Escape from Manhattan (How to Have a Good Weekend)

The thing about working “on the Internet” is that it becomes almost impossible to ever STOP working. Signing on to write on this blog entry, I find myself drifting to the social accounts I manage for work – it’s muscle memory at this point to visit the homepage, shift to Facebook, to Twitter, to analytics software – to the same behemoths of data that dominate my paid hours. Before I had even begun to pen this post, I was an hour into working on things for my other job, and I hadn’t even shifted from my position on my bed.

Of course, the alternate side to this is that when you end up in a location that lacks any Internet connection it becomes virtually impossible to do your job. This is the situation I found myself in over the weekend. Faced with a rare four consecutive days off (in honor of Independence day), myself and the cadre of college friends with whom I share New York City packed our bags and headed east. I traded Proust for Fitzgerald this weekend, opting for the Anglo American savoir faire of the Hamptons (which, for the uninitiated, is the bastion of East Coast wealth upon which The Great Gatsby is based).

New York City is remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is that it takes so little time and such insignificant geographic distance to move from its unique urban sprawl to a different universe. Two hours north of the city you can find the sleepy towns of the Hudson. Two hours northwest is an impoverished town in the foothill of the Catskill mountains. And two hours east lie gorgeous beaches peppered with landing pads for private jets. So after a brief drive (made even shorter by our shared excitement to be away from our jobs and from the humidity of New York in July), my four friends and I were at our destination. Proust has a choice phrase about the behavior of time in different settings:

“The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it; and habit fills up what remains.”

We found a cheap motel outside of Southampton (made cheaper by our lie to the owners that we were a party of three, not five) and loaded up the trunk of my friend’s car with the sugary kind of alcohol that should not be consumed away from a beach. We ate out for dinner and I swallowed my panic as my bank account balance shrank every day. I lay in the sun upon the sand for the first time in what I realized was two years – but not before I had paid the price for my forgetfulness with a sunburn that debilitated me for 24 hours of the trip.

It was the shock of my sunburn that jolted me towards the realization that these four days were the first vacation I’d had in months. The last time I had gone this long without working was my family reunion in Vermont, almost exactly a year before. That trip was potent with nostalgia, with the strange sense of deja vu that permeates familial reactions, the awkward comfort of seeing your nose resting on a near-stranger’s face. This trip was in many ways a mirror image of that last urban exodus: a journey east of New York instead of north of Washington; a beach made of sand, not rocks; days spent with the family I’ve found, not the one I was born with.

The trip was not without nostalgia: for past summers at the beach with childhood friends; for the drives at college where my roommate and I wound through cow pastures on our way to nowhere, discussing our anxieties over upcoming tests and the ways in which our hearts had broken and mended. But memories follow us wherever we go (as Proust would be the first to point out). This trip didn’t feel like a visit to the past, rather, it was a serene four days where I truly disconnected and, in taking stock of my life from afar, got the distinct impression that it was moving forward. The four days felt even longer, not from tedium, but from, as Proust puts it, the expansion of my passions that stretched the elastic fabric of time. I came back to New York with peeling skin and sand in my hair, but, upon reconnecting, find that this interlude carried a latent sense of propulsion. Maybe enough momentum to finish these damn books – and write on this blog more than once every five months.

Postscript: Rather than begin this post with my apologies for the long delay in my posting, I decided to begin with a normal Proust Book Club post. I will say here: if you’re still reading, thank you. Thank you Maeve for your gentle reminders and for keeping this domain warm while I sorted out my life and felt overwhelmed by the prospect of being alone with my emotions and my words. Once I have resumed the swing of things, I will explain my absence… or perhaps I’ll just use Proust’s words instead of my own, as they once again seem more apt:

“Had I been less firmly resolved upon settling down definitively to work, I should perhaps have made an effort to begin at once.”

5 Things I Loved About New York in 2001

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Yesterday was September 11, and it marked the 11-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York. In the years immediately following 2001, we marked the day in middle school with a moment of silence, and our teachers encouraged us to air our adolescent emotions. Many of us had been affected by 9/11–some of us had lost dear friends or family members; others, like myself, had been unable to return to our homes in downtown Manhattan for several days. It’s strange to think, looking at the busy streets around us, that for months this part of New York looked like a ghost town. Toxic smoke lingered for weeks.

By the time I went away to college, the memory of Sept. 11 had become further separated from the trauma that surrounded it. There had also been an explosion in human communication. The first anniversary of 9/11 that I was away from New York was the first time the memorial moved, en masse, to the Internet.

So my way of memorializing this day is, rather than attempt to be profound in a Tweet (which I have seen many others do elegantly) to post a list of the things I loved about New York City in 2001, and the wonderful memories that come with them.

1. Poetry in Motion

Poetry in Motion

Poetry in Motion sent poems underground into the subways from 1992-2008. I would check constantly to see if the poems had been updated, and the above poem changed the way I felt about poetry. “They’re just sitting in the room,” I remember thinking. “Wow.”

The best part? Poetry in Motion started again this year, just in time for my return to New York. Have you seen any great Poetry in Motion yet?

2. The summer pools

When the weather got warm enough it meant only one thing: the outdoor pool at the Carmine Street Rec center and the pool at Thompson Square Park were about to open. There is only one proven cure for NYC summer heat, and it involves dunking yourself in ice cold water. One hot summer I worked around the corner from the Carmine Street pool. It was torture to walk by.

3. Scouting out stars

High school was all about staking out the cast of Gossip Girl, but before that we had the frequent sightings of SJP and co. to satisfy our voyeurism. I doubt anyone my age at the time was allowed to watch the raunchy hit, but if you had an older sister or an HBO subscription, you knew that it was taboo, glamorous and almost attainable.

When you saw a tell-tale trailer parked on your block your heart skipped a beat in the hopes that you might catch a glimpse of one of those iconic ladies. Not that we would ever admit to being phased by the famous. Even at age 10, that was a known killer of street cred.

4. Student metrocards

They. Were. Free. Three rides a day to be used between 6 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. This is more nostalgia. I didn’t know at 10 years old how much a free ride was worth.

5. The voices in cabs that told you to buckle up

When did they end these? “Buckle up, for safety!” some familiar stranger would boom from the backseat of the cab when you entered, interrupting the talk radio or middle eastern music that was playing. Mayor Giuliani didn’t quite pique my interest, but Bernadette Peters may have made a few cameos in my cab. I think Bert and Ernie (maybe Elmo?) did one of these, which was obviously my favorite!

What did you love about New York City in 2001?

It’s not a wheel; it’s a carousel

And… finished with Book One! This past week, I escaped to Vermont with my father’s family for the first family reunion of my lifetime (organized, funnily enough, by my mother). I actually wrote a post concerning my hiatus, but I tried to post it from the DC metro while on my way out of town and, surprise surprise, it didn’t work.

I used the week to relax on the beach, polishing off the first volume and biting off a sizable chunk of Within The Budding Grove.Well, that was the plan, but the universe rarely works that way, and instead I mostly played with my second-cousins-thrice-removed or whatever they were. The point is, there were many children there, and they were all adorable and a riot and left little time for reading.

The staging of the reunion was Proustian in and of itself. The clan traveled to the camp my great-grandfather opened on Lake Champlain in Vermont. My father, his brother and cousin all were campers there in the 50s and 60s, and the camp has barely changed in the past half-century. For many family members, it was the first time seeing Camp; for others, their first time back in decades.

As a child, my parents took my sister and me up to Camp every summer, and they remain friends with the family who now owns the Camp. The setting is beyond idyllic — cabins sit on a bluff that descends directly into the lake where I learned to swim and first paddled out in boats. The last time I was there was almost ten years ago. Returning, everything seemed smaller and much more beautiful than I remembered it ever being.

In Search of Lost Time focuses so heavily on memory that the acts of recalling and remembering seem to consume the novel’s very plot. In attempting to describe my own nostalgia returning to Camp, I began to comprehend what could have driven Proust into the lunacy of a seven-volume epic that explored his own memory.

It wasn’t just my own memories that overwhelmed me; it was the collective consciousness of my family, the recollections that gave each generation some ache of reminiscence. I think that the narrator’s intrusion on Swann’s memories makes more sense given how communal the past becomes as it grows more distant. I realized that the inside of Cabin Five smelled the same way it always had, that the water was cold in the same way it always had been, the rocks on the beach made me trip in the same pattern, and I wondered if and how these sensations had affected my dad when he was younger than I am now, and how they were affecting him now. 

I took a lot of pictures in the past week. Images, as Proust points out, are a useful archival tool for documenting our memories, but they are a poor substitute for that emotion that emerges from the intersection of sight, sound, smell and sentiment:

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

In my copy, I underlined the above passage (which concludes Swann’s Way) and wrote next to it “sums up life.” Or, as Don Draper says,

Reflecting on nostalgia and one of my favorite Mad Men moments brings to mind a New Yorker article on Instagram, which ruminates on how the popular app manufactures “instant nostalgia.” Reading Proust operates in a similar way. I think that navigating Swann and Marcel’s memories makes us more aware of our own. When Proust gives up (or so it seems) on Odette, he does not let go of her, but of the memory of when she loved him, and the hope that the past will resurrect itself. Conversely, while some memories can be hard to let go of, some moments announce their importance by the lack of a memory to accompany them, such as when Swann realizes he does not desire to possess Odette but he does not know when he felt that way:

He discovered it was already too late; he would have liked to glimpse, as though it were a landscape that was about to disappear, that love from which he had departed (411)

So I leave Swann’s Way as Swann leaves behind the landscape of his love: quietly, and without really realizing at the time what was happening. In the final passage Marcel really lets his own nostalgia show–he decries the inelegance of “modern” women as compared to the refinement of Gilberte’s mother. I expect more nostalgia in the volumes to come. In the meantime, here’s an image that is succeeding in making me nostalgic for Vermont right now.