Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bidding Wars - A Very Unlikely Happily Ever After

In the 1999, my best friend and I bid on the same house.

I was pregnant with my second child; she already had two small children. We both lived in a town where people with school-aged children all seemed to be moving away. I was sad and exhausted from losing friends and neighbors. I said to my husband, “I don’t want to spend the next two decades saying goodbye to people.” So he agreed to move to the suburbs.

I didn’t think my friend and I would even look at the same houses. Our situations were completely different. We were selling a brownstone whose value had doubled since we’d purchased it. They were coming from a rental apartment.

But I was mistaken. Not only did we both look at the same houses, we both fell in love with the same houses. And unfortunately, so did many other people. It was the beginning of the Montclair Bidding Wars and finding a house...loving a house…even being able to pay for a house…had no bearing on whether you might one day own the house.

My best friend seemed a little more desperate than we were. Her youngest was just a baby who should have been napping frequently during the day. Their upstairs neighbors had young children and wore heavy shoes. All day long they frolicked and clomped above the nursery. My best friend and her baby were sleepless and cranky.

We had a whole house, a parking spot, a lovely babysitter, an easy life. I wasn’t suffering. I just didn’t want to be left by all my friends anymore.

At one point, we were both smitten with a house on the hill. “We’re going to bid on it,” my best friend said to me.

“Ok, you take it,” I said. It seemed like I was being magnanimous but really I just wanted her out of the running. I wanted to be able to look for houses without worrying that my best friend was going to want what I wanted. Plus, the house on the hill had no first floor powder room, so I “unselfishly” allowed her to pursue it.

Others, too, were undaunted by the lack of powder room, largely because the house was an easy walk to town. Bus, train, shopping – it fit perfectly the specs of what all us City Mice were looking for. Several couples bid on that house, and my best friend and her husband lost out.

There were other houses that we came close to bidding on, but mostly we passed because of location. My husband is legally blind and we needed to be within walking distance of a lot of things. My best friend lost a second house to a higher bidder and the process was making her tired and grumpy.

The house that we both bid on was for sale by owner. I’d heard about it from a friend who lived on the block and once I saw it I decided not to tell my best friend about it at all. It was a house that she, too, would surely fall in love with because it was perfect in every imaginable way. It was spacious and beautiful, decorated by an artist, new kitchen, first floor powder room, and it was a short walk to shops, bus and train. I left that viewing certain – certain – that this would be our next home.

I’m not sure how my best friend found out about the house; I think her realtor told her. I was probably not right in withholding the information from her, but I was right about one thing: when she saw it, she wanted it too. After the two of us put our bids in (along with two or three other couples), the owner asked for everyone’s best and final offer. “Is it just going to be about the money?” I remember asking the owner, “because there are a lot of reasons we need this house.”

Along with our bid, I included an impassioned letter about why we had to have this particular house. I went on and on about the location, my husband’s vision issues, how all of our Mission furniture required just this Arts and Crafts style house as residence. I added that we had friends on the block and tried to drop the name of someone we both knew from business. I think I even invoked the notion of kismet – the house number was the same as our first house. I was all good omens and schmaltz in my letter and I went to sleep that night with absolute confidence that my powers of persuasion would finally yield us the house of our dreams.

But just to be safe, I called my friend and asked her to withdraw her bid. “My husband is legally blind,” I said with a complete lack of shame. “We need to live where he can walk.”

“My son hasn’t napped in months,” she said. “We need to move now.”

We lost the house. My best friend got it. Nobody felt especially good about it, least of all me. “Don’t worry,” she said to me, “we’ll find you a house right in this neighborhood. We’ll be neighbors and we can borrow cups of sugar from each other all the time.”

“Yeah, right,” I said, back in the days before “whatever” had made it’s way into my personal lexicon.

My best friend just left my house a few minutes ago, having taken an early morning shower here. Her hot water heater isn’t working. She drove her car to get here, but only because she had to go straight to work. Usually when she comes to borrow, she walks. Because we survived the war and now live two houses apart.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How I Got There

Honest Tom Pomposello, when he was alive, was a big, soulful and cynical man. He was a TV producer in the small company where I worked, and he was a blues guitarist. He had a Grammy Award (or maybe an Emmy) in his office with a subway token Scotch taped to it. When I asked him why, he held it up and said, “Because this and a subway token will get me downtown.”

That was a long time ago. The impact of his gesture would have been entirely different if the award had sported a MetroCard.

Tom stopped at my reception desk one day and said, “Let’s give each other a poem a day.” So we did.

It seemed easy for him. Every day he placed a Xeroxed copy of some great poem in my inbox. Some days it would be a whole story, or a passage from a book. The world is ugly and we need to spread beauty, he seemed to be saying.

I don’t remember what I offered him in return. Probably Patti Smith lyrics. Once I copied a passage from a John Irving book of short stories that I can’t even find anymore – something to do with a brandy snifter.

One day Tom told me, “You need to read Writing Down The Bones.”

I did read it, but it was years later. It was before Tom died, but our relationship had already changed. He had started his own company, become less frivolous and maybe even bitter. If I’d met him then, he would have never suggested we share poetry. I don’t think it was something that would have seemed important to him.

Not only did I read Writing Down The Bones, I studied it, along with Natalie Goldberg’s other books on writing. I did the exercises and found writing partners and somehow after reading and writing and writing some more I felt as if I’d become a writer myself.

So even though it was a friend in New York City who had called me last October and said, “Natalie Goldberg is teaching on the east coast in the spring,” it wasn’t really she that got me to the workshop. It was Tom, who, a lifetime ago, nestled a Yeats poem in and among my pile of Memos and Status Reports and Smiler’s Deli Bills. Even though I’ve never been a big fan of poetry, I remember crying before I’d finished the first stanza, and I thought, anyone who would pick that particular poem out of the millions of poems floating around the universe must know a couple of things about writing.

Natalie, too, knows a couple of things about writing – things I want to share – but not yet. First, I have to share this poem, today.

When You Are Old

By W. B. Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Grumpy Walk In The Park

There are days that I am just looking for trouble and yesterday was one of them.

I could feel it brewing inside me early in the morning, but it became crystal clear during my morning walk. I was in the park. It was about 9:00 a.m. There were all the regular dog walkers with all their regular dogs, most of them running freely around the grass. In the morning, this park seems to be the unofficial off-leash haven for canines. Normally, I don’t mind it. What I mean by “normally” is, I walk through this park five out of seven days a week and it never bothers me that people have their dogs off-leash. But today, I was appalled.

I did a lap and silently counted the number of off-leash dogs. Six. That doesn’t seem like a lot, perhaps, but there were only seven dogs in total.

As I was passing the school, I noticed a group of kids making their way from the school house to the park. Sometimes they have gym class in the park. There was a gym teacher and a long line of 6- or 7-year-olds crossing the road, heading toward the field. I looked around at the dog-walkers. Most had called their dogs to heel, but none had yet attached a leash. I left the park in a silent huff, knowing full well that I would continue to seethe if the dog owners did not do the right thing.

My iPod wasn’t working properly and no matter how I fiddled with the settings it continued to play the same song over and over. I cursed the iPod – all iTechnology really – and when I wasn’t busy doing that I was playing the monologue in my head of what I would say to the guy with the black lab who couldn’t be bothered to leash his dog when there’s a park full of small children at play.

A small part of me was proud of myself that I’d left the park and not spent my morning walking up to people and berating them. But soon the time came for me to head home and the only two routes were through the neighborhood or back through the park.

Even as I reentered the park I chastised myself. “Don’t go this way,” I said, “you’re just going to end up furious.”

But I guess on some level I wanted to be furious, because I found myself on the park path, eyes darting around at all the dog walkers, and I was almost disappointed that those dogs were now all tethered to their owners. Well, almost all. The one who wasn’t – the black lab – stayed so close to his owner’s leg that they looked like a single (albeit asymmetrical) creature.

Earlier in the week I’d met some women in the city for lunch. We’ve known each other for decades and we get together once or twice a year just to check in. In this gathering (that’s what we call our meetings…gatherings) I heard things coming out of my mouth that I truly believe but usually feel as if I have no business saying. One such thing was this: If we want to be happy, it’s a choice we must make every day – many times a day. We can’t wait for our situations to be “right” or “perfect” or even “good.” We just have to choose happy. Simple as that.

I thought of my little diatribe when I was in the park, scowling at dog owners, itching for a fight. I reflected on what utter bullshit I had spewed at our gathering and promised myself I would email each of the women when I returned home and tell them what a colossally misinformed ass I had been. Because, obviously, if it was that easy to be happy – switch-flipping easy, as I had professed – then I would never have spent this morning so grumpy.

I didn’t email my gather-mates though. I spent the day surly, and was completely content to be just that. The key assumption – “If we want to be happy…” – was not present for me yesterday. I wanted to be negative and I wanted to stay that way all day. And I did.

A long time ago, that was simply my M.O. I could hone in on the negative anytime, anywhere and was happy to dwell there indefinitely. Now, not so much. It’s like a little vacation for me to be gloomy. It’s almost fun.

Don’t get me wrong, I have dozens of things to be down about. We all do. I used to spend all my time recounting them all so I wouldn’t forget a single one. But now those things are like the dogs in the park. Most of the time – nearly all of the time – when they’re running off-leash, I think, Dogs. Running. Look at them go.

And then I turn my attention to something else.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Day Before

We all walked off the tennis court this morning so delighted that it was raining. This is because we’d just played indoors. It only costs $11.25 apiece for four of us to rent a court for 90 minutes, but still, it would have seemed like a complete waste of money if it hadn’t rained at all.

It was sunny when we got there. In fact it had been sunny since I woke up this morning. It occurred to me that we should probably cancel our court reservation – just play outside – except the forecast was for rain when I booked the court two days ago, and at the time the woman at the desk asked if we could come and play later (because she couldn’t be there at 9:00 to open for us) and we said we couldn’t and she said, never mind, I can get someone else to come in and open for you. So we had to show up. We had prepared for a bad weather tennis day and the fact that it ended up being a perfect-weather tennis day made us all feel sheepish and foolish and a little self indulgent. At least that’s how I felt.

Which brings me to the Rapture.

I hadn’t realized the Rapture was so imminent until earlier this week. “Should I do something?” I asked my husband on Wednesday?

“I don’t think you can really prepare for the end of the world,” he said. And I guess he’s right. At least not in the way that people prepared for Y2K.

And I did prepare for that computer-induced apocalypse in my own way. Not with gold ingots and a bunker full of astronaut food, but mentally, in a kind of quiet acceptance that there, with my not-even-six-month-old next to me in bed, the fireworks heralding this particular New Year may be the first and last he’d ever see.

Tomorrow’s End Of The World doesn’t seem nearly as plausible to me. Even though all the craziness on this planet lately seems to fit a lot of the predictions, I don’t think I’ll be spending any time tomorrow holed up in bed with my kids, holding my breath, hoping it won’t hurt.

But if tomorrow does mark the end of the world – that is, if the saved all fly up to heaven and I’m not one of them and am instead relegated to be here, corporeally, fending off brimstone and pestilence along with my already unwieldy mass of laundry – there is one very sorely missed Hoboken pizzeria that I might have to visit. Their slices are so cheesy and vast that they require two plates to serve them, and I may have to drive over there right away and eat three pieces – four even – and maybe even follow it with an ice cream chaser. Also, I’d try a Dirty Martini. And I’d be doubly grateful that my 11-year-old did not have to get his gums lanced at the oral surgeon’s yesterday. And I’d probably stop lamenting that Steve Carell left The Office.

I guess there might be a few other things, as well.

But those are not really preparations. Those are things I’d do after the fact. After I knew we were all going to hell in a hand-basket, and that we could set our watches by it.

I wondered today, as I walked out into the rain after tennis, whether there was a word for that feeling we all had. The bizarre satisfaction that the worst-case scenario that we’d planned for had, in fact, come to be. If there is, it’s probably German. I imagine it to be a word like schadenfreude, where, when you come to understand its meaning you think, what kind of culture would have that incident happen so often that they actually need a specific word for it?

But a word might come in handy come Sunday, when it seems like there are going to be some people or other who might have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do, and the rest of us might need a way to process the experience. I’m thinking that if anything deserves a post-mortem, it’s the Rapture.

Monday, May 9, 2011

One Happy Mother

The other day I agreed to let the Almost-Teenager have four friends spend the night. Don’t ask me what I was thinking. As far as I’m concerned anything beyond one single houseguest is a “sleepover party” and I’m philosophically against sleepover parties, so it’s a mystery. It seemed like an okay idea at the time – when the Almost-Teenager was alone and well-behaved and asking politely – but as soon as just one boy showed up, I could feel the shrillness in the air and I knew that my decision was a very bad one indeed.

Early in the evening, the five Almost-Teenagers left the compound and went on a short neighborhood adventure. It was quiet while they were gone, quiet enough that I noticed how tense I’d become while they’d been braying here with their hootenanny antics.

Instead of seeking out my husband for comfort and solace – asking him to help calm and center me – I did what I always do: I cornered him and started complaining that we have too much “stuff.”

I don’t know how those two things have become inextricably entwined in my psyche, but they are. I go from “The Kids Are Acting Looney” to “I Feel Like Every Single Thing In This House Has One Purpose And That Is To Stand Between Me And Whatever It Is I’m Looking For.” My husband usually finds these rants of mine understandably distasteful. He feels defensive and ashamed. He does have a lot of stuff, but the truth is, so do I. And I have a really difficult time going through it and getting rid of all I don’t need.

On the heels of that ugly scenario, I read this blog post from my friend Laura about her being gifted a session with a personal stylist. Someone who came to her house, went through her closet with her and instructed her what should stay and what should go. The stylist took what remained and showed her how to put pieces together so they actually look good. So that she looks good.

So last week I told my husband that what I wanted for Mother’s Day. Please don’t get me a plant, I told him. I don’t want any gifts that I need to keep alive. And that one year that y’all got me that tree pruner – that was imaginative, but it didn’t really sing Mother’s Day to me. I’m happy to have Mother’s Day be business as usual, but if you are going to go to the trouble of getting me something, this is something I’d really enjoy.

I don’t know why having a clean, streamlined, efficient closet would make a difference in how I feel about a slew of sugar-pumped boys ransacking my house, but in my mind’s eye, it does. I might not convey any more authority when I yell, “Put your popsicle sticks in the trash!” but at least I know I won’t be wearing the sea-green tee shirt (which is wrong, wrong, wrong) when doing so.

I have to say, I feel the difference already. In fact things began to shift starting with that initial sleepover breakdown. My husband did not get defensive during my fit, and instead listened to me quietly. He said something rational like, “We can clean out the basement and the playroom together, but we’re not going to start that project tonight.” I felt heard, so I calmed right down. He didn’t take my barbs personally – or at least I think he didn’t. The whole thing passed uneventfully and I thought, Wow, this is how grown-ups act.

I don’t know why it requires something cataclysmic for me to put my own life in order. Or to ask for what I secretly want. I don’t want to turn into (or remain?) a person who feels like she needs to endure months of feeling stifled or oppressed in order to break out, Helen Reddy style, and roar about what she’s rightfully entitled to. I just want to be a woman who says, “Hey this seems like fun and would make me feel good,” and have that sentence be completely independent of how many lunches I prepare or how many carpools I drive. To provide for myself simply because I like making myself happy.

And because it feels good to be one happy mother.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day Eve

Driving a car full of 16-year-old boys on Mother's Day Eve:

“Yo, what did you get your mother for Mother’s Day?”

“I made her something in my ceramics class.”

“I used to make my mom stuff. She hated it.”

“I actually made her two things.”

“She said, ‘I’m not important enough to you to spend your money on?’”

“Yo, she said that?”

“I made my mom a bunch of stuff.”

“What are you, like six?”

“My mom is really clear about things like that. She told me to get her a gift certificate to Century 21.”

“What did you make your mom?”

“Like six things!”

“Like what?”

“Like to go out to lunch.”

“You made your mom coupons, man? I did that when I was in first grade.”

“Wait, you’re going to take your mom out to lunch like six times?”

“No, man, I don’t take her.”

“Yo, you just go with her??? Here, mom, here’s a coupon that says I’ll go out to lunch with you???”

“Man, that’s rude.”

“What? She likes it!”