I’ll just have dessert, without the cancer

Laura Linney has a new show on Showtime, The Big C, and that is a good thing. Laura Linney is a wonderful actress, and a beautiful woman over the age of 25, and anytime anyone puts her on TV the world gets a little bit better. Also, Gabourey Sidibe is in it, and as far as I can tell no one is raping or force-feeding her character. Hooray for that.

Yet, I am troubled.

This is yet another “woman lets herself go after devastating news” story. In this case, cancer. From the Showtime website:

Cathy Jamison is a reserved, stifled, Minneapolis schoolteacher who receives life changing news and decides, from that moment on, to make drastic, long-overdue adjustments to the way she is living her life. She’s always been conservative and structured – the perfect suburban wife and mother – but Cathy is tired of being ‘the sensible one.’ Now she wants to let her freak flag fly. For the first time in her life, she is going to make choices that suit her needs. Who says you can’t eat dessert as an appetizer? Time is precious, and Cathy is grabbing life by the balls…

Right. Crisis as empowerment. This is a theme in memoirs written by women, and I’m just exhausted by it. This summer, I read a memoir by an actress who chronicled every sweaty, nauseous moment of her husband’s abandonment of her and their children, another by a woman who suffered mightily as she refused to let her husband leave her and their two children, and re-read Eat, Pray, Love, with its foundational nasty divorce and depression.

In all of these books, as in The Big C, the women find inner peace and happiness, let their freak flag fly, and generally throw off the constraints of culture and society to LIVE OUT LOUD with pride and dignity and sing it with me my sisters! But first, they suffer. How they suffer.

Look, I don’t mean to belittle the experiences of these women, nor do I hold myself apart from them, as I have meditated and left offerings for Ganesha and have a shaman in my phonebook. I get it. It’s not the new-age religion that bothers me, or the navel gazing. It’s the suffering. The suffering as beauty, the suffering as transformation. Why must we endure so much pain to finally get to the good part? Why must pain be our guide?

Do I have to have cancer to do a cartwheel?

Must my husband take my house and my money for me to get it together to go on a trip?

Must I first be washed up on the desolate, rocky shores of a monumental personal crisis before I can just freaking have dessert and not feel bad about it?

I’d like to see a show where Laura Linney and Gabby Sidibe are time-traveling PIs. Who get laid a lot. And eat cake. And have a really good time together. And neither of them has OCD or a bad history, they’re just quirky and bad-ass and like to solve mysteries. In space.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we all just let ourselves go WITHOUT the precipitating life crisis? If we didn’t let suffering be our fundamental catalyst?

I’ll start. I’m going to Popeye’s for lunch, where I’m getting the 2-piece special with mashed potatoes and gravy. And a biscuit.

And then I’m going to do a cartwheel.

Juliet at 41

balloon dog

This is a love story, which begins, as these things so often do, with a (paraphrased) line from The Fantasticks:

There is this boy.

He’s a man now, but when I knew him, when I loved him, he was a boy. We were teenagers, in the late 1980s, in a suburban town in Westchester, NY. He was good-natured and darkly mischievous, politically active in a parent-friendly way, with a goofy sense of humor and a talent with words. He wrote howling, non-rhyming poems and knew how to make balloon animals. He tangled his hands in my hair when we kissed. Let’s call him LL.

I was dramatic and intense, filled with longing, powerful and terrified as only a teenage girl can be. I was beautiful but didn’t know it, and dyed my black hair red. I drove a 1975 forest green Coupe deVille, smoked Parliaments, and worshiped Holden Caulfield. I collected original Broadway cast recordings and knew all the songs from Evita, West Side Story and Gypsy. I had a thing for singer/songwriters from the ‘70s and kept a journal. There was a Deadhead sticker on my Cadillac.

In the fall of 1986, I was a high school senior, LL was a junior, and my boyfriend had just left for college. I was lonesome and restless, and LL was intriguing and close at hand. Before the leaves were off the trees, we were making out with a vengeance in the TV room of his parents’ house.

I had intended for him to fill my time between visits from the boyfriend. Instead, I fell utterly, ecstatically, in love with him.

Here’s what I mean. Years after our relationship ended—and it ended, as these things so often do, with tears and cruelty—I was given a class assignment, to write a piece in the style of James Agee’s A Death in the Family. Here’s part of it:

But I am speaking now of the boy, of the spring I was 18. I am speaking of the rushing river filled with round stones that shrank to a thirsty trickle as that spring became summer and summer grew cold, and most of all of the bridge that crossed it in a most ordinary way, made of rough wood, never intended to be beautiful.

I could tell you how to reach this place, offer directions that would lead you from the Taconic Parkway to U.S. Route 202, tell you where to make the right hand turn that leads you into the park. I could explain the precise location of the tennis courts and the jungle gym, describe the running path you follow, and the smaller footpath that delicately splits from it.

You walk the footpath to reach the place, and on the first day he brought me there it was tentative, not yet full of summer-lush green and warm earth, not yet filled with hot air so moist it made me weep, not yet perfumed with lilacs and wildflowers and honey and something else too, the low brown aroma of animals and the yellow smell of pollen, scented so thickly my head would spin and I would want to run and stay at the same time and in trying to do both did neither, and instead would sit cross-legged in the center of that bridge and cover my face with my cool hands and listen to the insects roar, the droning and buzzing so loud and claustrophobic I felt as if I were shimmering with it, shimmering in tune and rhythm with that place, shimmering as if I had green and gold dappled wings.

I could tell you how to find that place, and you could pick your way among the rushes and weeds along the footpath and emerge at the rough bridge that crosses the river, and yet I cannot truly take you there, not even if I took your hand and led you to the center of the bridge, not even if I gently placed my index finger under your vulnerable chin and tilted your head back, lifted your gaze to show you the two trees whose branches reach across, high above, embracing from either bank.

I cannot truly take you there because though I still know the location as surely as I know the shape of my own pale body, I lost the place when I lost the boy who brought me there, to its heat and iridescence.

But I am speaking now of the time when I did belong to this place, when with a touch I could be turned languid gold, a creature that not only knew how to fly, but also never doubted her right to flight.

He wasn’t my first love, or my first lover—although I was his, which gave me a shivering, territorial thrill. We were in and out of each other’s lives for years, sometimes while I was unencumbered, and sometimes while I was involved with another man. For as many times as I swore I was done with him, I’d fall into his arms when he appeared.

The end came in two parts. Part 1: I got married in July of 1993, and cheated on my husband with LL in April of 1994. The marriage was a mistake. I knew it, but I refused to leave. Part 2: The marriage fell apart, as it was destined to, in 1998. LL emailed to say he’d heard from a mutual friend, and he hoped I was all right. He wrote of his wonderful wife, and his splendid marriage, and his growing career. Knowing him as I did, I understood exactly what he meant. He wouldn’t be back.

We never spoke again. And even though he wasn’t mine, I felt the loss of him acutely. I grieved losing the possibility of him for a very long time. Much longer than I should have.

I did the things you do, after a divorce and heartbreak—therapy, the gym, dating, travel, exfoliation. I didn’t permanently turn into Brooklyn’s version of Miss Havisham, wearing a tattered flannel shirt and listening to Harry Chapin’s Sequel on repeat until I passed out drunk (that only happened a few times).

It was never my ex-husband I ached for. Not once.

In the summer of 2000 I bought camping equipment from a writer named Jonathan, who was making rent working at Eastern Mountain Sports. He had hazel eyes and a hiker’s muscular legs, and I was so taken with him I heard the Pixies singing Here Comes Your Man in my head while he assembled my new tent. We got married in 2004, and I gave birth to our daughter a year later.

Once, over a bottle of wine, a girlfriend and I got to talking of lost love, and I told her about LL. She asked if I had looked for him online. I emphatically assured her I had not. I didn’t want to know anything about him, what I imagined to be his celebrated life and his many robust children and his faithful wife. But, I admitted, there was one thing I hoped. I hoped he thought of me. I hoped he pined. Just a little.

I never did give in to Google’s temptations, but I thought about him. It was hard not to, once Gen X discovered Facebook. People I thought long gone started tumbling back into my life. First came all the kids from drama club, with their charm and sweetness; then the kids from performing arts summer camp, with their many accomplishments; then the kids from college, with their productive lives; and then the kids I didn’t actually get along with but who had developed affection for all the people they used to torture.

And then, when I had truly stopped expecting it, came LL.

The message was brief, written in all lowercase letters. I immediately thrust my BlackBerry in Jonathan’s direction and choked out, “Old boyfriend! Boyfriend on facebook!” I dropped onto the couch and studied the message intently. All lowercase, like an ee cummings poem. Was this on purpose? Did he remember how much I loved ee cummings? He wrote, in part, “…still not good at…this. you know.” I do know. Of course I know. And I am gone again, just seeing his name. Driving barefoot on a hot summer day. The smell of lilacs and fresh cut grass. Cat Stevens on the stereo. A gentle bite on the back of my neck.

“You OK?” Jon asked.

I held the message up for him to see again, “What do you think this means?”

He shrugged, “Who knows?”

“But I’m married! It is clear on Facebook that I am married!”

“That’s never stopped you before.”

I glared at him, or tried to. He looked back at me, really looked at me, without judgement, without fear, the way he always has. Jon knows this story, of course. I told him this story years ago.

“You know what?” I said.


“He pines. Just a little.”

“Oh honey,” Jon said. “Of course he does.”

Someone once said there are only two love stories—Romeo & Juliet and Antony & Cleopatra. The first is wildness, urgency and inevitable devastation. The second is a match of equals. It is wisdom’s embrace, an understanding between already-broken and healed hearts, sexual ferocity that’s forged in letting go.

LL is my Romeo. And Romeo, with his fevered desire and hungry poetry, dies young. Years later, when you have silver in your black hair, it’s impossible to casually call him friend.

It’s impossible.

And yet.

Knowing he reached for me again tears me up in ways I can’t begin to understand or explain. It makes me lonely, specifically lonely, for him. For his hands, and the taste of salt in the curve of his neck, for his voice in the dark. And the truth is, reaching back feels natural, as natural as entwined tree branches over a quiet bridge.

I won’t, though. I can’t. Because my life now is a good thing, made whole by promises kept and the comforts of home. So I’m not going to write back. I’m not going to click, “Add as Friend.” But I confess: I’m never going to delete his message, either.

Not ever.

Kindle vs. iPad: The Decision

Small that book smell!

I’ve been going back and forth over whether to get an iPad or a Kindle. I even polled my Twitter and Facebook friends. Pros and cons for both were offered with heartfelt enthusiasm. After carefully weighing my options, I’ve made a decision:

Books. Sticking with books.

Here’s why:

1) Pages. Open a book that’s been sitting on your shelf for a while, and there’s no telling what you might find tucked inside: ticket stubs from the play you went to see with your mother on her 65th birthday, or petals from the bouquet your husband brought you the day after you told him you were pregnant. Maybe you’ll come across an inscription from someone who was once a stranger, and then a lover, and is now a fond memory. There is no happiness quite like that of wandering in a used bookstore, being seduced by that old paper smell, and finding treasures from other people’s lives secreted away between the covers.

2) Water. Many of my books are watermarked on the bottom, from where I accidentally dipped them into the tub while reading in the bath. I’m pretty sure either the Kindle/iPad or I wouldn’t survive bathing together. Also, I have some books that are swollen from when they got dropped in a pool or caught in an ocean wave. They smell like adventure, like the sea and sun.

3) Collecting. I have five copies of the red-cover Catcher in the Rye. They are among my few prized possessions. One digital copy on the Kindle/iPad can’t begin to compare with the beauty of them lined up, one next to the other.

4) Bookcases. Want to know who someone really is? Their dreams and passions, what they hold dear? Look at their bookcases. Holden Caulfield is sitting on mine, brooding and smoking. The March family is hanging out with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Multiple collections of Greek and Roman mythology stand next to the works of Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, along with a couple of translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad. A freaking lot of books about dogs — non-fiction accounts of living with dogs, a guide to dog breeds, training manuals. Some books of poems, dating back to my brief flirtation with wearing a beret and going to poetry readings. All my literary girlfriends are there — Jennifer Weiner, Ann Patchett and her best friend, Lucy Grealy (I always make sure to keep Ann and Lucy’s books next to each other), Lorrie Moore, Jane Smiley, my beloved Margaret Atwood, Susan Shapiro (who is brilliant, generous, and the world’s best writing teacher), Anne Lamott (whose Traveling Mercies convinced me I could be a writer). The kind of men who have always been my undoing hold court too — Michael Chabon, John Steinbeck, David Wroblewski, John Irving, soulful Wally Lamb. There are travel guides for places I’ve been and places I want to go. Several volumes about Buddhism. A few different guides to world religions, two copies of the bible (both annotated, from the classes where I studied them — The Bible as History, The Bible as Literature), books about the historical Jesus and Judaism for Dummies (just to cover all my bases). There’s also the illustrated Kama Sutra and a guide to sacred tantric sex (everything you’ve heard about us bookish girls is true). Try peering into someone’s heart and soul that way by glancing at their Kindle/iPad.

5) Ancillary uses. A book can prop open a window or keep a door from blowing shut. It can be a desk for a scribbling toddler, or an impromptu manicure station. You can use a book to even out a wobbly table, and a stack of them can be a table. A book can press flowers and preserve autumn leaves. It can shade your eyes from the sun, and you can safely rest your glass of wine on it during a picnic. No way you’d do any of that with your Kindle/iPad.

Don’t get me wrong, your Kindle is marvelous and your iPad is so revolutionary and magical it makes you 100% more sexually attractive. And if you have a Nook, well huzzah for you too, you adorable thing! But for me, with my well-worn leather backpack and sexy librarian specs, with my messy, romantic, chocolate-milk splattered and crayon-strewn life, there’s nothing quite so perfect as a book I can dog ear, fall asleep with, and hold in my hands.

Other People’s Writing

I’m playing midwife for my friend Terry’s book.

Months ago, Terry and I were out to dinner, and she was bemoaning her ongoing unemployment. To try and cheer her up, I started telling tales of awful jobs I’ve had. The third-rate cable channel with the passive-aggressive manager who used to sneak up behind me and announce herself by pretending to knock on the air next to my head. (“KNOCK! KNOCK!”) My stint in PR, with the lunatic boss who clattered around in Dr. Scholl’s and screamed all the time, and who made me get her fresh-squeezed orange juice which was never right (too bitter! too much pulp! not enough pulp! too sweet!) so I had to bring it back and try again three times. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. The lawyer who threw a cell phone at me. The off-Broadway theater where I had to fetch iced coffee and cookies every day at 4pm, in the bone-clattering deep freeze of winter and the ass-stench depths of August.

Oh yeah? Terry said. None of that compares to the years I worked as a stand-up comic. I could write a book!

And that’s how I became head cheerleader and editor of someone else’s book.

For months now, I’ve been organizing assignments for her, setting deadlines, collecting her essays and collating them. And she did it. She wrote a book, a whole freaking book, about being a woman in comedy. And its funny and juicy and revealing, and right now I’m in the process of making notes on it so she can take it back and do a rewrite.

I’m flummoxed.

For years now, I have been saying I want to write a book, and people who know me have been asking when I’m going to write a book, and it’s been lots of talk talk talk about a book book book that I’m not really writing. I have many reasons why I’m not writing a book. For one thing, I don’t know how to write a book. I don’t have time to write a book. I’m scared to write a book. My laptop is old.

But there’s no arguing with the fact that, despite not knowing how, I helped Terry organize her thoughts and write 17 chapters. 17 chapters!  I’ve made the time to read her work and give notes on it. And I pushed her to hard to go to the scary places, the dark places. I held her hand while she sweated it out.

If I can do it for her, why can’t I do it for myself?

It’s about more than writing a book, of course. Cheerful Helper is something I’m good at, but it always leads me to the same place — lonely, angry, frustrated. And safe as houses. Safe with the good-enough. Safe with the could-be. Safe with the never-tried.

And here’s the real thing. I’ve been shutting up for a long time. And it’s time to put up.

Thanks Santa

The neti pot. Gross, but effective.

We had grand plans for celebrating Christmas and the New Year. Grand by “parents-of-a-4-year-old” standards, that is. I was to leave work on Christmas Eve and not return until January 5 — 11 days of peaceful baking, gifting, going to the spa with my best friend, Lisa,  playing with my daughter, Emmy, and reacquainting myself with my husband, Jon. We intended to spend Christmas at home in Brooklyn and then head to Jon’s folks on December 30 for a little Connecticut Currier & Ives action (rumor had it we might get to go to a grownup movie while Emmy hung out with Gran’ma).

We needed this vacation, bad. It had been a rough year and change, kicking off in October of 2008 when two terrible things happened. First, my friend Sheryl moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. (And not even to work in show business. She moved to LA to be a big shot in the Los Angeles library system. So unless Colin Firth needs to check out a book, I’m no closer to meeting him. And by “meeting,” I mean “making out with.”) I was 39 when Sheryl moved, but it was absolutely the end of my 20s, the slamming shut, locking, and throwing away the key to a chapter of my life that I knew was over but still got to visit when we sat over coffee for hours in Park Slope or went night driving around Brooklyn in her dilapidated JEEP. She was my single gal pal as no one else had been, my Saturday night movie date, my Sunday morning brunch date, the one who assured me I wasn’t gay that time I accidentally gave a girl a lapdance at the MTV Christmas party (and then offered to buy me a wallet with an attached chain if it turned out I was gay, no judgements), who insisted there was NO WAY I had AIDS when I got home from that ill-conceived trip to New Mexico. (Her exact words were: “Everyone does stupid things and gets away with it. Why shouldn’t you?” And she was right, I was fine.) We saw every Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movie together. And then she was gone.

Oh, and also? At the same time? The project I had been hired to run at work was put on “permanent hiatus,” and it seemed I was not far behind it. Unemployment is scary under the best of circumstances, but there was that whole economic meltdown thing, and my husband is a SAHD (a Stay at Home Dad. He’s the one WITHOUT a blog). If I lose my job there goes our sole income, all our benefits, and in my worst nightmare, we have to go live with my parents. Or in a box. It’s a toss up.

I thought I was fine, in the late autumn of 2008, I really did. Yes, I was crying half the day, and freezing in place like a deer at the watering hole anytime someone at work talked to me, but I was fine. Eventually, Jon intervened and he and Lisa orchestrated a visit to a modern shaman — a psychopharmacologist. Two days on Wellbutrin and I was a new woman. It was marvelous for six months, until I started to go bald. Yes, one of the side effects of Wellbutrin is hair loss, and given the choice between happy and bald or depressed and lustrous, I choose hair.

But Wellbutrin did something to me, something good, and it stayed that way even when I went off it. Obama got elected, which somehow made the world more hopeful and less terrifying, and Jon got to watch the inauguration at Emmy’s sweet little Montessori school. Sheryl and I still go meandering when she visits, and she frequently mocks me on Facebook. I got a new job (a fantastic new job, a dream job in so many ways). And, glory to heaven, my dermatologist put me on a miracle drug called Spironolactone that GROWS HAIR. And now I have highlights.

So yes, we needed our long luxurious break, but when I got home from work on Christmas Eve I felt like someone was baking me, that terrible feverish feeling of icy fingers and toes and a hot head. Jon put me to bed and wrapped gifts, and I managed to rouse myself for Christmas day to help Emmy open her presents. Sunday I slept while my parents took Emmy for the day, and Monday Lisa and I went to the spa, and I thought I’d turned the corner. On Tuesday, the hammer came down. I woke up with my eye sealed shut, unable to breathe through my nose, certain that a mouse had crawled into my right ear. The diagnosis: Sinus infection.  Ear infection. Pink eye. The doctor wrote me several scripts and sent me home to bed. And so Jon and Emmy went to CT without me, and I spent four days alone, eating soup and watching movies on cable.

It was wonderful.

Yes, I felt like hell and looked worse. And yes, I had to keep to a fairly busy schedule of swallowing pills, putting drops in my eyes, squirting things up my nose, and irrigating my sinuses with salt water. And Liv Tyler is in a shocking number of movies, given her limited range. But it had been years since I just sat, quietly, without a list of things I should be doing, without an alarm about to go off, or Emmy’s nap about to end. I just sat there. Slurping chicken soup and eating vanilla ice cream directly from the container. On Friday Lisa came by for a while with two kinds of matzoh ball soup and far too much orange juice, and I was so happy to have her company and peaceful when she left.

Things don’t always fall apart. And gifts come in the strangest packages.