Tuesday, February 25, 2014

It's Only a Car

I need to get rid of my car.

This is not a surprise. By the time I left Maine I had already stopped driving at night if I could help it, and the availability of public transportation was a major reason for moving back to the big city. I love public transportation. Last Friday I took the Metro, cabs, and a shuttle bus to get all over the city, as my car sat unused on the lowest floor of an underground garage. I go days without even thinking about my car, though I'm still paying to insure it and it costs me $100/month to park it. Giving up the car should be a no-brainer.

So why isn't it? Why can't I even talk about getting rid of my car without starting to cry?

Foolishly, I thought I'd skipped my midlife crisis, or had it early by running off to Los Angeles in 1999, and then to Maine in 2004. I was always precocious that way, and congratulated myself that I did not need to have a midlife crisis, as I had never envisioned my life in terms of the goals that other people work toward (spouse, children, career, home-ownership, etc.), and therefore felt no corresponding anticlimax. I had gone from one career to another without any plans at all, I told myself. As long as I stay healthy I'll never have to retire, and I've never kept score the way most people do anyway. Yay me!

But here it is, and here I am, and here is this car, the last car I'll ever own, my own personal memento mori.

It's kind of stupid that the car is what's brought me here, because I never even wanted to drive. My Grandmother McLaughlin never learned how, which has become something of a family legend. I mean, she was a 20th-century woman; she died (much too young) in 1971.  I never got the chance to ask my mother, but would like to ask my aunt and uncles exactly how that worked. Even with deliveries, wouldn't she have been trapped at home? Or was she agoraphobic (one of several tendencies that run down multiple branches of my family)?

I wasn't agoraphobic, nor am I. I just didn't want to drive, and when I was 15, it seemed absurd that anyone would expect me to. It still seems absurd that we ask 15-year-olds to manage control of a multi-ton moving object. Sixteen is a ridiculously young age for a driver's license, and most American drivers (including me) get their licenses with the bare minimum of physical and mental skills required to operate an extremely dangerous piece of machinery. I was not, am not, a skillful driver. I have managed not to cause anyone personal injury. That's not a high standard.

My first car was an impulse buy, in my mid-20s. I was living in the outer suburbs, and needed a car. A friend in the Foreign Service had a colleague who was leaving the country and needed to sell her car cheap. I got what I paid for: a 10-year-old brown Mercury Lynx that had never been maintained and died on the street about three weeks after I acquired it.

My next car was a new car, and heavy with symbolism. It was a Saturn, the union-built model from Tennessee that was supposed to save the American car industry. I bought a four-door sedan, because I was dating someone I thought I might marry, and it seemed practical to buy a car that would eventually accommodate a car seat. The relationship ended within weeks of my buying the car; although breaking up wasn't my idea, in retrospect I think the car showed me that I didn't need him. That car lasted seven years — longer, or at least more stable, than any romantic relationship I've had — and took me across the country to Los Angeles, where I sold it to a friend because everyone knows you can't drive a stick shift in L.A.

The current car, the Blueberrymobile, was purchased new in Santa Monica after a legitimate, well-reasoned search (assisted by my cousins Sheila and Moira). The travails and triumphs of that car are well-known to longtime readers of this blog. Suffice to say that although I have not always been the most responsible owner, the car has gotten me from West to East, from North to South, and has earned a good long rest.

The car is just a car. But it's also my personal history, my independence, and my optimism. Giving it up means acknowledging that I will, in the foreseeable future, become less mobile, less independent, less free and eventually dead. This is not a tragedy; this is life. I've been extraordinarily lucky to have everything I've had for as long as I've had it — and most of all I want the dignity of not being the last to know I need to get off the road.

So: For Sale. 2000 VW Beetle, approximately 156,000 miles, one owner. Any reasonable offer considered.

Friday, February 07, 2014

My Month of Women's Fiction

Somewhere in the third week of January I became aware that except for my clients' work, everything I'd read since the beginning of the year was a novel written by a woman. Nothing about this was deliberate; these just happened to be the books I wanted to read, and they all just happened to be written by women.

Reasons for reading are as numerous and varied as humans themselves. Whatever other motives I might have, entertainment always comes first. I no longer finish books I don't enjoy — that's a privilege I claim in middle age — so although I enjoyed some of these books more than others, you can take this as a set of recommendations.

What I Read in January

Rebecca Chance, BAD ANGELS. "Rebecca Chance" is the glamorous alter ego of novelist Lauren Milne Henderson. Lauren writes crime, while Rebecca writes what she calls "bonk-busters," epic novels of love and money in the tradition of Judith Krantz and Jacqueline Susann. It had been way too long since I'd read a book like this, and it was perfect for New Year's Day: a Christmas-themed romantic thriller set in a Canary Wharf apartment that houses people recovering from plastic surgery. Fabulous, darling.

Louise Penny, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT. I'd stopped reading Penny's Inspector Gamache series after a book I felt did not play fair with its characters or the reader. I returned to this book because the story revolves around my favorite character in the series, the middle-aged artist Clara Morrow, whose professional triumph is obscured by the murder of a woman who turns out to be a long-estranged friend. Penny settles for no easy answers here, and the murder mystery is secondary to the more complex mysteries of envy, love, professional jealousy, addiction, forgiveness and redemption. It was good to be back in Three Pines.

Joanna Trollope, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. This book almost got a blog post all by itself, and I may yet come back to it. This is the first book in The Austen Project, a contemporary reworking of Jane Austen's novels by some of today's best writers. Trollope's always an entertaining read, but even her skills can't disguise the failure of The Austen Project's premise. The financial and social pressures that drove Austen's characters were entirely different from those today's women face. In simply importing Austen's story to the present day, Trollope makes her characters (with the exception of Elinor) behave in ways that challenged belief and tried my patience. That said, I'm very curious about what Val McDermid does with the second book in the project, NORTHANGER ABBEY.

P. L. Travers, MARY POPPINS. "Saving Mr. Banks" sent me back to this book, which I'd loved as a child. It's as good as I remembered it, especially the sequence in which the infant twins lose their ability to talk to the birds. That made me cry when I first read it, and I still grieve over my own lost ability to converse with birds.

Joelle Charbonneau, THE TESTING. The first book in Charbonneau's trilogy for young adults introduces Cia Vale, who desperately wants to be one of the handful of students chosen for higher education in a future society devastated by war. Only the strongest and most intelligent can pass The Testing, which involves more than Cia can imagine. Yes, it has a lot in common with THE HUNGER GAMES, but Charbonneau's dystopia is interesting, and the story speeds like a rocket.

Joyce Carol Oates, THE ACCURSED. Another book that could have a blog post to itself, the story of one doomed year in the life of a prominent Princeton, New Jersey family during the time of Woodrow Wilson's presidency of Princeton. I started this last summer, but could not give it the attention it deserved, and had to return it to the library before I could finish it. After I downloaded a copy when it went on sale for Kindle, I spent every free moment for a week finishing it. Stephen King called it "E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle," and I can't describe it better than that. It is an epic, sprawling historical novel about class distinctions and suppressed desires and Jungian monsters, and I'd take a class on it if anyone wanted to teach one.

Alison Gaylin, REALITY ENDS HERE. Gaylin's first novel for young adults is the story of Estella Blanchard, half-sister of the famous Blanchard sextuplets and co-star of one of TV's most popular reality shows. When Estella gets a Christmas present that seems to be from her father, who died ten years earlier, she is overwhelmed by the thought that he might still be alive. Her quest for the truth shakes everything she thinks she knows about her family, even behind the scenes. Estella is a terrific character, and the descriptions of the mechanics of the TV show are fascinating.

Charlotte Jay, BEAT NOT THE BONES. The very first winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel was this second novel by an Australian writer whose real name was Geraldine Halls. BEAT NOT THE BONES is a deceptively simple book about a young widow's trip to New Guinea in an effort to prove that her husband, New Guinea's Chief Anthropologist, did not commit suicide. Her quest for the truth takes her deep into the jungle, to discover truths as horrifying as anything Joseph Conrad ever wrote.

Susan Wittig Albert, THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE TEXAS STAR. A charming cozy mystery set in Darling, Alabama in the 1930s, just as the effects of the Depression settle in. The Dahlias are the town's gardening club, and the Texas Star is a daredevil female pilot whose arrival in town wreaks havoc in more ways than one.

Joshilyn Jackson, SOMEONE ELSE'S LOVE STORY.  Single mother Shandi Pierce falls in love with William Ashe after they are held up at gunpoint in a gas station outside Atlanta. William's mourning the loss of his wife and daughter, and Shandi thinks he holds the answers to all her questions. As it turns out, she may not be asking the right questions, and the answers she gets will be not the ones she wants but the ones she needs. A lovely, lovely book about people stumbling toward redemption. I can't explain how or why this felt like exactly the right book at the right time, but it did.

Sue Monk Kidd, THE INVENTION OF WINGS. I didn't read this because Oprah's chosen it for her Book Club 2.0, but I understand why she did. It's a gorgeous historical saga about the lifelong bond between Sarah Grimke and Hetty, the slave girl given to her as a personal maid on Sarah's 11th birthday. Sarah Grimke and her sister, Angelina, were real-life pioneers of the abolition movement. THE INVENTION OF WINGS imagines the journey that took them there, while also telling the story from Hetty's point of view. Brilliantly constructed, beautifully written, inspiring.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Saying Yes, Saying No and the Tragedy of Humanity

I say yes a lot. It's overcompensation for a temperament that is pathologically change-averse, and would gladly go nowhere and do nothing and stay in my bedroom reading the books people sent me until I ran out of food. (I do run out of food on a regular basis, so at least I'd go out sometimes. Although now I live in Peapod country, so maybe not.)

Saying yes has been a mostly winning strategy. It's gotten me into a certain amount of trouble, but it's also let me have a pretty fabulous life. I know a lot of interesting people and I've watched, if not actually done, a lot of interesting things. I told my boss 25 years ago that I wanted to learn as much as I could about as many different things as I could, and I've been able to pursue that goal pretty well.

Over the past week, however, I've had a few too many reminders that you can't say yes to everything, and it's not a good idea to try. Adulthood is all about knowing when and how to say no, and what to say no to — because if you can't do it for yourself, the universe will damn well do it for you.

I didn't know Philip Seymour Hoffman, except in the way that we all knew Philip Seymour Hoffman. Because didn't you feel like you knew Philip Seymour Hoffman? I did. He was close to my own age, and he looked like someone I might be related to. He talked like someone I might be related to, about things I cared about and was interested in. He felt like a member of my tribe, the group of people trying to figure out how and who to be in this world.

Yesterday afternoon, like everyone else, I wanted to believe that the news of his death was a hoax. A cruel, horrifying hoax would be better than what the truth turned out to be. A 46-year-old man died, leaving three small children and a partner and a world of people who loved him but could not give him whatever it was he needed.

Humans are small, and the universe is vast beyond our imagination. We have such a narrow window on things, and such a short time to be here. The Internet Movie Database says that Philip Seymour Hoffman played 63 different screen roles in less than 25 years, and that doesn't count his iconic stage performances or the plays and movies he produced and directed. He said yes to everything. In doing so he got to live so many lives that were far, far from the reality of his daily life — but he lost his footing in the life that mattered most, the daily struggle to connect with the live human beings who had the right to expect his presence and his engagement.

It's hard to know whether addiction was the cause or the effect of that, and it doesn't really matter. Addiction might start as a yes to a new and interesting experience, but continue as an easy way to say no when you don't know how to do it otherwise — to step out, to turn off, to shut down, to absent oneself from care a while. The drug says no, so you don't have to.

I turned down a project last week for the first time in a few years. I wasn't right for it, and it wasn't right for me. I might say no to a few other things this week. Saying no terrifies me because it feels like holding myself separate from something (or someone) that might need me, and if no one needs me, why am I here? But this is the constant battle, this is the fight of humans on this planet — the quest for that point of equilibrium at which we can say yes to enough to connect, while saying no to enough to stay whole.

Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn't find that point. Maybe none of us can. But today, while I travel up to New York City, I might watch Magnolia again.