April 28, 2009

The Power of No

I first came up with the idea of "avoiding regret" in the office, when I was surrounded by marketers and music industry executives who made decisions about spending money because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn't. Marketers are do-ers. They have to at least try. The hardest thing for a marketer to do, I think especially in the music industry, is say no to something.

Which explains why I found my professional path in marketing.

But I do have the rare skill of saying no. I've turned down many dates. Given out many fake numbers. Even turned down job offers (sorry Tommy Boy). And in the most ballsy move ever, I quit my job in the worst economic recession most of us have seen in our adult lives.

Some things are easy to say no to, like a job that makes you so depressed that you gain 15 pounds and cry every day at work. Some things you really want to say no to, but you just have to buck up and do anyway.

So big deal, my gum receded from one of my teeth. You could actually see the root of the tooth, one of those parts of your body you hope to never see. But it had been like that for over a year before my dentist said anything, so I figured it could wait another year or two or three. However, when I finally visited the periodontist, she advised that she would not wait six months to get it fixed. Great timing, me with no dental insurance.

To complicate matters, in September I applied for Peace Corps and actually received a nomination for volunteer service. Peace Corps has been criticized for their arduous application process with their nearly-impossible-to-pass medical evaluations that include statements from every doctor you visit, and true to form, when they saw that I needed a gum graft, they sent my dental records back and threatened to not send me my assignment until I got the surgery completed.

So do I give up on the idea of Peace Corps just because I don't want gum surgery? If so, I should have never applied in the first place. But do I get gum surgery now just for Peace Corps when I'm not even sure that I'll accept their assignment when it finally comes?

These are the questions I've been facing for the last month. When faced with a difficult decision like this as a child, often I would choose not to decide at all. But in this case, not deciding was equivalent to not getting the surgery and not doing Peace Corps. I just wasn't ready to say no to that many things just yet. In the end, I reminded myself that I haven't had dental insurance for the last few years despite having a job, and that I was unlikely to acquire dental insurance within six months even if I didn't go volunteer abroad, so I might as well fix the damn gum now and not risk losing a tooth. The potential regret of a lost tooth outweighed the regret associated with anything else in this very complicated situation.

Now a week after the gum graft surgery, my jaw still aches and I'm still not sleeping through the night. I still haven't received my assignment from Peace Corps and am not sure when it will come. I have never been so unsure of my future as I am at this very moment.

But I've done all I can to be open to signs from the universe and to give myself as many options as I can when the time comes to make the big decision. True freedom is having the choice to say no to something (or some things) and not just take whatever comes your way.

April 20, 2009

I've Outdone Myself Again

A lot gets me choked up lately. Maybe it's all the time I spend alone. Maybe it's all the daytime TV. Or maybe it's just the bronchitis that spontaneously erupted in my chest. I do always cry when I'm sick.

Regardless, I couldn't help but get a little emotional yesterday when I was standing at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street in Brooklyn, staring at an open manhole surrounded by a few orange cones. I'd stood at that intersection in 2002, underestimating the number of people who would show up for an art installation by Ars Subterranea in an abandoned underground train tunnel, and was told there was no way I was going to get in. There were people lined up as far as the eye could see, seemingly down each side of each of the four spokes of the intersection. Looking at that open manhole, I knew I was missing out.

I found out last year that the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association had started doing tours (apparently, again) of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, which they tout as "the world's first subway tunnel," but every month, something prevented me from going. Either I was travelling for work or I found out too late about it or the reservation list was full, and every month I suffered the pangs of missing out like I first experienced with the tunnel six years before.

The BHRA took the winter off but they're back on schedule and I finally booked a tour of the Atlantic Tunnel, which can only be accessed through said manhole in the middle of a busy Brooklyn intersection.

Once I finally got there, I wondered how many more of these urban archaeological excursions could possibly be on my Bucket List? At one time in my life, as I crossed an item off, another one would be added, but now I seem to be making my way more quickly down the list than I'm adding to it. Maybe I'm just preparing to maybe leave New York when my lease is up in August. Or maybe I've one-upped myself so many times that there just aren't that many more activities that could trump the prior one?

The Atlantic Tunnel certainly trumped our tour of the abandoned City Hall station, and our visit to the Brooklyn trolleys last summer (which were rebuilt and restored by the same guy who rediscovered the Atlantic Tunnel in 1980, Bob Diamond).

And not just because it's harder to get into and because I've been trying for nearly seven years.

Or maybe that is why.

When Bob Diamond first cracked open the manhole cover in 1980 (well, actually it was the gas company), it led to a four-foot drop filled with loose, sandy dirt. Bob knew there must be more to it than that so he used his feet to feel around and submerged himself in the dirt, finally finding a wall that he broke through, leading into the infamous tunnel that, at the time, no one was really sure even existed. (It was falsely reported that it had been destroyed, but it was actually only sealed off in order to save money.) Bob had been warned of poisonous gas, flooding waters, and maneating rats, but what he actually found was a half-mile long tunnel made of Manhattan bedrock and red brick, stained black by the steam trains that once ran through it.

The dirt from under the manhole was pitched through the hole in the wall and now supports a wooden staircase that you have to climb down into the tunnel. Crawling through the hole in the wall - its edges still jagged from when they first burst through - felt like when I used to lock myself out of my Newell Street apartment all the time and would have to break in through the window. Except on the other side this time, it was dark, dank, wet, dirty, and deep.

There are a few incandescent bulbs that light the way, but mostly you're led by your own flashlight, which doesn't always catch the unevenness of the ground below or the rubble that's scattered about. The left side of the tunnel still shows the impressions of the train tracks that once lie there, but the right side has been smoothed out by the horse-drawn wagons that trotted alongside the trains in the tunnel's later years. I kept looking for traces of human (or even animal) life, but all I saw were bricks and a wheelbarrow. It's strangely preserved down there, unlike a lot of abandoned sites that have fallen prey to vandalism or construction. At places like the NYS Pavilion or Bannerman Castle you usually find folding chairs and barbeque kettles among wooden two-by-four's and tool chests. But down in the Atlantic Tunnel, it's just dirt, and the slightest cool breeze that chills you colder as you advance deeper towards the other sealed end. You think about the rumors of dead bodies behind the walls and the spirits of workers who may have perished there. It's not deep enough for the bends, but who knows what ailments might befall a construction worker using the cut-and-cover method (inspired by the Old Croton Acqueduct)?

Even for Bob Diamond himself, more mysteries lie ahead. He's trying to get funding to break through the other sealed-off entrance to the tunnel (the westernmost terminus), hopefully with the help of some documentarians who are trying to get some attention and financial backing for the project. Another rumor states that there's a train engine sealed off back there. What you can see now is some pipes (water or sewer, you'd better be prepared to find out), a shoddy job of cobblestoning it up, and another huge pile of dirt. The dirt is practically sand down there, an indication of how close to the water's edge you are (strategically located to connect underground trains to the Brooklyn harbor industry for transporting goods). As Bob reminded us, all of Long Island (including Queens and Brooklyn) is made up of topsoil dragged across New England by a glacier long ago...

And he may finally get those trolleys up and running on a brand new Brooklyn above ground rail system. I've got to say, I'm pulling for the guy. He's trying to avoid regret too.

Lots of further reading at the BHRA website.

For more photos, click here.

Ziggy Marley at the White House

Click here to see Ziggy's story about his White House Easter Egg Roll performance and some photos I took during the shows.

Videos below.

April 15, 2009

Back to My Cage

I can never really enjoy things in the moment. I’ve always got my eyes on the next thing. On my way to a concert, I can’t wait to get there. When I get there, I can’t wait to get home. During nearly every trip I take, I can’t wait til I can get back to NYC and move on to the next thing.

I just spent a week in Washington D.C., though, and was living pretty in-the-moment. I didn’t pressure myself to see all the touristy sites, but rather enjoyed staying in Amanda’s nice house and keeping an eye out for her cat and dog, who woke me up with a lick-in-the-face in the morning and bid goodnight by jumping on my bed and rubbing her head into my comforter. Working from Amanda’s home seemed better than working from my cramped apartment, where the sound of animals usually comes from the mice in the walls.

As I recall, I’d only visited DC three times in my past:

  1. for the NOW Women’s Rally in 1994 when I got terribly sunburned by walking around the mall in my bra with Liz Green and we stayed on a Colgate alumna’s floor in Virginia somewhere. We visited one of the Smithsonian Museums but we were more interested in goofing off than being cultured, so we pushed each other around in a wheelchair we’d absconded with
  2. for the Billboard/BETJazz Awards when I worked at Atlantic, which is when I first met Amanda and when I realized Herbie Hancock is a pervert
  3. for Amanda’s baby shower last summer, though I was only in town for a day

I had no real impression of it and didn’t have much desire to be a tourist, but since I was going to be alone rather than shown around by friends, I had to get a little proactive in terms of planning things to do. There would be no Rodeo Bar around the corner. No Marshall Stack a bus ride away. And I knew that even with the animals’ company, I would be stir crazy enough to have to go out, even if that meant spending the day in the center city, going back to Brookland (an hour away) to feed the munchkins, and then going back into the city for a couple of hours before catching the Metro before it stopped running or finding a cab that I could direct to the near northeast suburbs.

Fortunately, it doesn't take much to entertain me. A wine bar in Dupont Circle. A massage. Trying new beer at The Big Hunt with a new drinking buddy. On my way back from the Govinda Gallery’s Bob Marley photo exhibit in the rain, stopping and snapping a photo of the stairs featured in The Exorcist, which look less ominous now that they’ve added a railing to the precarious and fall-inducing non-walled side of it.

Although DC was unseasonably chilly and sometimes downright cold, I caught the cherry blossoms past peak but still in bloom, framing the Jefferson Memorial and catching the sunlight as they inevitably dropped from the low branches to the ground with each passerby. I’m not one much for monuments – obelisks and pyramids and giant statues of political figures – preferring instead historical usable spaces like train stations, cathedrals, and factories, so I didn’t bother to walk up to the Washington Monument, though I caught a good look at it from afar. I found out later that you can climb up into it. That’ll be something to do for the next trip.

All of these pit stops, though, were peripheral to the real reason I was in town: for Ziggy Marley’s headlining performances at the White House Easter Egg Roll, a popular event on the south lawn attended annually by 30k people. I missed Fergie’s performances, though I could hear the last one from outside the SE Gate. I caught the end of a kids’ cooking demo by Top Chef’s Spike, who apparently has a burger joint on the hill which I didn’t find out about until it was too late to go. I stood in front of actor James Cromwell, who holds a special place in my heart as the farmer in Babe. I even got a free commemorative wooden egg, only given out to children under 10 and available for sale on the White House website.

Once I got there, I realized I didn’t really need to be there for my consulting gig, but I was so happy to be welcomed by three generations of the Marley family and to witness first-hand how much a lot of people would love to be in my shoes. All ages and races reached over the fence that I was behind to get a photo with Ziggy, even just on their camera phones. They asked for photos with Ziggy’s mom Rita, who they recognized immediately (I did not). Even one of the PBS Kids costumed characters reached into a furry pocket to retrieve a camera, and leaned over and whispered into Ziggy’s wife’s ear, “That’s Ziggy’s kid, right? Can I have a picture?” Truly one of the most bizarre fan moments of my career.

By the time Tuesday morning came, I was ready to go back to NYC. I needed something to make me miss it. But give me a day or two back and I’m sure my wanderlust will kick in again….

April 12, 2009

Ticket For One

Somehow growing up in Syracuse, whose downtown was once bisected by the Erie Canal, must've influenced my taste in recreation more than I thought because I keep taking weird boat rides.

After my toxic cruise on the Gowanus Canal last summer, in February I found myself in a much cleaner but not much more habitable canal during the worst snowstorm in London in 20 years: the Regents Canal, living for a few days on a houseboat. I was freezing and cramped and ever so damp, and despite my deep love for its owners, I was glad to leave.

So what on earth brought me to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal today, Easter Sunday, to sit on a boat again in the biting wind (improperly dressed for the weather of course) and once again freezing?

Maybe it was the mules that drag the boat along the original towpath.

Plus, the C&O is a national park, and my recent travels have proven to me that I have the same taste as parents with young children and senior citizens. Now that I've left a fulltime job behind me, maybe I can really pretend I'm retired under the age of 40.

And finally, it was Easter Sunday, and although I am in Washington, DC alone, I felt like I needed to do something special to commemorate the day, as all my friends are roasting lambs and having seders and spending time with family. Easter has never meant much of anything to me, but I don't like to be left out, either. So I took myself out for brunch at the Peacock Cafe, and bought a $5 ticket to the boat ride.

"Just one?" the costumed visitors' center clerk asked. He then quizzed me about where I'm from and tried to ascertain what on earth brought me there. It was he who blamed the Erie Canal.

In the end, the ride seemed pretty uneventful from inside the boat, but it sure drew a lot of spectators - who especially liked the two mules that towed us along. The mules' efforts made for a much smoother ride than the Bobby Dazzler provided, despite having an engine...

And the excursion did feel like a hidden treasure of DC, one that might only be discovered after exhausting all the museums and monuments. In typical form, I skipped the Smithsonian and the Spy Museum and a lot of that other stuff and instead found myself at a Bob Marley photo exhibit at the Govinda Gallery with Bob's widow. I saw the Hay Adams from inside the Presidential Suite. And tomorrow I'll see The White House from the green room and the dressing room, two places a ticket will never get you into.

April 08, 2009

I Feel Like a Twit

Since I'm relatively choosey about what I write here, and I try to portray vignettes as opposed to random thoughts, I thought that Twitter might be a nice supplement to this blog.

And since I'm past the age when I can wake my friends up late at night with my observations or consternations via text message, at least I know that Twitter will receive them gladly and will always be awake for me.

If you do such things, you can follow me on Twitter at

You'll find all the things you find interesting about Avoiding Regret, but in instant gratification form.

Out of This City

I've been wearing the same eye makeup and hairdo since Saturday. Not the same style, mind you - I just haven't washed any of it off.

I spent the entire month of March in the city, working out of my apartment, trying to find a daily excuse to shower and put on my contacts. But now that I'm on a bus somewhere between Baltimore and Washington, DC, wearing freshly laundered clothes that don't smell of the restaurant I live above, leaving a snowy April behind me, I'm ready to scrub myself clean. Leave all traces of New York City behind me while I spend a week in our nation's capitol.

The Dianne Brill mascara has finally started to chip away, and its tube technology is leaving little chunks along my dark circles and cheekbones. I keep trying to flick it off with my fingernails but keep accidentally pulling out my eyelashes. I'm ready to get off of this bus and walk amongst the cherry blossoms.