Friday, December 31, 2010

Open Letter to 2010, A Fond Farewell

Dear 2010, oh year that has passed,

It is with no remorse that I bid you adieu, a fond farewell for the times we have shared. I had such high hopes for you. And, in many ways, you were good to me. I am grateful for you.

But it has not been easy.

You wanted me to lose weight, as did many of the years that came before you. I knew it for a long time. And even though I thought it would be impossible to lose as much as my 30 pound goal, I managed to lose nearly 50. Thanks to Weight Watchers, I am empowered, a master of my own domain. I needed success desperately. I had no idea how much I also needed the help and support.

Maybe thanks to the weight loss, or thanks to traveling alone, or to moving to Queens, I started dating again. It had been a long time. It was about time. But my timing is still off: I still can't manage to find someone when they're available, or manage to fall in love with someone who will love me back. Romances that initially seem destined eventually fizzle without reason. Calls and text messages just stop coming. Second dates never turn into third dates. And the older I get, the less hope I have for ever getting married. I thought this might be the year that could make it seem possible, but I'm no better at having a relationship now than I was ten years ago. I'm just better at eliciting invitations for first dates.

Thank God I didn't get pregnant. I can't believe I still have to worry about that, not only because of my lack of insurance, but because of my perpetual singlehood.

I also worried about paying the rent, even more during your year than I ever had before, even after having moved to Queens to reduce the rent by half. I paid the rent on a credit card, something I haven't had to do since 1997. And although I finally got an apartment with a bedroom, it was someone else's apartment, making my bedroom the only part of it that felt like mine.

Twelve months ago, I placed very few demands on you, 2010. I only requested a few simple things. And despite all of the good things you brought about (though 2009 put you to shame in terms of my career success and stability), you need to own up to your shortcomings.

You broke my heart on Valentine's Day.

You left me alone on Independence Day.

And you most certainly are going to make me cry tonight, on New Year's Eve, a night I'd had such high hopes for. What's left of my heart to break?

So I ask you, on our last night together, to be gentle with me. Treat me kindly and gingerly, for I am delicate and sensitive. Let me pass peacefully in the night into the new year. Hand me off to 2011 with as much love and luck as you can. I needed so much more from you than you could give me. And so it is time for us to say goodbye.

But I will not forget...

Fondly,
Sandi

Related Reading: Open Letter to 2010

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Six-Word Year In Review

For as verbose as I can be on this blog, I actually embrace the freedom and creativity brought about by the restrictiveness of brevity. I'm not only an active Tweeter, but also an avid six word memoirist for SMITH Magazine, whose Six Word stories were originally inspired by the flash fiction of Hemingway.

For the second year in a row, I won SMITH's year-end contest with WNYC, and their popular local NPR radio show, "The Leonard Lopate Show."

Last year, I won for my Six Word Resolution: "End my twenty month dry spell." (A resolution I kept, by the way.)

This year, my two winning Six Words on 2010 (the only winner for two entries) were:
  • "Went from self employed to unemployed"
  • "Lost 50 pounds. Found myself underneath."
To listen to this year's interview with Leonard and the editors of SMITH Magazine, click here or on the player below:



To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

So This Is Christmas

This Christmas was fraught with imperfections and mishaps.

As though it wasn't bad enough that I couldn't afford to buy the gifts I would have liked to have given to my dear loved ones....

Negotiations for a new job opportunity didn't go as simply as I'd expected, dragging the conversation out over the holidays, my life and career's future hanging in the balance.

My flight home to Syracuse on Wednesday was canceled after dragging the airport wait out for five hours.

My airport sushi dinner came back to haunt me in the middle of Wednesday night back in my Astoria apartment, interrupting my night's sleep after only three hours and granting me only thirty minutes of uninterrupted spurts until the alarm awoke me one final time to get up and go back to the airport.

I was so sick on Thursday that I barely ate all day, and only managed to choke down some pizza and chocolate on Christmas Eve, foregoing wine and cookies. My back was hurting so badly that I moaned on the couch and slept with a hot water bottle pressed up against it.

Christmas morning, pajama bottoms falling down from my newly-flattened stomach, I strapped my size 12 jeans on with a belt, letting them hang around my hips, and dove into an egg-bacon-and-buttered-toast breakfast with gusto, despite the pain it caused my inner workings, and the roar of protest that emitted from them.

But it was a perfect Christmas in every way, because I spent it in a place I now can comfortably call home, where I feel I am loved and I am told that I am loved. This Christmas, I received that which I wanted, but more importantly, that which I needed. This Christmas, as in every Christmas of the last several years, I received the greatest, and most needed gift of all: the embrace of a family who has chosen me as one of its members.

It's a perfect Christmas when, upon attempting to drop me and Maria off after breakfast and shopping, Maria's mom asks, "Do you want to come get gas with me?" and we both jump at the chance, with a "Yes!" and a "Yay!" The simplest activities may be routine to them, but they are a revelation to me. I yearn for the chance to wander up and down the aisles of a Wegman's grocery store with them (somewhat satisfied by today's visit to Sam's Club, which is a revelation in and of itself). I savor every bite of breakfast and every sip of coffee with them. And together, we ooh and ah over Maria's new purple sparkly earrings and my new fuzzy Christmas socks, tall enough to peek out over the tops of my winter boots.

Once I got home to Syracuse, it didn't matter that I felt sick, or had a hard time getting here, or had only received three Christmas cards in the mail, or didn't have any room for a Christmas tree in my own apartment, relegating my ornaments to my storage unit. While I have been here, I have only made a cursory mental note of the emails or phone calls or text messages I haven't received, because I have all the love and affection and care and attention I could ask for here: from sister, brothers and brother-in-law, parents, and a whole zoo full of animals, who are as all over me as I allow them to be.

I haven't pushed them away yet.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Black Swan, And The View from Behind First Place (Excerpt from Extra Criticum)

I've posted a new blog on Extra Criticum inspired by the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan. Here's an excerpt:
There is a necessary struggle between first and second place, not only in the film, but in life. In first place, it is necessary to feel someone nipping at your heels from behind, so as not to rest on your laurels and become complacent at the top. Likewise, who would be satisfied to stay in second place without striving to overthrow the first? What point is there in being the alternate for a role you never get to perform? The understudy's greatest dream is that the principal will call in sick, get struck by a car, or mysteriously go missing.

The key to successfully shedding your second place status is to always assume it is a temporary state. As much as you're nipping at the heels of first place, someone else is nipping at your heels from third.
Click here to continue reading the full post...

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Photo Essay: Kings County Distillery

Kings County Distillery is one of the few small distilleries that have recently popped up in New York State, and one of only a couple in New York City (in good company with Breuckelen Distilling Company). They've recently opened their doors for limited tastings and tours in the holiday season, and despite feeling run down from all of my traveling this week, I managed to catch the last tour of the year.

The distillery is housed in a recently renovated building nestled in the Industrial Business Zone of North Brooklyn, off the Grand Street stop on the L train.



The operations are housed basically in two rooms: the tasting room and the distillery, where the alcohol is rendered.


spirit tanks, where the alcohol comes out



transference from bucket to bucket



residual corn solids, which are donated to a pig farm Upstate





bottling area





The moonshine is sweet, and much smoother than you'd expect (and than the "Angel's Share" that we tasted at some of the distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail). It's certainly proper for sipping and shooting.



moonshine tasting


bourbon tasting


The bourbon is also sweet, but with the characteristic smokiness from the charred virgin white oak barrels, which the bourbon ages in for five months.



The bourbon isn't yet available at retail (and won't be until March), so I snapped up a 200ml bottle for $23 in the tasting room.

Kings County Distillery will be open for a couple more limited tours on January 29 and February 12. And after a couple of tastes, some pizza from Roberta's - a short walking distance away - really hits the spot. They serve the moonshine there, too.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Vanity Files

I admit it. I'm vain.

But I'm not only a writer and a music industry executive - both of which are somewhat "behind the scenes." I'm also a performer.

And performers must, by trade, be vain.

We have to worry about our gray roots growing in, our shaggy eyebrows, our yellowing teeth, our rosy cheeks, our sagging bustlines and our muffintops. It's part of the job.

I've been a hired spokesperson on QVC for two years now, selling music on behalf of my former employer who now hires me freelance to hawk their musical wares. Over the first year, I watched myself gain so much weight that my bras stopped fitting - something never as noticeable as in my eight minutes of camera time.

I could hide from mirrors and from my reflection in dark window panes along New York City's streets, but I couldn't hide from my own demo reel.

Sure, I'd done my job well on QVC. I'd sold boatloads of CDs and more than earned my fees. And I'm sure, at that size, I was an accessible, realistic depiction of a young woman that QVC audiences could relate to. But I hated the way I looked.

So although I was getting physically injured from all the weight that I'd gained, and was in constant pain and fatigue, it was shame - and, ultimately, vanity - that pushed me into joining Weight Watchers last January.

Now, nearly a year later, I've lost almost 50 pounds, and I'm going back on QVC. And I can't wait to see myself.

I know it's vain. I know it shouldn't matter. But I wonder: will the weight loss give me a renewed confidence and heightened attractiveness that will sell even bigger boatloads of product? Or will I transform from the sorta chubby cute girl next door into the scantily-clad new neighbor from Brazil, an outsider, an other, and therefore a threat to the entire block?

When Stella gets her groove back, does she lose the trust and confidence of all those around her who have also lost their mojo?

Cross posted on Extra Criticum.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Photo Essay: MTA Vintage Subway Train Ride for the Holidays

Once again this year, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority has blown the dust off of some of their vintage subway trains and buses - normally housed in the Transit Museum in Brooklyn - and has re-released them onto NYC's streets and subway tracks for commuters to enjoy.

I'd ridden a train from the classic R1/9 fleet down the A line from Times Square to the Rockaways over three years ago, so I knew to expect a typical crowd of older train and transit enthusiasts, native New Yorkers, and transit workers, as well as befuddled tourists and newbie straphangers.



Today's train took a relatively short route from Queens Plaza to Second Avenue-Lower East Side along the M line, and - unlike my express ride a few years ago - made all regularly-scheduled local stops along the way.





Still, the train careened through the tunnel under the East River, the longest stretch we had of non-stop locomotion.







Each of the eight cars of this particular train were actually slightly different, some with beige-colored rattan seats...



and others with red leather cushions.



Walking between the cars was even more of a challenge than on the modern subway trains - something I usually refuse to do. The train seems to be going so FAST, and while traversing its narrow spaces, you not only cross other passengers, but also conductors who lean out of either side to shout their announcements to those waiting on the platform.



I didn't expect the fanfare that awaited us at the train ride's terminus at Second Avenue: a swing band, dancers, and revelers of all sorts in period costumes.









Riding those old trains provides a commute worthy of roller coaster squeals and amusement park snacks. I may just do it again next Sunday.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Borrowed Time

As a music fan, I’ve always enjoyed the passive listening experience – radio, music television, Muzak, jukeboxes – but I’ve always felt the need to own the music that I love. Whether it’s meticulously taxonomized in file folders on my laptop or painstakingly alphabetized on a wall full of shelves, ownership of the thing has always meant something.

I can never understand the appeal of these subscription-based streaming music services like Rhapsody. Sure, they give you access to a large catalogue. But so does a library. And sometimes you don’t want to just borrow a book, you want to own it.

Besides my hulking music collection – now dramatically reduced after moving to Queens – I’ve never owned much of significance. In my bedroom growing up, my father constantly reminded me and my sister, “That carpet is ours. When you sit on it, you’re borrowing it from us.” When I went away to college, my father bought me a mini fridge and said, “Just remember. We own this. You’re borrowing it.” Not surprisingly, I chose to buy my own microwave, just so that it would be mine.

I’ve never owned a home, only rented a number of apartments scattered across three boroughs in New York City. Even in my apartment now, despite my roommate’s protestations and my rent payments, I still feel like I’m borrowing my room from him. When I’m not there, I’m finding some other place to sleep: a hotel room, a couch or a guest bedroom.

I’ve never owned a car. In college, I borrowed several friends’ cars to drive to the mall, or Pizza Pub, or to the beaver pond where my senior seminar biology project lie rotting in the sun. I’ve rented dozens (if not hundreds) of cars on business trips and vacations, which has taught me to quickly acclimate to each new piece of heavy machinery I am to operate. And if something happens to the car – a lost hubcap, a scratch on the door – I can simply return the car silently and hope the rental agency doesn’t notice.

During this trip to LA, Steve not only let me crash at his place while he was on vacation, but offered to let me borrow his car. Eager to save money, I jumped at the chance, with the caviat, “If you feel comfortable letting me do that…”

Despite all my best intentions, I ended up in a tight squeeze and cracked the front parking light on a pole in one of those typical LA subterranean garages.

The horror.

Amidst my apologies and offers to reimburse the repair costs, and the sinking feeling that I let a friend down and never deserved his trust, one thought keeps nagging at me: I wish I owned my own.

It’s one thing if something happens to a car you pay for and rent. It’s another thing when it happens to a car you borrow as a favor and have to return to its owner, who has to drive it.

But if I owned my own car, whatever happened to it would be entirely up to me. And damage, repair, and loss are necessary components of ownership.

It’s not just a car. I wish I owned my own life. I wish I weren’t so dependent on the kindness of others, or on the professional services that cater to my transience. Taking life one day at a time, trying to make the most of each one, without knowing what lies at the end of the hike, I feel like I’m living on borrowed time. I don’t know from whom I’ve borrowed it, or when I’ll have to give it back. But right now, it doesn’t feel like mine, not mine at all.

Related reading:
A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
Avoiding Regret: Life on the Curb

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Photo Essay: Hollywood's Most Famous Caves

LA's parks are full of historical sites - be they vestiges of grand old estates, or former shooting locations for a variety of film and television productions. I have yet to hike to the former set of M*A*S*H, but I know it's there and it's on my list.

Today I returned to Griffith Park, whose huge expanse is full of hiking trails and nooks and crannies often left unmarked on maps, to visit the Batcave.

Bronson Canyon is situated in the southwestern section of Griffith Park, not far from Beachwood Canyon. The main trail, Brush Canyon Trail, is located at the end of the road past Camp Hollywoodland, where hikers share the land with horses and equestrians (presumably from the nearby Saddle Ranch Hollywood horse ranch).



I hiked a steep path for a while, but after having walked three miles around the Hollywood Reservoir, I was unimpressed with what looked like just another canyon. So I turned around and returned to the parking lot for the real draw of my trip: the Bronson Caves.



A young family was well on their way up the path when I heard their young son (who must've been six years old) say, very seriously and excitedly, "This is where they shot the Batman television series of 1966!"

Indeed, I was on the right track.



This is exactly where Adam West and Burt Ward were shown driving out of the Batcave in the TV show that ran from '66-'68. It looked a little more overgrown back then.

The caves themselves are presumed to be manmade, largely because this area of the park was home to the Los Angeles Stone Company's rock quarry.



They have been featured in a number of Hollywood productions, including Little House on the Prairie, Fantasy Island, and even Star Trek: Voyager.



The main tunnel is actually quite small - high enough to stand in, but short enough to be crossed in less than a minute. It is flanked by a couple of other openings that serve as crawlspaces whose only way out is also the way in.

On the other side of the tunnel, once again, the Hollywood Sign peeks out at you.



Griffith Park felt very much alive today, though overcast skies and a chill in the air reminded me that it's winter. But the grass was greener than I'd ever seen it, and there were plenty of signs of life - including some tracks in the mud from what I suspect was a mountain lion.



Yet another highlight of the hidden city known as Los Angeles.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Photo Essay: Lake Hollywood Reservoir



A few years ago, before I started spending so much time here, I met a guy in New York who was visiting from LA. When he asked me what I thought of his hometown, I told him I didn't really like it that much. And then he said to me, "Los Angeles is a hidden city. You have to know where to look. And you probably need a local to show you."

Over the course of this year, I've become almost a local myself, criss-crossing the country every month or two and establishing an existence that's practically bicoastal without having a regular place to stay when I'm out West. And every time I'm here, I set out to discover and uncover some new hidden corner of the city, a placemark on a map no tour guide would ever show his visitors.

Today I found Lake Hollywood.

Yes, Hollywood has a lake. It's actually a reservoir, one of two (the other being Silver Lake) that I know of in the area. But then again, I'm still getting to know LA.

Like many Los Angeles parks, especially the urban ones, I had a hard time finding the entrance. I drove round and round, past runners, walkers and bikers ambling down the side of the road, looking for some opening amidst all the locked gates where I could actually enter the perimeter and not just circle the surrounding roads.

And then I found the East Gate.



The East Gate is one of three entrances to the walkway/bike path that gives you a good view of the surprisingly lush lake.





But still, the lake is surrounded nearly entirely by rust-colored chainlink.



In fact, the entire path feels pretty industrial and urban.









The east side pathway leads you to the south of the reservoir, Hollywood sign hovering behind you, and the Mulholland Dam looming in the distance.



The dam is actually a real highlight, where the walkway continues past the Weidlake Gate and 933 feet all the way across the concrete structure that crosses Weid Canyon.





Just past the gate, though, before you can continue on the access road of the west side, another locked fence appears. In fact, the entire west side of the reservoir to the North Gate is closed due to landslides, so I turned around and retraced my steps back to the East Gate, now facing the Hollywood Sign, which winked at me from behind trees and power lines.

In both directions, Hollywood's locals bade me good morning as they passed me, never suspecting I wasn't one of them.

For more information on the reservoir's history and surrounding areas, click here.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

After years of feeling victimized, hiding from the world and asking the Universe, "Why me?" only loudly enough for it to hear, as of very recently I've learned to accept the perils of happenstance, the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune. I'm remarkably calm under diress, be it because of an acutely terrible event, or the slow, chronic torture of running on empty and depleting my coffer while I wait for something good to happen.

But lately, when bad things happen, the Universe shows its true colors, and somehow, serendipitously, everyday people - strangers - have stepped up to help out.

In my times of greatest need, I am regaining my faith in humanity.

It's not just the pizza truck guy who spotted me a Diet Coke when I only had enough money for a slice, though thank God for him...

The night before Thanksgiving, I returned home to my apartment building in Astoria after a full day of errands, Weight Watcher meeting, and celebrating the Eve with friends. At 4 a.m., I fumbled through my purse for my housekeys as I juggled a number of other packages and bags that I'd collected throughout the course of the day. I couldn't feel the keys, but maybe they'd gotten buried under my wallet or camera, or entangled in my handsfree headset cord, or tossed into the back zippered pocket where only certain supplies that shall remain unseen are hidden. I dropped everything to the ground and started digging, performing an excavation that must have been so loud - or was I swearing? - that it roused a second floor neighbor, who called out to me from his window.

"Hey, you need some help? You locked out?" he called out.

"I'm fine I'm fine I'm fine shit shit shit shit," I insisted, not wanting to broadcast my predicament and certain that my keys must be in there somewhere. I'd never lost keys before.

"Oh God oh God oh God..." I chanted, now searching every bag in my possession. I pulled my cellphone out to call my roommate, who was likely not home, not awake, or so otherwise occupied he wouldn't notice the incoming call.

I must've dialed my roommate ten times by the time I looked over and saw a pair of stocking feet standing next to me, attached to a pair of bare, hairy legs that belonged to my neighbor. He'd come downstairs to fetch me, he said, not wanting to leave me alone out in the cold in the middle of the night.

Thankfully he was calm enough to extract the location of my apartment window from me, and lo and behold, the window from which he'd called to me shared a fire escape with my kitchen, though technically he lived in the building next door (connected on the outside, but not by a hallway on the inside).

Quickly enough, he was pulling me to my feet, begging me not to cry as I explained I must've left the keys at the UPS Store while checking my mail. He then brought me upstairs, through his window, out onto the fire escape, and over to my kitchen, realizing the window was too small and positioned too awkwardly over the sink to provide a decent entry for us.

"That's a sink. We're not going in there," he declared.

So he hopped over the fire escape onto another ledge outside of my living room window, helping me over the railing and holding my shoes as I hiked up the skirt to my flimsy red dress, bare feet and legs flailing. He tore the screen off the window, pulled the pane up, and guided me inside, handing over my shoes as he closed the window back up and replaced the screen with a wave and a blown kiss.

I haven't seen him again yet to thank him. But I still can hardly comprehend how lucky I was that he entered my life that night.

This afternoon, I was full-swing into my second day of meetings in LA and felt a bit discombobulated after a 6:45 a.m. rise and two cups of coffee. I arrived to my 12:30 lunch an unheard of 15 minutes early, and took the time to find and squeeze into a free parking spot a couple blocks away. I leisurely wandered to the restaurant, realized I was the first to arrive, and decided to buy a magazine while I waited. As the cashier rang me up, I once again found myself fumbling for my purse, looking for something that was regrettably, devastatingly not there: my wallet.

My mind raced. Had it fallen out of my purse at Steve's house and was merely resting on the coffee table? Had I tossed it onto the passenger seat of Steve's car when I'd stopped to fill the tank? Had I ::gasp:: left it at the gas station?

I had no choice. I graciously apologized, excused myself, and headed back to my car. But as I turned down Clark Street in West Hollywood, I became disoriented, my mind racing as fast as my feet. I walked the entire block without seeing the Volvo I knew I had parked just a few minutes before. I paced up and down, certain that I'd just not seen it, that the cars parked in front and behind me had moved, rendering my car incognito.

I quickly determined I was losing my mind. I imagined having to call Steve and tell him his car had been stolen, or taken, or misplaced, or lost, or kidnapped, or abducted by aliens.

And suddenly my mind reoriented itself, and I realized I'd been walking on the wrong side of the road, and that I'd approached from the south and had parked across the street from where I was looking.

When I got back to the car, I immediately opened the passenger-side door and rifled through what littered the seat - my coat, scarf, and tote bag. I felt and looked, looked and felt, and found nothing.

My hands instinctively reached for my cheeks, flanking my face in a silent gesture of panic, furrowed brow and bulging eyeballs. I started to pace.

I then noticed a pale peach-colored piece of paper stuck into the driver's-side door.

A parking ticket?

Nope.

It was one of those slips that the mail carrier leaves in your mailbox when you're not home to sign for a package and you have to go to the post office to pick it up.

On it, there was a handwritten note that read: "Come find the mail lady on this block. I have your wallet."

Conveniently, I was now parked directly in front of a mail truck.

I snatched the postcard out and gazed up and down the block, legs spread wide, not knowing which direction to start off in. I stumbled north, then south, haphazardly, in a panic. I finally spotted her in the outer foyer of an apartment building with her mail cart, sifting through envelopes.

"I think I might have to hug you right now..." I told her, neglecting to introduce myself.

"Oh, are you the one? I've got your wallet!" she said. "Come with me to my truck."

It turns out that somehow, in my hurry and distraction, and perhaps my lack of routine in driving, I'd left my wallet on top of the car. I have no idea when I did that, but I can only imagine it was while I was pumping gas. Curiously, that was two hours before, which means I would have had to have driven from the gas station to Steve's house, parked outside of Steve's house, driven to the restaurant, and parked two blocks away - all with the wallet on top of the car, not falling off, not being stolen or its meager contents pilfered.

"I figured you must've gone to a restaurant nearby. I thought if I didn't find you, I'd just mail it to you," she continued as I just kept saying "Thank you" in disbelief.

I didn't know what to do once I regained possession of my wallet, and put it in its rightful place inside my purse. Should I give her some money? Should I get her address and send her a gift? Should I hug her, which is what I really wanted to do?

Instead, I did nothing but thank her and walk away, so I could arrive to my lunch meeting a typical 15 minutes late. As I stepped across the grass toward the sidewalk, she pointed down at my feet and said, "Watch out for that crap there." Another crisis averted.

I don't know who or what has been taking care of me lately. For the first time in a very long time, I don't feel alone - not in my apartment, nor my neighborhood, nor the world. Even nearly 3000 miles away from home, somebody was looking out for me.

I don't wish for any more bad things to happen. But I find myself so grateful for having experienced - and survived - the bad things that have happened. I am astounded at the kind of help I have received when I've needed it so badly, but have refused to - or haven't been able to - ask for it.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Open Door Policy

This time of year, in this economy, and especially in this industry, you hear well-meaning, greeting card variety words of encouragement from those still gainfully employed, be it your friends, family, (former) coworkers, or most regrettably, human resource professionals. Amidst the utterances of “I feel your pain,” “Change is good,” “You’ll be fine” and “This is actually a great opportunity,” one cliche always stands out to me: “When one door closes, another one opens.”

Of course, if taken literally, it’s totally not true. If one door closes behind you in a long hallway full of doors, sometimes you’ve got to leave the hallway altogether in order to find another door to open. And whereas someone else closed that door for you (by firing you, laying you off, demoting you or making you feel generally so unwanted and disempowered that you’re forced to leave), the onus is entirely on you to open the next door. Nobody is going to do that for you. If opportunity knocks, it’s probably because you toiled day and night to make sure it knew it was invited over.

And sometimes, when the door slams shut, it encloses you within a room with no other doors. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a big enough window in that room, you’re going to have to go back through that door to go anywhere else.

My mother, raised the youngest of ten children to a farmer on welfare, said that she always felt like she was on the outside looking in, wearing her neighbors’ hand-me-downs and eating government cheese while fellow schoolgirls went on comparatively fancy dinner dates in new dresses. She tells stories – literal or metaphorical, I’m not sure – of pressing her nose against window panes gazing upon scenes of home and hearth, and then returning home to poverty, despair, and alternating violence and neglect.

Perhaps in response to her own upbringing, my mother raised me to feel exactly the opposite: I always felt like I was on the inside, looking out.

My entire childhood, I was trapped inside a sanitized, sealed-off house. No one ever came in. And we rarely were released from it. Strangely, though, all of its interior doors were open all of the time. For reasons I still don’t understand, my sister and I weren’t allowed to close our bedroom door all the way while we slept, beams of light often keeping me awake until my parents finally went to bed, and wafts of cigarette smoke trailing in to rouse me in the morning. For reasons I don’t think I’ll ever understand, we weren’t allowed to use the bathroom in complete privacy, forcibly leaving the door open more than a crack while we sat behind it on the toilet, or worse yet, splashed naked in the bathtub, even as our bodies grew and developed into more womanly forms.

This shattered any sense of bathroom sanctity: anybody could walk in at any time, for any reason. Our bodies clenched when we heard our father approach, necessarily passing the bathroom on his way to the back porch where he was eventually relegated to smoke. Legs crossed, arms folded in, body in half just in case he didn’t avert his eyes well enough, or the opening of the back door released a gust that would blow open the bathroom door entirely.

With all of those open doors, you would think that I would have been able to move freely throughout the house that held me captive from the outside world, but there were many areas within that were also off-limits to me: the kitchen (except to walk through or clean it, but never to eat in unless it was officially mealtime), the pantry (except to clean it, and especially not while my mother was sneaking Twinkies and HoHos in there), and the dining room (which, since being converted into a gallery of crystal figurines and porcelain dolls, we weren’t even allowed to clean). So instead, I sought solace where I could manage a modicum of privacy in the house I shared with a mother who never left: in my father’s den, beneath his dusty stuffed moose head mounted on the wall, amidst his equally-dusty record collection, protected by nicotine-stained wallpaper that was so filthily unpalatable to my mother, it was likely she wouldn’t bother me in there, even with the door open. I understood why my father spent so much time in there.

When I went away to college, I was so used to the embarrassing exposure of every detail of my activity that it didn’t take me long to adjust to shared dormitory bathrooms. I often fell asleep in my single dorm rooms with the door open, for both naps and full nights’ sleep – at first accidentally and then intentionally. There was nothing I wanted more than to awake to one of my classmates standing in my doorway, coming to say hello at any hour of day or night. After years of being exposed and vulnerable, I adopted my own Open Door Policy. And for those times that I had to stay put (to study, or sleep, or whatever), I would make every attempt to let the world in. By senior year, I started hiding my room key outside my door so my friends and neighbors could come and go as they pleased whether I was there or not, eating food out of my fridge, heating up their own in my microwave, and sometimes even taking a nap in my own bed.

Just before moving out of my Manhattan studio, I accidentally fell asleep once with my apartment door open. I woke up to the sound of it being shut, but when I got out of bed to investigate, I only found a closed, unlocked door. A few weeks later, one of my neighbors who I’d never seen or spoken to before stopped me in the stairwell and asked, “Are you OK?” She then explained that she’d passed my open door and had peered into my dark apartment, calling out for me to no response. Afraid of scaring me, she simply shut the door and went on her way, but she’d been concerned about me ever since.

I thanked her and told her I was OK.

“I just didn’t want to scare you…” she repeated.

“Oh, it’s tough to scare me. I’m fine. Thanks.”

Now that I have a roommate, instead of hiding away in my bedroom behind closed doors as I expected to, I find myself sleeping with the door open again – sometimes just a crack, sometimes wide open. I awake to keys crashing onto coffee table, beer bottles clanking, the chatter of friends and girlfriend, and once again to the smell of cigarette smoke. And somehow these disturbances are comforting to me, reminding me that I’m not the only one in the apartment, not the only person in the world.

When I closed the door to my Manhattan studio one final time, I’d already opened the door to my new life in Queens. And for now, I’m keeping it open. You never know what might come knocking.

The difference now is, I decide which doors close, and which ones open.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Inside the Belly: Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tour



I took a tour of the Steinway & Sons piano factory today, but my camera didn't get much past the welcome doormat.

You see, all of Steinway's competitors would love to get their hands on the cutting-edge patents that keep Steinway ahead of the piano manufacturing curve. Without some access to the inside (worthy of Willy Wonka-level espionage √† la Slugworth's dastardly attempts at securing an Everlasting Gobstopper), all the rest of the world's manufacturers of pianos - or, as Steinway calls them, "piano-shaped objects" - are 40 years behind Steinway, waiting for their old patents to expire. So for the sake of protecting their trade secrets, photography is not allowed inside the factory.

Actually, it's amazing I got in there at all. Although Steinway does conduct open-to-the-public tours weekly, they're fully booked through March already. But thanks to the Greater Astoria Historical Society, I got a special insider's peek into all of the cutting, bending, assembling, varnishing, and tuning that goes into making what is arguably the best piano in the world.



But first I had to put my safety goggles on.



Unlike most of its public tours, which are littered with tourists, opera singers, musicians, and woodworking enthusiasts, this morning's tour was full of Astoria folk, curious people from the neighborhood that wanted to get a closer look at what put our not-so-little enclave on the map.

The Steinway factory manufactures 2000 grand pianos here in Astoria per year (and another 1000 in Hamburg, Germany), but the Steinway family once contributed so much more to the New York City of the late 1800s. Heinrich Steinweg arrived to New York via Ellis Island as part of the huge migration of Germans to the U.S. in the 1850s (which is when I suspect my father's ancestors arrived), and quickly Americanized himself to become Henry Steinway. He made a good go of it in Manhattan on 14th Street, but in the Gangs of New York era, Manhattan proved to be too volatile for Steinway to continue its operations without constantly arming its workers. So a few years later, Henry moved his facility and his workers across the river to Queens (as many of us do) to seek solace, and to create a utopian community away from hothouse Manhattan.

The Steinway family created an empire in the upper left quadrant of Queens, contributing to the construction of the Queensborough Bridge, the #7 train (once known as "the Steinway Tube"), and even North Beach, the amusement park that once stood where LaGuardia Airport is today. But by the time Henry and his brothers all had passed away (none living past the age of 61), the next generation decided to spin off all of these ancillary ventures and focus on the core of their business: making pianos.

As stable as their 19th century factory still is, standing strong upon the marshland of Upper Ditmars, the Steinway family and business have been anything but inflexible on their journey into the 21st century. Constantly reinventing itself over time, Steinway & Sons has expanded and contracted in this continental climate as much as their wood materials have.

 Bubinga veneer

In the spirit of "continuous improvement," Steinway has constantly sought better, faster, and more efficient ways to manufacture their pianos - as long as, they say, it's not to the sacrifice of quality. That means that walking through the factory, you crisscross between the 1869 original factory and a newer addition, passing original 19th century machinery (some of which was steam-powered) that's situated practically next to newfangled technology that minimizes or eliminates the need for manpower and handiwork for certain tasks to create and piece together the 12,000 components of a single piano.

Saw blades and and sanding belts screech. Steam whistles through pipes. Pins are hammered in with a thud thud thud. The smell of warm, freshly-cut wood mixes with wafts of varnish and drying glue - sweet, toasty, acrid, and burning all at once. The workers, artisans that they are, do not speak to us, nor to each other.

Heavy harps dangle over pianos' empty bellies while their sound boards are fitted in. Elsewhere, empty bodies wait patiently on the sidelines - not yet pianos, only the furniture to encase the keys, strings, and hammers that will eventually make the music.

 bass hammer

 inside the belly

Your head hurts from the deafening sounds and the brain-searing smells that permeate the floors, the hallways, the stairwells and the offices. As you move from the finishing floor, where assembled pianos' keys are pounded upon by a machine to loosen them up, to the tuning floor, the cacophony fades into the tinkling of just a few keys, until finally you hear just one note, repeated softly, imperceptibly fine-tuned with each stroke of its key. This is the last stop for a piano that's been birthed upstairs: a final tuning by Wally Boots.

(The pianos then move to a selection showroom where they are occasionally retuned while players shop for them...)
 Selection Room

I wanted to go this morning to seek some inspiration, and to learn more about my surroundings, but what I got was a closer connection to my neighborhood, which is feeling more and more like home in the months since I moved here. I'm no concert pianist, and Steinway's baby grand and grand pianos (especially the D class, D for "damn big") are a far cry from my grandmother's upright that I learned to play on. But as hard of a time as I had touring the facility without taking loads of photographs, I had an even harder time not touching the pianos, not seating myself in front of them and recalling the basic lessons of my youth, improvising melodies that always evoke the question "What's that song?" whenever I play. It's irresistible, an instrument that is as much a living, breathing being as its player, that can be played both soft (piano) and loud (forté).

It's become a cliche in my life that there's nothing I want to do more than what I'm told I can't, and nowhere I'd like to go more than where it's forbidden. But if I keep meeting the right people, and being in the right place at the right time, maybe there's a way to continue gaining access to the undiscovered, the hidden, and the restricted without climbing fences and risking arrest. After all, it's not danger that attracts me. It's just that I have so much more to see...

[Ed: As of January 2013, Steinway conducts one tour per week on Tuesdays 9:30a-12p from September to June. Each tour is limited to a small group of 15 people, age 16+ only and no walkers, wheelchairs, canes, or pacemakers allowed. And any photography of any sort is still verboten. You can email to make an advance reservation, which is necessary because of the popularity of the tours.]

Related post: 
Photo Essay: Steinway Industrial Business Zone

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Keeping a Stiff Upper Lip

Last night, our kitchen sink exploded.

I was home slicing the ends off some brussels sprouts buds for roasting, and I heard a deep, worrisome gurgling coming from the drain to my left. I glanced over at the sink, but since the overhead light in our kitchen had blown a few days before, I couldn't see anything.

When I placed the brussels sprouts on the oven rack, I caught a glimpse of our sink, half full of murky swampwater, full of unknown organic debris.

A few minutes later, another gurgle emptied the sink, leaving only black vegetative remnants in its wake.

"What's the super's #? Kitchen sink is acting up and I'll have to call if it explodes," I txted my roommate, then noting, "I should have it on hand anyway."

He immediately replied, "I'll be home in 5 minutes."

When he got home, he took one look at our sullied sink and said, "Oh my God that's disgusting. I don't want to look at this right now." He then ran the faucet to rinse it out as we chatted about the apartment, his day, and my plans later, which inspired me to go shower and start getting ready.

While curling my hair in the bathroom mirror, wrapped in a purple towel, I heard my roommate exclaim from the kitchen, "Oh my God! What is that?!"

The sound of pouring water. My roommate on the phone with our landlord. And a milky white overflow cascading down our cabinets and creeping across the tile floor and towards the living room, while we watched in horror. After a quick change, I threw my purple bath towel down to stop the flow from advancing any further.

A flurry of activity ensued, with the arrival of our super and some workers from an upstairs apartment they'd been renovating. They brought buckets and mops and sponges and began the cleanup, pausing to explain, "It's paint."

Apparently they'd been rising out some brushes in other apartment's sink and, because all the pipes are interconnected, had created some stoppage that sent the water into our apartment.

As they bailed the paintwater out of our sink with my roommate's plastic Yankees-branded drinking glasses, revealing the dirty bowls and forks that had become submerged in a milky bath, I started to freak out.

"Oh my God my pot...." I gasped.

"Don't worry, it's just paint. It'll wash off," the workers assured me.

"Oh....God..." I moaned, witnessing the possible destruction of the only kitchen supplies I'd allowed myself to bring to this new apartment, having left the rest in storage.

I stood there while one worker screwed new bulbs into the ceiling light, standing on an overturned bucket, and another worker stacked the paint-soaked cups, having relieved the sink of its flood.

"Don't worry..." they said, but I was increasingly inconsolable. I only had three plates and three bowls, and two of each had been drowned in an onslaught of watered-down paint. And now I was watching that paint dry - quickly - in little pools at the bottom of my bowls, along the rim of my one and only pot, and in crusted clumps along the tines of my forks.

I sprang into action. They tried to stop me, but I snatched all the dishes off the counter and out of the empty sink.

"Just let me do this. I have to get to it before the paint dries!" I cried out on my way to the bathroom sink.

I managed to rinse the majority of the paint off the majority of our dishes by the time I had to leave, abandoning my roommate with the workers as they tried to snake the drain and free the blockage that had caused the backup. Crisis had been averted, but when I returned home later last night, the kitchen was still in disarray, streaks of paint still discoloring the pot and knife handles. My towel, still wet, sat curled up in a ball at bathtub's bottom.

I've tried hard to reduce my attachment to material possessions, to let go, and to satisfy only my basic needs. But as nice as this new apartment is, sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes something happens somewhere else, and it sends a flood into your life. And you can clear the drain, mop the floor and bail yourself out, but there's no telling when you'll hear that telltale gurgle again, from the depths of the kitchen sink, or the shower drain, or the toilet, or the stove, or the heat pipe next to your bed. In my room, the heatpipe already rattles and bubbles all night long, and every morning, shatteringly loud next to my sleeping head.

Tonight I scrubbed the dishes again with scouring pad, removing nearly every trace of last night's deluge.

But I can't forget what was there.

And I know that it might bubble up again.

All I can do is keep calm and carry on.

Related post: Running on Empty

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

I'm in a really different place this year than I have been for the last several Thanksgivings.

I'm thankful for where I am.

I'm thankful for where I'm not.

I'm thankful for the feeling that I am where I'm supposed to be.

I'm thankful to know I'm going somewhere, even though I'm not really sure where that is either.

I'm thankful for newness and youth and rebirth.

I'm thankful for community.

I'm thankful for love and affection.

I'm thankful for strength and bravery and self-awareness and vulnerability.

I'm thankful for insight and perspective.

I'm thankful for my age, and with it, the loss of worry, anxiety, neuroses, obsession, fixation.

I'm thankful for inspiration and curiosity.

Over the last couple of years, I've asked dozens of people what makes life worth living, and what their reason is for getting up in the morning. (Although these may seem like the same question, they are really two separate issues.) The answer I related to the most attributed the motivation to curiosity: my friend said that he just really liked to see stuff, and he kept living to see more stuff because he hadn't seen enough yet. That seemed more reasonable to me than the answers I'd been given by others that I'd dismissed as hedonism: cold beer, soft beds, and pretty girls. There are times I get up in the morning just to eat.

Perhaps the most compelling answer so far has been (and I think I may be paraphrasing here) love, honor, and passion. I don't know what any of those things mean in a practical application of everyday life (and getting up in the morning), but they seem like pretty good things to live for. I live because I want to love something, I want to feel something, and I want it to mean something. When those things disappear - which they have in the past - I am thankful for nothing.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Than Just Fine

Now that I've lost a lot of weight (and am still losing), I'm having a hard time finding clothes that fit. Although there's a part of my wardrobe that now fits me properly after having been worn too tight (or, in some cases, way too tight) for way too long, jeans must be held up by a belt, sweaters fall off one shoulder, blouses must be tucked in and yoga pant cuffs drag on the ground beneath my heels.

So although I'm not in a financial position to renovate my entire closet, I need some new clothes.

Last night while walking down 34th Street, I noticed that everything is 25% off at Banana Republic through Sunday, so I stopped in. I brought a little black dress (a necessity I'm now without) into the fitting room and tried on the size 6, two or three dress sizes smaller than I ever was, ever in my life. Still unsure of my ability to pull certain clothes off (despite my bravery in donning a two-piece Middle Eastern costume for Halloween), I stepped out of my stall and sought the opinion of the fitting room attendant.

"What do we think?" I asked, as I posed, hand on hip, red carpet style.

Disaffected, he paused, and said, "It looks...fine."

I stared at him in horror.

"That's not the ringing endorsement I was looking for," I said, giving him a chance to do his job and sell me the dress. When he continued folding other customers' discarded clothes and placing them back on hangers instead of replying, I stomped away in a huff.

In my room, I unzipped the side zipper of the dress, taking one last look at myself, muttering to myself, "I'm not paying $150 for a dress that's just fine."

It's not just that I was looking for a compliment, which I was. It's not just that I seem to need constant reassurance that my smaller size is real, which I do. And it's not just that I always feel a little weird vulnerably changing my clothes in the same room as a strange guy with only a partial door separating us. But this guy was so apathetic, not only to me and my needs, but to even doing his job. Forget my emotional reliance on the fitting room attendant to lavish me with praise even when I'm wearing a size 12 that should probably be a size 14. The floor clerks are there to get me into the dressing room. The dressing room clerk is there to seal the deal, not to just fold and hang the dresses I decide I look too fat in.

If this guy doesn't really want to be working at Banana Republic surrounded by a bunch of neurotic women, shouldn't he get a job elsewhere? And if he can't get a job elsewhere, if Banana Republic is his last resort, shouldn't he be so grateful that he actually has a job?

But, in the end, maybe the dress was only fine, and not great. I'm not in a position to buy any new clothes that aren't great right now, so I can only feel grateful for his honesty.

It didn't have to be the best dress I ever wore, but why settle for anything less than great?

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Photo Essay: Field Trip to Captain Lawrence Brewery

 class photo

I knew I couldn't afford it, but when the bartender at Sweet Afton in Astoria told me about their upcoming party bus trip to the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company's headquarters in Pleasantville, NY, I knew I had to go.

It wasn't just because I'd been dying to go to Captain Lawrence for a couple of years, the Pale Ale and Liquid Gold giving me a reason to drink more than a half pint of beer.

It wasn't just because, at $45, it was a great deal for breakfast and lunch, a day's worth of drinking, and transportation.

Every time I've gone to Sweet Afton since moving to Astoria almost three months ago, I've made a friend, exchanged phone numbers, had a great conversation, and consumed a great meal or drink. The bartenders all remember me and remember my name. And they promised me that this trip would be a great way to get to know more people.

I have made more friends in my short time in Astoria than I ever made in seven years each in Greenpoint and Manhattan, but I could sure use some more.





 swag

 Pumpkin Ale

growler

 malt

 tank





 IPA

We got to sample the seasonal Pumpkin Ale, Brown and IPA (as well as the Kolsch for breakfast) and heard about the forthcoming Espresso Stout made from local Upstate coffee beans, which is currently in the tank. We wolfed down sandwiches, took photos of ourselves, and collected free swag.

On the way back to the city, in an unwelcome return to regular life, it was the kind of bus ride I never had in high school or college, filled with people I may never see again...or may not necessarily remember the next time I do.

But we sure did have a great time.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.