Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We're a nation of saints

Well, I am just a big, fat crybaby, it turns out. Not only do people endure bedbug infestations and never utter a word of complaint (maybe they're afraid their friends would abandon them if they knew they might be carriers?), but they also apparently have terrible troubles with their elderly parents and are similarly stoic (though I'll take an infirm parent over a bedbug any day). I'm told I cried a lot as a child, and although the actual tears have stopped for the most part, I still make a bigger fuss than most people, I guess.

Ever since I began spreading my tale of woe (one parent struck by a bus and the other struck by a stroke on the same day, and poor me having to manage the whole situation), people have been quietly confiding their own sad stories. One friend provided hospice for her father, who had fecal vomiting from colon cancer. Another spends her Saturdays visiting her stone-deaf father and alcoholic step-mother, who are confined to wheelchairs, and walks their yapping dog—and she has done this for years without a word of complaint. Another has provided hospice—twice—to her mother, who's still alive years later. Yet another oversaw the descent into dementia of her mother, a dignified, distinguished doctor who took to tearing off her clothes and defecating in stairwells. It turns out I'm one of the lucky ones. 

That was driven home today when I attended a lunchtime eldercare presentation by a social worker. There were perhaps 10 of us in the room, and about half were just in their 30s, taking care of parents and grandparents and children, juggling jobs and night duty. At least at the age of 59, I'm engaged in an age-appropriate task. And although I'm a full-time worrier, I don't give hands-on care on a regular basis. Some 400 million families—nearly a quarter of the population—are engaged in eldercare, according to the presenter. Who knew? I guess it never seems real till it happens to you.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar zzzzs

Is there anything emptier than Oscars? Tawdry, tired gowns. Faces with makeup chalky in the daylight. Broken promises of excitement in the air. I love movies, but the glorification of movie stars is just so boring.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The bedbugs are coming

Reports that a bedbug infestation is taking over Manhattan read like ad copy for a horror movie. In my life as a 'rent, I've ingested and administered the pinworm pill and shampooed my hair and my children's in louse pesticides. I've laundered every towel and item of clothing in scalding water daily for weeks. I've bagged and sealed all personal items and put them in deep storage (they may still be there, for all I remember, since the shampoo causes brain damage). In my 30-odd years as a New Yorker, I've scraped cockroach feces off my walls and stumbled over rats in the street. After much scientific research, I've pinned down the identity of the mysterious "hairy bug": it's a house centipede. I've endured a fly hatch in a radiator cupboard that sent 100 giant shit eaters buzzing into my apartment in a single afternoon. I am a vermin-tested veteran. But I cannot face the bedbug wars. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Lost my shopping jones

Something weird is happening. I've been a regular indulger in retail therapy—street fairs, Filene's—but suddenly I can't seem to take it to the cash register or press the "Complete Transaction" key. I see the word sale, and get hungry. And I try it on or picture myself in whatever it is, and it's exhilarating. And I reach into my wallet for my credit card ... and I can't seem to seal the deal. It's like being anorectic—only in a good way.

It's also like breaking an addiction. I remember when I quit smoking almost 30 years ago and when I went on the wagon three years ago, and it feels like that. At first, it felt as though I was being deprived of a reward, but then it felt liberating. I was no longer tied down to a habit. And that's what all this stuff is, just a habit. 

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hold the phone—please

For a hard-of-hearing person, the telephone is always an instrument of torture. Calls on cordless phones eventually degenerate into static no matter how often you change channels. Calls on wireless phones trap you in places where you cannot possibly multitask. Lately new phone troubles have arisen for me. 

Ever since the call came about my parents' health crisis in December—my mom had a stroke and my dad was hit by a bus on the same day—I've been having an overactive startle response to the ring of a phone. Before I can walk the few steps to the handset, I've begun to concoct disaster scenarios: my mother-in-law has died of an intestinal infection; my mother has had another stroke, and my dad has had a heart attack, and no one can reach my brothers; my daughter has been in an automobile accident, and her injuries are life-threatening; my son has been mugged, and he's unconscious; the cancer center needs a second blood test to rule out concerns over high tumor markers; my sister-in-law in Australia has been burned alive in the brushfires; my brother's wife has internal bleeding—all perfectly plausible.

A couple nights ago, Other was talking in his sleep. He said, "There's the phone." The words jolted me from a deep slumber, and  immediately I was fully alert and stumbling to the hall phone. It wasn't ringing, and there was no message. I spent the rest of the night too jangled to go back to sleep. Just the idea of a phone call in the wee hours was like taking crystal meth—and not in a good way.

There's another problem. My friend K has a block on her phone, so it generates an Unknown Caller message on the little screen on my phone where Caller I.D. appears. Because I always want to get her calls—particularly since she's undergoing cancer treatment—I am now answering calls that I formerly forfeited, so I'm spending my evenings talking to telemarketers, dubious researchers and pollsters. And it's not fun.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mean girls and boys at work

I just have to get something off my chest—what's left of it. I work for a company that is more hierarchy-conscious than a high school full of mean girls. If you run into a higher-status employee in the elevator, in the cafeteria line, on the damn subway, that person will pretend he or she doesn't know you, even if you saved his or her reputation yesterday by correcting an egregious error that would have made him or her look like an ass, which he or she is. That's all I have to say about that.

Monday, February 9, 2009

From Elmhurst to Bensonhurst

When I moved to New York 30 years ago, I was excited by the "otherness" of it—all the people who didn't act, speak or think like me, the menace in the air, the grittiness. It was like being in Africa or Asia—or Mars. I felt I was living on the edge. And it was an edgy existence for a girl from suburban California. New York was poor then. Rents were cheap, so cheap it made sense to move rather than repaint when things got grungy. There was a garbage strike. And a transit strike. And a blackout. It was no war zone maybe, but civil society didn't always hold. Things fell apart. There were cockroaches and rats and people who lived out of grocery carts and cardboard boxes and made their living picking through the trash. Dirty and tattered, New York was as real as the velveteen rabbit.

Other and I explored the city's neighborhoods with the urgency of tourists: Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Bensonhurst, Staten Island, Astoria, Spuyten Duyvil, Washington Heights, Roosevelt Island, Liberty Island, Fort Tryon, Harlem, Chinatown, Little Italy, Curry Hill. We went to museums and parks, but mostly we wandered the streets and ate the food. It was like living in a dozen countries all at once, and we fantasized about finding an apartment in each neighborhood we visited. 

In the end, after a few years in a starter apartment—a seventh-floor walkup!—in the honky-tonk Italian section of Greenwich Village, we moved to a loft in what seemed like a mysterious no-man's-land in a nondescript area just off the Bowery between the East and West Village. We liked the mean, hardscrabble look of the warehouses, trucking garages, sewing factories, wholesalers of buttons and banners, bodegas. For a long time, the only residents were a lot of drunks, a handful of artists and working-class hispanics—and us in our secret jewel of an apartment.

Sadly, like so much of Manhattan, the area went upscale and glam a few years ago, and Other and I are feeling out of place and out of sorts. Lately we've been talking about where we might want to live next. We're not serious (yet), but last weekend we scouted out Elmhurst, Queens, a great hodgepodge of Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Mexican, Peruvian, Chinese, Korean, Argentine, Singaporean, Vietnamese and Afghan cultures. For the first time in a long while, mine and Other's were the only white anglo faces in sight. The food at Upi Jaya (gado gado, BBQ chicken, banana fritters) was pleasantly strange. The clothing—saris! salwar kameez! The tchochkes—amulets! It was all good. So next week, or the week after, we'll try Bensonhurst. 

Even if we never move, we're traveling again. And for the price of subway token, we're all over the map.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Divorce's butterfly effect ain't pretty

Being boringly monogamous and all, I know I'm naive—and certainly in no position to pass judgment—but I was startled last night by the tale of collateral damage told by a friend who was going through a divorce during the period when I was being treated for cancer. 

Our daughter C was BFF with his daughter when they were toddlers, so we grownups all became BFFs too, with (I thought) cheerfully chaotic dinners that often ended in tears for the kids but good feeling (I thought) among the adults. Sure they squabbled and sniped, but so did Other and I. It never occurred to me that all the quarreling presaged any more lasting trouble for them than a night on the couch for one. I thought their discord was part of the vitality of their marriage, maybe even sexually exciting to them. 

We grew apart when the kids ended up in different schools, and we eventually stopped calling one another to catch up. So when I ran into the dad one morning a year or so ago, I was eager to tell him about my cancer ordeal. But my news was trumped by his news: he and his wife had divorced. Last night over a dinner of comfort food (shepherd's pie, green salad, pumpkin pie), he gave us a blow-by-blow account of how the divorce went down. 

When a marriage collapses, it would seem, it doesn't go down neatly from top to bottom like the Twin Towers. The partners flail around, grabbing for support. In this case, the husband had a meaningless affair with a somewhat unethical choice of partners (a younger subordinate), whom he later had to figure out how to offload. The wife had an affair with a married colleague with kids; that marriage was destroyed. Their own kids "acted out": the daughter became clinically depressed and was placed on antidepressants; the son flunked out of high school, fell in with a "bad crowd" and got mired in drugs. 

The dust is settling now. He is in love again; she is living with her lover. The daughter has weaned herself from antidepressants; the son is in boarding school and doing better. In some ways it's a happy ending. But who knows what boats are still being rocked by the ripples of their rupture?