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The Great Mystery

Speaking of perfection, somewhere recently—I can’t for the life of me remember where—I came across the assertion that the last sentence in The Great Gatsby was one of the great joys of someone’s life. I’m not sure if this reference was in mainstream culture; if it was, maybe someone can remind me where I read or heard that claim, or suggest what unearthly presence beamed it into my mind.

In any case, I found it intriguing enough to reread The Great Gatsby, not even skipping ahead to the last sentence to spoil the surprise. I read it last when I was fourteen, in an era in which I probably didn’t care as much about lovely sentences as I do now. Even my gradual appreciation for the art, however, has not enlightened me as to how anyone could find that sentence precisely so thrilling. As written, it’s poetic but a little obvious, and although there is intense meaning behind it if you give it a bit of thought (it’s basically a summation of the human experience in a way that attempts to make a profound symbol out of a passing reference from earlier in the book), I think it’s a bit of a stretch to try to glorify what comes before by appending this lofty insight. Which is not to say it’s not a breathtaking book, or that the sentence is not brilliant in the grand scheme of the universe, it’s just that I don’t understand why the combination of those two particular things is so pivotal for whomever suggested it was. Truly, I wish I did, which is why I reread it in the first place; it’s not as if I disbelieve him or her or feel as if he or she runs around excessively claiming this or that sentence is meaningful to the point where the claim itself becomes meaningless.

I guess I just felt it was a startling thing to say about a medium that I sometimes take too much for granted, and I wanted to read it and think: Ah yes! How profound! And I was more like: yeah, OK.

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The Perfect Storm

Someone once famously crooned, “I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me.” I am the reverse: I spend far too much time at me and my forays to paradise are brief and usually plagued by some sort of lung infection. I promised you a travel journal, and this is one both literally and figuratively—even if my progress on the less tangible of those maps is limited. However, if my life were an Indiana Jones movie (and it isn’t: I spent last Saturday night mopping every floor in the house before settling down with a nice bowl of soup), last week would have shown me on a line starting from Baltimore, angling off at Miami, and finally settling at San José, Costa Rica, from whence Rob and I were whisked by private van to the breathtakingly beautiful Punta Leona, near Jaco on the Pacific coast.

To backtrack a bit, I am a perfectionist. This will not come as a surprise to those of you who know me in person or who have been reading this journal for the past six-plus years. I used to be a perfectionist who made people cry in the midst of my relentless quest to be in the eye of a “perfect” storm. I since came to realize that they don’t call it the perfect storm for nuttin: aside from being a stupid Republican, there is almost no worse a fate than being a perfectionist. Indeed, stupid Republicans suffer far less existential anguish than I do on a regular basis. I once read a comic book in which we are invited to imagine the existence of the Flash, that super-powered dynamo who can run faster than sound. How horrible it is, said the comic book, to live on such an impossibly fast level yet have to contend with us pokey humans at our regular pace. It would be like waiting in an incredibly slow supermarket line with just one item while everyone in front of you has overflowing carts and shopping bags full of pennies to pay for it all, every moment of your life.

As a perfectionist, the sad part is that I can’t claim any sort of superiority . . . I can only recognize it—and see how dramatically short most efforts fall. At one time in my life, I was like the Flash, champing at the bit in that supermarket line whenever I had to deal with people’s attempts to do anything. When delegating, I would hover anxiously in the background and then secretly redo everyone’s work to what I imagined was a higher standard. That reaction seems to be burning off in my old age, however; it has been years since I caused anyone to burst into tears through a withering display of my contempt. What remains is the most crippling personal aspect of perfectionism: utter paralysis. This is that inner conviction that nothing I do is good enough or can live up to any sort of superior evaluation—so why bother? When writing, it is the unremitting editor that won’t allow progress until the perfect word is found or until the sentence flows like a brook. When designing, it’s an endless fiddling with the result, to the extent that I now wait until deadlines have passed before even beginning the project just because I know I won’t have time to fuss and fret for two weeks over the smallest advertisement. In business, it’s a constant dread that I won’t make my monthly numbers on the macro scale, so therefore there’s no point in making improvements on a micro scale. On a personal level, it’s the conviction that I’m not a magazine model so I might as well dress like a homeless person and never exercise.

This is where my novel went. This is where my brilliant career in a Madison Avenue ad agency went. This is why all of the nice clothes I buy end up stuffed in the back of drawers.

So when I come across something that through some magic evades this inner demon, something I set my heart on and that I somehow come to believe is not only attainable but worth the effort of attaining, it’s quite remarkable.

And this is how, with just a couple of days of planning, Rob and I ended up in the Costa Rican shore, with rainforest on one side and white sands and crashing waves on the other.

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I can’t even remember how I found the ad for the seaside condos being built there on a cliff overlooking the ocean, but I remember the excitement that infused my being when I first saw photos of the locale, then the artists’ renditions of the building, then the floor plans, then the financing. This was something I could do. I could cash in some stocks for the down payment, the rental fees I could charge to visitors while I wasn’t there would more than pay for the mortgage, and when I was ready to retire, my perfect little condo would be paid off and waiting for me. When discussing my plans with the real estate agents (who really were the nicest people in the world), they supported my thinking along these lines, not just because they were trying to make a sale, but because they truly believed they were offering paradise, life as it should be, at a reasonable price. Rob and I befriended Mehgan, the one who hosted us, instantly, and she was the mastermind behind our lovely trip’s adventures, from drinking out of coconuts on the beach to hunting down toucans in the rainforest to nights out on the town to the zipline tour she arranged for us one drizzly afternoon. It was all a perfectionist’s dream.

This sadly came to a crashing halt when I finally saw the terms of the property management agreement, which were most unfavorable and wouldn’t allow any sort of profit for tenants. My mortgage would not be paying itself. Income would not be generated to smooth over the financial bumps in my everyday life. I hasten to point out that this was not Mehgan’s fault—the agreement had not been hammered out until just days before we had arrived, and none of us understood its implications until we sat down over wine on a humid night by the beach and spread out the paperwork. We filled out the power of attorney anyway, hoping that by some miracle things would work out in the two days before closing. If not, Mehgan assured us, she would tear the contract to shreds.

The next day, I stepped off the plane in Miami to find all the television monitors bleating disaster. Financial meltdown! Stock market crashes! Bailouts! My iPhone, in the deluge of pent-up information, elaborated: the stocks I had planned to sell for the down payment had plummeted. Consequences (and the stupid Republicans responsible for many of them) had made the decision for me. The beautiful symmetry of my plan had toppled; there would be no perfection. I wandered around the Miami airport with a knot in my stomach, snapping at Rob and just wanting to be home, under the covers, where I could control every aspect of my environment except Goblin’s nocturnal farts.

It’s stupid, I think, not only to get so disappointed when a pipe dream doesn’t fall neatly into place, but to overlook all of the sloppy good fortune I do have when some odd impulse tells me that perfection is just a plane ride away. I have more than I deserve, and I’m given more credit than I deserve for creating it. Later, with perspective, I am happy to say that I look back on the Costa Rican adventure with some amount of pride, not because I could have accomplished something grand if things had worked out, but because I saw something grand and actually tried to seize upon it on my own, without my inner perfectionist interfering. Does that make sense?

For once I went to paradise, and I totally left me in the dust.
(P.S. I have some photos I may post if I can find any that don’t make me look like a goon!)

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Goodbye and Good Luck Fighting Off the Evil Dead

I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt. That’s why I have to leave this godforsaken country, never to return until this coming Wednesday. As we speak, I am downloading The Devil Wears Prada and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to make the plane ride go smoother. This will be the smoothest plane ride on earth thanks to The Devil Wears Prada and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and approximately fifty-five Klonopins. Ike who?

So, like, if I survive this misadventure, I might just force you to read a travel journal of my own devising. If I don’t, I’m going to lead an army of evil dead into your home and steal all the silver.

Wait, can evil dead abide silver? This is the sort of thing I should be looking up instead of the exchange rate for colones. Somebody get John McCain on the line.

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Birth and Rebirth

One of my oldest and dearest friends had a baby last night, a girl. I was expecting a boy because apparently everyone walked up to her on the street and told her it was a boy. That is a fine demonstration of what everyone on the street knows. And yes, the first five letters of demonstration are DEMON. Note, this does not mean my friend’s child is a demon; nor does it mean she isn’t. There is not sufficient information to determine this from the data provided.

In other news, I dusted off my old novel and began working on it again over the weekend. Because I had started a new one, I realized that I hadn’t worked on the old one for about a year. I had a writing coach who said to always work on two things at once so you can go back and forth as your interests wax and wane. My own interests do not wax and wane so much as go from hibernating in a cave to driving the Indianapolis 500 to perhaps flitting around some lunar colony that they invented out of whole cloth.

Life goes on, but still one is forced to eat cantaloupe if one wants to reach the pineapple.

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R2-D2 a.k.a. Fred

I met R2-D2 in 1996 at a Chicago Humane Society. Erich and I, as typical for people in floundering relationships, sought another being to share the love we did not give each other. We were told to arrive early, as the kittens went fast, and so we joined the jostle of other cat people when the doors opened that morning.

The wall of kittens was adorable, and even as early as we had arrived, I was afraid that we had been outwitted by others who picked a furry little creature and guarded it with their lives. There were few cages without potential parents cooing through the bars; one, however, was studiously avoided. A small eight-week-old male had mixed the contents of his water bowl with the sand they had given him for his litter; the resulting mud was flung contemptuously out at the gawking crowds. The label on the bars read “Fred.”

“Life will never be dull with Fred,” we concluded and asked to adopt him. This process was surprisingly quick, although he seemed none to happy about being removed from his cage and stuck into a cardboard box. As we left, the staff suddenly remembered that Fred had not yet been tagged with a microchip. They took him behind a screen and inserted it to the most furious howl I have ever heard from an animal before or since. I think that was the moment that Fred decided humans were not going to be a bed of roses. The confirmation of this impulse was probably when Erich and I changed his name to R2-D2, hoping he would achieve the same good nature as that gentle but incomprehensible android.

R2-D2 hated us from day one. He scratched and bit us when we tried to pet him, refused to cuddle anywhere near us, and whenever we tried to discipline him, he would jump up on the dining room table and knock all of the placemats off. The look of triumph that adorned his face during these incidents was unmistakable. When Erich and I went to Mexico and trusted him with a sitter, we convinced ourselves that R2 was pining away for us and even bought a statue of a puma that reminded us of his idealized form. When we arrived home, filled with love and nostalgia, he ran away and wouldn’t come out from under the couch. He lived to eat, however.

Several years after the time came for me to break up with Erich—but the moment when I finally got around to doing so—I told him that R2 should stay with him. I did not want either one of them to be lonely, I rationalized. I also rationalized not wanting to deal with him on a daily basis as I started grad school and a new business in a distant city. So I left them together when I moved away, and while I thought of him often, it was in the detached sort of way one contemplates a candy dish that adorned ones childhood living room. Erich got a new boyfriend and a new cat, and that family seemed to be doing fine without me. Except last night, I called Erich for his birthday and he told me that I had reached him on R2’s last night on earth. Mounting health problems had degenerated his quality of life to the point where they felt the kindest thing to do would be to end his suffering.

It’s hard for me to think of R2-D2 suffering; his goal had always been to cause suffering in others. When Erich told me the news, I had to get off the phone immediately so I could muffle my unexpected tears. By now, R2 is gone; nothing remains of that period in my life except vague animosity mixed with my love for my time in Chicago. Monster Foo Foo’s time may be next, and I don’t even want to contemplate filling in the blank of Goblin Foo Uvula: 2000 to ____. We measure passing time in these little furry lives that touch our souls and, in some cases, scratch our faces, and the world seems heavier as there are fewer to help us bear our burdens.

Rest in peace R2-D2.

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The Niceties

Gremlins 2 has always been one of my favorite movies. Here is my favorite scene:

Grandpa Fred: [interviewing Tony Randall Gremlin] Creature what is it that you want?

Tony Randal Gremlin: Fred, what we want is, I think, what everyone wants, and what you and your viewers have: civilization.

Grandpa Fred: Yes, but what sort of civilization are you speaking of?

Tony Randall Gremlin: The niceties, Fred. The fine points: diplomacy, compassion, standards, manners, tradition… that’s what we’re reaching toward. Oh, we may stumble along the way, but civilization, yes. The Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag. Everything your society has worked so hard to accomplish over the centuries, that’s what we aspire to; we want to be civilized.

[a Gremlin with a beanie cap acts goofy next to Tony Randall Gremlin]

Tony Randall Gremlin: You take a look at this fellow here.

[Tony Randall shoots the Gremlin in the head. The Gremlins in the bar laugh. Grandpa Fred and Kujitsu leave]

Tony Randall Gremlin: Now, was that civilized? No, clearly not. Fun, but in no sense civilized. Now, bear in mind, none of us has been in New York before. There are the Broadway shows – we’ll have to find out how to get tickets. There’s also a lot of street crime, but I believe we can watch that for free. We want the essentials. Dinettes. Complete bedroom groups. Convenient credit, even though we’ve been turned down in the past.

I think Tony Randall Gremlin is currently running for President.

But in any case, here’s a fun fan-produced movie.

((http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REGCV6z3VkM&feature=player_embedded#!))