March 14, 2006

The inmates have taken over the asylum...

while I have been running away.

It hit home today, once again, that the inmates are my peers. They shared elementary school, high school, college, and other quasi-academic venues with me.

The man who writes front-page New York Times articles covering Bush and Iraq is the boy who my entire sixth-grade class pegged as "queer," in the elementary school vernacular (not to be confused with current gay-pride reclamation of the word).

The boy who graduated a year ahead of me in high school has made his name as my state's attorney general (ruining the careers of many from our alma mater ) in his securities industry cleanup. Now I get invitations to fund-raisers for his campaign for state governor. Governor? This guy wasn't popular enough in high school to be president of the student council.

If I don't know the people writing the best-sellers, I do know the people who edit and publicize them. I danced at the wedding of the New York Times op-ed editor. At that wedding I met the folks who got me my freelance gig at that same newspaper. I was there as a guest of the bride, a best-selling feminist author I'd met at a writer's colony.

Last night I checked the credits for one of my favorite TV shows; in my 20s, I drank nightly for several summers and swam in Vermont with one of the producers, a woman to whom I am related through fewer than six degrees of separation: her father coached a national football team owned by a man whose mistress was my father's first cousin. Small fucking world.

Where have I been, while all around me have become such high achievers? Alive and stumbling in the nervous breakdown lane, making large contributions to members of the American Psychiatric Association and to shareholders in every large pharmaceutical company on the New York Stock Exchange.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda -- well, as it happens, couldn't. Depression is polio of the brain, and there are times my mind needs a wheel chair. When it doesn't, I am off and running, usually as far as I can. It is the only way I don't feel guilty about being self-employed and not producing anything salable. It also affords me some time away from the daily phone calls from my mother, who has taken to calling attention to odd postmarks recently.

As it happens, the year I turned 38 I was diagnosed with osteopenia, precursor to osteoporosis, the disease of disintegrating bones that makes old ladies break their hips.

My solution? Take my calcium and get on a plane. See the world before I crumble. I've succeeded there, six continents in six years: according to the stamps in my passport,

North America: eight trips to the Caribbean -- three to Grenada/Carriacou, two to St. Martin/St. Barts, twice to Barbados, once to Aruba -- once to Mexico; and three or four trips to Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto to Montreal.

Europe: England and Switzerland mostly, the former for a couple of days each way to visit old haunts en route to Africa, the latter four or five times to see my best friend from grad school.

Africa: South Africa (twice) and Botswana, home of the five-star safari.

Australia: all over the East Coast, visiting a friend from my writer's colony, and all over New Zealand, where my best friend from high school lives. I stayed with them in Denmark, but that was another time, and an earlier passport.

South America: Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

Asia: China, Hong Kong (no visa, separate stamp, despite China's rule), Japan.

Next up, per the airline ticket on my refrigerator, is the Czech Republic, Hungary, and France.

I've been traveling for 30 years, sometimes as a student and others as a five-star Eloise, and I don't think I'll stop making plans any time soon, in part because I'm not sure how later will play out, either in terms of my body or the world-at-large.

I have great and horrific hotel stories, bad and worse air travel ones, and, within the U.S., tales that exemplify why a driver should come with whatever car I rent.

If auto makers really wanted to make their cars safe, they would forget about the you-need-your-oil-changed e-mail and concentrate on making a robotic chauffeur. You tell it your destination, and then sit back and enjoy the ride.

Drivers in New York, California, Florida, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina and places unknown can attest to that. My rent-a-car should come with a cautionary bumper sticker: driver doesn't know where she's going and cannot guarantee simultaneous navigation and maintenance of control of vehicle.

I do try to avoid Hertz and Avis in my travels: if there is a bus, a train, a plane, anywhere to get me to my destination that does not involve my having to merge onto highways, I'm there. It is the least I can contribute as my public service and civil duty to drivers everywhere.

I have changed planes in states I would be afraid to visit: Texas, Utah, Georgia and Colorado come to mind. (I do have friends in various parts of Texas, both in the blogosphere and from pre-computer days.) As airports go, I don't recommend Chicago, either, although I have had fun with friends there. Where white supremacists and old-fashioned bigots live, like Idaho, and the Carolinas (North and South), I would not, in the era of Bush, care to return.

For that matter, when I saw the "Jesus is looking after the New River Valley" billboard near the Appalachian trail in Virginia, I got very nervous. Had I not been to see an ur-WASP friend, I might have turned and run. Yet in all the years I vacationed in Haiti, I was not once afraid. No one was out to lynch me for being nominally Jewish, and a born and bred New Yorker. In small towns in the South? I had less confidence.

Given the malignant state of American "democracy," some dictatorships start looking benign by contrast. My father's long-ago comment echoes: "You don't talk politics in a dictatorship." He died before it came to pass that politics deteriorated to the blue-state, red-state level, and that talking politics could be more provocative here than in Athens, the ancient cradle of democracy.

My family visited Athens when I was a teenager, enamored more of room service than democracy, although in retrospect I am glad I climbed on the Parthenon just before a Plexiglas shell was designed to preserve it.

In our hotel suite were buttons to press to summon a housekeeper, a meal, or the bell man. That, however, was long ago and far away, the year we cruised the Greek islands, with a one-day stop (long enough for my non-kosher family) in Israel.

When I was younger, I was happy to tramp through Europe with one tiny suitcase, overnighters in one country one night and another the next, convinced I could get by with my semi-fluent French, regardless of my location -- Italy, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, even Austria or Germany. Now I most reluctantly wheel my own luggage and make sure I have health insurance and bail money wherever I go, and never spend fewer than three nights in one place.

In the U.S., I am sometimes convinced that Wonderland is a country unto itself, since I fail to comprehend so much of what happens west of the Hudson or anywhere near the Bible belt.

Besides, Wonderland is the asylum into which I was born. As I get older, I will know more and more of the asylum-runners, though I don't expect to be among them.

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Blogger glenda said...

Like your writing!

4:39 PM  
Blogger scout said...

Given your travels, I would say that running is a fine occupation. In the end, your experiences will comfort you far more than any accomplishments—real or imagined.

My partner and I visit coastal South Carolina every summer with her family. The only public Internet access available near our digs is at a Christian coffee house. Access is only a dollar per 10 minutes, but you have to sit under a giant Ten Commandments poster while you surf. So far I haven't been able to make that compromise.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

I know of a guy from middle school who was completely nerdy and is now off making movies in Hollywood. Go figure.

8:51 PM  
Blogger uknowwhoiyam said...

Like your writing!

Yes, me too!

Keep up the great work, Alice.

12:51 AM  

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