2021 New Yorker’s To Do List
Happy New Year from New York City, where neither the Coronavirus, incompetent leadership, nor burgeoning crime can kill us. We have been through a lot over the past year and will go through much more before our current pandemic is over. Things may never return to pre-pandemic “normal” again and that’s not all bad.
We will not let the stressful state of our world stop us from listing some priorities for the New Year. Here are what I see as our guiding principles for 2021:
Stay frosty. I am fortunate that I live in a region where facemasks and social distancing are both the law and the social norm. That is fragile even here and even more difficult in areas where anti-maskers/science deniers have a greater dominance. There is no such thing as being too careful about your health when there is a once-in-a-century pandemic happening. Seriously, no matter your political proclivities, do you really feel the urge to be closer to your fellow man right now? I hope not. Keep your distance and wash your hands. Here is your chance to mouth a hearty “fuck you” to half the people you meet behind your fashionable mask. Stick to it because this is not over yet.
Read more poetry. This oft-ignored form of literature is much more diverse than it gets its due. We need poetry and the madness of literary dreamers now more than ever. You could do worse than perusing Impolite Literature or Outlaw Poetry.
Pursue the things you miss most. This pandemic has left us hungry for things that we miss. It’s has shone a big spotlight on things we love and hate. Remember the things you miss the most and chase them with dedicated abandon. I plan on spending more time making music than I have in recent years. I could never tear myself away but having played only two shows in 2020 has left me with a fever for being back playing shows, no matter how small the stage or the crowd. Some people need to be loud. Maybe you rediscovered a passion for painting pumpkins or making weird videos or trying to grow ghost peppers in your garden. Go for it all.
Chasing normal for normal’s sake won’t work. I miss the benefits of the non-pandemic life but working 12-hour days without seeing your family is bullshit, no matter how much money you make. Just because it bears that pre-pandemic shine does not mean it’s Shinola. Some of the stuff that COVID kicked to the curb belongs there. Leave it.
Don’t wait for the pandemic to be over to reach out to family and friends. You do not have to do a Zoom call or a Skype call for everything. Use your telephone the old-fashioned way and call people. You will find it be a refreshing exercise. Convert the tiresome Zoom calls into regular visits; we can build better rituals in the flesh when that becomes possible again.
Order as much takeout as you can eat without becoming obese. Our favorite local diner cannot let us sit inside, so I brought my girls there this morning and we ordered takeout and had a car picnic in our mini van before driving to an aquarium. Those restaurants that are able to stay open are hanging on for dear life. If you can afford to give them your business, please do, and tip generously.
Time is getting shorter for everyone; and we have put enough of our lives on ice. Grab the New Year by the lapels and make it dance with you.
The courage to chase dreams
A high school friend of mine worked as a successful lawyer for roughly the past two decades. He won a great ROTC scholarship in high school. While in the U.S. Army, he went to law school. After serving in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, he worked as an attorney for the Department of Defense before going into private practice law.
But change has come. My friend gave up the life of an attorney to chase his dream of being a radio D.J.
“Because terrestrial radio is such a big thing now,” he joked.
Today commercial radio is a ghost of its former self while music streaming services dominate music landscape. But people still do make a living as radio D.J.s, why shouldn’t he? He took classes at a local broadcasting school and has managed to cobble together an income from various sources—a few nights hosting a lotto drawing here, running a bar trivia night there, he’s not homeless or starving.
Another friend also took a similar plunge, working in comedy and going for broke. Show business is a brutal and heart-rendering business that leaves some its most earnest and talented people out in the cold. My buddies have no illusions they face an uphill battle, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.
I yearn for the courage that my friends have shown.
I moved back to New York for several reasons, but one of them was to seek fame and fortune and become a great American writer. We writers are a hopeless romantic lot, even those of us that like to paint ourselves as curmudgeons. Even the most anti-social hermit scribbling away in obscurity harbors dreams of being the stuff of book covers and bookstore postcards someday. Any writer that tells you they do not dream of somehow writing themselves into immortality is a liar. Like all artists, we hope our work will live after us and testify to the improbable infinity that we lived.
One of the problems with creative people is that many of us spend more time dreaming and pondering than working at our craft in a way that is productive. We have overly romanticized notions of what our craft is, that it somehow exists in a sphere outside of the normal marketplaces and human conditions. Crash landing into the realities of business and the arts is a hard thing, but the worthwhile things are always hard.
I am in the same boat with so many hopeful others. My dreams have tempered a bit. I will settle for not being the next Jack Kerouac or William Faulkner, but I still hope to make a living creatively, by doing work that is creative, artistic in nature or at least taps into my talents to write about things that I find legitimately interesting.
I am very lucky in the life that I have. I have a great family and group of friends; my health is good; I can say with confidence I will go to bed tonight with food in my stomach and a roof over my head. And yet, there is the dream I must still chase. I’m not low on ambition, but on direction and focus.
Despite all the reasons to be jaded and negative, I live with the confidence in my own creativity and the ability of New York to feed our greatest ambitions. Wish me luck and hard work.
Ready for a Comeback
The occasion of one’s birthday is always a time, however brief, for reflection and taking stock of where you are. This past weekend saw the start of my 46th year on this Earth, and I have a lot to be happy about and celebrate but it’s also the start of a comeback.
There is always room to improve and make better. If you’re not striving for something better at all times, then things fall into disrepair and a sad, atrophying stasis. The search, the striving is the goal and the state of being everyone needs. Merely getting by doesn’t cut it.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy some time to relax and be grateful for what you have, but if you’re not happy about something, then change is a must.
And like everyone else, there are things I am not happy about. I am very lucky in that I have my health and a lucid mind and can get a start on turning things around. But things have been in a bit of a rut: I go to work, I come home and eat and put kids to bed, I answer more work emails and fall asleep trying to get something done. I wake up early the next day and do it again.
One glimmer of light in all this is creativity. If I can get something creative done, I can have some peace of mind, and right now I am preparing for a show at the end of October.
Having young children and seeing how quick life can move can be both terrifying and encouraging. It seems like just yesterday I was welcoming the first of our children into the world; the older of our kids will be five in January and they are well versed in navigating the parental politics of our household for their own advantage.
But seeing how fast life moves doesn’t just mean that our youthful days are left in the dust, it means we can create new things for ourselves quickly as well. Less than a decade ago I was living alone with not many prospects for career advancement or a family life. Now I have three children and a well-established career in public relations. In a few years, I can be in a different place; the pace of change is fast, which means we can put ourselves on a better path quickly.
So often we look back on things with regret, and I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone. We will always, and I can tell you million times of how true this is: we will always regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do.
So no matter where you are or how bad things seem or how off the rails the life you imaged is, don’t worry or spend too much time looking back on past mistakes. Start doing things to set things right again. You won’t be sorry. It’s never too late.
Go for it.
The dark allure of the carnival
Two years ago, when our youngest was a newborn still in the hospital, I had a Father’s Day with our older daughters and decided to take them to a carnival that was being held out on Long Island.
The drive out there gave the girls some nap time and allowed me to treat myself to some drive-through White Castle in an indulgent celebration of my continuing my bloodlines.
It was on the grounds of a community college not too far into Suffolk County (the part of Long Island farther away from New York City—technically both Brooklyn and Queens are on the Island of Long Island but whenever a New Yorker says “Long Island” they mean Nassau or Suffolk County, which constitute the larger mass of land outside of the New York City borders).
Because it was Father’s Day and extremely hot, or for whatever reason, the carnival was not well attended. There were a few rides where my girls were the only ones on at the time. One ride that was empty had a height requirement, and I told one of the twins to step up to the height measurement board by the entrance to see if she was tall enough. She misunderstood my instructions and began stepping up on the bottom run of the fence around the ride, which had the effect of both immediately proving she was not tall enough to ride the ride but making it look like I was telling my daughter to cheat. As I was trying to correct this, the man running the ride, who was wearing the requisite carny uniform of sun-leathered skin emblazoned with tattoos, quickly waved my girls onto the ride.
More recently, my wife and I took our girls to a local carnival held on the grounds of a Catholic school nearby. It was fairly well attended but our kids were only eligible to ride a few of the rides. Most of the rides were for older kids and grownups and some of them looked rickety and unsafe. The same carny types were running the rides, and the ones who were running the kids’ rides were happy to have the business. From a trailer-born midway, the typical games of change were running with giant stuffed animals to lure impressionable youth to beg for their parents’ money.
A few weeks later, another similar carnival, a larger one in Astoria, had a ride malfunction and injure a passenger who fell out of an open car on a rickety amusement park ride.
We hold the carnival folk in envy in some ways also: they travel and see the country in ways most of us wish we had the freedom to do. And we see their itinerant ways and employment in leisure as hinting at some greater, more liberated life, even though it is a much harder life that consists of working while other people have fun, for long hours in the hot sun for little pay.
Eight years ago, a Wisconsin writer traveled as a carny and wrote about it for the publication Isthmus in an article ‘My life as a carny.’ He summarized it this way:
“[W]here I expected dangerous men and unpleasant bosses, I discovered instead a unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides many of them with far more than just a wage.”
One counterintuitive point that the article makes is that traveling carnival rides have a better chance of being safe than those at established amusement parks, because they are inspected more frequently.
From the interactions I’ve had, I have some away with the impression that because my wife and I have raised our girls to treat people with respect and be polite, especially to the people who work for a living and serve us, that the carnival workers pick up on that and treat us well in return.
We come away from these carnivals a little poorer financially, I like to think that our family is richer in experience. Carnies are part of the brilliant milieu of New York City; we appreciate the dark allure of the carnival, as it is illuminating when you approach it with the right attitude.
20 Years Back in New York
Twenty years ago this past week, I started the drive to move to New York City. I hadn’t lived here since I was a baby though I grew up visiting frequently. Both my parents were raised in the five boroughs and I felt that my life’s dreams were big and grandiose enough that it justified entering the crucible of the Big Apple.
My friend Matt helped me pack all of my worldly possessions into a small rental truck and I began the 900 mile journey from suburban Atlanta back to the city of my birth. I stopped in the Washington D.C. area that night at the home of my friends Ryan and Scott and set out early the next day to finish the trip. I remember being shocked at having to pay $8 for the honor of crossing the George Washington Bridge (a moving truck crossing the GWB today would pay a $34 toll off-peak) and drove up to Westchester to my mother’s house. The fall leaves were gorgeous and I felt like I was home.
My directions were mailed to me by AAA and included maps with highlighted sections on it. The moving truck didn’t have a tape deck so I brought along a boom box and listened to lots of cassette tapes on my way. I got off the highway in a rural part of North Carolina to tell my friends how far away I was and to get the score of the Georgia – Florida game (Georgia won in 1997: a promising omen).
I arrived here with dreams of being a famous writer. I have not achieved the literary fame and fortune I set out to make here in the city but I’m still here, still keeping that dream alive in some way. With this column I have one thing that every writer needs the most: a deadline.
I’ve had the honor to indulge other creative urges as well: I took up music and went farther with it than I ever thought I could and miss playing punk rock regularly. I’ve also had a hand in some comedy that has been well received. I can lead somewhat of a double or triple life sometimes. One hour of the day I may be laying out a media plan for promoting a financial product, hours later I may be playing bass while people careen into one another in an orgy of music, sweat and beer; it’s amazing.
I can honestly look back on the last two decades and be proud of where I am in life. I’ve got a great wife and children and lots of excellent friends. The biggest lie I could tell you would be that I got here completely on my own. If it weren’t for family and friends, I would not have anywhere near the good life I have today. I’m sure there are people in this city who arrived completely broke and alone and pulled themselves up with no one’s help; I’m not one of them.
The city and the world are much different places than when I came back to New York in 1997. Two decades from now they will be different still. We’re at a very volatile time in our history relative to where we were 20 years ago.
One thing that is also different is that I still have a tremendous amount to be thankful for. Moving to New York was a homecoming of a sort but also a very new beginning in a city that I had never known as a resident.
Thank you all for being part of this great adventure with me. I promise the next 20 years will be just as great.
Alice and Dave’s Wonderful Adventure
The roads and parks this spring and summer are filled with tourists and our highways are busy with people driving through our great land. Among them are my aunt Alice and her husband Dave Siewert.
Dave and Alice are going on a giant road trip and are seeing some of the great beauty of the Western United States. There are no people more worthy of experiencing all of the natural beauty of America than Alice and Dave. And this road trip is special for them because it will be their last together.
Bad news came fast for them at the end of last year. Dave was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and has not been given long to live. Alice is a cancer survivor and Dave had heart surgery years ago. They have more than paid their dues to the trials of medicine; they have endured enough health hardships to last two lifetimes already. This just isn’t fair.
If you look up the definition of “balls of steel” in a proper dictionary, the entry will have Dave’s picture next to it. Dave is facing certain death and has doubled down on embracing life.
No one would blame Dave if he holed himself up in a dark room and gorged on cheese curds like some kind of Midwestern Howard Hughes. Not a soul would find fault with him if he numbed himself from the specter of his own approaching death.
But that’s not how he does things.
Alice and Dave acquired a camper and set their sights westward, making the journey from their home in Wisconsin to Yellowstone National Park. Early on they had an accident due to a blown tire that delayed their journey. But what is a little traffic accident when you’re spitting in death’s face every day?
Dave has to return to Wisconsin every six weeks so his esophagus can be dilated to prolong his life. Yet he’s out there, rolling down America’s highways with no regrets and no apologies. He is boldness personified and the baddest badass cruising America right now because I guarantee you the toughest trucker or biker on the road today is not staring death in the face like Dave is.
At a time when it would be easy to voice bitterness or rage at life’s unfairness, they have remained a moving example of grace and love. The way they insist on living life to the fullest and refusing to be beaten down is itself like a great work of art. Like all great artists, they make it look easy.
But no one who knows them is surprised. Alice and Dave were married outside on what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year. It somehow didn’t feel that way though. The breeze was just right and no one seemed to notice the temperature. Alice’s vows included a promise to support the Green Bay Packers. After the ceremony, Alice and Dave enjoyed their first dance together as a married couple. Before their song was over, Alice beckoned everyone to join them on the dance floor. She would tolerate no slackers. Even those guests who normally do not like to dance at weddings happily obliged.
Alice created a Facebook page to document her and Dave’s travels. She is a gifted writer and has posted comments and photos. “We can feel the petty retreating by the hour,” Alice wrote in a post. “This has not so far been a year too full of laughs. Yet we have been laughing and crying and learning things about ourselves and each other that the world of cubicles and chemo bays muffles somehow.”
“We are witnessing natural things that were previously beyond my imagination,” Alice wrote me in an email. “Talking stops and all one does is stare dumbly at a magnificence that renders your life, worries, ego all meaningless. It is fun to be on the road. But some day we come home for good. And that is a principle to wrestle with the starry night through.”