Sitting in my room, in a classic old 19th-century hotel that was commandeered by Milosevic back in the day, trying to take it all in and get it all down. Others have gone to bed, I’m writing and listening to a saved Spotify playlist on portable Bluetooth speakers. John Mayer’s “I Guess I Just Feel Like,” somehow appropriately thoughtful, hopeful, reflective, melancholy. Traveling long distances to regions you’ve never seen, listening to languages you can’t even begin to approximate, always peels back skin-thick layers covering your senses and pours technicolor into your mind. I should always be this alive.
Over the Atlantic, dark of night, left the sun behind us climbing out of Atlanta and racing to catch it on the other side in London. I should be cross-eyed with jetlag by the time we get to Belgrade tomorrow. Or later today, because tonight is yesterday.
Dinner cleared away and the lights dimmed for sleeping, I’m thinking about the first time I came to Europe, forty-one years ago, in a different century, at a different age, under different circumstances. Tucked away into the epitome of twenty-first century luxury this time, I’m surrounded with push-button convenience, every impulse attended to by lovely women addressing me by name with a smile, a twinkle, and a British accent.
Forty-one years ago puts us in 1978, when we lurching 56-year-olds were 15-year-old high school kids, looking forward to drivers licenses and sophomore year. That July, eight, maybe ten of us from Madison joined a larger group of traveling students on a summer trip with AIFS – the American Institute for Foreign Study (they still exist – check it out). Our families drove us down to O’Hare in Chicago, and from there we met up with a larger group from all over the country at JFK in New York. My parents, Mom especially, were excited along with us, because they had made similar trips some twenty years earlier, in the late fifties, when crossing by ship from New York was still the way you got to Europe. (Transatlantic flying overtook ship traffic to Europe for the first time in 1958.) They thought this would be a seminal moment in our young lives, and of course they were right.
Our crossing that night was aboard an Olympic Airways 707, already outmoded and junky in the late seventies. I remember there were dusty sliding curtains across the windows instead of slide-up shades, and all the air intakes in the cabins were streaked with the dark angles of years of nicotine sucked in. Flying from New York to Rome that night, I don’t even think there was a First Class, just three-by-three rows of excited teenagers and the occasional through passenger on their way to Athens. Flying west to east, against the direction of the sun, was the first time I’d experienced the odd four-hour night as we met the sun coming around the Earth in the other direction. Disoriented and buzzy with fatigue and excitement, our group crowded into two rows of seats to watch a thunderstorm below us fork lightening into the ocean, just as the sun rose. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d seen.
This is all just random musing, but it does have something akin to a point. Once we landed in Rome, jet-lagged in broad daylight when it should have been midnight, as we deplaned down the steps and across the tarmac, we struggled with the awe of comprehending that we were walking the ground of a foreign land across the sea. A good friend of mine looked up into the summer sky and said, “the clouds look the same.” Of course they did, but we who had never been outside our own country realized we’d had no idea what to expect. The simple fact that the sun rose and set and the sky shone and rained was something we hadn’t considered necessary to verify for ourselves.
That’s stuck with me every time I arrive in a new country, and I’ve been fortunate to see countries in Asia, the Middle East, South America, and to live back in Europe in Madrid since that trip. Each time I set first steps in a new country, I’m always reminded of that awed comment from 1978: The clouds look the same; it’s the same air, the same ocean, the same rivers, the same sun. More generally, and much more significant, I think, is that it’s the same people. Just as so many of us know but fewer numbers of us experience, everyone across the planet eats, loves, sleeps, greets you with wonder or timidity, invites you into their lives for a while, and leaves you tattooed inside with the experience of having been touched by another life, foreign and intimately familiar all at once.
We’re about to throttle down and land in London, where I’ve been before, and then connect through to Serbia, which I’ve never even been near. The Balkans. The Former Yugoslavia. It’s exciting, to have a visceral repeat of that same thrill from coming up on a half-century ago. Still so much to see.
Privileged to be seated in the front of a plane on a transcontinental flight, one settles in with one’s pillow and blanket and earbuds and elevated sense of self, stretches out and prepares to be pampered (by today’s standards) for the next four-and-a-half-hours. There are movies to peruse, meals to anticipate, and the promise of the actual ability to stretch out and sleep on a plane.
The last thing one expects, before the boarding door is closed, is a pretentious eight-year-old white girl decked out in double-chins and a rainbow colored handkerchief tied over her head, accompanied by a bear-shaped stuffed animal and a pear-shaped mother. The bear has more personality than the mother. The mother has more personality than sand. She’s white noise. A background character, straight out of central casting.
“Um, hi, is this First Class?” spouts the girl to those of us already seated. “Because we’re supposed to be in First Class.” The head flight attendant, full of home-spun Atlanta-based aw-shucks warmth, expecting a standard-issue little-girl experience, zooms up and says “Well yes it is, sweetheart! This is First Class, and I bet you and your momma are supposed to sit right here in these two front seats right here!”
“Mommy! I was right! This is First Class! I get the window,” she said. Yelled — she yelled. “Thank you SO much!” she yelled to the flight attendant. “That’s all right, darlin’,” said the FA, beginning to suspect she had a live one on her hands. The girl climbed over her mother to stand in the aisle to address those assembled.
“Excuse me,” yelled she, “can I ask you all to close your windows? Because I have very sensitive eyes.” Two, maybe three of Those Assembled fell in line, all wearing a collective expression that might be interpreted to say “you’re kind of a pain in the ass, aren’t you, dear. How much longer do you plan to suck?”
All was back to normal for a while, as we taxied out to the runway. “Okay, Mommy, we’re just about ready to take off! We’re just about ready to take off!!” The mother, best described with words like “spineless” and “mousey” and “gelatinous,” smiled wordlessly into the bulkhead. “BYE, CALIFORNIA! DON’T EVER CHANGE,” screamed the little nightmare. “MOMMY! MOM! ‘BYE, CALIFORNIA!! DON’T EVER CHANGE!!’ MOM!! ‘BYE, CALIFORNIA!!’” Mommy finally leaned in and whispered something quickly, ending the tirade. The girl made an over-exaggerated clownish frowny face, to emphasize how sad she was, then was up on her knees on the seat to display her frowny face to the rest of the cabin, at the same time providing an opportunity to quickly determine that nothing akin to Downs Syndrome was at play here. This isn’t a little handicapped victim. This is a coddled and indulged little fat girl who’s never been told “no,” at least not by Mommy.
We accelerated down the runway, the plane gathering speed as the girl gathered air. “WHEEE!” cried Satan’s mouthpiece. “HERE WE GO, MOMMY! WE’RE TAKING OFF!” The flight attendant got up long enough to insist that the girl sit properly and buckle up, a point that had eluded the mother. Another silent, exaggerated frowny face.
“I’M GOING TO JOURNAL ABOUT MY TRIP TO CALIFORNIA,” she told her mother, and when I say “her mother” I mean “the entire cabin.” My cabin mates began to realize that this might last a while. I began to realize that the little twat would plug a hole just about the size of an airplane window, and began, as we reached altitude, to have what can probably best be described as “decompression fantasies” with Prudence playing her final part as the carcass that saves us all but gives up the ghost in the process.
No need. Not so far, anyway, as darkness descends over New Mexico and Prudence spreads completely across her mother’s lap, sleeping.
My mom lived in Manhattan from 1958 through 1960, and shared an apartment on 89th Street they’d sublet from a divorcée who just wanted to be rid of the place, rid of the city. All of the furniture and utensils were included, if they’d just take it off the lady’s hands. Through my childhood I’d hear about this chair or that spatula that came “from the apartment in New York.” So many TV sitcoms were set in New York, or a nameless city just like it. So many movies. Books. Stories. And Mom, and this chair, and that spatula. A white suburban schlub in Madison, Wisconsin, I was fascinated.
At least once a year, in the ’60s and ’70s, we would travel back to spend time with Mom’s family in Virginia, either in Richmond or Virginia Beach. Winters we’d fly, summers we’d drive. Most of the Interstate system was built by then, but the three-numbered bypass circles were still going in, pillars rising into the sky, ready to hold access ramps and receive connectors from one highway to another. “Look, boys!” Mom would say. “Look what we can do!” The wonder an appreciation for building and technology — what we can do — has never left. We would drive for two days, through different states in the Midwest and then the East. Just past Youngstown, Ohio, there was an old original Interstate sign with two directional arrows. One would point to “Penna.,” the other to “New York City.” The state of Pennsylvania this way, the City of New York that way. “Let’s go!” I’d say. But we never went. That fascinating city, a place Mom could show us around like a pro, seemed just a few exits away, but we never went that way. Years later I realized that, by then, it was the mid-’70s. No wonder we took the other way and never looked back. New York City was a cesspool.
My grandparents would often take Mom and her sister up to New York from Richmond by train when they were girls in the ’40s. They’d stay at the Warwick at 54th and 6th, they’d dine out, they’d shop. Basically, in the ’40s ad ’50s, they knew New York at it’s best; it’s apotheosis. When Mom left in 1960 to get married, the City was just about to start its slide into the worst of what it became in 1975, although few realized it yet. “Ford To City: Drop Dead!” was what New York had become by the time I was old enough to feel its magnet.
We flew to Washington in 1976 for the Bicentennial that summer. I remember the pilot came on and said that, for air traffic reasons, we’d fly due east over the Atlantic, then circle back and land at National. As we begin our slow descent and head out over the ocean, those passengers seated on the right side of the plane will be interested to see New York City as we pass the coast. I was! I did! I saw New York in the flesh, from the safety of a 727 thirty thousand feet up, and I was pumped. Nobody else seemed to care, but I was pressed up against the window, my eyes fixed on the twin towers of the World Trade Center until it passed away out of site. Mom and her mother had had a conversation a few years earlier about “what they’re building up in New York,” those two hideous upended boxes that everybody hated, and then everybody loved, and then everybody worshipped. In ’76, they were really the only aspect of New York I could recognize, the bay, rivers, and the island just incidental around them. We saw DC, the Smithsonian, the Capital, the White House, the whole pre-Metro shebang and we loved it, but I always remembered that trip as also the first time I actually saw New York. I didn’t know what I was looking at, really, but I new it was awesome.
Ten more years went by, until just out of college in the summer of 1986, a friend and I loaded up my four-door ’82 Chevy Chevette — certifiably never the vehicle you picture when you think of the Great American Roadtrip — and pilgrimed East, to see my family in Virginia, and to visit his cousin at NYU in lower Manhattan. I was twenty-three, old enough to take care of myself no matter what the City had to offer, but New York was already entering its true modern renaissance (some would say its forced sterilization). Brooklyn’s burning brownstones were gone, the graffiti’ed trains were being cleaned up, the City was beginning to gleam in ways that soon nobody would ever have imagined.
No matter how you come to New York, you always see it grow in front of you long before you get there. In fact, by the time you get there you can’t really see it anymore, either underground in a train, stuck away at an airport, or just perspective-shifted by its enormity from its streets. We’d spent the trip so far camping in the Poconos and drinking oceans of Miller, and now here we were entering the vortex around Teterboro, New Jersey, pulling us into New York, the Manhattan skyline firmly risen in the windshield. The country that weekend was all abuzz over something called Hands Across America, where people all over the nation were to join hands at one time and form an actual human chain from one coast across to the other one. Here I was, listening to it on the radio (a little disdainfully, even then) and crossing the country in my own way, to the mother of all cities, hands unencumbered and excited as a Christmas kid.
I should be strung up for making this analogy, but I’ll make it anyway. When I lived in Minneapolis and people everywhere were strangely excited in the same way about coming to see the Mall of America (Hugedale, we called it), virtually everyone realized after a short time that, after all, it was just a mall. A huge mall, with a flume and a rolley-coaster in the middle, but a Gap- and Abercrombie-saturated shopping mall nonetheless. Upon crossing the GWB and tumbling onto the FDR down the east side of Manhattan, New York City cast a similar pall for a bit: It’s a city. A really big city.
The NYU dorms we were looking for were down on 24th Street, but you couldn’t get to 24th Street from the FDR (still can’t). We drove around trying to figure our way, and when we stopped at a light the now-infamous groups of windshield washers would run up and clean the glass. “No thanks,” we’d shout, rolling up the windows and convinced something bad was about to happen.
But nothing bad did happen. Not in New York, not then, and not since. New York turned out to be wonderful. In the intervening years I’ve found a real polarization in how Americans especially hold New York: We either love it or hate it. We’re intimidated by it or we embrace it. We see the excitement and the possibilities, or we see the otherness and the we distrust it. It’s true what people say: There’s an energy to the City. Not just in the people there, but in everything. Truly, it’s like a current, an actual electrical presence, and depending on how you perceive this thrum — if you perceive it at all — it can make New York a thrill to be a part of or it can push you away. I can’t imagine not being thrilled by it.
My friend’s cousin took us in, put us up, showed us around. I’ve since returned the favor many times, but we had no idea how fortunate we were. There’s nothing like being taken around New York by somebody who actually knows the city. We walked everywhere. Everything was new, everything was First Time. The lions in front of the library. The statue in the bay. The skyscrapers. Bagels, hot dogs, paper-cup coffee (long before Starbucks), people everywhere. The ’80s were in full bloom, the geometric clothes, the geometric hair. CBGBs. Even though Manhattan’s renaissance was already gathering steam, a great deal of the battered, shuttered city still showed up everywhere. Times Square was still a dark place, the XXX theaters and hookers and dealers still in plain view.
I’ve been doing a lot of flying — in airplanes — recently, and whenever I fly, I think. Flying time is great thinking time. It’s always been that way. Not only do I still find air travel as fascinating and enjoyable (for the most part) as I did as a kid, I’ve always enjoyed that particular sensation of actually leaving the Earth, of suspending regular life for a time, of reducing everything I know into tiny, manageable little patches, scrutinized as randomly as I please from a wholly renewed perspective. (Aisle seat?? No thanks.)
As a photographer I’ve been working with a lot of athletes, both baseball and physique athletes lately. Among that lofty crowd, in person and on the endlessly-tended Instagram and Facebook feeds, one finds a great deal of inspirational quotes. Whether intended to inspire themselves, inspire their followers, or just inspire a big package of good-natured “Likes,” such words are everywhere there. “Never stop, never give up.” “You are what you make yourself.” “I succeed because I am willing to do things others are not.” A big one is “Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.” Many such truisms are indeed inspirational, and still more are intended to prove that the athlete has what it takes to succeed where others will fail. (I’ve always maintained that it’s important for one to succeed but none of one’s business if another one fails, yet that sort of measured thinking often gets lost among the shouts.) For some reason, I’ve seen one statement repeated in one form or another, across industries, across platforms: “I am the master of my own destiny!”
As a half-century man, my first impulse is to agree, and whole-heartedly. Such perspective, if truly believed and truly lived, is invaluable, hard-won, and often a lesson missed by those around us. We are fortunate to have come by that assertion honestly, through trial and tribulation, from lessons learned and failures endured. “I am the master of my own destiny!” is one of those truisms I also find to be true, but flying back to Atlanta the other day, I began to wonder, “Am I?”
I have stated often, and will again, that I’ve found my forties and now fifties to be the best possible age to have achieved, and suspect that I’ll look back on them as a golden age. All of the things that used to frighten us as young adults drop away, if we’ve been fortunate enough to have paid attention and learned along the way. If we’ve been blessed with the drive and frame of mind to take risks in life, we’ve learned that we may fail, but more than likely with an open mind and determination, we will succeed. We’ve learned that if we do fail, it never was and never will be the end of the world, and so we’ve learned to pick ourselves up, stop worrying about how many people may have seen us stumble, and move on, stronger in the rising.
Ultimately, we’ve learned that there’s nothing we can’t try, nothing too frightening or too daunting to risk trying. We’ve learned to rely on ourselves, we’ve learned to rid ourselves of the negative people and negative voices in our lives (or at least manage them), and we’ve learned that we’ll probably succeed, because we’ve learned to trust ourselves. We know that if we don’t succeed, we’ve learned to love ourselves enough to recover without collapsing into inertia, without giving in to fear and shame. “Failure Is Not An Option” makes for a great t-shirt, but I’ve never found it to be anything but empty bluster. Of course failure is an option. Not an option we seek after eagerly, but entirely possible nonetheless. It’s how we learn to deal with failure that betters us as bona fide grown-ups, I think.
Another way of saying all of this might be to say we’ve learned to navigate. We’ve learned a great deal about how to get around successfully on this once-intimidating planet. We’ve learned to retain the wonder and jettison the fear, and yet we’re young enough to keep enjoying the ride, keep steering past obstacles, keep looking forward to what’s coming next. But we’re not the master of What Comes Next.
Regardless of one’s spirituality — one’s faith — we’re also wise in having learned that quite often, if not virtually always, we’re not ever completely in control. Along our way we can’t command what’s over the horizon, can’t direct the wind, can’t always calm the ocean. Whether we learned this as young people (lucky!), through trial and error, in a twelve-step program or in whatever our temples of worship may have turned out to be, it’s just as much a blessing to have learned that, too: We’re the able captains of our own ship, but we’re not the master of the world; we’re not the masters of our own destiny.
A younger version of myself would have slapped my lips off, had he ever known I would come to this way of thinking, but it strikes me as plainly evident, and in no way as a negative. Perpetuating the vessel-on-the-ocean analogy, imagine knowing as our younger selves that we would one day learn to stay above-decks no matter what we’re enduring, learn to analyze what’s going on around us and make decisions in the blink of an eye that we can stand by, that we’ve learned to trust ourselves to be out there in the middle of the ocean no matter how far away from shore, from others. It’s just us and What’s Coming Next.
If you’ve come to a certain Faith along your own journey, that’s fine. That helps you, you’ve learned to trust it. Cleave to it and pay attention to it. Don’t dare foist it on anyone else, because the nature of your Faith is just that: Your Faith.
So no, I don’t think we’re the Masters Of Our Own Destiny. We’re the Captains Of Our Own Ship, moving onward to our destiny as wisely and as confidently as we can.
Just got back from a last foray into Lower Manhattan. It’s so otherworldly down there, a classic case of “life imitating art.” I think it would be the more beautiful if it weren’t so tragic, or at least so emblematic of tragedy.
I’ve been down there the last three nights, taking a different route each time. Never, have I seen so many stars in the New York sky. Each time the dead traffic signals begin around 33rd Street or so, until you realize the Avenues are still lit but the cross streets are wholly dark, both street and building. At first it’s odd to find yourself among others who automatically stop at crossing signals (if anyone in NY ever actually stops for them) that are cold dead. Down to 23rd Street there is intermittent light, but below that the whole area is dark, dark, dark. Yet everywhere – everywhere, without exception – there are people. Sometimes it’s an individual approaching and passing you by, other times it’s a group of people at a dark corner.
The first night after the hurricane, Tuesday night, cars were still allowed on the road unqualified, and the cars combined with the taxis and the squad cars made for ridiculous road traffic, the headlights the only source of light. Restaurants and delis had their doors and windows open and were selling their food on the street, for reduced prices or for free, trying to get rid of it that first 24 hours before it started to go bad. As I sank below 14th Street, two separate groups approached me and asked me if I was “from the light,” which added to the sci-fi movie feeling. “When does the light begin,” asked another, people floating up to where they’d heard there was still power. I was repeatedly struck by the feeling that I was sinking underwater, in a sense, the further down Manhattan I walked. The light from “above” faded quickly, and there was no moon that first night. People were illuminated either by their cell phones or by little LED flashlights, which appeared for all the world like those impossibly deep and invisible sea creatures who carry their own small, eerie light source with them, surrounded by black.I had stopped to help as a volunteer in Union Square at first, but after the first hour I broke away and explored the dark on my own. Here traffic thinned on the Avenues, and on the cross streets there were blocks with no street traffic at all, each with the occasional quiet pedestrian or group, making their way some place or another. Each night – even last night, Halloween – I noticed how quiet it was. No reveling, no screaming punks, no shouting across the streets. It was just the entire of Lower Manhattan, walking slowly and talking quietly among themselves.The smell was continual, and it wasn’t bad, at least not at that point. There was the smell of the earth and of earthworms, of boxwood and of the occasional fireplace fire from some of the older buildings and restaurants, and the almost out-of-place smell of freshly-split wood, coming from fallen limbs and downed branches everywhere. I had the sense that I had really moved back in time, trite as it sounds, and that I was standing on the very streets of Manhattan in 1912, or in 1882, or such. There was the utter nighttime darkness, the quiet foot traffic in front of brownstones on the street, and the flickering of candlelight, be it directly in the windows or deep inside the rooms, emanating orange and dim. All that was really missing was the sound of horses’ hooves on cobblestone and the illusion would have been complete. Floating on my lips was the quiet phrase that I later heard coming from so many mouths, quietly: “So weird.”
I made my way over to the Lower East Side to check on the relative of a friend, and by then the loss of power must have been affecting cell tower or repeaters, because phone service was nonexistent. Also, normally anywhere in New York, when you browse for nearby Wi-Fi networks you get a long list, but now there were none at all. It was the same everywhere, east side and west. A few hours later I decided to head back up into the light, but I went back last night with a camera. I had no tripod, so I was reduced to using the pointed tips of wrought-iron fence posts, parked cars, bicycles or garbage cans, or sometimes trying to stand impossibly still for the exposure, but I was never really able to get a proper nighttime shot of the dead landmarks normally blazing with light. One of my favorite buildings in New York is the Met Life tower, an enormous stone building with a huge clock on each face standing at 23rd and Lex, and is normally almost blinding in the night sky over Madison Square Park, shining bone-white in the night. It’s a ghost in the darkness now, lit last night at least by the waning moon above. I went back briefly again tonight, ostensibly my last night in New York, just to experience it again.
But I and so many others up here are so fortunate not to have lost more than some time to Sandy and her aftermath. I’ve met many people up here who have simply checked in to a hotel as a group, briefly, to shower and charge their phones, or to come to their Midtown offices to work before going home to the dark. They’re scared. The first night held an excitement and a relief that physical damage in Manhattan wasn’t any worse, and a sense that we had all experienced something historic together. Last night was Halloween, and the first break in the clouds. By tonight, the novelty is beginning to wear off. I’ll be glad finally to get on a plane tomorrow, and to wonder from the sky how long it’ll take before anything like normal returns here.