It’s like learning a new language

I’m writing again, I say. It’s not very good, but that’s not the point. 


Playa De Carmen


Immediately after, I realize that it sounds like I’m seeking praise. If my friend Trisha notices, she’s too polite to say. What I mean to say is that I’m practicing. That it’s like a muscle, in need of tending and care. That with each effort, I’ll get better.

We’re talking about what we want to be when we grow up, although I think that the moment may have passed for me. With my recent birthday, I can no longer say I’m in my early anything. I’m a full fledged adult. Even still, most of the time I feel like an impostor. After a hard won negotiation, I often have to fight the urge to tell my adversary Do you see what I just did? How much I got you to concede? If you held out a little longer, I would have caved. I want the affirmation of a job well done.

We play the game of the hypothetical. If we didn’t have to work, what would we do. My answer comes quickly. I’d be a travel writer. I’ve put in the miles—more than 30,000 last year alone. I tell her about the pieces, still unformed, that have been occupying my thoughts. What I don’t say is that they’re really about me. I can’t quite bring myself to articulate that I want to be an essayist, plain and simple. It feels too self indulgent, and while I frequently espouse the idea that it’s not the subject matter that makes something worth reading, it’s the writing, I can’t shake the feeling that my life simply isn’t that interesting. Most of the time, it’s the impossibly long plane journey rather than the stop at the end.

Instead, I stay quiet, and we keep walking along the coastline of the Riviera Maya. The water grazes our feet, covering it with seaweed. The strands are a dull brown, almost the color of rust. They tangle around our ankles, slowing our pace. Trisha picks one up, holds it to the light, then rinses it off. When we return to New York, she’ll cast it in bronze, refashioning it into something beautiful. Maybe a bracelet or a crown. Something that will bring someone pleasure as they behold it. I marvel at how she can find inspiration where all I see is detritus.

We stop for a minute so that I can try to remove some of the seaweed covering me. I rub my foot against my ankle only to discover that there are small spikes hidden in its fractals. I end up throwing it back into the ocean.

The sky and sea are impossibly blue. I read somewhere that Eskimos have fifty words for snow, all filled with nuance. When I used to flip through J. Crew catalogs, I’d take umbrage at the names of all of the fabric hues. How many ways do you really need to say that a shirt is blue? I see them all now. Cerulean, aquamarine, azure. The water almost lapis where it is shaded. The depths unknown.

I practice speaking in Spanish. I have a goal in mind. I want to able to communicate better than my friend Ben when we’re in Spain later this summer. We’ve traveled the world together, Ben and I. In each county, I’ve felt my Americaness as he slips into another language as easily as slipping into another pair of shoes.

My Spanish comes haltingly, my vocabulary lacking. The first word that I can recall, ir, is the first one I was taught. Soon, the conjugations come back:

soy         I am
eres        you are
es            he is
somos    we are
son          they are

Only I can’t remember any of the words that should follow.

The days pass languidly.


On the first night, we ask our taxi driver where he eats. He takes us to a local place with a line down the block. Out front a man stands in front of a giant spit holding an enormous spiced mixture of pork crowned with pieces of pineapple, their juices dripping down into the meat, helping to tenderize it. Periodically he fans the flames of the fire.  The embers spread out into the air, their heat distorting it and making everything appear dreamlike. When an order comes in, his movements are deft. In one seamless motion, he pockets the meat then shaves a piece of pineapple and flicks it into the air. It lands in the shell. We watch mesmerized. Do you think he ever drops one? One of my friends asks. We wait twenty minutes for our food. In all of that time, he doesn’t.

When we get back to our villa, we feast. Even lukewarm, the tacos are delicious. Crunchy and caramelized where the meat has been charred, chopped onion and cilantro providing the perfect fresh counterpoint. There’s no question that we’ll go back.

We make plans for the weekend, deciding that we’ll bike around the resort. I mention my fear of biking around cars, underplaying it as much as possible. I leave out the part about how, when I was in New Orleans, a friend of mine had to look up streetcar routes so that we could travel across the city because I was too nervous.  Instead, I joke that the only biking I do these days is indoors, with the bikes bolted to the floor.

I bike anyway, trailing behind my friends. My start is a rough one. I take a curve too fast and, in a panic, throw my feet on the ground to avoid a collision with a tree. I continue. With each pedal stroke, I gain confidence. We make it to the beach and decide the water is a little too cold for a swim. I stick my feet in to convince myself that this is the right move. It is, but it’s nice to rest my legs and enjoy the sun.

A day into our trip, I finally remember a perfectly structured sentence: Se lo agradezco mucho. 

It seems fitting.



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Common Time

When I was in college, I took a class on the history of Jazz. I thought it would help me become the kind of person I wanted to be—brilliant and esoteric and effortlessly cool. I wanted to pepper my conversations with casual references to Thelonious Monk and Jack Kerouac, to speak in Shakespearean quotes without even realizing it and spend my nights at places like the White Horse Tavern drinking whiskey with boys who spent their weekends staying up through the night to talk about important things. Boys who were on their way to becoming men.

Also, I really, really liked listening to Miles Davis.

On the first day of the first lecture, our instructor played the Benny Goodman Trio’s Body and Soul, asking us to clap along to the beat. It was an easy one, played in common time, Krupa’s drumming clearly articulated. Some of us closed our eyes. We all moved our hands in unison. Almost. A half a beat later, there was a soft echo.

It was me.

I tried tapping my foot instead, to no avail. A friend of mine was in the class, too, and at this point, she politely suggested that maybe I should just sit still and listen since my sense of timing wasn’t quite right. Then again, she was usually late to our lectures, so it’s safe to say that her relationship with time was fairly flawed, too.

We all have our own rhythms. Once again, mine seems to be out of sync. Maybe it’s the unremitting gray of the late winter. Each day a slog to the finish, even the easy things made fraught with the ice. Everything a little slower, moving at its own pace. The past few weeks filled with a sense of time lost: A chance meeting that happened a year too late—or a few drinks too early depending on perspective. An unexpected apology for an transgression long forgotten. The disclosure of help sought, making me wonder if, perhaps, I had simply been too early.

I played clarinet in junior high school. Only it was clear early on that I would never sound like this. My sister, of course, was a natural on the flute. So each week, I suffered through private lessons. The logic, I think, was that the teacher was was already coming to our house. Listening to me practice was so painful that my parents asked me to do it in our unfinished basement, so I stopped. This would help me keep up in school.

Week after week, I would rush through the songs, hoping it would make the lesson go faster. The teacher would reach out to stop me, using a little too much force. You’re not thinking, he’d say as the mouthpiece hit against my front teeth, the odd sensation of the wooden reed on the enamel making me lose all concentration. Then he would turn the sheet music back to the beginning of the song so I could start again over and over until I got it right.

Last Sunday, I walked across town in a blizzard. The snow swirled around me, making it impossible to see. I made it home only to take a massive spill right in front of my building. I was walking too quickly and hit a patch of ice.  Someone stopped, asking it I was okay. I was already on my feet, heading inside.

Yes, I said. I just have to learn to slow down.




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There’s a trick with knife I’m learning to do*

Last week I discovered that I have been holding knives wrong my entire life. Okay, fine, maybe not my entire life. Still we’re talking a solid twenty years and countless meals.

In retrospect, I suppose it would have been disappointing to take a knife skills class only to realize I had nothing left to learn. The class began with a simple enough instruction. Show me how you hold a knife. All of us smug; how could we get such a basic skill wrong?

Our instructor made her way around the table.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Her voice taking on a melodic quality, as if she was singing the chorus to a once popular, now long forgotten song.

Then, the demonstration. Thumb and forefinger pressing against the blade, hand barely grasping the handle. The idea, we were told, was to limit the strain on our bodies. To let the curve of the blade and the momentum created do the work for us. And, in theory, all of it seems easy enough. But there’s the matter of muscle memory. Old habits and all that.

I’m sorry to admit this isn’t the first time I’ve had to relearn a basic skill. There was my spate of seemingly athletic injuries a few years ago—A torn meniscus. Then another in my other knee and a stress fracture. It was so perplexing to one of my doctors that I had to go through test after test. The explanation turned out to be a simple one. Owing to a childhood injury, the line of my body was off, causing undue strain. This combined with an inability to do anything in moderation meant months of physical therapy to learn how to walk properly.

Maybe I’m destined to always be relearning things I thought I knew (now there’s a sentence). It seems that way given the last few weeks, confusion filled as they’ve been. Each time I get a handle on something, I discover that I’ve gotten it wrong; that my judgement isn’t as infallible as I’d like to believe.

Following the knife skills class, I was talking this over with close friend. He was quiet. Then, gently, Don’t take this the wrong way, but maybe you’re tying to make too many changes. I reacted pretty vehemently. I’m wont to do that when someone says something to hits a nerve. Then, I started giving it some thought.

About a year ago, on one of the first days of a two week stint in London, I did some serious damage to my leg. I was almost on the ground, and then I wasn’t. All well and good except that, in catching myself I may have done more harm. The next day, I couldn’t bend my knee. Or walk for that matter. I didn’t realize quite how deep into the ground London’s Tube Stations were until I was forced to stand, waiting for the escalators to take me all the way to the bottom.

By the time I got home and saw a doctor, I had managed to convince myself that I was on the mend—or, at least that I would be with the help of some heavy painkillers. I simply couldn’t face another round of P/T. And, so, I didn’t.

If you watch closely when I walk, you may notice that my right foot extends out ever so slightly. Among other things, I’m learning now that sometimes the wiser course of action may be to let myself tumble towards the ground at full speed, landing hard and then moving on.


*with apologies to Michael Ondaatje

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From the archives

Okay, fine, this is an old piece, happened upon during the great journal read aloud of the weekend past, but it seemed particularly appropriate today. And at least I’m keeping up the trend of posting, right?


Ten degrees Fahrenheit

It’s bitter. Too cold to snow, even,
and I am drinking
far more than is advisable,

but, far less than is

It’s not as bad as all that.

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On dancing.

Before I kept a blog that I didn’t keep up with, I kept a diary that I didn’t keep up with either. Except that I called it a journal because I was in college and that seemed more age appropriate. I was also fairly pretentious. Which became even more evident to me earlier this week as I found myself reading old entries aloud to my best friend who, in reorganizing his house had found his, too.

Soon enough, I couldn’t even hear him over my own laughter. It may have been running across this particular entry: I retract all that I’ve said.

It’s hard to take something like that seriously. In those days, every decision seemed fraught, each choice so monumental. We didn’t realize how young we were, how easy to make changes. It seems to me now that the choices matter more and we consider them less.

After we spoke, I made my way to a tango class.

I know, I know. If you know me, you’ve reread that sentence twice. I was talked into it by friends, convinced that it was going to be something aerobic. It wasn’t. Instead, it reminded me of being in my middle school gymnasium learning how to square dance. This time, gliding across a just-waxed wooden floor, my hands pressed into the chest of a stranger, I was told to lean forward, to allow myself to follow. The trick, I learned, is that you cannot look at your feet.

If I was still keeping a journal, I’d make this into a heavy handed metaphor.

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There was this thing we did when the first cold snap hit. We’d watch as the kids from the South and the West started to shiver, realizing that during this, their freshman year, they were woefully ill equipped for the New England winter ahead. We’d breathe in the Boston air, slowly, allowing it to fill our lungs. Chuckle, almost silently, telling them Just wait, this is nothing. You don’t know cold it can get. We would go on to tell them, our friends, how there would be a day in the not-so-distant future where their hair would freeze because they hadn’t fully dried it and, well, temperatures being what they are at that time of year…

It’s happened to me every year since that one. I’ve left my house thinking that I’m ready for the day only to discover otherwise. This year, it was in August. Covered in layers and less than one hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, it turns out, I didn’t how cold it can get.

It’s a learning experience, as most things are. Years ago, I was practicing sort of brinksmanship, colored by the arrogance of youth. These days? Well, things circle back on themselves.

Last year, I was talking about hurricanes and new homes. Or of rebuilding, anyway. Before that, it was new hearts.

Last week, I walked the main floor of Presbetyre in New Orleans’s Jackson Square immersed in the details of how Katrina transformed the city. Of the levees breaking and the Superdome. Of the people stranded on their roofs for days on end. I had to step away from the images in order to catch my breath. It was a year to the day that I had finally made it back to New York after being stranded in London for almost a week because of Sandy. Suddenly, I was back on the flight, suspended over Manhattan, circling the city, unsure of what I might see once I landed but desperate to see it.

Patterns emerge if you look closely enough.

It’s time for another. Four years ago today, my father received a new heart. In the years that have followed, I’ve written about it here and here), always with same request. It’s time again: register to be an organ donor.

I can’t remember where I started this thought. I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll get back there eventually.

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Takk fyrir

Mostly, I wanted to tell you about the light.

About how, on my last day in London, it glistened on the River Thames, making everything seem sepia-toned. Making us all nostalgic for events even as they were happening.

Is there a term for that?

No matter.

I went back to the Tate Modern’s Rothko room, where I had spent so many hours so many months prior. A friend of mine commented on the quiet that surrounded us when we walked in, and I spoke of waiting there back in late October; of how I took solace from the hushed tones and subdued images. Being back was like revisiting a favorite book. The plot the same but my reading different, colored by the intervening time, because I had been.

It felt good to return and even to be leaving since it was on my own terms this time. Even so, it was far too soon. But, I was off.

When we arrived in Reykjavik, it past midnight and looked like it was barely dusk—midnight sun and all that.

Again it comes down to the light.

If I could write the way that J.M. Turner painted, I would conjure up images of clear skies and endless open vistas and tell of how the days seemed long in all the right ways; satisfying and tiring and filled with exploration.

Þingvellir National Park

Instead, I’m stuck with the same hackneyed phrases and a new found appreciation for Monet’s haystacks, which previously stuck me as pointless and, frankly, evidence of his failing eyesight. I think that, at last, I understand the appeal. When we were standing atop the first lookout point at Þingvellir National Park, my friend Mike commented on the radiance around us. It was, he said, the sort of thing that none of us would have taken notice of when we were younger.  So, it seems, we’ve all grown.

On that first night in the city, we four were determined to stay up to watch the rising sun. The hours passed until it was just me and Ben, the ice cubes slowly melting in our drinks, making the bouquet more and more fragrant. I thought then about how the last time we had done this was the weekend of his wedding, sitting beside a roaring fire in the Scottish Fall, the air charged with the excitement of things about to unfold. I thought, too, of how it took me being stuck in London to want to return so desperately.

We missed the sunrise by all of a quarter hour. In the end, it didn’t really matter; it had never really set.


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