Old photos

Old photos

I dug through my photo collections yesterday trying to find a particular shot that I may or may have not taken on a trip to Uzbekistan last year. I was unsuccessful, either because I didn’t take the picture, or I did but it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.

It doesn’t matter. Once I was in my Photos app there was no reason not to keep looking. (On the contrary, there were lots of reasons to stop what I was doing and address my actual current life.)

I have a huge stack of old photo albums that I still carry with me and lug from house to house and country to country. I used to display them in a low bookshelf that has also been dragged all around the world since my parents gave it to me back in the early 1990s. For a while the pictures shared the shelf with knick-knacks and souvenirs. On the bottom shelf was a shoebox full of unsorted pictures that I promised I would someday put into proper albums. I still have that shoebox, and I still promise myself that I’ll do sort them someday.

Eventually the bookshelf overfilled, and first the knick knacks and then the box of pictures were removed to make room for more albums. (I also made it a point to start buying albums that were slim, because there just wasn’t much space on the shelves.)

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I read somewhere recently that no matter where you are in the world, there is almost undoubtedly always a spider watching you.

I think the point of this tidbit was that there are a whole lot of spiders in this world, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them, because they are all around us all the time and aren’t bothering us.

One might even be crawling on you right now, maybe in your hair or on the back of your leg, and that’s fine, right?

(You should probably stop to check now. It’s okay, I won’t judge.)

But of course that’s not how I read it.

Don’t get me wrong. I like spiders. Most of them anyway. When I was a kid, my mother told me that spiders are good luck, and a classmate told me that they are the smartest bugs. In retrospect, those points probably had more to do with Charlotte’s Web than any actual science, but the impression was made and I thought of spiders were both cool and smart.

The only times I’ve ever had this belief challenged were those times when the spider was really big and I was trapped with it in the bathroom. It’s hard to think positively of anything that’s invading your private time.

Since reading that, though, I’ve become a lot more aware of spiders watching me. I think they know I’m onto them, too, and are just messing with me. There’s one crawling on the painting behind my TV right now. Today there was one crawling at my office, hanging out on the computer cables. For the past week there’s been a fingernail-sized pervert living in my shower, just behind the shampoo. And today, as I had dinner on the balcony, a little orange guy hopped on my bike and watched me eat, as if pepperoni pizza were a perfectly normal part of the arachnid diet.

Were they always there, these spiders, just watching me as I went on my way, wholly oblivious to them? Or is this all some weird spider conspiracy to drive me crazy?

Do I even want to know?

Free book!

Free book!

Once upon a time (well, earlier this year) I dedicated myself to writing a short story every week, which I shared here. Some of them were admittedly junk, but I was quite proud of a few of them. I took those favorites and collected them into an ebook which I posted on Amazon, because it was easy and because they didn’t mind that I use a pen name (screw you, Apple! stop invading my privacy!).

I shared it with family and friends, and then moved on, but someone recently convinced me to try advertising it, and since I’m all about doing the easiest thing possible, I have decided to run a promotion on Amazon. So starting today, my book, Selected Daydreams, is available for free. (If you use Kindle Unlimited, it is always available for free, so as to appease my aunties who are cheap and won’t pay $2.99 for anything.)

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Peaceful as a hurricane eye

Peaceful as a hurricane eye

When I was nine years old and convinced that I would someday be an astronaut, I lived on the twenty-first floor of a condominium placed snug against Luquillo Beach in Puerto Rico. It was a one-bedroom apartment and there were three of us, but all of the couches pulled out and became beds and so I slept in the living room in front of the TV and developed what was in retrospect a probably unhealthy relationship with MTV. (Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” which was a hit at the time, and New Order’s “True Faith,” which wasn’t but still seemed to get played quite a bit—these two invariably bring me back into that room, with all the thoughts and sensations of being small and helpless but eager and defiant. A bunch of salsa and merengue hits will do the trick as well—Sergio Vargas’s “Si Algun Dia La Vez,” Willie Colon’s “El Gran Varon,” pretty much any of Wilfrido Vargas’s soundalike absurdities, whether they were hits that year or not—but since I don’t live in a Puerto Rican community anymore, I only hear those songs when I deliberately play them on my iPod, so I’m clearly already in the mood for nostalgia. Madonna and New Order are more likely to blindside me at the supermarket.)

We actually lived in Puerto Rico for just over a year, most of which we spent about a mile away from the beach, in a small house in a neighborhood on a hilltop on the other side of the highway. From the top of my street I could see the Atlantic as a blue horizon and smell the salt air, though I suspect you can do that anywhere in Puerto Rico. It’s a small island, after all.

But for the last two months that we lived there were stayed in the apartment on the beach, and those memories are more vivid. Perhaps because I was nine, and my experiences were cementing into memories that I would carry with me for the rest of my life, instead of the gelatinous impressions that are pretty much all that is left of my earlier years. In many ways I suppose my life as Me began in that apartment.

Good memories: the balcony faced the sea. We’d leave the sliding doors open to allow in the breeze, and whether I sat in the living room or out on the balcony it still felt like I was sitting outside. There was nothing between the building and the beach except a small strip of patio; I remember the back door in the lobby leading straight out onto the sand. At night—and during the rare parts of the day when my family was quiet—you could hear the ocean washing against the shore as if you were in a giant seashell.

I once had a bouncy ball bounce over the railing and disappear. I ran down to the beach and looked for it, but it could have gone anywhere, up to and including alternate dimensions of time and space. My family asked me what I was doing, but for some reason I was unwilling to explain. It wasn’t a particularly treasured bouncy ball. I just wanted to find it again.

My teacher at school wanted me to belong to one of her after school clubs, but it meant me missing the bus. She asked my mom if she could drive me home instead, and somehow this was okay. I rode in the front seat without a seat belt. We talked the entire way home, though I can’t remember a single conversation. She drove a Toyota Camry and it smelled like coffee. She wouldn’t turn off the car, just pull up somewhere near my building and let me get out. Somehow this was okay, too. I must have made some kind of impression on her that she was willing to chauffeur me around; I can’t even remember which club it was she wanted me to join.

A teenage cousin made me a fishing pole out of a Pepsi can and a stick. He made himself one, too, and we went fishing in a creek near my building. I didn’t catch anything, but he caught two fish that we fried up and ate back at the apartment, even though when he gutted them some weird parasite came running out of the fish’s stomach and scurried down the drain.

Not-so-good memories: Not far from our building there was a line of crude shacks where fisherman sold the day’s catch, alive, dead, or cooked, depending on your preference. (I’m told that in subsequent years the Board of Health demanded that the shacks be replaced with proper sanitary structures, but back then these things were barely-standing, with hand-painted signs and live animals dangling in sacks above the counter.) We bought a bag of crabs and had a neighbor cook them for us. I didn’t let on that it bothered me, but I did quietly excuse myself when the crabs started screaming.

Once a kid on the bus grabbed my lollipop and threw it out the window. An older kid in the back caught it in midair and gave it back, and on the way home I ate my lollipop and cried at the same time while half the kids mocked me and the other half stood ready to defend me. I don’t think I was the smallest kid on the bus but I was probably the easiest to pick on.

The fingers on one of my hands were swollen for most of that year in Puerto Rico, because a cousin of mine dropped a cinder block on my hand. It wasn’t his fault, we were trying to redecorate my grandmother’s garden and, well, that wasn’t such a good activity for small children, as it turns out. Cinder blocks are heavy, and he was either six or seven years old. The block tore the skin and fingernail clean off my middle finger. I don’t remember any of the adults being especially upset. They wrapped it up and told me stories about relatives who had lost limbs doing weird things. Amazingly, they had quite a few examples to share.

Memories, neither good nor bad: The day before we left a cousin trapped me in the kitchen and asked me if I felt sad about leaving. I said no, because I honestly wasn’t. Her face, mean-looking at the best of times, turned vicious and she insisted that I would be devastated without her. Then she stormed off. We didn’t see each other again for twelve years.

A big storm passed over our city. We ate in the living room and watched through the sliding glass doors as the sheets of rain streaked across the sea. It wasn’t hurricane season but my cousins—there were always relatives in our house, at least in my memory—said it was anyway, and the adults told us and each other hurricane stories. The previous summer my cousin—the mean-looking one—and I had played in the street during a tropical storm. We were both small enough that we could almost swim in the rain-swollen gutters. I’m pretty sure we tried, anyway. I very quickly conflated their hurricane stories with my own tropical storm playdate.

I spoke to my mother this weekend, and as it always does the conversation turned to Puerto Rico. I haven’t been back since I left nearly thirty years ago. My parents keep in touch with their siblings, though, and my mom always tries to tell me about them. I listen, and can mostly keep track of the names and goings-on of these increasingly distant relatives. This time I listen, though. It appears that they’re all giving up. Buying the next available seats on flights heading to the States, no caring about the day or even really the destination. Some are staying behind to sell their houses or pursue their insurance claims, but right now, at least, none intend to stay.

In my lifetime immigration has become a hot-button issue. As Americans our point of view assumes that people from around the world are eager to come to us. Some see it as nefarious and others as a blessing, but the underlying belief in America-as-magnet is unquestioned.

Puerto Ricans aren’t, of course, immigrants. We are Americans, and are simply relocating from one part of America to another, just as people from New Orleans moved to Houston after Katrina.

But I understand that for my family, moving from Puerto Rico to the mainland isn’t that simple. It is immigrating. It’s a permanent change, and not one that they had wanted to make. It was something that people did a hundred years ago, or that they did today from remote war-ravaged countries.

And now it also happens at home.

And I have to wonder, will it stop there? The Europeans who came to America in centuries past didn’t stop in New York or Boston; they kept going, into parts of the world that appeared as little more than blank spaces on a map.

When we can’t take care of this group of Americans—or the next group, if there is a next group—what happens when Americans start looking for a fresh start? Am I looking for a fresh start?

I don’t think much about Puerto Rico—my mean-looking cousin was almost absolutely wrong. We used to go every summer, but after that year we stopped. My world has grown a lot since then, and memories of the apartment on the beach are mostly, though not entirely, consigned to that fuzzy bin of early childhood memories. For all I know the apartment itself has been consigned to a rubbish heap after the storm. And the seafood shacks, building codes and all, are probably gone. My grandma’s finger-destroying garden, all the other places a nine-year-old would scamper, chasing and being chased by other floppy puppychildren. What is left, and where do we go now?

I think I’m back

I think I’m back

Or at least I’m going to try.

The past two or three weeks have been the first time since about April that I’ve felt like I should be writing, as opposed to doing whatever I’ve been doing. Between work and travel and just being me, I haven’t had a moment to squeeze in much of anything. I’ve taken to waking up at four in the morning so that I can get at least a little exercise in before my day gets going. (I’m not really getting in shape but at least I’ve been able to arrest some of the bloat.) Moments where I’m not doing something for someone else have been so few and far between that I’ve relished the hard-won break and forced myself to rest.

Until a few weeks ago, when I realized that I was spending quite a bit of time watching TV, fiddling with my camera, or (okay, fine, I’ll admit it) playing video games, and it was starting to become a waste. I haven’t read a book in months, and haven’t put any writing up on my wall. More to the point, I wasn’t enjoying resting anymore. My writing muscles were crying out for some exercise.

This week I picked up the new edition of Marianne Moore, and the line about “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” reminded me that I had a goal once, not long ago, and I need to get back to it.

So here we go again. I have a few posts queued up, and I believe that I can spend at least part of some mornings doing some writing instead of lingering over my coffee and playing Peggle on my phone (which is what I did this morning).

I think I’ve exhausted my supply of good old pictures, though, but I bought this expensive camera so I better start using it. (I mean, I live in the middle of Africa, it shouldn’t be hard to find something to photograph.)

I hope you’ll all join me again. I certainly look forward to reading your pages again, too.



It’s been a while

It’s been a while

I promise I didn’t intend to just walk away the way that I did—a number of things suddenly came up and got in the way.

To be fair, though, I did intend to take a break. The last story I published wasn’t a story at all, it was bits and pieces cobbled together from a novel I’ll never write. I was a bit bummed when I hit “Publish” on it because it wasn’t any good, but then I had my schedule to keep so I did. It was time for a break.

I hadn’t meant to stop right away, but then my chickens died. I learned later that an outbreak of highly-contagious avian influenza (“really bad bird flu”) in this region. My poor free-range chickens must have been infected by some random bird that stopped in my garden on the way to or from Lake Victoria. One of them was sick on Sunday, and by Tuesday all were dead. A veterinarian advised me to euthanize them once it became clear that they had all been exposed, but I wasn’t sure I had the strength, physically or emotionally, to do it quickly and cleanly. Instead, when their seizures hit, I scooped them up and stroked their backs and whispered to them to keep them calm while their little hearts gave out.

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Assuming I stick to my schedule, this Sunday I’ll publish my 100th post. (Actually it’s my 101st, but there was a post that I deleted before anybody could read it because it was stupid, so it doesn’t count.)

I think now is as good a time as any to take a look back, and think ahead about the future.

I started this blog almost a year ago, basically out of spite. I was mad at my boss and decided to show my displeasure by no longer coming in an hour early to catch up on email before the morning meetings. (I also stopped attending the morning meetings, because I was catching up on emails. So take that, Boss! Even better, I still won an award for my good work, and the one time someone asked me about my attendance at morning meetings I threw such a fit that they never asked again, so really it was a win-win for me all around.)

Continue reading “Milestones”

The perambulist

The perambulist

My favorite walk is still a loop I used to take in the evenings when I was young and insomniac. I’d start at Houston Street and follow Broadway up to Columbus Circle, then take Fifty-Ninth Street to Second Avenue and then back down to my apartment in the East Village.

This was back in the late nineties and early 2000s, when New York had become safe but was still a bit scruffy and sometimes smelly. My loop took me from the edge of SoHo, which was only beginning to transition from hip to faux-hip, and followed a succession of distinct districts that may as well have come from different planets: the wide-eyed college kids in Washington Square, the druggies and punks who still colonized Union Square, then the high-end antiques district that abruptly became the wholesale perfume district; a fleeting taste of office towers at Madison Square, then the ever-increasing commercial presence that seemed to culminate at Macy’s on Herald Square. It didn’t culminate there, of course, instead pushing through all barriers of possibility to explode into the surreal hypercommerce of Times Square–intoxicating or disgusting, depending on your point of view, though I think it can be both at the same time. Then things got calmer and classier on the way to Columbus Circle, which mattered to me back then because it was home to Colosseum Books. I’d walk on the south side of 59th Street to look in the shop and hotel windows, instead of on the Central Park side, which was still not a place to be alone in the dark. Through the skyscrapers of Midtown, then, to Second Avenue, which was still a decidedly Honeymooners sort of New York–immigrants shouting out the windows to relatives on the streets, unpretentious and sometimes unwelcoming bars serving food and drinks that were “good” but not actually good.

I don’t know how long it took. I didn’t have any sort of timepiece back then–I’m too neurotic to wear a watch and cell phones were considered a needless luxury.

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Memories and junk

Memories and junk

I’m not a pack rat. It’s just that I think twice, or more, before throwing things out. I’ve been vindicated often enough that I stand by my method. Besides, my house isn’t messy, and even my junk drawers are fairly well-organized.

And I think I’m honest with myself about what might or might not be useful in the future. I threw out the apple corer when I was certain that using one would never be easier than just cutting the core out with a knife. But I kept both muddlers, because although it hasn’t happened yet I can imagine someday having a party where drinks get mixed in two different rooms, and won’t all my drunken guests be glad they have the luxury of crushing mint leaves no matter where they are?

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