A poem for my grandfather

FAMILY, LIFE, POEMS

IMG_2496.jpg

The painting you painted for me, and for my siblings, is unlike any other work you’ve ever done.

Different from your other pieces, which are so precise, relentlessly realistic, this painting is full of broad brush strokes, composed of love and light. The painting captures essence and exact truths fall away. Because when I look at this painting a C+ is an A+, a failure is a learning moment, and no matter what I say or do, I can do no wrong.

That’s a very special work of art to have.

This painting you painted for me reflects your humor, and just the sight of it makes me smile. And if this painting depicted you, it would capture your laugh, the endearing way your eyes creased when you told a joke, and the way you beamed when surrounded by family.

This painting began when I was born and grew into something magnificent, a mural expanding over the 28 years I’ve been alive. And no matter where I was or what I went through, when I looked up, this painting was there.

This painting you painted for me. In your humbleness you’d say it’s worth nothing but it’s the lens through which I see the world. And because of this painting, everything I see is colored by your kindness and your light.

This painting, Grandpa, is forever hanging in my heart.
Advertisements

Seen in Astoria…

POEMS

A couple sits
In the corner of a dive bar
She’s smiling
Absentmindedly pushing around
Scrabble pieces
Rearranging the letters
Admiring her work.

He hardly notices what she’s doing
Because his eyes never leave hers
And in her presence
Everything else is a blur

Suddenly he checks his watch
They jump off their stools
And run out of the bar

Left behind are words unseen:

YOU
CHANGED
EVERYTHING

Poem: Decisions

POEMS

Some are light and airy

As a feather

Inconsequential as

Blowing on a cottony dandelion

And watching the pieces

Float onto the grass.

 

But others

Others take all your energy

To even lift

To contemplation

And just when you know what to do

They change form

Slipping through your fingers

Like water

 

But the hardest part

If you’re anything like me

Isn’t the decision,

But the aftermath of one

 

When regret and anxiety

Swirl manically inside of you

Like a fan you can’t switch off

A fan that’s spinning so fast

You fear

It might become unhinged

 

The days flutter by

While this decision somehow

Shades every aspect of your life

Crawls into parts of your body

You didn’t know

Doubt could reach

 

Until one morning you wake

Look around

And feel a strange sense of

Serenity

Because finally

You and your decision

Are one.

Remember the small things

LIFE

“How’s life?” they ask.

 “Life is pretty good,” I say. “Nothing to note, really.”

 Usually, everything is just status quo.

The funny thing is, the best things in life often take you by surprise—offering a minute or two of happiness that fades into the rest of the day. Sometimes, these little things don’t get the attention they deserve.

The first snowfall. Free pizza. A $20 bill that survives the wash in your pocket. Running into an old friend in a city of nine million people. Cursing the crowds in the subway, only to look up and see your favorite poem on the wall.

 A couple from college having their first baby. Listening to the rain while you’re cuddled under a blanket, nursing a cup of tea. Driving on an open road with the windows down and music blasting.

When any Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, or Third Eye Blind song plays at the bar.

 A letter from a friend…in the mail.

A brilliant summer sunset that catches you off guard. Going to work on a “bad” hair day but getting more compliments on your hair than ever. Going out for a run and feeling a surge of energy, like your legs aren’t even yours, like you could keep running forever.

A conversation with a younger sibling and feeling overwhelming pride at the person they’ve become.

The realization that someone you like, but never thought you would be with, likes you too.

So often we “create” happiness—planning for vacations, weekends, dinners out with friends. We anticipate exciting things like a new job, an engagement, a move to another city, or other major life events that will lift our spirits for months at a time and change our outlook. But so many of life’s joys are unexpected. They’re threaded right into the fabric of the day along with the stresses and monotony. The smaller moments that happen so fast are among the happiest moments of all. We just didn’t think to take pictures of them or write them down.

 “How’s life?” they ask.

 “Life is good. Life is great,” I’ll say next time. Because I know it’s not always full of dramatic ups and downs that make for great stories on the phone.

Most of life is filled with little details we choose to either remember, or let slip away.

But together, they add up to something incredible.

Together they add up to a pretty good life.

Poem: A Smile

POEMS

Every day I saw you

Straight-faced

Tight-lipped

I’d smile, say hello

Nothing

So I decided

Why should I bother?

 

I didn’t notice

When you were gone

Then they told me

You were sick for months

Finally succumbing

To a disease

That caused so much pain

 

And I thought to myself

You never really know

What someone’s going through

 

I thought to myself

What could it have hurt

To smile once a day

Knowing I wouldn’t get

A smile in return.

Home in the heartland

JOURNALISM, LIFE, NOTRE DAME, NYC

This essay was awarded honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2017 Young Alumni Essay Contest. It was originally published at magazine.nd.edu

My final night in Toledo, Ohio, I climbed up to the roof of my apartment building to watch the sunset. Brilliant orange hues silhouetted everything below the horizon a dark, velvety black, and only the banks poked above the skyline. The colors were bright and bold, beckoning me to stay.

Straight in front of me on North Superior Street, I could see the old newspaper building where I’d spent long hours that summer covering everything from robberies to school board meetings to controversial city investments. From above, the streets looked clean and still and silent, but I knew that was far from true. Up on the rooftop, I couldn’t see trash rolling through the roads or crooked “for sale” signs hanging in dusty windows. I couldn’t see the crime, deterioration and poverty, all hidden in plain sight.

I lived that summer in a building that once housed the famous LaSalle & Koch Department Store, and until 1984, one of the largest Macy’s stores outside of New York City. It had since been converted into massive loft apartments, but you could still see the Macy’s sign painted on one side, like a faded tattoo. As I watched the sunset that night on the roof while a couple on the far side clinked Coronas, I thought about my three months in Toledo. I’d been intensely lonely and completely out of my comfort zone, but reporting stories throughout Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan solidified a longer relationship I’d been building with the Midwest as a region, a fascination with the place and its history.

I knew I’d come back. After all, there were more stories to tell.

The first time I connected with the Midwest was through the words of Nebraskan poet Ted Kooser, when I was 16. I picked up one of his collections at a book festival near my home in New Jersey and couldn’t stop reading — the poems were nothing like what I’d read in school. His words were simple, beautiful and timeless. I did not find out until later that Kooser was in fact Poet Laureate of the United States at the time, the first selected from the Great Plains.

Kooser’s poems, with titles like “Dishwater” and “Creamed Corn,” find beauty in the mundane. Kooser takes basic daily occurrences and shows that just beneath the surface of everything and everyone is something extraordinary. He changed my perspective on what constitutes great writing. Now, I believe great writing is found not necessarily in complex plots or exotic settings but in people — their histories, struggles and challenges. And no region in America exemplifies this kind of writing better than the Midwest. Think Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a classic depiction of small-town America, or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The Midwest, of course, is vast and varied, but a common theme fueling its literature is a strong sense of place and a focus on the people who live there.

Another aspect of the Midwest that makes it ripe for great writing is its relationship with the past. While New York City, my current home, paints over the past as quickly as it can build new skyscrapers, the past seems to linger in the Midwest. When I lived in Toledo, everywhere I went I could see remnants of a time long gone — beautiful Victorian houses slowly decaying, an old theater that sat empty most nights, even hot dog joints that opened in the 1920s and haven’t changed much since. Toledo’s past hovers over every street, over every building that was once grand and isn’t anymore. In Rust Belt cities like Toledo, the past is so present, it’s almost a character in its own right.

I spent my formative years in the Midwest, and only after five years of living in New York City do I understand how much that impacted me — as a writer and as a person. Both sides of my family are from Brooklyn, New York — I have no roots in America’s heartland. But after four years at college at Notre Dame in South Bend, a few weeks in Iowa City in high school and, of course, my summer in Toledo, the Midwest now feels like home.

The region is a crossroads of cultural influences, but I believe it shares some common characteristics. For one, the land is mainly flat, surrounded by the Rockies on the West and Appalachians on the East, giving the region its distinguishing wide-open feel. While the small agricultural towns of the Great Plains differ immensely from the Rust Belt cities of the Great Lakes, I’ve found Midwesterners to be politer and more community-oriented than their counterparts on the East Coast. And while, in New York, most people come from somewhere else to achieve and transform, Midwesterners have a strong sense of identity and pride in their roots.

So which region better reflects me as an individual? The self-assured, quieter Midwest, or the more rushed, aggressive Northeast? Right now, I don’t long to live in the Midwest — I’m happy where I am, in a city that simultaneously excites and exhausts me. But every time I arrive back to Ohio or Indiana or Iowa, a part of me feels at peace. I love the predictability of main streets, the kindness of the people, and the brilliant summer sunsets that soar on for miles into the distance because the topography offers so few disruptions. Being in the Midwest reminds me there’s so much more to America than I know.

One summer morning in New York, I was on a subway train so packed that I couldn’t even put my left foot down — all of the floor space was taken up. After about 10 minutes of this discomfort, a woman in front of me got off the train, revealing one of my favorite poems by Kooser, “A Winter Morning,” on a billboard where advertisements usually go on the subway walls:

A farmhouse window far back from the highway

speaks to the darkness in a sure, small voice.

Against this stillness, only a kettle’s whisper,

and against this starry cold, one small blue ring of flame.

That poem greeted me like the familiar smile of someone you haven’t seen in a long time, and for a moment, the oppressive heat and crush of people vanished. Kooser’s words were a small but comforting reminder of my connection to somewhere else.

I know I’ll travel the long, flat roads back to America’s heartland again, before the future finally steamrolls its lingering past. I want to drive around the region, listen to the stories to be told there, learn more about these cities and where they’re headed. Maybe those wide roads will take me out to the rolling cornfields of Nebraska, or back to my former homes in Toledo or South Bend. But for now, I’ll find my Midwest haven in the worlds of Kooser and Robinson and Anderson, and escape, through their stories, to the places that have become a part of me, while the sirens of New York City wail incessantly outside.

Poem: After Stella

NYC, POEMS

Seen along the East River pathway near Carl Schurz Park, after Winter Storm Stella.

walking the winding

east river path 

just after snowfall

a few people

scattered here and there

weak, distant lights

straining to be seen

 

right where the path turns

i see a ballerina

dancing alone,

seizing solitude,

her arms fighting

the pull of the wind

 

though she has no audience

empty benches 

line up to watch her

and the river reflects 

her every move

 

as i approach her stage

she catches my eye 

stopping, for a moment 

than completing her pirouette 

 

twirl, bend, twirl, bend, twirl

moving gracefully into the night 

 

no music

just the silence of the city

and the crunch of the snow

beneath her feet 

How the iPhone has changed the way we communicate

OPINION, TECHNOLOGY

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in the New York Women in Communications Aloud blog.

iphone

Since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone back on Jan. 9, 2007, one billion devices have been sold worldwide, revolutionizing the entire mobile phone industry. It’s not a stretch to say that the iPhone — which Jobs defined at its introduction as three devices in one, “a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough internet communications device” with its many iterations over the years — has changed the world and fundamentally altered the way we communicate.

The iPhone has made employees more connected than ever. Email and calendars are easily accessed on-the-go, and push notifications ensure we never miss a message or an appointment. We’re hyper connected 24/7, responding faster than we ever have. Many people I know use their personal iPhone for business rather than have a separate work phone: The iPhone has blurred the line between work and personal life.

And then there’s texting. I’ve been texting since my preteen years but not texting in paragraph-long spurts the way I do now. Remember those QWERTY keyboards? And word limits? They made texting more of a novelty than a primary form of communication. In the fall of 2008, just one year after the iPhone hit the markets, Nielsen reported that texting increased by 450% from the same period in 2006. With the iPhone’s touchscreen and easy-to-use interface, texting has now become as natural as speaking.

The iPhone changed how we browse the Internet: We’re connected 24/7, either through WiFi or a cellular network. This means we are constantly consuming information and value being connected to the virtual world around us — but not necessarily the people around us. We’re scrolling through our phones at bars, at dinner, while walking or while riding the bus. Moments of down time are filled by looking at our phones, allowing for fewer personal interactions on the go.

The iPhone also fueled the rise of social media. Snapchat, of course, is mobile-only, Instagram is mobile-first and more than 90% of Facebook’s daily active users access the platform via mobile. We broadcast vacations and nights out by taking photos on our phones and instantly sharing them through an app. We check and post news in real time through Twitter. We share live video and funny moments we eventually want to disappear. The iPhone is an active participant in our lives and the catalyst behind most of our social interactions, real and digital.

I was a latecomer to the iPhone revolution. I bought my first iPhone in 2012, five years after its release, when I realized my Samsung “smart” phone was completely obsolete. But now I can’t imagine life without it. My iPhone is my calendar, my alarm clock, my camera, my calculator, my travel companion and my GPS system. It’s how I communicate with friends and family, find out the weather, jot down notes for stories, post to social media and pay for my coffee. My iPhone is where I get my news, my bus tickets, my restaurant recommendations and my music.

And sometimes — but rarely — my iPhone is just my phone.

What happened to dreaming small?

CAREER, LIFE

Ireland is just over there my grandfather said to me as we stood on the shores of the Atlantic, when I was about six years old. I strained my eyes but hard as I tried I could not see Ireland, just an expanse of water and thin blue line where ocean met sky.

As a child, the “end of summer” always seemed just as far away. If June was the shore, September was land on the other side – and an ocean of time and space lay between now and then.

To fill this mass of time I took on what I call “small challenges”.

One of my favorites, and in retrospect most ridiculous, was the Pogo Stick Challenge of 1999. I’d gotten one for Christmas and enlisted my good friend and neighbor Annabeth to join me in the challenge of reaching 1500 consecutive hops. In the heat of August, using a toy that had rusted over the winter months, this took some perseverance. But all summer long we worked on our goal, stopping only to refuel on cookies and lemonade.

Bounce. Creak. Bounce. Creak. At the end of August I finally hit the magic number – 1500 HOPS! We shrieked and clapped and moved on to a much quieter hobby – making jewelry. I’m sure the neighbors were thankful.

Two summers later, when I was 11, my challenge was writing a book of poems. Looking back, I’m amazed at my productivity before self-criticism got in the way. I’d wake up in the morning and write a poem in my notebook, then type it up on the old Dell after lunch. At the end of the summer I printed out all my poems, brought them to school to be bound and considered myself “published”.

I always dreaded running in gym class, so the summer I turned 13 my challenge was to build endurance. It started as two laps around the block that became three, four and five. I liked the way running toned my body and decided to pair exercise with a diet. At our Labor Day barbecue I refused to eat dessert, and my “small challenge” turned into an obsession that grew cancerously through fall and winter and spring.

That summer I realized it’s possible to take challenges too seriously, self-improvement too far.

Wonderful as they were – summer has always been my favorite season – they’d never again be vast as an ocean. Future summers were filled with reading lists, sports practices and college applications. Read 10 books! Learn to code! Write five short stories! Small challenges got bigger and I started feeling guilt for everything I hadn’t accomplished, rather than pride in what I had.

Now, as a young professional in New York City, summer months aren’t technically different from any other part of the year. I am working five days a week and time is limited. But I still associate the period from June to August with self-reflection and goal-setting. The thing is, because there’s so little time, every challenge feels like it should have some greater purpose. If your friend is going back to school for a Masters degree, you don’t want to be working towards the mid-20s equivalent of pogo sticking. In this city, there are no isolated goals, only goals that help you become a more successful version of yourself.

What happened to small challenges, of taking on random endeavors simply for one’s own enjoyment? Is it possible to do something entirely for you and not for your Instagram?

I’ll always be ambitious. But in a city that constantly shouts think big! dream big! I want to go back to dreaming small, just for one summer.


Image of Atlantic Ocean by jfleischmann

The Uber Positive Uber Driver

LIFE, NYC, QUOTES

It was about 5pm one of the first sunny Saturdays of spring. I stood outside Brooklyn Bridge Park waiting for an Uber over to a party in Williamsburg after a long, mimosa-filled picnic brunch.

“Miss Sara! Hello! How are you? It’s such a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Shamraiz, my driver, exclaimed as I slid into the back seat. “Days like this, everyone’s mood changes, everyone walks with their heads held high!”

In just a few minutes I learned Shamraiz has five kids, one named Sara like me but she spells it with an “h”.  He loves his wife more than anything – she’s the reason he left Pakistan for America. I learned he’d driven a yellow cab for 14 years and switched over to Uber last year. He likes the newfound flexibility.

“If you work hard, and stay positive, good things will come to you,” Shamraiz said as we snaked our way through Brooklyn. “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

“Absolutely,” I agreed. “You should really write a book with all these sayings.”

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing,” he promptly spouted, proud of himself for recalling such a relevant quote. “That one’s Benjamin Franklin.”

I laughed. I realized in New York, I don’t blink an eye at extreme negativity. But extreme positivity is intriguing, makes me question whether the person has a motive or simply looks at the world in a different way. With Shamraiz, it was clearly the latter. But why in New York is positivity suspicious, while negativity’s the norm?

“Well, here you are,” Shamraiz said when we reached my destination. I thanked him and got out, but moments later he rolled down the window.

“Learn from the past, live for today, dream for tomorrow!” he shouted over the bar music, before speeding away.

Growing up with the Daily Treat

FAMILY, FOOD & DRINK, LIFE

I don’t remember the first time I stepped foot in the Daily Treat.

I was young enough, actually, that my parents probably carried me into the restaurant, young enough that I didn’t eat but slept quietly at their side. I’m guessing I was about two weeks old.

My parents have loved the Daily Treat since before I was born.

Back in 1987, over sandwiches and salads with the real estate broker, they discussed their future in this quaint commuter town right outside of Manhattan. I think the charm of the restaurant drew my mom to Ridgewood, a place where she knew no one and would be alone most nights while my dad worked long hours at a nearby hospital. She was 24.

photo2

Photo: dailytreatrestaurant.com

Looking through the Daily Treat’s large windows facing Ridgewood Avenue, my mom watched young mothers with strollers walking by. Even though the rest of her family lived on Long Island, where she grew up, she began to picture a new life in New Jersey. In a way, my history with the restaurant began right then.

The Daily Treat has been around for more than 50 years and is a constant in a village that’s constantly changing. As newer, hipper restaurants and shops have moved to town, the Daily Treat has stayed put. For me, it’s a place of comfort. I always order the same thing: eggs and toast or chicken fingers with thick-cut fries. I know when I walk in I’ll see one of the Greek owners, Gus or John, standing behind the checkout desk, greeting customers at the door.

It’s funny how places, just like people, can be there for every milestone of your life.

The Daily Treat was where we’d go with both sets of grandparents after concerts, dance recitals and graduations. It’s where my brother and I complained about ordering off the kids menu and then insisted on ordering off the kids menu, as soon as we were too old.

DailyTreatRestaurant.jpg

Photo: Foursquare

In the sixth grade, the Daily Treat was the first place my friend Jolene and I went “alone”. We dressed up in our best Abercrombie & Fitch outfits, packed our faux leather purses and smeared on lip gloss before walking the half mile to town. I remember the sense of independence we felt going to a restaurant without parents. To us, this was the first step to being grown up.

In high school, the Daily Treat was a respite from the stress of exams and too many extracurriculars. I’d go with large groups, either during an extended lunch or straight after school. I remember seeing groups of middle schoolers and thinking about how young they looked. Do these kids even know how to split a bill? How are they here alone? At some point it occurred to me that we used to be just like them, a giggling gang of sixth grade girls sharing a couple orders of fries. Looking back, I’m surprised the owners tolerated us.

I spent my college years in Indiana and a summer out in Toledo, Ohio, where I was a reporter for a local paper. My job took me across cornfields and through downtrodden Midwest towns where the sense of decay was palpable. I was lonely – most of my friends were interning in New York City that summer – but while on assignment I found comfort at diners that reminded me of Daily Treat, diners that reminded me of home.

Coffee2

Photo: Dave D., Yelp.com

I still go back to the restaurant a few times a year – it’s where my childhood friend Laura and I catch up when we’re both in town. The place hasn’t changed much, though they now have al fresco dining and fancier-sounding menu items like Grilled Portobello Salad and Prosciutto Caprese Wrap. Over refill after refill of coffee we talk about our jobs, relationships and families. Sometimes we stay for three hours but no one ever rushes us, interrupting only to pour more coffee into the small white mugs.

It’s strange to think I’m already a year older than my mom was when she and Dad settled down in Ridgewood, yet I’m nowhere near as settled. Sometimes, when I’m at the Daily Treat I can almost see my parents sitting at the booth by the window, leaning into their drinks and one another other, exhilarated by the thought of starting their life together in this pretty village outside of New York City. Wondering how long it takes to thread yourself into the fabric of a community, how long it takes to call a place home.


Read more about the Daily Treat and its history here.