In appreciation of a teacher . . .

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Remembering Brian Baird . . .

Once upon a time, before news traveled at break-neck speed to our smart phones and our Cable TV networks, we waited for it. We had no choice, and when “the news” came on at teatime, it was a serious affair that demanded our attention. It was rarely, if ever, about  a new animal born at the zoo or a wardrobe malfunction of someone famous. When UTV broadcaster, Brian Baird, entered our living rooms, in black and with poker-faced authority as he told us something new, we took it as gospel.

As my brother says, “You could read nothing in that face. It was all in the voice. The face, if it told you anything, told you this: listen to what I’ve found out since I was talking to you last. This is very important, and will take only three minutes.” There was no shuffling of papers, no footerin’ with a pen – there was just the news.

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I remember wondering, amid the flurry of texts and Tweets about the death of our Seamus Heaney, how the late Brian Baird would have broken the news. Would he have maintained his composure or would he have lost what veteran American anchorman, Walter Kronkite, described as the “running battle” between his emotions and his news sense when he announced on-air, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I suspect the latter.

I first met Mr. Baird on a September morning in the early 1980s. I was a student at Queen’s University of Belfast’s Stranmillis College, and I was late for my first Modern Irish Fiction Since Joyce seminar. When I opened the door, it was to the sound of a familiar voice coming from the front of a classroom. There he was, sitting behind a desk that was too small for him, reciting Yeats, delivering the message with the same gentle gravitas with which he also read the news. Away from the TV in the corner of our living room on the Dublin Road, Mr. Baird was larger than life. As such, over the course of that year, he changed my life as only the best teacher can.

In Mr. Baird’s seminar, I discovered the novels of Edna O’Brien, the short stories of Frank O’Connor and Liam O’Flaherty, and Brian Friel’s plays. Even as I write, I can hear his recitation of Patrick Kavanagh’s “On Raglan Road,” which made we weep a little. Indeed, it is preferable to think of Mr. Baird waxing poetic than reporting news that was mostly bad in those days.

It was Mr. Baird who introduced me to Seamus Heaney. “Professionally unfussed” like Heaney’s Diviner, he led his students in and out of those poems, wondering always and wandering through rural places and practices I knew well, but had until then taken for granted. I felt a new pride, almost boastful  that I belonged to Heaney’s places – Castledawson, The Hillhead, The Lough shore, Broagh. I found a new respect for the craft of certain men who peopled those parts and Heaney’s poems – The Thatcher, Barney Devlin, the blacksmith at The Forge, The Diviner, men like my father who I once observed “witch” water, the pull of it so strong where he stood, that the stick in the shape of a wishbone, bent and almost tied itself in a knot, “suddenly broadcasting through a green hazel its secret stations.”

My newfound appreciation for the ways of life in the townlands of rural Derry did little to make me more punctual to class or timely with submission of homework. Mr. Baird referred to me as “the late Miss Watterson,” announcing my arrival in a way that only encouraged my tardiness. I enjoyed his attention, and I saved every hand-written essay, because I loved his red-ink comments. Often, I imagined him sharing his assessments of work on the six o’clock news: “A very sound survey, which I was pleased, at last, to receive. I had had oral evidence of its existence.” Or, “This was received very late, so I can’t guarantee this mark.” I got the mark anyway.

He started out as a young English teacher in 1956, far away from Belfast, in Kuala Kangsa, a small town in Malaysia. He had accepted a post that had recently been vacated by a John Wilson, who later under the pen name of Anthony Burgess, wrote the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. After a successful five years, he moved to the island of Penang, where his son, Patric, was born. And in 1963, the year I was born, the Bairds returned to Northern Ireland, bringing with them a cargo of words and phrases, recipes and photographs, of exotic Eastern places that could not have been further away from Belfast.

I remember seeing Mr. Baird one night in the foyer of The Lyric Theater on Ridgeway Street, just a few doors down from where I lived when I was a student.  It was before a play, and he was enjoying a cigar and a laugh with local celebrities, his thick gold bracelet chinking against a brandy glass as he raised it in my direction. I wish I had been bold enough to say hello and ask if he thought the play was going to be all it was cracked up to be. I know now he would have welcomed me into the conversation, but I was hesitant, awkwardly aware of being the first person in my family to attend university or to go to a play at The Lyric Theater – I may as well have been in Penang.

In Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney explains to Dennis O’Driscoll:

Even Belfast was far away to me. In those days,I was outside the loop, my family had no familiarity with universities, no sense of the choices that there were, no will to go beyond the known procedures, no confidence, for example, about phoning up the local education authority and seeking clarification about what was possible – no phone, for God’s sake.

A university education in Belfast was a world away from the Broagh and necessitated a kind of verbal dance with his mother, when he returned from it to the family home, full of new knowledge, new words, and new sensitivities. I can almost picture him – in that tight space between elevated and plain Derry speech, watching every word he says, weighing its impact before he utters it. My mother and I have danced that very dance, her telling me to this day, ” you know all them things.”

From Clearances IV

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek.
She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.

With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.


In 1991, Mr. Baird would receive a letter from me. I was living in Phoenix and teaching part-time. In anticipation of teaching an Irish literature class, I wondered if he would maybe share with me the syllabus from the Irish Fiction course that changed me. He obliged, and I love knowing that the elegant hand-written letter remains folded between the pages of the Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh.

Letter from Brian Baird

I wish there had been more letters between us, because he probably had much more to teach me. He died in 1998, by which time I was consumed with learning how to be a new mother – my daughter’s first teacher. I never made the time to thank him for the life-long gift of Seamus Heaney’s poetry – there has not been one day of my adult life that I have not been grateful for it.

When Mr. Baird died, then manager of Ulster Television(UTV), Desmond Smyth, described him as many of us remember him:

To a TV generation Brain Baird was the voice and the face of UTV news. He was a totally professional broadcaster and a charming work colleague with not an ounce of ego about him.

Like Seamus Heaney’s men – not an ounce of ego.

Out of the blue, one morning in April 2013, I received an email from his son, Patric. In his travels, he had found my writing and was pleased to read there about the impact of his father on yet another former student. It turns out I am part of a large and global fan-club. Patric told me that on a trip to Malay to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, he met some of his father’s former pupils, now men in their seventies who recall with gratitude how their teacher had helped shape their appreciation of literature and the English language.

It was a long struggle with a rare form of leukemia that killed my favorite teacher, and Patric says he remained positive throughout the illness. Of course he did.

Sadly, Mr. Baird did not live to see his son become a journalist, nor would he ever know the full extent of his influence as a teacher and a lover of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Even though I know he is the man who kept on reading the news in spite of a fly landing on his lip, I have to believe that his inscrutable poker face would break into a smile at the thought of his son and a former student, each of us in our fifties and like Seamus Heaney, “crediting marvels.”

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After my husband died and the weekend before my first Christmas as a widow, a large envelope arrived from Belfast. Inside, was a typed letter from Patric, who had heard the news, and a familiar volume of poems. For some time, he had been meaning to send me one of his father’s books of Heaney’s poetry, and while searching for my address, he learned of my husband’s death.  In his letter, he shared with some details of his father’s death, a few days before Christmas in 1998, and told me of the long flight Patric made home to be with his family. Whether from London to Belfast or Phoenix to Arizona, the flight is too long, fraught with a desperate desire to just be where you belong.

So it was that Mr. Baird’s personal copy of “Death of a Naturalist” became part of my collection. Patric tells me it was

 It is certainly the most dog-eared of the collection and probably the one he read the most. I’m sure he could think of no better person to whom he would like it passed on.

All over America this week, teachers and their craft will be honored with public fanfare and the more personal gestures as well. It’s the time of year when some teachers are counting down the days until school’s out for summer, and others are figuring out how to make every minute matter until the final bell rings on the last day of school. Cards and hand-written letters of gratitude will be saved in shoeboxes or between the pages of books and rediscovered over the years, reminders of what Henry Adams said about a teacher’s effect on eternity. “He can never tell where his influence stops.”

Thank you, Mr. Baird.

I am forever in your debt.

 

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‘you need a love that’s gonna last . . .’

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Little red Corvette
Baby you’re much too fast
Little red Corvette
You need a love that’s gonna last.

I first paid attention to Prince and the Revolution when I was about twenty years old and “Little Red Corvette” was getting regular airplay on Radio One. It was the eighties. Accordingly, I had big hair, big enough to be in The Revolution, and stowed in the back of my mind I had big plans to escape from Northern Ireland and its greyness. Most of the time, I was bored and with no particular place to go other than the disco on a Saturday night with my best friend. And, “Little Red Corvette” – if it’s about anything – is about Saturday night, when driven to dance under strobe lights and a fog machine, you might just get the girl or the guy, if only for that one Saturday night. Sexy, seductive, and – as only Prince could sing it – smooth.

I knew that “Little Red Corvette” wasn’t really about the Corvette, not that I could have correctly identified a Corvette had it been parked sideways in front of my door. It was about something else, some elusive thing that shook and shimmered beyond a Saturday night at the disco in a Northern Ireland town, something wild and just beyond my grasp, something that all these years later still teases and taunts me to take a walk on Lou Reed’s wild side. It was a little dangerous, but not enough to stop me from taking that walk with Lou Reed or David Bowie or Prince or the man I married. That walk has always been worth it because along the way I would discover at least one book of magic in the garbage can – the kind that makes an appearance just once in a lifetime, the stuff of shooting stars, and only for those who are the luckiest. And the unluckiest, because then comes the loss – just to even things out.


Long before he met me, and somewhere between the motorcycle, the muscle car, and the flatbed Ford, the man who loved me owned a Corvette. A little red one. A 1961 model that became highly sought-after, he said, decades after he had traded or sold it for something more practical.  He regretted letting it go, and every time the song came on the radio, he would tell me so – and then he would tell me again. I would pretend to understand his longing for that car and all it represented to him, but invariably the sound of Prince would drown him out, and I would find myself dancing in the shadows of a disco on a Saturday night over three decades ago.

Holy-Wisdom-Parish-2014-1061-Corvette-Converetible-or-25000-left-front-hood-550x378Just last weekend, a lifetime later, I spotted a little red Corvette parked in front of a drugstore next to Ken’s favorite breakfast place. I pulled in right next to it. It was a beauty, its cherry red paint glistening in a rare Phoenix rain. I could dismiss this as a coincidence, but I am choosing to consider it a little sign from beyond the grave that he is still around, watching out for me, perhaps frustrated that he can no longer save me from myself.

Before getting out of my car, I found my glasses and then found the song on an app on my phone. I turned it up and dancing in the driver’s seat, I listened to every word and then to the silence at the end after Prince fades away. And, I was young again.

Let’s Go Crazy.

‘Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You’re on your own

And if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy, punch a higher floor

For Prince Rogers Nelson ( June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016

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perfecting a marriage

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Photo: Annie Liebowitz

Laurie Anderson tells this story about the day she married her best friend, Lou Reed:

It was spring in 2008 when I was walking down a road in California feeling sorry for myself and talking on my cell with Lou. “There are so many things I’ve never done that I wanted to do,” I said.
“Like what?”
“You know, I never learned German, I never studied physics, I never got married.”
“Why don’t we get married?” he asked. “I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll come to Colorado. How about tomorrow?”
“Um – don’t you think tomorrow is too soon?”
“No, I don’t.”
And so the next day, we met in Boulder, Colorado, and got married in a friend’s backyard on a Saturday, wearing our old Saturday clothes, and when I had to do a show right after the ceremony, it was OK with Lou.”

Like many couples, we each constructed ways to be – strategies, and sometimes compromises, that would enable us to be part of a pair. Sometimes we lost a bit more than we were able to give, or gave up way too much, or felt abandoned. Sometimes we got really angry. But even when I was mad, I was never bored. We learned to forgive each other. And somehow, for 21 years, we tangled our minds and hearts together. 


The day Ken married me was like any other. We were not really watching TV when I suggested it.  “OK,” he said, and he put on his boots and waited for me to put on a dress I knew he liked.

I dug out the yellow pages and found a wedding chapel in an old west Phoenix neighborhood. The preacher reminded me of the old man at the bar in Field of Dreams, the one with the pale blue eyes who tells the story of Moonlight Graham and all the blue hats he never got around to giving his wife, Alicia. Like me, Alicia liked to wear blue.

In our everyday clothes and without a ring, we asked a stranger to officially witness our wedding ceremony. Then we vowed to each other that we would stay together in sickness and health, ’til death us do part. A second time around for both of us, we were unwilling to settle for anything less than the kind of love that makes you leave one life with nothing but whatever you’re wearing that day. It was easy to say and to mean to say that only death would tear us apart. Madly in love, we had no reason to suspect that cancer (mine) or aneurysms (his) would move in and turn things upside down more than once and make us resent our bodies and ourselves.  Oblivious to any possibility of dark days ahead, we filled up an ordinary November morning with a time-honored stream of extraordinary promises. We couldn’t stop smiling, and we didn’t tell a soul. Young and wild, we may as well have eloped to Gretna Green, and with our secret, we even went to work afterwards, delighting in the fact that no one else knew what we had done. Like so many of the rituals we performed every day, the act of marrying was as casual as it was important. Without fanfare or hoopla, it was ours – completely ours. Private.

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For a long time, we were answerable only to each other and did as we wished without having to worry much about other people. There were random road trips up north and to the ocean, the first of which on a hot Friday afternoon when I was desperate to smell the sea. He just told me to get in the car, and off we went to California. No map. No GPS. No bottles of water. No phone. No specific destination other than “ocean.” By nightfall, we were inhaling the salty air somewhere around Los Angeles and the next evening, we were strolling along a pier in Pismo Beach. As though putting America’s never-ending road to the test, I asked him to keep driving until we stopped by a lighthouse, the kind of place I had always thought would make a great home for us.  There, we balanced the camera on the car, set the self-timer, and took a picture of ourselves, windswept, laughing, and clinging to each other, completely unaware that a decade later, we would stand again on that very same spot on the road to Monterey, smiling for a picture that would be taken by our daughter. Then, for another decade, San Luis Obispo County – Morro Bay – would be our family’s vacation spot.

Between us, for over two decades, we created hundreds of rituals and routines – lovely and easy labors of love that came naturally, because, as my mother still reminds me, I could set my watch by Ken. I always knew where he was, what he was doing, how much he loved me, how much I exasperated him, how proud he was of accomplishments in my professional life and how much he hated the bullshit I brought into our home from that same profession. He told me he loved me every single day and at the end of every single phone call (even on days and at the end of phone calls when I was anything but lovable). Always in my corner, he was my number one fan, my lover, and the wise and best friend who told the young me whose feelings were easily hurt and who cared too much about what other people thought, that she needed to grow some “hard bark,” because she would need it one day.

Well, Ken, I need it today. I know you didn’t want me to harden; you just wanted me to toughen up. But where do we find the toughness to fully absorb the blow of your death, the finality of it? What should I say to our daughter when the grief –  boundless and unforgiving – renders her as vulnerable as a new-born?  What do I tell myself when I look up and find myself surprised – still – that you are not there with another mug of coffee or a glass of wine asking me what I’m blogging about, and wondering aloud – with a wry and worried smile – if the woman I once was would be coming back any time soon, and when she did, would she remember the man you used to be? I think we both had an inkling that maybe she would not. So maybe I should just tell the truth – if only to myself.

Each of us wrestled with the ways in which illness changed us, forcing us at the most inconvenient of times to confront our mortality,and turning us into very good liars.  We lied, I suppose, for self-preservation and out of fear, indignation or anger about our respective lots, denial, blame, and all the other words that belong in self-help books we never read, all the “psycho-babble.” Our marriage had not been perfect, but it had until then been honest. Always. Honesty was one of those non-negotiables that somehow – unbelievably – was blown asunder by illness and our response to it. We found ourselves transformed into weaker versions of ourselves that were unacceptable in light of the boldness that defined us at the beginning and for so many years. And we had been bold, starting out with courage and a chemistry that we were convinced would more than make up for the little we lacked in compatibility. We argued about little things but rarely about the big stuff, and – this is important – we never lied. We fell into a rhythm that included laughing every day and sometimes at the same old stories including the one about the first argument we ever had. It went something like this:

What’s wrong?

Nothing.

Are you sure?

Yep.

So what are you thinking about?

Nothing.

Well, it must be something. I can tell.  It’s something. Did I do something wrong? Is it about me? (I mean, isn’t it always about me?)  Can you at least tell me what it begins with? Just the first letter? Does it begin with a “Y”?

No baby. Just private thoughts. Private thoughts, baby.

Private thoughts. 

Ken knew this response would fall short of satisfying someone like me, someone hell-bent on knowing the inner details, the finer points, the “how are you really feeling” liner notes, but he never told me, and growing up and old by his side, I suppose I figured out that we all have private thoughts, secrets never to be told, things that stay deep within us, desires and differences that will not be aired – private thoughts.

Maybe most people wouldn’t admit it aloud, but Ken did. I remember how he made that first argument in the same way he once told a cashier at Pep Boys – after he’d paid in cash for new windshield wipers – that no, she could not have his address. Not that he was a conspiracy theorist, he just resented the notion of his name and address being placed on a list that would perhaps be sold to someone who would profit from it. When he detected her annoyance because he was not cooperating the way a good customer should,  Ken looked at her, deadpan, and with a twinkle in his eye, he beckoned her closer almost whispering: “I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you where I live. The cops are after me, man.”  I had to walk out of the store because I was laughing so hard.

That’s how it was, except when it wasn’t. There were times when he would insist I had lost my sense of humor, and I would argue that – au contraire – he had lost his ability to be funny. Like storms in the tiniest of teacups, these passed, and as I sit here, three years after his death, I realize there were no boring days, no days that did not shimmer for at least a moment with what had connected us at the beginning. The wall we had built did its job for just as long as was required.

We knew love. 

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Thanks to http://laurel-villa.com/ for the postcard featuring Heaney’s “Scaffolding.”

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In control – of copy & closure. Thank you, Nora Ephron.

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It was leukemia that took Nora Ephron from us, a cancer she had kept private in a world that already knew many of the intimate details of her aging neck, her dry skin, the contents of her purse, her small breasts about which she wrote A Few Words, and her weapon of choice against not only the gray hair that grows back with a vengeance every four weeks, but the youth culture in general – hair color. With a quick and daring wit, she regaled us with stories of the indignities visited upon her as she grew older, but she did not tell us about the cancer. Cancer was not up for discussion. For Ephron, cancer was not copy, as her son explains in the new HBO documentary about her life:

I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy,” he says. “That the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything is copy as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the means to control the story was to make it not exist.

I will be 53 years old in a matter of days, and it occurs to me that maybe I have always understood the need to control and contain. As much as I have revealed of myself in this virtual space, I know for sure what is not copy. For me, breast cancer was copy. It still is. Some of the business of widowhood is copy too. But I know what is not.  I know what to keep and what to discard. I know how to control it and how to control myself. Most of the time. As public as I have made many of my choices,  I know how to be private. I know how to keep what is precious, private. I know how to – as Meryl Streep says of Ephron – ‘achieve a private act.’  I also know how to avoid an ending, and I’m very good at the long game. I know what Nora Ephron’s son knows – that closure is over-rated. In fact, I cannot consider the concept without recalling the first time I realized how much it mattered to other people, following a principal’s evaluation of a lesson I’d taught. In her report, she indicated, with some disappointment, that I had provided “no closure” for my students. I didn’t bother arguing with her, because I knew I would be back in my classroom the next day and the next to continue – not to close – with my students.  It is the continuing that matters along with what I wore along the way.

Continuance – it has a nice ring to it.

Like each of the five women in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, Nora and Delia Ephron‘s stage-adaptation of Ilene Beckerman’s book by the same name, I can peer into my wardrobe and hang on the clothes and shoes and handbags and boots that bulge from it, some of the most important moments of my life. Especially the boots. For those dwelling in cooler climes, there is perhaps a 45-day window for honest boot-wearing in Phoenix, Arizona. Seriously. The sunshine is relentless, the heat is “dry,” and I can offer no justification for my growing collection of boots other than still wanting to be more like my idea of a young Carly Simon or Linda Ronstadt.  My favorite brown leather boots have a beautiful patina, best worn with the attitude I squeezed into them the morning I was fired by a man who might possibly have been great were it not for the misogyny that made him so small. Admittedly, it was not the best way to start a day, but how it pleased me to turn on the heel of those well-worn boots and walk away from him. Forever.

Then there are the boots of patchwork leather that my mother gave me; they make me feel like Carly Simon in anticipation of a date with Cat Stevens circa 1971. images-3There are the inappropriate patent leather boots I wore the first time we took our daughter to see the snow, to fall with glee into the sparkling powder, creating her first snow-angel; there are six pairs of black boots that vary only in length even though someone, most likely me, pointed out that each is a distinct shade of black and – this is important – timeless; too, there are the classic Frye boots that I simply could not pass up because they were on sale and at a consignment store; and, the pointy-toed suede knee-high boots purchased from a UK catalog at full over-priced price. They have been reheeled and resoled twice, and they require additional assistance and effort to remove from my tired feet at the end of a long day. I haven’t worn them as much since Ken died, because I know when the time comes to remove them that I will remember exactly how he used to say, “Goddammit baby. Goddammit.” And then I will tell myself there must have been a mistake, that maybe he’s not really dead.

The collection of coats defies explanation, several of them purchased in Ireland and carried back – in an extra suitcase – to the desert southwest where there is rarely the need for a sweater let alone a coat. I suppose coat-wearing allows me to make a statement about how Phoenix won’t stop me from being my own girl, complete with scarf, coat, and even a turtleneck underneath. I have other “signature” coats, one of which I will never wear in public unless Tom Petty calls and asks me to be one of his Heartbreakers.  It is more art than coat and belongs only on someone on stage in front of 50,000 fans holding up lighters. 

225596_1069916549279_6005_nDuring the Christmas holidays, I always wear the long red coat I bought at Marks and Spencers one year in Belfast. I don’t care if it is 80 degrees; that coat is a stunner, is it not?  Against the backdrop of a holiday tree made of a triangle of pots of jolly red poinsettias outside Saks Fifth Avenue at the Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix, it makes me feel a bit like Santa. Or Red Riding Hood.  

Along with the boots, and the Bridge vintage leather Gladstone doctor’s bag – which I bought on Ebay and have not been able to open for several years because the brass clasp is broken –  hiding in a corner of the closet, are burgundy leather penny loafers, with a penny in each. I haven’t worn them since 1989. I don’t remember why I bought them and don’t know why they are still in my house, but I think it might be because they are reminiscent of the brogues I once wore to school or the tap shoes I wore for Irish dancing. Or maybe I was influenced by the collegiate style of a fifth-grade American girl wearing khakis from the Gap, white socks, and her grandmother’s loafers. 

Given where I Falling In Love 1984am today –  almost 53 and with nothing to wear to a thing I don’t want to go to later – having already flung on the bed seven summery skirts that are too snug at the waist because of a diet that has deteriorated in recent months (years) and an exercise regimen postponed (abandoned), I feel a bit like Meryl Streep‘s married character getting ready for a clandestine rendezvous in the city with de Niro’s character, also married (but to someone else) in a favorite movie of mine, Falling in Love. For me, in the end, something blue wins; it always does.Even Meryl settles on a blue print blouse. In my case, it will be the blue dress I am wearing in many of the profile pictures on my online spaces. If I run into any of my social media contacts today, they will think I have nothing else to wear. And, they will be right.


 

Resurrected in her son’s documentary, Ephron is among us once again. Vibrant, funny, and in control.  I imagine her striding across a set not unlike The Strand bookstore in the East Village where all her books were almost sold out the morning after her death. In my mind, she is authoritative – and perhaps perceived as mean – as she provides direction to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, while searching for the glasses that are on top of her head. I prefer to think of her laughing with the darlings of Hollywood, surrounded by books, as in the old Jimmy Stewart movie The Shop Around the Corner, charmingly resurrected and rewritten by Ephron and her sister, as the romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail starring, naturally, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks Although by many accounts, a cynic with a sharp tongue, I suspect Nora Ephron was a romantic at heart, so it would have been poetic had real life handed her the happy ending like those she crafted in those fail-proof feel-good “chick flicks.” The happy ending would not have been real, and my guess is that Nora Ephron liked to keep it real.

Her contribution to the movies is but a tiny part of her legacy as a writer, but those films are such a big part of the soundtrack to my American life as a woman who immigrated to this country around the time When Harry met Sally was releasedGranted, it is not the most memorable part of the movie, but there is  one scene that always makes me laugh and snaps me back to the young woman I used to be, the one who shows up now and again to remind me just how little time there is to become who I am supposed to be. As I have learned, life happens in the twinkling of an eye, and it is for the living.  I have learned that too.

In the scene, Meg Ryan’s Sally has just found out that her ex-boyfriend is getting married. In tears, she tells Harry that she is going to be left on the shelf, a spinster, all alone at forty. Mind you, she is barely thirty, with a very cute hair cut that, at the time, I was convinced would work with naturally curly hair like mine. It didn’t. In fact, I carried in my wallet, for several years – maybe a decade – a page from a magazine featuring the many cute haircuts of Meg Ryan. I really did. And, for countless hairdressers rendered clueless and incompetent by the state of my hair, I unfolded that page, as though it were the Shroud of Turin, to politely asked them to give me a Meg Ryan haircut. Not until I turned 50 and found Topher at the aptly named Altered Ego salon, did they ever get it quite right, but that is a story that has been told here before. Too many times, perhaps.

And I’m gonna be 40 . . .  someday

Just yesterday I felt the same way.  Forty was a lifetime away from eighteen, and by all accounts the deadline for “letting oneself go” and, I suppose, Eileen Fisher.  Fifty was sensible and dowdy. Sixty heralded blue rinses for hair – not jeans. Seventy was out of the question, and definitely not a new fifty.  Having passed the half-century mark, I’m wondering about what I’ve done and what’s next. With my thirties behind me, my forties too, I am accepting a couple of truths about myself. Some are minor – I do not have sensible hair, and I talk too much. Others are more painful.  I should be kinder and more patient. Too, I should stay far away from insecure men in positions of power and recognize earlier those folks who are nice to me only because they need something from me. Like my hair, they perform poorly when the pressure rises.

Being in my fifth decade is a bit like being in IKEA, one of my least favorite places on the planet. A planet itself, IKEA is just too big, with all its “rooms” requiring instructions and assembly and Scandinavian words I find just as intimidating had they fallen from the lips of an errant Viking. I’m worried that I might run out of time to do the things I need to do, not necessarily the kinds of things that might turn up on a “bucket list” but definitely those that will bring me closer to those I love the most. These days, I know who loves me and who loves me not.

Still, none of this self-awareness in any way diminishes how much I resent the aging process in general and the way it just sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. One minute, I am reading the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle, the next I’m desperately seeking one of the pairs of cheap reading glasses I bought at the carwash or found on a desk, forgotten by some other woman in the same predicament. My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at very loud concerts over the past forty years than on something as wholly graceless as aging. 935607_10201295741016677_5536031_n

About six months before he died, Ken and I went to see Fleetwood Mac in Phoenix. Other than the fact that it was the last concert he saw on this earth and the last time he and I would stay for an encore, I hold on to the moment I caught a white-haired Mick Fleetwood bow out and off stage in his bright red hat, pointed red shoes, and the dangling wooden balls, and Stevie Nicks still spinning in black. Mesmerizing. Just like the white winged dove sings a song. Stevie, at almost seventy. Rock on gold dust woman.

So many beginnings and endings, with more to go . . .

Since Sophie was little, I have saved every drawing, handprint, book report, birthday card, report card, certificate, and, apparently, every receipt from Target. Not in one place, of course. Stuffed in vases and between the pages of books are random letters from the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and her grandparents. There are even pieces of notebook paper that bear only her name in the top right corner. In the spirit of those ever-so organized professional organizers on documentaries on The Learning Channel, the folks who would direct me to place everything I own on the front yard before organizing it into piles of things that should be stored, displayed, or dumped, I have realized that it is time – theoretically –  to tame the paper tiger.

Full of good intentions one day – and for about an hour – I began “organizing.” I made a few folders for my daughter’s school work and special photographs, I threw away those greeting cards that were made not by her but some stranger at Hallmark, I filled a box with books to donate to the local bookstore. While flipping through the pages of a school composition book, I came upon something my daughter had written when she was in elementary school:

I don’t know what or who inspired it. I love the leggy and winking 29 year old, hand on her hip, but I am almost afraid to ask what happened to her. I wonder what Nora Ephron would think of my little girl’s “mountain of life.”  I can almost see a wry smile creep across her face as she tells that 50 year old to straighten up for Act Two, to cause some trouble, just as she urged a bunch of Wellesley graduates in her 1996 Commencement Speech – to continue.

No closure.

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Thank you. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your life . . .

RIP Nora Ephron (1941 – 2012)

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