Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Renting vs. Owning

Old people don’t have time for bullshit.

I remember once telling my backyard neighbor, who must have been nearing the century mark, that I was considering a much shorter hairstyle. “I wouldn’t do that,” she said matter-of-factly. “Your hair is the one thing you have going for you.”

Then there was the time my grandmother called me her “ugly duckling.” She was right; I was gangly and awkward and needed a bit longer than other girls to “come into my own” (I’m still very much in the process).

But nothing touches the afternoon I phoned my grandfather just hours after Mark and I closed on our first home. I felt so adult and accomplished when they handed me that tiny set of house-keys, and I couldn’t wait to tell Poppy. He was long retired by that time, but like many first-generation Italian-Americans he had labored much of his adult life in construction and concrete, eventually owning and operating his own string of family businesses. My mother, his only daughter, remembers waiting impatiently for him to come home in the late afternoon and watching him scrub his thick, calloused hands with a gritty paste called SKAT. At 85, he was still strong, barrel-chested and the living embodiment of Hard Work. As proud as I'm sure he was of his first-born grandchild for pursuing a PhD in Renaissance Literature, I always felt what I did must have seemed to him soft and spoiled in comparison.

Poppy and his four sons. 
(Not pictured is my mother, who was probably playing barefoot somewhere nearby.)
But buying a house meant I was finally dealing in Poppy’s currency. I knew how much he valued property.  I’d studied the focused expression with which he steered the riding mower around his 2-acre yard (to this day my sister and I call it "the Poppy face" and we catch ourselves making it whenever we're concentrating hard on something). I’d traced his confident footsteps in the dappled shade of his giant garden, which smelled of ripe tomatoes and good dirt. 

Maybe now I’d try planting my own tomatoes. Even line them up on the kitchen windowsill, as he did.

“Poppy, I'm a homeowner!” I practically yelled into the phone. “Can you believe it?!?”

“Good girl,” he said. “Now make sure you take care of it for the next person.”

Talk about deflating my ego. Mark and I hadn’t even unpacked our boxes and he was already worried I’d screw it up for the next guy.

If that’s what he was thinking, he was right to be concerned. I don’t think we’d been in the house a month when I made our first “emergency” call to the heating company. The furnace was out and the house was freezing. I told the technician our pipes were “about to burst,” though I’m not sure how one would actually know that.

“Do me a favor,” he said, somehow sensing my ineptitude over the phone. “Walk to the top of the cellar stairs. See the red switch-plate that says FURNACE? The one right next to the light switch? I’m betting you turned it off last night. Flip it back on.”

I chose not to share that story with my grandfather.

In hindsight, I don’t believe Poppy meant to suggest we'd be incompetent homeowners. At least I like to think that’s not all he meant. I think he knew what I’ve only recently begun to appreciate: nothing ever belongs to us. Everything is only rented for a time.

A year or two before he died, Poppy came over to watch a giant tree come down in our back yard. My mother suggested I invite him over for the big event, because she knew he’d be fascinated by it. I hesitated because I didn’t feel much like entertaining that day; I was surprisingly emotional about the dumb tree. I liked the late-afternoon shadow it cast over the boys’ play-set, I was resentful of the enormous price tag for having it removed, and despite the inspector's insistence it was "an accident waiting to happen," I felt a little guilty about messing with Mother Nature.

Turns out I didn’t have to worry about entertaining anyone; Poppy was content to sit on my back porch and watch. Every once in a while, he’d call me over to narrate bits of what was happening (he knew every technical name for every piece of machinery) and he seemed happier than I’d seen him in a long time. He sipped lemonade and watched until dusk fell and only a wide stump remained where the tree had stood. When my mother came to pick him up he looked tired but pleased, like someone who had spent a perfectly productive day.

I may be projecting too much, but I imagine for Poppy, the process of letting go was already familiar. He’d long ago lost his parents. He’d outlived all five of his brothers, and he’d buried his beloved wife, Rosie. To him, the day wasn’t tarnished with maudlin sentimentality; it was only about cool drinks, heavy machinery (he was back in his wheelhouse, even as an observer), and the expert dismantling of a tree whose time had come to die. Watching it go was part of the adventure.

I’d like to say Poppy approached his own death with the same degree of stoicism and spirit of adventure. I don’t think he did; I think he feared death as much as anyone else.

But there are lessons he taught me just the same, and I’ve found myself consciously rehearsing them this summer as we prepare to alter the landscape of our home once again.

Our firstborn is leaving for college in a few short weeks. And I know, IT IS NOT THAT BIG A DEAL. I swear I’m doing my best to be super nonchalant about it. But the fact sits heavy on my heart: my son won’t live here anymore.

Our firstborn.

My son.

See, I have a terrible, 17-year long habit of emphasizing ownership. And this is where I’m trying to take my cue from Poppy. Instead of saying “My son is going away,” or “Our firstborn is leaving the nest...”, I’m teaching myself to say, “We’re dropping Kevin off….” Or better yet, “Kevin is heading off...”

I’m finally coming to terms with what I always knew but didn’t want to admit: the anxious, brilliant, deeply compassionate kid who inherited so many of my nerdy quirks, but who has a distinctly Italian love of dried garbanzo beans, pepper biscuits and extra-sharp cheese just like his great-grandfather, was never mine to begin with. He was just on loan to me for a time.

I could not love any human being more than I have loved...than I will always love this young man. Screw the nonchalance.  Letting him go is so damn hard.  But I hope Poppy would agree, without bullshitting, that I took good care of him for the next person.

Kevin and Poppy, Memorial Day 2002

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Obstructed View Seats: Advice For Your Next Billy Joel Concert

Last Thursday night, my husband and I saw Billy Joel in concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. Uncharacteristically, the show featured no “special guests,” unless you count a conspicuous couple in attendance: Bill and Hillary Clinton.

I guess we've watched too many hockey games, because when the pre-show crowd jumped up and focused their cell phone cameras in a single direction, our first thought was that a fight had broken out on the floor.

Given the median age at these shows, that would have been something to see.

Instead, there they were, the former POTUS and his wife, beaming and waving as they made their way to their good-but-not-too-good seats, about eight rows back from the stage. It was pretty heady stuff seeing them up-close and personal(-ish), but except for the times Mark nudged me to check out Hillary’s dance moves, I largely forgot they were in the building once the lights dimmed.

Clintons in the house!

That is, until Billy dedicated “River of Dreams” to them about halfway through his set-list. A cameraman focused in on Bill (inexplicably overdressed in a full suit and tie) and Hillary (who Literally.Never.Stopped.Swaying). Their image was plastered on the Garden jumbotron, and despite right-wing media reports, Mark and I agree the raucous response was probably equal parts cheers and jeers.

It was a great show.

Fast forward to the following morning, when I opened Facebook to discover a backstage photo of Billy and Bill-and-Hillary and a handful of other concert VIPs. A conservative fan vowed never to listen to him again. A liberal called her a snowflake. Then the floodgates opened.

“You f—king dumb c-nt…” “You piece of trash human being…” “Child rapist despicable piece of sh-t.”

2.3k ignorant and hateful comments from fans on both sides of the aisle. Over a freaking photograph.  Things got so vicious and ugly--so quickly--it made my heart knock and my hands shake (the same cowardly "flight" response I've always had around escalating confrontation).  I kept scrolling through the posts in spite of myself.  I kept hoping a reasonable human being would suggest everyone cool it off.  Someone finally did.  He was gutted mercilessly.

Ignorance and hatred.  It made me think how often the two go hand in hand.

And it made me think of my seats on Thursday night. 

You see, I’ve been to a few Billy Joel concerts.

(Ok, more than “a few.”)

Stalking a celebrity can get expensive, so I usually settle for “obstructed view” seats. Here’s how Ticketmaster defines them:

You’ll be unable to see the entire stage from these seats. You’ll have either an incomplete view because of the position of the seats, or something will be in your line of sight—like a pole, speakers, or the sound board. 

For many fans an obstructed view is not a problem, and the tickets are clearly labeled at the time of purchase. 

That’s some deep philosophical shit, people. Buddha himself couldn’t sum up the human experience quite like the good people at Ticketmaster.  Consider:

“You’ll be unable to see the entire stage from these seats.”

A wise man (my other favorite William) once said, “All the world’s a stage.” It’s not a perfect analogy (he considers only the actors and ignores the audience), but let’s extend the metaphor. If all the world’s a stage…where are your seats? Rich or poor, gay or straight, liberal or conservative…wherever you sit, you’ve got a limited world-view.

“--because of the position of the seats.”

But wait a minute, you think. I’m not defined by binary terms! I’m sensitive to the other people’s perspectives. I HAVE A BLACK/WHITE/GAY FRIEND!  I SPENT A SEMESTER ABROAD! I’VE VOTED ACROSS PARTY LINES!

Before you think I’m getting all blame-y about your narrow worldview, recognize it’s not your fault you can’t see the entire stage. It’s the seat’s fault. Where you sit determines what you see. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Ticketmaster.

“…or something will be in your line of sight…”

Ok, so it’s not entirely the seat’s fault. There’s probably something else getting in the way of your broader perspective of that world stage. I don’t profess to understand the depths of Ticketmaster’s wisdom, but I wonder if those “somethings” may be personal blinders. What’s blocking your line of sight? Is it apathy, insecurity or pride?  Stubbornness, prejudice or fear?

“…a pole, speakers or a sound board.”

Ticketmaster knows when to rein it in. Sometimes a pole is just a pole.

“For many fans, an obstructed view is not a problem…”

Ahhh, here’s where we get into real trouble. And by “we,” I mean every jerk who commented under that pic of our former POTUS and the Piano Man. For them, “an obstructed view is not a problem” because they honestly believe they can see everything they need to see quite clearly from where they sit, and that’s about as f--king dangerous a perspective as any human being can have on this planet.

Look, you have your reasons for disliking (hating, even?) [insert political figure here]. You can bet I have my own. I’m not aiming to change anyone's perspective;  if I've learned anything from social media, I've learned that's an exercise in futility.  I’m only stating the utterly banal fact that none of us has the full picture. And yet…and yet…we insist on speaking (so hatefully and so hurtfully) as if we do.

 “…tickets are clearly labeled at the time of purchase.”

It’s true, TM stamps it right on your ticket. It’s a reminder that while you’ll be in the building, you won’t have a perfect view.

What a humbling concept.

Here’s my Swiftian proposal: we follow TM’s policy and stamp “limited view” on everyone’s forehead at birth.  Maybe we’d be gentler with one another if we were constantly reminded that everyone, even the folks sitting front-row center, operates from a limited vantage point. 

Maybe we’d even be gentler with ourselves.

I don’t expect the universal-forehead-tattoo idea will catch on, but I do encourage folks to consider purchasing obstructed view seats for their next concert. For one thing, they’re often better than the full-price tickets. But more importantly:

Once you accept you’re sitting in an obstructed view seat, the pressure kind of lifts. There’s a certain humility in acknowledging your view is obstructed. You feel genuinely grateful just to be in the building. And when everyone stands up to sing Piano Man with the house lights on, it honestly doesn’t matter if you’re the POTUS or the couple with nosebleed seats in the rafters or the lifelong fan tucked behind a light pole.

You’re all part of the song.

A glorious, out-of-tune, drunken song that gives everyone in the Garden goosebumps when they forget where they’re sitting and become one swaying mass of battered and broken but momentarily happy humanity.

It’s fleeting.  Enjoy it.

And stay off Facebook the next day. Trust me.  

Until next time, Billy.  xo