Every watch geek has an origin story. During childhood, my first best friend was a watch, a Casio H-108 12-Melody-Alarm. True to its name, the digital watch played twelve melodies, including “Santa Lucia,” “Happy Birthday,” “The Wedding March,” “Jingle Bells” (played only in the bathroom of my Hebrew school, when no other Jewish boys were present), and even a song from my native Russia, “Kalinka” (roughly, “Red Little Berry”), which I listened to every hour on the hour to make myself feel less homesick and scared. I spoke English miserably, but the watch had its own language, a computerese series of squeaks issuing from a tiny Japanese speaker to form passable melodies. My parents had bought me the watch at a Stern’s department store in Queens for $39.99, a significant part of their net worth at the time, and it was easily my favorite possession, until it caught the eye of a Hebrew-school bully. My grandmother marched into the principal’s office and used the hundred or so English words at her disposal—“Bad boychik take watch!”—to lobby for its safe return.
Eventually, I made human friends, and my musical Casio disappeared for good. My relationship with watches from that point on coincided with the women in my life. In high school, my mother bought me a quartz Seiko, which pinched my budding wrist hair with its loose gold-plated bracelet, and was a bit out of place at my next stop, Oberlin, where comrades were not encouraged to have gold-plated things. After college, a girlfriend bought me a Diesel watch with the image of at least six continents on its dial, to indicate just how “worldly” I was, and a subsequent girlfriend had it repaired after we had broken up, a gesture of unusual kindness.
More recently, my husband and I went through a rough patch — our beloved dog had died. I was growing more and more depressed, the election results didn’t help — and we’d been coping by zoning out in front of Netflix with a bottle of wine. Then, I spent one night reading aloud to him, just on a whim. I plucked Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris from the shelf, since I knew I could count on Sedaris for humor. My husband lay on the floor underneath the loveseat where I perched (someday, when we’re rich, I always say, we’ll buy a full-sized couch that fits both of us) and he listened as I read. He didn’t play around on his phone. When we went to bed that night, I felt like we’d solved something. I didn’t feel so sad, and somehow life didn’t feel as meaningless. It was a way to connect that I’d forgotten about. It launched something healing for me, like a heaping serving of a comfort food. It was a bonding tool I’d been taught when I was young, back when it didn’t matter what size couch you had, because we always sat on the floor anyways, legs criss-cross applesauce.
It was about three years ago now that my boyfriend and I met the broker of our current apartment. On that December morning, we walked down 84th Street, scanning the building numbers until we found our destination. I felt mildly disappointed as the broker brought us inside the old walk-up building. There was no charming stoop or elegant façade, nothing to distinguish it from the outside. The building itself seemed to recede behind the commercial enterprises on the ground floor: barbershop, dry cleaner, piano bar. This is a building where one glances up to the higher floors and thinks: oh, right, people actually live here.
I should have been used to the sensation by that point. Perhaps because New York has so little space to go around, there is a fierce delineation between the public and private. I’d visit a friend’s apartment for the first time and be depressed by the building’s exterior, the hallways with bad lighting and flaking paint and shabby floors, wondering what it was like to call this place a home. But it always changed when the apartment door itself swung open. The lighting was warm, something in the kitchen smelled good. A separate world was revealed, one created with love and attention, a life carefully built within an indifferent structure.
So, set aside doubts about whether this is just more posturing. Many of the things that trouble people about our new president, and the precedents he is setting, have nothing to do with the presidency or the president. They are about the character of the man. No matter what you think of George W. Bush, he demonstrates in this book and in these paintings virtues that are sadly lacking at the top of the American political pyramid today: curiosity, compassion, the commitment to learn something new and the humility to learn it in public.
Sigmund Freud spent most of his life asserting that the biological instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain was the motive force of all human action. Civilization was nothing but the process by which the instinctual id — all drive, all desire — learned to accommodate itself to the “reality principle,” to accept “pleasure deferred or diminished” in exchange for a place at the table of polite society. We are all programmed to chase after pleasure, in however muted and sublimated a form. Yet in examining the therapeutic situation closely, Freud observed, we stumble upon a “remarkable fact”: all manner of childhood experiences, even those that could never have been pleasurable in the first instance, are subject to compulsive repetition in analysis. Patients doggedly reenact all their earliest narcissistic wounds in therapy, scheming with “the greatest ingenuity” to revive the specter of parental rejection in the person of the analyst. What, Freud wonders, could account for the mysterious pull of this pain?
On a particularly windy day in the Crutchfield neighborhood here, the writer S. E. Hinton was touring the renovations of the future Outsiders House museum. The rundown Craftsman bungalow was where the Curtis brothers — Darry, Sodapop and Ponyboy — lived in the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola movie based on Ms. Hinton’s book “The Outsiders.”
The book, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, was arguably one of the most influential young adult books of its time, and leading this tour was the self-described fanboy Danny O’Connor, 48, who made his own contribution to pop-culture history as a member of the 1990s hip-hop group House of Pain.
But in the roughly year and a half that it took the French to process my paperwork, America and the world had changed. In this new nationalist era, having a second passport no longer seems like a party trick. For a foreigner, it’s an attempt to ensure that you won’t suddenly become unwelcome. Yet there’s less room for people who belong to more than one place.