Thursday, February 25, 2010

Crazy Hearts

The only reason I agreed to see “Crazy Heart” was that Mack, the born again Christian Republican cowboy whom I still adore without reservation, told me the movie was all about him. 

“’cept fer the part about bein’ a star,” he added, lest I think he still suffered a drunk’s grandiosity and mistook himself for, say, Kris Kristofferson, who also got himself sober.

“You’re always a star to me,” I assured him.

I used to say things like that in hopes it would get him to marry me. Though I’ve since realized that marriage to anyone would cost me my hard-won and quivery sanity, I find I still say them, and I’m not certain why. Perhaps out of habit? Perhaps ‘cause they’re true? Either way, Dr. Mars thinks I should stop saying them and turn my affections in another direction, toward an available man who can fully return them. Which only proves that Dr. Mars might know what it is to be ancient, but is clueless about being ancient plus female. It also proves that he wasn’t in my dad’s hospital room when Mack bent down to shave his old face with more gentle care and genuine tenderness than I’ve ever seen or experienced. Ever.

Tuesday marked the one year anniversary of my dad’s passing, and Mrs. Pep and I had already decided to try to distract ourselves from the worst of our grief by getting lost in a movie. My sister is not only well-read, but universally recognized as being culturally astute. So her first choice, perversely enough, was “Last Station.”

“It’s about Tolstoy,” she pointed out. 

“It’s about the dying of an old Russian Jew,” I corrected her, since our father indeed used to be the same thing. “Plus Ed Head says it’s unwatchable.” Ed Head, my snobby best friend, is even more culturally astute than is Mrs. Pep, plus he too lost a parent last year, his beloved mom, the same week that we lost our dad. Finally I had a sterling idea: “Let’s see a movie that has nothing to do with anything, one we can’t relate to at all.”

That, of course, would be “Avatar”, in which neither of us held one shred of interest. And “Avatar” it was going to be, until Mack called me up and said he was starring in “Crazy Heart.”

Even drunk and unkempt, Jeff Bridges looks handsome, though not, to me, as handsome as Mack. Whenever I tell Mack how handsome he is, he remarks that I must be hallucinating. And, considering my record of psychological health, he could be right. Except that he’s not.

The movie we should have watched, I realized only later that night, was made forty years ago: 1970’s hit “The Out of Towners.” As hard as I’ve ever seen my dad laugh, the very hardest was when he was watching Jack Lemmon swear he would sue the whole of New York for setting out to ruin his life. The delicious ire! The sweet paranoia! The simpering and still young Sandy Dennis!

Why didn’t I think of that movie last year and bring it to his hospital room? It might have been the one thing that could still reach him, the hilarious sound of Lemmon raging, as every man must, at the total injustice of everything!

I’m going to pretend to myself that I did, that my dad heard every word and laughed so hard that Mack had to pause while snipping his nose hairs. Dr. Mars tries to help me face up to reality, but so far, I prefer my revisions.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Dizzy Blonde Clause

My mother was too afraid of living alone not to precede my father in death, and so she did, by almost four years. But decades before this event ever happened, she made sure to look out for her three loser daughters (financial losers, if nothing else) by making my father add to their will what we all came to call the Dizzy Blonde Clause.

“The minute I die, your father will marry some dizzy blonde,” she used to warn us pretty much daily. “And that dizzy blonde will get all your money, unless I nip this right now in the bud.”

Nip it she did, which explains why I get to be crazy, but nonetheless--as long as I don’t buy anything or go anywhere--clothed, fed and housed. In this regard, I’m obnoxiously blessed. And since the money regard is the only regard that makes any real difference, you might even say I am totally blessed. They say good health is the one thing that matters, but if you have no money to treat your afflictions, you can’t have that anyway, unless you happen to be some bionic, affliction-free Viking. Plus, if you have to live without money, your zest for said living (99% of which will be devoted to fretting), might very well wane.

So I thank my mom every day for protecting me (so far at least) from dying alone in a boarding house a la the tragic and young Lily Bart. (See Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, a novel no girl should Leave Home without.) And back when I thought I was Edith Wharton (or at least sane enough to finish a memoir) I gave some thought to the Dizzy Blonde Clause and wondered if the blonde in question really had to have vertigo, and if she could just as well have been a brunette. What I wondered most was whether my mom had plucked this suspicion directly out of the paranoid blue, or if she’d known something about my dad that I didn’t.

And then I remembered my first cousin’s wedding, which took place in Brooklyn about forty years ago. My cousin, whose father was brother to mine, looked at that time exactly like Heathcliff (i.e., like Laurence Olivier) except about a hundred feet taller. We all flew east to watch him be wed, and my dad brought his movie camera to record the festivities. Since, even at age 17, I knew I’d rather be murdered than filmed, I spent the reception getting drunk behind drapes, thereby protecting myself from showing up later in Dad’s evil footage.

Let me just say that I needn’t have bothered. Neither my mom nor my sisters hid behind drapes and they weren’t included in his footage either. Nor, indeed, was the nuptial couple. No, neither Heathcliff of Harvard nor his young bride of Radcliffe showed up on screen, not even once. And this was because Dad had turned his lens on one person only: the youngest and dizziest blonde in the room. Possibly, since we were the only guests from California, the only blonde in the room. I recalled all this as the first time it had really occurred to me that my dad might be, well, you know, insane.

A few decades after that wedding, as I grew more mental and ever more doubtful of my own perceptions, I decided I had made it all up, that no man, even my dad, could have been so obsessed with one gorgeous blonde. But since I doubted all my perceptions, including that one, I had to watch one more time to make sure. And there she still was: In a mini-skirt yet. All by herself. In every frame.

Then I did something so nuts as to prove beyond doubt just how insane working on a memoir can make you. I sent an email to the publisher of the great Francine Prose. Reminding her that I was first cousin to her first husband, and had once, long ago, even been to her wedding, I told her I was writing a book and asked if she remembered that Blonde.

Prose, a prolific genius, is also exceedingly kind. She wrote back immediately and told me not only the name of that blonde (a good friend who, though blonde, had been with her at Radcliffe), she affirmed that I wasn’t insane for thinking my dad was, plus she was very encouraging about my dumb memoir.

Her attention filled me with both joy and hubris. Oh goodie! I thought. Maybe she’ll blurb the back of my book! And then, of course, I couldn’t write it. Which is partly because I’m not all that smart, but also because, afraid of being filmed as I was and remain, I knew I couldn’t promote it without hurling myself from the world’s highest bridge.

And so once again I give thanks to my mom. She wasn’t a paranoid, she was realistic. She’d made my dad add the Dizzy Blonde Clause even before we went to that wedding, so I guess she’d been used to fending them off. I can see those blondes now, spinning before her like Olympian skaters as she pours hot grease all over the ice. For herself, of course, but also for her failed writer daughter, who will live off the D.B.C. evermore. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I Miss My Context

Imagine my sister Mrs. Pep’s horror when I told her that she and her husband would have to become my new parents. Imagine how vastly that horror increased when I further explained that we’d all be living in the same house. To keep her from shooting me (or herself), I assured her their marital bedroom would remain sacrosanct, that, a la the first Mrs. Rochester, I would sleep alone in some crumbling attic, but that, unlike that unfortunate thorn so painfully lodged into poor Jane Eyre’s side, I would not cause one iota of trouble.

For one thing, I’d have my own flat-screen TV to put my mind in the safe state of alpha. For another, I’d have Dr. Mars’ psychopharmaceuticals to put it, if needed, into the even safer state of unconsciousness. All I wanted from them, I explained, was that they make enough noise with their voices and feet to let me know that they were still down there and, more importantly, both still alive. That, plus letting me join them for meals now and then, would be enough to provide me with what I’d just realized I no longer had: Context.

Whether I’d known it or not (and mostly I hadn’t), both my younger sister and parents had defined a place in which, for good or ill, I belonged. Once they were gone, so was that place. It took me a while to notice it but as soon as I did (see previous post) I went so Mental, I went Existential.

Humans, I realized, have to belong—or just think they belong—to someone or other, because those someones will surround them with buffering context, indeed the only context (unless you’re a monk or Picasso or something) that really distracts them from what is of course the ultimate context, and I do speak here of the dank, yawning grave.

I don’t know what makes a grave yawn, I only know that the less context you have, the wider it does it. Which is why, after 20 years of living alone, I suddenly have to live with the Peps. You see, unlike my aggrieved Miss Havisham self, Mrs. Pep still has plenty of context, twenty-five years with a man so uxorious she’s never even pumped her own gas. Poor Mr. Pep. I appreciate that he didn’t sign up for this. At the same time I can’t wait to look on while he cleans both my windshields and wards off my death.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I Miss My Parents

Last week I turned a new corner in the Village of Grief and found myself missing, at once, both my parents. Until then, I’d done my missing on a strictly individual basis, remembering each parent one at a time, as if seeking to grieve in safe, measured doses.

Then came Tuesday, when, for the first time, they popped into my brain as one solid unit. A two-headed unit, whom God, evidently, had joined just as tightly together as the couple in American Gothic. Only, unlike the Goths, my parents didn’t look as if they wanted to stab themselves with a pitchfork nor did they look at all old and grim. Au contraire, they appeared to be in their still hopeful thirties, bright-eyed and smiling, easy with mirth. That’s how I knew I was no longer missing two separate people, but what those two people combined had produced: Me, of course, but also themselves as the indivisible duo known to us all as mommyanddaddy.

I lay on my couch, longing to hear their young, gentle voices, to touch their smooth, warm faces again. What I yearned for most was to pretend I’d fallen asleep on the first couch I knew, so Daddy would carry me upstairs to bed, with Mommy walking softly behind. Knowing for sure, for absolute metaphysical sure, that these things would never happen again made me weep like a four year old child. When I actually was that four year old child, I’d watch out the window every time they drove away down the street and pray to God they’d come back again. Their not coming back was a terrifying, almost impermissible thought. So it felt then and so it felt Tuesday night.

I miss my parents. I miss having parents. I miss knowing exactly where I can find them, knowing which chair they have chosen to sit in. I don’t just miss them, I specifically lack them, in the way I think I’d feel the lack of an arm, with the same palpable pain they call (what else?) “phantom.”

Naturally, I told Dr. Mars that my sneaky grief had once more switched tactics. I also asked if he thought I’d continue to miss my parents as mommyanddaddy or go back to missing them one at a time. All he could say was that parents who have lived long lives and died natural deaths (i.e., parents not tragically cut down in their prime) eventually became, in the orphan’s brain, not unlike historical figures.

“Like Abraham Lincoln? Maybe Rasputin?”

I was picturing a gallery lined with portraits of the historically famous. Then I realized they’d only be famous to me.

“You’ll still miss them, just not as sharply,” he offered.

He might be right. Then again, even a smart shrink cannot know everything.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Curves, Continued

In an effort to be sane and pro-active, I did my best to tolerate Curves by finding and bringing in my own music. I bought it on line—possibly the world’s only workout CD (DVD? VD? PTSD?) to feature selections of classical music—none of it opera, all lyric-free. I slipped it into my purse, brought it to Curves, and begged the young Curves girl to please try it out. She said she needed the boss’s approval, and that the boss was away on a skiing vacation.

“Let’s pretend I’m the boss,” I said in my head. Outside my head I said: “Pretty please?”

“What if the other members don’t like it?”

There were, at the time, two women there. 

“Then we’ll all kill ourselves,” I said, again in my head, while outwardly swearing that if this were the case, I’d apologize to all two of them and keep my music out of Nerves ever more.

“What’d you say?” 

Oops. Calling Curves Nerves was my other attempt at making Curves doable. It had, after all, destroyed all of mine. Of course, I hadn’t meant to say Nerves aloud but when you’re in the habit of thinking one thing and saying another, this is sometimes what happens.

“What’d I say when?” I replied.

Feigned confusion plus two more minutes of the most abject of begging persuaded her to accommodate me. For the next half hour there was nary a hint of the Funkytown song, nor one tortured growl from a substitute Cher. This, plus my silent decision to trade in Nerves for the even more delicious title of Pervs, got me through the first half of the workout. I got through the second half by studying the post-its adorning one wall, each one declaring, via black marker, that Curves had helped yet one more member lose so many hideous inches.

“Sarah B. lost four inches!” bragged one.

“Laurie P. lost five pounds and fifteen inches!” boasted a superior other.

“In height!” I added to each, using the marker I keep in my head. After all, doesn’t menopause make you get shorter? Do we not, if we live long enough, Boniva and Pervs both notwithstanding, finally shrink to the size of a cell phone? 

I regarded the vandalized post-its with glee and, workout completed, flew out the door.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Writing my memoir made me so mental I actually forgot who I was for a while, and, having forgotten, went out and joined Curves. Dr. Mars thought Curves would benefit me, that physical exercise would help me to write by giving me a sense of wellbeing. Personally, I think that’s the job of life-affirming, glorious sex but, as I reminded both Dr. Mars and myself, a person can’t always just order that up.

The problem between me and exercise is that my favorite state of being is Perfectly Silent and Utterly Still. The problem with wishing to always be still is that after a while, your bones turn to dust and your doctor diagnoses you with the dreaded condition called osteopenia. Osteopenia, the secret name of King Lear’s fourth daughter, is the prelude to the even more dreaded state of osteoporosis, the disease that makes you fall down and break both your hips while strangers on cell phones sidestep around you. Curves, which is for women only, is designed to prevent that nightmare and more.

My friend Millie Moon, who adores exercise and never stops moving, recommended I try it. “The whole workout takes thirty minutes,” she said. “I go on my lunch hour five times a week!” I trust Millie Moon because, back in our twenties, we and a friend took tap dance lessons together. I’m not kidding. We wore leotards, tights, and tap dancing shoes. This was before my nervous system was thoroughly shot, when I could still bear the onslaughts of motion and noise.

It was the noise, not the movement, that killed me at Curves. That and the fact that no one else there, not even the frailest octogenarian, seemed to mind it one tiny whit. How, I marveled, could such a thing be? How is no one else made suicidal by the constant, anti-musical shrieks of “Won’t you take me to Funkytown?”

I jumped right off my bicep machine and went to speak to the girl at the desk.

“Do you hear this?” I asked. “Do you hear the words? Must we really go down? To old Funkytown?”

But it wasn’t just the ‘seventies hits that drove me directly into despair. Every thirty seconds (that makes sixty times per half hour workout) a woman on meth would interrupt “Funky Town” to remind everybody to “Change Stations Now!” Said stations, which are either machines or “recovery” sites where you keep up your heart rate by doing the Frug, are like lily pads in a big curvy pond.

I told Dr. Mars I’d turned into a frog, that I was leaping from one lily pad to another just to avoid falling down and being run over by convoys of skateboards. Which was probably going to happen regardless.

“Yes,” he said, “but is it helping you write?”

I tried to give him a withering look, the gaze of a disgusted amphibian, but honestly, I don’t think he noticed.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Pansies

When I told Dr. Mars (as clearly I had to) about my adventure with Mom’s gaslit chives, he suggested she might have had what’s known in the biz as a “borderline personality.” My remaining sister, the esteemed and fiercely well read Mrs. Pep, told me she already knew about that and gave me the book that would help me catch up: “Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship.” The subtitle should give you a hint as to whether you have a borderline mother yourself. That, and the number of Xanax you can pop in a day and still look forward to a martini.

“The chives were scary,” I told Dr. Mars. “But the pansies were a million times worse.”

“You ate pansies too?” said Dr. Mars, puzzled.

He hadn’t meant to amuse me but I chortled regardless. A food mental might grill a pansy today, but back in the ‘fifties—perhaps not so much. No, I assured him, these were pansies that flourished in our carefully landscaped back yard, that set the stage for the roses behind them, that grew in a row to make a, well, border. While practicing handstands out on our lawn, I’d collapsed like a spaz right on top of them. Pansies are easy to smash, and while I instantly saw that I’d pulverized two, I also saw that a third one endured. And that, I realized when I saw the tag that said MADE IN JAPAN, was only because it was made out of plastic.

A quick and paranoid investigation revealed every third pansy to be made in Japan. Since Mom and I were the only ones who used the backyard (I’m not sure my dad ever noticed we had one, and Mrs. Pep, at that time, detested all nature) and since I couldn’t picture our Mexican gardener going insane enough to stick fake flowers in with his real ones, I figured it was either me or my mom who had done it.

“You actually thought that you might have done it?” asked Dr. Mars.

“Sure,” I said. “At night, in my sleep.”

“In your sleep?”

“Exactly!” I said. “I never slept. That’s how I knew I hadn’t done it.”

Talk about your not sleeping ever. Now I had to worry that someone else would discover the pansies and send my mom directly to Napa. Before Napa became shorthand for wine, it was shorthand for the Napa State Loony Bin. I had a friend whose dad was such a flavorless Fascist he wouldn’t let his family use pepper and insisted his wife fill both shakers with salt. I guess she forgot once because eventually he sent her to Napa and when she got back, he promptly divorced her, turning her into a penniless leper. As mental as my mom ever seemed, I couldn’t allow this to happen to her, let alone to my own selfish self.

While I lay in my bed completely not sleeping, I worked, as a lawyer might, on her defense: The pansies, I’d explain to the men in the white coats, did not indicate that my mom was a mental. They meant that she was an artist. So there!

“Would that have worked?” I asked Dr. Mars.

Words from a ten year old? In 1960? Not very likely, Dr. Mars seemed to say with a rueful shake of his leonine head. Not that I expected “yes” for an answer. But sometimes you just have to ask anyway.