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' 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.