Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Laura Lansing Slept Around: Road Trip, Days 4 and 5

We woke up this morning in Memphis, had lunch in Nashville, and tonight are sleeping in Knoxville. I love saying that.

I've never been to the south before, so there was a little thrill in crossing the state line from Oklahoma into Arkansas yesterday—even if we drove straight across with almost no stops and without even taking a picture.

My I-love-the-world glow faded some in the cold icy light of an Oklahoma City morning, as we slid out of the motel parking lot after not enough sleep and a heater that noisily pumped hot air into the room all night long. Yesterday's travel became a Point A to Point B mission—Oklahoma City to Memphis—and we accomplished it without a lot of touristic fanfare.

But our spirits lifted as we crossed the Mississippi River toward the lights of Memphis. I'd booked us into a Holiday Inn smack downtown, two blocks from Beale Street, and even though we were too tired and it was too cold to do much adventuring, we were both happy to be there. And when we walked out the front door and I saw this...

...I couldn't help myself. I squealed.


"What ducks?" asked Stan.

"Isn't this the place with the ducks?"

"What are you talking about?"

I started to doubt myself. And then I saw the bronze duck webprints in the sidewalk outside the Peabody hotel.

Indeed, it was the home of the famous Peabody ducks, which have swum in the hotel fountain since the 1930s (not the same ducks), and which are marched with red-carpet formality and John Philip Sousa accompaniment from their rooftop home into the elevator and down to the lobby fountain at 11 each morning. At 5 each evening, the ritual repeats in reverse. We'd missed the march, but paid a visit to them on the roof.

Afterwards we walked down to Beale Street, and were sad to discover that the birthplace of the blues is now a Disneyfied theme park—a deserted one in the dead of winter. Horse-drawn Cinderella-style carriages decorated with Christmas lights trolled the streets offering rides. Barkers tried to lure the few shivering tourists into their clubs and restaurants, where bad blues covers blared through the windows. We passed.

Today we drove from western Tennessee to eastern Tennessee, with a midmorning stop at Loretta Lynn's Kitchen in Hurricane Mills. I bought Loretta's blackberry preserves, strawberry jam and moonshine jelly, and trotted out for Stan my favorite Loretta Lynn Fun Fact: She became a grandmother at the age of 29.

At lunchtime, we made our way through downtown Nashville to Hog Heaven, a barbecue place we'd read about in the tour book, which turned out to be a tiny shack with one outdoor counter and no indoor seating. Undeterred, we bought our food (pulled pork for me, with turnip greens and blackeyed peas; greens, peas and barbecued beans for my Beloved) and sat in the car next to a McDonald's to eat it. Will the glamour never end?

"California!" said Drew, the young musician working the counter at Hog Heaven. "What the hey-hey are you doing all the way down here?"

It's a question we've heard in various forms along the way, and I get a charge out of saying, "We're moving from L.A. to New York," which always gets a cluck of admiration.

Of course there are downsides to traveling cross-country on a deadline, and today demonstrated the great big one: We saw nothing of Nashville, one of the great American cities. Not that I regret for a minute doing this drive rather than taking yet another plane trip, but it becomes obvious that this is a note-taking trip, not a sight-seeing one. And that we have to return.

That's okay with me.

* * *

Before I was so rudely interrupted by a non-working Internet connection at the Holiday Inn in Memphis (otherwise a great old hotel—and an excellent mattress), I put together a playlist of songs to commemorate our trip through Day 4, which ended in downtown Memphis.

Starting out
On the Road Again (Willie Nelson)
Every time we take a driving trip we sing this as soon as we get on the highway. This usually consists of: "On the road again, da da da da da da da da da..something something something...and I can't wait to get on the road again." Unfortunately, most of the versions I can find on the internet are of live performances with dubious Willie quality, so I haven't provided a link to the song.

Los Angeles, I'm Yours (The Decemberists)

Route 66 (Bobby Troup)
For obvious reasons. I adored the Depeche Mode version in the 1980s, but it's been replaced by a pesky remix with a too-insistent guitar line, so I'm also providing a link to the Rolling Stones version of the 1960s. And may I just add a personal tribute to Bobby Troup, whom I, as a kid, knew only from the 1970s TV show "Emergency!", in which he starred as an ER doctor and his wife Julie London co-starred as a nurse. And Randolph Mantooth starred as a paramedic. Why do I remember this?

Winslow, Arizona
Take It Easy (The Eagles)
POSTSCRIPT: After all these years, I just learned from my friend Carolyn that Take It Easy was co-written by Jackson Browne, and I would herewith like to give him the appropriate credit. (And credit to Carolyn, as well.) Thank you both!

Albuquerque, New Mexico
Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque (The Partridge Family)
Hey, I didn't say I was creating a list of brilliant music by genius songwriters. I watched "The Partridge Family" faithfully when I was between the ages of 9 and 14, so this is like a free-association exercise for me. You say "Albuquerque," I say, "Point me in the direction of."

Tucumcari, New Mexico
Willin' (Little Feat, as covered by Linda Ronstadt)

Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Santa Rosa (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)
A little gift to and from My Beloved, who often drew his comic strip on deadline while listening to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Amarillo, Texas
Cadillac Ranch (Bruce Springsteen)

Okemah, Oklahoma—home of Woody Guthrie
Oklahoma Hills (Woody Guthrie)
As sung by Johnny Cash and Flip Wilson!

Muskogee, Oklahoma
Okie from Muskogee (Merle Haggard)
As sung by Haggard and Willie Nelson. I have to admit I didn't know anything about this time-warp song except the title, and was kind of dazzled to watch an old 1968 video of Haggard singing "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD/We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street...". Wow. But I did enjoy the irony of watching Willie Nelson join Haggard for a duet on this ode to all-American purity. Note that Nelson joins in after the marijuana line...

Clarksville, Arkansas
Last Train to Clarksville (The Monkees)
Okay, I have no idea if this is the Clarksville mentioned in the song. I have no idea if the completely fake Monkees thought of any real-world Clarksville at all. In fact, Clarksville, Arkansas probably doesn't even have trains. But you say "Clarksville," I say...etcetera.

Memphis, Tennessee
I've Been to Memphis (Lyle Lovett)
I love Lyle.

Monday, December 28, 2009

And She Slept Here, Too: Road Trip, Day 3

The last time we drove across the continent, from east to west in the summer of 2002, I ended up with ooey-gooey feelings of love for the whole country. Maybe all those peanut butter sandwiches on Wonder bread gummed up my brain, but I swear I loved every mile of highway as we threaded our way from New York through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois... Even the places routinely deemed boring by East and West coasters—Iowa, say, or Nebraska; "So flat!" "Nothing but cornfields!"—struck me as exquisite in their own right.

And damn if I didn't find myself falling right back in love again today as we drove through Texas and Oklahoma. And I defy you to round up 10 people who will extol the beauty of the Texas panhandle.

There's just something about how the landscape of one state eases into the topography of the next—the red plateaus of New Mexico flattening into harshly beautiful Texan ranchland—that makes me happy, giving me a touchy-feely sense of the interconnectedness of everything, while appreciating each state's distinct sense of place.

Very distinct.

Where else but Texas, for instance, would a quirky millionaire decide to plant 10 Cadillacs nose-down in the middle of a field just west of Amarillo? Or to let them become a community art project, so that the spray-painted Cadillacs change color and design hourly?

The Cadillac Ranch we went looking for (in fact, we missed it on our first pass and had to double-back from Amarillo to find it). But its little buddy, the 5-car VW ranch down the road in Conway was one we happened on by accident while looking for a restroom.

Maybe it's because the land is so flat there in the panhandle, but the folks in Texas just can't help sticking things in the ground that stand up tall for all to see. Like the "Biggest Cross in the Western Hemisphere," in the town of Groom.

But as we crossed into Oklahoma, I had the sense of the sky coming down to meet the earth. It was a great big swoopy sky, and the cars on the highway with their headlights illuminated looked like tiny shooting stars streaking through the Oklahoma galaxy.

[photo by my Beloved]

Over dinner at the historic Cattlemen's Cafe in Oklahoma City's Stockyard City district (where I had a tiny twinge of guilt over tucking into one of the cousins of the fuzzy-faced moo-cows we'd driven past all afternoon), we talked to our young waiter about life in and out of Oklahoma. He's a native, but has lived in Los Angeles twice and hopes to get back there again "so I can play golf all day." He's also been to New York, and loved it. He'd happily go back there, too.

"We're here in Oklahoma," he said. "You want to go one place or the other."

As I looked at him, I thought of friends in L.A. and New York who would have swiftly agreed with him. But I found myself wanting to raise a little defense for his home state. And I thought, how odd is that?

My Beloved says of driving across the country, "You can drive east, into the country's past, or you can drive west, into the country's future."

To me, it's all a present.

And Laura Lansing Slept HERE: Road Trip, Day 2

When I realized that our route across the country was going to take us straight through Winslow, Arizona, I immediately made plans to have my picture taken standing on a corner. Yes, I am just that cheesy.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the phrase "standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona," I'll explain that The Eagles' song "Take It Easy" played approximately every five minutes on the radio during my high school years, and every 15 minutes in the 20 years after that. Its opening lines —"Well I was standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona/Such a fine sight to see/It's a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford/Slowin' down to take a look at me"—spring as easily to my mind as the national anthem. Er, more easily.

So after waking up in Flagstaff, Arizona to brilliantly sunny skies and tiny ice crystals covering the roof and trunk of my car....

...and after a mobile breakfast of Grape-Nuts poured into yogurt containers, and after listening to radio advertisements for the Meteor Crater ("Feel the impact!"), we arrived in Winslow, where I discovered I was not the first person to think of having my picture taken standin' on a corner. In fact, standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona is practically the town's biggest industry.

We stood on the northwest corner in Standin' on the Corner Park, next to a mural of a girl in a flatbed Ford and a bronze statue of...Glenn Frey?

We stood on the southwest corner, outside a gift shop that played The Eagles in constant rotation on outdoor speakers.

We watched a Japanese couple stand on the southeast corner taking pictures of the southwest corner. And we stood on the northeast corner, outside another gift shop where the owner cheerily told us to "Take it easy" as we left with "Standin' on the corner" refrigerator magnet in hand. As we headed back onto the road, a couple from Iowa arrived in a white SUV with "Take It Easy" blaring out of their car windows.

Mission more than accomplished!

The next several hours were a spectacular tour through the Southwest and Tony Hillerman country—red plateau cliffs glowing under blue skies. I kept trying to capture the landscape, but the drama refused to be corralled into an iPhone lens. This was about the best I could do:

We had lunch at the counter at Earl's Restaurant in Gallup, New Mexico, where the deliciously spicy posole brought a fine sweat to my forehead and I dipped Navajo fry bread in honey.

We passed through Albuquerque without stopping, but of course were lured into the "world-famous" Travel Center at Cline's Corners, picking up prickly pear marmalade and red chili-shaped salt and pepper shakers. (Come on, could you resist?) The sky was dark when we came out, and we spent the next hour and a half driving through the pitch black, while I exchanged text messages with The Child, who was on her own California road trip with her dad.

Me: BTW, favorite highway signage of the day: "Gusty winds may exist."

She: Truly an extraordinary revelation, and one that definitely required signage.

At 7 p.m., we turned off the highway in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and onto historic Route 66, where Elvis welcome us to the Motel Safari.

With a good mattress on our king-size bed and excellent reception on the flat-screen TV (this is the Route 66 of 2009, after all), we could finally, really take it easy.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Laura Lansing Slept Here: Road Trip, Day 1

This was a big day. I sold my house. My daughter left her childhood home and probably won't ever see it again. I cried. Then, like Holly Hunter in "Broadcast News," I looked at my watch, wiped my face with a Kleenex and said, "Okay, we gotta go." And my Beloved and I got in the car and headed east.

Of course it's not entirely that simple. Escrow is just beginning and who knows what can happen. We fly back to L.A. at the end of January and still have to deal with clearing and moving out of the condo. But I've changed my address with the post office and on my magazine subscriptions. And as many belongings as could fit in my Honda Civic are making the trek east with us. So it's the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. Or something.

I'm writing now from a motel room in Flagstaff, Arizona, where it's—wait, let me check the weather app on my phone yet again—yup, 4 degrees. Officially the coldest I've ever been. Tomorrow: Tucumcari, New Mexico. We're taking Route 40, the interstate that replaced Route 66—not that anyone could forget Route 66 for a split second.

I love being on the road. Desert or ocean, cornfields or Rocky Mountains, flatlands or vertiginous mountain curlicues, I love watching the landscape roll by through my smudgy car windows. I love car food: trail mix and Cokes and peanut-butter sandwiches and gas station coffee. I love maps, and we have billions of them.

We've been planning this trip for weeks, me obsessively plotting routes and counting hours to see how many miles we can accomplish per day without destroying my Beloved's back. We have eight days to make it to New York in time to meet The Child, who will fly there on January 2. So far, one day down and still on schedule.

We hit the road a bit late this morning, got snarled in Vegas-bound traffic on I-15 in San Bernardino, then finally got clear sailing through the Mojave Desert.

We listened to the driving mix The Child had made for us, a travel-themed edition featuring The Decemberists' "Los Angeles I'm Yours" (How I abhor this place/Its sweet and bitter taste/Has left me wretched, retching on all fours/Los Angeles, I'm yours), Brandi Carlile's "Dying Day" (Chasing miles through the night time/Making tracks with no time for looking back) and the Dixie Chicks' "The Long Way Around" (I hit the highway/In a pink RV with stars on the ceiling).

I was excited to hit Needles, California, home of Snoopy's brother Spike, before crossing into Arizona and into a classic western-sky sunset.

It was pitch-black by the time we rolled into Flagstaff—465 miles, a time-zone change, and a world away from where we started. And tomorrow, as Willie Nelson would say, we're on the road again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Delicate Balance

Hello? Is this thing on? HELLO? Oh, what the hell.

Kate Hepburn here. Susan's been trying to scratch out something or other on this bloggy thing, but she hasn't been having much luck with it and I'll tell you why: The girl's gone crackers.

Yes, I know she looks all right. Not as thoroughly bathed as I'd recommend, but not drooling or twitching. But I'm telling you, she's scattered. Wiggy. Loony.

You don't believe me?

Remember the rains that hit Los Angeles like a freight train the other week? Well, some of us—some of us raised on the eastern seaboard with a little sense in our heads—look at a rainstorm and think: "Close the windows! Get out the rubber boots!" Susan sees rain and thinks, "Free carwash!"

Oh, that's not the loony part—the car was disgusting. So she drives the beast out of the garage, parks it on the street...and the sun comes out from behind a cloud and stays out for the next four days. From Monday till Thursday. Which is when she looks at her watch at 10:20 a.m. and realizes it's street-sweeping day. From 10:00 to 1:00.

Out she goes, flying down three flights of stairs like a lunatic, panting up to the parking officer who is just that minute writing a ticket.

"I'M. MOVING. THAT. CAR!" she says, flailing an arm in the direction of a formerly blue Honda now thoroughly camouflaged under layers of grime.

"Citation's already in progress, ma'am," says the implacable officer of the law.

Result: An unwashed car and a $60 parking ticket on her own street. A street on which she has her own free parking space, in a garage. And that's not even the nuttiest part: This is the third time she's done this.

Then there's the curious incident of the dryer repair man in the daytime. Some of you know a bit of this story—the Russian repair man who, without touching, opening, or testing the non-heating dryer, tells Susan that she must "re-pless de gess heating coil" for a mere "two hondred seexty-seffen dohllars." At which point she thanks him and points him toward the door.

A moment of clarity. Until she calls Sears and agrees to pay $200, sight unseen, for a dryer repair and a one-year warranty on a dryer she's going to own for another month. The Sears repair man arrives on Friday morning, turns the gas valve 45 degrees to the "On" position, and leaves, problem solved.

Beat, beat, beat goes her head against the toasty-warm dryer. Come Saturday morning, Susan and that nice-looking man she calls her Beloved join their friends for coffee therapy. First stop, Trader Joe's—the coffee bar offers a 20 percent discount with a Trader Joe's receipt. Susan buys a little something. Walks out of Trader Joe's. Puts her change in her wallet. Crumples the receipt in her fist and throws it in the nearest garbage can.

Oh ho, stay with me! Half an hour into their coffee date—Susan having paid full price for her drink—she gets up to refill her cup for 65 cents...and while chatting with her friends, throws her coffee cup in the trash.

You see what I mean. Loopy.

Some would say it's sad in someone so young. I say: Baloney! She's plenty old enough to know better. She's 48, for pity's sake. When I was 48, I toured Australia for six months starring in Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice. All those cities, all those parts, all those lines of dialogue! But I didn't go gooney-bird over it.

Susan chalks it up to the stress of selling her house and moving cross-country. Insists she's fine most of the time. Says this odd behavior just oozes out between the cracks.

Oh yes, packing, cleaning, strangers poking into your closets—I know, I know. Such a torment, so painful! YAWN.

Listen to me: Be more of a pig.

I spent most of my life as an absolute pig, concerned only with me, me and me. Not worrying one whit about other people's feelings, what anyone thought, what other people needed. Granted, I was Katharine Hepburn and I could get away with it. I can't speak for you.

But I'll tell you, a few piggy qualities come in handy. Pigs don't worry about new carpeting. They don't fret about real estate prices. And they don't get wiggy. They just put their snouts down, snuffle up their food, and move on.

Oh, you don't have to be a complete pig. Even I learned to soften up when I met Spencer. But for heaven's sake, toughen your skin! Grow a few piggy whiskers! That'll put some healthy distance between you and all that nutty stuff out there.

Because that's where the nutty stuff belongs, my dear. Out there.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

As You Like It

I've been a little blueish, perched here in my fake museum house with its odorific new carpet, stark walls and echoing rooms devoid of furniture.

My Beloved is still in New York, The Child still at school, so I'm bumping around here by myself for the time being. Just me and the carpet guy, back by popular demand; Sam the handyman; and the Russian dryer-repair man. (He: "Det vill be two hondred seexty seffen dohllars." Me: "No senk you, I coot be buying nyew one for det much.")

We were in New York for Thanksgiving, the first time since my junior year abroad that I wasn't at my parents' house surrounded by the clamorous Champlin clan. We're usually 30ish at dinner, scattered among several tables, every chair in the house and the piano bench pressed into service, sisters manning the mashed potatoes and the salad and the gluten-free pumpkin pie, brother wielding the ancient carving knife and fork, the under-12 set in the back bedroom draped over the king-size bed watching Nickelodeon before dinner.

In New York we were three in the apartment, once The Child and I found each other through the throng of the Port Authority bus terminal after her six-hour ride down from college. She and I spent Wednesday afternoon in the kitchen, listening to her "Music to Bake By" mix as we made two pies, pumpkin and lemon meringue...

...and a batch of cookies that emerged from a deliciously disastrous pie crust dough. I called them Mortification Cookies.

At dinner on Thanksgiving we were eight around the table in my Beloved's younger son's apartment, where Peter and his beautiful Portuguese bride, Mariana, cooked the first turkey of their lives—perfectly. Every one of the six chairs in their jewel box of an East Village apartment was pressed into service, along with a trunk topped with cushions.

We devoured everything...

...except half the turkey.

Then we sat with tiny cups of perfect espresso and talked for a few more hours.

Late that evening, I called home to L.A., where I got passed around the living room inside the telephone receiver—"Have you talked to Susan yet? Here, talk to Susan." I missed them, and they missed us, but it was okay, too. My family is like a down comforter, and I felt the poofy warmth even across the country. Plus now I have family in New York, too.

The next day, the three of us took the subway to Times Square for a matinee of Finian's Rainbow—my Beloved's favorite musical—on Broadway. I spent the whole first hour and a half waiting for my favorite lyric: "For Sharon I'm carin'/But Susan I'm choosin'."

Afterwards, we walked through the holiday gift booths in Bryant Park and watched the skaters as the lights in the Empire State Building came on.

It was a very New York holiday, festive and busy. So the re-entry to L.A. was a little rough.

My voice—when I had occasion to use it—seemed literally to echo off the blank walls of the apartment. The blank kitchen window, missing the grotty mini-blinds that we'd thrown away without yet replacing, stared balefully at me in the evenings. I'd reach for the television remote to have a little friendly noise, only to remember we'd already gotten rid of the TV in the living room.

But this is temporary. I've met with the realtors, I've ordered the rental furniture, I'm tidying things up. The place will be on the market probably by the end of next week. Then we'll ring down the curtain on Act I.

For L.A. I'm carin', but it's New York I'm choosin'.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Bill of Divorcement

10 Things I've Learned Without Meaning To:

1. It won't always be like this. This has become my mantra in times of trial—I recite it robotically to myself even when I can't really believe that anything will ever get better. But no matter what, it's always true. As of today, the carnival of woes I described last time is over. The painting is finished, the plumbing repaired, the kitchen floor installed, the carpet laid. (Okay, so the walk-in closet somehow didn't make it onto the carpet guy's diagram and will consequently be done in a different color. I so don't care.) We lived; we laughed; we moved on. My friend So Lovely had a wonderful blog post recently on the origins of the phrase "This too shall pass." Like most people, I had always assumed this phrase referred to bad times—and of course it does. But guess what? Not only.

2. It won't always be like this (reprise). Those airy highs, the giddy squeals, the heartthrob moments—they too shall pass. Get over yourself.

3. If you post it in the "Free" section of Craigslist, they will come. I used to have lots of furniture. I don't anymore. I sold a few pieces, but most of it I gave away. Some went to Goodwill, some went to other worthy charitable organizations. None of it went to the sneery man from the Salvation Army. ("Pfft," he said, waving an arm over The Child's trundle bed in perfect condition. "This is heavy. And I have to think about me.") But Craigslist's Free section? A fantastic human drama playing out for an audience of one. People actually audition for you when you offer something for free. "This would be perfect for my little boy to put his crayons in!" "I grew up with those books, and I want to read them to my three girls." "We've been looking for one of these for a long time!" And they don't try to bargain you down from $40 to $20 because, you know, it's free. Time elapsed from the time I posted The Child's trundle bed on Craigslist to the time it left my house? 45 minutes.

4. Maximizing your pain is also minimizing your pain. Not everyone chooses to refurbish their house, sell their house, move across the country and edit a 650-page cookbook at the same time. Not everyone is a masochist. But there are definite advantages to boxing things up once and getting them out of your house once. I can't say the same for the cookbook.

5. Certain things stink. I have a cough I didn't used to have. I chalk it up to the new paint and the new carpet and the newly reglazed, cartoonishly white kitchen sink and resurfaced shower pan. They look beautiful, but they smell. Get out of the house.

6. Certain things should never be said out loud. "Maybe no one will take this middle seat between the aisle and the window." "Wow, traffic is moving really nicely." "I think we've had as many plumbing problems as one household can be expected to have."

7. It's all relative. We had no kitchen sink and no dishwasher (poor us!) for a week. Our friend Pam had no discernible hot water in her apartment through the entire summer and into the fall, and didn't complain to her landlord because her landlord's husband was unwell. When the truth finally came out, the landlord was not grateful for Pam's thoughtfulness; instead, she trudged up the rickety stairs to Pam's apartment and complained about having to put in a new hot water heater. "I'm the tenant," Pam explained. "You're the landlord. It's your responsibility." Did I mention she had no bathroom for several days after her floor fell on her downstairs neighbor's head? I no longer have any complaints.

8. Happy Hours are the answer to everything. Most things. Okay, some things. Nothing in the fridge? A new sink you can't touch? Fumes you can't breathe? Bring on the $3 beers and free hot dogs!

9. Your home leaves you before you leave home.
Our place looks kind of astonishingly great. It's clean, it's light, it's spacious. It's no showplace, but it's kind of a nicely Zen blank canvas. I think even Miss Hepburn would approve of its New England austerity. I thought I'd be kicking myself around the block for having waited so long to do these things. Instead, I realized something: It's not my house anymore. I'm just caretaking it for the next owner. And that's okay. This domestic Master Cleanse has helped me divorce myself from my home.

10. This too shall come. We're in New York now, preparing for a brand-new kind of Thanksgiving. The Child will arrive from college tomorrow. We're putting together the new bookshelves. The new futon chair was delivered today. It's a little bit of chaos, but that's okay. If it's chaos, it must be home.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Madwoman of Chaillot

So far I've only cried twice. Okay, I also choked up a little when my washing machine hose sprang a leak, but I hadn't had any coffee yet and it all just seemed like a little too much.

Once upon a time—say, a week plus one day ago—I had things down to a science: painting would be finished by Monday, kitchen floor installed Tuesday, new carpet a week later, furniture arranged in pleasing configurations, meet with the realtors and get out of Dodge for Thanksgiving.


The carnival began last week, when my sainted brother-in-law and nephew arrived from Marin County to paint the place. Bob is a singing Irishman—he sings when he wakes up, he sings when he drives off at 7 in the morning to a painting job, he sings through the day, he sings before dinner, he sings as he goes to bed.

But the song died in his throat and his smile froze in place as he took in the water-stained vaulted cottage-cheese ceilings, the still-overcrowded bookshelves, and the godawful decorative remnants left from the previous owners: fringe glued on to every single shelf edge; metallic gold wrapping paper encircling every closet rod; warped plastic shelf liners. Incredibly, these things had seemed sort of amusingly kitsch to me when I moved in, so I left them alone and forgot about them. Ten years later, it was like waking up in the middle of a nightmare.

As Bob and Terry started prepping the rooms, I ran around documenting the traces that were about to disappear under a new layer of Swiss Coffee-colored paint. The measurements on the doorframe...

...the wall in The Child's room.

I created arrangements of The Child's things and e-mailed the pictures to her at college, asking, "Keep or toss?"


My beloved and I worked maniacally to box things up, schlepping stuff from room to room to try and stay ahead of the painting wave. The cat was not pleased by this turn of events.

Meanwhile, I fielded dozens of Craigslist e-mails from people coveting my solid pine desk hutch, my sweet antique-ish dresser, my papa-san chair. A trail of young people who'd just moved to L.A. from Virginia and Texas and Long Island trooped in and out of the clutter, bearing off my possessions.

In the midst of the chaos, my three angelic sisters brought over a generous picnic lunch that we ate all together on the sundeck, along with Lucy the pug, who enjoyed her munches in the shade of a Monet umbrella:

When everyone left that day, it was time for my first meltdown. Amid the paint cans, the ladders, the draped furniture and the constantly migrating cat-food bowl, my beloved—who four months ago had neck surgery and has been trying to go easy on his back—expressed his anger.

He'd been trying to tell me for months that we weren't doing enough to prepare for this moment, and found himself beyond frustrated by the chaotic condition of things in the house. Plus his arm was aching from all the lifting and from a sudden wrench while removing a heavy wooden CD rack from the wall. And the worst thing: He felt his opinion didn't matter to me at all.

I reacted with typical Hepburnesque flair: I sobbed snottily, lurching from room to room in search of the Kleenex box that I'd packed in the back closet.

He was right, and I felt horrible. I'd been trying to continue living a normal life, taking a box to the Goodwill here and there as a token gesture of packing up, while dismissing his warnings as overly dour and pessimistic. I wanted to show him I was true to my word—that we'd be out of L.A. by the end of the year—but I wasn't working with him as a partner in the moving process. It was a ridiculous, self-defeating exercise, and it crashed on me that night.

Somehow we talked it out, I relinquished some control, we got rid of more stuff, the painting was nearly finished, and we began to see the outlines of a pared-down, organized new home. The fog started to lift.

Then my downstairs neighbor showed up at our front door on Saturday morning and announced that water was dripping on his head from his kitchen ceiling.

The next few days were like a Keystone Kops movie—by way of Fellini.

Monday: 8 plumbers, 3 painters, 10 hours in a single kitchen. Dishwasher removed. Holes gouged in walls. Leak determined to be coming from the drain line.

Tuesday: 2 different plumbers, 5 hours. Drain line replaced. Dripping continues. Leak determined to be coming from the risers. Risers to be replaced tomorrow. Dishwasher sits in middle of dining room. Wash dishes in bathroom sink. Watch pool of water spread across bathroom floor, from newly sprung leak in drain pipe under bathroom sink. Susan has quiet weep over realization that there's no such thing as home anymore.

Wednesday a.m.: Put load of laundry in washing machine. Turn on washing machine. Water spews from water valve.

Wednesday p.m.: Lone plumber arrives with single screwdriver. Announces he's there to remove wood siding then go away. Susan turns into screaming banshee (Susan is never a screaming banshee). No risers replaced. No use of kitchen sink.

Wednesday p.m. postscript: Plumber with screwdriver fixes leaks in bathroom sink and in washing machine faucet. Susan regrets neurotic screaming banshee behavior.

Thursday: 2 plumbers, 13 1/2 hours. Shiny new copper risers in place. Delivering clear, rust-free water to kitchen faucet for first time in 10 years.

Friday: Dishwasher sits in middle of dining room. The carnival continues.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Iron Petticoat

Me: Miss Hepburn, I had the strangest dream. I—

KH: Oh good lord, not a dream story. Don't you know that dreams are never as interesting to the listener as they are to the dreamer?

Me: Actually, yes, I know that, but—

KH: Well, if you're determined to tell it.

Me: I dreamed that I was chaperoning Bill Clinton to his surprise birthday party. Madeline Albright was there, of course, and Tippi Hedren. And I was trying to keep track of who was ordering the steak and who was ordering the lamb by poking holes in a dinner roll with the tines of a fork. Needless to say, this wasn't very—

KH: What on God's green earth are you talking about?

Me: Yes, exactly, it was very confusing. And sort of upsetting.

KH: You must be easily upset.

Me: People were waiting...I couldn't keep track of anything...Bill was getting annoyed...

KH: And what do you think this means?

Me: Well, it may have to do with the couch.

KH: Of course it does.

Me: The 900-pound couch is finally gone. There are huge divets in the carpet where it used to be. After getting rejected by the Salvation Army—

KH: You do have a gift.

Me: —I put it on Craigslist under "Free" and a nice guy and his big, strong teenage son came and took it away.

KH: Excellent. The couch needed to go. So what does this have to do with Bill Clinton?

Me: Well, nothing, obviously. But we're in a state of chaos here.

KH: Oh, you don't know the meaning of chaos. Have you seen me play a Chinese peasant in Dragon Seed?

Me: Okay, "chaos" is a little strong. "Disarray."

KH: You're selling your home and moving across the country. Did you expect to remain arrayed?

Me: I donated my wedding china to the UCLA Thrift Store, and the framed James and the Giant Peach poster from The Child's room. We're shredding years' worth of ancient bank statements. We have carpet samples on the floor and boxes everywhere. Some even have things in them.

KH: And?

Me: Well, that's it, I guess. I just feel so...scattered. So out of order.

KH: It's the disorder before the order, that's all. Think of the disorder I put poor Cary Grant through in Bringing Up Baby. And that ended happily, didn't it?

Me: It did.

KH: And you do realize you're not the first person ever to do this?

Me: Yes, of course I do. It's just odd, watching your life history evaporate in front of your eyes.

KH: Oh, let's avoid the melodrama, shall we? Joan Crawford you are not.

Me: Sorry.

KH: Now just roll up your sleeves and dive right in. Do the work.

Me: I am.

KH: No, you're not. You're sitting here talking to me. Go to it! Work clockwise! Don't touch anything twice! Take pictures of things to remember them by if you must, then throw them out! Take charge!

Me: Yes, ma'am!

KH: Just don't ask me to help.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"I would I were at home."

I've been trying for several days to write a piece about feeling discombobulated, but I haven't been able to get myself combobulated enough to write it.

I feel like a sparrow hopping between twigs, with no perch to land on.

Last Thursday, I drove from New York to The Child's college for Family & Friends weekend. It rained on me most of the way up—when it wasn't snowing. Little did the college know that I had almost no intention of attending the myriad events scheduled (the better to extract donations for a shrinking endowment, my dear), and that I was using the weekend as an excuse to soak up time with my daughter.

Because I waited too long to make reservations, the only hotel room I could get was a half-hour drive from the school. Then I found out about a wonderful program called "Beds for Books," in which local residents rent out rooms in their homes during special college weekends and donate all the money to the local library. I signed up, and was matched with a couple who lived across the street from the college. Genius! And in a wild stroke of coincidence, the husband turned out to be one of The Child's professors. Awkward!

Actually they were lovely, although for obvious reasons, neither I nor The Child was comfortable with the idea of lolling about their house for relaxed visits. And because she refused to let me see the inside of her dorm cell, that meant we spent three days looking for things to do in 35-degree weather, rather than just hanging out and being. We did a lot of driving and meal-eating. In an odd way, being together like this made me miss her more.

Of course, it was still October in New England, and I went snap-happy as I...

...drove onto the campus:

...crunched through the woods:

...admired the leaves in a tiny creek:

...scoured the empty shelves at the local market for their insanely popular cider doughnuts, only to be offered one that had just come out of the oven:

...waited in the car in the rain for my oversleeping child to join me for our final brunch:

...handed her the camera as we drove past the house selling pumpkins from their front yard:

...and watched her return to her dorm before I turned the car around and headed back to New York:

It felt like a long drive back—though a quick visit to my favorite McDonald's ladies' room in Southington, Connecticut, with its inexplicable choices in wall art, cheered me up for a minute:

As soon as I got back to New York, it was time to move out of the loft: The guys were coming first thing Monday morning to refinish the floors. We spent Monday trooping through the streets of the Village, catching a movie, and then spending a restless night in a friend's apartment, where the radiator clanged so loudly I'd swear someone was hitting it with a baseball bat.

Tuesday I flew home. Where is that, exactly? Oh right, Los Angeles. The condo where we've just begun the process of getting rid of everything we've stored up for 10 years. Where my daughter's room is stripped bare. Where the carpet is...beyond description. The place where I now feel more like a visitor than I do in New York.

Today I met with the realtors who will help me sell the condo. I'll get it painted, get new kitchen flooring, replace the carpet. Get rid of my lousy furniture and rent a decent-looking dining room table and chairs. And we'll live in a pretend house for a while until we finally pack up our jammies and my favorite stemless wineglasses and The Child's funky antique dresser and head east.

We'll leave "home" to go home.

* * * * *

Title courtesy Rosalind in William Shakespeare's As You Like It, in which Miss Hepburn starred in 1950.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Woman of the Year

The other night we had a mini dinner party with a dear friend and my beloved's Number 2 son and daughter-in-law. I cooked a casual supper, we drank beer and wine, we ate cupcakes for dessert, and had a generally delightful and sociable time. And I realized I was channeling my mother while we were doing it.

When I was little, I'd eavesdrop from down the hall as my mom and dad hosted dinner parties in our living and dining rooms. I'd hear the sounds of matches being struck as cigarettes were lit, and of ice cubes clinking in glasses, and loud peals of laughter as my dad told funny Hollywood stories in his skillful raconteur style.

All the time, my mom would be working away in the kitchen putting final touches on the dinner (I remember the Chicken Veronique, with green grapes tucked among the chicken breasts), chatting with female guests who'd slip in to see how she was doing or to offer help (I'd guess Mom rarely took it), and generally making the whole event look smooth and effortless.

She ran the whole house that way.

In no way was it effortless raising six children—four of them born so close together that she had four children under the age of 5 in the 1950s and four teenagers in the 1960s. Or moving the family from city to city when my dad's job as a Time-Life correspondent took him across the country and to England and back. Or getting her master's in her late 40s and her Ph.D. at 60. But we never saw her sweat. (That's a trick I haven't learned.)

The night of our dinner party was my mom's 84th birthday. While I seriously doubt I made the whole thing look effortless, and though my mother was in Los Angeles while I was scrambling around our New York kitchen, I felt her spirit with me as I chopped and simmered and tried to make conversation at the same time.

I'm a lot like my dad in some obvious ways. I went into journalism straight out of college, just like he did—for Time-Life, even. We express ourselves best in writing. We have similar senses of humor, looking at the world from an oblique angle and inserting a sharp verbal blade.

But my mom is the unassuming role model who has demonstrated—not preached, but shown by gentle, loving example—the art of living a generous life. I have a long way to go, but I hope to get there someday.

Happy Birthday, Mom. Thank you.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The West Side Waltz

When we arrived in New York a week ago today I discovered this picture, which had been slipped under our front door.

A thoughtful neighbor and fellow Hepburn devotee had taken it from the Talbot's catalog to share it with me. (Talbot's...Hepburn...no. But I digress.)

It was the perfect welcome, a smashing-of-the-champagne-bottle-over-the-prow kind of gesture.

Even though I don't officially live live here yet—there's the whole pesky matter of selling my condo in Los Angeles and, you know, moving—this feels like a practice live-here. I'm working, shopping for groceries, cooking (a little), going to the post office, meeting friends for dinner, doing laundry, buying toilet paper. And I'm a little giddy while I do it.

I keep taking out my camera phone to record moments. Everything seems photogenic here:

The architecture:

The pilings of a ghost pier in the Hudson River, marking a trail to Hoboken, New Jersey:

The High Line, the former elevated railway that's been transformed into landscaped walkway in the air, sailing over the trendy Meatpacking District and the grit of 10th Avenue:

And the view from our living room window, which I can't take my eyes off of, morning...


...and night.

Plus, we do things here. It's really easy to do things here.

Yesterday, we went up to the New York Public Library's Performing Arts branch at Lincoln Center, where there was a special exhibit called "Katharine Hepburn: In Her Own Files." It featured photographs, letters, posters and scripts from Hepburn's theater career, beginning with her days as a student at Bryn Mawr through her late-life performances in Coco and A Matter of Gravity. There were some wonderful pieces in the exhibit, including a fan letter from Judy Garland (who added, "I'm getting fat, pregnant, and mean") and Hepburn's statement on the Kent State shootings, which she delivered to the audience after a performance of Coco ("Now you may call them rebels or rabble-rousers or anything you please. Nevertheless, they were our kids and our responsibility").

I was particularly struck by her typescripts from the plays she was in, marked in extraordinary detail in her own handwriting—notes on blocking or inflection or character. It seemed that almost every line of dialogue was accompanied by a notation she'd written on where to cross the stage or how to emphasize a word. Miss Hepburn was a star, a personality, a legend. But she also did the damn work.

After we left the exhibit, we walked 30 blocks down Columbus and 9th Avenues, then caught the subway home. At 8:15 last night, we headed out again. Let me pause here. I said, we went out in the afternoon, and then we went out again in the evening. At 8:15 at night. To have dinner and see a 9:40 p.m. movie. And then we walked home at midnight.

These are things we don't do much of in L.A. The going out twice in a day thing. The 30 blocks and the subway thing. The walking home at midnight.

It's been exhilarating. I'm grinning a lot, and whacking Stan on the shoulder, and saying "Isn't this great?"

But I also look forward to taking on a new role. I want to open the typescript, do my research, write my notations, deliver the performance. I'm ready to do the damn work.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Quality Street

I woke up several times in the night wondering where I was. In the past seven days, we've spent six nights in four different beds—we were in Boston last week for a book-signing event at the Paul Revere House, followed by a couple of days visiting relatives in two locations on Cape Codso I guess it's not surprising that I'd open my eyes in the dark and have that gasping little intake of breath: "Where am I?"

Then I'd realize: I'm in New York, in the loft, in the double bed with the futon mattress we bought together on Broadway and 19th Street. And a warm wave of relief would wash over me. And then a second wave of relief as I realized that my gut reaction—spontaneous, instinctive, can't fake it—to finding myself in New York was Phew, I'm home.

I've been coming here, to this loft, for nine years now. First as a visitor, surrounded by the touchstones of two people's life together. (Two people, neither of whom was me.) Then I became a...what would you call it, a visiting resident? A resitor? A visident? I bought a toothbrush and left it in the bathroom. I bought a pair of shoes and left them in the closet. I brought some clothes from L.A. and let them live in New York. Soon I didn't have to pack anything when I came here, because I had enough t-shirts and turtlenecks and jeans and underwear to get by on for a week at a time.

And after a while, it began to feel homeish. We rearranged the furniture and set up a working space for me. We bought a new bed, and went on Craigslist to find a small dining table, which we got from a dance instructor/antique dealer off Herald Square and transported home in a cab. My life was still in Los Angeles, but I could travel to New York as someone who belonged here. Sort of. (Outside the apartment, I felt—truthfully, still feel—like an impostor; as if everyone I pass on the sidewalk can tell at one fast glance that I'm so not from here.)

On most of these trips, my beloved and I would come by ourselves, but it was important to me that The Child feel she had a place here, too. We brought her for her first visit in December of 2001; she was 10. It was cold, and my little L.A. girl bundled up so thoroughly that only the tip of her nose showed. She counted thoughtfully and announced, "I'm wearing eleven layers of clothes."

And her most familiar refrain: "Do we have to walk? Can't we take a caaaaab?"

But after a few more visits, she could guide the way from the subway back to the apartment. A couple years in, I let her walk the two blocks down to D'Agostino's supermarket by herself (fretting the whole 20 minutes until she returned with a bottle of ginger ale). Now she's been here in springs and summers and winters, and we'll meet here this Thanksgiving for the first time. It's homeish for her, too.

In the beginning, I was in pretty much a permanent state of giddiness over my new New York existence. A couple of years later, as the move east became less theoretical, I'd sometimes lie on the bed after a long day of concrete and asphalt and wonder, "How will I feel about this when I don't have pillowy-soft L.A. to return to?" I worried a little that I'd start complaining about the heat or the cold, the crowds, the long treks on hard sidewalks. Can't we take a cab?

But four weeks ago, when The Child and I flew into JFK and took a taxi into the city before heading up to college, and again yesterday, when the beloved and I trained in from New England, all that giddy excitement came right back. We rounded a corner and the famous skyline rose into view—the Chrysler Building, the old Pan Am building, and the Empire State Building, my personal North Star, guiding me back to where I wanted to be all along.

My life is shifting east, and I'm starting a new act, just as Miss Hepburn said.

Friday, September 18, 2009

State of the Union

When The Child was two weeks old—and a weeny teeny thing she was, too, having been born three-and-a-half weeks early at 5 pounds, 5 ounces—I took her in to the pediatrician, a lovely Scottish man with a gentle demeanor and a dry sense of humor.

He picked her up, held her above his face, jiggled her a little, and seeing her squinchy expression, said, "Oh, it's a tough old world, isn't it?"

I laughed—something about the idea of that tiny little person with the bunched-up face thinking deep thoughts about this tough old world struck me as touchingly hilarious. And I laughed because in my new-mother over-anxiety, I'd been feeling it was a pretty tough old world, too.

I'd stand over her crib and look at this vulnerable little speck floating on an ocean of Sandra Boynton-themed bedding and start sobbing. "She doesn't even KNOW how helpless she is—and how totally inadequate I am!"

Despite me, she lived.

Now she's floating on an ocean of college life and I'm 3,000 miles away adjusting to what my sister called 'the new normal.' And I keep hearing Dr. MacLaren's voice, now paraphrasing himself, saying, "It's a funny old world, isn't it?"

When I went to college, I maybe talked to my family once a week on the phone and sent a few letters each quarter. My mom would mail me my dad's articles clipped from the newspaper, which, honestly, I mostly didn't read. (Because what could have been more important than my life?) I was so self-absorbed, I gave no thought to what they might have been feeling about my absence; and after a week or so of homesickness, I'm not sure I gave too much thought to home at all. Eek, sorry, Mom, Dad and Nancy!

So far in my daughter's two-week college career, she and I have communicated by phone, mail, text messages, e-mail and AOL Instant Messenger. And mental telepathy, though maybe I imagined that part.

As I said to her via text—or was it AIM—I'm trying not to go all Spanish Inquisitiony on her. I promise, I'm not calling every minute. And she hasn't downloaded Skype yet, so I'm not making judgments on the state of cleanliness in her dorm room.

It's just a funny world, where we bring these little creatures into existence and then act as if we don't want them to grow up. Where we send them off to college to be independent and then use every conceivable technology to make sure they're getting enough sleep or making friends.

But I can feel a transition happening, too. I drove along Santa Monica Boulevard the other day—as it happens, the same route The Child and I always took to school—without feeling sad for the loss of that time, just appreciative of what it was. I'm excited about her college life, but busy in my own. I want to hear about her adventures, but also anticipating the ones we'll be having as Stan and I prepare for the move to New York. I'm looking forward more than back.

I know mine is not really a tough old world; we have it pretty easy in the big scheme of things. It's just a rich soup of a world—funny, nerve-wracking, rewarding, infuriating, complicated and consuming.

As Miss Hepburn said in The African Queen, "I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!"

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Sea of Grass

There's a wonderful piece in the Travel section of Sunday's Los Angeles Times, written by the paper's former copy editor Karin Esterhammer. The piece, compiled from Esterhammer's e-mails to family and friends, describes her new life in Vietnam. A year ago, her husband was between jobs, the couple was looking for a new experience in a less-expensive city, and they'd enjoyed previous visits to the country, so the Esterhammers and their 8-year-old son packed up and moved to Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.

Meals cost 85 cents there. Cable TV—"with all the fancy channels"—is $4 a month. Myriad children play up and down the narrow alley of their working-class neighborhood. The language is impossible, but nevertheless, Esterhammer writes, "It's just so, so, so incredible here. I love, love, love it."

I read this piece with fascination and admiration and envy. And a little embarrassment that I've been yammering on about my impending move from one expensive, English-speaking American city to another—when here was adventure on a whole different scale. But mostly I just thoroughly enjoyed Esterhammer's almost-palpable glee over their new life.

How many times have we all fantasized about our other lives in our other places where we practice our other livelihoods? That place where the realities of this world have no bearing.

For a long time my go-to fantasy involved a small town on the rocky coast of Maine where I ran a little bookshop. Or where I sat in my rustic kitchen at a butcher-block table looking out at the Atlantic and writing mystery novels. It was usually a bit foggy there, but that was okay, because I had oversized fishermen's sweaters and hot mugs of tea to wrap my hands around.

Recently the scene has shifted a little, but not too much: Now I'm in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, in the off-season when the oversized tourists have gone and the community is close-knit and mutually supportive. In this one, we live in a little cottage with sand on the front steps, and I ride my bike out to Herring Cove, or down to the coffee place on Commercial Street, or over to the P.O. to mail letters to my poor family members who are still stuck in L.A. traffic.

In the so-called real world, I'm still in L.A., gradually (too gradually) shedding my possessions and planning for our decampment to New York City. But work stress—and mortgage stress and dental stress and child-in-college stress—encroach on a daily basis, and sometimes I need a getaway quicker than I can get away.

Right now, I think I'm going to head to southern India, to the backwaters of Kerala, where we float languidly on a kettuvallam—a "tied boat" whose slats are lashed together with coir rope made from coconuts—through canals cut between coconut palms and banana trees and mangroves. It's sultry and lazy and the sky is ultra, ultra blue. And the nonexistent phone never rings.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Stage Door

I started this post a couple of different times. First, in a rush of unexpected joy last Monday, after landing in New York at 11 p.m and catching sight of my old friend, the Empire State Building, as we rocketed toward the Midtown Tunnel in a yellow cab. After weeks of angst about change and loss, I had an illuminated reminder of all the excitement and promise of the future. I wanted to convey something about beginnings and hope and...

But I never finished that post; we had things to do, dorm room furnishings to shop for, a car to rent and a college move-in to complete. On Wednesday, we drove the three hours north to school under the most brilliant, humidity-free blue skies the east coast has enjoyed all summer. We rolled along two-lane country roads through lush green farmland, past red barns and cornfields to the campus. It was bucolic as hell.

Throughout the college orientation, I thought blog-posty thoughts while hopped-up on adrenaline and sleeplessness—wry observations about this ritual of tucking children into college as administration officials do their best to persuade nervous parents that their offspring will be well taken-care of while simultaneously running everyone ragged so that you're too tired to cry. But I had only my iPhone with me, and wasn't going to try to peck out a post with a clumsy index finger on that quirky keyboard.

I started another version last night after returning home, having flown through the smoky brown air to land at LAX. There was less exhilaration in this post—more fatigue and resignation. So now I'm starting all over.

I guess the point is that I have felt and continue to feel and will regularly cycle through all of these things—excitement followed by sadness chased by joy segueing into pragmatic, boots-on-the-ground marching forward.

The college psychologist who led the parent-orientation session on "Separation and Transition" told the story of a friend of hers who was puzzled by her own lack of emotion after taking her child to college. She was fine, if a little mechanical, during the first week and then the second, until she walked into the ladies' locker room at her gym and saw a woman breastfeeding her baby. That's when she started wailing. The lesson I took from this story: Don't go to the gym.

But as much as I joked about the school offering the parents grief counseling, I found that I was really grateful for the cornucopia of panel discussions and introductions and words of advice and assurances and reassurances that The Child would be surrounded by people who care about her and want her to succeed. After a while, you got the impression that she could go up to any stray dog on campus and be guided to where she needed to go.

So now The Child has been en-dormed—moved into her 8 x 10-ish single room, where she made her own bed and glared me away from lending decorating assistance—and is an official, fulltime, real-deal college student. Four days in, she's already exhausted from a surfeit of activities and an under-supply of sleep. Classes start on Wednesday, when "The Natural History of Infectious Diseases" and "Philosophy, Relativism and Truth" will come as a relaxing break from all the rock-climbing and scavenger hunts and bonding.

On Saturday morning, her dad and I hugged her on the front steps of her dorm as we prepared to go our separate ways back to California. She handed me a little package of two CD mixes she'd made for me, wrapped in a piece of paper on which she'd written "Try not to miss me too much" and "It's okay, mom. Everything's going to be alright." I drove off campus listening to Brandi Carlile singing, "I just want to be/Closer to you."

When I got back to New York, Stan and I went down to my favorite restaurant, 'ino on Bedford Street in the Village. I had a big glass of chilled Italian white wine and we shared plates of bruschetta topped with fresh sweet corn and sweet pea puree and asparagus with truffle oil and Parmesan... We drifted out the door and over to the river and up to the Meatpacking District, where we climbed the stairs to the High Line, the spectacular new park/boardwalk created atop an old abandoned elevated railway. I took pictures every which way.

The afternoon was glorious, and I enjoyed it all with giddy freedom—and a little guilt.

Now I'm back in L.A., living in a different time zone than my daughter. I went to Trader Joe's last night to restock the refrigerator and realized I no longer need a gallon of milk, a quart will do. I pick up the phone to text her and put it down again. I don't know how or what she's doing right this minute, and hope that means she's doing fine. Parents who've gone through this counsel that kids don't call when all is well—but to expect at some point the "toxic phone call" when they inform you that everything's a disaster. So there's that to look forward to!

Meanwhile, I've been fully oriented. My time is my own. What should I do first?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Suddenly, Last Summer

Our living room looks like the lost luggage department of a minor midwest airline. There's a large charcoal gray suitcase standing next to the couch, an enormous blue duffel bag on wheels lying next to it, a black duffel bag gaping open in the middle of the room, and next to my chair, a black backpack with its front pocket flapped ajar.

Piles of clean t-shirts with logos on them—"CSI," "I'm not dead yet," "Deny everything"—sit patiently on the floor beside the black duffel. Several multicolored ballpoint pens are scattered on the rug. A small plastic turkey waits to be packed. In the middle of it all, our gigantic sheep-cat sits on his scratching board, waiting. (Just waiting. Nothing much goes on in his head, so just waits for stimulus, preferably of the edible variety.)

Tomorrow's the day we fly to New York; on Wednesday we'll rent a car and drive up to the college town. Thursday is move-in day. Friday is orientation, both for students and for parents. The kids will have bonding exercises and small-group discussions. The parents will receive grief counseling. I'm kidding, I think.

This afternoon we visited with my parents and my sister and her family. We celebrated my brother-in-law's birthday, ate El Pollo Loco chicken and apple pie. The younger kids swam in the pool. Just like normal, except for the one tiny thing that was different.

On the way home, my daughter and I stopped for a visit at the Getty Center, one of her favorite places in L.A. When we got off the tram, she borrowed my iPhone to start taking pictures of the angles and textures and plays of light on the marble. Today, L.A. was burning up, and the smoke clouds billowed dramatically behind the architecture. She took a picture.

In a way, this is what the whole day was like: a pleasant time, with this gigantic thing looming in the background.

We leave tomorrow, together. I come back alone next Sunday.

Yes, and how do you feel about this, Susan? I feel...honestly, I don't know anymore. I'm not weeping. I've made it through the last dinner-we'll-eat-at-this-table and the last-episode-of-"Psych"-we'll-watch-on-this-TV. I did the dishes calmly, while she went to her room to sort through her stuff and write her first blog post.

I feel flattened. Like a cartoon character who's been run over by the Acme delivery truck, then peeled off the pavement like a Post-it note.

She keeps poking me, hugging me, slinging her arm over my shoulder, asking "Are you doing all right?" She knows I'll miss her, she tells me. She checks my emotional vital signs—maybe worried that if the pressure builds too much I'll burst into hysterical wailing in an inappropriate place, like in front of the R.A. in her dorm. Maybe she's worried because I'm not crying.

But now she's doing the taking care of—as she's done many times before when I let stress undo me. Like when we were trying to return a rental car before closing time to Hoboken, New Jersey, in the middle of rush hour and I had no frigging idea where I was going. The pitch of my voice got higher each time I called the rental place for directions from our current incorrect location. "It's okay, Mom," my daughter would say soothingly. "It's going to be okay."

Once again, I don't quite have a clear picture of the road ahead, but she's telling me it's going to be all right. Really, I know it will be more than all right. It will be really, really good.

Wednesday morning we'll rent the car—in Hoboken, New Jersey—and point it north. She can even do some of the driving this time. Her dad will meet us in the college town that afternoon. Thursday, we'll move her into the dorm. I'll probably make her bed (I can't help myself) and fuss with things until she shoos me away. Friday, we'll each get a primer on what's in store for us.

Saturday morning, I'll hold on to her skinny little being and kiss her goodbye. Then I'll get in the rental car and find my way back to frigging Hoboken all by myself.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Norman! The loons are teaching their baby to fly."

In which I seek some bracing advice to deal with my last-ever-I-promise-absolutely-final bout of empty nest syndrome whining.

Me: Miss Hepburn, I...[snuffle]...oh, excuse me for crying.

KH: Whatever is the matter with you?

Me: I'm sorry, I'm just...[sob]...my daughter...

KH: Well, what is it? Speak up!

Me: She's leaving for college.

KH: Yes, and? Does she have a disease?

Me: Oh no, she—

KH: Is she pregnant?

Me: No, definitely not. But—

KH: Has she lost a limb?

Me: Oh gosh, no.

KH: I don't understand, then. What are you crying about?

Me: Well, she's leaving. Life is changing. I'll be here, and she'll be way over there.

KH: You must be joking.

Me: No, really. I have these moments of panic when I realize she's never going to take a shower in that bathroom ever again. It feels, I don't know, tragic.

KH: Tragic, my eye. Tragic is being labeled "box-office poison." For heaven's sake, put some backbone into it!

Me: Yes, I'm trying. I just—

KH: I spent more than three-quarters of my life living apart from my parents, and you didn't see me sniveling about it. Or them, either.

Me: That's true.

KH: We New Englanders are made of tougher stuff. What you need is a good swim in the Atlantic. In January.

Me: That's one idea.

KH: Invigorating! Clears your head!

Me: I'm sure. But, Miss Hepburn, didn't you ever feel sad when people went away, or when things seemed like they'd never be the same again?

KH: That's the point of life! Things move forward! You enjoy things while you have them, and when they change you enjoy the new things. Anything else is a waste of time.

Me: You make it sound so easy.

KH: It is easy! Comedy is hard.

Me: Hahaha.

KH: That's better.

Me: I'll try to look at it that way.

KH: Try, nothing. Just get up on that horse and go, go, go.

Me: Go, go, go.

KH: She loves you, doesn't she?

Me: She does, actually, yes.

KH: She knows you love her, doesn't she?

Me: Definitely.

KH: She'll enjoy college, won't she?

Me: I'm sure she will.

KH: Well, then. You're just moving on to Act II, scene 1, that's all. The players are the same, it's only the set that's different.

Me: I hadn't thought of it that way. Thank you, Miss Hepburn.

KH: Now stop sniffling, it's so unattractive. And what have you done with my brownies?

* * *

[Title courtesy "On Golden Pond"]

Thursday, August 20, 2009


For weeks I've been putting my daughter in the driver's seat of the car, trying to make sure she got enough practice to pass her driving test. Yesterday, she passed it. And she promptly handed me the keys to the car. "Now that I can drive, I don't have to drive," she said.

My daughter and I are alike in many ways; this is not one of them. I couldn't wait to drive. I was at the DMV on my 16th birthday, eager to get my license and gain my freedom. As I said here, I grew up on the top of a hill, with no way to get anywhere unless Mom or Dad (usually Mom) drove me. Getting a driver's license was like being handed a round-the-world plane ticket. Except that I had to ask Mom for the keys to the plane.

I went to high school across town, and most of my friends were a half-hour drive away. So I'd swoop along Sunset Boulevard in my mom's Datsun, blasting Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend" or David Bowie's "Cracked Actor" on the eight-track, windows wide open so as to clear out the cigarette smoke (sorry, Mom; the truth comes out). It was exhilarating, especially late at night, right up until the moment when I opened the front door of my house and found my mother, in her bathrobe, waiting for me in the living room, furious with anxiety.

Now, a little late, I have all kinds of empathy for my mother. The thought of sending my child out onto L.A.'s autobahn streets is almost paralyzing. Fortunately or unfortunately, it's not going to come up much.

She just turned 18 and two weeks from today will be moving into her college dorm on the other side of the country. She wanted a driver's license "in case of emergencies" and to have a photo ID, but she never really felt the need to drive. She spent four years using the L.A. bus system, even once navigating it to get to a friend's house in Glendale, a three-bus, two-hour one-way trip. (Yes, I picked her up afterwards.) That kind of adventure gave her the same feeling of independence that I couldn't achieve until I drove my mom's car. And then there's the fact that much of her socializing took place online. Who needed to go anywhere?

Not that she wasn't ecstatic about passing the driving test, and on her first attempt. She, who is always cool about everything and eats standardized tests for breakfast, was truly nervous about this one. She gritted her teeth and performed the Wallace shake—the one we've named after the twitchy little gesture of fear in Nick Park's wonderful "Wallace and Gromit" claymation films: elbows at your side, forearms raised, knuckles clenched, jittery waving back and forth of hands.

Yesterday, when she and the inspector drove back into the DMV parking lot and got out of the car, I held my breath until she caught my eye and gave a little smile and a thumbs-up. We high-fived in the DMV parking lot, and again at Baskin-Robbins, and again at Trader Joe's, where we bought the ingredients for her victory dinner (requested menu: tacos and artichokes).

As we drove (rather, as I drove) we rolled down the windows and blasted the CD she calls her "Hilarrible Mix"—lots of guilty-pleasure music like Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne.

When we got home, I discovered we were out of butter. "Want to take the keys and run to the store?" I asked her. She widened her eyes a bit and shook her head. She lay down and took a nap.

"Congratulations, she's a very good driver," the kindly driving inspector had said to me. "Now she's not a little girl anymore. You have to let her go."

Or not.