March 12, 2006

six months in stages

Six months ago today we were in Minneapolis, halfway across the country, midway through our drive from California to New Jersey. Six months. A breath, a hiccup, a sigh.

So what's it like, landing back in a place that's so familiar and yet not? How does it feel to be here and not there?

First stage: We're here? Wow, we're here, we're really here, wow, here we are, look, there are leafy maples and pretty Victorian and Colonial houses and oh, I can get into NYC on the commuter train, wow I'm walking around my city again, wow we're here, we're here, are we really here, wow did we do this? Is this real? Is this my life? Wow, we're here… (etc. on an endless hyper loop)

Second stage: Where is here, exactly? And oh my god, Damian needs socks, where do you go to get socks around here? I feel so lost. Do I live here? But how can that be? Me, I live in a place far away, a place smack in the middle of a teeming city with all the teeming city amenities. Damn, I ran out of conditioner. Is there an Aveda store around here? I swear, if I turn left out of my driveway, I'll be on Melrose heading toward the Beverly Center, except somehow when I turn left, I'm just heading up a leafy street lined with pretty Victorians and Colonials. So where's the Beverly Center? Very confusing.

Third stage: Okay, yes. Here is here and not there. I get it now. Sure. And here has good pizza and bagels and chopped liver and ravioli and cold sesame noodles and apple cider, did I mention the fresh apple cider? Because oh my. And here has people -- or at least the extended metropolitan area version of here has them -- and I keep meeting up with them, people I like and know, people who are family and friends and this is oh, yes, it's good and right and yes.

Fourth stage: I feel so isolated. I feel so alone. I feel like the last person on earth. Why did we do this? Can I hide under the covers until I wake up after having magically, mysteriously created a community in my new hometown? Or slink around in my sweatpants and never venture out the door? Pretend I'm a bear in a cave, yes, that would work. A depressed, lonely, unfriendly, paralyzed sort of bear. Hey, it's snowing! Pretty.

Fifth stage: How is this different, living in New Jersey instead of LA? No, really. Dan's working late. Damian's yelling about needing more time before homework. I scorched dinner and the writing gig I thought I had in the bag came with a draconian contract I can't sign. Life sucks. Doesn't matter where you live. Palm trees or elms, the landscape is secondary to the life.

Sixth stage: No, I love it. Love meeting up with friends at the Metropolitan Museum. Love running into another friend on the front steps as we're leaving. Love finding a fantastic hole in the wall sushi place in suburban New Jersey. Love the drive up the Garden State Parkway to visit Dan's parents and make them my miso salad dressing. Love a leisurely brunch with old friends who now live just up the road as the kids play hide and seek in their country club's huge dining room. I love being here and not there. Love the city after a rain, love the town in the sun, love the sense that life is more full, ripe with connections. All those years in Los Angeles feel present and distant both. A funhouse mirror reflection of a life that was, or was it? This, here and now, is reality and that's just memory, a life someone keeps telling me I once lived.

Seventh stage: Great. Okay. Now how do we make it work? How do we shift our careers enough to make the money to stay? Dan's job is over, how does he get another? How does he build a career? How do I? I've had three writing gigs so far, all handed to me. I have one more potential offer and then I have to go looking. How do I do that? is this really going to work? Because, damn, I want it to. This is where we belong. But how can we stay? We have to. So we will. But, um, how? I'm scared, anxious, nervous, and all synonyms in between. We took the leap and now we land, but our footing remains uncertain, our landing still slippery.

(Note: these stages are approximations of the voices inside my head, roughly chronological but sometimes the stages collide, exist simultaneously even when they're in direct contradiction to each other. Because that too is reality.)

December 11, 2005

bus stop

This past Monday I brought Damian to the bus stop for the first time. Before this, we'd been driving him to and from school every day. It's about 2 ½ miles, takes about 10 minutes. Not a big deal. We did it because he was beginning in a new school, a new town, a new life. We did it for our own peace of mind as well as his. But with the snow coming, I was more concerned with the logistics of getting my car down the very steep driveway after a storm than I was in how Damian might feel on the bus for that short ride to and from. Besides, it's been nearly three months. Time enough.

So Monday morning, a day after the first snowfall of winter, Damian and I walked down the hill hand in gloved hand, stepping carefully past icy stretches and breathing out in steamy gusts. There were of course no signs saying "Bus stops here! No, not there, here!" so we kind of scouted around the various options (note: four corners, four options) until someone showed up with kid in tow to point us to the right spot. I soon discovered that the cars parked by the curb were in fact not parked but simply waiting, as parents began unfolding children from their carseats and joining us at the corner.

Damian asked me once again to repeat the catechism I'd rehearsed with him the night before and the day before that. "What will happen when the bus comes?"

"You'll get on, I'll say hello to the aide sitting at the front, tell her about you, ask her to keep an eye out for you. There may be one or two kids from your class either already on the bus or getting on at another stop. The last stop will be school. You'll get out and you and all the other kids on the bus will walk into school together. And you know how to find your classroom from the front entrance, don't you?"


"And that's it."

"That's everything?"

"Yes, that's everything."

"What if I'm scared?"

"Remember how you felt the first day when you had to walk into school by yourself without me coming in? How you got lost and the woman at the door helped point you the right direction? The people at this school are very nice. You'll be perfectly safe. You won't get lost. Someone will help you."


By the time we ran through the drill, a small crowd had gathered, four or five adults with young ones. And they all wanted to know who we were. Me, that is. And Damian of course too.

"Are you new to the neighborhood? Where do you live, what house? When did you move in? What grade is he in? Who's his teacher?"

It was, in a word, strange. I've dropped Damian off and picked him up from several schools now, in Los Angeles and here. And people do smile, they do eventually chat with you, you do eventually get to know each other, sometimes rather well. But this was different. A tight group, a newcomer to assimilate. A shared identity. Parents Who Wait at the Bus. Neighbors. It's very suburban, I guess. Thursday I commented to one woman that it was so different from the way people act when they're waiting for kids at school. There they talk to people they already know, but the newcomers? Not so much. She said, "Well, we know we'll be seeing each other for the next several years at pickup time." And at the grocery store. And shoveling snow and raking leaves, yes. It's just being good neighbors, really.

She also said, "They're not all people I'd necessarily choose to be friends with, but they're nice." And that was funny because, you know, she looked like them to me. They all look the same. Very clean cut. Cheerful. They all go to yoga and the gym, they all have nice houses. They're very, shall I say, non-scruffy. Non-bohemian. I find myself wondering. How do I look to them? Do I look as much of an outsider as I feel? Or do they accept me as part of the clan?

They're certainly friendly enough.

Damian, by the way, did fine on the bus. Fine enough to take it every morning from now on, and many afternoons too. So I guess I'll get to know these folk rather well over the course of the time we live in this house. Maybe I'll become friends with one or two. Find out what's behind the façade, what's inside their houses, maybe even learn their dirty laundry. Maybe, after a while, I'll stop feeling like such an outsider, bourgeois bohemian that I am. Maybe there's a role for me in this bus stop friendship dance.

November 22, 2005

autumn leaves

Sometimes leaves, when they fall, come fast, a wind whips through the tree and separates the tenuous link between stem and branch and all the leaves like sheets of paper come whispering down. They coat the grass in a swath of brilliant gold, a plush carpet of tender yellow foliage, sunlight fallen to earth.

Sometimes leaves fall in flurries: the wind riffles through the branches like fingers through long hair, sending the loosest ones flying. Sometimes, over hours or days or even weeks, the leaves carpet everything, growing more brown and brittle by day, until someone sweeps them up into mounds in the center of a lawn or at the edge of a property. Soft, cushioned mounds, makeshift beds of slowly decaying leaf matter. Pillows by the side of the road.

Sometimes a single leaf falls from the top of a nearly bare tree, catches on the light wind, and swings and sways and swirls its slow, lazy way to the ground.

Sometimes when it rains, stray leaves stick up from the asphalt like cowlicks after a shower.

Sometimes the profusion of leaves, leaves everywhere, seems an extravagance of riches, bright and dull, crisp and supple, a scattered rain of leaves drenching everything in sight.

Sometimes, when summer shades to autumn leeches into winter, the fallen leaves smell like earth.

Sometimes the leaves, they surprise me.

November 04, 2005

Joisey goil

It's funny, you know? All my life I've heard about Jersey, that armpit state across the Hudson River. And now I live here. I have a driver's license that says so. And it is emphatically not New York City here. And what am I doing here? Can this be home?

But it is now. And I find I like it. And it's New Jersey.

What I've seen so far:

With the exception of certain well known industrial towns and seedy small cities, the state itself is remarkably pretty. Bucolic country towns that remind me of the Berkshires. Wooded paths along small lakes emerging onto rocky plateaus with views of New York City, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building smaller on the horizon than your thumbnail.


New Jersey likes its diners. Along every state route, in every shopping center, off every interstate exit. Shiny stand-alone buildings redolent with the smell of hamburger meat and pancake batter.


People who grow up here often don't leave. Or, rather, they leave for college and come right back. A man from Jersey and a woman from Westchester? Gotta live in Jersey if you love me, babe.

Not as many women have big hair as I'd anticipated. Maybe I'm in the wrong part of the state.

They do, however, have accents. Thick, strong accents, sometimes, a cartoon version of the famous New York twang. The not-pretty sound makes me feel all warm inside, a reminder that I'm really here.

Drivers creep waaaaay out past their stop signs, practically into the intersection, to see if they can safely make a turn. Forcing the issue? I'm not quite sure. But it's disconcerting.

Road signs are apparently not legal unless they're hidden behind foliage or otherwise obscured from view. I know this because the streets that don't have obstructed signage? Don't have signs at all. Some government official must have removed truckloads of them on account of illegal visibility.

Our town is famous for its cosmopolitan feel. On the local "Watercooler" email list, someone referred to a nearby town as "Whitebread, I mean West Caldwell." I chuckled, because yes, I suspect there are a great many white bread suburbs around us, but Montclair is not one. It's always had a substantial black population but now it also has an immigrant majority. Immigrant? From where? Oh, Manhattan. Also brownstone Brooklyn. An outpost of Park Slope, this town.

The local deli has chopped liver and also egg custard and even knishes. Not to mention black-and-white cookies. A generic-looking bakery in a nearby town has cannoli in both cream and chocolate varieties. Most bakeries around here have them, I think. Jewish and Italian influences everywhere. There are Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, etc. restaurants in this town. Much like the city, all this. And yet, of course, not the city.

This state has more Native American-derived place names than anywhere else I can remember. This makes for towns with names that sound strange to our ears. Mahwah, Parsippany (which I keep calling Parsnippity by mistake), Pequannock, Weehawken, Packanack, Hoptacong, and my favorite, Ho-Ho-Kus.

And yet is there a Native American presence? Not so much.

And yet parks are often called reservations: South Mountain Reservation, Eagle Rock Reservation, Mills Reservation. I think they're reservations in the sense of reserves, preserves, parkland. No native peoples, just trailheads.

Pizza here isn't bad. Apparently sometimes bordering on excellent but I've only tried two places to date.

That’s all I know so far. I'll report back after I collect more data.

October 22, 2005

in residence

A car drove up to our door this morning. You have to understand, this is not a driveway you happen upon, especially since you have to drive past the main house to get to ours. So. A station wagon drove up, parked. A older man got out. Someone here to check the meter? But on a Saturday? In sweatpants and a Yankees baseball cap?

Turns out he came around to make sure we actually live here. At this house. It's a school check, to flush out people lying about their addresses to get their kids into the Montclair school system. He said he catches 40 to 50 kids every year. Mostly from Newark, also Irvington and another town I can't remember. I don't blame them, and I can't say I'm surprised. You do what you need to do when it comes to your kid. I was just kind of tickled that we now live in a place that has schools worth lying to attend. And yes, the property values reflect that and yes, it's going to make it somewhat trickier to buy a house here. But our house in LA was worth as least as much as a decent house around here, and the schools? Not so great.

It's all relative.

October 17, 2005

some unexpected visitors

Even though we're just 12 miles west of midtown Manhattan, even though we're in a very progressive, cosmopolitan town, this is not the city.

This morning, a reminder of that.

Dan was downstairs. "Come quick! Come see!"

I went. Damian followed. This is what we saw:


A closer view:


To make things more interesting, a neighbor cat came waltzing along. Stopped, ears pricked. Started up the hill, stalking the big birds:


I don't know what he was thinking, that cat. He got his comeuppance fast:


Pretty funny.

Wild turkeys. In our front yard. Sure beats irritable Russian babushkas.