living underground in the real world

meet gnome chomsky, the world’s largest garden gnome! plus: kids, brains, and friends

I just had a friend come for a visit. Despite the fact that the world started crumbling at an ever-faster rate in at least two ways in the middle of the visit, we had a really wonderful time. On the drive home from the train station I felt so pleased and filled up with friend love – so “blissed out,” as my parents would say. Thinking about it as I drove the empty Labor Day streets, I realized that I love my close friends so much for two reasons:

1) The truth is, the concept of close friends is a relatively recent one for me, and it’s endlessly pleasing.

2) My brain seems to work in weird ways, and though I love to be alone, it’s often useful to have a trusted friend around to point out retrospectively obvious facts about the world.

Allow me to write four thousand words – some highly entertaining, some mercilessly sappy – on this topic. To make this self-indulgent pill go down earlier, I will illustrate this post with photos from the visit. Oh, and Gnome Chomsky? That title was a trick, pal – you’re going to have to read all about my inner world before I give you that little gem.

Here we go:

Though I graduated twelve years ago, my high school experience was so traumatic that I am only now beginning the process of unpacking and sorting its assorted horrors. Like most people my age, I am realizing that the assumptions that ruled my life were completely false – I was not, in fact, the social outcast I thought I was. My friend circle was claustrophobically tiny not because no one wanted to be my friend – in large part, it was tiny because there was almost no one interesting in my high school that I wanted to be friends with.

And the biggest assumption of all: I was not shy. Most people who knew me casually until I was eighteen probably thought I suffered from debilitating shyness. To those who knew me well I was a super chatterbox, as I am today. I have chosen to remember myself as a shy kid, but this weekend, among the swirl of a party, outings, strolls, an outdoor movie, and meals out, I had a big major revelation: I was never shy. I was ashamed.

I was so incredibly ashamed of my thoughts, my body, my inner world, and of course and most of all, my home situation – in short, everything – that I painstakingly and unceasingly waged a campaign of invisibility. I didn’t want to be called on in class, I couldn’t play sports, give oral reports, or be in any clubs (I did start my own animal rights club, however – one of my first attempts at creating my own world as a reaction to the horrors of the real world. This has become my default strategy these days, where I find it to be very pleasing and successful – resistance is fertile!). I didn’t date – dating involved a level of openness on several levels that I was completely unprepared to give. I had exactly one crush in high school – on a boy who, in retrospect, was the gayest gayboy in the history of gaydom (he lived for, yes, musical theater).

With the exception of one high school friend – shout out to Maggie, lifesaver and fellow superior being – it was only in college that I began to collect friends and hold them close to my heart. To be able to ask a friend if she can feed my cats when I go out to town, to offer friends a place to stay when they are coming through town, to call a friend for advice when I am having trouble swallowing a pill or making a tricky recipe or am lost but am in such a rush that I can’t stop to look at a map – these are victories. Today they are everyday occurrences, and it’s rare that I step back from them and remember that the first eighteen years of my life were almost completely sealed off from the world.

This weekend visit was a 3-day-long happiness rush, and not just because Katy is such an easy and fun person to be around. She also has a son, and his presence was such a nice addition to the visit that it made me feel extra grown up, and completely on the other side of something: being around someone my age with a kid made me feel old in an extremely pleasant way – another sign that my childhood was well and fully over.

As I’ve said so many times before, I don’t want to have kids. I’m not above admitting, however, that being around kids can be extremely pleasant. It helps that Katy’s kid, who I will name Q. (it feels unfair somehow to give a kid an Internet presence. Katy gave me permission to upload pictures of him, but I’m going to stop at that)  is endlessly fascinating, not at all whiny or screamy, and really knows how to enjoy life. With your indulgent permission, I’d like to list some of Q.’s strange and endearing qualities. Perhaps those familiar with five-year-olds will say that all five-year-olds act this way, but I doubt it – my inexperience with kids means that I’m never sure if a kid’s behavior is unique to them, or just how all kids are. These days I’m coming to realize that kids are actually people, and just like all people are different, all kids are different. I’m sure this sounds obvious to people who grew up around kids and have always liked kids, but I just figured this out about a year ago.

-Q. has this strange zest for life that I guess most kids share, but he seems to have it on a somewhat deeper level. As I always favor people who are excited about life’s richnesses, this was very nice to be around. You know how sometimes you’re with someone and you offer to do something weird, like roll down a hill or go to a really bad restaurant (with decent food, it must be admitted) just because it’s so bizarre, and they are totally uninspired by your idea? Kids are always up for these kinds of ideas. I’ve gotten into the habit of ordering dessert first at restaurants, so I can eat it while my meal is coming out. Partially this is because I’m impatient and don’t like wasting time (desserts are must faster to prepare than main dishes), and partially this is because I’d rather fill up on dessert than food. It just happened that Katy and Q. and I didn’t go to any restaurants with amazing desserts, but if we had, I know that Q. would have been right there with me, not raising an eyebrow.

-Q.’s speech is endlessly fascinating. Though he doesn’t read, Katy pointed out to me that he speaks as if he does, and once I noticed this it obsessed me. Q. pronounces all his “t”s and “ing”s – when he says “When are we going to the restaurant?” he doesn’t say “When’re we goin’ to the restaron,” like we all do, he says it like it’s spelled, even with an emphasized “t” at the end of restaurant. He never uses contractions, and he sometimes lapses into a Shakespearian èd sort of a thing where he pronounces past tense words like “passed” as “pass-ed.” Isn’t that the weirdest thing in the world? Are babies born with good grammar, and life just beats it out of them?

-Like Katy, Q. is insanely observant of minute detail, and files everything away for later use. He really enjoyed our mini-golf (as did I – partially because I’d never played before, and partially because it was the coolest mini-golf course ever), and politely and insistently tried to persuade us to play another round. “Hey guys!” he’d say, brightly and with no desperation or whininess in his voice at all. “Hey, after we pet these cows, would you want to play golf again?” Then a little later: “Hey! Now that we’re done with the corn maze, how about playing golf again?” Every time bringing the idea up like it was the first time it has occurred to him. When we happened to walk past the golf course on the way to (I am not making this up) Gnome Chomsky, the world’s largest garden gnome (more about him in a few thousand words) – he said, innocently, “I’m just going to go look at the putters.” Whereupon he proceeded to stare wistfully at the case of putters for about ten minutes, running his hands up and down their shiny handles and undoubtedly imagining how he could use them to finally make his ball sink into the hole perfectly, even on the dreaded tire loop challenge, if he was just given one more chance.

After a perfunctory look at the gnome, which was absolutely the highlight of the day for Katy and I (as evidenced by the fact that between us we took about 50 pictures of it), we were passing by the barn where you could buy assorted country store-type folksy souvenirs and where you paid for the hayride, corn maze, petting zoo, and mini-golf. As we were walking by, Q. said “Guys! Can we go in this barn?” We walked in on the opposite side from where we originally entered (I feel this is significant), and as soon as we were inside, Q. turned to his mom, pointed at the cashier, and casually explained: “Now: Mom, you just go over there and tell them we want to play more golf.” After explaining that we had played all the golf we were going to play, Katy and I shot each other amazed looks about his hilariously complicated, flawlessly executed plan.

The whole experience just blew my mind. I thought that kids just whined until haggard parents gave them whatever they wanted. This weekend I realized that smart kids realize that whining doesn’t get you anywhere – though I should also say that when Q. whines, he puts on an a face that is so pouty and eye-crinkled that it is more of a hilarious caricature of a whine rather than an actual whine – though, again, people more experienced with kids might tell me that kids are the originator of the whine face, and inexperience with the original is why it looks like caricature to me – and now I have gotten myself into a sentence that contains a dashed clause within a dashed clause and, not being quite sure how to disentangle myself, I think I will just use a few commas and throw in a colon for good measure and merrily continue on: smart kids realize that reason can really take you places. And I loved watching Q.’s mind work, all the reasonings that he came up with.

It must be said: I love kids’ brains. I have no bone in my body that wants to change diapers and oversee lunchtime regimens and pull shirts over tiny torsos, but I could watch that kid think for days.

It was pointed out this weekend – politely, and I must admit that I have had the same thought – that perhaps this is because I actually am a five-year-old.

I was perhaps a little bit more excited to go the petting zoo than a thirty-year-old properly should have been. (It was a very animal-rights-friendly petting zoo, don’t worry. It wasn’t a zoo at all, just a beautiful, huge farm with 8 or so animals who were temporarily corralled but who obviously live very natural lives and have lots of space to wander when they are not suffering through the horrors of being fed candy food and endlessly petted all day long.) The rutting pig and beautiful silky-haired donkey were my personal mini-golf course – I kept finding excuses to wander back to them.

(Before we move on from the farm, I should finish up with the gnome: Gnome Chomsky!! I read that his name was Gnome in an article about the place, but no one at the farm seemed too into the name – I get the feeling the artist named him without everyone else really knowing what it was about. When I mentioned to the cashier that the next time I go to hear Noam Chomsky speak I will absolutely mention the gnome to him, he just smiled vaguely. I am not at all sure he knows that Gnome Chomsky is a radical anarchist rabble-rousing revolutionary who regularly calls for complete overhaul of our most basic and fundamental societal structures. But Katy and I knew it, and I think it’s safe to say that this meshing together of revolution and a day on the farm added an extra sparkle to our outing.)

On Saturday we went to NYC to go to the Natural History museum, and again, I was probably more thrilled by the IMAX movie on underwater dinosaurs than most people my age. I’m not too proud to admit that at times it brought a tiny tear to my eye – what can I say, the story of The Dollies, a family of dolichorhynchops, was freaking touching. Afterward, I was trying my best not to champ at the bit and drag Katy and Q. to my favorite parts of the museum – the blue whale! The huge tree slice! The dinosaur skeletons!!!! – but I felt very much more like a kid than a parent all day.

Not being much of a shopper I thought that the exception to this would be the gift shop – but did you know you can buy ACTUAL DINOSAUR TEETH for SIX DOLLARS at the AMNH gift shop? What’s that about? Only my (childish) resistance to waiting in long checkout lines preventing me from scooping up a handful.

Katy and I both realized my weird childishness – perhaps here I should remind readers that I am a fully-functioning modern grown up, with her own business and everything – right away when I gave Q. a box of cute handmade crayons from Kaua’i. As he opened them, he said “these crayons smell just like candy!” “I know,” I said in heavily bolded speech, “but you can’t eat them.” Katy looked at me, and I knew that she knew that I was overemphasizing the point not so much for Q. as for myself.

I don’t get this childishness.

As a general rule, I am an adult’s adult. I like reading long and difficult books, drinking whisky, and working very long hours at a job that involves fire, sharp knives, and scrubbing filthy dishes. My childish appreciation for pretty dresses, all things pink, toys, and things like petting pretty cows seems incongruous. I could take the easy way out and say that this is all because I didn’t really have a childhood – I was balancing my mother’s checkbook for her in eighth grade. I think that’s only part of it, though. I think it’s partially because things kids like to do happen to be really awesome.

It might also be related to this other thing, one that leads us nicely into Part Two of the World’s Longest Blog Post:

My brain doesn’t always work the way I want it to, and this causes me much embarrassment. Because of this, I am deeply happy that I have good, trusted, solid friends in my life who will tell me honestly when my brain is misfiring and will help steer me along. This is something I know I inherited from my mother, a giant intellectual who, as just noted, cannot balance her checkbook and regularly walks into signs because she didn’t notice that the sidewalk swerved. My mother has absolutely no sense of her body as it relates to the world, and mostly I love her for this. Because in our tiny family of three people (my brother, my mother, and I) I have always been the sane, capable, strong, down-to-earth one, it bothers me to see that I share my mother’s lapses into nonsense and that perhaps I am only sane in comparison.

For example, on the drive to the mini-golf place in Kerhonkson, I turned left out of my house. New Paltz citizens who know my house will know that I should have gone down Main Street, turned right onto Route 55, and followed that up and over the mountain. Instead I turned left and went through Gardiner – about a ten-minute detour. When I realized this I couldn’t quite explain it, and because I’m not the type of person to keep quiet about such things, I was explaining what I had done to Katy and wondering aloud why I did it, when she said that she had a feeling I did something like that when she saw a sign for New Paltz saying it was six miles away. While it is true that Katy is – along with my sweetheart, with whom she shares many good traits – probably the most deeply sane person I know, I was stunned that she picked up on this. When I’m visiting a friend, I can’t remember where their bathroom is from day to day, much less getting the lay of their town so quickly as to notice a wrong turn.

Then when we stopped at the lookout on the ridge, the one after the hairpin turn where my little piece of the Hudson Valley is spread out in front of you with all its specialness on display – trees and fields and almost no signs of civilization from that height. You see a smattering of houses here and there, but New Paltz doesn’t pop out of the trees like you think it would, especially considering we were less than ten minutes away. I was completely unable to point out my beloved town, and it was Katy who said “what are those buildings over there?” while I was scanning the farms and woods in the opposite direction. I love my town with a sweaty, clutchy love, and it saddened me that I couldn’t pick it out from a mountaintop. But such is the way my brain works.

Five minutes later, we were talking about driving, a skill that I am still mastering after four years of practice. I was explaining that it’s so rare that I drive with other people in the car and I know when I do they are thinking that I’m a bit of a crazy driver (very safe, just a bit jerky), when she kindly pointed out that she thought I should be in fifth gear, as the engine was revving pretty hard. I wasn’t offended – I was thankful.

I’m constantly working on my quirky mind, trying to tame it into shape so I don’t do these embarrassing things, and I welcome all the help I can get.

One last example: I was kind of worried about the mini-golf. Not being a sporty person and never having played it, a part of me thought I would never be able to get the damn ball in the damn hole, or, even scarier, I somehow wouldn’t be able to grasp the very simple rules of the game.

I fully recognize how ridiculous this sounds.

But mini-golf is one of those things I know my mother could not do – she would putt the ball in the opposite direction of the hole, mistake a windmill or something else as the place to put the ball, etc. Our brains are just not wired for even extremely simple games like this. We are book readers, arthouse movie watchers, cat lovers – we lack an understanding of how to make our bodies do things. This is partially why my career as a chef is so pleasing to me. It’s a victory over my natural instinct. Every time I realize I can make my hands dip a truffle in chocolate and shake it off in a special, tidy, stylish way, I am proud of overcoming my genetic heritage.

But I was fine with the mini-golf. My greatest fear, of course, was that Q. would beat me, but thanks to a tricky hole involving a creek that I accomplished in three strokes (is that the right term?) because I actually devised and used a strategy (hit the ball really hard), as opposed to blindly hitting it and hoping it would magically fly over the creek like certain five-year-olds I could mention, I came in second.

I could tell that Katy could tell I was the tiniest bit concerned about my performance, because she would always tell me when I took four putts to make the shot (wait, that can’t be right – it’s not a shot…the hole?) that that was the “par” and I finally figured out that par meant average. Though the par was probably compiled using data from kids under ten, I didn’t care. And why couldn’t they call it the “mean” or the “average” instead of the “par”? Why does sports make things so needlessly confusing?

*               *               *

As a reward for reading this carpal-tunnel-inducing ramble, I will leave you with two great stories as well as a quick photo essay.

At the Mohonk Preserve Butterfly Garden, Q. asks me if I will tell him if I spot a bee.

“Well, there are two honeybees right there, just going about their business. They won’t bother us if we don’t bother them.”

Trying our best to not disturb the bees after the realization that we are stuck on a bench with a bunch of bee-loving flowers between us and escape; wondering where the dang promised butterflies are.

1) As we were walking through New Paltz to see the outdoor movie at Water Street MarketBreakfast at Tiffany’s! – I was chattering on about how I love my town but I never have the time to enjoy it like we had been doing the past few days. Katy asked how long I had lived here, and I said “Hmm…since August 31, 2004.” We looked at each other and realized it was my four-year New Paltz anniversary! Except for my sweetheart not being there, I couldn’t have planned a more perfect anniversary day. Mini-golf, petting zoo, Gnome, a picnic with watermelon for dessert, a drive down Huguenot Street, a walk around the land, dinner out, and a movie – a perfect summertime day.

2) One great thing about having old friends (that is: friends you’ve known for years. I’m blessed to also have the other kind of old friends – old people who are your friends – but this is not about them) is that they sometimes remember your stories better than you do. On Saturday night we went to dinner with
K&K (HanGawi: perfect, as usual), and were talking about names.

I told a little story about years ago when I worked in an office and had time to kill and decided to call up all the Lagustas I found in online with listed phone numbers. Katy was my housemate then, so I told her what happened that night. I only reached one – a very old woman in Texas. When I explained why I was calling (“Hi! My name is Lagusta, and I found you online and noticed that yours is too, so I just…well…thought I’d call to say hey!”), she was utterly unimpressed and immediately said, “I don’t like the name, myself. I think it’s downright ugly, don’t you?”

A Lagusta is nothing if not blunt, right? I told her I used to think it was ugly, and in fact once came across someone online saying it was (while looking for that link I found this – um, what kind of boy’s name ends in an “a”? Oh! And apparently this Lagusta-hater hated my name so much she posted about it twice! I don’t remember being teased that much, dang. Luckily my classmates didn’t know about this -NSFW!!-, or I couldn’t even have shown my face in school.) but these days I liked it. We chatted for a few minutes – she was very impressed that I was calling from an office in Rockefeller Center – “You mean you’re calling from where the Christmas tree is? How is that tree?” As it was currently June, I couldn’t tell her much about the tree, but I asked her about her life and learned that she was in a wheelchair and a lot about how annoying it was not to be able to go upstairs in her house.

My version of the story ended there, but Katy remembered the very best part, and jumped in:

“Oh, but remember what she said at the end of the conversation?”

I shook my head, and she continued:

“She said, ‘Dear, what did you say your name was again?'”

Now, how did I forget that little zinger of an ending?

Thank goodness for old friends, possessors of fully functioning brains, life-givers of hilarious and brilliant children, and of course, keepers of important story punch lines.

4 Responses to “meet gnome chomsky, the world’s largest garden gnome! plus: kids, brains, and friends”

  1. Katy

    Oh Lovely! I had been looking forward to your thoughts! We really, truly had such a fantastic time! That was probably the best vacation I’ve had in a long, long time. Your calling it a “happiness rush” is probably closer than anything I could come up with. I feel I owe about 4000 words in return, not because you did, but because I could just have that much to say about it! Everything we did was fun, and exciting, and just downright perfect. I’ll never forget Q chanting in the back seat, “Oldest Street! Oldest Street!” after you told us about Hugenot Street – just a measure of what a good time we were having that a description of the nation’s oldest continuously inhabited street sent a five year old into a fit of cheering so we would add it to the day’s itinerary. I was concerned we might bore him terribly, we do chatter on, but he just fell right in step, due in no small part to your own innate sense of five year oldness. Really, for all your inexperience with kids, you got the measure of him far more quickly than most do in a year. Perhaps best of all, you never interfered when he and I had to have a discussion. He gets along best when we keep the hierarchy in place – I know that sounds awful, but when we’re five, we like for mom to be in charge and not some random stranger we just met, even if mom seems to like that person a whole lot. And by you kind of honoring that, it gave him the freedom to really open up and interact on an even footing with you, knowing that he could be friends with you and that if something went wrong, he and mom would deal with it and you wouldn’t feel that need to suddenly be all adult and take on the role of “Hey, you shouldn’t do that!” At the same time, he liked you and he wanted to be with us and do all the fun things we had planned, so he really put on his best face (even though he really is usually fantastic, he outdid himself considering how much dessert he ate, how little he slept, and how much we did in the course of three days).

    It was marvelous to see you so in your element. It feels as if you really have arrived! Welcome to adulthood and enjoying a life that you were able to choose for yourself! Even once they have the freedom, not everyone is able to be the person they want to be. Well done, my dear. Well done.

    Reply

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