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?