Thursday, August 12, 2010

Olive Kitteridge

I woke up this morning and packed up all of my stuff in preparation for leaving Montreal to go and spend a night camping in the Adirondacks of Northern New York State. Before I left I went to a breakfast place around the corner from my hotel. It has the corny name Eggspectations, but it also has big windows, great light, friendly staff, and great food.

I sat down, ordered some pancakes and yogurt with strawberries, sipped on my coffee with cream and dove into the last chapter of Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge. The chapters of her book are not really chapters in the traditional sense. Instead, each chapter is a separate short story set in or near the fictional town of Crosby, Maine. Olive Kitteridge is the thread that ties the stories together. She is a prickly, no-nonsense woman who in some way not quite clear to me earns our empathy instead of our judgment, in spite of her off-putting bluntness and blindness to her own cruelties.

“River”, the final story of the collection, is what I was reading this morning when I knew I had to change my plan for today. In the last story Olive, old and alone and unable to understand why her son wants so little to do with her, comes in fits and starts to a new friendship and new insights about what it is to be human.

Of course, there really ARE no new insights about what it is to be human…just new people to see the same old things.

But when the narrator said:

“What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.

“And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either. But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union—what pieces life took out of you.

“Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude—and regret. She pictured a sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.”

It hit me like a hammer to the stomach and made tears well up and out right there in Eggspectations. (I certainly hadn’t eggspected that when I opened the book.) Olive’s realization about love, set in the context of my own week away from Erica and Isabel, made me see that I don’t want or need to be alone in the woods today and tonight. I need to be around people. For all of our rough edges and annoyingness, we are the best we have. And if I can’t be with Erica and Isabel today, at least I can be around other people and try to connect the best I can. The best we all can.

I don’t want to squander this day, consciously or unconsciously. So I am going to be out in the city, walking where my feet take me, talking with anyone willing, and looking forward to being home tomorrow with the people I love best.

Montreal--Day Three

Day three in Montreal once again involved covering lots of ground. I started the day with a four-mile run from my hotel down to the riverfront and along the water to some canal gates. It is nowhere near as humid here as it has been in New Haven, but it still gets hot by mid-day, so I got my run in before the day really got going. Montreal has impressed me with its infrastructure for walkers, runners, and bikers. The city has far more space to work with than Manhattan does, so the municipal government has had an easier time incorporating room for bike path and sidewalks. There is a clear commitment to making cars optional. The subway system is extensive and you can buy an unlimited-rides one-day pass for $7.00. This pass also works on the bus system. I parked the Volvo in the garage when I got here and haven’t needed it once.

After my run I got on the green line Metro and went out to the Olympic Park, which was built for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Much of the complex certainly LOOKS like it was built in the 1970s—it has a retro-futuristic feel to it with lots of curved concrete forms and shapes somehow reminiscent of UFOs. I paid the $15 and went up the Olympic Tower in the funicular. (By the way, if you have never said the word “funicular” out loud, you should.) I absolutely love being way up high and looking out at the lay of things. When I have a window seat on an airplane I spend most of the flight looking down at the world, trying to recognize highways and towns and rivers and geographic features. I have done the same thing here in Montreal, only without the airplane.

I climbed the Clock Tower at the Port, Mount Royal, and now the Olympic Tower. Each time the skies were clear and I was rewarded with some excellent views.

After the Olympic Tower I got back on the train and went in search of the best poutine in Montreal. People I asked told me to go a restaurant called La Banquise, so I did. I had the traditional poutine, pictured below, and a “Detroit hot dog,” which turns out to be a chili dog, sort of. The poutine was good, but I must say that I am partial to the poutine Jason makes at Caseus in New Haven. His is less beefy and the cheese is better.

Once I was done with lunch I decided to walk the two miles back to my hotel. On the way I found a barbershop that was just re-opening after a lunch break. The woman turning the sign from “Fermee” to “Ouvert” smiled at me and that was enough to get me in her chair, explaining my plan for the week. I told her to do whatever she wanted to my hair and she went to town. Of course, even the most skilled artist is limited by the quality of her materials, so in the end, my haircut looks like it always does to me. But it was fun to give up all sense of control. And after four days without any of the daily human touch I get living with Isabel and Erica, it felt good to have someone focus her attention and touch on me, even if it was just a haircut when all was said and done. Is that pathetic?

Late afternoon I went to the Vitrine—the one-stop place to go to find out about any-and-all cultural events going on in Montreal. The woman behind the counter was very patient and friendly. She was the same person who directed me to the production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in one of the large city parks the night before. She told me about a concert at a local cabaret and I took her suggestion. And I was glad I did. It was a small, dark bar and the singer and her band were hanging out with all their friends before the show, drinking and having a great time. When she got up to sing she blew me away. The band was great, too. Her name is Marie Christine Depestre and she has an album coming out soon.

All in all, a GREAT day in Montreal.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Montreal, Day 2

Exactly one year ago this week we were in another part of Canada. Isabel spent a week at a camp, recreating life in the 1840s, and Erica and I spent the week tooling along the coast of New Brunswick, watching whales, hiking, camping, and enjoying a great week together. It was one of those times when, even in the moment, I was aware that something good was going on. During that week, something clicked for me--something useful and important about relaxing. I was able to really just be in the moment for much of the week and when we left I took a rock with me. It fit nicely in my palm and in my pocket and most days I still carry it with me to remind me to take a breath and slow down and just NOT freak out so much. I have that rock with me right now and I noticed yesterday that it is much smoother and shinier than when I found it.

I had a busy and excellent day yesterday here in Montreal. I didn't go for a run, but I must've walked ten miles as I went wherever the strangers I asked told me to go. The pictures below show some of where I went and what I did.

A typical cobblestone street in the Old City of Montreal

Statue of Notre Dame de Bon Secours, overlooking the entrance to the harbor and providing "good help" to those who need it

This clock tower was built a hundred years ago at the entrance to the harbor. I climbed its 192 steps and was rewarded with a great 360-degree view of the city, the river, and the surrounding lands.

Montreal is actually a big island in the Saint Lawrence River. At the heart of the island in Mount Royal, a 764-foot high hill that is a city park. I climbed the hill yesterday and the views of the city were worth the walk.

There are many small, green parks sprinkled throughout the city. I sat and read in one yesterday that has a statue of King Edward. This is certainly no way to treat a monarch.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Montreal--Day One

Day One in Montreal is drawing to a tired close. I got here around 3:30 after an easy trip through the border. I don’t have our GPS unit with me, so navigating into and then through Montreal was tricky. (How quickly the technology has changed our way of getting around.) I was glad to have gotten a map before I got here so I had a fairly good sense of where I needed to go and how to get there. I found a funky old hotel with amazing rates right in the heart of everything. It is the Abri du Voyageur and it costs only $70.00 per night because the street in front is ripped up and closed to car traffic and they are having trouble getting people to stay here.

I spent a few hours just walking around town, getting the lay of the land, and enjoying being out of the car. Montreal reminds me of the bastard child that might be the product of a fling between Boston and New York, if that child somehow came out European.

The guy at the front desk speaks English as well (or as poorly) as I speak French, but I was able to get his suggestion for a good dinner place. The waiter there gave me his favorite beer (brewed on the premises) and his favorite dish and both were excellent. The woman at the Tourism Office gave me a plan for tomorrow morning and I am all set. So far, so good.

Below are some pictures from the trip here today. The first is one I call “Garden Thong” and I think it speaks for itself.

The picture below is my hotel room. It is spacious and has a good air conditioner and, best of all, it is cheap. And did I mention it doesn't cost much?

This is my first real view of Montreal from the bridge on the Interstate. It was doing 65 MPH, so it's not the best photo in the world...

This is the border station monument, welcoming me to Quebec.

And this is a weather vane on top of a rest area in the Adirondacks. It was pointing me in the right direction.

Marriage Sabbatical

Yesterday my wife and I made the 80-mile drive up I-91 to a college in Massachusetts, where we dropped our daughter at a week-long gymnastics camp. As we drove away from the college dormitory where Isabel will be staying we both felt lonely, but only some of that loneliness was attributable to the absence of our girl. Another big chunk of it, for me anyway, was a sort of premonitory loneliness. I was sitting in the car with Erica, listening to her read from our current out-loud book and sharing an intimate conversation, yet I was already missing her.

Back in early June Erica and I started to wonder just what we should do with a week to ourselves. It is often hard to find more than just a day or two with Isabel safely and happily in someone else’s care and we wanted to take full advantage of the week. As we were wondering, we were also spending some time talking about our marriage and what was working and what was not. Something in the “Not Working” category was the quality of our daily conversations. One of the ways we came up with for bringing some interest back to our conversations was to spend time doing interesting things apart from each other. This idea led to the proposal that we spend Isabel’s camp week as a “marriage sabbatical” week.

As soon as Erica said the words, we both felt an excitement at the prospect of a week to go someplace interesting and do something fun or challenging or new. It was like finding a whole bunch of money and getting to spend it on whatever we wanted. We set some quick ground rules to the week and both started trying to figure out where to go and what to do. The ground rules were these:

1) stay in the country in case anything happens to Isabel and we need to get to her fast,

2) don’t spend a lot of money,

3) don’t tell each other much about what we are doing so that we can share our stories when we get back together.

I made a long list of possibilities for the week and was having a very hard time settling on one destination. At the same time, I started talking with friends about the idea of a “marriage sabbatical” and getting their ideas about where to go and what to do. At some point in the process I stumbled upon the guiding idea for my week. I decided to let fate and other people decide for me where I would go and what I would do. I took suggestions and tabulated them and then I asked people to vote. The winning destination was Montreal, Quebec.

So right now I am sitting in a hotel room in Lee, Massachusetts, on my way north. At each step of the trip this week I am going to engage strangers in conversation and ask them what I should do. As I get near Montreal I will ask people where I should stay and then I will take their suggestions. I will ask someone where to go for breakfast tomorrow morning and then do as they say. I will ask my waiter or waitress what they would do if they had a day free in Montreal and then I will do what they come up with. This plan will force me to talk to lots of strangers, (which is no easy task for an introvert like me), and allow me to experience many new things I would probably otherwise not have done. I am looking at the week as an experiment and I am excited about it.

It was funny to get the reactions of our friends when Erica and I told them about our marriage sabbatical. Many people had the wrong impression right away and assumed we were both going to go fool around with other people. (Projection?) That is most certainly NOT what this week is about. Rather, it is a chance to get out in the world and do things and meet people and have experiences that we can then bring back to each other as a way to make ourselves more interesting and more complete. Nobody can be EVERYTHING for someone else and this week is a way to remind ourselves of the importance of being separate so that when we come together, there are still things to discover and learn from each other.

Some of what I experience will be posted here, but not so much as to have nothing left to tell Erica about when I get home. If you have ever been to Montreal and have something you think I should do, respond to this post or send me and e-mail and let me know. I’ll do it.

Right now, I am going to take a run before I get in the car and drive 250 miles north. I wonder what the best four-mile running route is? Think I’ll go ask at the desk and see where they send me…

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How Pleasure Works

I have just finished reading a wonderful book by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. It is called How Pleasure Works but perhaps it should have been called The Varieties of Pleasurable Experience. In his book, Professor Bloom catalogues the many ways humans get pleasure, ranging from the basic, (food, sex), to the sublime, (music, art), to the shocking, (cannibalism, memorabilia collecting).

While discussing examples from history, literature, current events, news reports, and laboratory and real-world psychology studies, Bloom makes accessible the theories of many insightful researchers who have spent years studying aspects of the common but complex set of emotions we call pleasure.

Activities as wide-ranging as playing sado-masochistic sex games, collecting and looking at paintings, riding vomit-inducing roller coasters, killing, cooking, and eating a volunteer “victim”, and reading books about pleasure are discussed and examined in order to lay out an overarching theory of pleasure.

Bloom argues compellingly that much of what we experience as pleasure is rooted in the human belief in essentialism. It is a widely-studied and documented tendency in humans to attribute an almost magical power to some people and objects. We see it with small children and their favorite blankets, with athletes and their lucky talismans, with keepsakes and souvenirs from special places we have visited, and with our willingness to pay huge sums for objects once used by celebrities.

Just try replacing a child’s security blanket with one that is slightly different. Brad Pitt’s sweat-stained undershirt would sell for much more than mine would on eBay. Two visually identical paintings are worth vastly different sums of money if one is done by Vermeer and the other is an exact copy by someone else. Much of what we experience as pleasure comes not from the object or experience itself, but from some hard-to-define quality we attribute to someone or something connected to the object or experience.

Bloom’s book gave me much to think about while on vacation in Montana last week. I had a lot of free time to read because we were staying at Erica’s grandfather’s cabin and there is no Internet access at the cabin. Reading his book engaged my mind, entertained me, and gave me things to talk about with friends and family. I liked the book a lot. And, as I said, the reason I was able to finish the book in just a few days was the lack of Internet access.

But now that I am home, (and once again able to access the Internet any time, day or night, in any room and even on the front porch), I am pondering an aspect of pleasure Paul Bloom did not address in his otherwise excellent book. Specifically, I am wondering why it is that I am awful at accurately predicting how much, (or how little), pleasure I will get from spending time on my computer?

When I step back and watch myself, I am forced to conclude that I MUST get a lot of pleasure from spending time on the Internet. After all, I spend hours a day checking the weather in Billings, MT, looking at my checking account balance, reading news of politics and gossip on the Huffington Post website, seeing how many people have visited my blog, catching up with all of my friends on Facebook, reading the newspaper, and following my unfettered curiosity as it crashes haphazardly through the limitless trivia and marginalia available on the Internet.

I must like it, right? After all, time is the single most precious commodity humans have. Our hours are numbered and the total is unknown to us. And for me to spend so many of my hours on the Internet clearly means I must derive immense pleasure from my time there, right?

And yet…why, when I finally hit the “Sleep” command and step away from the laptop, why do I feel like shit? It is not pleasure I get from my time online. In fact, it is the opposite. Spending a chunk of time on the computer usually makes me feel slightly manic, somewhat angry, and mostly depressed. Tell me something Paul Bloom, why do I consistently choose to do something that gives me the opposite of pleasure?