Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Hottest Day

             The weather in Los Angeles has finally turned hot which means that domestic anarchy reins in our household. The kids lay around in their underwear reading most of the day. We all snooze whenever we feel like it. Nothing gets cleaned. I can’t make myself move from the fan in my bedroom, so the children forage for food in the kitchen like possums. Even though I’m terrible with heat, I have learned to give into it and allow it to slow me down. 
This was not always the case. I used to resent the heat. It made keeping up with our usual routine even harder. The heat felt like a persistently annoying baby brother – dragging on me, demanding attention, never going to bed. Last year, however, when Los Angeles had its HOTTEST DAY EVER ON RECORD I learned that abandoning the routine is the only reasonable response. And one that offers unanticipated philosophical riches.
The annual Santa Anas were blowing through southern California, kicking up dust and causing erratic spikes in temperature. Spikes might tip temperatures as high as a hundred, but usually meant that that we’d be in the mid-nineties for three or four days, with a pardoning cool off at sundown. This particular temperature spike appeared to be unexceptional, marked by the usual e-mail exhortations to send bottles of water to school with the children and a mild crime wave. I was writing in the library, enjoying the top notch air-conditioning while the children were at school and my husband was working. 
“Holy shit,” said a man at my table.  Such random pronouncements are more common than one might think in Los Angeles, so I glanced up casually.  A young man was holding out this IPhone for all of us to see.  A couple of people gasped.  I looked closer – the phone displayed the temperature:  112 degrees.
“Holy shit,” I said. How could this possibly be?  I had left the house that morning, prepared for an uncomfortably warm day, but this was unprecedented. I joined a couple of people already at the window to see if a giant meteor had crashed to earth, sending radioactive heat waves out to melt buildings and burn inhabitants to the size and molecular make-up of one of my sons’ marbles.  This is not impossible. Thousands of years ago, a meteor fell into the heart of the Sahara desert turning the miles of sand around it into a sea of glass. 
Outside the window, however, life appeared to be clicking along.  A man watered his lawn.  A woman held her toddler’s hand and crossed the street. Perhaps the IPhone had been wrong.  I stepped into the library bathroom to call my husband at work.
“Hi honey,” Pat’s voice answered after the second ring.
“Have you seen the temperature?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s hot,” he said.
“No. Have you looked at the actual temperature?”
“Nope. I’ve just been working. The air-conditioning here is great.”
“It’s 112 degrees.”
“Holy shit.  Really?”
“Check your computer.”
I held on for a moment, before I heard him say, “Holy shit.  You’re right.”
I was right? I deeply wanted to be wrong.
“It says here it’s 113.”
“113,” I said.  “That’s impossible. It was 112 a minute ago.  What in God’s name is going on?”
Pat cleared his throat, “I guess this is a bad time to tell you that I’m going to be held up here and can’t pick the kids up from the bus.”
“You’re kidding. I was hoping that you’d pick me up after you picked them up.  I can’t walk out in this weather.  You know how I am.”
“Yes, I know how you are. But I don’t think I can do anything about the work situation.  Can you call a mom to pick them up and bring them to the library?”
“Forget it,” I said, incapable of keeping the edge out of my voice. “I’ll handle it.”
“Don’t! Don’t do that,” Pat barked.
He was right.  Saying “forget it” in that tone was code for, “I knew I couldn’t count on you.  I always have to do everything by myself.” 
“OK,” I said, sheepishly, tears stinging my eyes.  “It’s just so hot.”
There were two hours before I would have to pick up the children.  I wandered around the library with others who were moored there.  Everyone seemed to have stopped working and the ‘quiet’ rule had been totally abandoned. 
“It says here that it’ s the hottest day ever recorded in Los Angeles history,” announced an Asian woman at a library computer.
“It’s up to 115,” a man yelled from fiction stacks. 
We looked out the window every few minutes to see if the world had changed.  Remarkably, it continued to look the same, only less and less peopled. As I packed up my computer, preparing to pick up the boys, I realized that our little living room air-conditioner would be no match for this heat. How would the boys be able to do their homework?  How would I be able to make dinner?  The only solution I could imagine was dropping my computer off at our apartment and picking up our bathing suits.  That way we could go straight from the bus to the pool, hurl ourselves in, and stand around in the water until night fell.
To this day, I am not sure how I managed to get to the apartment and then to the bus stop. I can only assume that I tapped into some primordial need to survive and protect my young.  I have heard stories of mothers finding the strength to lift automobiles off of their children. This must have been the same kind of power I accessed. I remember thinking that if we couldn’t make it to the pool, I could burrow under the parking lot adjacent the bus stop with my bare hands.  I remember forcing myself to imagine each destination like a distant planet that was within reach if I only stayed the course. I charted various air-conditioned pit stops, notably the 7/11 where I lay my cheek against the window of the freezer housing frozen burritos until the man at the cash register told me to move along.
  When I got to the bus stop, I crouched behind a tree and waited. Another mom was kneeling in the shade cast by a car.  A few other parents were jostling for position behind a flagpole. I couldn’t imagine what the rest of the day would be like.  It could, I supposed, get even hotter. Who knew?  I found that I couldn’t imagine anything in the future.  What would the children be like as they got off the bus? Would we be able to sleep tonight?  Would it be this hot tomorrow? Normally, my mind ranges over many real possibilities of what the near future might hold, but in the shade of that tree, I was stuck in the present. The future was a drop-off and the past was irrelevant.
My sons got off of their un-air-conditioned busses -- damp, miserable, and stunned.  They looked like junior versions of movie stars in DUI mug shots. As we huddled behind the tree, I laid out my plan.
It was standing room only at the pool, with no room to swim. No matter. The boys and I would stand chin-deep in relative comfort for the four hours until nightfall. As we threaded our way to through the throng to the edge of the pool, I tried to review what dinner items were in the cupboards.  But dinner seemed a far-off country. I could not imagine it. All I could conjure was this moment with my children slopping beside me. Normally, I don’t talk to anyone at the pool because I’m shy and because shy people are even shyer when scantily clad. Unless Margaritas are involved. After an hour of standing inches away from several bobbing strangers, however, I started to join in the conversation.
I met the Armenian couple immediately to my left. They had immigrated to this country in their twenties.  He was one of seven children, two of whom were identical twins who developed a circus act in which they lifted each other in the air with the power of their minds.  At least, that was how I understood it. She had worked at a bank downtown for forty years and she confided that her copper red hair color wasn’t natural.  A woman hanging onto the edge of the pool told me that her husband was going to leave her for another woman last year, but he had a heart attack the week before he was going to move out of the house. He stayed with her during his recovery and now they were back together for good.  “That heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said, cheerfully. The man behind the Armenian couple tried to sell me a “Fruit of the Month Club” membership. And a youngish hipster dude claimed that the video game “Blood Redemption” would be freakin’ awesome for the kids.
As the sun sank behind the women’s changing room, my sons and I dragged ourselves from the pool, did not dry off, and dripped our way home. Pat’s arrival coincided with ours and we settled in front of the air-conditioner to hone a strategy for getting through the night and the next couple of days, which promised to be only slightly less hot. The plan, as I remember it, was loose. Do as little as possible.
That settled, Pat’s chair scraped the floor as he rose to make sandwiches for dinner.  I sipped my ice water, listening to the boys chattering about the many uses of double sided tape. 
I felt inexorably present.  This, I thought, is what I hang on to – my husband in the kitchen and my children’s glowing skin and matted hair. All the rest I can let go.  I can let go of a proper dinner, completed homework, and dirty dishes in the dishwasher. I can let go of a fixed bedtime and returning e-mails.  It’s too hot.  I have to let it all go -- all but the important stuff.  This, I understood, was the gift of the hottest day. Communion. Stillness, And a reminder of what to let go of -- and what to keep.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Dress

A couple of years ago, I did something so audacious that my friends still talk about it at parties. I bought a dress.
I don’t exactly know what came over me. I hadn’t worn a dress in two decades. I was at a garage sale and I can only suppose that I bought it because my girlfriends were so enthusiastic, crowing about how good I looked and giving me tips on how to wear it. Margaritas were also involved.  The last time I had been coerced into buying a dress was twenty years ago and I had no choice. I was the bride. 
            I’ve never been good with clothes. In my twenties, I tried to create a personal style but each attempt became a cautionary tale. During my Fleetwood Mac period, I wore a mourning coat with tails that made me less like Stevie Nicks and more like a pickpocket from the streets of nineteenth century London. Later I moved onto flowing Indian tops and cheap flouncy skirts that dyed the rest of my laundry saffron yellow and made me look twice my actual size. After that, I adopted the braless ripped T-shirt look, but this proved dangerous. I was a D-cup and it was only a matter of time before someone lost an eye. Then I transitioned to underwear as outerwear. I once met my boyfriend at the Chicago airport wearing a bustier, short skirt, and a garter belt beneath a black raincoat. The impracticality of such a choice cannot be exaggerated. On the train, I pulled my raincoat tightly around me, shivering from the cold and shrinking from the real or imagined leers of old drunks. Alighting from the station, I wobbled on my heels and fell into a snow bank. The entire sexcapade cost me a wicked case of bronchitis that hung on until that spring.
 By the time I turned thirty, I lost momentum and slid down the slippery slope to jeans and t-shirts. To dress up, I’d throw on a decent pair of pants and a crisp white shirt that I hoped made me look like Carolyn Herrera. When, in fact, I looked a more like a hotel bartender.
No matter. Over time, I all but forgot about clothes. Let me be judged by the content of my character, I thought. Let me be measured by my talents, accomplishments, and moral fiber. That, and a little nude lipstick.
After all, I had come by my sartorial challenges honestly.  My mother hadn’t worn a dress or a skirt in half a century, even to weddings and funerals. My father haunted second hand stores and refused to buy a shirt that cost more than two dollars. Given my history, the purchase of a figure-skimming dress -- even a second hand one from a garage sale -- was a major character reversal. It flew in the face of my family’s down-to-earth, Midwestern pragmatism and my own quest for respect. Had I written the dress buying incident into a novel, readers would have cried foul.
What happened after the purchase of the dress, however, was even more remarkable. My husband, who had married me for my moral fiber and sense of humor, loved the dress. Pat might have been excited that the whole thing only cost ten dollars or thrilled that I didn’t look like a hotel bartender. Regardless, when I took the dress for a test run across the living room, Pat looked at me in a different way. Or more specifically, he looked at my legs in a different way. And I liked it.
I decided to unveil the dress and my legs at an annual fundraising gala for my son’s school. The year before, I had attended in velvet pants. I called my mother, giddy with anticipation.
“A dress?” she gasped, as if I had just announced that I moving to a space station.
“Yes, a real dress. It has a black and white pattern.”
“A pattern?” my mother asked, still absorbing the news. “A dress with a pattern. Hunh. What do you wear with a dress?”
“Shoes, I guess,” I said, not like I knew. “I have the heels I wore with the velvet pants.”
“I loved the velvet pants,” my mother enthused, sounding happy to be in familiar territory. “Those were great pants. Why don’t you wear them?”
“Because I have the dress, Mom. It looks really good.”
“Hmmm,” she mused, sounding unconvinced. “Does this mean you have to buy a purse?”
She had me there. I had been carrying a backpack for decades. I never understood purses. I always felt sorry for Victoria Beckham and other bag carriers who had to carry their bags uncomfortably crooked over one arm. Besides, purses seemed to cost as much as a down payment on a condo. Some were so valuable they had to be chained to their racks at Macy’s. Seriously, if a purse is that valuable it belongs in a vault not slung through a bent elbow, taunting thieves.
“Maybe I’ll just give Pat my stuff to carry in his pockets,” I said to my mother.
“You’re going to need a purse,” my mother said, like she knew. “Wearing a dress gets so complicated.”
I did, indeed, use Pat’s pockets as a purse the night of the gala. The whole evening was seminal. The response from my friends went beyond the simple surprise that I had ditched the velvet pants. I was greeted with laughter and hugs as if I had just won a Pulitzer. I felt giddy, young, and flirty. This, I realized, was what I had been missing all those years.
In the weeks to come, I bought shoes and a necklace for the dress. I lovingly put a plastic bag over the dress so she wouldn’t have to rub up against my white shirts. 
In the months that followed, Pat would convey dinner invitations and I would say, “Of course we can go. I’ll wear the dress.” The dress started showing up photographs from events and dinners throughout the year. After awhile, it looked like I didn’t own anything else.
Then, I had a radical thought. I could buy another one.
This thought, however, filled me with anxiety. Could another dress possibly live up to the legacy of my black and white one? Would the black and white dress lose its magic if it sensed the presence of a rival? Or worse, would the black and white dress simply refuse to perform when threatened by a newcomer?
After awhile, I realized that I was anthropomorphizing the dress to a ridiculous degree. Moreover, I realized that friends and family hadn’t simply responded to the dress, but to how I felt when I wore it.
I felt pretty.
Emboldened by this discovery, I branched out. I bought shorts and paired them with heels. I wore color instead of my hotel staff whites, grays, and blacks. I even started a modest collection of dangly earrings.
Friends tell me that I look better than ever. This is partly because I set the bar so low for twenty years. But it is also because I’ve recently discovered my inner girl. It wasn’t simply that I lacked style in my twenties and thirties. It was that I wanted to be taken seriously and fashion and beauty didn’t strike me as serious preoccupations. With kids and an established career, I have less to prove. I can afford to be playful, and silly, and pretty.
The black and white dress has had to make room for a few colorful and frilly closet mates and, so far, I haven’t heard a complaint. My backpack, on the other hand, still has no rivals. I will never understand purses.
You never know, though. It’s not too late for a conversion.
The Dress with my friend, Mary Lee Adler

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

His Mother's Fear

            When I attended Indiana University I roomed with Karen, one of the Webb sisters. She and Mary were white girls who sported huge afros. They liked to laugh, but I couldn’t exactly tell you what inspired their near constant giggling. Their sexual orientation was ill-defined. And they both played the guitar.
            For reasons that are as murky to me as the Webbs' source of mirth or their gender preference, I brought my guitar to college.  I had taken a semester’s worth of lessons in high school, but could only play “Dust in the Wind”.  I never practiced and I had barely any familiarity with popular music.  This did not stop me from banging that guitar around on my back through frequent flights home and to beaches and weekend getaways. It was like an enormous accessory that signaled to the world that I was hip. I would have been better served by a toe ring.
            When our dorm announced that they were going to book resident acts for a Valentine’s Day café, the Webbs quickly signed up. Probably because they knew that they would be free that night. They started practicing nightly. Perhaps sensing that two identical sisters singing a love song might look a bit creepy, they asked me to join their act.
            I remember my heart fluttering when I saw my name on the café bill. I admitted to the Webbs that I couldn’t play very well but they didn’t seem to care. They painstakingly taught me the simplest guitar part to Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer Than”. What I could bring to the group was a decent voice and I loved singing out strong and loud. My instrumental inadequacies, I reasoned, would surely be drowned out by my vocal stylings.  Plus, I could whip my hair around. I had such a ball rehearsing that I saw a big future for us as an act.
            When the big night came, I dressed carefully in my overalls and Candy’s.  The Webb’s wore their overalls and Birkenstocks. The three of us warmed up in my dorm room then slung our guitars across our backs and walked through the halls to the café which was really just a cordoned off section of the cafeteria.
            I was slightly disappointed at the low turn out. It was going to be hard to jump-start a career on ten people. But then, I assured myself, everyone had to start somewhere. In my pre-show jitters, I barely noticed the other acts. The rudimentary lighting system did dim to allow the acts to get situated and when our name was called, the Webbs and I mounted the stage in darkness and arranged ourselves as planned. Me on the stool between the two of them, who were standing.
            Bam. Lights so strong that I couldn’t see anything. The Webbs immediately started playing. I tried to move my fingers but they wouldn’t move. The fingers on my right hand had formed a lobster’s claw. I couldn’t even lift the claw to bang the strings. I could hear the Webbs riffing on their guitars behind me. The long riff indicated that they knew something had gone wrong. I quickly abandoned the notion of moving my fingers and opened my mouth to sing out the first strains of the song. I could make no sound. My mouth was open, my mind was still engaged – but nothing was working. I wondered if I had had a stroke. My brain, my very soul, was trapped inside a motionless, soundless body on a stool in the cafeteria of a dormitory. I could hear Karen and Mary singing, “Longer than there’s been fishes in the ocean/Longer than any bird ever flew…” And all I could do was sit stone-still between the two bobbing afros, staring into the white light. I hoped to God that I wasn’t dead.
            As soon as the lights dimmed, however, my corporeal self reanimated as if nothing had happened. I managed to get off the stool and descend the steps to our table. I don’t remember talking to the Webbs about our performance. I think that my catatonic lapse was simply ignored and in the weeks that followed, references to our future as a group were noticeably absent.

            “I’m going to memorize my speech,” Spencer announced on the morning of his graduation from middle school. My heart clenched.  We had five minutes before we had to run out the door to catch the bus.
            “The ceremony is in two hours,” I said, yanking his little brother’s arm through the arm of his sweatshirt. “You can’t memorize your speech in two hours. What if you forget a line?”
            “I think I can do it,” said Spencer.
            I couldn’t let him risk failing in front of all of the fifth grade parents and his friends. It would be disastrous. What if he froze and couldn’t come up with anything at all?  He’d be standing up there all alone. I wouldn’t be able to help him.
            “Here, it’s easy,” I said, grabbing a clipboard. “You put the speech on the  clipboard. You hold the clipboard in one hand and the microphone in the other.”
            I showed him the pose.
            “The other two kids have their speeches memorized,” he said.
            I breathed in and presented my case calmly, “Yes, I know honey. But they’ve been memorizing for a couple of weeks. You can’t decide to memorize something a couple of hours before you have to do it. Trust me, no one will notice that you’re reading. You’ll feel safer with your script right there.”
It was all about safety for me.  Feel safe and secure above all else. Then, and only then, will you be able to function. Couldn’t he see that?
“Why don’t you get dressed and we’ll put the speech and the clipboard right here,” I said, placing the clipboard on the coffee table.
I followed Spence and into his room to oversee his choice of attire. He wanted to wear a T-shirt under his button down.  “You’re going to get hot,” I warned. But he insisted. There was a last minute shuffle with choosing shoes. My choice was discarded. Too uncomfortable. I quickly found shoelaces for another pair. Done. As we were hustling out of the door, Spencer grabbed the speech off of the clipboard, folded it up, and stuffed it into his pocket.
“The clipboard!” I said, voice tense.
“I’m going to keep my speech in my pocket,” he said. “That way I can study it while the ceremony is going on.”
“Don’t put the speech in your pocket. You’ll lose it. At least put it in your backpack where it will be safe.”
“No Mom,” he said, calmly. “It’s safest in my pocket.”
I threw up my hands in exasperation. “OK. OK. I’m only trying to help. But if that’s what you want,” I said with a manipulative undertone of don’t blame me if it all comes crashing down on you. Spencer shrugged and my heart sank as we spilled into the morning, making our way toward the bus.

The graduation was packed with parents by the time Pat and I arrived. All these people, I thought. Spencer’s going to be nervous.
We found seats near the back and as soon as “Pomp and Circumstances” started to play, I burst into tears. I dabbed my eyes but I was afraid that I explode into full-on heaving sobs as soon as Spencer walked down the aisle.  How on earth would I make it through his speech—especially if he stumbled?
As Spencer inched toward the top of the processional line, tears streamed down my face. I had to stop myself from screaming, “That’s my BABY!” as he took his place and walked down the center aisle. I peered through my foggy contact lenses at other parents. Most of them were smiling and snapping pictures. No one was on the floor sobbing, which was where I was headed. Other mothers looked relaxed and proud. I wiped the snot from beneath my nose with my sleeve.
What moments like this do to me is highlight the fact that my baby is getting older and that he will leave me one day. And worse, these events smack me with the inescapable realization that I will die someday and never see my baby again. I won’t be there to protect him. Graduations and their ceremonial cousins (recitals, school plays, etc) are excruciating for me. I can never understand how other parents, including Pat, can manage to stay calm watching their babies grow up right there. On stage. In front of everyone. I want to scream, “NO!!!! DON’T YOU SEE?  HERE IS THE EVIDENCE!  WE ALL DIE!! STOP THE MUSIC! STOP SMILING EVERYONE. THIS IS FUCKING SERIOUS!”
I have already begun hoarding medication for my sons’ weddings.
Spencer’s speech was near the end of the program.  After half an hour, my breathing normalized and I started to feel pleasantly numb from the overload of serotonin released by my tears. I felt like taking a long nap.
Then Spencer’s name was announced and I snapped to.  I quickly jumped up from my seat and hustled down the side aisle toward the stage. Dear God, I thought, don’t let him fail. I held my breath as he started to speak. 
The first thing he said wasn’t part of the speech!  My heart raced. Did he know what he was saying? The audience laughed in response to his ad-lib. I looked at the faces in the crowd. They looked attentive and generous. Spencer launched into the speech and I relaxed. Then he fumbled. Oh dear father-of-all-that-is-holy, he’s going to crash and burn!!!! Should I create a diversion? How can I save him?
Spencer took the speech out of his pocket and unfolded it while making a joke about not having memorized it well enough. The audience laughed. Then he made another joke and the audience applauded.  I stared at this person who looked like my son. Who was this young man? He didn’t seem nervous. He seemed, in fact, to be enjoying himself. Who was he?  He certainly didn’t seem like any son of mine. A son of mine would have to be like me. Frozen to the spot with lobster claw hands. Afraid of being seen. Terrified of failing. Even afraid of succeeding.
He finished the speech and gracefully acknowledged the swelling applause. I clapped vigorously. No tears now. Just joy. Because for that brief moment I had gotten to see his future. And even without me, I knew that he would be all right.

Spencer with his pals