Monday, December 17, 2007


Recently I was left alone for two days on the job, the only person present in the department. I held down the fort rather well. I was able to complete all tasks assigned to me, as well as handle 90% of incoming work. In my free time I organized files and did other sorts of work that was sitting on the back burner. By the end of the second day, I was pleased with myself, and had that inner warmth that comes with the satisfaction of having made oneself useful.

I had to leave work early on Tuesday. I had a dentist appointment in the city. As I drove from the office to the train station, I found myself daydreaming about being taken out to lunch by the department supervisor and coordinator, as a thank you for handling everything so smoothly. An odd thing for me to daydream about... I don't usually look for that sort of fulfillment on the job.

The Tarrytown Metro-North station no longer welcomes non-resident automobiles; you have to hunt and search for a metered spot on the street. It didn't take long for G and I to realize that, unless you show up prior to 5:30am or after 11pm on any given weekday, the streets are full. G is rather resourceful, and a few months ago, he discovered an are where there are no meters, although it's many blocks away in an industrial area.

Gotta leave the car somewhere. I headed for our secret parking spot. There was plenty of street parking available, but... I noticed a very small parking lot, about 15 or 20 spaces all in a row, just off the road. I remembered seeing it the last time I was here - it always seems to be empty, or nearly so. Free off-street parking? There didn't seem to be a gate, or a sign saying limited hours, permit only, or any other such restrictions. If there were any penalties for squatters, they weren't posted. I threw the dice, and left my car parked just behind the only other automobile in the lot - an oversized pickup truck. It hid my sedan quite nicely.

In the bright afternoon sun, it was about 40 degrees, and the walk to the station wasn't bad. My brain ambled through a sensory projection of making that same walk in the dark, after 8pm. It would be about twenty degrees colder, and due to my little gamble with the local police, there really was no solid guarantee that my car would be waiting for me.

I called G, feeling a bit foolish, and let him in on my parking gamble. He agreed that it would be prudent for him to pick me up at the train station and we would lift the cards together. I felt a pang of regret as I clapped my phone shut. I have become somewhat attached to my big, red, plush-seated Buick with the Dynaride suspension. My gamble was seeming stupider and stupider as I thought about it.

On the train, I read. I’m in the middle of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m thrilled by it, for many of the same reasons I was thrilled by On the Road, which I have re-read countless times. I love Pirsig’s writing style. I love how well-fleshed-out the characters are. I love the philosophical meditations, so typical of the intellectual counter-culture that I was born too late to experience but have always respected. My parents, after all, weren’t too far from that.

I’m also fascinated by the specter of Phaedrus in the background of the action. I know enough about the book to know who – or what – Phaedrus is, but I am still able to enjoy the mystery, revealed to the reader one page at a time. I’m glad my previous knowledge of the book doesn’t ruin this for me. It’s a testament to the writing.

When the train pulls into Grand Central, I don’t rush. I’ve got about an hour to kill before I have to catch the uptown 6 train. I watch the projections on the walls and ceiling of the Great Hall for awhile, then decide to cruise through the Christmas Market.

I’ve become very difficult to please. I strolled past the shops, and fingered a few items, but they all seemed like the same “handmade goods” I see at every artist’s fair. I’ve seen the same stuff at the Columbus Avenue Artisan’s Fair, and down on Houston Street too. A lot of New York artistans seem to have settled into two types of work: something rather simple, a silver hook earring with one stone set into a metal seashell, for example, something pretty but not overly attention-getting, or something loud, such as an oversized satchel sewn in felt with a caricaturized face on it, in bright colors and metallics, maybe a bit of beadwork, a spangle sewn on to the felt earlobe. People who buy these sorts of things tend to revel in their patronage of local artists, and seem to display their homemade goods like peacocks, clothes with raw edges and too much jewelry, knowing someone will comment on it, and they can drawl “Thank you… I bought it from the nicest design school student at a fair in Soho. I bought this wallet too…”

It all speaks to me of a need to impress others, seeking fulfillment externally, which has become distasteful to me. It smacks of internal emptiness... or of being lost. And these "artists" cater to it!! The creativity is abandoned in the name of profit. I know it's a hard life in New York, and this is how these people pay their rent, but if I see one more fleece baby hat with fringe sprouting from its cinched top, or one more jewelry display celebrating “found objects” such as antique buttons or foreign coins, I’ll puke.

The only artist whose work interested me was selling fine jewelry made from pearls, including chocolate pearls, for which lately I’ve developed quite the obsession. This was no fatigued 10-year unknown art fair veteran, throwing together a mélange of her perennial best-sellers, chatting idly with her friends while the customers finger everything and buy nothing. This was a real fine jewelry craftsman. She was on the phone, speaking very quietly and urgently with someone. I browsed as invisibly as I could.

Her necklace of chocolate pearls on gold beams looked like a grapevine hanging around someone’s neck. The pearls were of varying sizes and shades of brown, with a few dark cream and gold for depth. It was far, far beyond the price of anything I’d ever purchased for myself or anyone else… and it looked it. I gazed a few minutes and imagined how it might feel, heavy yet soft on my skin, resting just above my collarbone.

I moved on. My hour was up.

In spite of all my positive experiences over the last two years, I still experience rather pronounced anxiety when visiting the dentist. Just sitting in the waiting room for a routine cleaning makes my stomach tighten and my breath come short. I know how to play those mental tricks on myself to calm down… but I still have to use them. I took advantage of the free mint tea and sipped slowly.

When I went in for my cleaning, they had to take X-rays first, which didn’t bother me.

While I was waiting for the hygienist to return, I heard the weezzzzzzz of a dental drill coming from another room. This dentist’s office doesn’t really have exam rooms; it’s more like nooks with partitions and really wide doorways. You can see everything going on around you, if you look. This is probably good for a lot of people; you don’t feel closed in, the space is open and breezy. The drawback is that you can’t help but hear everything going on around you… and nobody wants to hear this stuff.

WEEEEEEEZZZZZZZZZ. “Now what’s going on?” I hear a woman ask.

“I’m pulling out your nerve root,” the dentist explained to his patient. WEEEEEEEZZZZZZZZZ.

I almost threw up. The dentist and patient continued their graphic discussion of her treatment. How the fuck is she talking with a drill in her mouth!? I wondered. I started to shake, and a droplet of sweat fell on my hand. I reached up to wipe my forehead and it was dry. My breathing came in hiccups and I realized that wasn’t sweat, it was a tear. I was crying. I shoved my fingers in my ears and sobbed. Complete panic.

The hygienist returned. I couldn’t look at her. I saw her lips moving – she’s asking if I’m ok. “That drill - he’s doing a root canal! He said he was pulling her nerve out!” I choked. I shook like a seizure gasping for breath. My eyes streamed tears and I tried to vanish down through the floor but nothing happened, I just sat there in the chair and held my ears and cried.

“..wanna… (incoherent) …music?” The hygienist tried to say. I realized she was offering me headphones. I thought about that. “That’s a good idea…” I whispered. The hygienist disappeared around the corner and returned with an iPod. She gently pried my hands from my ears – the wzzzzzzing had stopped – and helped me get the headphones on. They were the old fashioned kind with the pads that completely surround and cover your ears. I switched on the iPod, set it to shuffle and CRANKED that sucker up.

The first song? The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” I laughed in spite of myself.

The cleaning, after that, was uneventful.

About ¾ of the way through, the dentist came in to see me. “You doing ok?” He asked.

“I’m alright,” I said, a little embarrassed. “This iPod is awesome.”

“I’m so sorry about that,” the dentist said. He looked genuinely concerned. “That lady is so loud. She was actually less chatty than usual today!”

We laughed, and he checked out my X-rays and overall smile. Everyone felt better.

The hygienist finished up with me, and sent me on my way with a special toothpaste that apparently you get by prescription only, but I got a free sample. It’s supposed to reduce sensitivity. I’ve been using it. We’ll see. I have a strong feeling that gum sensitivity isn't my problem, but I'll be a good sport and use the toothpaste.

On the way home, I couldn’t concentrate on my book. I thought about all the things in life that don’t go the way we plan. I think a job’s going to be routine, and it’s actually exciting. I find artists in places I don’t expect. I develop tastes for things that I used to dismiss as frivolous. I think I’m prepared for something and wind up having a complete meltdown.

Someone once defined madness as repeating the same action over and over, expecting a different result. Well, I tend to have the opposite problem. I repeat something, expecting it to be like it was before… and it’s not. This is why I was always bad at mathematics… I could never get the same answer twice. I’d swear I was repeating my steps exactly, in the same order… but I always varied something in my approach, and now matter how I scrutinized my work, I couldn’t find the inconsistency.

In math, I was penalized for that. I never felt that was fair.

Thinking about my book, the narrator talks about Phaedrus, which is really himself before shock treatments. His former self was searching for absolute truth in the world – how to know what exists, how to prove it. The sort of philosophical questions that have been fodder for, well, the great philosophers. Phaedrus found questions underlying every answer he was given. Every answer led to another question.

Phaedrus experienced despair over this, and eventually found himself in the nuthouse being shocked out of existence. A new personality emerged – and it was that personality that wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Isn’t that, in some way, a rather extreme metaphor for simply growing up? For learning to take disappointments in stride? For learning to accept that humans are imperfect, and we simply can’t know the answers to everything?

The thing that was different about this particular dentist visit was the absence of shame. I was a little embarrassed at my inability to control myself, but I also know that this practice specializes in people like me, who have terrible phobias of dental work. I’m normal in this place. I know I’m not going to be judged. I feel accepted, even supported. The shame I used to feel, that used to plague my nightmares for months, even years after visits to the dentist back in Illinois… it never manifested this time. Which is partially why it took me so long to write this essay.

I can’t define reality. I’ve never really been interested in trying to. Knowing why I’m here isn’t going to lower my rent, make my sniffles go away, or feed my cat. I’ve never had any use for philosophy. I’m ok not knowing why we’re all here, or how we got here – I’m more interested in making the best of what we’ve got. And if something pops into my awareness, I’ve stopped asking why. Somehow over the last couple of years I’ve gotten a lot better at just rolling with stuff.

When G and I drove out to my car, it was right where I'd left it, no ticket, no locked gate. A deep inner voice said "Your lucky day, kid." I whispered thanks to whoever might be watching, started my car, and followed G home.

In my bedroom, in my jewelry case, in an inconspicuous small jeweler's box, surrounded by ten or twelve similar boxes, sits a pair of chocolate pearl earrings. They gouged a chunk out of my credit card. I paid them off in two installments. I haven’t worn them yet, but I take them out and look at them, sometimes can't resist touching them. I run the back of my finger over the pearls, feeling their softness. I don’t know why I made such a frivolous, unwise, totally unnecessary and unjustifiable purchase. I didn’t tell anyone I bought them. They are… something I’m holding private. I think they represent something. Other than financial stupidity? Yes. Other than that.

I like that this doesn’t make much sense.