Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bless My Homeland Forever

Through much of junior high and high school, I moonlighted as a babysitter. Some stretches were like being on a Rolling Stones tour - another night, another gig.

I just texted the first kid I ever babysat, who’s now in her early twenties. She still lives in the swing state that spawned us and I needed to ensure that she’s registered to vote for Obama later this fall. When she and her mom were in New York a couple of years ago, the three of us were the most underdressed bread-breakers at the high-post Tribeca restaurant we found ourselves in.

It was during those prime babysitting years that I jumped through all the hoops it took to bust out of the Midwest – a land I didn’t hate, but didn’t love. I was born restless and most in love with the idea of customizing a path that was as fertile and newsworthy as the courses a lot of my elders had journeyed down.

I had to see, up close, what else was out there to better understand and respect where I came from. My personal and professional dealings with folks from all over have served as reminders that (underneath the narrow-mindedness that’s easily uncoverable in many of their small towns, rural enclaves, and medium-sized metro areas) Midwesterners epitomize two guiding principles – sincerity and simplicity. 

My grown-up travels back home and to other parts of the region are as medicinal as my delicious goblets of red wine. When I learn that someone I’ve just met is Midwestern born and bred, there’s more than a sense of familiarity; there’s a sense of relief.  I won’t get sucker-punched, I won’t get sucker-punched, I sing to myself (and sometimes out loud). So far, I’ve only been proven wrong once.

Elected politicians are among my least-preferred citizens, but I now get excited about presidential election seasons the way teens in their prime babysitting years get excited about Halloween. My original neck of the woods becomes a little less marginalized and is taken a little more seriously, swaying in the spotlight before getting redeposited backstage for another four years. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Privilege of Laughing at a Time Like This

Last month, one of my besties (a term I’ve gone from loathing to loving) almost lost his life in a middle-of-the-night house fire. He woke up engulfed in flames. Other than the makeshift pajamas on his back at the time, he no longer has what he owned.

Of course, he’s not dry-eyed or uncomplaining, and the post-traumatic stress is in its earliest stages. His mind and body are undergoing a transformation. But not his soul.

You don’t know someone until you’ve seen how s/he responds to pain, crisis, or off-the-charts stress. To understand a person’s true character, watch how s/he behaves in the worst of times, not the best of times. How they handle themselves, how they handle others - along the victim-phoenix spectrum, most people fall somewhere in between; some are all phoenix, nothing but.

The phoenix who’s the subject of this post was in the ICU for 5 days. “The nurses loved me, they thought I was fabulous,” was one of the first things he had to say about that. His skin, including the skin on his face, suffered second- and third-degree burns. “Now it’s just like I had a chemical peel, I look fantastic,” he reported last week.   

He’s not getting back to himself – this is his core self.

In college, when his off-campus apartment was broken into, it sounded like the burglars prepared themselves a light meal in his kitchen before bouncing. “And they didn’t even fix me a plate,” he said not long afterwards.

During her one-woman Broadway show a few years ago, Carrie Fisher mentioned an occasion with her daughter. When Fisher chronicled the almost too-bad-to-be-true sorrow and dysfunction that had plagued her and their family over the decades, the daughter periodically broke into laughter, easily able to locate hilarity in the hardship. Fisher said that was when she knew her kid would always be OK.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Unloading Baggage

For the first time in recent memory, I rolled in early for a dental appointment. Much like my being super-early for an outgoing flight, it felt unnatural and I didn’t know what to do with myself. The waiting room’s TV was too loud to focus on the book I brought, I’d already dealt with my e-mail and read the morning news, everyone I’d want to text with was somewhat hard at work, en route to work, or still asleep. And joshing around with this uptight waiting-room crowd was out of the question. I flipped through a magazine that had been tossed onto a chair across from me, and grew particularly enthralled with its “What’s in My Bag?” feature, where a celebrity dumps out the contents of her handbag, for all to see.

I’m cleaning out a huge, black, and timeless Liz (my mom called her Elisabeth) Claiborne bag I’ve kept in rotation since college. The interior lining is in tatters; one strap has stayed attached to the body of the bag with the help of an industrial-sized stapler. We’ve endured so much for so long, and I dread the day I have to put it to sleep. What’s in it?:

1. A great beauty of an umbrella. People can’t help but smile through the rain when this little number is up and at ‘em. It lifts moods. Most of my T.J. Maxx purchases turn heads.

2. Crumbs

3. 1 pleated white ankle sock

4. My office ID badge, the electronic-access swipe function of which hasn’t worked in at least 2 years.

5. Chopsticks

6. A sheaf of scrap paper, where I jot down any ideas/thoughts/lines that stop me in my tracks while I’m on the go, away from my computer. (The most up-to-the-minute jotting: I don’t trust people who are politically correct at all times.)

7. A travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer that’s gone unused because I always forget it’s there, underneath the weightier matters.

8. A tube of lip balm that cost too many euros and doesn’t hit the spot nearly as well as my Bonne Bell Lip Smackers.

There had been an empty plastic produce bag in a side pocket. It’s been passed on to a bagless lady whose dog made quite a mess on the bridle path in the park. She needed something quick, and it’s a good thing I had that bag on me. Otherwise she would have gotten the ankle sock.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Art That Illustrates (Not Imitates) Life

From what I can tell, someone who is (at best) barely acquainted with me clings to the impression that all I do is drink, travel, and watch Bravo’s Real Housewives.

She’s left something out. I also watch Gallery Girls (still Bravo).
I couldn’t have cast it better myself. Not everyone can relate to a subset of rookie go-getters who have moved to New York to stake their claims in the contemporary art world. But anyone who has recently spent entry-level time in a competitive, elitist, commercial, glamorous-to-outsiders industry will be familiar with the people in this neighborhood: the trust fund kid; the little brats who might as well have been set up with trust funds, what with the high-end parental handouts they collect; the middle-class-bred voice of reason who works the hardest and whines the least; the too-cool-for-mainstream-mores hipsters whose funky attitudes start to make mainstream mores look marvelous. All that’s missing from this lineup is the tragically innocent pushover (the one who doesn’t “need alcohol to have a good time”) who steadily gets eaten alive.
One lesson a walk through this landscape can drive home: elitism comes in many different shapes, structures, and socioeconomic situations.
I react to TV shows the way I react to people. I respect the real deals and stay clear of the phonies with the predictably limited and smooth-talking scripts. By now, most of us know that reality-show storylines entail a fair amount of behind-the-scenes producer-generated manipulation. But reality-realm producers can’t be held accountable for everything seen on screen. For example, if you’re wondering why six of the seven Gallery Girls cast members are white, don’t pass too much judgment on Bravo – take a long look at the industry it documents.  
The last scripted show I occasionally followed was Dawson’s Creek. “Nor should you,” one character would say to another. Yes, script-keepers, that’s a very accurate representation of how Generation Y teenagers in the United States troubleshoot with each other.
 “I hate Brooklyn,” a just-out-of-college, non-native Manhattan resident blurts out on Gallery Girls, staring down the camera with an exhausted grimace. There’s not a producer on the Bravo payroll who’d be willing or able to regulate rawness like that.