Saturday, July 31, 2021

Looking ahead, looking back

I had dinner with two dear women last night. I felt like a person restored to world. The night was cool and balmy, and the atmosphere felt almost festive, with lights strung over the street side gazebo and all the outdoor tables full. Inside the restaurant was completely empty, which is how it is lately. I wonder how restaurants will fare when the weather turns cold once more, given reports of the Delta variant flare. The Covid positivity rate is still pretty low in New York City, 2.8 percent yesterday, but it had fallen to less than a percent in May and June, and now the numbers are climbing again. I wonder if we will ever be out of this pandemic reality, especially given that vaccines don't stop us from getting Covid and spreading it, they just stop most of us from being hospitalized and dying from it. I hope that protection holds, given that new variants are emerging all the time. 

One of my friends last night was indulging in a maskless social activity for only the second time in over a year. She was the last of my friends to be vaccinated, and she was very ambivalent about it all. But it was so good to be together again the way we once were, talking well into the night about our lives, our children, our fascinations and fears, just everything on the table, a judgment free zone.

I confessed my anxiety about the fact that my daughter will be flying to Miami for a bachelorette fling with the bride squad for one of her college friends who's getting married in three weeks. From there, she will fly to Oklahoma City to meet up with one of her former college roommates to drive cross country with her to New York. Her friend, who has been teaching in Phoenix since they graduated, is moving to the city for graduate school. You'll be traveling through unvaccinated country, I told my girl worriedly, and my husband gave me the look, the one that said, drop it, she's grown, she can make her own decisions and you just have to make peace with them. I didn't mention that another of my friends, when she heard about my daughter's planned cross country jaunt, said dryly, "I hope her former roommate is white and that she uses her white privilege on the trip." The friend who made this comment is white, and she's married to a Black man, and they have two Black children. She knows whereof she speaks. But my husband is also right, of course. I have to let my children live their lives.

The good news is, our apartment will be my daughter's home base for the month of August. She'll travel back and forth from here. I love when she's here. Last week when she spent the night, I went in to check on her in the morning and, finding her awake and scrolling on her phone, I lay next to her on the bed. We had a lovely roaming conversation for the next hour, a sharing of hearts, in a way that only happens in person. She sent me that masked photo yesterday, when she was on the way home from the salon after taking down her braids and getting her hair styled for the upcoming wedding. The baseball cap photo she sent later shows her plan for when she's on the road, she said. No hot hair styling implements need be involved. How I adore her darling face.

My son has also traveled with college pals recently. He and his college housemates, along with their significant others (one is married and two are engaged) went back to the scene of wild revelries last weekend, and took this picture in front of the house where so much went down, the place where they lived for the last two years of college. My daughter used to call it "The Bro House." Only one of their housemates, the young man who was the other decathlete with my son on their college track team, was missing. 

Apropos of nothing, my son and his love called us last night to ask if I could name all the events in the decathlon. "I assume Pops can name them," our cheeky boy said on speaker phone, "which is why I'm asking you." Apparently, they'd called a number of their friends with the question, after my son's fianceé insisted that hardly anyone would be able to name more than five of the events. That proved mostly true, as most people got to five and then struggled to name the rest. They told us this after I'd rattled them all off, only having difficulty with the number of meters for the hurdles event. "You did the best of everyone by far," my daughter-in-law to be told me. I felt rather proud, and didn't point out that as a mother, I'd watched my boy compete in every event, and my heart indelibly recorded each one. Shall I name the events now? Okay, here goes: High jump, long jump, 100 meter sprint, 110 meter hurdles, shot put, discus, javelin, pole vault, 400 meter, and the dreaded 1500 meter final event. He did all that, at meet after meet. Here is a photo of him warming up then. Has it really been eight years?

You'll have to forgive this reminiscence. Olympic track and field events have begun, and even with the great Usain Bolt no longer in the mix, the Jamaican sprinters are doing their thing. The truth? We are kind of insufferable when it comes to our track and field runners. As my niece just posted on Instagram, "Jamaica's area code is no longer 876. It's now 123"—this at the news that Jamaican women just posted a clean sweep, gold, silver, and bronze in the 100 meter finals. I'm off to watch!

Friday, July 30, 2021

Simone Biles is a hero

The night before Simone Biles pulled out of the women's gymnastics team finals, our daughter was with us. She had got back to the city late from a summer evening art event with friends at Storm King Center upstate and didn't feel like schlepping to Brooklyn. We were watching the men's gymnastics team finals, and talking about the Russian gymnast who'd had surgery to repair his Achilles just three months before. His doctors had insisted he take six months before reentering competition, but there he was at the Olympics, with his still healing ankle raised on every landing, usually throwing him off balance. 

My husband and I recalled the year U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug did a final vault with a broken ankle, supposedly to secure gold for her team, although it later emerged that her career-ending vault was not needed, the U.S. would have won gold anyway. But in the heat of competition, team coach Bela Karolyi urged her to do that one last vault, knowing she was badly injured, knowing she could have landed catastrophically on her back or neck. We didn't think about all that back in 1996, though. Back then, we saw Kerri Strug's perilous but ultimately successful second vault as heroic. We pushed down the queasy feeling that the U.S. coaches should not have let her vault, even if she was willing. Instead they put their medal dreams ahead of the well-being of an athlete in their care.

Twenty-five years later, I pulled up a YouTube video to show our daughter Kerri Strug's historic vault. But this time, seeing the look of abject terror on the young gymnast's face as she prepared to do what everything in her being was telling her not to, I was horrified. What the fuck? Why on earth did we cheer?!

The culture of gymnastics back then was for young women athletes to have no voice, and this was true all the way up until 2016 when team doctor Larry Nasser was convicted of sexually violating literally hundreds of U.S. gymnasts—including Simone Biles and some of her gold-medal winning 2016 Olympic teammates. They were also browbeaten and emotionally abused, told to suck it up and perform through injuries, even though any flip or twist could potentially end badly. 

I recently watched the documentary Golden, about five U.S. women gymnasts including Sunisa Lee and Mykayla Skinner, and their journey to a possible berth on the 2020-2021 Olympics team. At one point Mykayla Skinner recalls one of her college teammates doing a vault, landing on her neck, and dying. I have long argued that gymnastics, especially women's gymnastics, is the most dangerous sport there is. And yet when Kerri Strug was injured back in the 1996 Olympics, a brainwashed nation gave her incredibly irresponsible and ruthless coach a pass—the same coach, not incidentally, who with his wife Marta facilitated the sexual abuse of hundreds teenage gymnasts by a predatory team doctor who was allowed to examine the girls alone in their hotel rooms at international meets or in their dorm rooms at the Karolyi's team training center in the remote woods of Texas.

In her book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, author Joan Ryan wrote about the physical, emotional, and psychological domination of U.S. women gymnasts prior to the Larry Nasser revelations. “There is no other sport in which this could have happened but gymnastics,” Joan Ryan said. “These girls are groomed from an incredibly young age to deny their own experience. Your knee hurts? You’re being lazy. You’re hungry? No, you’re fat and greedy. They are trained to doubt their own feelings, and that’s why this could happen to over 150 of them.” And that's 150 gymnasts who told us what happened. We know for a fact that many others chose to remain silent.

Which brings me to Simone Biles withdrawing from the team competition on Tuesday morning. She had been struggling with what gymnasts call "the twisties"—losing air awareness—ever since the team trials. She hoped it would pass. But when she went out on Tuesday morning and did her first vault, and suddenly didn't know where she was in the air, she knew she was in trouble. She managed to land without injuring herself, but she knew she was done. As someone said afterward, if you're in the wrong headspace in basketball, you miss shots. If you're in the wrong headspace in a 100 meter event, you lose the race. In gymnastics, especially with the high degree of difficultly twists and flips that Simone Biles does, if you're in the wrong headspace, if all your senses aren't firing optimally, if your air awareness suddenly goes missing, you could be paralyzed, or worse, lose your life. 

Once you understand this, you grasp that Simone's decision to pull out of the event was not selfish, was not cowardly, was above all not casual. She did the best thing for her team, because if she had been injured in competition, it would have cost them not only the medal, but also rocked them in such a way that perhaps it would have undermined their own ability to compete. She knew the talent in the U.S. team was deep, and that she could trust her teammates to carry the baton. It was a plot twist no one had expected, but her coaches understood, her teammates understood. Most important, Simone Biles used her voice powerfully and resolutely to protect herself despite more than a decade of being trained to ignore it, and certainly knowing that certain factions would declare her gutless, not mentally tough, a quitter who let her team down. 

Having followed Simone Biles' gymnastics career closely from the start, I felt incredibly sad at the news that she would not compete. But I respected her decision, applauded it. And her teammates stepped up spectacularly, winning silver. Jordan Chiles had not even warmed up on parallel bars, yet she turned in an almost impeccable routine. And Suni Lee was steady as they come throughout. But at the team press conference afterward, Simone was breezy, said she wasn't having fun anymore, and I wished mightily that someone had helped her get her messaging together before she talked to the media. She couldn't yet explain that when she had vaulted and lost her place mid air, she had been in fear of her life. 

Other veteran Olympic gymnasts, including Nastia Liukin, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Dominique Dawes, and yes, Kerri Strug, rushed to help everyone understand exactly what had happened on that vault, and how much they admired Simone being able to speak her truth, to trust her own instincts in that moment, despite the glare of the world upon her. I was heartened and thrilled two days later, when Simone's teammate Sunisa Lee won gold in the All Around competition, and all I could think was, Simone's courage in stepping back when she knew she needed to made a space for Suni Lee to shine. 

This morning on her Instagram story, Simone is taking questions from followers, and explaining herself far better than she was able to immediately after the team final. Reading her responses, I found myself finally exhaling on her behalf, and trusting that she would be okay.

My daughter got there before me. After the press conference on Tuesday, she had texted me: “Simone is so not ashamed of the decision she made, which makes me trust her even more for making it. I trust that she didn't make it rashly." I'm grateful that her generation more easily understands the need to care for one's mental and physical well being. The rest of the world (except for certain factions, we all know who they are) will eventually come around. May we all finally know that Simone Biles is what a true hero looks like.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Inside my shell

I had a couple of choices of how I might spend this day. A friend who's visiting from out of town invited me to dinner with her daughter and a woman we both know. She made a reservation for four instead of three in case I decided to join them, which tells me she understands me. I ultimately decided against being quite that social, dining al fresco with people I haven't seen in more than a year. I'm having a hard time breaking out of my shell. Just contemplating it felt jarring. Another friend suggested we sit on her terrace and drink wine. I said no for today, thinking at first I was going to see my friend from out of town. We might yet sit on her terrace and drink wine tomorrow, depending on how we both feel. She, too, understands me. Friends who don't make you socially beholden are a gift. I've been feeling fragile somehow, count the reasons why.

I framed the last puzzle I did, the one that reminds me of rivers. I might hang it over my couch, and move those boats elsewhere. I'm already onto another puzzle now. In this latest one, called "Woman in Flowers," I finally see me. I've never seen myself in a jigsaw puzzle before. Two new companies with an inclusive view of the world—eeBoo Piece & Love and Journey of Something—have turned me into the kind of person who frames jigsaw puzzles. Who sees them as possible art. Nobody's paying me to say this. I just love that somebody sees more broadly than the usual puzzle makers with their English country cottages and Nordic lake scenes and vintage Americana, which never include people who look like me. Okay, I'm done grinding that axe. It's plenty sharp by now.

I've been watching the HBO Max series I May Destroy You, which is very unsettling and weirdly compelling. It's about a Black British writer who is late in delivering the manuscript for her second book, after making a big splash with her first. While avoiding her deadline in a club with friends, she is drugged and raped. Afterward, she tries to remember the details of that trauma as she pieces her life back together. The series is written by and stars Michaela Coel, whose face mesmerizes me. The story is messy, true to how life often happens, which I think is what makes it so unsettling. And yet, I can't turn away. I'm on the final episode, now, but it was episode eleven that really gobsmacked me. It explores the moment when the protagonist breaks through to finally understanding what her book is really about. It made me ache for a similar breakthrough.

I'm writing here while watching the Olympics while hunting down puzzle pieces. My favorite Olympic events are track and field, especially sprints and relays, which my little island of Jamaica has long dominated. I also love swimming and diving and of course women's gymnastics, with the women's team led by the greatest of all time, Simone Biles. She's so damn good she can sew a sequined GOAT on her leotard and everyone just nods in agreement. She does such hard skills she could fall on every routine and still walk away with the gold. She's out of this world.

I've been dreaming of being in places other than where I live. Covid is surging in New York again, and everywhere. I had been planning a trip for the man and me to France and Germany this summer, to meet up with two dear friends who live an hour outside of Frankfurt. We four were going to tour around Brittany and then spend some days in the Loire Valley wine country and then drive back to Frankfurt. Sadly, I think we might all be indulging in wishful thinking and being a bit premature. If not this summer, then next year for sure.


Thursday, July 22, 2021

The memories remain

The people who bought my Aunt Winnie apartment after she died in 2014 did a gut renovation of the place and now, six years later, the apartment is once again for sale. There are photos of its renovated interior on all the real estate websites that serve New York City, and my children, my cousins, and I are simply flabbergasted at how different the place appears. I look deeply into the photos and can find barely a trace of the shared family joys that were nurtured and spent in that space, nor of the ordinary tragedies that played out there. If you've been reading here for a while, you've definitely seen the before photos of this apartment—the first place I lived when I came to New York City for college in the late seventies. For our family's record, I'm posting the after photos here. "Why does looking at these pictures make me so sad?" I texted my cousin Karen. "It makes me sad too," she wrote back. "They erase the essence of Aunt Winnie and Uncle Charlie and every memory that was made within those walls. Now they only live on in our minds, and that too will not last forever." My daughter agreed. "So many memories there," she echoed. "It's so weird to know all the spots our life happened in these photos."

Here are some posts that show us in the apartment before.

Cooking with Grandma

Peace & Grands

Selling Apartment 18F

And here's a photo of some family members in the living room of the apartment after we laid Aunt Winnie to rest. It was the last time we would gather there as a family, and we all knew it. And so we sat in a circle and told stories of our lives in that place, with Aunt Winnie and Uncle Charlie, who paved the way for us all.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Wednesday, July 14, 2021



The day I told my father I would not be returning home to Jamaica after I graduated college, he cried. I was on my winter break of senior year, and only one semester stood between me and a life chosen solely by me, in a place of my own dreaming. In truth, I'd first dreamed of moving to New York the summer our family visited my Aunt Winnie and Uncle Charlie there when I was five years old. More than dreaming it, I actively chose it that year, touring the steamy city in my navy blue jersey shorts and navy and white striped top, the unstructured material bunching and riding up on my chubby little body in ways that clothes never misbehaved on the slim graceful girls back home. 

But New York didn't care. It didn't judge me, or even notice me to be honest. It just folded me in with a weary sigh, another soul projecting onto its teeming streets her own wildfire dreams. At the time I wanted to be an artist. I imagined painting large canvasses in a drafty loft downtown. By the end of college, I had chosen writing instead. I intended to do a master's in journalism at Columbia and get myself a job at a magazine afterward. That did happen. I rushed headlong into my future without understanding my father's tears, his sense that the world he'd envisioned was not to be, that his raising of me was at an end. I broke his heart, but he never accused me. He only turned his head away and walked out the room blindly, bumping into my grandfather's ship of a desk on the way. I wish I could have that moment back, and be less selfish in it. I wish I hadn't defiantly declared myself, heading off any argument, but rather told him more gently and held his hand. I am a mother now, and there is so much more that I understand.

Now, after four decades of being a New Yorker, I do occasionally wonder why I wanted so badly to leave my birth land, the place where I found welcome on the other side of any door I entered. I recognize now that the attention people paid to me as a child, which I felt as censure and judgment, had everything to do with how I felt about myself, and not much to do with how they felt about me. I now see my mother's church-hatted friends clucking over me after Sunday services, remarking on how fat I was, as simply their way of enfolding me in community, of performing that I belonged. Belatedly, I recall that they praised my good grades in school and artistic talent, too, and hugged me vigorously to their bosoms and pinched my cheeks. But I was never anonymous there, and I wanted to be. I thought it would mean freedom.

I did find the reinvention I sought in New York City, and I also met my husband here. Perhaps I would have met him anyway, as my parents by then had moved from Jamaica to Antigua, the island where he was born. Still, I met him here when I was already working as a reporter for the monthly reincarnation of Life magazine. Our decision therefore was that rather than me giving up a job with some prospects to live on an island that didn't have a daily newspaper, his skills as a biologist were more transferable, and so he would move to New York. Who would our children be if they hadn't been born here, been raised by us here, encountered the particular people who shaped their lives here? It's hard to argue with what is, and yet lately, when I see photos of the spectacular beauty of my birthplace, I find myself as heartbroken as my father was the day I told him I would not be moving back home. And I wonder if I still belong.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Covid breakthrough

This week was going to be a blast from the past, with our niece and her husband, who live in Dallas, traveling to New York City for the week to celebrate his birthday with us all. There was supposed to be roof deck dining in Brooklyn on an evening when my son wasn't working, and then a birthday party at a Mexican restaurant in the East Village on Saturday, with his parents. But this morning, my niece woke up unable to smell anything, and then to taste anything, and she has now tested positive for Covid. She thought she had a sinus infection or a cold. It had happened the same way a month ago, but she had tested negative then, and put it down to allergies. She isn't incapacitated; she says she felt much worse after the second vaccine. She mentioned that the medical wisdom is to stay somewhat active so the congestion doesn't become pneumonia—good to know. She plans to mask up and walk their dog, as well as do light workouts on their Peloton during her fourteen day quarantine. She's a dentist, and won't be able to go back to work till the end of the month. Her husband, who appears to be asymptomatic, is right now getting tested, too. (Update: He tested negative). That's my niece on the left with my daughter in the photo above. I'd anticipated that the mood this week was going to be as festive as it is in that photo. At least her case is a relatively mild one, but these breakthrough infections are no joke, people. The variants are knocking at our door.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Random streams

My husband is back at museum full time as of July 1, and I am once again alone at home during the days. This morning, I suddenly realized that my favorite spot at the dining table is once more mine to claim. It took me an entire week to grasp this, as I had begun to assume it was where my man would choose to sit during our year of working together from home. I never once said to him, you know, I prefer that spot beside the window, it's where I usually work when you're at the museum. Instead, when I came out to the living area the first morning and saw him sitting there, I simply took the other chair, the one facing the window, and so it has been since. I've never minded. The whole point of this digression is that the world as it used to be is continuing to reassert itself, in large ways and small, at least in the places where most people are willing to be vaccinated.

We celebrated July fourth very much as if the pandemic had never happened. The grilling and eating and social communing all happened outdoors. There was singing and dancing, the weather was perfect, the mood stayed festive, and the table was laden with delicious fare that was replenished into the night. There was also cake for two birthday boys (cousins born a year apart), rousing games of beer pong played by the twenty somethings on the back lawn, and spontaneous electric slide and soul train formations in the driveway. All in all, it was a wonderful day in Newburgh.

The next afternoon, I met up with Maryam, the woman whose manuscript I edited (the book is now being considered by a publisher) and her daughter. We sat at a sidewalk table outside the Hungarian Pastry Shop in my neighborhood. It's where Maryam found a job in the city just days after arriving here from Armenia at the age of sixteen, and where she continued to work all through high school, college, and grad school. The pastry shop became her second home, and her coworkers, immigrants all, became her extended family. It's all in her book, though fictionalized. I can't wait for you to read about it. We further nourished a deepening friendship and even played a couple rounds of corn hole, as the street outside the cafe had been closed to traffic, and the game was set up for any takers. 

Now it's back to work, or procrastinating on work, though I shall have to buckle down soon. My subject is currently traveling in Spain, which I only gathered from her Instagram posts. I have a feeling I won't be able to get going on that book in earnest till the fall. In the meantime, I'm doing some other edit work, escaping into new kinds of jigsaw puzzles that are more like fine art, like the one above by Australian Aboriginal artist Natalie Jade, and streaming the latest season of The Handmaid's Tale, which I had decided I wouldn't watch, but am watching after all because 1) I learned that my favorite character Nick, who I thought had been written out of the show last season, has returned, and 2) my daughter was very disturbed by the season and had tried to discuss it with me.

Honestly, I'm not enjoying the show at this point. It's trauma porn, and the main character June has become twisted and unsympathetic. I know she is suffering from extreme trauma, but now she is also inflicting it, and not always on those deserving of her wrath. I hate that she annoys me so much. I know I'm supposed to give her a pass, to imagine walking a mile in her shoes, but I just cringe at the cruelty of some of her choices. Then again, who would I be if I’d endured what her fictional character has? The things we do for our children, even when they don't ask us to. Reminds me of when I watched every season of Dexter, a show about a serial killer, because my then teenaged girl was watching it and I wanted to know just what she was putting in her head. 

Well, I'm rambling now, so I'll stop. Here are some photos from the past week, including of my son and his love, who attended a wedding in Wilmington, North Carolina this weekend, where one of my son's college track team buddies got married. America is such that I quietly worried about these two traveling south together, but they had a great time with friends. More news: the happy couple recently set a date and picked a lakeside venue for their own big day next year! Stay tuned.

Portrait of a whimsical girl and her devoted dad.

One of the two birthday boys with his sister and his love.

My very berry girl and me.

My son and his love.

 They sure do clean up nice.

Maryam and her brilliant and beautiful child.

One more: My nephew got hired to spin music the old school way at some events this weekend. I love that he's pursuing his passion, and isn't that a fantastic logo he made?

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Hot Vax Summer. Not.

It's Saturday afternoon, the minutes interminable. My man is watching a Netflix series on the history of the Japanese Samurai, and I'm lonely and bored. I've completely forgotten how to entertain myself in this city that is pulsing back to life. The evidence is everywhere, the streets no longer empty, restaurants and stores no longer looking like stage sets for a ghost town, the sidewalks full of pedestrians and al fresco diners. But many people I know are still mostly indoors, the social habit reasserting itself by degrees. Three of my women friends and I had a Zoom call on Thursday night, because we haven't been able to organize ourselves enough for an in person gathering.

One can only stream so many episodes of a show, read for so many hours at a time, do only so many puzzles. Work is a reliable distraction; indeed it got me through most of last year, but I'm in a slow cycle right now, nothing feeling very urgent, no pressing deadlines yet, and I was the student in college who couldn't make herself get started on a paper until the due dates was breathing down my neck. Panic is a dependable motivator when paired with a work ethic instilled by parents who planted deep the message that you don't shirk your commitments. 

It was a scorcher of a week in terms of heat and humidity, definitely an invitation to stay indoors, and though it's cooler today, it gray and rainy, as gloomy as I feel. It doesn't help that the complex where I live is once again under massive construction, all the walkways being redone, all the grounds being relandscaped, all the brick facades and balconies being repointed. Fences are everywhere, blocking free movement around the once lovely campus, so that we scurry in and out of our buildings through mesh wire tunnels under scaffolds. It makes me want to scream every time I walk out my front door.

Of course I could clean out my closet or rearrange my drawers or paint a picture but I'm not in the mood for any of that. I'm not in the mood for much really. The only thing that really appeals to me right now is sitting down with friends I haven't seen in months, and catching up on everything or talking about nothing of great consequence, just mingling with easy and well-loved auras, something we might all be starving to do.  

Thanks for letting me vent, here. It helps to set down my disgruntlement. I've used up a whole half an hour doing it, and now it's almost dinner time so I can wander out to the kitchen and consult with the man about what we should do for the evening meal. After that I'll climb back into bed and read some more (The Final Revivial of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton—loving it!) or maybe watch a few more episodes of Younger (I recommend it for mindless, good-natured entertainment), and hopefully I'll fall asleep early and easily, my mind not galloping everywhere. 

Tomorrow will be busier. We're going upstate to a July Fourth barbecue. It's the birthday of my daughter's boyfriend, and his large extended family has an all-out, everyone's-invited cook out every year. They even did it last year, everyone in masks, though from the photos I saw, most people wore the things as chin straps or ear danglers. At least they were outdoors. This year, the man and I will join them. And then on Monday afternoon, I'm supposed to get together in the neighborhood with a dear friend and her radiant daughter, just because. Yay! Look Ma, I'm socializing!