Category Archives: Life in New Jersey

Where Rabid Bobcats Roam

On the shuttle ride from Sedona to the airport in Phoenix, our driver shared with us the following:

— A rabid bobcat attacked a waiter in Sedona who was putting out the trash.

— How Arizona towns along the highway got their names: Bloody Basin; Big Bug Basin, Bumble Bee near Bumble Bee Creek, and the delightful Deadman Wash. As you can imagine, the town names came from bloody exchanges between white settlers and American Indians, between white settlers and deadly insects, and between white settlers who discovered other dead white settlers. You have to wonder if white settlers had stayed home, what the signs would say today—or if there would be any signs at all.


As he relayed these stories, an almost-full moon was peering from between the giant red rocks, those sentinels of mysticism that drew a couple all the way from Romania. They sat in front of us on the shuttle, on their way to catch a flight to London that night. Even in 2017, despite crystal shops and taquerias and psychics, the outskirts of Sedona—and the extraterrestrial landscape that is Arizona—still appear wild, and somewhat still dangerous. I have an insect allergy (hornets and wasp stings might kill me, though oddly, not bees), and wouldn’t dream of hiking anywhere in Arizona without my EpiPen in my back pocket, ready to draw like a 9 mm, which are aplenty in Arizona—an open-carry state. Not that guns keep you safe from everything in Arizona; there are towns named after folks attacked by bees, red ants, and other things that crawled. Even if you don’t have an allergy to anything, perhaps everyone should travel around Arizona with an EpiPen; the state’s legends alone made my antibodies flare up.

Still, I was safe in an enclosed shuttle where the windows were up and the air conditioner was on, even though it was February, about 60 degrees out, and I would’ve enjoyed an open-window ride despite the risks of bugs nearby. And I enjoyed the driver’s stories. All the passengers did. Including myself, there were four New Yorkers and two Romanians. A self-identified Brooklyn Jew who was in his sixties and worked as a commodities trader sat in the front seat next to the driver, and when the driver wasn’t sharing Arizona lore, the guy from Brooklyn was talking about himself. Because that’s what sixty-something guys from Brooklyn do, go on about how New Yorkers are “the strongest people in America,” though given what Arizona residents endured and live with, I beg to differ. My guess is Texans are pretty tough, too. And Alaskans. They are bad asses up there.

Suburban New Jersey doesn’t have stories like these. I live perhaps 500 feet from the British-Hessian Invasion Route trail, a path marched in 1776, so as you can see, it’s been a long time since shit went down in my ‘hood. More recently, black bears showed up hungry, suburbanites freaked out. The black bears don’t even get a chance to go rabid and taunt a waiter (or bite people). The very idea of black bears wandering about keeps the annual New Jersey Black Bear Hunt legit, some bullshit about keeping black bear numbers in check. Just another blemish on a state that lost any sense of conservation long before I reluctantly unpacked my bags here. Drive to Atlantic City or any spot along the Jersey Shore and you’ll see what I mean; every inch of road leading up to the beach has been commercialized with billboard after billboard; it takes forever to get a clear view of the ocean without something getting in your face to tell you to buy something. It doesn’t have to be this way; in Vermont, billboards are banned so as not to obstruct the lovely view. This has been the case since 1968. Only three other states do this: Hawaii, Alaska, and Maine, three states home to lovely views. New Jersey decided differently, going after commercial potential, as New Jersey does. As for Arizona, I saw a few billboards along the highway, but not as many as I see en route to the Jersey Shore. It’s as if Arizona businesses decided not to compete with the landscape because when towns are named “Deadman Wash” you know who’s going to lose.

I spent a week in Arizona earlier this month. The sunlight and lack of New Yorkers (until the shuttle ride), and the fact that New Jersey was 2,000 miles away were all very rejuvenating. Living here depletes me. We settled in a region we didn’t know to be a part of a blue ribbon school district and close to good jobs. During my 6 1/2 years in this snobby suburb, and my 13 years total in Bergen County, New Jersey, I have grown to detest this state the way I detest Donald Trump, who built up his name in the sandy cesspool that is Atlantic City. Both share a phoniness and materialism. I now try to arrange my days so I interact with New Jersey as little as possible: the traffic, the accents, the entitlement. Yes, those things exist outside of New Jersey, too, but here, those things are an inescapable rash, and I’ve tried every imaginable balm I could think of: getting involved, not getting involved, yoga, meditation, taking trips, staycationing, reading books, making friends, distancing myself from people. Living here is a constant state of coping.

If you read any of my earlier posts, like the ones written during my first year or two here when I thought New Jersey would just be another pit stop, I sound more like an anthropological observer than a resident. Six years in, we bought a house in a leafy burb (yes, they are always leafy—such towns take great pride in their trees) thinking quiet suburban living and great schools were simply the next phase of life, like getting your period or your losing your virginity, a milestone to get through. Honestly, we weren’t thinking of what we wanted in a community, but the education opportunities for our daughter. I had never lived in a suburb before—only farm towns and big cities prior—and genuinely thought “How bad can it be?”

I learned. Quickly.

There’s a discipline called environmental psychology, and as of late, I have felt like a subject in an environmental psychology experiment. Some grad student thinking he or she has a meaty research project is looking down on me thinking “How long will my mouse last in this maze? What if I build another Whole Foods? Will that distract her from her goal of getting out?” The term environmental psychology is self-explanatory—naturally, we are all shaped by our environments. But what happens when you try to fight against your environment? Or try to shut it out? Or try to pretend it’s not as bad as you think? Or try to find different environments to escape to periodically so you can enjoy a reprieve? And how long can you keep this up?

New Jersey is a soft place for soft people who don’t want their views challenged and who love to discuss retail opportunities. Consumerism is a competitive sport here, so I see where the New Netherland name comes from. When I first moved here, I thought jokes about New Jersey were unfair, just Manhattan elitism that people echoed to sound smart and otherize others. Now, I say joke all you want about New Jersey, for it’s likely true. There is judgmentalism everywhere in the world, but if there were a Judgmentalism Olympics, I would put my meager freelance writer’s earnings on the suburban moms who are my neighbors. They would kick ass, and walk away with all the gold medals. These women have an opinion on *everyone* especially people they don’t know very well. These opinions tend to come out after a few glasses of wine, or sometimes they are bandied about in school parking lots. Apparently, if you have a master’s degree, a house worth at least $600,000 (and that’s on the cheaper end), and drive a Honda Odyssey or Sienna, then you know things, the kind of things you can’t dig up at the town library. And these things tend to spill out when the booze flows. (I’m a lightweight, and actually not really all that interested in alcohol. I’ve learned I don’t need it to be interesting.)

Which is why as we were heading south on Interstate 17, with the Tonto National Forest on my left, and hints of the Prescott National Forest to my right, where rocks are so big that they have names, where stars—even the Milky Way—are actually visible in the night sky, I felt jealous of the white settlers who came this way. Yes, they faced infection, illness, starvation, wild animals, American Indians, or simply being lost in a place that was too vast, too lacking in borders to be real. I envied the singularity of their journeys, the uncertainty of their possibilities. For here, back in the Northeast, amidst all this 21st century affluenza, when you have everything, there’s apparently nothing left to do but to strive to keep everything and pass judgment on those who don’t have what you have. Maybe this is what Scottsdale, Arizona, is like today, I do not know. But I would have loved to have walked around one of those Arizona ghost towns with the unfortunate names, listen to the breeze move through dilapidated buildings, think about what people were trying to forge then, what they were risking, and why.

A Short Meditation on New York City Dog Pee

New York City smells of dog pee. This is a cyclical event and very similar to the time when it’s ok for women to wear white pants, usually beginning around the Fourth of July festivities and wrapping up around Labor Day weekend. Everyone who lives and works in this area knows this. There are who-knows-how-many-dogs being walked across the Big Apple at this very moment, pissing everywhere, not caring whether it’s Fifth Avenue or some unlit corner in Alphabet City. And while dutiful dog owners have their little plastic baggies in hand, ready to swoop and scoop poop, there’s nothing anyone can do about dog pee. Even long after hot city sidewalks soak it up, the heat hits—and it hits hard—followed by the stickiest humidity the Northeast can deliver, and before you know it, you can’t smell anything but dog pee even if you’re back home in your own house, your own yard, feeding backyard chickens.

Anyone who can afford to leave New York City during peak summer months goes somewhere else. They go to the Hamptons or Fire Island or the Jersey Shore, where a third of the male population is named Anthony. We go to California.

Is the dog pee smell really that bad, you ask, that you have to go 2,700 miles west just to escape it? I think we lose the dog pee smell by the time we drive over the George Washington Bridge, but really, the yearly summertime schlepping to California goes beyond getting away from too much urine, not feeling safe wearing flip-flops around the city, or seeing too many people wearing black even when it’s 90 degrees out. Perhaps it’s more about what we want rather than what we don’t want, that coveted California lifestyle, the freedom to wear flip-flops anywhere as Californians do, the predictability of knowing it will be sunny just about every day, where avocados are priced at seven for a dollar and are so plentiful, Los Angeles bartenders mix avocado cocktails and guys in aprons scoop avocado ice cream.

Next month, for two weeks, I get to pretend I’m a Californian. I’m stupidly excited about this. I’ll be in San Francisco buying groceries, taking the BART, eating sushi here more than once because it will be near my apartment, perusing the shelves at City Lights, ignoring shuttle buses teeming with Google or Facebook employees. Yeah, I’ve been reading about how San Francisco is changing. Money has a tendency to ruin things: relationships, childhoods, cities. Since my 20s, I had a thing about living in San Francisco, and then the job opportunities brought us to Seattle, then to Washington, D.C., then to New York. To know a city deeply, you need to know its smells. Seattle always smelled of fish and coffee to me, which isn’t that bad as far as urban scents go. D.C. always smelled of dry-cleaning and power. Really. Power has a smell. It’s very musky. In a few weeks, I will have the chance to figure out San Francisco’s smells. I’m hoping it’s baked sour dough, although that could just be optimism talking. Maybe after all these years, I dodged a bullet. Maybe there’s a San Francisco smell and Mark Zuckerberg is financing the cleanup right now. I haven’t been to San Francisco since 2012 when I froze my butt off one late-August day, but perhaps the city has gotten too classy for me and lingering smells of any kind just aren’t tolerated anymore.

It’s just as well. I find myself more drawn to SoCal dreaminess anyway. My eyes have shifted to Los Angeles, which, like New York, is a place where a crappy coffee shop can peacefully coexist with an amazing coffee shop, where the mediocre and the really effing-awesome can be found on the same street, just perhaps with less dog pee in L.A. I haven’t quite figured out L.A.’s smells yet (feel free to enlighten me), but I’ve always liked its energy. New York City is the wrong kind of kineticism, there’s a stress addiction here I find exhausting. When you stack eight million people on top of one another, things get tense, which leads to pet therapy to alleviate stress, which leads to dogs being walked and peeing everywhere. Spread folks out on a beach like a blanket, surround them with salty sea air and mountains, and, well, maybe things slow down a bit, long enough to enjoy a crappy cup of coffee or some avocado ice cream.

Burlington, Vermont, the Creative, Resourceful, Lumbersexual Capital of America

I’ve been married to a lumbersexual all these years and didn’t know it until we were walking around downtown Burlington, Vermont, and I lost count of the bearded, bespectacled, flannel-wearing fellas—some bearing ink, some not—crisscrossing our path. Mike was thrilled to know a look he’s been rocking for over two decades has finally become hip. He was home-brewing and coffee-snobbing and being particular about how the bacon was smoked and preferring higher-end flannel and a well-trimmed beard long before whippersnappers made it trendy.

And me? I’m donning my Iceland wool, my hand-knitted scarves, my black boots and feeling at home, too, even though there isn’t a name for whatever it is I am or am doing. I’m just walking around as the proud wife of a lumbersexual.

It’s nice to look around and see your tribe. Since moving to the New Jersey suburbs over 11 years ago, my husband and I have felt like fishes out of water. We live less than 10 miles from midtown Manhattan but it might as well be Antarctica or rural China. New Jersey has a reputation for over-development, bad driving, bad attitudes, killer pizza, and being home to Pharmaceutical Row. All of it is true. At the diner near our old apartment, we ate breakfast with the mob, old guys with Italian-American accents and pinky rings kissing each other on the cheek and talking about contracts. Back in the day, we used to see casting calls for extras in “The Sopranos” . To top it off, Manhattan’s competitive, helicopter versus free-range parenting styles have seeped into our community. No wonder Mike and I are viewed as the neighborhood hipsters; that’s not hard to do in our stuffy ‘burb.

Why rant about New Jersey? Because it explains what lures us to Vermont and why we keep schlepping up here, snow (which is what it is doing now), rain or shine.

A high population density of lumbersexuals aside, what draws us to Vermont is the state’s independent-thinking and commitment to local entrepreneurship. I know that might sound like marketing-speak, but dangnammit, it’s genuine marketing-speak. Where else can someone sew wool pillows, sell them for over a $150 a pop, and become so in-demand that your studio is by appointment only? Where else does someone take old cheese graters or rusty farm equipment from Virginia and make funky light fixtures? Where else are sap buckets reimagined into planters? Everything is reclaimed and repurposed, and it’s not a fringe movement, it’s mainstream business here.

Sap buckets
(Sap buckets as planters in the lobby of Hotel Vermont, which features Woolly Mama Fiber Arts pillows throughout the hotel as well as the work of many other local Vermont artisans.)

(Photo courtesy of Woolly Mama Fiber Arts)

And that’s just the stuff the Vermonters want you to buy. Switching gears to what they want you to eat, the grassroots philosophy continues. Agribusiness is big business, and although there are fewer than a thousand dairy farms in this state of 626,562 people, its output of artisanal cheeses is exemplary. Every cheese here comes with a story. Everything you eat here is farm-to-fork. Every menu seems to have a listing of local farms so that you can find out where your cow grazed before it was either squeezed or slaughtered. Even our Mexican takeout tonight from El Cortjo featured farm-to-table tacos where you get a listing of who made your cheese, your chicken, your vegetables, your cilantro! Is outsourcing illegal in Vermont or does it come with some steep penalties, either financial or shunning by neighbors? One wonders.

(Conant Metal & Light will take any scrap of anything and turn it into something illuminating and beautiful.)

To go back to New Jersey means greasy calzones, cream cheese for bagels made from who knows where, or, my favorite, “farm fresh” eggs that look and taste like grocery store eggs because the chickens are fed the same cheap bulk feed instead of being able to run loose and scoop up backyard worms or eat table scraps like our chickens did back in Taos, New Mexico (I’ve got a thing about chickens I’ll go into another time). Though running loose in New Jersey, no matter what species you are, comes with its own risks, so maybe Jersey chickens prefer the coop.

We feel at home here in Vermont (and we were married here) even though our home is about 250 miles south. We don’t abandon it all to raise chickens and sew wool pillows—as nice as that sounds—because although we’re both dreamers, Mike has a sweet corporate gig that honestly, in this economy, you hold on to until someone from HR says otherwise. So we stay. Because it’s good for the long-term. It’s good for our kid. We’ll cash out and join the lumbersexual masses eventually. We know where to find them.

Downtown, Uptown and All Around

I spent a hot, sticky day in Manhattan yesterday covering a lot of ground, both above sea level and below. The adventures began with a 55 mph drive south on the Henry Hudson Highway in my 2002 beat up Honda Accord. During the ride in, I notice the Hudson River looks steamy. When you can’t quite tell what color the river water is, then you know you’re in for a rough, hot, gross afternoon.

10:52 am – I park the car at a garage near 5th Avenue and 29th Street and grab my papers for an 11 am meeting. The garage attendant comments that the new Honda Accord is out, and asks me if I want to sell my car. I say I’m not selling and make a mental note to check under the hood when I return to ensure the engine and supporting parts are right where I left them.

10:58 am – Waiting for the elevator in one of those classic turn-of-the-century buildings on Seventh Avenue. Love that old New York City is still a vibrant part of new New York City. I live in the ‘burbs where nothing is past three stories high, so it’s been ages since I rode an elevator. I am oddly excited for the ride. As I wait for the elevator, I grab a shot of the ceiling. My ceilings at home are cracked and need repair. If this was what I walked into every morning, I’d be bursting with motivation and giddy with creativity.

11:31 am – Meeting is over, back in the beautiful lobby with the beautiful ceiling, and I need to figure out the subway system to meet a colleague for lunch. It costs $2.50 for a single ride uptown, so the car gets to hang out downtown while I venture north for an afternoon bite. I’m near Herald Square (the Empire State Building serves as my North Star informing me which way to go) so I make my way to Penn Station and grab the C train to Times Square.

11:46 am – Penn Station. Suitcases on wheels criss cross the corridor. I dodge a baby stroller. Street musicians have taken the day off. Normally you hear music everywhere, but all I hear are announcements. The subway platform is hot. Everyone looks hot and miserable. I am feeling more appreciative for the green suburban life at the moment and am missing my town pool. I’m also wearing flip flops. I did this intentionally knowing the risks involved, but the fact is, I can move quickly in flip flops. I’m on high-alert for my feet touching fluids and solids that they shouldn’t; dog poo, other people’s spilled iced coffee, a scoop of ice cream falling off a kid’s cone. I am vulnerable. I remember in 1996 wearing open-toed shoes at the West 4th Street subway station. I was coming home from seeing “Rent” and a bum was peeing out in the open and, well, let’s just say despite my best efforts to sidestep him, I got some splash.

11:52 am – On the C train enjoying the air conditioning. Managed to grab a seat and as soon as the train lurches forward, a mariachi band arrives loudly singing what sounds like old love ballads from the Mother Land. Unfortunately, they appear to be performing before a rather jaded group. No one is offering a dollar bill or even a coin. I only have 20s on me, and I’m too sticky to feel that generous. The band moves on to the next car.

12:33 pm – I’m uptown at 77th Street and Lexington Avenue. It’s a quieter neighborhood than where I just came from. I don’t recognize anything nearby except a Starbucks. I wander to Third Avenue, find a nice looking restaurant called Atlantic Grill, text my colleague my location, and a few minutes later, we’re sitting down at a clean table, with a crisp, white, heavy linen tablecloth, and a guy with spiky hair is offering us passion fruit iced tea.

12:42 pm – It’s Restaurant Week in New York City! I’ve done everything from dives to Daniel, but I don’t think I’ve participated in Restaurant Week before. The guy with the spiky hair is eager to sell me on the prix fixe lunch menu, three courses for $24.07. This is normally what I would spend on dinner, not lunch, but it’s been a hot, sticky schlep, I’m in a nice restaurant and am feeling entitled. Sold. $24.07 for lunch it is! (Quick aside: had the sexiest cantaloupe gazpacho ever at Daniel. Dinner at Daniel cost more than the rent for my studio apartment, but Mike and I both felt the food lived up to the price.)

1:05 pm – Course one arrives. It’s a peach, watermelon, feta, greens and sunflower seed salad. It’s awesome and I wolf it down and eagerly await the main course, which are fish tacos. The mariachi band on the subway had put me in the mood for Mexican. I hadn’t enjoyed fish tacos since Isla Mujeres, Mexico. When my New York City tacos arrive, they’re gorgeously plated so I take a photo and then wolf those down, too.

Here I am eating fish tacos in Mexico in April 2011. These tacos did not cost $24.07, but were just as delicious.

2:11 pm – Oh my gosh, look at the time! I’m still a lady who lunches and my kid is going to be home from camp in two hours! I need to get downtown fast, grab the car, and then go drive back uptown and get across the Hudson River and back to New Jersey. We’re only talking about 10 miles here, from my car to my house, but if you live in the metropolitan New York area, you know getting from point A to B is always an odyssey. Sometimes the shorter distances take longer. I polish off lunch with pineapple sorbet, air-kiss my colleague goodbye, and hop the 6 train downtown.

2:34 pm – Waiting for my crosstown train at Grand Central Station. Sometimes going east or west across Manhattan is harder than going north or south. There is a family standing nearby looking at the tracks trying to spot a rat. They seem really excited about this. They are clearly tourists because they’re wearing T-shirts and shorts that look coordinated, white ankle socks and relatively clean sneakers, and fanny packs. The fanny packs really give them away, but overhearing their enthusiasm about spotting a real New York City subway rat that they’ve heard can rival the size of a raccoon really gives them away. I’m rooting for them. I hope they spot their fat rat. I look at the tracks; they’re surprisingly clean and there doesn’t appear to be anything for the rats to rummage through. The train arrives and the tourists board empty-handed. No rat shot on the iphone. When I sit down, I see a couple reading a DK Eyewitness New York City tour guide book, and I wonder if there’s anything in the book about New York City subway rats.

3:31 pm – Back at the garage. The same parking attendant is there and asks me three more times if I would ever consider selling my Honda. Do I really need to pop the hood and inspect, and even if some small part was missing, would I recognize what was gone? I tell him I’ll never change my mind, my car has been paid off since 2007, and I’ll be driving this metallic oragami of Japanese efficiency into the ground until my flip flops scrape pavement. But this is New York City and he doesn’t back off, so while he trails off with his question, I grab my keys, crank up the AC, and get into the vehicular scrum that is 29th Street. We’re all heading to the Lincoln Tunnel, unfortunately. It’s Friday afternoon on an insufferably humid day and everyone wants to be somewhere else. Some place greener, bluer, cooler.

4:37 pm – I’m stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel. Maybe stuck is the wrong word. Think optimistically. We inch along. It’s going to be a long ride home. I call my friend and ask if she can meet my kid after camp; I’m just not going to make it home in time for the camp bus. I’ll be lucky to make it back to New Jersey before the pool closes. I vow to not return to Manhattan until fall, when temperatures are below 80, when the leaves are red and gold, when the subways won’t feel like steam baths with strangers. That said, I made it out of New York City in flip flops, feet unscathed, and I can claim I enjoyed Restaurant Week.

6:45 pm – Epilogue. Just got home. Traffic stunk. Too tired for the town pool, and it closes soon anyway. Kid looks wilted from the heat, too. We eat ice cream for dinner and watch the Olympics.


Why has it been two months since my last post? Well, I haven’t gone anywhere beyond work, the grocery store, and Target. We just purchased a house this past summer so we could enroll our daughter in one of the top-ranking public school districts in the state. Ah, the sacrifices of parenthood. Going from an apartment to a house is quite amazing–we still have rooms we have no idea what to do with and we still have the habit of huddling together in the same room as we used to when we lived in only 900 square feet. So we have the space, but we still want to hang out. Either we’re that co-dependent or just truly enjoy one another’s company.

So while I haven’t boarded any planes, trains or automobiles to travel to someplace interesting, home ownership has proven to be its own kind of journey. We’ve been in our new house less than four months and I can report it’s like having another baby and trying to salvage a science experiment all at once. The house was built around 1926 and I was charmed the moment I saw it–it was old, quirky, and had withstood more than eight decades of ups and downs with a weathered gracefulness. During our two years of condo/house-hunting, this was the only place I visited where I walked around and immediately thought “I want to take care of this place.”

Well, taking care of it we are…and let me tell you, care requires money…lots and lots of money. I look at our bank account and think “Wow, we could be enjoying the Seychelles Islands right now.” Clearly, we’re not. We’re making trips to Home Depot and Ikea, we’ve got contractors traipsing through and squirrels running amok. We’ve discovered there’s no insulation along the wall in the room we chose to make the master bedroom (which might explain why the previous owner slept downstairs). I’m supposed to go tile shopping and I’m exchanging a sofa. I’ve got a main floor bathroom on the verge of collapse and bamboo growing wild in the backyard.

Oddly, there’s a great deal of satisfaction knowing that we own these problems. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be feeling very grateful that despite how much we now owe Wells Fargo, I am indeed queen of my own castle, and as long as Wells Fargo gets paid on time, I get to remain queen. The Seychelles aren’t going anywhere. And once the house gets a little TLC, we’ll be out and about again. We’re hopefully doing some skiing in the Catskills this winter and the Istanbul tickets are paid for, so that’s happening whether our house condones our vacation plans or not. Besides, the house knows we’ll come back from any vacation happy to be home.