Friday, December 30, 2011

Boundaries and the Mills Brothers and Keeping Your Mouth Shut

Recently, someone said something to me that she shouldn’t have said.  It was a terrible thing to say.  I will never be able to get it out of my head.

I am so angry.  Now I am stuck knowing something I don’t want to know.

I get my feelings hurt easily.  I obsess over things that other people hardly notice.  It makes me leery about hanging out with people I don’t know very well.  I never know if they’re going to toss off some comment that will have me stewing for days.

Of course, this person isn’t a friend or an acquaintance.  She is my mother, and she is almost ninety-two, and she may or may not be suffering from some sort of dementia.  So I have to pretend I’m not angry and be all sweet and forgiving and good-daughterly about the whole thing.

It’s hard.

Words are powerful.  You can say you’re sorry, but you can’t unsay something. 

Part of what has always attracted me to the act of writing things down is a sense of the huge power of words, which is both wonderful and terrible all at once.  I love that words matter so much.  Writing well is a kind of hyper-carefulness.  I may not have the cleanest grout on the block, but I’m persnickety about words I put my name to.

As I’m writing, I’m listening to Pandora, and the Mills Brothers’ song “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” just came on.  (Really.  I swear to God.  Another thing I love about writing: if I pay attention, I can hear the Universe talking to me.)  One of the lines: “It’s better not to talk at all, is my advice.”


Monday, December 19, 2011

Black Turtlenecks and What's Really Important

I’ve been thinking a lot about clothes, which has made me think about age, which has made me think about writing.

I love clothes, even though I’ve mostly worn jeans and black turtlenecks and boots for years.  I love shopping and looking at street-style blogs and watching “Project Runway” and talking about clothes with my daughter, who has a wonderful sense of style.  I don’t purport to know anything about clothes, but I know what I like.

Recently, I’ve come to the realization that fifty-four is a rough age to be when you love clothes.  I wear the same size I’ve worn for almost twenty years, but things don’t look the same.  Or rather, they do, but I don’t feel the same way in them. 

I’ve had to modify the black-turtleneck thing, for one.  When I was thirty, black turtlenecks made me feel all writer-y.  Now they just look gloomy and unimaginative.  So I pair them with blouses and tunics and sweaters and jackets.   Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes I have the horrible feeling that I’m wearing clothes my daughter should be wearing.  But I’m not quite a Chico’s or Eileen Fisher kind of gal, either.

Ines de la Fressange is arguably the most beautiful fifty-four-year-old alive.  (Google her.  You’ll see.)  A French model turned fashion icon, she has written a lovely guide to style called PARISIAN CHIC.  In it, she gives much light-hearted, soothing advice to middle-aged women about how to dress their age fashionably.   

I devoured her book and then spent a few days thinking obsessively about how I could follow her dictates without actually moving to Paris.  I went through my closet and tagged some skirts for my daughter.  I surfed a few websites.   I bought a few things.

And then, two nights ago, as I lay awake at three in the morning thinking about whether I would put on blue or black jeans in the morning, it suddenly hit me that I had to stop thinking about clothes immediately, because 1) there is not enough haute couture on the planet to make me look like Ines de la Fressange, and 2) I am a fifty-four-year-old writer, and what I should be thinking about is what is really important to me, which is writing.

So that is what I did.

I was asleep in seven minutes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ho Ho Ho

This is me:
I am scared out of my mind.  I remember what it felt like: wordless, helpless terror.  A distillation of terror.

The reasons I am scared are:

1) I am three,

2) I am shy,

3) I am Jewish,

4) I do not like funny hats,

5) I have no idea who Santa Claus is, and

6) I know I’m supposed to be happy about all this, but I can’t imagine what planet I would have to be on that would make sitting on this guy’s lap okay.

This picture made my family laugh a lot for many years.  It was not mean laughing, but still.  I pretended to laugh, too, but inside I wasn’t laughing.  I was screaming, WHY IS THIS FUNNY?  HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT TO DO?  I’M THREE AND I’M JEWISH, YOU IDIOTS!  QUIT LAUGHING AT ME!

Now that I’m fifty-four, I can see that it’s sort of funny.

I keep this picture in my office for two reasons.

One is to remind myself that if this is the worst thing that ever happened to me when I was three, I was a pretty lucky little girl.  No one hit me or locked me in a closet or shoved the edge of a dining room table into my chest on purpose.  I had nice clothes, enough to eat, a family, a healthy body.  No one I loved had died.  Lucky.

The other reason I like to look at this picture is to remember that you shouldn’t ever laugh at other people’s fears.  Even if they are afraid of something you think is benign or even wonderful: cats or roller coasters or the out-of-doors or feathers.  (The fear of feathers is called pteronophobia.)  You don’t have to get it.
Just don’t laugh.

And also, don’t make children wear funny hats if they don’t want to.  Be honest.  You’re doing it because you want to laugh—not meanly—at them, and someday they will tell you how really pissed off they were about it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why I Write It Down

Nineteen seventy-seven was a big year for me.  A lot happened.  Some of it was wonderful and some of it wasn’t, which can probably be said about most years.

I was 19 and 20 in 1977, a college student living 3,000 miles away from home most of the year.

These are some of the things that happened to me:

--My father died;

--I fell in love;

--I read Madame Bovary in the original French.  It was the first time I was able to read a “real” book in another language;

--I took my first road trip without my family (from Pennsylvania to Fort Lauderdale for spring break);

--I worked during the summer in a friend’s gift shop.  I remember wearing a beige, knee-length, thin-wale corduroy skirt with an elasticized waist a lot that summer.  Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” always reminds me of that skirt;

--I met the man who would eventually become my husband and who is now my ex-husband (but I didn’t fall in love with him until 1978);

--I learned to do the Hustle.

Nineteen seventy-seven bisects my life, even though I’ve lived far more of my life afterwards.  I do a tally with every memory as it occurs to me, mentally inserting it in the “pre-1977” or “post-1977” slot.  It was the year I grew up, the year I became myself.  Everything that came before is sepia-hazy: fuzzy and ancient.

This is a picture of my mom.  She’s the one on the right.  I think she was in her early twenties when the photo was taken, which would mean that it’s from the early forties, probably snapped on the streets of Cleveland, Ohio.  The woman on the left is her friend Estine.  One of my favorite stories about Estine is that my mother was going to fix her up with a man whose last name was Key.  They figured out that if they got married, Estine’s name would sound like Stinky, so Estine said to forget it.  She never did get married.  The last I heard, she had advanced Alzheimer’s. 

My mother still knows who Estine is, but she doesn’t remember her name anymore.  More and more of her memories have faded, bleached away by age.  If she’s upset by this, she’s doing a good job of pretending she’s not.  But really, I don’t think she’s pretending.  I think something in old age protects you from this particular horror.

I don’t want to lose 1977.  Or anything.  I know that the odds are against this, that if I live long enough, I won’t remember the things I do now.  How the late spring looked that year from my dorm window: the trees lush and green and heavy in a way that California trees aren’t, the air thick with the smell of cut grass, the sun as warm as it is possible to be without slipping over into hot.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What the Hell Am I Doing in Fresno?

Actually, that’s rhetorical.  What I’m doing is taking Robert out for Armenian food for his birthday.  Fresno has a large Armenian presence and several excellent Armenian restaurants

Fresno is the Rodney Dangerfield of California cities.  I have lived in California for all but seven years of my life, and this is what I know about Fresno:

--It’s the city you drive through to get to Yosemite;

--William Saroyan was born here;

--If you have to get out of your car to get gas in the summer, it occurs to you that it is physically impossible for any human to survive for more than seven minutes in this heat;

--Just about anything you like to eat that comes out of the ground is grown here;

--I would not live here under any circumstance.

One of the reasons we are here is that I like to visit places I wouldn’t want to live.  I am curious about who does live here and why (and if) they like it.

Dinner at Diana’s (inauspiciously located in one of a seemingly endless array of strip malls) was wonderful.  Maybe the best hummus I’ve ever eaten.  Lovely chicken and lamb kebabs.

Robert and I have celebrated six of his birthdays together.  The first year, we spent the weekend at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, where we had massages and drank martinis.  Other years, we ate at Plouf in San Francisco, the French Poodle in Carmel, and Picasso, at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.  I like being able to say that we can now add Diana’s in Fresno to the list.

Tomorrow we’ll poke around a little and see some of the neighborhoods.  We will probably go out for breakfast.  Tonight I realized that I won’t be able to eat a doughnut, which is a treat I always used to allow myself on car trips.  Wheat allergies suck.  

To torture myself, I just googled “Fresno doughnuts” and found several establishments.  Donut Hole, Donut Queen, Christy’s Donuts, Best Boy Donuts, Dough Boy Donuts, Fresno Donuts. 

This is killing me.

On the plus side, tomorrow’s weather forecast calls for showers and a high of 60.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Good News and Bad News

The good news is that my mother is speaking to me again.  I don’t know if she’s forgotten that she said she didn’t want anything more to do with me.  She doesn’t call me “dear” or “honey,” and she only says “I love you” if I say it first.  I’m glad that she isn’t telling me I make her life miserable anymore, though.

The bad news is that she was in a car accident.  She drove to a consignment store to buy fake plastic leaves ($6), and when she got in her car, she put her foot on the accelerator instead of the brake and plowed into a cement wall.  She knew that she had a suspended license.  She bruised her sternum.

My brother, aka Mr. Crazypants, brought the car back to her house the next day.  He thinks we need to believe her when she says she won’t drive. 

I have been up to visit my mom four times this week.  That’s 800 miles of driving.  On one of my visits, I asked her if she would mind if I borrowed her car while she was recuperating from her injury.  She reluctantly gave me the key.

I took her to the doctor so he could check her bruise again.  I heard him say, You mustn’t drive anymore.  She told him she is an excellent driver and has never gotten a ticket.

My heart is bruised.

On the way home, I said, What if you’d killed a kid?  Someone’s baby?   She said, cheerfully, But I didn’t.

I have a lot of people gathering information, trying to decide what to do: doctors, geriatric social workers, lawyers.  And friends, and my kids, and Robert.

But I still feel all alone.

Tomorrow I am going to work on final edits for my new book, due out next year.  Then I’m going to fill a plastic water bottle with pomegranate juice and vodka and go down to the beach and look for dolphins.  And not think about any of this.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Casting Off

Last Friday, I got my cast off.  Also, my mother told me she didn’t want anything more to do with me.

My mother has had some sort of mild dementia for quite some time, but it’s apparently getting worse.  Her anger at me stems from my having made a request to the DMV to give her a driving test.  An actual driving test, in a car, not a written test.  You would think that the state of California would assess the driving skills of 91-year-olds routinely, but it doesn’t.  You have to ask.

I got my cast off a few hours before my mother told me she didn’t want anything more to do with me.  In the car on the way home from the “fracture clinic,” I thought about other things I had cast off recently:


--anything made with wheat;

--curly hair;

--gray hair;


--people who blame me for their own unhappiness;

--jobs in which I have to wear suits and have a boss;

--friends who aren’t really friends;

--the conviction that I would always have a dog;

--as many delusions about myself as thirteen years of therapy will allow;

--tax returns from 1997;

--aluminum pans.

I’ve talked to my mother almost every night since she first yelled at me.  She has hung up on me twice and been rude and nasty.  Every once in a while, she has called me ‘dear’, as she used to.  She sounds scared and confused.  She is steadfastly unwilling to accept any kind of assistance with grace.

I don’t know if my mother is going to continue to take her fear and frustration out on me.
But I am going to call her every night.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

God Is a Big Talker

I had a horrible day yesterday.

--While jogging, I got a call from my doctor.  The x-ray taken of my hand showed a break.  Please get a cast at 3 this afternoon, she said.  (I broke my hand when I tripped while jogging last Saturday.  I kept thinking it was just a really bad bruise.)  Then she yelled at me for waiting so long to get an x-ray.

--When I went into the garage, I saw a huge mass of wet sheetrock sitting on the roof of my car.  Further inspection of the garage ceiling revealed an enormous hole, directly under the shower in the master bath.  I called Robert, who was in the middle of a 40-mile bike ride, to tell him that the house was collapsing and also to please call our insurance agent before 5, because it was a three-day weekend and I would do it except I was late and my hand was hurting, and also, the house was collapsing.  Robert didn’t pick up his phone.

--I drove about a hundred miles to get to my bank.  (Don’t ask; it’s complicated.)  I tried to deposit a check made out to me. This check was from an investment account that I had liquidated.  I set up the account years ago with the intention of giving the money to my son.  But because I was named in the check as the custodian of the account for my son, the teller wouldn’t let me deposit it.  Can my son deposit it? I asked.  No, she said.  Can we deposit it together?  No.  Plus, the “bank” is in the baked-goods section of a Lunardi’s.  And the teller looked as though she was dressed to go gay-clubbing after work.  And it was 99 degrees.

--Got back in my car.  Called my son to say I wasn’t exactly sure how we were going to pay for the first semester of graduate school, and could he stall?   He didn’t pick up his phone.  Called Robert to ask if he’d gotten my message about the house collapsing.  He didn’t pick up his phone.  Called the “fracture clinic” to tell them I would be late.  Woman at the fracture clinic yelled at me for not being a better judge of traffic conditions.

--Got to the fracture clinic a half an hour late.  Read a back issue of Modern Maturity.  Felt nauseous.

Finally, I was ushered into the casting room.  I sat there feeling sorry for myself while the casting guy told me the cast would extend from the top of my fingers midway down my forearm.  Four weeks.  Don’t get it wet.  Don’t stick forks down there.  I wanted to cry.

And then I realized someone was crying.  A young woman in a beautiful almond-colored sari sat on a nearby bed holding an infant who was shrieking.  The baby couldn’t have been more than six months old.   Another casting guy was putting his entire tiny leg in a cast.

A doctor walked through the room and saw the woman.  Another break? he asked kindly.  She nodded yes, exhausted.  When’s his surgery? the doctor asked, yelling a little to be heard over the screams.  Two weeks, she answered.

You think you already know things, but sometimes, God sends you a message just to be sure you really get it.

This morning, I sat down in front of the TV to begin the herculean task of straightening my hair with only my left hand.  I was grumpy.

I turned on TV to a show about an albino woman from Tanzania.  She is armless, because in Tanzania, people believe the limbs of albinos contain magic properties, and barbarians traverse the country, cutting off arms and legs of albino people and selling them to witch doctors.

Another message, even when I say I get it, even when I really think I do.  And I’ll bet He’s laughing about my hair, which looks ridiculous.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hair Apparent

I have very complicated feelings about my hair.  I think most women do.

When I was little, I had the kind of hair that old ladies thought was beautiful: almost black, soft, and very curly.  My mother loved to brush it.  I didn’t like it at all, though, wishing that I could be in all ways like my best friend Laurie Bradshaw, who had silky, smooth brown hair with bangs, as well as a white canopy bed.  My hair was too curly for bangs.  It seemed grossly unfair to me that some girls got bangs AND a canopy bed, and others got curly hair.

As I grew up I learned that, older women’s comments notwithstanding, curly hair was a mixed blessing at best.  It resisted attempts at styling, it frizzed in the rain, and it refused to grow long.  It was cantankerous and unmanageable.  I—a good girl, the ultimate pleaser—was mortified by my hair’s unwillingness to behave.  I longed for conformity and tractability.

I went to high school in what must have been the blondest town in the United States.  Moreover, in the early ‘70s, hair was under strict orders to be as straight as possible.   This was a long time ago, before African-American models and actresses routinely challenged outdated notions of what beautiful was.  Cybill Shepard and Christie Brinkley and Lauren Hutton were the women in the magazines, and I was from a different planet entirely.  I set my hair with orange-juice cans; I sat for hours—hours!—under one of those old-fashioned bonnet hair dryers, with a hose and a rubber cap.  After each session, my ears and the back of my neck were red and burned, but my hair—even curlier than when I was little—would not be cajoled. 

(My best friend is someone I first met in high school.  To this day, she has magnificent blonde hair.  We still laugh at how my mother, running into her at my house about ten years ago, whispered to me, It’s so sad about Tracy.  What’s sad?  I asked.  That she feels she has to dye her eyebrows, my mother said.)

As an adult, I learned to forgive, if not actually love, my hair.  I grew it long and wild and marveled at the compliments I received from women whose hair was the color and consistency of thatch.  I wish I had yours! I always said, out of habit, but as time went on, I wasn’t sure it was true anymore.   Living in the suburbs, I found I was happy to have difficult hair.  It was my way of thumbing my nose at people who wanted to look (and think) like everybody else—a quality I’d come to dislike.  Living in the suburbs taught me a lot about myself.  I learned that my hair and I were more alike than I had previously thought. 

And, as if on cue, straightening wands were invented.  My hair finally learned to submit.  At long last, we called a truce to our decades-old war.

A few weeks ago, on our cruise to Alaska, I defended my decision not to dye my graying hair to the stylist who was cutting it.   But I began to doubt myself.  I asked Robert what he thought.  He said I should do whatever I wanted, but, in typically wonderful fashion, added that I shouldn’t be afraid to try something new, to play.  With that in mind, I had my hair colored about two weeks ago.

I’m still trying to adjust.  The color is beautiful, a multi-dimensional intertwining of red and chestnut, with blonde highlights.  It’s like Beyonce’s hair in the “Irreplaceable” video, only without Beyonce.  I pass the mirror and experience a momentary and disconcerting sense of dislocation.  Where am I? 

I’m having it tweaked next month.  In the meantime, I’m learning to get to know myself all over again.  I’m not a pleaser anymore.   I still don’t like it when people don't think for themselves.  And I’m 54, with straight, reddish-brown hair. 

For the time being. 

Maybe that’s the real lesson here: everything is mutable, and anything can happen.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mistaken Identity

Today I was jogging the path to Hidden Beach when I saw a man young enough to be my son coming toward me.  He was walking very slowly with a toddler I presumed to be his daughter.  She was adorable, about fourteen or fifteen months old, with a fluffy cloud of hair so pale that God must not have decided what color it should be yet but was leaning toward red.  She was wearing camouflage pants and a blue sweater. 

As I got close, she pointed at me and said, very seriously, “Mommy!”

Her father looked embarrassed.  “That’s not Mommy.  Mommy is back at the house with Auntie.  We’re going back to the house to see Mommy.  Let’s go.  Come on,” he babbled.  It was funny, that he was the babbler.

I know that the little girl didn’t think I was her mommy.  Maybe she just knew, in that inexplicable, baby way, that I was a female in the same way Mommy was.  Or maybe Mommy jogs.  Who knows.

But I feel happy.  It’s as though she saw an invisible badge on my chest.  Or a tattoo that will never fade away.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Strength of Character

Very rarely, when I finish reading a novel or watching a movie, I walk away with a hugely pleasurable feeling that is equal parts contentment and excitement.  It’s a visceral, robust sense of well-being, hard to describe.  After years of thinking about it, I finally realized that it comes from having spent time with a character who is both 1) like me in some fundamental way and 2) relaxed in her own skin, happy to be herself.

The first character I remember eliciting this feeling in me was Annika Settergren, the little girl who lives next door to Pippi Longstocking.  You’d think I would have preferred Pippi—a much more fully developed and interesting character—but I didn’t.   Pippi had unattractive hair, for one thing.  And I found the name ‘Pippi’ alarming.  I recognized in Annika a quality I saw in myself: the ability to take pleasure in quirky, exciting people without actually being—or wanting to be—quirky and exciting herself.  It was her presence in the books that compelled me to reread them many times over the course of my childhood.

I think I had a seven-year-old lesbian crush on Karen Dotrice, the young British actress who played Jane Banks in Mary Poppins.  (She was also the non-feline lead in The Three Lives of Thomasina.)  I was utterly taken with her.  Another blonde, but this one had a British accent and spectacular clothes.  I remember longing in some desperate, wordless way to be her, and feeling gloomy on the drive home from the theater as my own tedious, mid-sixties, suburban life in California slowly came back to me.

Other characters who’ve had this powerful effect on me:

--Mary Clancy (played by Haley Mills) in The Trouble With Angels,

--Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,

--Annie Hall (played by Diane Keaton),

--Sarah Cooper (played by Glenn Close) in The Big Chill,

--Joan Wilder (played by Kathleen Turner) in Romancing the Stone,

--Harriet the Spy,

--Isabelle Grossman (played by Amy Irving) in Crossing Delancey.

I could go on.

I just finished a book (We Were the Mulvaneys, by Joyce Carol Oates) that offered up no character with whom I could identify in this way, which is to say, no character who is at home with herself.  Writing a character like this is different from writing a character who is likeable or sympathetic.

Does this make sense?  If so, which characters in books or movies have especially appealed to you, and why?   I’m really curious.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I Love A Parade

A small-town parade—like a ripe peach or a child who says “thank you” and means it—makes you believe in the goodness of life.   I did not grow up going to parades, but I enjoy them immensely now, especially if they are small and rag-tag.  Fourth of July parades are especially wonderful, being inclusive (unlike St. Patrick’s Day parades) and accommodating of nearly everyone: in a town like mine, you could round up a few people behind a banner reading, “People Who Hate Parades” and everyone would clap and cheer for them.

No such group at this year’s Fourth of July festivities, but we had fire trucks and classic cars, dogs and horses, cheerleaders and Little League players. 

The Daughters of the American Revolution dressed in long frocks and bonnets. 

A couple of kids walked on stilts.  The people who till the community garden received lots of applause, as did representatives from the local Democratic Party Club and a guy driving a 1904 Oldsmobile. 

My daughter was thrilled to see a pony.  Yes, she is in her twenties.

Someone dressed up as Smoky the Bear.  Someone dressed up as a camel and spit.  The grand marshall drove a motorcycle with an attached passenger seat occupied by a black standard poodle who looked just like my Henry.

Robert liked the community ukulele club. 

I love the Klingons, who make an appearance every year.

This guy does, too.  We see his car around town all year.  Not exactly clear who he is or what he’s about.  There’s a blow-up doll in the passenger seat.

We missed the Lyme Disease Survivors Support Group from last year, and the guy dressed as a pigeon squirting shaving cream out of his ass. 

This guy brought up the rear.  He collects supplies for those in need, especially in New Orleans, and makes deliveries several times a year. 

Sometimes the world is a good place.  Yes, it is.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Alaska, Part III

Day 7

Two-mile jog at 5:30 (am!) to watch our entry into Tracy Arm, a waterway that runs past Sawyer Glacier. 

A naturalist on the bridge broadcast observations.  I saw glacial valleys, crevasses, morains.  The water was an eerie, Caribbean blue despite the cloudy skies.

I learned that the glacier’s blue color comes from the fact that glacial ice is so compressed—10 times as dense as the ice in your freezer—that the only light that can escape from it is from the blue end of the spectrum. 

I learned that ice floes with areas greater than 15 feet are icebergs, while those with slightly smaller areas are called bergie bits (a scientific term), and those yet again smaller are called growlers. 

After breakfast, Robert and I went down to the Promenade deck and camped out for an hour.  It was bitterly cold.  An attendant strolled by with a cart from which you could purchase Irish coffee.  Robert considered it but ultimately said no to the invitation to liquor up at 8:30 am.  We watched for Dall sheep, whales, and bear but didn’t see any.  I did spot an eagle on an iceberg and several flocks of terns.  Another attendant pushed a cart selling Nikons.  No one thought to sell blankets, which I would have bought.

Outside of Tracy Arm, we sailed through Frederick Sound.  Fog sat heavily on the coast, casting everything in eerie gray light. 

It began to clear a little.  Water like smoky glass, still and waveless.  Right in front of one of the Brother Islands, I saw a whale breech.  Far away but beautiful.  Five minutes later, another one with his tail in the air.  The naturalist pointed out that humpbacks eat 1,000 pounds of fish a day, so it is more efficient for them to travel alone.  Pods are rare.

Spent the afternoon in the Wheelhouse Bar, reading WE WERE THE MULVANEYS.  Loving it right from the start although, having read Oates before, I keep waiting for something grisly to happen every time I turn the page.  I finished THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED yesterday.  It is a vast, messy novel, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.  It is trying to say so many things, and some of it seems not to hang together well.  Also, I don’t like Lamb’s tendency to end sentences with ellipses: it is weak and amateurish.  Robert is reading (at my suggestion) THIS MUCH I KNOW IS TRUE, and I am surprised at how similar the plots are.  Several of the minor characters in THE HOUR first appeared in THIS MUCH, which I think is a nice touch.

Relaxing in our room at about 4:15, marveling at all the colors of gray—gunmetal, charcoal, silver, pewter—in the sky and sea and distant coastline, when we saw a whale blowing water and flashing his tail, and then another, and another.  Clearly a group of whales—is every group a pod?  I don’t know, but it was thrilling.  We were in the Gulf of Alaska, just about to head past Coronation Island.  Maybe this is where they congregate.

Evening was fine: delicate sunlight, a fragile blue sky.  We had drinks (me: champagne; Robert: Irish coffee) at Crooners, then met Roy and Josie for dinner.  Now watching “Oceans 12” in our room.  Outside, the ocean is gray and glassy.  No sign of whales, but I know they are there, steering clear of us, frolicking in our wake.

Day 8

TV on-board ship is repetitive and pretty mindless, except for CNN International, although it seems that every time I turn it on, I get Piers Morgan interviewing Ryan O’Neal.  Still, it’s better than the movies (“The Proposal,” “Eat, Pray, Love,” some ghastly thing about Goya with Natalie Portman being tortured by Javier Bardem) or, worse, the shipboard stations, most of which are meant to sell you something.  I like the map that lets you know where we are and the web-cam at the front of the ship.  But I could do without the porn-movie sax accompaniment.

Robert has a cold, so now I’m trying to avoid that and the norovirus.

It’s Sunday, but you lose track of the days out here, particularly when you don’t dock.  One day melts into the next.  Usually, Sunday is my least favorite day of the week (a holdover from childhood, when everything was closed and I felt bored and different from everybody else).  I always think that even if I didn’t have a calendar, I would know Sunday by the feel of it, just as I would know Friday—a happy day—and Monday—also happy, the beginning of the beloved routine of school.  But out here, it’s hard to keep it all straight.

We’ve kind of lost the will to participate in the myriad activities offered: Trivia, Bingo, line-dance instruction, “art” auctions, talks on wolves, acupuncture, whales, naturopathic cures for stomach ailments, bridge.  We spend the days exercising, eating, reading, and sleeping.  In addition, I check the Internet every few days for about a half hour.  We eat dinner late.  By 10 pm, I struggle to keep my eyes open.

I think I have Robert’s cold.  Rats. 

The people next door smoke pot every day at 4 on their balcony.  The smell wafts over to our balcony, so I have to go inside.  From the room, I hear them coughing.  Once when I was on the balcony, I heard her making a phone call home, bragging in a coy, sly way about packing “some really, really good…refreshments.”  Robert and I call it their “high tea.”  Today he said, “You know that’s what they used to call pot, right?  We used to say we were smoking tea.”  I said I didn’t know, that I was bookish and weird in high school.  “You were just waiting for me and didn’t know it,” Robert said.  Then we both sneezed.

I finally hauled myself out of the room to do Trivia with Roy and Josine.  The place was mobbed.  We teamed up with an elderly couple, Paula and Ike, and their nephew, Josh.  Ike put his hand on my knee and said, “You and I don’t have to know anything.  We’re just here to look beautiful,” which I knew was well-intentioned but which got on my nerves nonetheless. 

Emotions ran high.  Josine knew the capital of Estonia; I knew that the three women who’d kissed on MTV were Madonna, Brittny Spears, and Christina Aguilera, and also that JFK had been born in 1917.  We were asked to name the disease indicated by the initials ASD.  Josh said it was Arterial Septral Defect.  When the correct answer was announced as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Josh stood up and yelled at the MC, “I’ve been a nurse longer than you’ve been ALIVE. Arterial Septral Defect is correct as well!”  We also got into a big argument about whether “shalom” means “peace” or “peace be with you.”

In the end, we won.  We each got a keychain.  I am exhausted.

Roy took us “out” for dinner tonight, i.e, to a screened-off area of the dining hall reserved for people willing to pay $20 for steak.  Rolled back to our rooms at 9:15.  Still light outside.  Sky and sea are glassy and gray, and snow-capped peaks—Canada—rise like jagged dog teeth in the distance.

Day 9

Two-mile run, but it was hard. 

We were only in Victoria for a few hours, and Robert and I weren’t feeling well.  But we bravely made our way off the ship and explored the downtown area for a couple of hours.  We started at the Empress Hotel, with its beautiful gardens and topiary, and wandered a bit. 

I saw three used bookstores in less than an hour, and several chocolatiers. 

Lots of pubs (The Scottish Pub, The Irish Pub, The Sticky Wicket).  That was the good thing about Victoria.  The bad thing was that there must be different laws regarding gasoline emissions: everything smelled vilely of diesel.  We ducked into a sandwich shop and had wonderful soup (chicken/corn/dill), and then returned to the ship.

We slept all afternoon, then ordered room service for dinner: club salads and chili.

I hate being sick and away from home.

Day 10

No exercise this morning.  My head hurt and my nose was running.   Everything gray and bleary outside.  Robert felt well enough to read but I did not.  Spent the day watching movies (“The Town,” “Pillow Talk”) on TV.

I love Doris Day, how she is peppy and chipper and brave about being a single gal.  I love the way she wears fur muffs.  I love how everything in her apartment is pink and white, and that she knows, just knows, that the right man will come along, and meanwhile, she is going to be happy and fashionable and really in her life.  She isn’t pining away.  She isn’t devastated by psychological trauma or a dysfunctional family of origin.

Our daughters could have worse role models.

Glad I made the effort to have a final dinner with Josine and Roy, who is also sick with whatever this is.  We talked and laughed.  Roy told us again about how his bridge group got run out of its appointed venue by a small band of errant Mah Jongg players.  Josine recounted another well-fought Trivia battle.  Sorry I missed it.  Said goodbye to Wilson and Dean, our fabulous waiters.  Wilson kept me well-stocked with caramel sauce.  He got it right away.  Sweet guy.

Day 11

Wrenched my shoulder in the middle of the night, something I do when I’m sick.  But it was nice to wake up and see that we’d docked.  Nice to know that Cara will be driving in to pick us up in a couple of hours.

Nice to be home.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Alaska, Part II

Day 4 

Half-woke at 4 to daylight.  Got up early and ran 2 miles as we docked at Ketchikan.  Ship inched into the dock; it was nice to run without the wind.  Showered, ate, and walked through town, where brightly colored wooden homes are perched on brilliant green hills overlooking the harbor.

Lots of souvenir/jewelry/carvings/rock shops on Creek Street, the old red-light district. 

Took a funicular up the hill to see more totem poles, which are all over town. 

Also notable: beautiful plantings and flowers on many street corners.  Some of the flowers look almost tropical.

We walked out of the downtown, and then it was a little less manicured: lots of rusted-out cars, peeling paint, a Goodwill thrift shop, store fronts with “Everything Must Go!” signs in the windows.  This is the kind of stuff I like to see.  I like imagining what it’s like to live in places I visit, and I have a feeling that life in Ketchikan is hard when the cruise ships leave in September.

Factoid: Ketchikan boasts the smallest Wal-Mart in the world.  When it opened, it sold out in hours and had to close until it could restock. 

After lunch, I found a quiet corner of the Promenade deck and read and ate chocolate.  My kind of heaven.  Met Roy and Josine at 4 for Trivia.  Our group included a lovely young man from Sacramento and a husband and wife from Pleasanton.  Wife reminded me of my ex-husband’s wife in both appearance and inability to stop talking.  (“What car did Lenin outfit with skis?  Did Lenin drive?  Wasn’t he Russian?  Or Soviet?  Was he Russian or Soviet?  Were there Russian cars?  I don’t know anything about Russian cars.  Was this before World War I or after?  Did he say skis or snowshoes?”)  We didn’t do very well.  Lenin drove a Rolls Royce, but we missed it.

Sunny afternoon sailing up the Inside Passage.  The vistas were spectacular.  Sat on our balcony with Robert until someone next door started smoking weed.  There really is nowhere on a ship to escape entirely from other people.  Ironic, because that’s one thing that is apparently easy to do in Alaska.  And even I—bitter and complaining isolationist that I am—would feel so bereft and lonely if I had to be here for any length of time.  I would go mad with loneliness.  The beauty and serenity and bright, pristine splendor would be nothing without people around (whom I would undoubtedly work to avoid).

After dinner, we went to a revue in the Princess Theater: songs of the 20s and 30s by the Princess Singers and Dancers, who performed at about the level of a mediocre community college theater department. 

On exiting the theater, one of the young cruise directors asked me with a smile, “Did you like the show?” 

Being polite, I said, “Yes, I did,” whereupon Cruise Director called out, “Chester?  These people liked the show!”  “Chester” turned out to be the “feelings police” guy from yesterday.  He and his wife were sitting on a couch outside the theater.  “What ship are they on?” he asked crankily, not missing a beat.

I have decided that Chester and I are kindred spirits, and that I’m going to look for him tomorrow and sit as close as I can.

Day 5

Two-mile jog at six.   The water of the Inside Passage was glassy and almost black with the reflection of the steep hills rising on both banks, thick with untouched forest and brush.  Everything was green in a way that makes you think all other greens you’ve seen are something else entirely: a murky blue, or some version of brown.  Patches of snow lay at the top of the hills.  Sometimes you could see snow melt running into the ocean; sometimes it was frozen mid-fall against the crags.

From the ship, Juneau is much less picturesque than Ketchikan: all cinderblock and industrial browns and grays.  It has the distinction of being the only state capital without road access: everyone getting in or out does so by plane or ship. 

We docked at the base of a steep, green hill.  I was standing at the window and saw two eagles circling.  One of them landed on a tree directly in front of and slightly above us.  Fortunately, we brought binoculars.  I have never seen an eagle in the wild before.  Magnificent.

Robert and I walked through town. 

We had breakfast in a cafĂ© (scrambled egg on a panini and very good Earl Grey), then browsed in a used bookshop, where I bought WE WERE THE MULVANEYS, by Joyce Carol Oates.  It started to rain, so we headed back to the docks, where tour bookers were hawking excursions.  We boarded what looked like a 1950s school bus and headed out of town to the Mendenhall Glacier.  We drove past Mount Juneau, the base of whose steep face is considered the most dangerous avalanche location in the urban US. 

More beautiful countryside, pocked with suburban homes.  Tour guide said most of Juneau’s 30,000 people live out toward Mendenhall.  (He also said he was a Republican and that even though it “killed” him to say it, Gore was right about global warming, whereupon both Robert and I said, “Duh!” loudly.)  I saw lots of churches (Church of the Nazarene, Church of Christ) and lots of rusted-out cars on front lawns.  Tour guide informed us that if someone wants to move to the lower 48, there is no inexpensive way to bring his car along, so many are abandoned.

Glacier (in the heart of the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest) is smaller than when I was here in ’95.  But still beautiful, still that breathtaking shade of toothpaste blue I have never seen anywhere else in nature. 

Cottonwood trees abound; when the sun came out, they gave up their snowy puffs, making lots of people sneeze.
Arctic terns swooped and buzzed the ponds.  A waterfall gushed nearby.

Last night, we talked to a Filipino waiter who waxed rhapsodic about the US.  He told us we have no idea how lucky we are to have access to $5 meals at McDonalds.  Food is expensive in the Philippines, he said.  “You know what I love about America?  Wal-Mart.  Target.  Costco.  Yes, I have a card.  I love the Philippines, but I love America also,” he said.  I thought about that conversation at the glacier.  I love my country for a lot of reasons.  For me, natural beauty is higher on the list than access to Wal-Mart.  But I see now how privileged that makes me.  I already knew it, but sometimes it’s a good thing to be reminded.

Dinner tonight marred by news that norovirus has invaded the ship.  I am trying hard not to panic but am also gratified that my isolationist ways may yet come in handy.

Day 6

Jog as we docked at Skagway.  If it weren’t for the two other cruise ships already in port, I would have missed the town.

Breakfast on the Lido Deck: fruit and coffee for me.  After a while, the excess of offerings begins to wear on me.  Robert loves it, though: this morning, he especially liked the smoked mackerel.

The staff is taking the threat of norovirus very seriously.  When you arrive at the restaurants, you must wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap that is provided at the front door.  Staff stand guard and make sure you use it.  At the cafeteria-style breakfast, you are not even allowed to use tongs to put food on your plate: another staff member wearing rubber gloves uses the tongs for you.

Skagway is small and has the look of a wild-west town in Wyoming, except that there are no high plains or tumbleweed or cattle.  Wood-planked sidewalks without curbs, Victorian architecture.

There is a structure made entirely of driftwood:

Ubiquitous diamond merchants, jewelry and souvenir shops, several saloons.  We ate fish and chips in one, then walked through more of the town.  There was a lovely museum housed in the first granite building in Alaska, once home to the McCabe College for Women, which was really a college-preparatory high school.  Boys and girls were taught Latin, Greek, modern languages, natural sciences, history.  It was only in existence for three years, when a public school was finally built.  The headmaster was Oxford-educated.

The day was almost hot, but the wind kicked up after 3.  I can’t stop thinking about that school, about being a young woman in Alaska in the 19th century, learning Greek and Latin in a town five blocks wide, where winter days are five hours long.

These are some of the clothes that young women traveling to the Klondike were advised to bring at the end of the 19th century:

1 pair house slippers

1 pair knitted slippers

1 pair heavy soled walking shoes

1 pair arctics

1 pair felt boots

1 pair German socks

1 pair heavy gum boots

1 pair ice creepers

3 pair heavy all-wool stockings

3 pair summer stockings

Some sort of gloves for summer wear, to protect the hands from mosquitoes.

I don’t even know what some of these things are, but they make the whole endeavor of relocating to Alaska sound especially difficult for hands and feet.   We haven’t seen a lot of mosquitoes, which is surprising.  And here in Skagway, not many birds: just a few gulls, an arctic tern or two, one eagle.  Maybe we’re too far north.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Alaska, Part I

Day 1

 We couldn’t have picked a more spectacular day to depart from Pier 35 for Alaska.  Temperature was a nearly-unheard-of 77 degrees; sky was cloudless; bay was full of sailboats and gulls.  After the mandatory (and ridiculous) safety drill, we met our friends Roy and Josine on the Lido deck, where fruity cocktails ($9) were being hawked and a band played upbeat tunes (not one of which was "I Left My Heart In San Francisco").  A few passengers danced with crewmembers who tried gamely to look as though the whole thing was loads of fun.

It was lovely to sail out of the bay and watch San Francisco disappear. 

The Golden Gate arched against the sky.  I thought about the other passengers who love San Francisco the way tourists do (which is different from the way we natives do), and how leaving a city is not the same thing as leaving home.  My eyes got a little teary.  I’ll admit it.  The Cliff House was tiny on its precarious perch, the last landmark.

Our room has two twin beds pushed together, two small closets, a desk, a TV, a refrigerator, and a shower-sized balcony. 
The wall behind the bed and desk is completely mirrored.  It would be nice to be able to sit outside if we were going somewhere tropical, but very shortly after chugging out of the bay, it became clear that being outside and not doing anything was ill-advised.  They call it The Frozen North for a reason.    

We unpacked and Robert was delighted to find that his plan to smuggle in vodka went undetected by the authorities.  Amazingly, we were able to empty two suitcases and a garment bag into our dinky closets.  We met Roy and Josine again for a snack.  Fantastic fresh fruit, cheese, and lemonade. 

We had a drink (ginger ale: $4) outside the restaurant before dinner and people-watched.  As always, it’s my favorite part of any getaway.  If it were a competitive sport, I would win.  Lots of families with small children (school is out), lots of multi-generational families, many matriarchs and patriarchs in wheelchairs being pushed cheerfully by adult children who are way nicer and less grudging than I am.  Lots of people speaking different languages.  Many Asians, many Indians and Pakistanis.  Almost no black people.  Some people who are quite heavy.  I noticed several people with seasick-medication patches behind their ears and begin immediately to feel queasy.

Dinner was okay.  The highlight was definitely cream of porcini mushroom soup.  For dessert, I ordered vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce and told the waiter to hold the ice cream.  He didn’t get it, which made me a little grumpy.  This is the weird thing about cruise ships.  You start complaining about everything.  You think you won’t, but you will.  I don’t know why.  Suddenly, you feel massively entitled.  Or maybe it’s that even with all the activities, there really isn’t very much to do.

The ship was rocking quite a bit; Josine said she heard that tonight was going to be the roughest night.  So I took a meclizine and am now quite drowsy.  To bed.

Day 2

Exercise on the Promenade Deck.  I jogged over a mile and walked a mile and a half.  My ears ached from the wind.  There was no coastline visible, just endless vistas of gray, white-capped sea.  The deck has the feel of an earlier era: beautifully polished wooden slats, varnished benches and life-vest lockers, chaise lounges with navy-blue cushions arranged so that one can read and watch the ocean at the same time.  Vintage-looking clocks.  You can almost see Edward and Wallis Simpson having a stroll.

After breakfast (eggs, fruit, tea) and a trip to the “sundries store” to buy new batteries for my camera, I coerced Robert to indulge in my other favorite shipboard activity: trying to get away from other people.  I find that my curmudgeonly instincts are especially heightened when I am confined at sea with people I know I wouldn’t like on land.  I take offense when other people save seats, or sneeze without properly covering their mouths, or walk up the stairs without staying to the right, or neglect to say thank-you to the lovely people who wait on them.  I do not like it when children press all the buttons in the elevator so it will stop at every floor.  I do not like smokers.  (I know it’s really their nasty habit I don’t like, but I’m getting to the point where the distinction is largely moot.)  In short, I am not made for the communal aspect of cruising.  Fortunately, this is a big ship.  Robert and I hid out for a while in one of the nightclubs, empty but for a couple of gentlemen vacuuming the rugs.  We located a few venues (one of the theaters, the art gallery, the library).  And we ate lunch.  (French fries, cheese, more delicious fruit.) 

Back in the room, we fell asleep.  Up in time for afternoon tea (scones, jam, egg-salad sandwiches, walnut cake).  Bloated and leery of our room and its wall of mirrors, we made our way to Trivia.  Notable questions: Who invented scissors?  What color is the cross on the Swedish flag?  What is the biggest opera house in the world?  Roy is a chemist and knew about hydrogen.  I knew who lived in the 100-Acre Wood.  We got 16 out of 20, but were bested by another team.  We vowed to do better tomorrow.

We tried to read on deck, but even in my winter coat, I was freezing.  We relocated to the Wheelhouse, which is a nice bar/lounge.  I’m reading THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED, by Wally Lamb.  I almost gave up on it a few times, but now I’m glad I stuck with it.  It’s just the right kind of book for a trip like this: one you can read in spurts, then put down to watch the lady at the bar try to sing along with the piano player’s “One Singular Sensation.”

After dinner, we went to one of the theaters to watch a musician/comedian.  He told us he has been doing cruises since 1977, which made me feel too sorry for him to like him much.  Plus he likes puns and sings ‘70s songs in funny voices.  No patience for this on dry land, let alone on the high seas.

Day 3

There are 11 decks on this ship that are open to passengers: Fiesta, Plaza, Emerald, Promenade, Dolphin, Caribe, Baja, Aloha, Riviera, Lido, and Sun.  Our cabin is on the Aloha Deck, aka Deck 11, which means that we do a lot of elevator-riding or stair-climbing in order to get places.  I avoid the elevators for the most part (because they put me in alarming proximity to other people), so I get a work-out on the stairs.  You run into the same people over and over on the stairs, it turns out.  I imagine we’re like-minded in other ways as well.

After my jog, I made my way up to the salon (Riviera), where Gordana cut off two inches and regaled me with stories about women who do silly things to their hair.  She says women from the UK have the strangest dye jobs, and that the fact that my hair is in such good condition is because I don’t color it, but if I would like to, she would recommend a shade of red.  I told her that I’m 54 and this is what I look like, for better or worse, and she laughed nervously, as though I had inadvertently identified myself as peculiar and she was a little embarrassed for me.

Lunch poolside (Lido), where the sun had shown itself for the first time in two days.  We had hamburgers and hotdogs, but the wind was blowing my new haircut around and I finished fast.  Went off to read in a quiet lounge and was suddenly overtaken with intense sleepiness.  Found our cabin and slept hard for almost an hour, missing Trivia (and probably pissing off Roy and Josine).  Now I remember why I don’t read in the middle of the day.  Also, I think there’s something about being off the Internet that is discombobulating.

Formal night, which means men wear tuxes or suits and women wear sparkly dresses. 

Frankly, I was interested to see what some of these people were going to wear.  It was great fun to sit in the atrium, drink champagne, and watch the show.  Nearby, an elderly man and woman were having a conversation:

Woman: Doesn’t everyone look nice?

Man: This is such a load of crap.

Woman: Always a smartass.  What’s wrong with you?

Man: I don’t have to tell you.  What are you, the feelings police?

The man was genuinely disgruntled.  I love “the feelings police.”  I am going to have to think about that and see where I can use it.

Robert and our friends are at a magic show.  I hate magic.  Basically, it’s just someone tricking you, and then you have to applaud them for it.  I’d much rather watch the ocean slip by.  It’s 10:40 pm and the sun hasn’t set yet.