Not a race report

This should be about the marathon. I should have an entry where I recap it, or race report it the way they do on Reddit. Here’s what I wanted, what I expected, what I tried for. Here’s what happened. Here’s where I noticed the people lining the streets, and here’s where my tunnel vision blocked out the sounds and the sights.

Like Rachel Cusk wrote in Arlingotn Park I think, people should write more about what they expect. Or think about it.

And that is apropo, because I really came here to write about Rachel Cusk. Because I keep coming back to her and keep finding out that she is not what I thought. That is good, because she is in fact a real person, and she is not me, nor the part of me I thought she validated. Though I would like to revisit the glory of the Outline trilogy.

I hardly remember passing most of Fifth Avenue. I remember the landmarks I know well, the park, 116th Street, I missed my old apartment, suddenly finding myself across 110th Street, across the circle I used to see every day, after the entrance to the park, waiting for the hill to kill me.

It happened to me before, the tunnel vision. On the 20-mile training run, the last two miles, I was running behind Tien in his orange singlet and I thought nothing. I was just movement. I was not even fighting myself to continue the way I did at the end of the 16 and 18 milers, counting tenths of a mile. I was gone. Something else had taken over.

That’s what happened in the marathon, but I didn’t even focus that much on a single person to block out everything else. I tried a few times to zero in on someone but they were either moving too slow or too fast and were soon out of my vision. One guy, with a yellow Team for Kids singlet, I tried to stay behind him. I was judging him for being slower than me, as he was tall, young and male. But then, maybe he just did it for charity and had not obsessively focused on preparing the way I had. Mostly it didn’t matter. I passed him.

About halfway up the Fifth Avenue hill, I remember looking at the street sign, seeing 98th Street, and wishing it would end, but I’ve wished much harder for hills to end on training runs. I was amazed my legs were still working. I had no idea why they were.

When I got into the park, it was narrow, and I started to speed up. I saw the crowds in the continually warped way one sees scenery from a car. There was some comfort in so many people being so close, in being protected perhaps, or less anonymous.

When I turned back into the park for the last few hundred meters, I felt relief more than triumph. The finish line seemed farther and farther away. I had wanted to cross it in triumph, expected to cross it in pain. I’m not sure I was prepared for the feeling of vulnerability it evoked instead.

Migraine musings

My right temple is the size of my body. It is biding its time. It will not make itself fully known, except as a kind of slithering, underhanded sneer. It is shimmering with unease, filling all of me with a weightless pain that is too slight to name but impossible to fully ignore.

I try anyway, try to assert myself, the mind and its semblance of self, but it keeps dissolving, slipping into a more fluid consciousness. Light and sounds are less stable, like they’re extending past their borders. Sunlight especially is menacing, like it might swallow everything in its path. The chair is flowing. The concepts of time and obligation seem equally mysterious. I cannot find them. 

Sometimes, if the obligation is well-formed, it can overcome the shiftiness oozing from my right temple. My mind can hold it down long enough to the shape: write this, call this number, say these things, respond to questions with a semblance of answers. It is precarious but possible, like doing it all in a shimmering pool of water.

Other people can’t usually tell, which should be reassuring but is not. How can my entirety be in disarray, the prospect of language itself questionable, the border slipping between the thing I call myself and a sly enemy that is hardly physical, and yet before me, the person to whom I have discussed real estate finance is unaware of the drama?

It puts even the questioning in question. To what degree am I responsible for sinking into the muck? The pain slides from my temple to my eyeball and the top of my jaw, like I have a toothache extending deep into the bones of my skull. 

I cannot in good faith call it a migraine. I am not after all in bed, I am barely in pain; I am merely in defeat. 

Hey world

so yes, this is a piece written during coronavirus, about coronavirus, because of coronavirus et cetera, like a million others like it.

and that’s okay, because it means that we have more time to reflect. the world has been rejiggered enough that we’re going to learn new things about ourselves, we’re going to miss the status quo and also question it, we’re going to wonder what we can’t live without and then live without it anyway. for those of us who have only experienced displacement, trauma or survival in small doses, we are learning what it means to live in a world where the future is a luxury.

there will be pieces about love in the time of coronavirus, about scarcity, and solidaridy, and consumerism and about our devices changing overnight from vices to lifelines. there will be guilt over mourning things deemed too trivial, for bursting into tears over a tweet when people are gasping for breath, when many more can’t afford food or medicine, when grandparents are dying alone.

that is alright too. everyone has lost their balance. maybe it will be two months, and cases will peak, and the economy will stabilize, and we will see the end, even if it is a grim one. maybe things will change so fast and we won’t be able to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our freedoms. maybe we will spend a spring indoors, while the world blooms. maybe the earth is laughing at us.

a friend asked me over text if I was lonely. he is a new friend and we are only just exploring the contours of what our friendship is. I resented the question. because there was a moment last night when I played, “if the world was ending, you’d come over right?” after a day spent alone on the couch learning the Korean alphabet and watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine. at that moment I wanted someone to come over, I wanted to be someone’s first call when the earth begins to shake. at first I wanted to escape the feeling. then I sat up on the couch, breathed in, and let the feeling sink into me. it felt like loss.

I did not want to confess this to the new friend, to suggest I had failed at being unlonely. this despite the endless calls and texts and video chats and virtual happy hours with friends and family. checking in on others, responding to check ins, watching movies, telling a friend, “I’m okay, but I’m on the floor sobbing right now.”

that’s it. I don’t have anything big to say. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. but I want to live this moment. I want to accept what it has to offer.

Ruminations on space

As a child I lived on a flat suburban grid. The mile streets were numbered; the houses sat on rectangular plots with lawns in the front and yards in the back, separated by driveways that emptied into the street. Beyond the square mile we lived in, bounded by 9 Mile and 10 Mile roads, freeways confused the linear order, but I was too young to know that.

As a student I lived on a mountain in Israel. I climbed 150 uneven stairs to get to school every morning. From the window of my dorm room space fell away. At night, I could see the outline of the Kinneret, a black hole surrounded by city lights miles below me. On days that school ended after sunset, I would watch the sky turn colors in the gridded windows of our trailer classrooms. Some days, I walked out of class and into the orange sky. I felt much closer to the heavens.

After Israel, I moved to Los Angeles. This time I had a car. The shape of the city changed in relation to me; mountains shifted, purple ridges appeared at the top of a street and disappeared several feet later. West began to mean something. It meant a fulminating ocean, the burst of blue that greets drivers emerging from the tunnel at the end of the 10 freeway. The ocean was always there, impossible to see or hear, hugging the end of the world.

In New York, I deny the feeling of entrapment it gives me. A world unto itself and impossible to leave. With a car I’d conquered space. In New York, I am constrained by it. Everyone hungers for it. The glass supertalls crane their necks up above the shoulders of the huddled masses of buildings, breathing cleaner air.

The city’s defendants keep their eyes on the frenetic life of the street; more life in a square block than all of Missoula, they say, more anger and love and injustice and desperation here than anywhere. A square foot costs more than your Mom’s mortgage payment, more than minimum wage for a week. Chinese takeout near designer handbags near drunk college students at the top of the world.

At work I talk to people who buy and sell pieces of space. They call our homes asset classes. They call the rent we pay net operating income. They think of the shapes of spaces as FAR, the amount of space zoning laws allow them to use for sleep, for play, for staircases so narrow they force awkward encounters with your neighbors.

Once, when I lived in East Harlem, I wrote about it for work, the forever story of New York: a neighborhood changing, a possible rezoning, near-death buildings abandoned by landlords, a neighborhood coffee shop opened by an optimistic half-Peruvian, determined to create a meeting place for residents old and new.

While reporting the story, I crossed the street from my building to the calm northwestern corner of Central Park, near the pond where two bodies were found when it thawed earlier that spring. On most days it was occupied by locals: runners, dog walkers, parents with strollers, parents on their way to school, workers on their way to work, the elderly from the home across Fifth Avenue, packs of teens, schoolchildren, depending on the time of day.

That day, a Sunday, it was still too chilly out for crowds, and the only man I had the courage to talk to was sitting on a bench facing the pond. He told me he was an organist who played at a storefront church on Third Avenue; he was playing at 4 that afternoon in fact, and I was invited.

He’d once lived across the street, on Fifth Avenue. He was in his fifties. Oh it was different back then, he said, and then paused, not mournfully but in a way that meant, where are we to start?

That was back when my building was still subsidized, before real estate agents tried to rename the blocks above East 96nd Street, before the condo building had been built on the corner opposite. In a deal with the developer, its first two floors had been designated as a community center for African-American and African art and culture, but the nonprofit organization had failed to raise the funds to build it. So for the three years I lived there, the concrete interiors of the grandiosely planned Africa Center sat vacant, beside the golden glow of the residential lobby next door.

That afternoon, I walked gingerly into the Third Avenue church, at the end of a bustling stretch of El Barrio. It was cozy inside and perfumed, packed with the body heat of the swaying congregation. The music bellowed, a woman described being possessed by the devil to a chorus of intensifying Amens.

This was a sacred space I didn’t understand. I left before the service was over to retread Third Avenue, to traverse El Barrio, to preside over the projects below me from my eighteenth floor apartment, to think endlessly about what it means to be situated in this space.

The mysteries of the freezer

I can still hear my childhood home breathing at night.

Our single-story home was the second in a row of bungalow houses, somewhere in a sprawling grid of flat streets, strip malls, and parking lots.

At night, it became a living, heaving thing. I lay awake in its bowels, my mind alive with unarticulated thoughts, that featured, for example, the striped bag of Leiber’s pretzels in the snack closet, like it was the answer to a threatening question.

Around me, the asthmatic house drifted in negative space. The windows were black. The neighbors’ identical houses, the skeletal swing set in the yard, and the Toyotas that stood like sentries along the block, were light years away, buried in an unknown darkness. Who knew if they were real. Or if they ever had been.

Occasionally, I’d hear evidence of my father from behind the accordion doors of the den: the muffled stutter of his voice on the phone, which he held so that its long curled wire snaked from the cradle on the kitchen wall, across the backdoor vestibule, and into the den. Or the shrill screams of the aging printer emanating from inside the sacred chambers, as it dispensed row after row of purple ink. Or the squeak of the kitchen floor as my father emerged from his chamber and crossed into it, to return the phone to its cradle or wander through the empty house.

Most of the time, the sounds were less distinct, a blend of electric hums and rustling blankets: the buzz of the refrigerator motor, the mysteries of the freezer, the sudden groan of a heater turning on, the ticking of clocks, the whistle of a window crack, my mother’s elaborate snores punching through the ceiling grate, a clanking in the boiler that rumbled through the walls.

I always thought the repeated clanks were the heavy, foreboding footsteps of someone coming up the stairs. I’d hold my breath, counting the number of footfalls, until eventually it was too many to correspond to the single staircase in our home. Sometimes I’d follow the sound until I drifted into sleep.

And then, morning came. Faster, and less forgiving than I expected.

Though my father did warn us. When we were kids, he would cajole us into bed by threatening that we’d miss our chance to sleep. “It’ll soon be light,” he would say in Yiddish. Somehow, this was an effective strategy. We were anxious children, I think, afraid of losing the only hours of peace, offered at night, in the arms of a parasitic host that fed the day back to us.

Or maybe we were afraid of the new day, when people and streets had definitive and unequivocal shape.

There are fewer mysteries in the morning.

Aluminum butterfly

I was still in middle school when Sara Levin got a scholarship to Harvard, or Stanford, or MIT. Sara’s scholarship was an open secret, but only after — and maybe because — she turned it down.

When Sara’s father, Dr. Levin, was the cantor in shul, he bellowed the prayers in his distinctly American accent. “Oseh Shalom Bimromav,” he brayed while taking the three steps back at the end of the amidah. His broad shoulders, wrapped in a Talis, dipped to the right and left as is the custom; his overgrown brown beard stabbed the air as he dipped forward. His gartel, the fringed fabric belt Hasidic men wear, wound around his black frock coat, accentuated his oval girth while he swayed.

Afterwards, around the Shabbat table, we would mock him. For the hardness of his American Rs, for the eagerness with which he took the podium, for how loud and assuming he was, how large; so unlike the slight, yiddish-speaking men like my father who lived in perpetual indecision, like they were still surprised to be here in Detroit and not the shtetl.

Dr. Levin was not a doctor. He had gone to college, and rumor was he was very smart, mad-scientist smart. Rumor was he had invented the little aluminum butterfly on soda cans and beer cans. Rumor had it, he’d never gotten the credit he deserved for inventing the can-opening mechanism, now as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola. The college that had bestowed upon him the title of doctor had taken the credit, and the royalties, for his invention.

That was why he lived in a house in Oak Park with his wife and four kids, in between 9 Mile, the Hasidic enclave where we lived among our gentile neighbors, and 10 Mile, where the rest of the orthodox Jewish community congregated.

Like her family, Sara was larger than us and more obviously American, two things that seemed related in my mind. I thought unkindly that she turned down the scholarship to prove that she was one of us.

I knew I was supposed to celebrate her sacrifice, but I could not. I knew that I should feel guilty for being disappointed for her, but I did not. I felt instead a very distinct and very powerful feeling of loss, even though it wasn’t mine.

Mostly, I was jealous. Because I would never get the chance to turn down a free ride to Harvard, or Stanford, to MIT. I would never get the chance to know if I could.

Sara Levin went to seminary and married my cousin. She moved to Australia and had twins, and many more children after that.

I went to a jazz concert last night, and while I listened I played with the aluminum butterfly on the can of Bad Seed Cider in my hands. It was in the back room of a Brooklyn bar, among friends and musicians, and after a few turns, the butterfly came free in my hands. While the music played and the Bad Seed Cider filled my head with lightness, I remembered Sara Levin and Dr. Levin’s prayers and thought about how gray his beard must be now.