Sitting here in the living room while Damian gets dressed (he wanted company so I'm here, paused). Movers come in little over an hour.
I got up early this morning, no surprise, I guess. Had time to get on the computer, read Katrina aftermath and commentary. I don't know if it's a frustration or a blessing, but the TV has been disconnected for the past week. So all the coverage I've seen has been online. No time for video, I've been reading and looking at pictures. So maybe it's not as vivid for me as it is for all of you. In which case, I feel for you. Because it's incredibly, painfully vivid for me. Unbelievable. Heart-rending. And the administration's half-assed "it's not Iraq so I don't care" response? Infuriating. These are PEOPLE. SUFFERING. And nobody prepared for this. Even though they knew it was coming DAYS beforehand. A terrible smite from nature's mighty paw, yes, but wherefore the lame response? We should all be crying now.
That is all I have time to say. Damian's dressed, I have to empty out the fridge. Movers are coming in an hour.
I've never been crazy about living in earthquake country, especially after experiencing the Northridge quake. But hurricanes? Not a whole lot better. Toni, one of my closest friends, is liveblogging her experiences in Baton Rouge as the storm approaches. I worry about her. And about Eliza, also hunkered down in Baton Rouge. And about everyone in its path, whether dead-on or the still-powerful outskirts of that devastation, which Jeff Masters at Weather Underground says is currently the fourth strongest hurricane on record.
Hang on tight, guys.
I wish I could say that I'm weeping over the images from the tsunami's aftermath. But the truth is, I avoided looking at them for the first day or so and then cautiously opened up the articles (I read the paper online) and just kind of stared, numb. Fifty six thousand dead, they're saying. Twelve countries affected. Countless people made homeless. Devastation and destruction everywhere. How can you wrap your mind around that?
As I sit here in my cozy bedroom with the sound of the rain dropping from the roof and Damian's little voice chirpy down the hall as he lies in bed with his daddy, I may be able to intellectually conceive of such a horror but viscerally I just can't. How does it feel, the shock of earthquake, 200 times the powerful jolt we felt here during the Northridge quake, and then a huge wave hurtling toward you, do you have time to think, to fear, to pray? And how does it feel now for the survivors and the ones who will die in the next several weeks of malnutrition and disease? And how can it be such a harsh, visceral every-waking-minute nightmare reality for them and so very far away for someone like me?
When I woke up this morning at 5:40 to the insistent chirrup of a tiny alarm clock in the guest room, I wondered if my mother was already gone. But no, she was just in the living room, preparing to leave. She and I reached the guest room and the off switch at the same time. Time for a (very) early morning hug, the last hug, the hug to last. Right now, as I write, she's on a plane somewhere over North America. It's probably past sunset there even though it's still light here. Right now, as you read, she's probably already landed. Already home. Her home, not mine. Four thousand miles away, give or take. Too far.
When Dan and I first moved out here, we were in our twenties. Distance seemed easy. Hop on a plane every year, wave to the folks back home, settle in your new abode. When you're in your twenties, just out of college, your sense of place is like everything else in your life: fluid and still unknown. And maybe, too, it's nice to be far from family. You can redefine yourself without them. It becomes a way of staking out your own turf, literally as well as emotionally. But I'm not in my twenties. And I don't like this. Not at all. I want community. Community can mean close friends, of course it can. But that's been hard in this city too, a discussion for another time. I do, finally, have people I care about here, though it took forever and a day. But it's still not the same. Nobody here changed my diaper, you know? Nobody knows what my family's apartment on the Upper West Side looked like except from my second hand descriptions. Nobody knew me the first time I fell in love, or helped me pick up the pieces the first time a boy broke my heart. Dan and Damian are my only family here, unless you count a few step uncles and second cousins once removed who we hardly ever see; even though we like them, we're not entangled in each other's lives.
I miss family. I miss a true sense of community and connection and that intimate knowledge of each other. I donít long to move back to New York the way I did, but I do want to move east. Move closer. Be a car ride away instead of a long plane flight.
I miss my mom. I'm glad we got that last hug in, though. One more for the road.
Damian kept running around the house today, "I'm so excited, tomorrow's Christmas!" He's half Jewish, should I feel bad that I'm inculcating him in the majority rule cultural expectations? We did light Hanukkah candles, though we forgot a few nights. And we don't do anything relating to a particular child in a long-ago manger, though a few days ago Damian asked me why they call it Christmas. I explained that there was once a very good man who did and said a lot of wise things and that some people think he's god or related to god but other people think he was just a good man, and anyway, it's a celebration of his birthday, which is where the Christ part comes from. (Didn't go into the mass part, though I suppose he'd be just as curious about that. Maybe next year.)
The thing is, we all know it's not really Christ's birthday, that he was born in April and that the early believers moved it up to blend with and ultimately dominate the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. And we all know that Hanukkah wouldn't be the giving-each-other-presents big deal holiday it sort of is Ė it's a relatively minor Jewish holy day, no? Ė if it weren't for American Jews wanting to have a fun kid celebration of their own to coincide with the surrounding in-your-face day of the dominant religious brigade. And we all know, don't we, that Santa and reindeer and north poles and fir trees decorated with twinkling lights, that none of them are truly related to the little Jewish boy allegedly born two thousand years ago in a stable.
I am a secular Jew raised to celebrate the secular Christmas holiday. I enjoy it. I love the tree and the pretty lights. I love Damian's excitement and the excuse to get him things we want him to have. I love that it means people I love have a chunk of time off from work and we can gather together.
I don't love the religious overtones. They make me feel downright squirmy. But I also don't love the religious overtones of Hanukkah, nor the celebration of a battle fought so long ago. I love Passover with its themes of freedom and self-rule. And in a way, I suppose, Hanukkah is similar. But I can't get all worked up over the desecration of a temple to a god I'm skeptical even exists. And I can't get all worked up over a baby who turned into a man who preached a lot of valuable lessons but whose words were later perverted to mean that some people are worth more than others. A lot of blood has been wasted and continues to be wasted in the name of various gods.
So why celebrate if I don't believe? Because the celebration itself is worthwhile, is about community and twinkly lights and fables of red noses and chimneys and ideally, love. For a few years in my early 20's, I stopped celebrating. I found I missed it. Why should I take the fun away from my son and from me, myself, just because I don't believe in a separable part of the proceedings? So when someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas!" I wish them one right back. Because I hope it is. Merry. For all of us. Even those who choose to celebrate a winter holiday on a different day or days. We each celebrate in a different way, don't we?
Friday Dan got out of work early. My mom was (and is) here. We needed to go shopping for house-related goods. All of this came together and lo, we went to the mall. We warned Damian about holidays and shopping and insane crowds, braced ourselves for chaos, and drove over. This is a mall where, as soon as December hits, we have to avoid the parking lot and head about five blocks away to find a spot far enough away from the madding crowd, and then hold our collective breath and dive into the mass of humanity.
The place was empty. I mean, EMPTY. Far more parking available than on a regular Friday night. We got a table at the restaurant IMMEDIATELY. On a Friday night a week before Christmas. What gives?
Yesterday (Saturday) we went to Target so Dan could buy his Secret Santa gift. Again, bracing ourselves. Talking about calm thoughts, talking about Zen breathing and creeping around a parking lot at half a mile per hour, talking about hand-to-hand combat for the last available parking spot.
It was empty too.
Today we decided to be touristy and take my mom to Watts Towers. We hopped on the freeway heading through downtown to points south (ie: Watts). Midday Sunday, downtown will be a ghost town, the warm wind whistling through the empty skyscraper canyons.
The freeway was a parking lot. Bumper to bumper. Rush hour style. On a Sunday at two p.m. What gives?
I'm still trying to parse it out. Nobody at the malls a week before Christmas. Everyone on the road. Where are they going? What does it mean? Is this local to Southern California or is it nationwide (or international, even)? Are people going out of town instead of shopping? Has everyone placed their Amazon order already? Are they boycotting Christmas or just too strapped for cash? Is it the advent of online shopping or middle and lower class economic woes? It's so striking, it's not like the frenzy of holiday shopping has been dialed down, it's simply disappeared.
I suspect it's about poverty and that worries me. I heard somewhere that the rich are buying like mad, yachts and $15,000 massage chairs and who knows what else, but everyone else? Not so much. Trickle down my ass.
On the one hand, I think the crass commercialism of the season is bizarre, to say the least. Everyone flooding the malls in a mad dash to check off items on a list, too often out of a sense of obligation rather than love. So it's good that people are staying home, right? On the other hand, an awful lot of businesses need a green Christmas to stay afloat. And of course it's the little guys, the mom and pop shops, who are hurt the most. The huge corporate box stores will just float on by. So it hurries the demise of individuality in commerce. Incredibly sad if true.
But really, beyond all that, it's just plain spooky. Is this a local phenomenon that Iím reading too much into or are my suspicions right and this is happening in every city in the US?
Today is the anniversary of my first date with Dan. We met outside the movie theater on 57th and Lexington, stood shivering on line making awkward small talk, and saw The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford playing the idealistic back-to-nature father of a large brood. We had a late dinner at an Italian restaurant in a narrow space, ate very little and talked a lot. Then he drove me home, back to my tiny apartment in a Park Slope brownstone. He stayed the night and never really left.
That was eighteen years ago. Hard to believe. That encompasses the lifetime of some bloggers out there. It feels like a lifetime to me, too. Feels hard to remember a time before we were together. I find myself trying to inject him into my memories from high school, college, childhood events. How could I not have known him then? How could I have been in the dark about the boy I was to spend my life with?
I just finished reading The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, an excellent book. We recently saw The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on pay-per-view. Also quite good. Both movie and book play with the same themes, in a way, or at least complimentary ones: Are people meant for each other? How much free will do we have? Are we drawn to each other because we're meant to be together? Can we veer off course? What is love, anyway?
What if Dan and I had never met? Or maybe we met but he decided he wasn't really over his last girlfriend after all? Or maybe I pushed too hard the first few weeks and he retreated, scared? Or maybe we went to a different movie that night, had a different conversation, didn't get past the awkward small talk stage? What if we'd never clicked? What if?
My life would obviously be radically different. I might not have moved to Los Angeles, might not have had the courage to do it alone. Might not have left editing without the emotional and financial support. My child (assuming I found that life-mate yes! click with someone else) would have had a different genetic makeup, he wouldn't have been the boy I know and love but would have been someone I'll never now know. Different life paths, different identities.
I'll never know. I don't want to know. I may have made mistakes with this life Ė I know I have Ė but meeting and choosing to be with Dan wasn't one of them. He's shaped me, I've shaped him, I've grown into myself in large part because of him, and I cherish all of that and more. But still I wonder. Do those alternate lives exist out there somewhere? If I could go back in one of Damian's beloved time machines, what Ė and who Ė would I see? Could I alter my life path? Would I want to? If I can't, if I was meant to be with Dan, meant to mother Damian, meant to try my hand at screenwriting and fall flat on my face and then turn to other writing with the outcome so far unknown, if all that was meant to be, was my destiny, then why do the choices in the here and now seem so fraught? Is there ever one right answer?
In retrospect it all seems so inevitable. This leads to that, this is your life. But is it? Does it need to be? If it isn't, then it's all random and that's scary too, in a different way. If I think about it too hard, I start to drown in it. But one thing I do know. Eighteen years ago, Dan and I made a choice without realizing it. We chose each other. The rest is a profound mystery.
I keep thinking about before and after. If you wish for something really badly, if you hope for some big career change or a life partner to walk into your life, if you want more than anything for an agent or a publishing house to say they love your manuscript, if your job ended and your savings are dwindling and you're looking into the abyss and you desperately need a new gig and you really hope it can be a good one, if you look at the pregnancy stick every month and it keeps coming up negative, well, that's the before.
The hardest part of being in the before is the huge gulf you inevitably feel between there and the after. It's like you're on one side of a huge, rushing river complete with deadly rapids and the after, well, it's on the other side cheerily waving to you. You can see it but you can't touch it and you'll be damned if you know how to get there. Build a raft? Maybe a bridge? Rent a copter? How? Improbable, unbelievable, taunting and teasing and terribly, awfully impossible.
And yet people do get from here to there, from before to after. I know. I've done it myself. Watched my spouse do it, watched friends. And when you're comfortably in the after, when you're pregnant or holding your newly adopted baby or the contract is signed or the money's in the bank, you shrug and smile. "That all worked out nicely, no?" And then after a while, when the memory of the angst has faded, you convince yourself that it was meant to be this way, that you needed the before to go just like that because it led inevitably and inexorably to the so very satisfying after.
But when you're in the midst of it, looking with such painful longing across the angrily roaring water, your mind plays tricks. You start thinking it will never happen, it can never happen, and in fact the reason it won't? Because you're making it not happen. The power of negative thinking. And then you start trying to be cheery and positive, wishing on every star, even ones that turn out to be really slow airplanes, always bringing pennies with you for stray fountains, and just generally finding as many ways to be superstitious because that may do the trick, that may turn this into that, no into yes, empty into full. And then if it doesn't right away, you start hating yourself because after all, if it hasnít happened with all that good luck churning around in the water (not to mention all those perfectly good coins), then you must not be worthy enough. Everyone else does it right, everyone but you.
But you know? The distance from not to have turns out sometimes to be quite short. Just a little hop and you're over the barrier. Just a little skip and you're home free. The ache of wanting settling into the quieter pleasure of the reality of having (always replete with more headaches than you'd quite realized in your daydreams). And it seems so natural, so normal, so everyday. Just a short jump. Not impossible, not at all.
Important to remember that, I think.
Tired. Will be back tomorow (Monday) with a real entry. In the meantime, have you read the NY Times article about how it truly really seems that chocolate has tremendous health benefits? This is maybe not such a good thing to discover as I settle back into my fruit-is-too-a-dessert dieting mindset.
Tonight we were listening to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the car and talking about the Beatles. My mom said that when I was about two years old, I said, "Me bangs. Me Beatle." I wanted a haircut just like my heroes. I had no idea. I've seen plenty of pictures of me as a toddler with a cute bowl cut, but I always thought my mom decided. I never knew I did.
In that moment in the car tonight, I suddenly saw something more than the still images photographs capture, and something different from the way I remember events. I saw a two year old child, just the way I see a friend's two year old, the original thoughts and emerging personality in this tiny body bristling with ideas. I saw that child, the one who loved the Beatles so much she got her parents to take her to see them in concert, so much she wanted to look like them. I saw a little girl, complete. And the fact that she was me was only part of that picture.
(Another downer post, Iím afraid. I'll try to be more cheerful tomorrow.)
Dan called me from work on Monday: a coworker had seen a news item about a film editor and passed it on to him. Geraldine Peroni, best known for her work with Robert Altman and nominated for an Oscar for The Player, died this week in her New York apartment, probably suicide.
I worked with Gerri a lifetime ago when I was an apprentice editor in New York. We worked on an indie movie starring Viggo Mortenson (who was a sweetheart, by the way). We set up a cutting room in the directorís SoHo loft. My rewind table was pushed against a wall in the living room. I ended up in a dual assistant/apprentice role and Gerri became the associate editor, cutting alongside the editor. It was a great job. The pay sucked (come to think of it, I donít think we ever got paid) but Gerri and Beth (the editor) were terrific companions. Especially sweet, cheerful, understatedly intelligent Gerri. She had a calm presence. I liked her enormously. She was in a committed relationship with a woman but had a not-so-secret crush on Viggo; we used to clown around about it. Endearing. Fun. Good times.
I left that job for a union gig on a popular TV series. Gerri called me a week into the job. Sheíd gotten on John Saylesí new movie, did I want to come? Did I ever! But I said I couldn't (out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to my new bosses) and we never got the chance to work together again.
The last time I saw Gerri for any real chunk of time, she was on location in LA for The Player. I met her in the cutting room and we went for lunch. I donít remember many specifics of what we talked about, just the lingering warmth. She was in love, I remember that. Her lover was a man, which surprised me at the time. I do remember that, the feeling of definitions shifting, of seeing her separate from her sexual orientation. I liked that. I liked her. I think Iíve said that already, havenít I? I always had a sense that she wasn't afraid to simply be who she was, sans labels.
It would be a lie to say Iím devastated by her death; New York and my life there seem so far away in space and time both. But I find myself thinking about her, wondering what her recent life had been like. Why she was so despairing. Whether she still presented a serenity in the cutting room or whether cracks showed. She was cutting an Ang Lee movie. Left it in the middle. Came home one night andÖ What led to that? If Iíd known her better, spent time with her more recently, would I have known the answer? Is it easier this way, to remember her with a gauze of fondness softening the picture? Would I have become better friends with her if I'd stayed in New York? Could I have helped her?
Even though I haven't seen her in years, I'll miss her. And I'll always wonder.
My very good friend Chris recently started a new blog, called book of days. It seems I am slowly seducing every good writer I know into the game. More high quality reading material, yay! Today she wrote a review that got me thinking. The book is Judith Levineís Do You Remember Me?, an account of the authorís father as he descends into Alzheimerís. It sounds like a fascinating if emotionally difficult book.
From Chrisí description, it seems that Levine also uses the frame to explore how we grow old in this culture. Which of course relates back to my recent experiences with my neighbor as well as the post office brangle. I too have been thinking about old age. About the loneliness I see in these men and women in their tiny studio apartments, about the way theyíre carted off to elder day care every morning and ushered back to their cubicles every afternoon. About how they sit on the low walls in front of their apartment buildings, staring blankly out into the street, so deadened they donít seem able to return a smile. How they walk ever so slowly down the street carrying their shopping bags, either alone or with a bored looking paid companion. About how they seem to wither away in silence and poverty.
According to a Reuterís article (discovered via Digby), a study released this week showed that people with mentally challenging jobs or leisure activities are far less likely to develop Alzheimerís. So what we do, the way we live, affects our brains. In concrete ways. And when I think about the old people in this neighborhood Ė and this is a neighborhood chock full of old people Ė I think of their brains slowly dying along with their bodies and Iím so very sad. Our culture doesnít value our elders. They therefore donít value themselves. We all suffer as a result.
At the post office today, I became unintentionally embroiled in a nasty battle. I was being helped by a worker (I want to say teller but that doesnít sound right). Next to me, an older man Ė white hair but hardly frail Ė walked with firm strides up the counter, ignoring the long line extending down the room. Also ignoring the woman finishing up her business at the counter.
A classic case of jumping the line. The man at the front of the line Ė youngish, very attractive, dark skin Ė said something to that effect: ďHey, he wasnít in line!Ē but he was down at the other end of the room and the clerk didnít hear him. As the older man told her what he wanted, she cocked her head. ďWere you in line?Ē He didnít answer, just proffered his money. The head-of-the-line guy said ďNo, he wasnít!Ē Again, she didnít hear him. But she had her suspicions and so she asked again, asking the room this time, ďWas he in line?Ē
I spoke. I felt like I had to. ďNo. He wasnít in line.Ē She heard me and made the old guy go stand on line with everyone else. Boy did he not want to! He kept holding up his money, holding up his package, looking as befuddled as he knew how. Working it. But finally, yes, he went.
Thatís when the fight started: a man on line, somewhere in his fifties, florid and stocky, lashed out at the man-in-front and also, naturally, at me. Weíre unkind to our elders, weíre mean to old people, weíre heartless and donít have any manners.
You get the picture. The man-in-front was fierce in his response: no, he wasnít being mean to the old man, he simply thought it was wrong of the guy to shove his way in as if rules didnít apply to him. If the old guy had asked to go in front, that would have been completely different. He Ė the man speaking Ė would have said yes without hesitation. I concurred. Itís a matter of manners, yes, but not ours. The old manís.
The florid guy wasnít having any. He kept hammering at the mean-to-the-elderly argument, ultimately calling me names and saying he hoped my mother rots in an old age home. When I told him he was the one who needed to learn manners because he was the one flinging ugly words, he said ďThatís the only kind of words youíll understand.Ē (This after Iíd said maybe two sentences, both calm and reasonable.) Thatís when I turned my back on him and made jokes with the clerk, who had missed most of the fun while he was in back looking for the unusual set of stamps I needed.
This man was clearly spoiling for a fight. Just about any fight would do. He wanted to be angry at discrimination against the elderly, therefore ignored the specifics and also what we said in our defense. He resorted to name-calling so quickly it made me dizzy. When the guy next to me jumped to my defense (at this point, the other man had finished his transaction and was gone), the bitchy man accused him of being a filthy breeder. For no reason that I could see. Flinging mud wheresoever it might rile.
I still believe I did the right thing. Yes, I absolutely think we should respect our elders. I believe, too, that most older people face an awful lot of disrespect so yes, we should be extra nice where we can. Nevertheless. Being of retirement age doesnít mean youíre now absolved of all social niceties. Like, say, asking before cutting in line when people have been waiting for twenty minutes already. Common courtesy goes both ways. When you act in a way that abrogates that unspoken pact, youíve become aggressively self-serving with an unpleasant dollop of entitlement. Not pretty. A little annoyance and even mild assertiveness is, I think, a perfectly appropriate response.
But what struck me most about the tangle was the way this angry man escalated Ė or tried to escalate Ė the battle, how very quickly and very harshly he did so while beating up a straw man, an argument of his own devising which had little to do with what we were actually saying. He obviously wanted to get mad. Maybe the issue was a hot one for him. Or maybe heíd just been kicked out by his lover or his boss and was angry at the world.
But as I walked out of the post office into the surprisingly pleasant August afternoon, I found myself thinking of political debate. Of the Republicans and the Democrats. Of the blogs Iíve been reading and the anger Iíve seen. Iím not immune. God, no. I hate Bush with a sick angry hate, and I hope with all my soul that we throw him out of office before he does more damage. But that means Iím part of that polarization, doesnít it? The country is so divided right now. Nearly fifty percent strongly believing Bush is evil, the other nearly-fifty-percent seeming to believe heís everything thatís just and good, or at least that heís the only thing that stands between us and terrorism (um, wrong). And never the twain shall meet. In fact, the twain donít seem to be able to talk to each other in any civilized kind of way.
And itís not just right now, and itís not just because GWB is so Ė well, what he is. It was true during Clintonís administration too. I was amazed at the hate a lot of Republicans seemed to feel, the absolute hate, for this man who had messy extracurricular activities but who did a pretty decent job (for a centrist, that is). Why the hate? Why the blinding anger that he existed? I feel it now, but I feel it for the Shrubís policies and actions-in-office, not for his personal life choices. A different animal, and completely justified. To me, anyway. But then I look at conservative blogs and I see such disdain for our hatred. Such curled-lip snark. So much anger. On both sides.
So much anger boiling up from beneath the surface. If youíre not with me, youíre against me. Where did all the shades of gray go?
Have you ever noticed how much TV old people watch? I mean, I know, a lot of kids do too. Half the time when we go to someoneís house on a play date, their TV is permanently set on PBS Kids or the Cartoon Channel. Audible wallpaper. And a lot of people come home and immediately after they put the mail down and listen to their answering machine messages, they grab the remote to turn the TV on. And it stays on. I know this. But still. They all also turn it off, go outside and play or work sometimes. They turn it off and talk to each other occasionally. Donít they?
But old people. Thereís a group, and I suspect it's a majority, octogenarians and nonogenarians who use the television set as best friend and spouse and most especially time filler. Theyíve lost their lives; maybe theyíre too achey and enfeebled to do more interesting things, and so they turn to the easy companion. The one thatís always there, the one that talks and walks and thinks for you.
I like television. Partly because it pays the mortgage but also because, well, some of it is good. Interesting, educational, fun, satisfying. Ironically, Iíd like to watch more than I do. I miss a lot of quality shows. But when I see someone waiting to die, whiling the hours away until the final hospital visit, and all theyíve got from morning to night is a too-loud TV, thatís unutterably sad. When they fall apart because you tell them itís too loud, when they tell you that this will leave them with nothing, thatís heartbreaking.
Itís also a new phenomenon. TV became popular in the late Ď40ís and was hardly available around the clock. What did older people do back then? Did they just sit staring at the clock on the mantel, watching the minutes tick by until it was bedtime? Somehow I doubt it. Have our lives changed so much in the past sixty years that weíve lost whatever personal resources we used to have? Has TV leached it all away?
What is life like when you get up in the morning, turn on the TV, eat your breakfast, put your dishes away, and settle down to a hard dayís work of passive staring? How does that feel day after day after day? How can they stand it?
An article in todayís LA Times: jockeys, the kind that ride thoroughbred horses in million dollar races, it seems they starve themselves. Well, not just that, because thatís hardly news. But they barf so regularly they have their own lingo for it (flipping) and thereís a special stall in the jockeyís bathroom in at least one racetrack, a stall specifically designed for, well, flipping. Then there are the hours they spend in the sauna and the diuretics they use, all to maintain an impossible-for-male-American-bodies weight. Work-induced anorexia, with the attendant physical toll years of malnutrition will inevitably cause.
The California Racing Board may be upping the weight requirements soon, trying to eliminate this insanity, but owners and trainers sound opposed to it. Itís going to be hard for their horses, bred for speed, with delicate legs and huge lungs, to go the distance with five to fifteen more pounds on their backs. The horses might be hurt. Catch twenty two, no?
Itís pretty awful, and I feel for the riders. They just want to do their jobs; they probably became jockeys because they love horses and the thrill of the race, theyíre mostly undereducated and canít exactly turn to investment banking as a second career. This is what they do and what they love. And this is the cost. It feels wrong. Especially because, as athletes, their bodies need more protein and carbs and it sounds like they often subsist on less. Much less. An apple. For the whole day. This is very screwed up, a career that requires this kind of sacrifice over the course of decades.
On the other hand, there is a simpler solution, isnít there? Hire more women jockeys. 110 lbs is still pretty small for a woman, but if youíre a short, slight woman, you donít have to be malnourished to maintain that. And yet horse racing remains predominantly a manís field. Is there a physiological reason for it, are men that much stronger and therefore more able to sustain that bruising pace on the track, or is it just a lingering pocket of old-boys-club at work, an ingrained sexism in the paddock? Itís ironic considering how many girls become infatuated with horses as they hit puberty. Youíd think some of them keep that love strong and some of those would make great jockeys. And yet it remains a male arena even though menís bodies are not meant to be 110 lbs at 3 p.m. on race day today and next week and next year and twenty years from now.
Oddly, the article never even mentions the possibility of women jockeys. I canít help wondering why.
It seems I need to dress casual corporate for this upcoming job. A week of office wear. I freeze. I cringe. I shake my head, baffled. I head to the mall.
I try on clothes. So many clothes. Because: casual yet corporate? Whatthefuckdoesthatmean? Thus, many clothes. Mostly black. Mostly ill fitting. Mostly not me.
A piece of clothing, a set of layers, top and bottom, shoes and shirts and watches, itís all a costume. We all know that. And over time we pick up one piece and another in various boutiques and chain stores as we adjust our looks to fit our lives. We develop uniforms. Sandals and shorts work for the sandbox set as well as their custodial parents. Short, midriff-baring shirts and belly rings seem to fit college kids, though in another time and part of the country, maybe flannel shirts and ripped jeans are still in. Bowties and cummerbunds signify waiters and groomsmen. Part of the surprise of a wedding, I think, is when you the bride look in the mirror and see yourself in white sequins. Image matters. How we present ourselves.
Thus the corporate look. The last time I worked in An Office of that nature, I was maybe twenty two. Temping in a bank, waiting for (and working on) my big break into the film editing world. Where the uniform is blue jeans and t-shirts. Button down shirts if youíre going for formality. But never dress pants, never an A-line skirt, never pantyhose. That would be weird. Unnatural. Unseemly, even. As if you thought you were somewhere else. Someone else.
Thereís a pile of black mixed with a bit of burgundy on my bed. My new look. Is it me? Or just a persona Iím trying on? Will it all still fit right on Monday? Will I wear it or will it wear me? Will I look like an imposter? Will it crinkle and squeak and give me away or will I slip into it and thereby slip into the role, a perfect fit?
My friend Otto has a good entry today on getting his driverís license renewed (happy birthday, Otto!) and mulling over the life changes since the last time, four years ago. I found myself thinking as I read, ďBut my life hasnít changed in four years, Iím just treading water.Ē And then I got sad.
So letís take stock. Four years ago:
We were still renting. We moved into this house three years ago last week. Homeownership has wiped out debt and built badly needed security. Now when weíre afraid the bottomís about to fall out of our life, we look at each other and say ďWell, we can always sell the house and live on that for a few years.Ē I think, too, itís turned us from have-nots to haves in our own minds, and thatís colored our attitude toward life. You carry yourself with more confidence if you think of yourself as a have. Thatís why success breeds success. Well, homeownership breeds Ė um Ė more homeownership? No, rather more than that. Is good.
I was still attempting to write the Great American Screenplay and baffled about why it wasnít working out for me. Well, duh. Because thatís not my strength nor my passion. Somewhere in the past few years I stopped trying to stuff myself into that ill-fitting hole and found myself a more suitable niche. It has yet to bear fruit, but hey, itís a gradual process, building a new writing career. Iím patient. Well, sort of. Well, okay, not at all. But still. I know it takes time. (Took time? Will have taken time? Is almost done taking time?)
A then two-year-old Damian had yet to be diagnosed. That happened very nearly three and a half years ago. Do I need to say? It changed everything. Turned it all upside down and then, in time, right side up again. Plunged us into the most intense, high-stakes work weíve ever done, raising his developmental level up and up again. Four years ago we didnít know but it was hardly a blissful ignorance. It was hard as hell to be a parent, only I never understood why. I far prefer this. Easier and so much more rewarding. And better for him, too.
Hmm. Iím thinking maybe a few small adjustments happened along the way from there to here. Ya think?
Iím curious: have the past few years been as change-intensive for other people as they have for Otto and for me? Is that the nature of life, only you donít usually look back with such simple clarity, or have these years been singularly noteworthy? Iíd love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Yesterdayís LA Times Magazine section had a profile of Craig Newmark, founder of the infinitely useful Craigslist(an online swap meet and more; I used it to buy my current computer). The reporter picked up on various personal idiosyncracies: Newmark doesnít get interpersonal cues; he misses flirtatious gestures, doesnít know what to say in social situations, has trouble dating. His hairdresser says heís more comfortable with machines than people. He pays little attention to appearance. His desk faces the wall rather than a window. People donít always get his jokes.
He seems like a nice guy and certainly heís done extremely well for himself. Iím leaving out the descriptions of his philanthropy, his interests, and whatís clearly a big heart. My point is a bit more specific. The reporter clearly loved the irony that this man who has brought together so many people has trouble dealing with those same people, at least in the flesh. She also uses the opportunity to comment on the fact that the internet has been a boon for shy people like Newmark.
But hereís the thing: what she describes in this article sounds absolutely classic to me. Newmark sounds like heís got Aspergerís Syndrome (a form of high-functioning autism). God knows Iíve read enough descriptions. He fits the bill. Does he really have it? I can't say for sure. All I have to go on is a single article. She could be distorting some things, leaving out others that contradict the picture she paints. Iíd know better if I met the man in person and maybe not even then. There are so many shades of autism, and itís not clear when you step off the spectrum and into a shadow of it, a nerdy or quirky edge of normal. But it sure looked like AS to me. So the question then is: do I see it because I know the signs better than your average journalist? Or do I simply see everything through that filter now? And even if itís the latter, does that make me wrong?
I'm so steeped in this stuff and it seemed so obvious to me that I was shocked that the reporter never mentioned it. Then again, maybe she did see what I saw and intended us to catch her subtext. I wonder if he knows. He must. he lives in the Bay Area, where that Wired article on AS was the talk of the town. But why then is it unspoken in this article? Am I reading in or reading what's really there?
Hereís something I donít understand: Why is it that when we get together with other heterosexual couples, we end up splitting up, with the women in one place and the men in another?
Sometimes it feels perfectly natural: last Saturday we went up to visit Tiny Coconut and her family. TC and I are friends, the men had never met. And she and I had Things To Discuss. Well, stuff to talk about. And so the men were thrown together by default. Fortunately, they have many overlapping interests and did just fine. I know Dan had a good time.
But other times it hasnít worked so well. Like a guy Dan worked with some years ago. Dan and I both enjoyed his company very much. But I kept ending up with his wife when the gender split would occur. Just the two of us. With nothing to talk about. And every time we tried, she said something in all innocence that made me want to start a fight. I would keep quiet because we were supposed to be having a pleasant social interaction, but after about five minutes, I wanted to run back to the men, but that wasnít so easy. So we stopped spending time with them. I just couldnít take it. I canít help thinking if it was the husband I objected to, weíd still be friends. Because I would probably never end up alone with him.
Another example: I went with Damian to visit a friend of his. The mom and I hung out the entire time with the kids. The dad came out of his home office once for about two minutes, max. I like her, this was not a hardship. Simply an observation, relevant because a month or so later, Dan went with Damian on the same errand. This time the dad came out and spent time with them. Did he like Danís face better? I think it was far simpler. He didnít want to hang out with a strange woman. A strange man, though, that was okay. It probably helped when he found out what Dan does for a living; itís similar to his own job. But he never even asked me that much. We never got that far before he disappeared back to his world.
Yes, sometimes all the grownups converge and chat together. But when the drift happens, which it always does, itís never the man of one couple hanging out in the kitchen chatting with the woman of the other couple while their spouses wander off to check on the kids. It always splits right down the gender line. I donít know if this is an LA phenomenon or a middle class one or something else. I donít remember it happening when I was younger. Is that because I was in New York? Are things different there? Why? What is this thing that makes the sexes congregate like something out of the Victorian era when women and men had their spheres of influence and their nearly completely separate lives? Itís not that way now, is it? Yet it is when couples come together. And I canít figure out why. Or what to do about it.
We went to a party Saturday night. An adultís birthday, for a change, though a few kids (including our own) floated through and went off to watch Shrek in 3D glasses. We had fun talking to people we knew and even a few we didnít. The food was great. Then came the entertainment. The birthday boy (man) had apparently wanted strippers, but that was nixed on account of younglings. So they settled on Samba dancers. Sounded interesting, I thought.
Well. Interesting. I suppose Ė no, I know Ė thereís some training involved, some skill, that this is a creative endeavor. But. Well. The main difference I saw between the two dancers and equivalent strippers was that these women started out mostly naked and stayed that way, doing an awful lot of jiggling along the way. Especially their buttocks. Shiny sparkly costumes Ė what there was of them Ė and great big headdresses and bright, fast music and everyone, it seemed, had a good time and some even danced, and a big part of me says I shouldnít complain, that by doing so, I come off as a prude and easily shocked. Iím not. Easily shocked, that is. But if Iíd been warned of a stripper, Iíd have gotten up and left, joined the kids in front of the television. This sounded like something more comfortable and so I stayed. That was a mistake, I think. Because all I could think was, ďWhat does it feel like, to be jiggling your body, nearly naked, in front of all these laughing men? What does it feel like to be making money at something that purports to be dancing but presents as a sexual tease? What does that feel like, to have your body on display, to be the entrťe at a party?Ē
Itís not prudery, this discomfort. Itís something else. I have trouble accepting the common use of a womanís body this way. As if it were a party favor. After the gluttony of the cake comes the impersonal lust object. What is that? Why is that? How is that okay? But it is, and it was, and nobody objected or even looked uncomfortable. And maybe when I was twenty, I would have gotten into a heated argument with someone there about the objectification of women and maybe that would have been the right thing to do here, but these are my friends and my hosts and at one point Damian came out and sat in my lap (ignoring the dancing women, just interested in the masks and maracas we held) and it seemed the wiser and more mature move to stay silent. Iím not about to change anyoneís mind there. They thought it was fun. I didnít.
I think human sexuality is a good thing. A blessing, if you will. I think there are ways and times that flaunting your body is even more of a blessing, that itís right to enjoy your sexuality and take pleasure in watching someoneís reaction as you move and your skirt swirls around your hips. But this is something different. These women are paid to shake their buttocks so fast they look battery-operated, to titillate and mostly to be undressed in a patio filled with partygoers. The entertainment.
As I look at samba dancers via Googleís image search, it seems this is normal, the scanty costumes Ė like a belly dancerís, I suppose, though more so Ė and of course the shake-your-booty element is part of the dance. So it is the dance itself that I find offensive or the fact of it at this party, where it was so sexualized and in an objectifying way? And did the dancers mind or were they proud that they have this ability and that they draw this attention? Is it a cultural conceit, my middle class American upbringing, that makes me see it through a certain filter and call it demeaning? Or is it really and truly so, and part of a larger cultural rubric that allows for rape and ugliness perpetrated on women because theyíve made into objects in magazines and movies and at parties too? I find I have no answers. And that may be the main difference between my twenty year old hotheaded argumentative self and who I am now. I donít know as much as I thought I did. Things are not black and white, cut and dried, even those that seem to be.
I'm in a good mood tonight. I also no longer feel like eating the house. Sane once more.
I finished the first draft of my new story. I'm no longer in that world, inhaling that person back into my self. I'm my adult, mature self with the knowledge and strength I've gained in the intervening years. It was valuable reliving that time. I know now I am in fact not her, not anymore. You can shed a skin, move like a snake beyond your former identity, but you have to find a mirrored pool somewhere to look in and know yourself anew. That part's important, as much as as the shedding itself.
I don't consider this story to be therapy. I see it as perspective with a twist of fiction. The fiction part is easy. It's the perspective that's hard won.
You work hard to make your house nice. You tear out wallpaper, you scrub and scrape and paint, you refinish floors or put in new flooring, you swap out louvered windows for casement. You work hard. You do it partly to make it attractive to live in, so you can enjoy your surroundings but you do it partly to upgrade the place, remove cosmetic blemishes, create that ďAha! Eureka! Must buy!Ē moment for prospective house hunters in the hypothetical future.
Weíve done some but not all of that work here. Iíve removed wallpaper in Damianís room, the guest room, the living room, and half the dining room. Dan skim plastered the guest room and scraped acoustic popcorn off three ceilings. We paid to replace the louvers with double hung wood frame windows in Damianís room. We stripped years of horrible paint jobs off the kitchen cabinets and gave them a light colorwash to keep the wood grain intact. I stenciled art deco roses in the kitchen. Weíre not done. We have more awfulness to erase. Iím happy with what weíve done and I look forward to the end result of it all, too. But you know? Thereís no telling how much of it will stick in the end. And thatís strange and a little sad.
Damian had a play date today with a friend from school. He and his mom hadnít been over for several months. She loved the guest room, which had been in progress the last time she was here. And when she walked into the kitchen, she said ďOh, pretty.Ē That felt good. Later, after they left, Dan and I stood in the kitchen and looked around. It is pretty. The orange and purple and butcher block and stencilwork make for a cozy country kitchen feel. Weíre not done, it still needs a good floor (the vinyl flooring is chewed up from the demolition work) but thatís this summerís project. But it feels good to be in there, to be proud of our work.
And yet. Dan said, ďYou know, someoneís going to buy this place and put in fancy kitchen cabinetry and this house will lose something when they do.Ē Itíll become like every other fancy remodeled kitchen, he meant. Itíll lose that cozy originality.
The sad thing is, heís right. Iíve talked before about the little house in Miracle Mile, a mile or so south of here, a house we saw when we first were house hunting. The owners had done such an exquisite job with the place I still remember it vividly after three and a half years, such striking and perfect design choices we were tempted to buy it even though it didnít fit any of our criteria. Well, that house was back on the market a few weeks ago. The MLS listing included a number of photos. The new owners had repainted the entire place, obliterating the beauty and replacing it with something much more mundane. Strong colors, yes, appropriate to the Spanish-Moorish style, yes, but odd choices that didnít work next to each other. It breaks my heart. What kind of person would buy that house, notable only for its specific design choices, and wipe out those very qualities that made it unique? I realize we all have different aesthetics and Iím sure the owners thought they were improving the place, but to me itís like they took a work of art and sprayed painted over it with graffiti. Not the artistic kind of graffiti either, but the ďIgor Was HereĒ ego-and-nothing-else kind.
It makes me wonder. Who will buy our house? How will they ďimproveĒ upon our decisions? And why? Is it just a case of stamping your personality on your home environment? Is it an instinctive marking your turf sort of thing? Is it unavoidable? Would we feel it too? We moved into a house with dingy, century-old wallpaper and peeling institutional green paint. It was kind of obvious that we needed to spruce the place up. But if we moved into a house already fixed up with pretty colored walls and pleasant gardens, would we feel the same need to make it ours or would we be happy with what our predecessors had achieved? I like to think weíd be grateful that the work was done and weíd settle in to enjoy it, but I wonder. Part of the fun of owning is to play with your new three dimensional palette. Would we be disappointed if that was already done for us? And what will this houseís next owners think of our work here? Will they think it's pretty? Will they change it anyway?
So they found Spalding Grayís body a week or so ago. In the East River. I canít speak to the suicidal impulse that overwhelms at an unexpected moment (heíd talked to his kids before boarding the Staten Island Ferry, telling them heíd see them in a few hours). I canít speak to what the man was feeling right then. I canít speak to anything really, except that it makes me sad.
I met him once. I didnít get to know him, at least not directly. It was at a wedding. He and his girlfriend (they later married) were close friends of the bride and groom. The bride was my boss at the time, a talented and outgoing film editor. I knew Spalding Grey from her descriptions of dinner parties and outings. He sounded sardonic and wry and fun in a dark New Yorker sort of way. I spoke to him briefly at the reception. I had nothing much to say and he had less. I respected that, partly because I had a sense of who he was.
I saw him perform once in person (I think it was Grayís Anatomy) and once on film (Swimming to Cambodia). I found his delivery oddly distant, a cognitive dissonance with the deeply personal, sometimes difficult subject matter. He was nevertheless a magnetic presence for all that. He wove a carpet of words, a tapestry, his voice modulation shaping the threads of the story as it built to a finale.
He had a small part in a TV movie I worked on. He was terrible, fumbling his line reading, his body language stiff and awkward. He couldnít make it real. Itís odd because he was an extremely good performer when he played himself. He was good at dredging up his discomfort and neurosis, he was extremely witty, he performed well sitting at a table with his glass of water and his mike, shaping the stories of his pain for our pleasure.
No more stories. Just silence in the winter-cold water. Fare thee well, Spalding. The world will miss you.
I had an interesting dream last night. I donít remember much anymore, unfortunately, but I know I was in a large group of people Ė women, I think. And I was telling them something with a voice of authority because this particular something was a thing I knew a lot about. They liked what I had to say and it spawned a long conversation. Then I said I had to go.
Hereís the interesting part: as I was saying goodbye, the main woman, the groupís leader or main speaker or something, said ďHow do you know this? What are your credentials?Ē
I replied: ďI donít have any. I lived it and thatís plenty.Ē Then I walked out.
I remember this moment vividly, almost as if it happened in my waking life. I was gloating and shaking at the same time. Proud that I knew my value, that I meant my words. Also astonished at myself.
It doesnít take a dream analyst to interpret this one.
For many years, I had real credentials. I attended a prestigious university where I didnít entirely goof off, then I worked as an assistant editor on highly respected TV shows and well known schlocky horror movies. It wasnít my work on display but it was a list and people could nod and say ďOh yes,Ē and it felt safe.
After that, I had what Iíd call fake credentials. I was trying to make it as a screenwriter and I always had something in the works. I could talk about options and promises and agents and hope. After a while, I could talk about competition placements and even a tiny bit of income. (Miniscule, trust me. My bank balance didnít even notice.) It was all air but it still sounded like something even though it wasn't. And that mattered to me, that it sounded like value.
And then? Well, I donít have any credentials at all now. I parent and I write. Someday Iíll be published, maybe even sooner than someday. And that will be important for the validation and the chance to get my words out there, but in the end it is not the main event. Itís the corollary to the main event. Which is living it. I know that now.
The problem with money is that it sits there mocking you with what you canít have and canít do.
The problem with credit cards is that they let you buy and do all those things because oh, youíll just pay later.
I want a candlelit dinner at the French Laundry.
I want to stay at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego.
I want to fly east for a month this summer, see family and spend money hand over fist.
I want to visit Hawaii, Greece, Japan, Denmark, Morocco, Kenya, Brazil. At least. And go back to everywhere I've been except maybe Detroit.
I want central air.
I want to pay someone else to tile our kitchen floor.
I want to buy fancy tiles, too.
I want new shoes. Lots of new shoes. Snazzy and not so snazzy. Walking shoes, mostly. Also pretty ones.
I want new jeans. I want them in every color The Gap has. I want to toss them out and buy new ones when I lose more weight (if I ever get past this semi-plateau).
I want a digital Rebel camera; Iím saving my pennies for that anyway but I want it now, if not sooner.
I want to buy books in hardcover, not wait till paperback or take them out of the library, which ends up often costing more money anyway because of the dratted fines.
I want to try Kobe beef. And Beluga caviar. And black truffles, the kind the pigs dig out. By the plateful.
I want a Jacuzzi on our back deck. Of our new house. On a tree lined street. Which I want to buy too.
I want to pay a babysitter twelve bucks an hour and not flinch, then go out and dance till dawn or at least enjoy dinner and a movie. Both in the same night, to boot.
I want to try a weekend at an upscale spa, mud baths and herbal masks and beautiful scenery and massages and incredible meals.
I want a horse. Well, maybe not. But maybe, what the hell.
And a helicopter, for that matter.
And a tree. Tall and strong and leafy, to lean against on a hot summer day and read a book. And build a tree house in its branches. And put a swing hanging down from the thickest branch. A kind that turns deep red-gold in the fall.
Also a chauffer.
And a hybrid Lexus. Hey, theyíre coming out next year, right?
And a cook. Or at least lots of free time to cook my own gourmet meals.
Maybe Iíll just pay for a ride on a helicopter, come to think of it. Just one ride. That wouldnít rack up too much visa debt.
Did I mention I want a new house? On an acre of land but easily accessible to everything. And beautiful, with lots of character, either old but in perfect condition or new and wonderfully interesting, not a McMansion.
Can I buy some close friends that live nearby? Or should I just buy my close friends houses nearby so they can move here?
I want to buy a new president, one who makes sense and has a heart that beats with real blood that he hasnít already sold to big corporations. How much would that cost, do you think?
I want to buy floor time therapy for every child compromised by autism. Ten hours a week with a skilled therapist.
I want to buy freedom for the overworked and overwhelmed. I want to buy fair wages for all.
I want to buy clean water, air, and land. More frogs, their thin permeable skins unpolluted and healthy.
Okay, back to me. I want to buy velvet and silk and gold and Maryland blue crab and fresh raspberries and pear jam to eat while wrapped in my silks and bread pudding flown in from New Orleans to eat after and a huge bubbly clawfoot bathtub and a deep but firm king sized bed and 1020 thread count sheets and sheer curtains that blow in the gentle breeze which Iíll buy too. And sunshine and good times and laughter. I want to buy lots of laughter.
I think I need to cut up my credit cards. I can barter for the laughter and save up for the rest.
My alma mater is doing something extremely cool. According to The New York Times:
Aiming to get more low-income students to enroll, Harvard will stop asking parents who earn less than $40,000 to make any contribution toward the cost of their children's education. Harvard will also reduce the amount it seeks from parents with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000.
"When only 10 percent of the students in elite higher education come from families in the lower half of the income distribution, we are not doing enough," said Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard.
I love that.
I started thinking about it today, trying to remember what the socioeconomic issues were when I was there. Truth is, I know there weren't that many lower income kids, but I wasn't too aware of money as a big issue. Not like Los Angeles. Not even like Princeton, which I visited a few times during college. Princeton was like an elite boarding school only at the university level. Very much not my world.
Harvard, though. Well, a sweetheart of a guy in my freshman dorm was the first kid from Harlem to get into the school. His best buddy was later my sophomore roommate. She too was from a poor family, but New England countryside rather than inner city. Did they feel out of place there? I think they did, yes. In fact, I know they did. Both dropped out, though he later came back and I believe finished his education.
Truth is, it was fine to be middle class and ethnic and even a little odd at Harvard. You simply didn't socialize much with jet set if you were, but there were plenty of other interesting folk who liked you just fine. But it wasn't so easy to be from a lower class, underprivileged background. Nobody ostracised you but you also didn't know the unspoken rules of this society and there was hardly anyone else like you to hold hands and go through it together.
So I think what they're doing now, balancing things out, making it more accessible for people who can't afford even part of the cost, that's a mitzvah. It could change the nature of the undergraduate experience for everyone and certainly for the better.
(Thanks for the heads-up on this, Chris!)
I may be the last reasonably well educated person on the planet to discover this, but did you know the Brontosaurus never existed? Apparently the big skeleton I used to gaze at in a kind of "wow, big!" way at the Museum of Natural History in New York was an inadvertent fake. A paleontologist found the body of an Apatosaurus but no head. Looked around the vicinity, found a head, stuck it on. Much, much later people figured out, well, no, that's not the right head. It belongs to this other dino dude, the Camarasaurus. But in the meantime, at least three museums had done the same thing, stuck one animal's head on another animal's body and displayed it proudly in their central hall. The mistake has since been rectified. Twenty years ago or thereabouts, they switched the heads around and fixed the labels and now the Apatosaur has an appropriately small, narrow head instead of the flat, wide one I remember.
I don't know why I find this amusing. Maybe because it seems like we're light years past finding dinosaur bones and imagining fire breathing dragons and then whoa, we're really not. We know so little that we stick a random head on a body and call it a beast it never was and stand tall in our incomprehension.
Alas, poor Brontosaur. I knew ye well. Or thought I did.
I've been reading This Woman's Work for a while now, since Dawn linked to an essay of mine in Hidden Laughter. I've been moved by her eloquence and thoughtfulness as she journeys through the process of what I have no doubt will culminate in an emotionally satisfying open adoption. It's made me much more aware of the issues involved. So I was particularly struck by my mother's latest entry, an adoption story from a different perspective.
I know a number of families where one or more children are adopted. Sometimes I've wondered about how the parents see this child who is theirs by heart and nurturing but not body and blood. As my mom's story illustrates, this child has her own heritage, his own gene pool, and whatever comes to us by nature rather than nurture. But you know? Dan is not of my blood. And he's closest family, his face and mannerisms as familiar as my own, if not more (I don't generally have long conversations with my mirror). I think there can be something wonderful about bringing new bloodlines into a family. About the surprises that can bring.
I also like the idea of an open adoption. All else being equal, that child grown to a man or woman can have two heritages, a multiplicity of backgrounds to draw on and define him or herself. Maybe that's overly sentimental, but it would be nice if it were true, wouldn't it? And maybe sometimes it is.
(No, I'm not considering adoption. Or a second child, for that matter. I just find the topic fascinating.)
When I was in college and after, my friends and I made mix tapes for each other. We also let our eyes wander through each other's record/tape/CD collections and made tapes to take home and enjoy. I don't think anyone thought of it as illegal even though technically it probably was. It was just what everyone did, and it was no big deal. It meant sampling things you'd never buy yourself. It meant learning something about each other. It was pretty damned cool.
How is it different now, when people can rip CDs right into their computers and then burn CDs filled with MP3s to give each other, when it's possible to go to the library and borrow CDs that you then rip and keep forever, when anyone with an internet hookup can go online, find a P2P network and "borrow" the music from anonymous friends? Yes, it's illegal and the music companies have made it crystal clear they consider it a horror. I'm not arguing the validity of it right now -- many have on each side and many more will -- I'm just contemplating the fact that this kind of music sharing has been part of life as long as I can remember, only now it's on a large scale and it's therefore considered Wrong. The definitions of our actions sometimes shift even if the actions themselves remain the same.
Apple blew it. They had a great new trick up their sleeves, a cute new mini iPod, small enough to slip into your pocket and in an array of shiny new colors, and they blew it by overcharging. What were they thinking? Is Steve Jobs so out of touch with a normal sized bank account that he thinks everyone considers $250 pocket change, impulse spending money? What the hell?
If the point was to compete with the flash MP3 players (and according to his comments during the keynote, that was exactly the point) then why price the thing so much higher? If you offer iPod quality and a much bigger capacity (4 gig rather than 256 meg) but at a similar price point, you wipe the floor with your competition. And you stand strong even after your competition comes out with 4 gig models of their own (which sounds like it'll happen soon). But if you offer the cuteness that is a mini iPod but demand just $50 less than a full-on 15 gig model for ELEVEN GIG less room, well, your customer base suddenly shrank to the people who think a Hummer is a smart car to drive. People more interested in what looks macho than what's good.
I'm also dismayed for Apple that they upped the capacity of their low end model from 10 gig to 15 but didn't touch the middle model. Let's see, I want to buy an iPod. I can't afford/don't need a 40 gig at $500. I now have a choice. 15 gig at $300 or 20 gig at $400. Five gig difference for a hundred dollars? Um, why bother? I can think of other things to do with that hundred bucks, y'know? And I bet a whole lot of other people can too. What Apple just did was boost the sales of their low end model, losing themselves handfuls of those C-notes in the process.
I'm glad I bought that 30 gig iPod last week. Glad I didn't wait. I'm a Mac aficionado from, would you believe, my first Mac Plus, back in 1987, back when a hard drive was always external and was such a relief because it meant no more floppy swapping. I will probably always buy Apple products because they're elegant and intelligent. And the iPod is no exception. But what were they thinking when it came to price? I'm not happy that I have to pay for the iPhoto upgrade either, but that's different. It makes sense. Bundled with iDVD, iMovie, and GarageBand (also iTunes but that's still a free download), that's a lot of bang for your fifty bucks. That makes fiscal sense. Why give it away if you don't have to? But the mini iPods? Two hundred fifty dollars? Come on.
On an unrelated iPod note: does anyone know exactly what the advantage of the dock is? I've got one, comes with the 30 gig, but I can't figure out why it's any better than just using the firewire cable to go directly from my iPod to my PowerBook. Is it just for people with desktop computers who don't want to fiddle with the connections behind their computers all the time or is there something else I should know?
I used to look up at the dark sky, cloudy with maybe a star or two showing through the city haze or gaze around the room I was in, looking at the various objects, so tangible, each with a history: even if it was just a plastic molded toy stamped with "Made in China" on the bottom, it had come on a boat or in a plane, sat on a store shelf, had a life. Or maybe I'd walk down the night-lit street, slick with rain, and listen to the clomp of my boots on the sidewalk. I used to do all that on New Year's Eve and think, "Will this feel different tomorrow? Will I be a different person, will my body's cells have metamorphosed, become new in the new year? Will I be me in the future which is next year which is tomorrow which is still unknown but approaching fast, so very fast?"
I was young, I'll grant you that. After a while, after several years slid past, I knew tomorrow is tomorrow whether or not it's also next year. And then I stopped celebrating so much. Why make such a big deal about the click of one number over to another? It's so random. So arbitrary.
But that too is wrong, I think. So what if it's a number? It's also a marker. You can hold a year in your mind, it's both long and short enough to sum up. It becomes something concrete. 1992, that was a good year for me. A belated six week honeymoon in Europe at its core. 2001, a very bad year due to the obvious and also some personal traumas. 2003, pretty good, in all. The beginning of some long-awaited transformations.
I've had a problem celebrating something so Christian at its core. The year coming is two thousand and four anno domini, the year of our lord. Whose lord? Not mine. As a dating system, it's relatively recent. In Europe, it wasn't used much until Charlemagne's reign in the late 8th century. But when I started poking around online, I found out that New Years itself has a longer tradition. Much, much longer. Try four millennia. The Babylonians celebrated New Years. But they, like modern-day Jews, celebrated in the spring. Which makes more sense to me. Spring, awakening, greening, renewal. But Julius Caesar presided over the creation of the Julian calendar, which we still use. He and the senate picked January 1st as the date to celebrate. January, ruled by the two-faced god Janus. March, ruled by Mars. Roman gods. And the days of the week? Norse gods: Wednesday = Wotan's day, Friday = Freya's day. We still pay homage to or at least touch upon the ancient gods in our daily life. Which puts the anno domini into perspective. For me, it's all of a piece. Other people's belief systems become part of the fabric of our language, the symbols transmuted.
Apparently the ancient Babylonians made New Years resolutions too. The most popular, according to one site I read, was to return borrowed farm equipment. I wonder if our most common resolutions say as much about our culture? Lose weight, exercise more, spend more time with friends and family, stop smoking, be less stressed, enjoy life more. It does paint a portrait of the twenty first century, doesn't it?
This year I resolve to live in my life more completely and with more conviction. Oh yes, and I'll return that plow too.
I havenít written about the holidays yet, have I? And here it is, the middle of Hannukah. Also Christmas Eve. Not to mention three days after the solstice, five days before my birthday, and eight days before the advent of the new year. Smack dab in the center of the winter holiday season.
We have a menorah with lovely multicolored candles, tall and delicate, which means I break more than I light, but hey. Theyíre pretty. I donít know the prayer well. In fact, every year I have to ferret out the email I got when Damian was a baby and we celebrated for the first time, I have to print it out and read it (badly) from a wavering page. Iím good at lighting the candles, though. The ones I didnít break, I mean. And Iím very good at watching them burn down in a dark room. Ghostly. Remembrance of a miracle of light that took place thousands of years ago, witnessed and celebrated by people whose blood flows in my veins, whose genes determine the color of my hair and the shape of my nose, whose sacrifices and struggles shape the fact of my existence.
We also have a fir tree with tiny white lights splashed like dewdrops all over the green along with red and gold balls we bought the first year we had a tree, that first year of Damianís life, and other ornaments accumulated in the five years since: the silver icicles and stars my mom brought one year, the gold doves she brought another, the stuffed penguin on a sled we bought at a tacky but fun craft fair, the Pikachu with flashing lights someone gave us along the way, the elegant blue glass ball we acquired one year in Cambria, the trolley car we picked up in San Francisco, and more. A tree filled with memories and meaning, just the way we wanted it. On top, a star. Gold. With six points. A Star of David for a non-Christian tree.
Weíre not a traditionally religious family (can you tell?). Iím Jewish by culture and ancestry and that suits me. I was raised to value my Jewishness while not actually knowing much of the rituals. That doesnít suit me so well. I wish I knew more. I wish it felt more organic to my life. But I do like that Iíve never been forced into a box labeled with any particular religion and yet Iíve been given the awareness of a long, rich, and painful heritage. My son is fully Jewish by the tenets of the religion, but heís also half Gentile. Dan is himself born of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. Damianís heritage is undefined, or maybe over-defined. A plethora of possible definitions. And so perhaps he can enjoy it all. His friend Corey doesnít celebrate Christmas. His friend Jules doesnít celebrate Hannukah. Damian celebrates both. It works for us.
The point, I think, is to celebrate the dark of winter, the coming of the light, the pleasure of my motherís company, the holiday from work and school, the cyclical calendar shift from a waning old year to a waxing new year with its gift of possibility, anticipating the rotation of the earth and the newness of the approaching spring while we look back at the last year and contemplate what changed and what didnít. Since my birthday falls just three days before New Yearís, I end up looking at my face in the mirror and contemplating my mortality, my regrets and achievements, hopes and fears. Mostly hopes, though, Iím an optimist.
Ultimately, itís simpler to just look at the tiny lights on the tree in a dark room filled with holiday music, watch the candles burn down on the menorah, and sip a cup of tea with a spicy warmth that curls into my chest.
I like this season.
On our long ride north from Los Angeles to Cambria last week, we passed through town after town in the dark, with long stretches of little but moonlight shining on the water to our left. It felt a little spooky sometimes, like riding through a dreamscape.
Then we got to Oxnard, the first big town up the coast. Civilization, as punctuated by Ė what else? Ė big shopping malls with chain stores. Our car sped past huge signs for The Gap, Home Depot, Cost PlusÖ you know the drill. Walk through any mall and most main streets in the country and youíll see Victoriaís Secret, Starbucks, Old Navy, Pier One Imports, Eddie Bauer, KB Toys, Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, and on and on. You could even picture the logos and the store dťcor as you read through that list, couldnít you? It was odd, though, driving past those logos on a moonlit night an hour or so into our journey through the quiet. It felt very much like weíd traveled so far only to find ourselves back where weíd started, like poor Alice running with the Red Queen.
I could rant about the mallification of America (and the rest of the industrialized world, to a somewhat lesser extent), about how it smashes individuality and small manufacturers, how it stamps out quirks in favor of lowest common denominator, generically pleasing mass produced objects that appeal to the largest population spread, but I wonít. Even though I do hate all that. Even though itís one of the things I like so much about Cambria, that theyíve outlawed chain stores in their little town, that if you shop for clothes, chances are youíll find something youíve never seen before. The townís two bookstores have their own local flavor and slant, as do all the artisan glass and other tchotchka stores lining Burton and Main. Even the Cookie Crock isnít a cookie cutter duplicate of every other supermarket in a hundred mile radius.
I like that. No, I love it. I spent more money than I had on clothes at the New Moon boutique because they fit my style so much better than the preppy clothes I find everywhere else and there will never be a New Moon opening up at a mall near me. Unlike the mall that just opened near me at Sunset and Vine, a cavernous, unfinished mass of concrete that only has two stores so far. New stores? Interesting stores, with unique finds on every rack? Um. No. Borders and Bed, Bath and Beyond. All that effort, all that construction (years, it took) and we end up with the exact same stores I can find just two miles to the southwest.
Itís easy to condemn the huge chains, but theyíre a seductive poison. Even a pleasant poison. I like the towels at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I like their linens. Weíve bought ceiling fans (blue! glass! pretty!) and kitchen faucets (shiny! sleek! functional!) at Home Depot, and the selection there beats the pants off its local predecessor, Builders Emporium. Sometimes these chains are actually, yíknow, good. And thereís an unexpected side effect: these big regional/national/international stores become something we can share. If I say I bought a pair of jeans at The Gap and I adore them, you can go there and try them on too. Even if you live in New York. Or Seattle. Or Baton Rouge. If someone on an online forum says she found a great bookcase at Cost Plus, I can go check it out and maybe buy some too. We live farther apart these days, at least my friends do and I suspect yours do too. Itís nice to still be able to talk shopping. That sounds superficial when I say it that way, but I donít think it is. Toni can help me decorate my house from two thousand miles away, I can help my mother shop for a car from four thousand miles away. It means we're more completely in each other's lives. The internet -- websites, email, AIM Ė that all plays a part, but so in their odd way do the ubiquitous chains.
We took a rest stop on our way up the coast. Damian had to pee. We drove through the largest outdoor mall Iíve ever seen; the stores were islands in the midst of a vast parking lot ocean. Big islands. We pulled up to the Office Depot island, went inside. As we walked through the store past rows of inkjet paper and fancy waste paper baskets, I felt a kind of strange awe at the vastness of the place, at the ultimate familiarity of it.
I wonder if thatís why the chains have caught on so big. Itís not just about business practices. Itís about comfort. In a world so confusing, sometimes itís nice to find familiar places wherever you go, as if the world is just one big town. Itís less intimidating that way.
Iím still against the spread of mall-fed homogeneity, donít get me wrong. But itís not quite as simple as that, is it?
I just read in TidBITS that they're trying a new format. Adam Engst and the staff write the weekly email newsletter for Macheads essentially as a labor of love. They also write how-to-be-a-computer-geek books for (presumably) more money. They've now combined the two, or rather, invented something in between: Take Control ebooks. The idea is that we often need more information on a piece of software than the manual provides (or in the case of OS X, the nonexistent manual) but that we don't want to fork over a twenty for some big clunky book that takes up too much space on our shelves and will be obsolete within the year. Thus, short techie ebooks in PDF format. Easily updatable, right where you need them (with your computer at all times) and cheaper too, at five bucks a pop.
It's interesting. The web has changed the way I search out information, especially pertaining to computers. My first resource is always Google, my second is to search forums, and only then if I run dry do I go out and find a book on the subject. But of course random web pages and forum denizens aren't always as expert as one would like and you probably won't find what you want -- everything you want -- in one place. An ebook does seem easier all around while still fitting into the new paradigm of finding everything at your fingertips. You even download the things, after all. But I'm not sure five dollars is the sweet spot for this convenience. Two or three, absolutely. Five I have to think about for a minute longer. I'm sure I'll buy a few of these new books, though, if only to support the concept and the authors. I like this group and what they stand for. And I'd like to see them succeed in this.
Did you know Hurricane Juan tore through Nova Scotia last Sunday? Did you know it devastated the Public Gardens in Halifax, overturned boats, smashed cars, tore down power lines and reduced wood buildings to rubble? My mother just got her electricity back today. Six days later.
Funny thing. When my mom and brother called me Monday morning to let me know they'd weathered the weather but boy was it a big one, I looked online. Nothing in the LA Times or the New York Times. CNN had it, but only as a link on the sidebar. The worst storm to hit the Maritimes in two decades and it was virtually invisible on the US side of the border.
Was everyone exhausted from covering the (admittedly gargantuan) Isabel or does Canada simply not register on the radar map? It's still a state of emergency no matter how you look at it. What gives? When is news not news?