Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Age vs. Beauty

From a recent Spoken Word venue, at which I argued for Age against Beauty. Yes, it's a rant.

I am 53.

Let me tell you what that means.

It means that I was an American born during the cold war in Munich, Germany, where the sound of my parents’ late night, booze-fueled conversations with artists, educators, and social activists who worked for Radio Free Europe was the walla of my childhood.

Being 53 means that I embody the optimism and radicalism of the sixties, when giving peace a chance was not a slogan on a high end T-shirt, but a viable philosophy. And when women grew their underarm hair to declare their equality to men, instead of shaving their cootches to declare their insecurity over not measuring up to their boyfriends’ porn fantasies.

Being 53 means that I lived in New York City in the early 80s. Pre-AIDS, pre-economic crash, pre-snark. When young people still believed that they could make something so profound that they could change the world. Feminism wasn’t a confusing concept, and sex was fun because no one gave a shit about “the rules”. It means that I did cocaine in the VIP room of Studio 54 and danced with Andy Warhol. OK, he stood there and I shimmied around him. To be honest, that was all anyone ever did around Warhol.  Later that night I actually danced with Tony Danza and Phyllis Diller. Together. I have yet to meet another person who can make this claim.

Being 53 means that I got to work on an HBO television show for three years that nurtured some of the hottest, most relevant comedians of the late 90s and beyond.

I’ve written a bestselling book, married my best friend, been a beauty editor for a national magazine, backpacked through India, gazed upon the Panama Canal, walked around the Gaza pyramids, birthed two children, read most of the classics, lived in London, published in the New York Times, and chipped chunks out of the Berlin wall just after it fell. I’ve hiked to the base camp of the Matterhorn (the real one), occupied LA  – in a tent—with my family, danced with the London Festival Ballet, sold seven television pilots, met living saints, and walked the very steps that Ghandi walked before he was shot. I have stood amongst the funeral pyres on the ghats of the Ganges, looked through the smoke of burning bodies, seen my own death, and understood my existence to be both profoundly significant and utterly irrelevant. I have stood in a classroom teaching seventh grade English and wondered how any of us survive the wounding mortification of yearning and not getting. And I have squatted behind a lone rock in the middle of the Sahara Desert, digging a hole for my own waste, and realized that the only thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is shame. That, and thinking puns are funny.

You may be young. You may be beautiful. You may have already had a shitting in the wilderness epiphany by now. Eventually all of us do. But even so, when you – youth and beauty-- and I are together, I am the most interesting motherfucker in the room.

And even if you don’t agree with me. Even if you would still rather spend your limited time basking in the glow of already fading youth and beauty – because, let’s face it, physical beauty always, always wanes unless you’re Diane Sawyer -- even if you would trade every ounce of wisdom and courage you would gain by growing older, for a decade more of youth and beauty – I don’t give a fuck.

And that is the true beauty of aging – the pure lack of fuck that I give about anything that doesn’t make me a better, more compassionate, more connected, more useful, more committed, more sexy human being. If only to myself.

In the truest sense, aging is radicalizing. Surviving loss and facing an uncertain future, either breaks you or makes you a badass. Surviving loss gives you boundless compassion for the weak, the dispossessed, the miserable, the vulnerable, and the spiritually numb. Surviving heartbreak, teaches you that humility is not passivity, tears are not weakness, stillness is not laziness, and aging is not death.

Recently, I was at Ross, buying a particularly jazzy pair of fashion forward skinny jeans. The checker eyeballed me and said, “Senior discount?”

My jaw dropped.

What? I mean, seriously, what the fuck? Do I look like a grandma? I’m buying leggings that look like denim – no grandmother does that!

My younger self would have taken the checker on, would have protested my obvious youth. Or impressed upon her that I only looked worn out because I’d been up all night partying and screwing my brains out. But my older self doesn’t give a flying fuck. So I said, “Why, yes. Yes I am a senior.”

And I got the discount on my jeggings.

Because I am the coolest motherfucker in the room.

Originally performed at "The Write Club" -- Bootleg Theater, Los Angeles

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Year's Thoughts on Grammar, my Mother, and Real Life

I am sitting in a cafĂ© in Madison, Wisconsin. The snow fell yesterday. The powdery, light kind that falls without purpose and doesn’t stick to the streets. Outside the window, the sidewalks are slushy and a faint white fuzz drapes over modules of hardened gray snow, making everything look cleaner. It’s merely cosmetic, this atmospheric landscaping -- but I am grateful.
I do not live here. But the barista (not called such in Madison) knows me. I am my mother’s daughter -- the Hollywood actress (as my mother described me) who arrives from Los Angeles in the winter and once every summer to visit and write at the table by the window. My mother used to come here every day for a skinny late. Before she broke her hip. Today, I will order her skinny late to-go before I pay my bill.
I haven’t written freely in several months. This is mostly because I began a new job, teaching sixth grade English, in September. The work has been overwhelming frankly. This has less to do with the job itself than it does with me. I am incapable of doing anything by halves. As a result, I wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about a student’s grade. Or I am in the bath and I remember a poem that I simply have to teach – one that will blow my sixth graders’ minds with its powerful dialectic on modern man’s disconnectedness from nature– oh hell, I can’t put it in to words. T.S. Eliott. You know the one. And I have to jump out of the bath to write it down to prevent it from receding from memory and leaving only a fragment that will gnaw at my consciousness until it pops back into mind, waking me – yes, that’s it “The Waste Land” – an hour before I have to get up in the morning. Jesus, I can’t teach ‘The Waste Land’ to sixth graders. What was I thinking?
It’s fucking exhausting.
The floor on my side of the bed in Los Angeles is piled high with books that are supposed to tell me how to teach. I flip through them nightly. I got into a time crunch before the winter break and didn’t get to do something clever with Santa’s “clauses”. What a missed opportunity. I really want to dig into clauses and inspire the kids to write beautiful complex sentences that rise off of the page. Hell, even if their sentences just lie there looking like whole thoughts, it will be a partial win.
I’ve come to believe that clauses are the key to making their sentences at least hover. My favorite are independent clauses -- added bits of information that could stand alone but, for reasons left to the discretion of the writer, don’t.
My mother walks tentatively now and is unlikely to brave the trip to this coffee shop until the snow thaws. Even then, she would feel more confident walking here if she could lean on my father or me.
            I had to teach myself what a prepositional phrase was this year. A friend of mine explained that prepositions are little locators. I am, for example, sitting at the table, in the coffee shop, on the street where my mother lives. I never thought much about locators before. And if I had, I doubt that I would have granted them much importance. Who cares where you are, I would have said, as long as you’re doing something.
If you don’t have a verb, you don’t have squat.
In this case, I am writing. Does it matter that I am on the street where my mother lives?
It isn’t simply teaching that has distracted me from writing the last few months. It has been the world at large. It isn’t a peaceful place. This shouldn’t be a revelation to me. After all, I’ve been living in it for decades. But before this year, I felt safe -- at my desk, in my apartment, with my family. Then Pat and I lost our health insurance, decimated our credit rating by declaring bankruptcy, and couldn’t find any employment. For three months in a row, we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent. When something like this happens, prepositional phrases become vitally important to you. Who gives a flying fuck what you are doing, if you can’t do it in your home?
Which brings me to the street where my mother lives.
When neighbors see my mother leaning on my arm as we walk out her door, they are likely to assume that it is she who is reliant upon me, who needs support, who cannot stand alone.
They would be wrong.     
When I called my mother this past summer to admit just how bad things had gotten, she said, “Just tell me what you need.” She sent money, no questions asked. And, when I could barely hold a thought in my head or get through an hour without weeping, she called me every day.
In the education books beside my bed, I have marked lessons on prepositions, clauses, conjunctions, and sentence fragments. I am falling in love with the architecture of language. I like looking at the numerous ways that one thought can build upon another. I like thinking about how an idea can link to another, although semi-colons still mystify me. Appositives, however, are a revelation. They allow a writer rename a noun. Whether for clarity or redemption, the ability to rename, to go back, to say, “what I need to you to know about this noun is this”, is mind-blowingly powerful. See here:
“Audrey lives on this street” is quite different from “Audrey, my mother, lives on this street.”
The writer, here, feels that it is important that you know that Audrey isn’t just anyone on the street. She is the writer’s mother. She is a person of importance.
 A few weeks ago, one of my sixth-grade students threw up his hands when we were analyzing a sentence and said, “I’ll never use this in my real life!”
I couldn’t, in all honesty, assure him that the ability to differentiate between a dependent clause and a sentence fragment would put him in a different income bracket or get him the girl of his dreams (the second being only slightly more possible). But I did tell him that the ability to communicate beautifully, meaningfully, and clearly would enhance his life no matter what path he chose.
He said, “What if I want to be a garbage man?”
Anyone who knows anything about sixth graders can guess that the ensuing conversation had more to do with the merits and drawbacks of employment in the sanitation industry than it had to do with grammar.
            But that night, I awoke from deep sleep, replaying the conversation.
            “I’ll never use this in my real life!”
            What the hell was I teaching these kids? Anything?
            I looked at the books on the floor and remembered my life five months earlier, prior to the phone call I made to my mother, prior to getting this job as an English teacher.
There is only one thing we ever learn and relearn in real life.
And only one thing to teach.
Everything is connected.
In real life.
Nothing, no one, stands alone.
Everything else is semantics.