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] 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.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Nothing good ever comes of waking up at 4 in the morning.

It's a mistake to start thinking at that hour; 4 a.m. produces bleak, dark, anxious thoughts. I can think the same thoughts at 4 in the afternoon and brush them off with a trilling Katharine Hepburn laugh: "Hahahahaha!" But at 4 in the morning, they give me a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, and a clutching sensation in my stomach.

That's how I woke up this morning—feeling like I was caught in a landslide with my feet slipping out from under me, about to be carried over a cliff. Oh, and my daughter leaves for college in two weeks.

Once upon a time, I swore I would never be one of those weepy mothers boo-hooing about their empty nests. "That's pathetic," I thought 20 years ago, when a friend admitted to crying constantly after her son left for college. "How weak."

And there I was this June, taking weepy stock of every "last" moment—last time dropping her off with her carpoolmate at 7 in the morning; last time picking her up from the bus stop after her crosstown ride back from school; last time stopping for a milk-tea boba in Westwood Village; last time driving toward home.

It was actually the mundanity of these moments that made me nostalgic—these were just the familiar routines of everyday life, the ones we'd taken for granted for four years. Now I was cataloguing them, pinning them to a board like museum specimens. And snuffling.

In this case, there is a one added twist to the garden variety empty-nest syndrome: As soon as my daughter leaves for college, I'm whipping her childhood home out from under her. That's what had me gasping for breath at 4 a.m.

In my "Little Women" post, I suggested that I'm pretty calm about the future, because I can envision a time when my adult daughter and I can hang out together, having lunch, shopping at Target, enjoying each other's company. Other posts have described my excitement about this new chapter in which I leave L.A. and finally move to New York, a city I've wanted to live in since I was eight. And that's all true. Especially at 4 in the afternoon.

But at 4 this morning, I was feeling something else—this huge undercurrent of guilt about taking away the home she's grown up in, the bedroom where she's spent hours doing homework and watching episodes of "Mythbusters" on her computer, the table where we ate dinner while the cat gnawed on her socked foot.

I don't always feel this way, and I don't think she always feels this way. We've agreed it's "weird" to think of this place not being here for us anymore. But we're both going toward something new and positive, toward adventures we've been anticipating for years. The loft in New York is familiar, almost a second home by now. She has a chest of clothes there, and books on the shelf. And her foot-fetishist cat will be there waiting when she comes down for long weekends.

People describe these vacillating emotions as a roller-coaster; I think of them more as a teeter-totter: down into the abyss when the sky is charcoal-gray and the moon is piercing the curtains, back up when the sun's overhead and the coffee's burbling in the pot.

You can hold two thoughts in your head at once, right? Sweet-and-sour; half-empty, half-full; jumbo shrimp. So I'm happy-sad, looking forward-looking back. Pathetic and weak—and excited and brave. It just depends what time of day you catch me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Lion in Winter

I just read Molly Ringwald's nicely unexpected op-ed about John Hughes in today's New York Times. In it, Ringwald, who starred as a teenager in Hughes' most influential movies, says not only the things you think she'd say—that Hughes was a funny and generous mentor who changed her life—but also some things you wouldn't: that Hughes had a "heavy heart...prone to injury" and that "his grudges were almost supernatural things, enduring for years, even decades."

I was reminded of a funeral I went to recently. The service was led by an Irish priest who did two things I didn't anticipate: He made us laugh (nobody understands the resurrection, he says, "except God and a few Irish people") and he made me think.

"When someone dies," he said, "you don't just have to remember the good things. People have good stuff, but they also have other stuff. And sometimes the other stuff is much more interesting."

I loved that so much. The richness of a person isn't in his or her saintly qualities—the loving-wife-and-mother, pillar-of-the-community, devoted-family-man stuff of every newspaper obituary—but in their complexity and flawed charms. Like those of Nancy Lee Hixson of Danville, Ohio, whose unforgettable obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer read in part:

"Her homemade cider and wine were reputed to cause sudden stupor. She befriended countless stray dogs, cats, horses and the occasional goat. She was a nemesis to hunters, and an activist of unpopular, but just, causes. In short, she did everything enthusiastically, but nothing well."

The funeral got me thinking (in the narcissistic way that funerals do) about my "other stuff." And frankly, do I have enough of it?

Between my Catholic-school upbringing and the influence of my gentle, self-effacing mother, I've spent a lot of years being a good girl. I give other people the bigger helping. I let drivers into my lane. I listen more than I talk. It all makes me a likable person. And I like to be liked.

But wouldn't it be better to be a fascinating person? A provocative person? Memorable, controversial, prickly?

Asked to describe Katharine Hepburn, her friends and even her family would undoubtedly never have used the word "nice." She was impatient, strong-willed, defiantly egotistical. Who else would title her autobiography Me? She was also riveting and unforgettable.

I don't regret being a thoughtful or generous person; I think I'm both.

I do regret not being honest out of fear of hurting someone's feelings—and in the process, hurting both of us more. I regret getting myself into time-consuming, energy-draining, no-win situations because I didn't like to tell someone "No." I regret being too nice to people who didn't deserve it. I regret the times I didn't stand up for myself, or—much worse—the times I didn't stand up for someone else because I was desperate to avoid confrontation. It makes me feel a little sick to admit all this.

There aren't a lot of physical benefits to getting older (I'm thinking, thinking...okay, can't think of one), but there is one great mental benefit: You stop worrying so much about what people think.

I can't say I've changed overnight, but I am evolving. I still believe—in a non-New Agey kind of way—in putting out more positive energy than negative, but I like to think I no longer do it at the expense of honesty.

At 48-going-on-50, I no longer feel the need to make everyone like me. I launch into random conversations with strangers in check-out lines, not worrying if they might think I'm a little off. I speak my mind more and am definitely less nice to people who don't deserve it.

I don't really think too much about my own funeral (although I'll make sure James Taylor's You Can Close Your Eyes is on the soundtrack; that should get everyone working up a good cry). But I hope that by the time my time comes, I'll have given people enough "other stuff" to talk about.

"That Susan," I can only hope they'll say, "she was a lot of things, but she sure wasn't nice."

Friday, August 7, 2009

My, She Was Yar

There are things I will not miss about Los Angeles. Here they are:

1. GAS-POWERED LEAF BLOWERS. Sorry, I had to yell to be heard over the noise of the frigging gas-powered leaf blower.

2. Drivers who are both hostile and idiotic.

3. Truly frightening walking advertisements for why you should never have plastic surgery.

4. Lime-green Hummers driven by see #2 above.

5. The 405 at any time of day or night, any day of the week.

6. Electronic billboards, especially the one advertising Los Angeles by using Larry King's grisly face, which would be reason enough to move.

7. Beverly Hills.

8. Our inurement to the homeless.

9. Lakermania.

10. The inevitable weighing of Things Worth Doing on the one hand versus the fatigue of braving crosstown rush-hour traffic to do them on the other—and the fact that the Things Worth Doing most often lose.

But there are things I will miss about Los Angeles. Here are some of them.

Sunsets from our living room window.

Ridiculous architecture.

A neighbor's wacky Christmas display. It gets wackier each year.

The view of the Pacific from the palisades in Santa Monica.

The Getty Center.

And the notes left by my daughter on the white board on our refrigerator, like the one reminding me that our foot-chewing cat needs more cat treats. There will be another refrigerator, and another white board. But there won't be this one.

In The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant discuss the boat they once shared, the "True Love." They discuss her beauty, her agile responsiveness. "My, she was yar," Grant says.

Los Angeles is often unbeautiful, infuriating, even grotesque. I wouldn't ask anyone to love it. But there are pieces of it that mean something to me. I look at them and think, "My, that's yar."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Desk Set

They say you learn from your mistakes, but what have I learned from my dirt-stained 900-pound couch? I learned that I have crappy taste in furniture.

Every piece of furniture in this place comes with a tale of woe. The bed that's so immovable we haven't been able to redecorate my daughter's room in 10 years. The wicker chairs that became the cat's favorite scratching posts. The cheap floor lamps that lean at drunken angles. The monstrous couch that's so big my own feet can't touch the floor. And it's my damn couch.

I really should do better than this.

As a teenager, I soaked myself in 1930s Hollywood glamour. I set my alarm to wake up for the 2 a.m. broadcast of Katharine Hepburn's Alice Adams or Bette Davis' The Little Foxes. I drove myself across L.A. to the old Vagabond revival movie theater to see double bills of Holiday and Bringing Up Baby; Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight; Top Hat and Flying Down to Rio. I paged slowly through our giant hardback copy of John Springer and Jack D. Hamilton's They Had Faces Then, an affectionate encyclopedia of the female stars of the '30s, lushly illustrated with black-and-white glamour shots.

I loved those movies and adored those actresses. The guys—Cary Grant and Clark Gable and Laurence Olivier—were pretty good, too, but my God, the women! Hepburn, Davis, Garbo, sexy Jean Harlow and sharp Ginger Rogers, cool Myrna Loy and comedic genius Carole Lombard. I affected their clipped, quasi-British accents as I talked to myself in the mirror, and imagined shimmering folds of fabric swishing around my legs as I strode across the bright yellow shag rug of my bedroom.

I ate up the dialogue, arch and witty, and the rapid-fire delivery. And I ogled the sets—the gleaming parquet floors, the white furniture, the penthouse suites, the sweeping staircases. It was a style to which I could quickly become accustomed.

Except that I have no style.

I wear battered blue jeans, not silver lamé cocktail gowns. I have wall-to-wall carpeting and mismatched, ill-fitting furniture. To call it eclectic would be too flattering. Somehow, I forgot to click and drag that Hollywood glamour into my own life.

One of the benefits of this impending move to New York is that I get a kind of do-over. The Salvation Army will come and (with a little begging on my part) take away the monster couch and the bed and the floor lamps. The wicker chairs may go out on the curb for whoever needs a quartet of scratching posts. I think the only thing we'll keep is our desks—which aren't desks, really, they're tables. Thin, simple drop-leaf tables with wide clean work surfaces, the better for creating new stories on.

And then we move into Stan's one-room loft in New York. Right off the bat, I'm inheriting more style and character than I've had in my previous four homes combined. Not to sound like a realtor's brochure ("It's Magnolia Bakery adjacent!"), but it's got exposed brick walls, slightly battered wood floors, 12-foot ceilings, a view of the Empire State Building. It's decorated with artwork and quirky tchotchkes from the dozens of trips Stan took with his late partner, Janet.

I realize that all this has nothing to do with me—I can't suddenly claim a sense of style just because I moved my bags in. But I feel like I've suddenly been told I can skip third grade and go straight into fourth. Like I've got a jump start on a whole different kind of life.

Maybe now, with the inspiration of New York, and the loft, and a new home with Stan, I can Hepburn it up a little. I can see things—or maybe what I mean is, I can finally see myself—in a new way. I can think outside the couch.