Monday, November 30, 2009

Mad with power

My kids have never listened to me. My warnings and wheedlings have fallen on deaf ears. I've never been good at carrying through on threats of punishment, so, really, they had little to fear in defying my wishes. I once (once!) spanked my daughter, and I was the one who ended up in tears.

But there is one arena in which I hold them hostage: my ability to embarrass them in front of their friends. I can invoke terror simply by withholding a promise to "be nice." I'm always nice. Really. But they're never sure I won't go rogue and utter the one sentence that will prove excruciating to them. Actually, there are lots of sentences that can make them writhe, and therein lies the problem. I have so many to choose from! And then there are my clothes: my frumpy shoes, my penchant for hippie splendor and, paradoxically, my mousey drabness.

Oh, and their father! He's less embarrassing to look at. But his sexplicit language makes us all squirm. What a perv!

Now this ability to inflict mortification is only occasional, since most of their friends are already known to us and familiar to our peculiar ways. So it's only when a new friend arrives on the scene that I come into my full power. There is an opportunity on the horizon. I am a genuinely well-meaning person, so I'd like to use this power for good. But how?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Curb for cancer

Everyone's got a gratitude list this time of year. And here's mine: Curb Your Enthusiasm. Curb got me through chemo four years ago, and I'm still chortling—though a little sadly after watching Episode 10 of Season 7. I've got the hiatus to get through before I can roar afresh. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Another wild carousel ride

My Yahoo! horoscope yesterday said I was due for a good time and could look forward to an evening with loved ones playing Pictionary. I believed it. After all, I was heading home to my "real" family. I got up at 3:30 a.m. in San Francisco with visions of happy times ahead. I kissed the 'rents goodbye and hauled my big-ass suitcase to the curb. It was filled with empanadas that had been prepared a few at a time by the endeavorous Philippina home aide throughout the previous two weeks and frozen to survive the flight.

The first leg, to Dulles, was smooth. The second, to JFK, was bumpy. The final stop, at the baggage carousel, was a no show.

What the fuck! This is the second time in two trips that the same damn suitcase has been lost. But I know the drill. I went to the office, made a fuss, filled out the forms, got a promise it would be delivered this morning before noon and headed home to if not Pictionary—or Scattergories, our favored game—lots of hugs and, yes, happiness. Finally got to sleep at midnight—and my cell phone went off at 2:30 a.m. I was sure it was a heart attack or a seizure on the West Coast, but no! It was the misguided delivery service bringing my bag to me at 2:30 in the fucking morning. Call me ungrateful, but I wonder, In what universe is it an act of responsibility to deliver your lost suitcase at 2:30 a.m.?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An apology for being so mean

That last post seems so mean, and I don't feel mean at all. What I feel is anguish and fear. Here are two formerly competent people, proud of their accomplishments, respected in their professions. They were good democrats in the upper- and lower-case sense of the word. They lived their beliefs, fulfilled their own potential and worked to help others do the same. They led blameless, worthy lives. Yet their pleasures in old age are few and their troubles many. I'm scared of what will happen to them as they spiral on down, and I'm scared of what will happen to me as I try to keep them company on the descent, and I'm scared that I will end up in their shoes 20 years from now.

And in order to have Thanksgiving with the family I was born into, I'm missing Thanksgiving with the family I chose, and I feel a little sorry for myself. It was my decision. And I'd do it again. But they live in San Francisco, and I live in New York, and when I am in their world, I am absent from my own. After nearly two weeks' absence, my own life, the one back in New York, seems like a dream, distant, perhaps imagined, and I am desperate to rush back and grab it before it vanishes.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Elderville revisited

Oh my god, these old people! These two old geezers are more difficult to organize than 30 ADHD kindergartners on Redbull. First they lose their pencil, then they lose the paper they were working on, then they forget what it was they were doing in the first place. That's if they don't get into a fight along the way. And when these two oldies start to fight, they take out the nukes! The one with the damaged brain is a shrewd tease, and the one with the weak heart bellows and stomps around in a fury. There's a stroke and a heart attack hanging on every salvo.

As the end of my stay in Elderville draws near, I taste the familiar anxiety. Oh, please, I beg the god I don't believe in, please don't let anything happen to prolong my visit. Just keep them healthy until I'm in the air. I'll do anything. Just don't make me live their life a moment longer. It's a nightmare: the unbalanced checkbook about to topple from a Jenga of errors, the three-week-old leftovers, the 50-year-old resentments, the things that are remembered, the things that are forgotten. Oh, the irritation! Oh, the pain! They think they are alive, but they are in hell.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Reverso world

Gosh, these are strange days. My mom writes a check for "seventy-ten" dollars instead of "seven hundred and ten" dollars and refuses to rewrite it. "I'm just going to send it, and that's that!" she says. What should I have done? I gave up. She's bigger than I am, even though she's about a foot shorter now. I even brought it down to the mailbox for her.

At work, everyone my age (50s and 60s) has been forced out in the layoffs—except me. Rumor has it that I've been spared by the cancer card. I'm surprised I can still play it. I thought it had expired.

My dad was a failure—in a good way

Like many people, my dad has a lot of set pieces—little speeches he rolls out from time to time that are polished by repetition. They are not at all conversational. They're more like mini-performances. They pretty much beg for applause. And you do feel like clapping when he's done.

He's a retired engineer, and in addition to encouraging every single human being from the age of birth to dotage to go to Caltech (cheapest engineering school in the country according to the latest Kiplinger's!), he likes to talk about how engineering is all about failure. Like buzzards, engineers flock to a disaster—a flood, an earthquake, a building collapse—because engineering is essentially a war against the forces of nature—wind, water, fire, earth movement—and the only way to win the war, or at least your next battle, is to be there for the post-mortems.

That mini-lecture inevitably leads to an instruction for my dad's memorial. He says he wants to have a basket and a pad of paper at his service, with a sign reading "Second Opinions." His friends (and enemies) can write down his failures and place them in the basket, and they will be read aloud.

So what are his failures? Well, for starters, he flunked out of Lehigh his sophomore year. That led him to enlist in the army. In the army, he was repeatedly assigned KP duty as punishment for going AWOL to search for gold in the desert (another failure: he never found any). In fact, his penchant for disappearing resulted in a demotion to private a week after he was promoted to corporal. Though he never again made it beyond PFC, he ended up being a pretty good cook. In Europe, when ordered to cover his officer while the lieutenant went ahead to scout out the territory, a tiny fellow in a German uniform rose up through a trapdoor between my dad and the lieutenant, and my dad fired—but failed to kill the enemy soldier, who turned out to be a 14-year-old kid. Later, my dad failed the state structural-engineering test on his first try. Then the roof of a bowling alley he'd designed collapsed because of diseased timber. Then he was defeated in his run for the state senate on a fair-housing platform. And so forth.

If nothing else, his failures have a zestier flavor than his successes: the endless drone of accomplishments, military medals, design awards, prizes that somehow seem meaningless and even dehumanizing in the face of death. No?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Zip it

Note to self: Shut your big fat mouth. Has there ever been a moment when it was better to blurt than to keep it in the vault? Ever? No. Not in the flurry of rumormongering over layoffs at work, not in the stress of dealing with cranky old parents, not in the crises over daughter C's various escapades. I have never, ever felt better after betraying a friend's confidences, letting off steam or "sharing" with other parents. Never happened. Not once. Yet the temptation continues. As do the lapses.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Here's to long friendships

Is there anything nicer than the pleasure of an afternoon spent luxuriating in an uncomplicated friendship? I spent several hours yesterday with someone I've known since my age was a single digit. There is not much we haven't discussed (I think). Thanks, R, it was lovely.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Will I be deleted? Or will I be stetted?

It is layoff season again in publishing, and I am really squirming this time. If I get guillotined in the rush to cut "head count," as they call it, I will be poor and have to marry Other just to get his health insurance. If I survive, I will lose my mind because our departments are merging, and he will be my boss.

When we first moved to New York, we had no money, lived in a 350-sq.-ft, seventh-floor walkup in a tenement in the honky-tonk section of the Village and survived on air. I had three tiny shelves for my entire wardrobe, and they were mostly empty. I think I owned a pair of jeans, a handful of T-shirts and half-a-dozen undies. Never have been into socks or bras. We borrowed books from the library and went to free events around town, walked everywhere, ate rice and beans, and partied with our equally threadbare friends. Part of me longs to return to the simplicity of that hippie bliss. But I know I can't. I need health insurance and money for the part the insurance doesn't cover. I've got to pay C's tuition. I'm squeamish about borrowed things, including books. And I don't want to be dependent on my kids in my dotage.

So I'm pathetically, abjectly hoping I still have a job when I get back from my trip to SF, and ever so slightly wistful for a world without work.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

No exit

One thing about having cancer is that you quickly come to know many other people with cancer, and inevitably one or another suffers a recurrence, so even when you're back on your feet yourself, you still don't get to leave cancerworld, no matter how hard you grope for the exit. And alas, one of my dearest friends has had a new diagnosis and is in the hospital for yet another surgery before embarking on her third regimen of chemotherapy in just 10 years.

The weird thing is, awful as this new diagnosis is, I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to spend long, languid afternoons with her as she recuperates in the hospital. She sent her husband off upstate to see their daughter in a play at college, so I've spent the weekend keeping her company at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, shuffling around the corridors with her and her IV pole and reminiscing about our pasts, shared and separate. Somehow, in the overheated air and plumply upholstered comfort of the patient lounge, we close our eyes to the miseries that lie ahead for her (chemo in the veins and in the abdomen, losing her beautiful hair yet again) and loll in the spacious present.

Just four years ago, I couldn't have put aside my anxiety about the future, but I've become inured to impending doom, or maybe just more determined to take pleasure when and where I can, or maybe it's a special form of chemo brain that has blocked off the lobe that's able to look ahead with any clarity. Whatever it is, I'm glad I had it for today.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Money, money, money

When a person of my acquaintance began throwing great wads of cash at designer accessories and speaking unironically about how retail therapy made her feel good, I was quite alarmed. In fact, I have been hysterical at times, worrying about her inability to hold on to money, her need for glamorous things, what it implied about her values and her mental health. I thought of extravagance as a special problem, unique to her, or perhaps peculiar to her generation.

So I felt the relief of recognition when I read in Middlemarch, which was first published in the 1870s, about the spendthrift Fred Vincy, who on his way to settle his obligations borrows and barters and digs himself deeper into debt.

Sadly, such characters rarely prosper in their passage through the pages, and their inability to handle their finances usually betokens fatal weakness.

But that's in literature. In life, anything is possible, no?