NYC, Goodbye!

Washington Square Park Phil Roeder


I’m writing this on the train back from New York. Maybe my last time there for a while. I came in to shoot some video at Inc., and attend a writing workshop, and spend some time with my friend Jennie who is not happy about my moving an entire continent away from her. I’m not too happy about that part of it myself.

I’m a New Yorker. I was born on that island, and from wearing lots of black to driving a ratty old car and not caring, it will always have its influence on me. When I moved to the country more than 20 years ago, it was in crisis mode, to escape from an abusive and frightening husband. Yet that crisis also brought me to my heart’s desire. I’d been thinking for years that I wanted to live in the country. That’s why, even after I was divorced and safe, I never considered going back.

As the years went by and my social circle became ever more Hudson Valley and less Manhattan, I stopped going to New York so often. After a few years, I only went down when I had to, to the ASJA conference for example. I’d find myself in Midtown, the least lovable part of Manhattan and head back to the country having taken little pleasure in my visit.

Still, saying goodbye to New York seems part of saying goodbye to the East Coast, so after the workshop, instead of taking a late train back as I usually would, I spent the night at Jennie’s. I took today as a free day even though my schedule couldn’t really afford one. She lives in Brooklyn which is a whole other borough from the Brooklyn I knew–or didn’t really know–when I lived in New York. She loves living there, and I can see why.

The only thing on my agenda was to go bra shopping. I read once that the vast majority of women can’t figure out by themselves what bra size they should wear, and I’ve found that to be true for me. So years ago I started looking for professionals to measure me and help me find bras that fit properly. Which just isn’t something you can do in Ulster County. Jennie took me to a lingerie shop in Cobble Hill where she’s bought some of her prettiest bras. It was lovely and elegant, owned by a Frenchwoman and though we only came up with one bra that I actually wanted, as much fun as something like shopping for bras can be.

Jennie and I parted regretfully and I spent my last couple of hours in town walking in the Village and sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park. The weather was perfect and New York was delightful as only perfect weather can make it. There were children playing on more creative playground equipment than I ever clambered over on in my day. Interesting dogs walked by and an acoustic jazz trio complete with upright bass performed on one of the lawns. It reminded me of being in one of my favorite parks in Paris.

I haven’t much missed New York City all these years in Woodstock. I don’t know that I’ll miss it from Seattle, although some things, such as good pizza and the way everything stops for a good argument, will probably feel odd by their absence.

Today’s been a lovely last look at the city of my birth. Goodbye, New York. You’ll always be in my blood.

Image: Phil Roeder/Creative Commons

Does my Aching Back Mean I’m Sad to Be Leaving?



29 Days to Target Departure

My back still hurts but not as badly. Yesterday I got a (much modified) yoga class and then a massage from my friend Gillian who has a better view of how our bodies work than anyone I’ve ever met. She says I lifted something heavy and neglected to bend my legs, which I’m sure is true, but she also agrees with Bill that this bad back is partly an expression of sadness. I’m sure they’re both right. I’ve started saying, “I pulled my I-don’t-want-to-dismantle-my-house muscle.”

“You have to find a way to honor that sadness,” Gillian told me.

“I’m not sure how,” I said. I didn’t think I should talk to Bill about it. The idea that I’m sad to be leaving here is driving him crazy. Yesterday he actually proposed returning to Woodstock for the summers which is a batty idea on many levels. For starters, summers in the Pacific Northwest have almost no rain and thus almost no mosquitoes–one big reward for tolerating the dreary winters. Also I’ve always hated the idea of living in two places. The whole snowbird thing never appealed to me. I want to live one place where I can put down roots, like I’ve done here. Which I guess is the exact problem.

So I’ll say it: Leaving here is breaking my heart. Especially this house which feels so much like a friend that I’ve been known to pat its walls affectionately. When I lived here alone, I would walk from the living room into the kitchen at night thinking, “This is mine,” and feel that all was right in the world. Over the years, we’ve added things. First, the magical built-into-the-wall wood stove that looks like a fireplace but heats the whole house. Then we turned the screened-in porch into a sunroom and added a cedar-fenced vegetable garden. Then we started having the field mowed in a path where Bill walks in summer and I ski in winter. It’s slowly become the perfect house for me.

But I also see, for reasons having nothing to do with Bill, why it might be time to move on. That cross-country skiing for instance. Every year, there’s less and less of it because there’s less and less snow. I didn’t plant my garden this year because I knew I was leaving but every gardener I know who did is frustrated beyond belief because nothing’s growing well this cold, rainy summer. Except the mosquitoes, who tend to chase us indoors and made a mockery of our one-time plan to build a deck. I know the climate is changing and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, but living here for 22 years I’m actually watching it change, and that’s almost unbearable. So I know that even if I stay in place, the place as I loved it will eventually leave me.

For most of the time I’ve lived here there was a lady who lived in a large house at the top of the hill. She had many dogs, a coop full of chickens, and two sheep. Walking up that hill is my default daily exercise, and I used to love pulling up grass and feeding it to those sheep in their enclosure. Over the years they got more sedate and less inclined to meet me at the fence and then for several months I was doing other exercises and didn’t walk up the hill. When I did it again, only one sheep remained and she rose stiffly to her feet and hobbled over to meet me. After that she stopped getting up and then soon enough she was gone too.

Sometimes the house’s elderly owner would be out in the yard and we’d chat. She’d lived in that house forever. She’d planted the two towering pine trees in the front yard as saplings more than 40 years ago. But over time, I stopped seeing her outside, though there would often be the blue flicker of a television through the curtains.

About a year ago, people were carting furniture out of her house. I stopped and asked what was going on. She was in a nursing home, they told me, and not expected to live long. The house stands empty now, its chain link fence falling over in sections, nothing but ghosts of the woman and her animals who lived there. Is that better? I wonder. Live out your life in one place, leaving a sad shell behind?

Or better to roam, criss-cross the world and maybe leave nothing behind but memories? The answer, I suppose is neither: Stop thinking about a future of aging, decay, and death and live in the now which is all we really have. But I’ve never been good at living in the now. Maybe someday I’ll get better.

OK, so I’m trying to honor the sadness. “Write about it,” Gillian suggested, so now I have. Will this help my back get better? We’ll have to see.

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Image: The winter view from our bathroom window



31 Days to Target Departure

Saturday afternoon I took several weeks’ recycling to the dump. At the same time, Bill went off to the Tibetan thrift store on Route 28 with about six bags of books and another couple of bags of clothes and miscellaneous odds and ends. The idea is to clear out the things piled up in our kitchen on top of the fridge (yes we have lots of stuff on top of our fridge), on a movable cabinet, on our moveable dishwasher and on our “coffee station” table, so that these items could easily be moved for our friend Gordon to replace our kitchen floor.

Anyhow, as I carried the blue recycling bin to the car, something I’ve done thousands of times, it suddenly felt as though something in my back was all wrong. And for the past 36 hours the right side of my lower back has been in some sort of spasm that nothing seems to alleviate. Of course, my first response is to be frustrated. I’d had all sorts of plans for this weekend that included writing two columns that are overdue, repotting some bonsai that are coming with us on the trip, and working on the book proposal for my memoir as well as working with Bill to clear the kitchen for the new floor.

Yes I know it wasn’t all going to get done. I pretty much always start out with a list of things to do that doesn’t fit the allotted time, which may of course be part of my problem.

But maybe there’s something else here: When we began moving things out of the kitchen and packing up our numerous teapots, something clicked in my brain: This is really happening. We are really leaving this place. And not only that, whether I’m willing to admit it or not, my entire life is about to be completely disrupted. Maybe my back is expressing upset about this that the rest of me can’t.

Saturday I had dinner with a very good friend, maybe for the last time before we move. She asked: “What are you looking forward to most?” I realized I didn’t have a really good answer. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, though. I don’t really know what I’ll love and hate once we move because I don’t know what my life is going to look like. I’ll be starting with a blank slate, which is something I crave.

But starting with a blank slate isn’t going to be easy either. Maybe some of me is frightened too, and that’s what my back spasm is trying to tell me.

What I said to my friend was: “I’m looking forward to Bill performing almost every night.” That’s the absolute truth. And it’s why—back spasm or no back spasm—I know this move is the right choice.

Image: Bernard Goldbach via Flickr

Goodbye to Friends who Don’t Know I’m Their Friend


On a summer day in 1997, I was sitting in my office simultaneously working and chatting online with Bill, who was in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He had a new job at a tech startup there so ours was, temporarily, a commuter relationship. I glanced idly out the window, then did a double-take. A medium-sized bear was ambling across the yard.

“BEAR!!” I typed in Bill’s chat box. And then, “BRB [be right back] gotta go see.”

I know I typed that second sentence. I have a clear and distinct memory of typing it. But Bill swears that at his end what he saw was “BEAR!!” and then…nothing for several minutes.

Meantime I was opening the door and looking cautiously outside. When my cat squeezed past me I said, “Be careful Simon! There’s a bear.” That was enough to spook the bear and it ran away. So I went back to my desk and resumed chatting with Bill, who was about to call to make sure I was all right.

There probably wasn’t much to worry about. The black bears in the Northeast are famously wimpy. Even though they’re around us all the time, so much so that keeping garbage cans outdoors is problematic, a nature writer friend tells me there are only four known instances in all of history of one attacking a human.

I love living in a place where a bear might wander by. I love that a giant black snake took up residence in my compost pile (once I looked it up and ascertained it wasn’t poisonous). Deer argue over our field. Hawks float overhead screaming their triple scream. We can’t see them, but we know we have a neighborhood full of barred owls because we hear them at night, asking each other “Who cooks for you?” over and over.

In early spring, the sound of peepers and trilling toads fills the night and I go out with a flashlight and rubber boots and stand around the wet part of the field till I home in on one so I can watch it peeping. Their troats expand and turn transluscent, like bubble gum bubbles.

All summer I mix sugar water for the hummingbirds that build nests in our trees — most likely because they’ve learned our house is a dependable source of sugar water. Knowing they’re nesting there, I make a point of keeping the feeders cleaned and filled. “They commit, so I have to commit,” is how I explain it. Later in the season, adolescent hummers come by and I love knowing that our yard is the only place they’ve ever lived. I like to think they’ll return in the spring with their new mates.

In the winter, it’s a similar story with the songbirds. I hang a feeder with a giant squirrel baffle from a tree outside the living room window and tufted titmice and chickadees stuff themselves all season. Finches, with their powerful beaks, park on the feeder perches, breaking up the seeds and eating them right there. Occasionally a piliated woodpecker, too lazy to hunt for grubs, hangs on the feeder chasing all the other birds away. A flashy cardinal couple wanders by, eating spilled seeds on the ground rather than the feeder. And of course there are always the squirrels who make their way past my baffle by means so varied and devious we had to use a webcam to find out how they did it.

Around here, we’re only supposed to feed songbirds from December 1 to April 1, because of the aforementioned bears. And the hummingbirds are only around from May to October or so.  Which means there’s a month or two during late fall and spring when I’m feeding no one. It always seems a little lonely; it’s almost as if these wild things were my extra pets. Only now I’m about to stop feeding them forever. If we make our target departure date of September 1, I won’t even see this crop of hummers through the whole season.

I guess it’s fitting that this summer was only the second time in more than 20 years that I saw a bear in our yard. I was, again, sitting in my office, only this time it was about 1:30 a.m. The motion sensor light on our garage came on, and as always I peered out the window, trying to see what had set it off. If I hadn’t been looking for it, I wouldn’t have spotted the slightly blacker shape of a bear against the night. Right behind it was the exact same shape in miniature—the smallest cub I’ve ever seen. The cub did not gambole around but walked in lockstep right behind what I assume was its mother.

I was alone in the house; Bill was spending a month in Washington, playing gigs and preparing for our move. This time, I ran for my smartphone, both so I could take a video and send a text to Bill: “Bear followed by tiny cub just walked into garage!!”

Bill was performing and didn’t see my message, and by the time I got back to the window, I couldn’t see the bears either. The next day I made a lot of loud banging noises around and in the garage to see if they’d stayed. It seems they’d left right away. There was nothing in our garage to tempt them.

This is just random coincidence, but my pattern-loving human brain wants to parse it, to tease out some meaning. My final summer in the Hudson Valley, where I always thought I’d raise a child, where I tried and failed to bring that child to term, a mother bear with an almost-newborn cub strolls by to bid me farewell. I’m saying goodbye too, not only to this home and these woods, but also the life I once thought I’d have here.

I’m going on an adventure that would never have been possible if I had indeed become a parent. For everything lost, something else is gained. But I will miss these wild creatures who feel like they’re somehow mine. A small part of me wants to believe that in their way, they’ll miss me too.

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Image: Chris Miller. 

I Love You So Much, But Not Right this Moment!


If you live in the Northeast or know anyone who does you already know what a horrific thing this past winter was. There were monster piles of snow. Then it warmed up and they turned into monster piles of slush. Then the temperature plunged and the slush turned to rock-hard ice. And stayed that way for months. When Bill dropped me at the Poughkeepsie train station on my way to the ASJA conference in late April, I gasped as we drove in: Piled up against the side of the station, more than a story high, was a mountainside made of dirty, hard-packed snow that obviously had been transported there to get it out of the way somewhere else. I bet some of it is still there.

A few things turned this past winter even worse in our household. First, there were kidney stones. Bill was told he had large stones in both kidneys that required serious medical intervention. He hates Western medicine so he decided he would treat them himself with lemon juice and then apple cider vinegar diluted in endless glasses of water. It worked, to my amazement, but it took much of the winter, during which time Bill stayed mostly stretched out in his white leather recliner.

The recliner is at the exact center of our rather small house. There is no way Bill can speak or even belch in that spot without my hearing it, wherever I may be, unless I put headphones on. It didn’t help that he was miserable and in pain and generally inclined to gripe, or that he couldn’t go much of anywhere else.

I couldn’t either. A massive amount of work kept me at my desk most of the time. Plus, early in the winter I managed to injure my rotator cuff on the right side. I was in a fair amount of pain myself and at one point the two of us shared a hot-water-and-ginger compress in an attempt to cure both his kidneys and my shoulder. Unable to put any weight on my right arm, there was no way I could go to yoga class, and yoga is one of the things that keep me sane.

So there we were, trapped and grumpy. Bill craved attention. I mostly craved being left alone. The more I wanted space, the more he wanted interaction, a perfectly unhappy spiral. And so, for fleeting moment, I asked myself the unthinkable. Why was I moving across the country (in an RV!) with a man who, most of the time, I just wanted him to get away from me? Was I sure I wanted to do this? Should I consider splitting up instead? This line of thought didn’t get me very far. One of the few things I’ve known for sure for the past 19 years is that Bill and I belong together. Any serious thought of separation was met by the certainty that if I ever made that move I’d regret it immediately and forever. But in the moment, all I could feel was trapped and claustrophobic. There seemed to be very little joy in our marriage.

Time passed, and things got better. It helped when, around Christmas, I read an article about a woman who literally worked herself to death and began slacking off my own work schedule a bit, letting some things happen late or not at all in exchange for one work-free day every week. The worst of the winter went by. Bill’s kidneys hurt less, and he became more mobile.

The joy was still missing though. I was still working too hard, or Bill was too focused on planning the move, or for whatever other reason. So we did two things that always work whenever our marriage hits a snag. The first is, we talked about it. I told him how claustrophobic and unhappy I’d been feeling, and how I was much less connected to him than usual.

He apologized for his kidney pain-inspired grumpiness. But then he said something that surprised me: He thought our disconnect was because his heart was already in Seattle, whereas mine was still here. And he was afraid that my subconscious didn’t really want to move.

“Of course I have mixed feelings about it, I love it here,” I said. “And I’m sure my subconscious may not want to move. But I’m confident that my conscious mind will get the rest of me to the West Coast.”

That seemed to satisfy him. Then we did the second thing that always helps, we went out together for some fun. We had brunch in Kingston and then set out on our favorite stroll by the edge of the Rondout Creek, past the tugboat museum, and the marina full of pleasure boats, the PT boat being restored, the waterside restaurants and leftover warehouses.

As we started on our walk, I thought back to a night early in our relationship, years before we married. We’d been fighting all evening and were now going out together somewhere, though I don’t remember where. I don’t remember what we were fighting about either—probably nothing of substance—but I do remember that I was completely furious at Bill, and had been for hours and hours. As I opened the door to get in the car I thought to myself that I would be perfectly happy if he left and I never saw him again. But the reasoning part of my brain reminded me that this was temporary, that he was the man I had chosen to be with, would likely be spending my life with, and that, at least most of the time, I was a lot happier with him than I was without him. Having remembered all this, I got in the car with him.

Now, standing next to him more than a decade later, I thought back to that evening. And I knew that I would always remind myself again, and again, any time, as many times as I needed, that my life without him would be immeasurably sadder and emptier. That he was my life’s partner and we belonged together.

I put my hand in the crook of his elbow. I wanted to say all this to him, about how I would remind myself as many times as it took that I loved him. But I knew it would come out sounding wrong. So instead I just said, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I hope not,” he answered. He put his other hand on top of mine.

Then we walked off together along the creek.

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To RV or Not to RV?

295799422_a02e151ca1_oBill and I are moving to the Seattle area. We know that much. And we have a target, if challenging, departure date: September 1.

Pretty much everything else is up for debate. Beginning with where, exactly, we’re moving to. “Do you have a place?” friends and colleagues asked at the ASJA conference last week. Well no. We’re planning to start out by renting and you can’t rent a place in May if you don’t plan to move in till September. We’ve looked at plenty of rental listings and rentals from the outside and even a few on the inside, and that’s about all we can do.

Besides, we don’t quite agree on where to rent. About 45 minutes from the city proper is a town named Snohomish that we both like a lot, and even if we didn’t, it would be tempting for its name alone. It’s a gem of a small town, as Bill calls it, with bars where he’s been getting gigs. Our very good friends Drew and Cindy live just a few miles away. There’s a nice Thai restaurant, a lovely used bookstore, a gorgeous yoga studio, and, this being the PNW (Pacfic Northwest, for the uninitiated), several great coffee shops. And a theater where a lot of his musical pals play every Friday night.

Not only that, unlike most of the towns around there, Snohomish has buildings that date back to the 20s and 30s. That’s a big plus for me. I’ve spent my whole life in places where history was all around. In Ulster County, stone walls built by farmers a century ago still run through the woods. Moving west I’m likely to go through Old Stuff Withdrawal.

Snohomish v. Seattle

All signs would seem to point to Snohomish. Except. That will put me a 45-minute drive outside a vibrant, happening city. How often will I actually go to Seattle? Will I really get to know it? This concern mystifies never-been-urban Bill. Woodstock is a small town, he says. You love living there.

I do love it but only because I already thoroughly know Manhattan. If not, I might find it frustrating. This is a sentiment he cannot understand no matter how many times I try to explain. He grew up in a small city 70 miles from New York and that’s about as close as he ever wants to get to it.

We talked about living in the city but the more that seemed like a reality, the more Bill couldn’t bear the idea. We talked about living in Snohomish, but the more that seemed like a reality, the more it felt to me like stepping onto a path in which nearly everything would be pre-decided for us. I’m moving 3,000 miles for your music career and you can’t live in the neighborhood I choose? I say. Snohomish is where the places I play and the musicians I play with are, he retorts. You’re moving 3,000 miles for my music career, but making it harder for me to play.

Then there’s the question of how we get there. With three cats to whom we’re absurdly devoted, we can’t fly. Maybe they’d be OK riding in a car for ten days, maybe not. But stuff has to come with us too. To Bill, this all adds up to one solution: “RV.” Or maybe “RV—at long last!” He’s been suggesting an RV trip almost since we first met. I’ve been resisting the idea for just that long. Now, with an entire continent to drive across, especially with three cats, the RV solution is sounding more logical, and he’s planning a lovely-sounding itinerary through several national parks, and studiously shopping the used RV market with my somewhat uncertain blessing.

But then he upped the ante: “Let’s live in an RV park when we get there,” he suggested, mainly because they’re inexpensive and, let’s face it, he loves the idea of RV living. My feelings about living in an RV park are similar to his about living in the middle of the city. “Maybe you should live in an RV park and I’ll go find an apartment in town!” I snapped at him.

The following morning, he burst into my office with excitement. “I think I’ve found a solution!” he told me. “We’ll have an RV in an RV park and a studio apartment in the city.”

“I said that.”

“But you were joking,” he said. (That’s a lot nicer way to put it than “being snotty” which might be closer to the truth.) “I’m serious. I’m looking at the rents of studio apartments. We could get one, and rent a space in an RV park, for less than we’d spend on a one- or two-bedroom apartment.”

So he’s found some good deals on real estate sites, but will they turn out to be places one would actually want to live? I don’t know. Will we really be able to berth an RV as inexpensively as he thinks? No clue there either. Is this just another wild idea that will evaporate in the harsh light of reality? Could be.

But this is the kind of reason I married the man. Faced with a complete disconnect of our desires, he mentally jumps the track and thinks up a solution that gives each of us what we really want.

And so, at least for now, this is our plan.

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Image: Bruce Fingerhood (Image is for illustrative purposes only. We don’t have one yet…)

A Visit to Middletown




You can try to avoid leaving home, but it doesn’t matter. Eventually, home will leave you.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago on Bill’s sixty-second birthday. I had what I thought of as a fun day planned: A Japanese anime movie (he’s a fan) followed by a meal in a nice French restaurant and perhaps a one-man show by a comedian friend of his performed in, of all places, a nearby Zen monastery.

But Bill had a different idea. He wanted to visit his brother near Middletown, the city where they grew up, about 90 minutes south and west of Woodstock. Was that OK? he asked.

“It’s your birthday,” I told him.

Middletown, in Orange County, “Downstate” New York, was a homey little city to be a child in, by Bill’s description. Especially Hanford Street, where Bill’s relations all had lived in various houses up and down the block. Bill’s grandmother, who’d arrived from Ireland raised her eight children on Hanford Street. Two of them, Bill’s mother and his uncle Charlie, spent their lives there and raised their own children there. Bill’s paternal grandmother, “Nana” also settled there.

Down a generation, Bill’s brother Tom started his family in a house across the street from Bill’s widowed mother who spent almost her entire life on Hanford street and lived there till the very last months of her life. She had cared for an elderly man across the street who had no children; unexpectedly when he died he left her his house. Caring for neighbors was the sort of thing that family did.

For me, it’s beyond imagining–growing up surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins, three or four generations in the same town, on the same street. None of my family members has lived his or her entire life in one country, let alone one city. Not even me. What would that be like, I wonder, to have someone nearby nearly always who knew you, cared about you, and would report your transgressions. Comforting? Stifling? Both?

Home isn’t home anymore.

But time has caught up. We’d seen the slow transition of the city, even when much of his family was still there, and it’s accelerated since. It’s rougher, more down-at-heels, more dominated by low-end chain stores and restaurants along what used to be called the “Miracle Mile.” Bill’s old neighborhood is a sad sight, with his ex-family houses in various states of disrepair. Because by now, none of Bill’s family members is left on Hanford Street or even in Middletown. Two of his siblings moved to California. His brother Tom moved away too, but stayed nearby, in the small town of Otisville. Everyone else has dispersed or died.

On a drive down the old street, Bill sighed and shook his head over the trees and picket fences that had been removed, the state of his grandfather’s old porch. When we were done, we took a ride into the grounds of Middletown Psychiatric Hospital, the graceful, 19th-century assembly of buildings surrounded by park. Many family members, including both Bill and his grandfather, had held jobs there.

“What are those Xes?” he asked. Building after building had a red square posted on its doors, with a white X across it. I looked closer. “Abandoned building, no sprinkler system” I read.

“Wow,” said Bill, as we drove up and down the winding roads through the campus looking at boarded up and broken windows, piled up leaves, empty parking lots. This one was where the most extremely mentally ill had been housed, he remembered. That one was where, newly divorced, he’d shared a dormitory with a bunch of student nurses.

At the bottom of a hill we came upon a large herd of deer. One group was calmly grazing, another simply sitting on the lawn, enjoying the late afternoon sun. They didn’t seem especially troubled by our car, or by the fact that they were actually living inside a city.

The last time?

On the way to his brother’s we passed by the old country cemetary where both Bill’s parents are buried. In honor of my Jewish roots, we set pebbles on their headstone. Bill’s brother and sister-in-law fed us pork chops and birthday cake and the two brothers traded news of all their family members. It was midnight before we got home.

We are moving in a few months, so things are beginning to take on a will-this-be-the-last-time-we-do-this? character. Would this be Bill’s last visit to Middletown?

“I’m fine with that,” he said. He could try to go home, but it wasn’t there anymore.

One more reason not to regret leaving, one less tie holding either of us here. We can try to stay where we are, we can hope everything remains the same. But likely as not, one day we’ll return to find our old workplaces abandoned, neglected, and overrun by deer.

The Facebook Grinch


A slightly different version of this post was broadcast on the WAMC public radio program 51% The Women’s Perspective.

It was an unusually wearing December 24th. My husband and I had driven more than four hours from our home in upstate New York to rural Vermont to visit my mother and stepfather. My 90-year-old mother, in her 15th year with Alzheimer’s, seemed barely present.

The next few days would require many more hours of driving as we made the family rounds. But for now we sprawled in a large room in a funky World War I-era hotel. Arrayed between us were wine, bread, and the finest cheeses the local general store could muster. And there was Bill on his side of the bed, gazing lovingly at his smartphone–into the eyes of Facebook.

At random intervals he’d pipe up with updates: His friend Karyn sent us holiday wishes. His sister in Santa Clarita was cooking Christmas dinner. Some heartwarming bit of news had caught his attention. One item stood out. In an elementary school, students only got participation credit for activities if their phones were stored–face down–on a special shelf.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Bill said.

l couldn’t resist. “Do you think you should get participation credit for Christmas Eve?” I asked him.

“Oh but I thought…we were just hanging out,” he said. He sounded flustered and dismayed. I knew he didn’t mean to neglect me. He thought we could sit together, I with my tablet, he with his smartphone. We would munch cheese while trading holiday greetings and news tidbits from Facebook and the Web. That was his idea for making the best of this subdued evening. But it wasn’t mine.

Am I weird for not liking Facebook? I know a billion people disagree with me. But most of it is updates from people I barely know telling me things I frankly don’t care much about. Then there’s the constant barrage of requests, like a friend who never stops asking for favors. “Like this page!” “Vote for this contestant!” “Sign this petition!” “Try out this game!” I visit Facebook because I must, to keep up with our family, make contact with my many writer friends, and promote my own work. I never go there for pleasure.

Bill is the opposite. He used to spend the hour before lights out reading Facebook posts on his laptop by our bed. Things changed after I got him an Android phone for his birthday. Now he can check Facebook wherever he is, whenever he likes, and he does, three or four times a day. In between, he wanders the Internet looking for interesting stories and factoids. When he finds them he posts them to Facebook.

So when psychologists in Norway created the first-ever “Facebook Addiction Scale” to measure people’s overuse of Facebook, you might think I’d be nodding in agreement. But I’m not. I think they missed an important point.

Bill uses Facebook more than I do because he reaches out more than I do, all the time, to everyone. He spent hours driving on tiny roads from pub to pub in central Ireland, looking for relatives he’d never met. He detoured again and again to the same little music store in New Jersey, hoping to catch a long-lost friend who taught guitar there.

Facebook makes all this so much easier. My mother was born in the Philippines. Her father came from Belgium and my aunts, uncles, and cousins are scattered everywhere. One created a Facebook group for all of us, and now I know I have family members from Toronto to Dubai.

So to say that people are addicted to Facebook is to say we’re addicted to interacting with other human beings. Of course we are. We’ve lived in tribes since the beginning of the species. Keeping in contact is literally in our DNA.

I may not have much patience for Facebook, but I still want news about the people I care about. Without Bill’s constant monitoring, I would not have known that one dear friend was spending a week in Paris, or that another’s beloved pug dog had abruptly died. We live in the country, far from most of our friends and family members. Without Bill and Facebook, I’d be much more isolated.

So on Christmas Eve, I told him to go ahead and stay on Facebook. I was melancholy and tired and there was little he could do to cheer me up. But he could be my conduit to the connected world. He could send greetings from both of us, while I curled up on my side of the bed with a book.

A couple of weeks later, I attended a journalists’ fellowship in Arizona. There was spotty cell phone coverage and brief breaks between sessions. I wanted to contact Bill during the day, but what to do? Texting him wasn’t ideal—sometimes he heard his phone, sometimes not. Then I had a flash of inspiration: I sent him a message via Facebook instead.

He answered me right away.

Like this blog? Sign up here and you’ll never miss a new post. Next time: We visit abandoned buildings in what used to be Bill’s thriving home town.

Image: Birger King


Why I’m moving 2,907 miles from a place I love

Last fall, I had dinner with a group of writers. I mentioned that Bill and I were planning to move to the Seattle area later this year. Since we live in Woodstock, New York, that’s a long way away and people always want to know why. So I explained how I’ve always been happy in the Hudson Valley and he hasn’t, necessarily. As a writer, I’m lucky enough to be able to work almost anywhere. He’s a musician, or he was for many years before he got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and couldn’t keep up with the physical rigors of setting up and performing. He’s gotten better, though it’s a slow process that took decades. A few years ago, he realized he was well enough to perform again.

Meantime, there’s his best friend Drew, who moved to the Seattle suburbs a few years ago after he reconnected with an old flame there. Almost from the beginning, he was reporting back to Bill: It’s really nice here. People are polite. They’re supportive to musicians. There are more places to play. It really doesn’t rain as much as everyone says…

Right away, sight unseen, Bill was just about ready to pull up stakes and go. I’m the cautious one. “OK,” I said. “Let’s spend some time there and check it out.” And so we have, for the past year and a half, several weeks at a time. We’ve explored small towns and different sections of the big city. We’ve made sure to experience the rainy season, not once but twice. Admittedly, it has its dreary side. But I’ve always been intrigued by the damp majesty of the Pacific Northwest. And the literary community there is so impressive it’s almost intimidating. I love my writer friends in the HudsonValley but it will be fun to get to know this whole new writer community.

Mainly, our friend is right. When he’s there, Bill has someplace to play out nearly every night. This is something he needs and loves to do, and something he’s incredibly good at. He’s going to be 62 in a couple of weeks. He’s a pretty young 62, but still. If he’s to be a performer, now’s the time.

It was around this point in my story that I noticed one of the writers at the table looking at me with one of the saddest expressions I’ve ever seen. He had lost his wife of many years, another writer, very recently. “Maybe they had unfulfilled dreams,” Bill guessed, when I told him this later. But I think it was something else, the unspoken comment I seem to get from so many people when I tell them about this move. You must really love him a lot to be willing to change your whole life.

Fifteen years ago, we did something similar. Bill (who’s a geek as well as a guitarist) got a job at a dotcom in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I wasn’t wild about Williamstown, but after an annoying commuter-relationship period just to make sure the job would last, we packed up our cats and our many computers and books, and made the move. A year later, the company had been acquired and Bill had moved to a telecommuting job based on the West Coast. We could live wherever we wanted. We might have gone off in any number of directions. But knowing how attached I was to Woodstock, Bill insisted on moving back here, returning to a life that wasn’t his first choice.

We’ve been here ever since, and it’s been good to us in many ways. I doubt I’ll ever love a house as much as I love this one. Everything here is familiar. Our family is almost all nearby. We have deep roots of the sort that make me see why people our age don’t usually pick up and move across the country.

But we’re not usual. It’s Bill’s turn now to love where we live, and mine to have a spouse who’s as happy with his career as he is with his marriage. And both of us are ready for a new adventure.

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Photo credit: Tavis Jacobs