Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Gladys Kravitz Lives

In 1990, I was a fresh graduate and a new bride, living in a basement apartment on Lakeshore Drive in Toronto.  It was a cozy little one bedroom with a fireplace, and in the summer we could sit on our little patio and see our sliver of Lake Ontario.  My husband and I thought we had the world by the tail. 

In the middle of one August night, windows open, we were shaken awake by a violent, drunken domestic argument in the driveway right next to our kitchen window. We lay in bed, hearts pounding, wondering in frantic whispers if we should call the police.  Getting out of bed and making a phone call--these were the old days where we didn't have mobile phones--would have certainly been heard by the very angry man outside. Luckily, the aggressor didn't do much beyond hurling obscenities at the object of his terrifying rage, and it was all over in a matter of minutes, though they felt like an eternity. To this day, I wish I'd had the guts to get out of bed and do something.  But I didn't, and never actually saw the woman who'd been targeted. 

By fall, I'd been through a layoff but was gainfully employed, thanks to the new basement tenant in the house next door, who'd taken me under her wing and toted my resume to her place of work.  My husband was running a cabinetmaking operation and I had a proper corporate job, and we were excited about our future.  Our apartment made a perfect nest for our new life together, and the tenants upstairs disturbed us rarely. 

The only fly in the ointment was Sunday evening.  The folks on the other side waited until nearly midnight to dump all of their weeks' recycling glass into the bin outside our bedroom window, jolting me out of our first sleep before our work week; the man beside me dozed blissfully unless I elbowed him. After a few months, I steeled my courage and went outside in my university sweatshirt.  I came face to face with a forty-something man who clearly lived a life of quiet desperation, save for his Sabbath ritual. I explained that I lived next door and that the noise was disturbing, and I wondered if he might handle his recycling earlier in the evening.

"Are you an owner or a renter?" At twenty-three, I looked eighteen, so it was clear but I explained anyway.  "Then I don't care what you think." Conversation over.  I wanted to stomp my little foot and explain that I was a nice person, and not a drag on his property value, but again my gumption deserted me.  We put up with it until we got a line on a cheaper place that needed gutting, where we lived in a state of partial renovation for two more years.   

Now I live on a street near a college campus, where renters far outnumber owners.  A couple of weeks ago the frat boys across the street decided to have a party.  When there were about forty cars on the street, I texted the owner of the house, who explained she'd sold the place a few weeks earlier, but promised to call the leasing agent who'd gotten her off the hook.  In the meantime, I stood in my apron and peered out the window of my newly-renovated kitchen while I roasted fennel and braised some chicken.  There was definitely something going on over there.

The cops showed up a couple of hours in--I'm still not sure who put the law on the party, but suspect I was the prime mover--and the fallout looked like a swarming antpile of blonde ponytails and khaki shorts.  I felt relief and thought about how I would want my sweet freshman daughter looked out for in the possibility of being run over in front of my house by beer-sodden drivers of $40,000 pickup trucks.

Then came the boat.  It's for bass fishing, I think, and it's been sitting on my street on and off for two weeks. It takes our road down to one lane, especially on busy mornings. The house where it originates, two doors down, is in a state of perpetual neglect, with various unknown tenants, presumably a number evicted, with loose dogs and a lawn that only goes down when it's burned to a crisp.  I saw a ticket on the truck in front of the house a couple of days ago and assume somebody called them in. 

At some point, perhaps I'll find my voice and find the owners and ask them why they are comfortable with their low-rent standards.  In the meantime, I'll enjoy my pretty house, have a happy life, and do my best to be a kindly old neighbor.  I never want to be the bitter guy, but I hope when the moment arises again, I'll do the right thing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dream Kitchen

My first real morning in my new kitchen left me at loose ends.  I've dreamed of this kitchen for years, doing so while I've spent long, pleasant evenings putting together meals in tiny working areas, with dingy appliances long past their prime, cabinets with worn paint and configurations unsuited to storing anything taller than a salt shaker.  I've thought about it intently as I contended with possum infestations and rustling behind my cabinets while I cooked, read, worked and wrote, still basically living in this room, a sloppy addition with multiple drafts and ancient, crumbling window frames.  With all these flaws, the room was still my favorite in the house.

Now, just renovated, the new space has sleek new appliances--putting my mustard-colored French kettle on the gas range when I first get out of bed is a deep pleasure; after years of rickety electric stoves down to one element, the satisfying click and fire of the burner and the momentary scent of methane seems so proper, civilized, exactly the right way to make a cup of tea--and cabinets of a very particular gray.  I lost sleep over details and am pleased that I did.  For the first time in my adult life, I have everything I need.  Not a chef's kitchen, but a cook's kitchen and a warm, comfortable place to eat what is prepared.

Mark Bittman has written that good cooks can pull together a meal with very few implements.  Over  nine weeks of renovations, I reminded myself of that daily. I don't enjoy takeout and like restaurants to be a treat.  For most of my adult life, I've cooked an evening meal every day, even late at night and especially when I am on my own.  Chopping ingredients, the hiss of olive oil in the pan, the smell of garlic cooking, a glass of wine at the ready: these are the signs that my workday is winding down.  In anticipation of these weeks, T insisted we get a grill, and I used it most days, along with my big chopping block and a single Wusthof knife, whisking together my salad dressing on a big library table in the family room adjacent to the deck.  One unseasonably cool day in July, I made a beef stew in the crockpot, which sat simmering near the television.

During the demolition phases of the project, I escaped to California.  The two-hour time difference, combined with the gulls announcing the sunrise over the San Francisco Bay, mean I creep out to T's kitchen long before he does.  There, too, I make my tea and sit at the counter and answer correspondence and learn the news of the day.  On Saturdays, we walk to the Ferry Building and buy such wonderful things, Mary's Organic Chicken, Hog Island Oysters, dreamy local produce. On the Fourth of July, we sat on the balcony, grilled up a couple of steaks and split a bottle of Pinot Noir while looking at the Bay Bridge and catching glimpses of fireworks.  The day before, our contractor in Texas sent us pictures of the dead rat behind the old cabinets. 

For the next few weeks, I walked around plastic and dust and in the evenings barricaded myself in the newly-painted bedroom, trying to ignore the chaos outside.  I chastised myself for complaining about the mess, reminding myself of curling linoleum and old formica countertops with blistering corners that left holes in the front of my shirts.  This, I told my inner brat, was a rich person's problem.

In mid-August, we returned from a vacation to the Outer Banks to find the project complete.  T and I had been together, with family, for a full two weeks, the longest single visit we'd had together.  We spent the weekend in Fort Worth before he headed back to the Bay Area. We cleaned and organized, cooked and ate and drank, absorbing what the new space means to us and excited about being together here. Then I took him to the train station and we were back on our parallel tracks.

When I became single again at forty, Sundays were my favorite days to be on my own, once I made my own peace with being without the kids on alternate weekends. An only child, I learned early on to enjoy my own company, and it didn't feel unusual to face time by myself. Waking up was leisurely, and I savored those early hours, knowing the day lay ahead of me to do whatever I wished with it--walking the dog, reading, and certainly cooking a meal. 

So this past Sunday felt like my first real day here.  I sat in the lovely, quiet space and gazed out the new window at my favorite view, the tree in the front yard.  The students who raced up and down the street the day before were all still hungover in bed.  The cardinal who visits sometimes alighted on a lower branch, and I sipped my tea, finishing Kate Christensen's wonderful Blue Plate Special, a memoir I'd been reading.  It should have been a moment of pure contentment.  But it wasn't. 

Being alone now isn't the same as it used to be.  I've grown accustomed to the warmth of companionship and the pleasure of shared routines, and it has robbed me of my lifelong pleasure in being solitary. Christensen's last chapters conjured up a kind of homesickness for me when she wrote of finding real love and the joys of compatibility: "Real happiness is simple.  Simple as dirt."

Naturally, I was petulant with T on the phone later that day. 

But that evening my daughter dropped by unexpectedly with her new boyfriend, and I was delighted by the visit.  I made a good soup and tidied up after dinner, the order giving me satisfaction.  My son was coming back on Monday, an event I always look forward to. 

The next evening, T and I talked, and he remarked that I'd been out of sorts the day before.  It's okay, I said.  I was just lonely. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Finding Love in Midlife

It's been a while since this post, when I was hit less by a thunderbolt than by finding home.  The man with the warmest voice I've ever heard has wound up becoming the love of my life, and we're building one together.  A serendipitous meeting at a sushi place in San Francisco (I live in Fort Worth, Texas) ended up being the best decision I've ever made--traveling on one's own, done well, means shedding a skin and being exposed and ready for a new experience. 

I've avoided writing not out of happiness, as some of my friends have suggested, but out of respect for a deeply precious thing I've unearthed with another person.  After the years of wondering, asking the universe for a sign, and then the tentative steps toward the real thing, rather than some provisional relationship, I didn't want to endanger what we were making. 

Now we are, and have been for a long time, on solid ground. There have been many plane flights back and forth to the wonderful city by the Bay, and jets have traveled too to DFW.  We've made some interesting adventures out of work trips together, and are looking forward to one to Asia together soon.  It's calm, supportive, and passionate at the same time. Who knew those could coexist?

I'd started forget the loneliness I felt earlier in life that I read about in my earlier posts, even when T has to leave me, or I him.  But looking at these, it's clear I avoided the Real Thing, which is why I didn't find it, even when I thought I was ready. The best thing about those feelings is that, painful as they were, they drove me out of my comfortable little rut and out into the wilderness.

So if you are at a certain age and have determined that solo life is not for you, see my thoughts below.

1) Eat lunch all by yourself.   This is especially good if you are in a city that is not your home.  Even if you don't drink alcohol, sit at the bar, order a sparkling water, and see who else is sitting there.  Strike up a conversation, or at least look open to one.  This doesn't mean hitting on someone, but it can open doors about where to meet people.  A couple I met the day I also met T recommended Chaya for dinner on my own. I went, and in walked my destiny. 

2) Get out of your neighborhood.  You already know all the single people in your town.  That might mean your actual town, or your eight-block radius around your apartment where you get your coffee and go to brunch.  The key part is that you'll not just see different people--you'll be different, with your guard down and free from the preconceived ideas of your regular crowd.  When I met T, I was coming back from a work trip in China.  My insecurities were not in evidence: I thought I was all that and a bag of chips.  T picked up on that, and agreed.  So put yourself in places where you can shirk off your usual suit of armor and see what happens. Scary, but pretty exciting.  And when nobody knows who you are, it's hard to worry about what they think.

3) Ask for it. Okay, if you are not a religious person, this can be tough.  But it can be as easy as writing down a wish on a piece of paper and putting it in a drawer, or as challenging as climbing a mountain and asking your own personal version of a spiritual guide to send someone your way. Or just tell a couple of trusted friends that you are ready, and what you think it will look like. It's about intention and opening yourself up to possibility, which means you can walk around with your eyes fully open no matter where you are.

4) Banish convention.  We're fortunate to live in an age where we can make our lives look however we want.  If you're a deeply traditional person, it's easier when young to find someone who looks at the progression of a relationship as dating, marriage, house, kids, promotion, retirement, and death.  Once the world has knocked all the corners off you, you can make it up as you go along, are smart enough to know a good thing regardless of the package it comes in, and can enjoy the hell out of it while knowing life has big bumps.  Respect, kindness, humor and fun are what matters.  The last two are up to your definition, but the first two are absolutely essential.  Settle for nothing less and enjoy your life.  It's short, and you no longer need to give a crap about what people think.  

5) Give yourself permission.  I really couldn't understand why I was on my own. I had friends, was active, curious and engaged in the world. Time to myself was sweet, and still is, which is why a long-distance thing has been great for me and T. My enjoyment of my own company--better than being desperate for a partner, to be sure--didn't explain it completely. Right before I went to China, a couple of frank discussions with a professional helped me understand why I cried all the way to work every Monday when I had to take my kids for the switch-over to their other home. My children were my emotional life.  Anybody else in real proximity would mean I had betrayed them.  After all, I had broken up their home and owed them all my energy to fix that.  Well, turns out when I allowed myself to be open to someone else and stopped putting my guilt in my way, there it was. And my kids?  We took it slow, but they love T, and they are visibly relieved not to be responsible for my happiness. 

Once you find love--and this hardened cynic has learned you can--remember the road is not always easy.  That's another post, but in the meantime, check out Julie Orlov's Pathway to Love website.  Sage advice as we navigate strange waters.