January 30, 2006

"the trick is not to get frightened..."

So says a character in Wendy Wasserstein's play Isn't It Romantic, regarding the prospect of living alone and not sharing a life with a partner. Ten years older than I am, Wasserstein wrote plays and essays described the dilemmas of a generation -- the baby boom. She was on the leading edge, and I, trailing in her wake.

Wendy Wasserstein died today, at age 55, leaving one daughter, Lucy Jane, age 6 or 7, in addition to the living members of her "family of origin." The news reports say she "succumbed," after a "battle with lymphoma."

I am sorry her death was so horrid and painful, yet I can't help wondering: why is being treated for cancer a "battle" one might win, when so few other illnesses, mental and physical, receive this war-like description in the obituaries?

I imagine Wasserstein's definition of family was much broader than her blood relatives: she was good friends with countless playwrights and actors she knew through Yale Drama School. In her plays and essays, she depicted to my friends and me what awaited us when we left college.

She posed the big question previous generations of upper-middle class women did not have to face. Should we "have it all"? Is that what we wanted? The ages and stages of womanhood, from college through middle age, and how these stages transformed themselves, perhaps when we were not yet able to understand the difference between how we had been raised and what we were suddenly expected to become.

My understanding was that women wanted equity, not necessarily equality, with men. Men do so much -- play such games -- that women need not emulate to prove their capabilities in the workplace, and so little, statistically, to pick up their share of running a household and child-rearing while their spouses/partners hold down equally demanding jobs.

Yes, the trick remains, "not to get frightened." Hearing some of my friends' divorce stories, and their realization that none had ever lived in a home alone before the decree came down, I realized I have practice and am mostly comfortable with my living situation, where no one squeezed the toothpaste from the middle excecpt me, not to mention more major eccentricities.

I know I am rare: I have never rented an apartment. I have owned the two places I have lived. I have never had roommates -- I could afford not to, and couldn't think of anyone who would want to live with me, a woman who woke up screaming in the middle of the night, with bad dreams and excrutiating migraines. (My housekeeping/domestic skills are far from being on a par with the consistency of my insomnia and headaches.)

I saw Isn't It Romantic in 1983 with a WASPy friend, to whom I had to explain the few Jewish jokes I knew.

Much had ostensibly been resolved or remedied by 1970s feminism by the time we reached the workplace. I did not, for example, have to type to get an entry, entry level editorial (journalism) job, nor did I make coffee for my boss. Indeed, the woman came to work frequently without Tampax, cigarettes, or car/bus fare home, and I often spilled my coffee over my desk, because I wasn't awake enough to hold the cup, nor did I care to be.

However, as an editor 15 years my senior, 20+ years ago, accountable for a $1 million-plus magazine budget, she ought to have learned to be responsible enough to remember when she had her period, and learned long ago not to leave the house without what my grandmother would have called her "mad money," the cash you carry when the situation becomes one you wish to leave. I hold that belief to this day, and have added only the ubiquitous cell phone for further safety.

I lost all respect for this grown woman who counted on her under-, underling to keep her in cigarettes, cab fare, and Tampax. When I said, "isn't there something wrong with this picture?", she didn't get it. What part of, "I get paid pennies an hour; you make something resembling a real salary," did she miss?

The whole damn thing. I had to explain it to her. After that, she didn't ask for cash or Tampax anymore -- she took her begging down the hall to the art department, where pages were designed.

No one there stood up to her to say, "if you're the responsible adult in charge of putting out this magazine, and you can't remember a token to get home on the bus, exactly what part of your juvenile behavior is meant to earn our respect?"

I couldn't find any part. And when I left, she took the staff (all 6 of us) out to lunch, and was pleased as punch to make a fuss over her gold AmEx card. I couldn't resist, innocently (yea, okay, not so much), saying, "when I was a teenager, I didn't know AmEx came in any other color."

This woman also said, "you don't want to grow up and be like A." A. was our contributing editor, who came and went as she pleased, single at 40, and not looking to change her marital/partnership status. From where I sat, at 23, A. had the life closest to the one I wanted to achieve, the one where you earn money on your own terms, vacation when you would like, and rely on a close circle of friends.

I think A. was straight, though it was she who pointed out that it would not be appropriate to describe the window of a San Francisco kitchenware shop by its predominant design, blue jeans with different color handkerchiefs in different pockets.

I almost fell out of my chair when I heard her tactfully explain why this was not suitable for a PG, half-Midwestern audience, not in the age of AIDS in particular. My boss, the editor, lived 15 blocks from Greenwich Village, and she had never observed that the handkerchiefs were more than a fashion statement.

At it happens, I have known for 25+ years about the handkerchiefs and their symbolism. (When A. had to explain to the editor-without-a-clue why the term "honey pots" was inappropriate, I almost fell off my chair.)

I have never been in a corporate workplace long enough not to make sure I took all the vacation I was allowed, and I announced I was taking two extra days at Christmas, for which I didn't care if I were paid. I was well on my way to, who do you have to fuck to get out of here? I quit before I verbalized that sentiment, went to graduate school, and never held a 9 to 5 job again.

Wendy Wasserstein knew intimately the lives of women like me and our choices, and she remains a woman I deeply admire, one who had the courage of her convictions, regardless of where they led her.

Late at night, when I can't sleep, the line from Isn't It Romantic reverberates: the trick remains not to get frightened. Morning will, after all, arrive soon.

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January 28, 2006

My father, once and again

No one in my immediate family recognized the anniversary of my dad's death, save me. So many years on, I have done what I think my father would have, what made his friends see him as generous and well as nurturing: I take one or two close friends out for dinner in a nice restaurant, a place my father might have gone.

This year, I took CC and her husband. CC remembers my father well, from when we were in our early 20s. I didn't know until this past week that my dad used to call CC, to make sure she was being good to me....he knew what was going on between CC and me, and while we never acknowledged my sexual preference at the time, it was evident to him how important she was, and has again come to be, to me.

I doubt my father ever had a conversation with The Croquet Player -- the only time I think their paths may have remotely crossed was in 1980, the first time TCP and I slept together, a night followed by my returning back to my dorm with my parents there, early for once in their lives, to meet me for lunch. My father asked: "so, what time did you get to bed last night? Get any sleep?"

This was how we communicated: much was alluded to and otherwise acknowledged, but rarely, if ever, did my father directly say what he was thinking regarding what he knew (and what he, sometimes incorrectly assumed) about my romantic life.

Actually, the indirect, the unsaid, formed a great deal of my time with TCP: for reasons that escape me, he usually knew what I was thinking, and I knew, without asking, what was on his mind.

The other day, CC said how glad she was that I had never married TCP. I reiterated the line I came up with 25 years ago: "it would be the only shotgun wedding on record where the gun was aimed at the bride to put her out of her misery beforehand."

CC expects he'll reappear in my life, on my doorstep, as had been his wont for 22+ years, when I least expect to see him. I dreamt about him the other night, an unusual character in my dreams. I left a message on his machine, then I searched the Web for his activities: he is alive and well and playing croquet, approaching his busy season, and that is all I need to know. I fear that I will dream and awaken one morning knowing he has died. I've had those premonitions before, twice, and have been correct on both occasions.

What TCP, CC and I have in common is that none of us anticipated living as long as we have: TCP didn't think he would see 30; CC's number was 36 (Marilyn Monroe's age), and mine was 35. Ten years later, we are all still here, equally puzzled by our lack of plans for this point in our lives.

I imagined by now I would have published a book or two; instead I have a 17-year-old novel in manuscript tucked away in a closet, and every time I have an idea for a new novel, depression overtakes me, reducing any impulse I may have had to do anything that requires more than getting out of bed and feeding the off-White Rabbit.

What I could not have foreseen, in my early 20s, was how debilitating the depression would continue to be, nor could I have foreseen my father's sudden death. The signs may have been there, but I wasn't reading them: I was Daddy's little princess until he died, and that's a hard place to move on from, even in the Wonderland I appear to inhabit. My dad, TCP, CC and I have all worked at being self-destructive, or perhaps that was in our genetic codes.

In the end, my dad may have died an untimely (when is it ever timely?) death, but the lesson there was not simply "take better care," but, perhaps more importantly, "life is short. Try to make sure you enjoy the ride." As far as I know, my father had a damn good ride, inner demons not withstanding.

I hope to do the same.

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January 18, 2006

Alice does Aruba -- and some other Caribbean islands

If you were wondering where Alice has been, she was on Aruba, an island dedicated to tourism seven miles off the coast of Venezuela. While Alice uses Haiti as a comparison base for all other Caribbean islands, she recognizes development and over-development when she sees it. Alice lives in a high-rise building in New York. She doesn't want to contend with an elevator on vacation, yet the island abounds with high-rise beachfront time-share condos.

Alice is not fond of flying five hours to arrive at a spot that could be beach-condo-anywhere, with activity sheets offered as if she were in summer camp. It amused Alice to participate, for the first time, in water aerobics class. Next to the majority of the group -- mostly age 60 to 70 -- and sufficiently overweight to make Alice look skinny, she looked like Esther Williams.

Apart from that, she swam, sunned, read, ate, strolled along the beach, and watched cable TV. (She found it very odd to watch the local New York channels with their snowy weather predictions when we knew it would be 80+ degrees every day, with perhaps 10 minutes of drizzle and an hour of clouds each day.)

What cable/satellite TV has done to the global village is frightening. On Carriacou, an island off the coast of Grenada that is unspoiled and not developed as a tourist safe-water, water aerobics at 11, blackjack at 1, and bridge at 3 kind of place, before cable TV, there was practically no crime. Now, with the world at their TVs, and 24 hours a day of crime and drug stories, theft has become a serious problem. See what too many episodes of Law & Order will do to an island?

Wherever she goes, Alice welcomes her time in the sun -- she appreciates when it stays light until 7 pm vs. 4:30 pm in New York. The shrink thinks it's a good idea too -- unfortunately he can't write a prescription spelling out how much real sunlight she needs, so there is no way to write off the trip.

The time-share vacation is a curious concept: you purchase an annual week, then go to the same spot, same room, same time next year until you die or sell the share. These time-shares are generally offered on the more developed Caribbean islands and elsewhere.

Many people own the week or weeks they stay; others, like my next-door-neighbor, a former-judge with whom I've previously been to Carriacou, rent a week and invite friends to split the cost. We both prefer the unspoiled, bring-your-own-frozen-meat and other pantry items, scenery in Carriacou to the sameness of Aruba's tourism machine.

What amazes me is that people can plan so far ahead as to know that week 3 is theirs in, say, the Aruba Beach Club, and want to return to the same time, same place -- particularly one devoid of local culture, and with an astonishing resemblance to Miami Beach, minus the beautiful people. Why leave your house if not to explore what's in the world, unless you're running errands like going to the bank or the grocery store?

I ask this as someone who visited Haiti at least 20 times in the last 30 years -- an island practically devoid of food, electricity and drinkable water. Only in the last few years did we have a telephone at the beach. What I wouldn't give now for the time I spent there -- I didn't appreciate the fact that I could truly get away from it all -- no one could call, write, e-mail or otherwise communicate with me, unless in person.

Haiti is the least developed nation in the Western Hemisphere, which is another way of saying it is the poorest country with the most fucked-up political situation you will run across anywhere in the world. One day the president is in; next day he's turned out of office in a coup.

Since Baby Doc was deposed and departed, chaos has reigned. One thing I will say in favor of a dictatorship is that at least you could figure out who to pay off and know the money would serve both your interest and that of the recipient. At the time of Baby Doc's departure, my family had a jojoba plantation that, when ripe, could serve Haitians as food, salable oil and otherwise be completely useful to add to the agriculture that remained in the poor soil there.

However, we never could find out what happened to the plantation, as it was guarded by a Baby Doc operative, and once Duvalier flew the coup, courtesy of the U.S., all bets were off. That was 20 years ago next month, and the only time my family ever discussed current events. I was brought up not to discuss politics in a dictatorship, and what has happened to my beloved Haiti is more than I want to mention here.

It makes me sad, too: the last time I saw my father alive was January 6, 2001, when we were returning from Haiti. I remember him promising me from his first-class airline seat, that he was going to get clean, and stay clean. Less than three weeks later, he was dead, and my world hasn't been the same since.

My father taught me to love travel, and I do. It feels appropriate that I was wearing one of his old sweaters on the plane coming home, and I inadvertently left it on the seat. Whatever else I may think of American Airlines, my trips to the Caribbean remind me that my father's spirit is there, in those planes headed south and on the land below.

Leaving his sweater seems an unconscious talisman so I will never forget what we had there, in Haiti; the love I cling to regardless of the years passing.

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January 07, 2006

Next up, Groundhog's Day

Alice doesn't have much to say in favor of January, except that it marks the end of the holiday trifecta. Other than that, it is a cold, dark month, and all Alice and the off-White Rabbit can do is wait for Groundhog's Day.

This January will mark 15 years since Alice's father died. There are no words for what she feels. He has been gone 1/3 of Alice's life, a fraction that astounds her. How to explain, that the world moves on, and part of Alice will never be able to accept the whys and wherefores about her father that led to his early demise.

There are some conversations Alice has tried to have with her family, and they aren't interested. Isn't insanity doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results? If so, Alice has a place to go, to hide within herself, where she knows what to expect and hopes that some day, it will provide comfort.

Meanwhile, Alice is on hiatus. Her brain is frozen. She will, however, defrost -- preferably sooner rather than later -- but she's not sure her opinion counts for very much when brain freezes hit. Perhaps after the meltdown is complete, she will reassemble the pieces, and imitate the person she once was, the person she can be when her synapses are not short-circuiting.

For now, Alice is off to warmer climates. The tropics are very compelling in winter. Perhaps the change of venue will help the brain reassemble itself into something usable and witty. One day, Alice believes it will. When it does, she will be the first to let you know.

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