Saturday, January 16, 2016

At the Desk with Christiane Amanpour

She wouldn’t call it a disastrous first marriage, but it was a short, unsuccessful one. And it wouldn’t have happened at all if she was able to go to the private, more expensive university and not the state school that her father had insisted upon. “But I was accepted to BU’s Journalism School,” she argued. “Do you know how hard that is?” No matter. She was too naive and sheltered and poorly advised to realize that she could apply for grants, scholarships, loans. Now, forty years later, it still pisses her off.
If she had attended Boston University’s School of Journalism, she wouldn’t have had a failed first marriage. Maybe. On the other hand, it’s good to get a marital mistake out of the way when you’re young. She was married at nineteen; it very much could have been a disaster if her first failed marriage occurred when she was forty, and had a rich complicated life that was difficult to dismantle with kids and real estate and custody to consider. When you’re young it’s relatively easy, although you don’t know it at the time, to leave a 3 page note on the wood grain kitchen table, pack up the Toyota Corona with your clothes and books and record albums, and hit the road.
If she had gone to BU, she wouldn’t have left after freshman year because a boy she liked graduated. She would’ve gotten a summer job at Jordan Marsh and an unpaid internship at the Globe or the Phoenix where she would write, write, write.  Or, more likely fetch, fetch, fetch. She would down tumblers of scotch because that’s what reporters do. She would go out with and no doubt sleep with more than a few boys, but nothing long-term or lasting. She was going to be a serious journalist, damn it.
Not like at UMass, where she had set her sights on the tall, good looking blonde that lived on the first floor of her dorm. All the girls were crazy about him. All the girls vied for his attention. Not that she was competitive or anything, but that made her more determined to get him. Now, when she thought about it, which was not often if at all, it seemed as if this was the earlier life of some other girl. Certainly not her. She won him in the end and fairly easily; she just took her victory a bit too far when she married him.
Which led to years of clerical and secretarial jobs that bored her silly. The days of Selectric typewriters, dictaphones, and fax machines that had to be physically plugged into the telephone’s handset. Although she changed jobs every year or so, she was grateful for the decision she made senior year in high school to take typing instead of physics, despite the fact that Miss Harris, the ancient spinster science teacher who preached chemistry and physics, chased her down the high school hall yelling, “Typing? You’re ruining your future!” Physics would not have gotten her those mundane office jobs that allowed her to rent an apartment, make car payments, and buy food. She went out after work with friends and office mates to work off her post-divorce gloom. It helped.
If she had gone to BU, she would have worked for the BU News Service, writing and editing and trying to decide between print and broadcast journalism and then deciding not to decide. She would love living in a city, with its bars, libraries, bookstores, and museums, so different from the very small town she grew up in. She would study for a semester in Florence and fall in love with Italian art and the Italian language. And Italian men.
Not like UMass, where she wrote a few articles for the Daily Collegian, but then got scared when the editors started giving her more assignments. Where she thought, “I can’t do this.” Where she no longer stopped by the paper’s office or answered their phone calls. Where she used her fear and insecurity as additional reasons to leave after freshman year and not start writing again for twenty years.
If at BU, she would have gotten itchy during her senior year, just like everyone else. Eager to get out into the world. After graduation, she and her roommate would have stayed in their Fenway apartment, each feverishly mailing out resumes while bouncing from one graduation party to the next. She would maybe work for a local newspaper, covering Town Meetings and grocery store openings. Maybe she would eventually cover national, even world wide issues for a big city paper. Maybe she would have interviewed governors, senators, presidential candidates. Or maybe she would have stayed in a local newsroom, writing obituaries, working long hours into the night to meet deadline after deadline. And as she sat at her shared desk with the colleague who never changed his shirt, maybe she would wonder how she ended up here, what she was missing out on.
These days, she tells her kids the story about the missed Golden Land of Boston University and how different her life would be if she had gone there. “But Mom,” they tell her, “Then you wouldn’t have met Dad and you wouldn’t have had us.” “So? Maybe I would have married a better husband and had better kids! Who knows? Maybe I would have no husband and no kids! I could be sitting at the news desk with Christiane Amanpour!”
The three of them roll their eyes at her latest silly rant. “Who the hell is Christiane Amanpour?” one asks another and they laugh at the inanity of it all as they walk away.
She watches them go, knowing they will tease her later about her ridiculous ranting and raving, she and the kids and the husband knowing that ranting is all it was and nothing more.
She sits at her desk, opens her laptop, and continues her story.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Still Here

Descending escalators scare me. I am fine going up but not down. Add a suitcase in the airport or train station to the mix and forget about it. There is an unsureness in my legs, in my sense of balance which I first noticed about five years ago while hiking in Sedona. Navigating down Bell Rock, I turned to my husband. “I’m going to fall.” We eased our way down the mesa, with me clinging to his arm. Although in my early fifties and in relatively good physical shape, I felt ancient. My doctors think it is a lingering side effect of two rounds of chemotherapy, undergone nine years ago. “Go to the gym. Practice yoga.” I do both. It helps. Two weeks ago, alone in the flurry of Penn Station, I forced myself to ride the escalator down down down to the train platform. They still scare me, but it’s better.
A diagnosis of stage four cancer informs everything in your life thereafter. All of who and what I am today stems from that moment when I awakened to a wall of white coats telling me there was a polyp so large they couldn’t maneuver the scope around it.  After a tumultuous and terrifying year of monthly doctor visits and invasive medical treatment, there was and is now a certain clarity and acceptance of the importance of time. I know myself better. I listen to my soul, to my heart, to my now smaller gut. Not enjoying the book I’m reading? I put it down. Once, I would have never even thought of it; everything that’s begun must be finished. Instilled into my being from the time when I was learning to play Monopoly with my stepfather and sister. I would get bored, lose interest. “You must finish,” Pop insisted, after claiming the roadster as his board token and appointing himself banker. While cleaning out the house after his funeral, I came across the battered, taped up boxes of Monopoly, checkers, and backgammon shoved onto the back shelf of the front hall closet. Shaken, dust flew everywhere rattling the game pieces and shards of long ago memories.
I’ve adjusted my friends list. “You go to Italy every year? Must be nice,” a former friend said sarcastically. “It is,” I told her. Negative energy? Nope. Don’t have the time. Another who claims she wants to meet for drinks to catch up, to see how the kids are. No, she doesn’t. She wants to hear about mine so that she can feel better about hers. Clarity. It wasn’t always there.
Three years ago, we bought a mess of an antique house built in 1912. Although someone had recently lived there, it was uninhabitable. The three porches were falling off, the walls and floors were filthy, windows broken and shattered. I didn’t dare open the oven or any of the kitchen cabinets. It would have to be gutted to its studs and rebuilt, new wiring, plumbing and heating system. We knew we wanted it immediately. “You’re crazy,” friends said. “It’ll be an adventure,” I told them.  
We had lived in the same house, raising three children, for twenty three years. Two had moved out and the youngest was finishing up college. Now out of the medical fog, a sense of complacency had set in, one of stasis, replacing my previous feeling of impending catastrophe. No one gets everything she wants. But I seemed to. I thought I would die at the age of forty nine from stage four colon cancer and I’m still here. The stuff I can control about my life, I do, and I don’t worry about what I can’t control. Most of the time. Unless it’s about one of my kids. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen. Really bad. I can’t be this lucky. No one is.
Change is good. I didn’t always feel this way. Change represents life, joy, presence, challenge. Although I know anything can happen, I’m not prepared for everything that does happen.
Packing up a lifetime, storing away photos, Legos, baseball cards, art projects means I’m still here. Moving from a comfortable, suburban house surrounded by neighbors I’ve known for years, becomes a necessary next step. Maybe you should consider a less complicated move, one that will make your life simpler, I heard again and again. Why? Although sometimes wobbly descending the escalator, I’m still here.
I sit at my desk in my renovated house in a close-to-Boston neighborhood very different from my old one, trying to write, distracted by crossword puzzles and spider solitaire. I swivel in my chair at 10:30am when my neighbor Dan cracks a Bud Light on his back porch and wonder if that is the first one of the day. During an intense snowstorm, I watch the 75 year old Gordon from across the street maneuver the snowblower along his sidewalk, then gallantly cross over and clear the snow from ours.  “No big deal,” he tells me. I grab my shovel and we clear the the front steps of both houses together.
I’m cooking and need a lemon or capers or garlic, so I pick up my wallet and walk two blocks to the store. We walk to restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream stands. Our kids, who don’t own cars, can get to us more easily since we are a block away from the bus stop. The bustle of people on the sidewalks, overheard conversations, babies in strollers, barking dogs. Life.
The question “What do you do?” once made me fumble and sputter and reach for an answer, and I would describe what I used to do. I used to be in marketing. I used to write a newspaper column. I used to run a non-profit. Then, clarity descends.
I have no one, singular identity. I now interpret What do you do? literally. I write. I read a lot. I study Italian. I travel. I try to be a good wife, mother, daughter, friend. “So, basically, you do whatever you want,” a new friend commented. Yes. Yes, I do.

I’m lucky. I listened as a friend pondered how much we make our own luck and how much we are, well, randomly lucky. Thinking it’s more the latter than the former. At least those are my thoughts in this lucky place, in this lucky time.