Thursday, October 29, 2009

This morning.

I met a charming 85-year old woman this morning whose biking path intersected my own trajectory home. She stopped pedaling, called to me, gestured just under her left rib, and said, "Excuse me, ma'am, but your heart—it's not over here, is it?"

I assured her that it was not.

She said, "That's good, because I have a terrible pain here, and I'm not ready to go yet." She did not seem in any pain; I suggested it was a cramp.

She went on, "I need three or four more years."

I said, "At least!"

She corrected me quickly: "No! No! Not at least! Just three or four. I have some things I need to get done. Three would be perfect; four might be too many. I have a dental bridge that's driving me nuts. No, no, four is too many. I considered making a deal with the devil, but he was unavailable. Too busy making people tell lies. Am I right? or does everyone tell lies nowadays? Lies, lies, lies. I put 1500 euros in the bank last year, and when I wanted to take it out this year, they made me pay them 5 euros to have it. That's a sort of lie, is it not? Can you believe it? Paying to have your own money!"

I told her she inspired me. It sounded a little lame, but I really meant it.

"Inspired? What does that mean?" I thought maybe I'd used the wrong word in Italian.

"No, no. It's the right word. I know what you mean, that I've given you the strength to go on, sort of. But don't let it be so. Listen, it's very simple. Just keep working. Works keep you alive, am I right? If you don't work, you sit on a bench and die. No, no. Work, work. Well, I must be off...just three more years, that's all I need..." and with that, this beautiful woman jumped on her bike and rode off.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Here's to the Other.

I've been thinking about Janet a lot lately. She's in South America. As I write, I'm not sure where. Maybe Argentina. Maybe Uruguay. I'm wondering what the weather's like and what she's seeing and how she's probably doing her gracious best to make herself understood in Spanish. Janet's like that. She's most definitely not the kind of American tourist to shout more loudly and slowly in English in the certainty that eventually that foreigner (in whose country she's standing) will understand.

Every year, maybe once, maybe twice, Rick and Janet go some place far away. They venture away from the comfort and sameness of home to seek out something different. Because they want to. Because ironically, it feels good. I think Janet would feel less comfortable, in fact, if they didn't do it. Because she knows, we all know, that despite what we think and tend to feel: it is different out there. Really different. And if you take any one of us and plop us down — voilĂ ! — in a different cultural and geopolitical context, it is we who are different. In the bat of an eye, the crossing of a border, the uncomfortable minute stationed in front of the airport immigration officer, we become that frightening thing—the other.

I've lived in Italy for 11 years now (a number I can hardly believe, and which is certain to grow), and even as I become more integrated into the life here, I feel increasingly "other." I'm not sure why this is. I think it has to do with the surprising and undeniable depth of our cultural roots and also with the fact that human "time" is different than we think it is. We tend to talk about time flying, and yet in human, psychological terms, time can move quite slowly indeed. My eleven years in a foreign country are nothing. They're just the beginning of going deeper into this particular experiment. And, as time passes, I have that much more time to realize how different I really am.

The result is that I feel "at home" often with other people who are "different" too. I have something very important in common with our part-time Philippine house-keeper/nanny that I do not have in common with my own Italian husband. In this context, we are both foreigners. Her name is Pamela, and we love her, and she has most definitely lived through hardships that have never brushed up against my comparatively serene existence. But we both know what it's like to be the other in this intensely Milanese context. She knows distance. She knows separation. She knows having difficulty being understood. She knows bureaucratic battle. She knows being outside instead of inside.

But you don't have to be on a trip or living in a foreign country to feel or be other.

I was born in the American South to parents who, because of a specific mixture of education, nature and nurture, were disdainful of it. We lived there, but there was always a feeling that there was something not quite right about it. The result? I felt "other" in my hometown, my high school, most everywhere. But it wasn't a bad feeling. It was a feeling of strength and security. I liked it.

And the truth is this. Even if you never go anywhere, there are times in your life when you are outside the inner circle. You are the "other." In relationships, the other person is, by definition, the other. A man is other to a woman. A lesbian lover is other to the woman she calls partner. An employee is other than his boss. Sometimes just acknowledging this otherness helps ease tension. You can't change it, maybe you shouldn't, so what you can do is observe it and reflect on it, and understand that you are just as "other" as anyone else. Always fitting in, always being like everyone else—well, that would be downright debilitating, I would think. The fear of crossing a line, not being accepted, not seeing yourself reflected everywhere would be stifling. Stepping outside the accepted definition of yourself is a bracing experience, and in our lives, despite our geographical locations, we have to do it to survive and thrive.

I'm not always perfectly comfortable, and my life is by no means free of frustration. But I feel comfortable being the different one. And to tell you the truth, I feel lucky to wear this mantle.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Incredibly good advice

Child home with Swine Flu. DVD helping to take mind off symptoms. Time to pull out all the good old movies. Passing through her room, I caught this:

Mrs. Incredible: (Lots of whining about her marriage, etc.) What do I do? What do I do?(Sobbing into her kleenex.)


Mrs. Incredible: Hmmm?


I think Edna Mode is my hero. I wish she'd ended up in our Pedestal Chapter in the book. So deserving. Wanna see it?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Brook Land Is Mine

So right now we're running around throwing clothes into suitcases, getting on conference calls, watching the world wide web be not so worldly or wide out here on the stormy Oregon coast, trying to get out of here and get to South America for a few weeks of Spring. And yet what keeps hitting the back of my mind like an insistent lover is...Brooklyn. In the last few months friends and strangers and coffee baristas have brought up that bucolic borough again and again. In fact someone who reads this blog - that's right reader, we may be up to a grand total of 25, and not all friends and relatives! - wrote from out of the blue, the prettiest email, the sweetest words, all from that distant land called Brooklyn. And it threw me back to last year, when we were back with Fincher shooting the Stand Up To Cancer work, and Rick and I ran over to Brooklyn for a breakfast that turned into lunch and then some because we just couldn't bare to leave. Someone we used to know at Wieden said that Brooklyn's like Portland, but that just proves he's been gone too fucking long. It's nothing like at all. It can't be copied or counterfeited. It can't be recreated out here in our new Western lands because there's something so inherent and in-grown and deep rooted there. We just don't have that. We have other marvelous and inescapable things but not that.
And while we were there we went to The Five Leaves (go there, now!) and sat at the counter and had the best freaking cup of coffee, okay, four (hello Carlos!) with beans that actually were roasted in Eugene, Oregon, a few hours from what we natives fondly do call Stumptown. Carlos was lovely and kind and irrepressible. The homemade ricotta with honey was delirious and moreish. Everyone told us to go down to Spoonbill & Sugartown for books and we did and of course Rick had to bodily drag me from the place, banshee-like, but not before the owners had exhausted themselves looking for the newest Paris Review and not before they had won my bookish heart forever. I want to go to there again. I want to go to there now. But first, we'll go to Buenos Aires and meet up with my great vagabond-poet nephew and spend three glorious weeks on the south side of the globe. As usual, Charlotte will write superior blogs with beautiful illustrations and extraordinary thoughts and I'll be drunk somewhere, trying to make a point I deeply, albeit slurringly, believe in. Let's end with W. Whitman of course:
What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not - distance avails not, and place avails not.

- Janet

Sunday, October 11, 2009

So much is possible, isn't it?

I saw this picture in the New York Times. Maybe you did too. If you didn't: The baby I've circled is Michelle Obama in the arms of her mother. If I'd been looking at a paper edition of the Times, I'd have clipped it out. But I did the digital equivalent by dragging it to my computer desktop, because I want to keep it forever, tuck it in my wallet, and pull it out when I pull out pictures of my children. It is such a complete image of all that is possible in this strange, unpredictable, often seemingly cruel world. And a hopeful thing to put next to the pocket-sized images of one's own offspring. Not that they'll be famous or powerful. It's not that which I wish for them. But that maybe they'll grow into a world where things they don't imagine can be true, really can be.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Choice 201

After my last post, everyone who commented was kind enough and quick to say that I didn't need to qualify what I was saying, that I didn't need to explain that I was talking about choice v. that stuff that destiny serves up. Everyone was generous and knew what I meant, and to all of them I say "thank you."

But as often happens with blogging, I hadn't really been thorough in either my original post or my comment. And, as some days have passed, I've realized why it bothered me so much not to have been more specific the first time around.

The distinction between what luck or destiny serve up and what we choose is critical and central to the discussion, precisely because choice, by definition, is the opposite of that which is out of our hands. You choose to take or deny a job. You don't choose cancer. And those of us who have lots of choice in life have been given a very fortunate hand, indeed. And for all that choice, all that flexibility, all that opportunity to say "yes" to this or "no" to that, we ought to be damn (double-damn) grateful. Not whiny. Not full of regret. Not negative about our lives and why they aren't like so-and-so's "greener" life on the other side of the fence. We ought to be celebrating every aspect of those choices, cognizant of the fact that we were lucky to be able to make them in the first place.

In other words, every choice we make is a celebration of the freedom to choose. And the ripple-effects of those choices are a reminder. -Charlotte

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


Fill in the blanks:

I chose __________________.

I have chosen to _______________________.

I choose to _______________________.


I was walking down the road the other day feeling kind of grumpy about having to pick up more groceries, cook more dinner, whatever it was. You know the feeling. Like you wish you were living in a parallel universe without the constant T0-Do list. And all of a sudden it hit my like a bolt of lightening: I chose this life. I chose the man, the place, the children, the work (and often lack thereof). I chose the precise mix of mess and beauty, urban insanity and country calm. Luck played a huge part in much of what I have, yes, but most of what I am inclined to grumble about is precisely what I wanted. And what I want.

And right then and there I felt joyous. Yes, joyous, as if bliss had been beamed down by the sun. Realizing that I had chosen what I was experiencing, right then, allowed me to stop resenting it and to be thankful for it. Thankful for the arm-ache that accompanies carrying your groceries home. Thankful for the chance to cook another meal for my family. Thankful for the flexible mix of unemployment and employment that I enjoy. Thankful for the bills to pay, the messes to observe before whisking away, the warm bodies to kiss before going to sleep. Thankful for the chaos and the conflict and the craziness.

Seems to me we (women, mostly) have a tendency to waste a lot of time whining about stuff that—if we were honest—is the direct or secondary result of a choice we've made. And we criticize the choices that others of us make, while we're secretly resenting our own. In a way, it's just a really mentally unhealthy sort of immaturity. We seem to forget the role that our choices play in our day-to-day realities.

And then I thought about our rather limited usage of the phrase "pro-choice." And how we all ought to live our lives in a truly pro-choice fashion. Accepting our own choices. Investing in the rightness of them, or consciously (and conscientiously) choosing otherwise if they were in error. And respecting without endless and acid discussion the right of other women to choose something for themselves that is different from what we've chosen.

Whatever. Maybe this is too simplistic. But accepting my own choices changed the color of my mood from something tending toward gray to something tending toward a lovely bright shade of greeny yellow. And I realized that I'd do well to repeat the same exercise a little more often.

I choose to remember what I have chosen.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Hear that? It's my kitchen, weeping

The end of Gourmet Magazine. The end of Gourmet Magazine? To save Bon Appetit? Because people refuse to eat anymore, they simply assemble? Oh god. My knives just wrapped their little blades around each other and prayed. Gourmet is the New Yorker of food. It's a bible. It's food porn and literature both. And it has Ruth Reichl! It's so gorgeously written, stunningly photographed, it's brilliant and beautiful so of course they're going to let it go. A long time ago, 15, 16 years, I told Chris Shipman I didn't read it because it looked so snotty. And he replied 'It's not snotty, it's perfection.' Rest in peace, perfection. Oh great: now my pans are all making a break for the door. The sponges have thrown themselves off the sink. Somewhere, Julia Child is very, very sad.
- Janet