1.25.2005

Eulogy

THREE SCENES WITH BEN STERN

By Erica Smith


One

On our third date Ben Stern took me out on the pier. It was a hot night but clear. The George Washington Bridge was sparkling to the north. Jersey was dark in places, lit up in others. The cliffs across the river looked very dark and very tall.

He pointed to different places across the river. That spot had been utterly contaminated, bought for a song, and redeveloped, and is now worth millions. Up there is where the Ramapo Mountain People live. Had I heard of them? I hadn’t, but now I understand: you don’t necessarily notice them, but once you recognize them, they’re everywhere.

He told me his office friends were intrigued by our romance. But they teased him, “yes, but does she know what’s wrong with you?” My eyebrows went up.

Quickly making a guess in my own head, I ventured that maybe Ben knew too much. Every building fa├žade, cobblestone path, and traffic circle has a story, and he seemed to know them all. How could I possibly keep up?

I decided I liked how he could see things come alive that I took for granted: a piece of skyline, a car engine, a railroad tie.

Well, I thought. I could use a good challenge.


Two

When Ben Stern started coming over to my apartment, he would inevitably gravitate toward the television and start tinkering. It was a small TV and I didn’t have cable, just bunny ears. I never turned the thing on anyway.

One evening Ben showed up at my door with a large loop of cable under his arm.

He took the cable and crawled under my desk. He screwed the cable into the box for my cable modem. Then he unraveled the thing across my living room and screwed it into the television. Presto: we got basic channels. We watched Saturday Night Live, giggled, and had snacks.

This process was intriguing to me, but very messy, with a thick wire snaking across my living room floor, and nests of cable here and there. It settled into a pattern: As soon as Ben would go home I would unscrew everything and scoot the wire under my TV stand. And when he would return, we’d plug everything back in again, and we would both solemnly vow to drill holes in the wall and run that cable properly.

Friday night he must have had enough of this process, for he showed up with a deck of cards.

“Do you know Rummy 500?”

“I’ve forgotten it.”

“It’s fun.” He cut the cards, shuffled, and cut again. He had already printed out instructions and read them to me.

As we played, he told me how his grandparents had been crazy for canasta.

“Are you sure you want to lay that card down?” he said after I laid a card down. He pointed to his cards. I saw a strategy I had missed.

“Uh-oh,” I said.

“You can take it back.”

“No.”

“It’s not too late.”

“Look, I blew it, let me blow it.”

“It’s really not too late.”

“Fine.” I took the card back.

It happened again 20 minutes later.

“You sure you want to do that?”

“WHAT NOW?”

He nodded toward a card.

“I made the bad move, let me make it.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Let me blow it.”

“Come on.”

Finally, he let me make the bad move. Then he showed me what to do so it wouldn’t ever have to happen again.



Three

We were both so excited that the blizzard was coming. As people who were not especially religious, we had found our mutual day of celebration.

It was past midnight. We had watched “Sex and the City” (my choice) and “Victory By Design,” tonight on the subject of Porsche. ( . . . His choice.)

Saturday Night Live was winding down. I was getting ready to cozy up with a blanky.

Ben turned to me, smiling. “So? You ready to go out?”

“Um . . .”

“Come on!”

We bundled up with sweaters and hats and coats and hoods and socks and boots and gloves and made our way downstairs into the snowy cold street.

It was cold but the wind was not so bad. It was snowing, but not hard, not stinging. We crossed the street toward the river. The snow was well traveled but I liked stepping in the big footprints he made.

When we started going down the ramp to the pier, he would turn around every few paces and check on me or take my hand. If we had to go down a step, he would go first and then extend his hand back to me.

When we got down to the pier, the wind was blowing over the snow so it looked untouched. Chunks of ice floated in the Hudson. The sky looked dark pink and reflected dark pink in the water. I saw what looked like a group of supports in the water. Remnants of a pier? They were markers for the shallow water, he said.

I looked across to Jersey, where it was dark with an occasional sparkle. The bridge was lit. It was completely quiet except for the wind.

It occurred to me that this might be one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

1.20.2005

Barefoot On My Ass

Someone left a bunch of unopened VHS tapes in the basement as freebies/trash. I abducted a few of them and started watching last night. I started with this one, hoping for a little lighthearted mental foxtrot. But I found it depressing and wanted to beat both characters with a stick. Insight, anyone?

1.18.2005

THE ALIEN OCTOPUS HAS LANDED!

Thanks to the lovely and talented Allison Ramen, we have documented my encounter with the alien octopus. Isn't it a Federal offense to degrade post office boxes?

Feedback

Feedback can be described as the delivery of criticism tempered with praise, most often couched in good manners. Another kind of feedback can be described as the amplified signal from speakers or monitors being picked up again by microphones and then being re-amplified, causing unpleasant squealing, screeching, or ringing. Although these 2 kinds of feedback are quite different in nature, their effects are most often the same.

It has come to my attention as of late that there are times when I'm not hitting the mark musically. Of course, one is always one's own worst critic. But there is safety in keeping that shame a secret, and hoping that no one else notices -- or at the very least, hoping that the compassion of others will help bridge the gap between one's aspirations and reality. But when the voice inside one's head is heard on the outside, too, it takes on a new, horrible visage.

It's shocking to me how certain tasks have the ability to translate the crux of your inner life so accurately and broadcast them out to the world. Boxing is such. Are you distracted? Hiding behind your defenses? Overly aggressive? Do you think too much? Pow, pow, pow. Same with knitting: if you're too wound up inside, you end up making a row full of knots. And so it is with music.

However, unlike boxing or knitting -- tasks that were effectively thrust upon me aganst my will, yet have taken on a certain charm over time -- music is my natural path. It's my joy and pain and the metaphor for everything. Despite such lofty declarations, though, it's also just another kind of work, and work requires work. You can't have a dog and expect that because you love it so much, it will know how to behave. It has to be trained.

So off I go to puppy school.

Woof.

1.05.2005

I'm crushed. I just heard from a reliable source that my ten-year crush is now married with a child! It's just as well: If I ever had the opportunity to hug him, I would likely crush him.