Saturday, February 03, 2007

Winter of Our Discontent

I was taking in the mail this afternoon when I could have sworn I heard a bird chirping.

It's freezing here in New York now and it's not going to warm up any time soon, so I figured it was something mechanical, non-living, that just sounded like a bird.

Plus I was wearing a hood and a bulky winter coat that restricted my movements so much I didn't bloody feel like looking up.

But the noise persisted, so I finally cranked my head up and saw an honest-to-God bird sitting on the bare limbs of the tree that stands in front of my house. (I call it "my tree" but I'm not quite sure how that works in New York.)

I don't know much about birds, but it wasn't a pigeon. He was small and black and I think he had a red bill, but he took off the second I turned my head, like a sneak preview of spring. That's all you get, buddy. Now go back to freezing your ass off.

Last night I had dinner with my friend, Xiaojing, who recently moved here from China, and I tried to explain Groundhog's Day to her.

"So if the groundhog sees his shadow," I said, "we'll have six more weeks of winter. And if he doesn't, winter will be shorter."

She looked at me.

"How can they tell if he sees his shadow?"

"I'm not sure," I replied.

"How do they know what he's thinking?" She asked. "He's an animal."

I had no idea. Come to think of it, the whole concept is pretty stupid. The groundhog did not see his shadow yesterday and the little bastard better be right or I'll go out to Pennsylvania and turn him inside out.

"Well..." I was grasping at thin air. "I guess it's kind of a tradition."

I changed the subject to the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, which she hadn't seen. I handled that a little better and we both agreed that Murray's character doesn't escape his fate of repeating the same day over and over until he learns how to love and care for others. Maybe there's a message here?

Birthday Girls

I learned this week that Mary, my late father's aid, and 70's pin-up Farrah Fawcett are both 60 years old. Mary invited me to her birthday party last Sunday; I haven't heard anything from Farrah.

It was nice seeing Mary again, even though my father is gone. She has a nice family, all crammed into her apartment, and I got another chance to eat some of her great cooking--I even got a CARE package to take with me.

Mary's grandson was there. I don't think he's a year old and naturally she's crazy about him. She used to bring him over to cheer up and my dad and she told me whenever she showed the baby's picture to my dad, he would smile broadly and say "that's my buddy."

Shortly before he went into the hospital, Mary showed him the baby's picture again and my dad said, "that's my grandson." Close enough.

Mary gave my sister and I a picture of my dad with her grandson. Looking at the photo, I see how old and frail he really was and my sister pointed out that he can smile with half his face, a result of mini-strokes he suffered last year.

I had to fight tears at one point when Mary told us how my father would ask her about my mom, believing she was still alive, when in fact she died nearly five years ago. I've had that experience, too, and it's nothing short of heart-breaking when I had to tell him she was gone.

"His face would get so sad when I told him," Mary said.

At one point, Mary's daughter began playing with the baby, and my sister joined in, and the little guy was laughing his butt off. Everyone was feeling good, just watching that kid go nuts. And this stray thought went through my head.

Boy, I thought, I fucked up.

Of course it was just me trying to be miserable. But it was tough, watching that happy family enjoying that beautiful child, knowing I have no family of own.

There are tons of excuses, from my health problems and the fact I could barely hold on to a job, but I think I was afraid of making that step into being a father and a husband.

I'm going to be 50 in May, so I don't think there's much chance of this happening for me, but I'm hoping that I learn to live with my choices, conscious or subconscious, and not poison my life with regret.

That's the Story

I also sent a short story to a magazine this week. This was the first time I submitted a story in God knows how many years and it felt pretty good.

When I first wanted to write, back in my 20's, I used to send stories out all the time. And this was old school submission--stamps, return envelope and double postage. These young whippersnappers today have no idea what it was like.

I wrote crime stories, which would probably embarrass the hell out of me today, and I never published one. I got close with a men's magazine called Swank, but the editor finally decided against it.

"I know you must be disappointed..." his letter said.

You could say that, yes. I had planned my whole career around the story and when it came back I was crushed.

I hadn't the magazine until after I sent the story--typical young writer stunt--and when I did I couldn't believe my eyes. The "fiction" was just filth.

The one I read was some lame private eye story that existed only for the raunchy sex scenes. The editor had wanted some sex in my story, but I couldn't deliver this type of bilge.

The latest story's about a guy in Brooklyn who's crowding 50 and can't deal with all the change going on in his life. I don't know where it came from...

I e-mailed it with just hours to go under the magazine's deadline and got back an auto-response thanking me for my submission. It was a squeaker, since I was coming home from the company holiday/10th anniversary party and I had to get thing edited and out before midnight.

The party was okay, but I really wasn't into it. The waiters who were serving up the food were rocking gently to the music and I realized they were having a better time than I was.

There was a video crew taping the whole event and when that bright light burned over me during the head guy's speech, I toyed with the idea of flipping the bird toward the camera.

I decided against it, though, as it wouldn't do much for my longevity at the place. I'm going to use it for another story.

I was stranded among strangers during the cocktail hour, so I think that's why I was so cranky. Everyone seemed to be deep in conversation but me.

So dinner was served, I got hold of some of my favorite people in the place and we all sat down at the same table. We had a good time and then I split around 8:30 pm.

The next morning I got some ideas about how I could improve the story I had submitted, but that's how it always goes.

At least I made a promise to myself and I kept it. You can tinker and perfect something all your life and then the next thing you know you're in the old age home with nothing to show for it.

I think that's one of the reasons I never got married. I wanted to wait for the perfect moment--when I had just the right job in just the right location, where all the planets were aligned in just the right way to shower me with good karma.

Which, of course, never happened. Perfectionism can be a curse, it can keep you from facing the world and leave you in a fantasy land where you're almost ready to show your stuff but you never quite make it.

Back in the 80's, a good friend of mine decided to leave New York. He had lived in a hellhole on the lower East Side, back before the yuppies took over, and he was tired of walking around in terror every time the sun went down.

A lifelong bachelor, he drove over to the bridge and nailed a job and a new apartment in Jersey in the same afternoon. He told he would miss some aspects of city life, but his mind was made up.

"You always give up something," he said matter-of-factly.

Yes, you do, and if you don't learn this lesson, you doomed to repeating the same mistakes over and over. Now, excuse me while I get ready for Farrah's party.


Calamity Jen said...

Keep fighting that urge to be miserable, because the sun always comes out eventually. I think that's what the chirping bird was trying to tell you.

Rob K said...

Great point, Jen!!! Thanks so much--it feels warmer around here already.

Anonymous said...

How lucky you are to get a sneak peek (or a sneak beak) of springtime. Maybe the bird was trying to give you a sign that hope springs eternal, or maybe that stupid groundhog in PA is right this year. If not, I'm heading to the islands with the rest of the birds. Keep your head up, Rob!

Rob K said...

Sneak Beak!?! Why didn't I think of that? If you're going to the islands, I'm going with you!

Anonymous said...

I'd love the company.