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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Blogger sporksforall said...

I've always liked the idea of "mad money." If I can't see the way out of something and/or have the means to make my exit, I'm not going to relax. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

This post is very well written. Of course I'm still ashamed to say I didn't know who Wendy was. :(

9:59 PM  

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