August 31, 2006


Like my nervous system, with its perpetual synaptic lapses, my thumb joints have been determined to be unstable. They had a few years, a hiatus, when both were operating on as close to full power as they had in 15 years. I could cook; carry groceries, mail and packages; wear clothes that buttoned and shoes that laced, and even change a light bulb or two. I could even hold your hand, or any part of my anatomy or yours I desired, depending on the occasion.

The skills that remain semi-intact are typing, telephoning, and channel-changing. Others I have misplaced are the ability to pour a pitcher of water, cut food with a knife or properly use a fork, wrestle lobster out of its shell, pick up a suitcase, hold onto a hand bar on a bus or subway, navigate car doors (forget driving), pick up a pen, shuffle papers, or use the computer mouse.

Say good-bye to 21st- century living. On a good day, I can punch the start button on the microwave. Sometimes I can wash my hair. Being left-handed (and left-thumb dominant), I have been challenged by the electric toothbrush, its control and my coordination.

So, off to a new orthopedist: he wanted to know what had befallen his colleagues in the hand trade. A misdiagnosis, a badly run office, a doctor who stopped taking my insurance: with that I stopped. Newsflash and note to self: never tell doctors -- except perhaps shrinks -- how his/her predecessors have failed you. They will mark you down as a difficult patient, never mind that you have been dealing with your body and its foibles low these 45 years, and the doctor has met you perhaps for five minutes.

There is no scheduled date for the reuse of my hands. I did not need the orthopedist to say "I don't know"; I could have told him that. All I wanted were new custom-made splints to immobilize my thumbs -- black is the latest color plastic to come down the designer splint turnpike. Its ever so chic and, more to the point, doesn't show the that dirt my several previous incarnations of the white knuckle-halfway-to-elbow or the beige pin-pricked (for air circulation) wrist-length plastic of earlier entries in the immobilization sweepstakes.

I realize this plaint of unusability has nothing on the situation in which my eldest cousin and her family found themselves a year ago. Apparently the proper term for the destination for those who made it out of New Orleans just ahead of Katrina -- for government purposes is an "evacuation center." Refugee camp is more like it. I doubt they ate Army surplus MREs; the military can't fill the beds it has available, so MRE shipments are not what the government would have had at the ready.

My cousin and her family had barely deposited her daughter at her dorm at Tulane when word of the storm's impending arrival made the news (at least locally; I don't know when Bush's official messenger sent him the word), and the entire family evacuated. Fortunately, they are a family of campers, accustomed to going without electricity and making do with the most rudimentary of lavatory facilities. Otherwise, it would have been rougher going in Jackson, Mississippi than it was.

It was a 21st-century involuntary migration: when the electric power went out, the family could have had a full tank of gas, and they could charge their cell phones in the car's cigarette outlet (and to think, no one wants me to smoke), get some semblance of news from the car radio, and press the four-way red blinker button to indicate a crisis.

My cousin's 13-year-old had, at that point in her life, experienced not one but two parents surviving cancer, on top of the Katrina evacuation, and I give her prize for surviving more instability than any other relative at that age. When I saw her last week, the Mississippi story bored her; to me, it would have been a life-changing event. In an instant, powerlessness and instability can overwhelm.

Had I been there, a medication crisis might have been imminent. Today, if I were not already prone to depression, my inability to do for myself would certainly have helped shove me over the edge.

Then, too, there is this past month's familial instability: some of you may remember I thought last October I should have gotten my brother a box of condoms for Christmas. Who knew how prescient that was?

For he has interjected into our tiny family the 21-year-old mother-to-be of his child (I thought, but did not ask, are you sure it's yours?), whose pregnancy (and his impending fatherhood) crushes any thought of stability, in my eyes, in his life. Couldn't he at least have waited until, say, Thanksgiving, to announce this girlfriend was pregnant? Given me a week or two to adjust to his most recent divorce status? Given him, maybe, a week on his own?

I have spoken to the girlfriend. In the Southern state in which they resided, Medicaid was taking on her prenatal care. In the state to which they moved less than a week after announcing the pregnancy, matters are not so clear cut. All I can think is, if we had national health insurance, my mother and I would not be singing my brother's wedding bell blues nearly so frequently. (The third time was not a charm.)

The girlfriend's mother is one year older than me. She works at the equivalent of an International House of Pancakes, in what capacity I did not ask. My mother once made pancakes, in the days when Aunt Jemima wasn't considered politically incorrect. Her mother married at 16, had a child at 17. At 17, I was a virgin. My mother married at 22. Given this disparity in generational ages, my mother is old enough to be this forthcoming infant's great-grandmother. As it stands, she can't muster the excitement for the assigned role of grandmother (my own chronological generational peg).

As for me, I am wondering: do I set up a college fund for this child, after she -- it's a girl -- is born and in possession of a Social Security number? Neither of her parents finished college. I am grateful that the mother to be (status as brother's wife or ultimately sister-in-law to be determined) speaks grammatical English, something wife #3 could not manage. Yet I can't help wondering: what are the chances brother and mother-of-his-child will be together in five years? What will it be like, to be Aunt Alice?

I may well be putting the proverbial cart before the horse. However, when my mind veers ahead of itself, it doesn't twist in any prettier a direction than my unstable thumb joints. It hurts.

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August 23, 2006

Where is the road to nowhere?

Alice has never considered herself an all-American girl, and news reports in the past few days confirm her assessment: Alice is positively un-American. She wouldn't want it any other way. The road less taken is hers, one where she can amble and wander and not worry about where she's going.

She is unlike, say, the average working U.S. American, who has, if lucky, two week's paid vacation annually. News reports say that less than half of those eligible choose to take even that paucity of time away from work. Even the TV news people sound shocked when reporting on this phenomenon.

After all, there's a reason they call it work. If it were meant to be fun and games, it would be called play.

Europeans average a minimum of five weeks paid vacation a year. You don't see the French hauling their asses into the office in the midst of a sweltering August. You don't see the Germans hunkered down at their desks 50 weeks a year. My friends who are the less-than-sybaritic Swiss think U.S. workers are fucking nuts. I quite agree.

Granted, Alice joined the ranks of the self-employed in part so she could close the office any damn time she pleased. So far this year, she has spent two weeks in the Caribbean, two weeks in Europe, and sojourned this summer for four to six days at a shot in three separate locations far from the concrete Wonderland she calls home.

This may be excessive, but honestly, Alice doesn't know how people with only two weeks a year to call their own find time even to pick up their dry cleaning. When Alice did toil in corporate America, she took a lunch hour. Sixty minutes in the middle of every work day, just like all the other employees.

She didn't even have a union to back her up. (Alice could be rented for union wages, only with time and a half for overtime, or compensatory time off.) Do either of these semi-sane offerings still exist? Not from what Alice has heard of late (obviously not around the water companies still have water coolers?)

Even when Alice was a child, her employer father gave his staff a week to 10 days for the Christmas/New Year's interval, when no one who has to be at work (and Alice has, previously) gets anything accomplished, plus two weeks of their own choosing, and all the major holidays.

Banks used to close at the drop of a hat. To this day, the post office seems to have more holidays than work days. Teachers get (and need) their breathing room. Corporate America, not so much. Next to not at all, it seems.

One commentator blamed the unpleasantness of travel -- whether the threat of terrorism or of the TSA was at fault was unclear -- and the high price of gasoline as reasons Americans don't take vacations. Well, stay home. Explore your house -- that can be an adventure in itself. See what your town has to offer. If all that's available is Wal-Mart and 500 channels with nothing on, perhaps it's time to reconsider your locale.

Get a hobby. Alice has watched more cooking, renovation, and athletic TV shows than any one woman should. "Reality" TV has competitions for everything from singing to hairdressing. Surely there is one contest that appeals. Teach the family to play poker. You had those children, maybe you should check up on their progress once in a while. If you're desperate, go jogging. Wander somewhere, anywhere.

Whatever you do, take your vacation. If you don't take it while you have it, you may lose your chance. Years ago, workers fought long and hard to get the right to take some time off. If you don't use that time, who will?

You won't have to worry about your job being outsourced to India where labor is cheaper. You will have become cheap labor yourself, and brought the third world (the lesser developed countries, as some would call them) home. And what an America that would be.

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August 15, 2006

Scenes from familyland

I. Familyland North
Familyland north bears some interesting resemblances to earlier generations of Alice's family. My cousin, not his wife, is the primary cook, just as my dad was the chef chez Alice when she was growing up.

His 12-year-old son spent Saturday night at a sleep-over, playing penny, nickel, dime poker; my dad had a weekly poker game -- with higher stakes -- every Wednesday night from 1964 until his death in 1991.

Their nine-year-old daughter got to taste Mommy's wine and comment on the flavor. She said it tasted orangy. She was right.

I am sure her wine vocabulary is considerably more expansive than that. For all I know, in a blind taste-test, she can distinguish a chardonney from a pinot grigio or a merlot from a shiraz.

Both children, when younger, drank their milk from wine glasses -- it was the only way their parents could convince them to swallow the beverage.

No matter the generation, the life lessons seem hard-wired. They are perhaps not the ones that most children learn, but in my family, they are just par for the course.

II. Familyland South

Alice thinks the ink on her brother's third divorce papers may be dry -- it's been at least two weeks, maybe a month. Shortly after he moved out/was pushed last October from his third wife's, he got involved with a woman half his age (she turned 21 in January). Last night he called with BIG news:

The girlfriend is pregnant, and their baby is due in January.

Alice just doesn't know what to make of this. Three marriages, and he manages not to get any of his wives pregnant. But now he wants to be a father, at 42. They've even picked out names, and that's the part that really got to her: whether it's a girl or a boy, following the Jewish tradition of naming a child for a relative who has died, the child will carry either Alice's grandmother's or her father's name.

Am I scared? Yes. Hopeful? Maybe. Excited? Not a chance in hell. When the shock wears off, perhaps there will be more reactions to report. Meanwhile, Alice can't help thinking that when she put the off-White Rabbit to sleep, little did she know that south of the Mason-Dixon line, the rabbit had already died, the old-fashioned way.

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August 07, 2006

Alice doesn't visit there any more

Apparently the latest inconvenience in travel is the nonsmoking hotel: Westin advertises itself as one no-smoking chain (although the reservation agent didn't tell me that when I booked a smoking room last month), and Marriot is planning to follow suit.

Excuse me while I get my vices in order: it is okay to consume alcohol at the bar (thus improving the chance you may batter your travel companion or that a pregnant woman can't have a drink without the lifestyle police coming down on her); you may hire a call girl (or call boy, depending on your preference) to come service you in your room; or you may rent a room for a high-stakes poker game where none of the proceeds are declared taxable income.

You may not, however, light a cigarette, under penalty of losing any right to a room with a bed in it. You may not, in most cases, be in a room with a window that opens to the outside; therefore you must breathe recirculated air, often considered a veritable petri dish (remember Legionnaire's disease?).

No, it is tobacco that is this country's undoing. Pardon me while I blow smoke in your face. I find it ludicrous to believe a career criminal, with a 10-page rap sheet, would be more welcome than I in many of our nation's hotel rooms, credit record be damned.

These days I think the nonsmoking adult who brings underage teenagers to have sex in a hotel room (even crossing state lines and theoretically bringing the Mann act into play) has a better shot at a warm welcome from hotel hospitality than I do.

Where did I miss this memo? How did Big Brother decide to kick my ass when there are so many other worthy choices? Did Big Brother miss the Superfund toxic waste sites along the New Jersey turnpike or throughout much of the Nevada desert where atomic bomb trials began during World War II?

The hotel where I grew up in Lake Placid burned down last winter due to an electrical fire. That was the place I first got drunk, got stoned off my ass, and needless to say, consumed many pastries filled with saturated fat. Under its current owners, the hotel forbid smoking, although much was made of its Adirondack-procured menu. Since they had already destroyed (to their minds renovated) the last place I considered my family's home, I don't have much pity for the hoteliers.

May I point out that fires happen, and generally create much more damage in one shot than second-hand smoke from a gross of cigarette cartons? May I laugh at the irony?

Alice likes to travel; she likes a change of scene from Wonderland. But you can take the Marriot, the Westin, and whatever other chains decide to delete ashtrays from their room inventory, and hope the cigar-smoking Wall Street boys decide to take another look at where their firms choose to send the dealmakers to stay, and recommend Marriot and Westin for the remainder bin.

Fire sale, anyone? Or can I interest you in an underage call girl drinking champagne with the big boys and playing strip poker for cash in the room down the hall? Just asking....

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August 04, 2006

Hot town, summer in the city

For the record, New York passed tropical heat wave status a few weeks back. These past few days were preparation for a descent into hell. I don't care what the weather people said: to my body, it was 110 in the shade, and that was with the air conditioning still attempting to fulfill its goal of chilling the air.

Baby, it's been hot outside. Hot inside, too. This is the first day in four that I have voluntarily worn clothing inside. It is also the first day that I woke up not in Wonderland but in Maine, where the TV says it is just 68 degrees. Yesterday I took the train -- one of very few not cancelled due to tracks buckling in the heat (I did not know metal expands; I must have missed the memo on that one) -- from midtown to Boston, then bussed from Boston to Portland.

I am in Familyland now: at my cousin's suburban home. Last night my cousin and his wife fell asleep long before their children did. I think it is a sign of middle age and being plugged in to the common time grid I do not share: in 1983-84, I worked 9 to 5 (give or take, mostly take) for a corporation. That was the last time I got out of bed so early on someone else's behalf.

In Wonderland, I make my own hours: I might be working at midnight, but you won't catch me pretending coherence any earlier than noon. It doesn't matter if the doorman buzzes, the phone rings, the doorbell chimes, six firetrucks and a chorus of ambulances swing by, I will be sleeping. I consider this one of my most consistent talents. You might call sleeping my profession, with everything else as avocation. Surely there is no activity to which I devote more time.

In Familyland, the house's occupants are at work, at summer camp, flying round-trip to Nashville on a one-day business trip. It is the 21st century variation on the suburban life I led as a teenager. While some thrive on so much structure, I would not wish it on anyone.

Trust me, I was never employee of the month. Self-employment is my game. I don't clock many hours, but I am extraordinarily productive when I do apply myself. There is no dress code, no office politics, no interruptions unless I create them.

The only time I dress up is for a client meeting. Then I bring on the pearls, the pantihose, the Chanel heels, the linen (summer) or cashmere (winter) dress, and the make-up counter of any upscale department store. You can dress me up and take me anywhere; just don't ask me to sustain the illusion for any longer than necessary.

Being better dressed doesn't enhance my intelligence, but it does enhance other people's perceptions of my professional abilities. So I know my audience. When I have to, I dance the dance. I run my office like a pro.

But when the air temperature is higher than my body temperature, or when I get an invitation to stay elsewhere (last month I had a wonderful week in Gloucester at a friend's family's country house), I close the door to my office, put my financial brain on hiatus, and the city is history.

I will never be a CEO, but then again, I will never be on my deathbed thinking I should have spent more time at the office.

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