multi-lingual, unlike my boorish American and unsophisticated self. It was a bit humbling.

So while it was nice to get away, it will also be nice to get back to my version of Kansas where I (unfortunately) fit in better. This city knows I don’t really belong here, as much as I may aspire to. But I’ll keep trying it on for size nonetheless, and hope it doesn’t take much notice.

Online college

Online-College-Freshman
Tomorrow I start my 39th, and next to last, college course before finishing my degree, which I began almost thirty years ago. I went into business for myself right after high school graduation, then spent about ten years working slowly on college credits while running it. Since I didn’t need a degree being my own boss (and the one I pursued wasn’t even in business), I went solely for personal interest and satisfaction. I like learning and am naturally curious about things. I stopped school after finally getting my associate’s in 1996, but picked up the mantle again three years ago because I was bored (instead of working sixty-hour weeks as I had for many years, I was down to forty). Also, the new availability of online learning appealed greatly to the introvert in me.

Online class is great for introverts. I participate more in online classes, via discussion boards, than I would in live classes, because live classes are dominated by extroverts. That’s where they thrive. Online is where I thrive. It’s not unlike Facebook, where I am more social than I tend to be in real life. So yes, I strongly applaud online school, as it allows those of us who are quieter and more reserved to “chime in” in a way that works for us. Actually, you can’t shut me up on the class discussion boards, and it’s an area of every course I’ve taken where I have gotten very high participation marks. What’s more, classmates tend to appreciate my carefully rendered feedback. None of this is to say that I cannot participate in class discussions in real life, but new people and environments make me uncomfortable and it takes a while to warm up to them. Even once I do, I am always more verbose with the written word than I ever have been with the spoken, so I can really shine online.

I’ve always done well in school, whether live or online, because I am observant of things others don’t notice and am hyper-focused on the written and spoken word, introvert qualities that serve one well in learning. I take things very literally, and am always finding errors in instructions and written texts (I have found many professors’ syllabi to be riddled with errors and lack of clarity – and these people have advanced degrees). A life in academia may have suited me, and I may have pursued it were it not for my hesitance to go to college after high school, which was a little intimidating. Running my own business appealed to me more as it gave me lots of control, and if there’s one thing I like it’s the freedom of having control over my life.

But now it has all come full circle. I no longer have that control and work for the Man, and in four months I will have a college degree in English literature and poetry. Yes, I know, not the most marketable of degrees, but it is the subject area that interests me the most. My intent was not to get a marketable degree, but to get a degree period, and to also satisfy personal interest along the way. It has been a nice journey, for the most part (I could have done without the Statistics courses, even though I aced them). If it were not for the expense, I would continue on to a master’s. We’ll see.

Is online school easier than live school? I’ve done both and see little difference. I spend a good twenty hours a week on classwork – three hours a day – which includes reading, writing papers, tests, and the discussion boards, which are very time-consuming (reading the daily posts of twenty other students and responding to many of them in a qualitative way). The coursework is the same as that given in live classes, and the online curriculum is fully accredited by the regional college board. So aside from not having to drag myself to a physical location and being able to do my work at midnight if I so choose, there is little other difference – except that the courses are accelerated. What live classes cover in sixteen weeks, we cover in eight. So it can feel a little rushed (this was never more true than in my recent Western Civ class, where we covered 4000 years in two months).

Now, as for that poetry degree, I am aware that some do not consider it a “real” degree, much as they do not consider online classes “real” college. It seems the discipline of poetry is viewed as requiring no more skill than ruminating in a diary. To them, I would say this: try writing a poem that a respected literary journal would publish. Then come laugh at me. Fact is, professional writing of any kind – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenplays – is hard work. While poetry may not be highly valued, or even understood, in today’s world, it is the highest expression of our language. I enjoy the linguistic and creative challenge it poses, the introspection it requires, and the possibility of moving someone else with something I’ve written. That is reward enough for me.

The Great Indoors

Great-Indoors-Sears

The introverted part of me loves snowstorms, almost as much as it loves rain. What’s up with that? Is this just a preference of mine, or do other introverts feel this way about inclement weather? I think its appeal to me is multi-faceted. For one thing, it sets a mood that seems to match my preferred one: contemplative, peaceful, cozy, secure. I don’t quite understand why many people see rain as sullen and gloomy and cause for complaint, yet get excited about snow. Perhaps it’s because there is more to do in the snow – sledding, snowball fights, building snowmen. Even shoveling. It invites activity. But you can’t do much with rain except stay inside, and that’s probably one reason I’ve always liked it. I’m basically an indoor kind of guy, and always felt a little threatened and overwhelmed by the big wide world outside my door. Too unpredictable. I’d rather read about it. The indoors always felt safer, even if I knew my preference for it was a bit abnormal. Also, I wasn’t athletic, and in grade school rain always meant we had to stay inside (yay!) and play some pseudo- sport I was more comfortable with (dodge ball, volleyball), versus one where I would feel totally inept (baseball, football). Even away from school, if it were a nice day I would feel pressured to do something outdoorsy with someone, and often there was no one around (most of the kids in my neighborhood were not the sort I wanted to hang around with, so I had only two or three friends to choose from). And then there’s the matter of my fair skin and proclivity to sunburn. So yeah, indoor activities were much more user-friendly and suited to my temperament.

None of this is to say I do not like the outdoors. I spent lots of time outside as a kid, exploring “Mica Rock,” the woods, the stream, bike riding, swimming in our pool. I also like nature, even if I make little effort to engage with it (though I do love the forests of New Hampshire and the vistas of the Southwest). But as I got older and tied to my very demanding indoor businesses, the outside got put way on the back burner, especially when I lived in places with no yard. Now that I have a nice yard and more spare time I enjoy the outdoors more, but still love the rain and snow. It makes staying indoors feel “normal,” and that’s just fine by  me.

Metamorphosis

“The Beverly Hillbillies” was a new hit TV show, the first James Bond movie was released (“Dr. No”), Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart, and I was born into the world.  It was 1962, and Russian missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States had everybody a little nervous (leading to the installation of the hotline between the White House and the Kremlin). I, of course, remember none of this. What is my earliest memory? Who can say, given the unreliable and nonlinear nature of memory? It’s all pretty fuzzy, but then so is last week.

The biggest trigger of memory for me is music. Just this week I was listening to music from the seventies, as I often do, and remembering the heady days of my late teens. That was a special time for me – my first jobs (Caldors, Big G grocery store, Arco – I had three at once), my first car (a ’69 Mercury Montego), graduating from high school – all entries into the magical world of adulthood, which seems to lose some of its magic once you’re there for a while. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

My best friend got me the job at the gas station during my last year of high school, and a little over a year later I would own it. Being my own boss appealed to me greatly, and I now realize this was because of my independent and introverted nature – I didn’t like working for others, and still don’t. I’m not cut out for it.  I am very sensitive to how I am treated, and have a strong enough work ethic and sense of propriety that I don’t need someone breathing down my neck or second-guessing me all the time. Just leave me alone and I’ll function best. Entrepreneurship was for me, and it worked very well.

That song on the radio (“Cruel to be Kind”) put me back in that place for a brief instant, and it felt like it was yesterday. I don’t feel all that different in some respects from my 1979 self, except for the convictions and self-assuredness that thankfully come with age. While I felt somewhat defective back then due to my introverted nature, I now see it as perfectly normal for me and I wouldn’t trade it away even if I could. It does concern me some as I get older, as it’s easier to be independent and somewhat of a loner when young and able to take care of oneself. I don’t think I’d make a good nursing home resident, but then who does?

Why do we age? I suppose life would be pretty stagnant and boring if we didn’t. Life necessitates growth, and everything that grows and expands eventually reaches a point when it must change into something else.

Excuse me while I change into something more comfortable.

Road kill

Roadkill really bothers me, especially when it’s a squirrel like the one I just saw. I like squirrels. They’re cute and playful and fun to watch. Yes, they also get into my birdseed and bury nuts in my flowerbeds, but I forgive them their natural instincts. Lying in the road injured and half dead as unsympathetic cars hurry by is an apt metaphor for the often hectic pace of modern life. We are overtaxed and overburdened, so we needfully filter out some “unessentials.” Of course, the list of what is unessential continues to grow. While I don’t expect motorists to stop their cars and nurse an injured squirrel, I wonder how many of them at least felt some sympathy for its plight?

I saw a scene on The Waltons a few weeks back wherein Elizabeth finds a bird that has fallen from its nest and goes to the trouble of putting it back (apparently, it’s not true that the parents will reject it – unless it is injured.

Nature is often practical if not cruel). Were Elizabeth living in today’s world, she would likely be too busy texting as she scurried along Walton’s Mountain, oblivious to her surroundings and the stupid bird. I know, times have changed and I’m starting to sound my age, but I do often wish life were simpler. As much as I love some aspects of modern technology (I’m sitting outside – in nature – typing this on my laptop), there has to be some balance (for me, this is partially accomplished by not subscribing to cable or broadcast television. Excess hours I’d be tempted to lazily squander on silly reality shows are spent reading instead).

Many things in nature are short-lived (except trees), at least from a human perspective. But time is a human illusion, and perhaps nature is not as cruel and careless as it can sometimes seem. Nature does continually renew itself, and many more squirrels will come along to replace my dead friend (we could say this of humans, too, of course). But it reminds me of the story about a boy and his father walking along the beach amongst hundreds of stranded starfish that had washed ashore. As the boy picked one up to toss it back in the water, the father laughed and told him he couldn’t possibly put a dent in the situation and make much of a difference. The boy, pointing to his starfish, said “It makes a difference to this one.”

Make a difference.

Ode to trees

Trees. I’ve always loved them. Shrubs, too (little trees!)  I wasn’t a tree climber, I never had a tree house, but I did take special notice of trees – their often majestic grandeur, their shiny and intricate leaves, the wonderful shade they provide, the wide array of flowers and fruit they bear. I remember the huge chestnut tree in the neighbor’s yard when I was a kid and the minefield of chestnuts that would litter the ground beneath. I would pick them up and save the best ones, admiring their hard, shiny surface and deep brown color. Another neighbor had a gorgeous pink azalea that made such an impression on me that to this day, when I see a similar one, I am reminded of my childhood. In our yard we had a flowering white dogwood, fragrant purple lilacs, a bright yellow forsythia and a red Japanese maple.

Trees just stand there, gracefully, unobtrusively, year after year, asking little and giving much. They’re kind of introverted, trees are. I respect them. When I visit a far away place, the unfamiliar trees are one of the first things I notice. I love planting trees and watching them grow and change with the seasons. Trees are one of the things I love most about spring,  savoring the fireworks of white pears and pink cherries and stunning magnolias that sport both colors in abundance. There are specific trees in the area that I admire and remember and try to visit during their bloom. In the fall, the color explosion is totally different yet equally awe-inspiring. And lets face it, isn’t one of the dreariest things about winter the fact that the trees are bare? Wouldn’t winter be more pleasant if they weren’t? Thank goodness for evergreens, silent and graceful when covered in snow. Is there anything more magical than a forest?

I’ve been busy planting trees and shrubs in my yard this summer, something I’ve done at every house I’ve lived in (too bad I keep moving and leaving them behind!). This time around I chose a weeping cherry, a Blue Angel holly, royalty and Mother’s Day azaleas, a Blue Star juniper, a burning bush, a Japanese andromeda, and assorted roses. I also have two existing white birch trees framing the yard that are mature and gorgeous, a weeping mulberry that I’ve trimmed into an umbrella shape, a large, graceful Japanese maple, and a wide assortment of flowers that were already here and have surprised me all summer long. Many butterflies, hummingbirds, cardinals, finches, and squirrels come to visit – two of them practically jumped into my lap as I sat on the side porch the other morning. A number of them chase each other around the yard and seem to enjoy it as much as I do. To them, it’s a storeyard for nuts, but to me, it’s paradise.

Nature Boy

I’ve always been an indoor kind of guy. When I was a little kid in grade school, I wasn’t good at socializing or sports, so I hated recess. Kids knocked me down. I was good at my school work, which was, of course, indoors. At home, I did have a friend or two in the neighborhood and we did things outside (including, apparently, terrorizing the fat lady who lived  down the street, but that’s another blog entry – I promise), but I spent many summers at my grandmother’s house where there were no kids. I’d do word puzzles and jigsaws, walk with my grandma downtown, and spend countless hours sitting on the neighbor’s front porch while she and my grandmother gossiped about everyone on the street (mostly an Italian and Polish neighborhood, until a notorious family of hooligans moved in. This was the 1970s, and I heard words for African Americans I had never heard before).

As a young adult, I continued to prefer indoor activities to outdoor ones. There were some practical reasons for this (I was very fair-skinned, I still didn’t care for sports, and I was allergic to grass and pollen), but truth be told I often felt too exposed outside. I liked to keep to myself, and didn’t want the world watching me or talking to me. Many days I stayed inside with the blinds closed, safe in my little cocoon yet often feeling very isolated. I loved rainy days because they normalized my indoor preference. I felt threatened by the outside, and quite possibly was a little too reminded of how the rest of the world was out there having fun and being boisterous and socializing and doing everything that I condemned myself for not doing. I didn’t understand that I was an introvert, and that quiet and solitude were normal states of being for me. Granted, I may have had other issues too (agoraphobia?).  I’m sure it is quite possible to be introverted and love nature, but my point is that to me, the outside was the domain of extroverts and I didn’t belong there.

As I got older I became a little more adventurous outdoors, but not very. I would never sit on the grass or god forbid lay on it, I never went swimming, and walking the dog around the block was a big deal. I had a fabulous house in a high-class neighborhood with a big gazebo in the backyard, but I rarely sat in it. It looked nice from my living room window, though.

When I moved to a resort area of Cape Cod and bought a house right on the main drag of the business district, thousands of people passed by my front sidewalk daily. What was I thinking? My very gregarious friend would sit on the stoop of the shop next door and schmooze with the locals, but I rarely joined. I conveniently had to work all the time, and preferred to stay inside with the very non-threatening dog.

Now, five years and two homes later, I live in a house with a fabulous yard, a front and side porch, and  a large back deck. I’ve spent more time outside here in the past few months than I ever did at my other homes. I frequently sit on my porch reading or web surfing and enjoying the view of the yard. I’ve done lots of landscaping, tree cutting and stump digging, and am trying to get my pond set up.  I love it here, and I’ve been trying to figure out what triggered the switch in my behavior. Is it the yard? Perhaps. It is very inviting and pleasant, there is lots to look at (the prior owner won an award for the landscaping and flowers), and there is enough of a buffer between me and the neighbors that I never see them. And yet, there is much activity in the neighborhood – sounds from the nearby playground, lots of people walking by, barking dogs, traffic – but none of it requires my interaction, and it’s far enough away that it doesn’t threaten my space. It’s comforting that the commotion is there because it makes the place, and me, feel less isolated, which I think was a problem with other places I’ve lived. It’s a beautiful noise, as Neil Diamond put it, the music of life.

This space just feels right for me. My only regret is that it’s taken me thirty years and nine homes to find it.