In the summer of 2018, I taught a week-long workshop for The Writer’s Hotel, a conference in New York. My group of creative nonfiction students each brought the first 5,000 words of a completed memoir manuscript to the group for feedback. One of those students, Kate Nason, was an elegant woman about my age with a long swingy bob and trendy black-framed glasses. Her story was about how she reclaimed her life after it was shattered by her husband’s affair with their babysitter, and her account of it was so compelling that I was disappointed when I turned the last page of the excerpt. I wanted to keep going.
One Saturday morning my son called from Boston. We chatted briefly about this and that, and when we ran out of things to say, he asked, “So whatcha got goin’ today?”
“Just working,” I said. “You?”
I’m pretty sure if we had conferenced in my sister the CPA and his brother the musician, they would have had the same answer. And if there is no work in heaven, my father is surely furious, having nothing to do except yell at the television set. I assume there are televised sports in heaven; if not, they must have a lot of unhappy customers.
This past month I spent ten days in Austin, checking out my son Vince’s cute new house and celebrating his 31st birthday with a pool party and a really great dinner at Uchiko. Vince was born in Austin — at home, in our bed, with a midwife, which I can never stop bragging about — and now he has returned, taking his longtime girlfriend Shannon and her dog Cole with him.
While I was there, I got a haircut (I have excellent hairdressing connections in Austin), ate a somewhat embarrassing amount of Mexican food, of course drank hardly a sip of alcohol, and found a stunningly good vegan tuna salad at a little place on South Congress called the Tiny Grocer. At the always exquisite restaurant, Fonda San Miguel, established in 1975, I had flashbacks of happy hours forty-five years past. We would order half-price frozen margaritas and sit in that beautiful plant-filled anteroom eating free chips and salsa as long as humanly possible. Margaritas, chips, and and salsa are what got me to move to Texas in the first place. That is not an exaggeration.
I took a long, hot walk through Dick Nichols Park with Vince and our two dogs, amazed to discover a butterfly garden in its inner heart. I visited the Austin Public Library, which is just as breathtaking as the Austin Proper luxury hotel across the street. One is free and one costs at least four hundred dollars a night. I love that.
At first I could not understand why everyone was so excited about the cicadas. They’re coming, they’re coming, wait for it, they’re coming — then suddenly the ground was riddled with bullet holes and the air filled with insect sirens. Out crawled the nymphs and stuck themselves to the foliage shoulder to shoulder, much the way the cockroaches used to coat the counters and floors of the otherwise charming little shacks we rented in Austin in the late 70s, only the cicadas do not run when you slam the door and turn on the lights. Instead, they wildly shrill their unceasing raucous chorus, an aural carpet-bomb of car alarms and can openers.
My friend Martha Thomas died last week at 60 after a short, vicious experience with cancer. A seizure in January led to the diagnosis of a glioblastoma tumor in a part of her brain that would not permit surgery and made treatment unlikely to have results. She was living in Easton, Maryland, and at the time she fell ill I had not seen her for a while, with geography, pandemic, and the ups and downs of our long, complicated friendship all playing a role.
Trigger warning: If you don’t want to hear a very lucky and privileged person who should be making gratitude lists or at the very least doing something more useful than bitching about their pandemic experience bitch about their pandemic experience, you are advised to stop reading now.
Let us begin by recalling the story of Dorian Gray, as conceived in 1890 by the great playwright, poet and wit Oscar Wilde. Dorian was a hot young honey who sat for a life-size portrait by his painter friend Basil. Not long after the painting was completed, Dorian started hanging out with a crowd of hedonists, sensualists, and Eurotrash, and gradually began to pay the price of fast living. One hungover morning, staring blearily at his portrait, he realized that he would soon be growing old and ugly and yet the image in the painting would remain perfect. If only it could be the opposite! This wish became a curse, and over the years, as Dorian continued his carousing, he stayed young and beautiful while the image in the portrait grew blemished, haggard and hideous.
The world has changed a lot in the past couple decades, as you’ve surely noticed, and especially since about 2015, with #metoo and Black Lives Matter and the introduction of “they” as a singular pronoun and so much more. If you watch a television show or movie from the nineties or aughts, it’s almost unbelievable what was considered acceptable then. West Wing, which I am slowly working my way through for the first time, seems like it comes from another era altogether, when hordes of white men benevolently ran the world, and the media kept them honest, and a tiny handful of attractive women and black people brought them coffee.
Let’s get into the Wayback Machine and return to February 2006, when there was still a vibrant magazine industry. One of the many women’s magazines it included was called Redbook (founded in 1903, it made it all the way to 2019.) For the Valentine’s issue, this lucky freelancer was commissioned to write an article about amateur matchmaking — an art that was about to nearly disappear under an avalanche of dating sites and dating apps. For this, I was paid a now unthinkable $1/word.
So far my high hopes for 2021 seem like major magical thinking, though I guess there is still a lot of year left. I only wish I felt like the captain of my destiny. I wish I could let go of everything that sucked about last year and start fresh in a completely different place. Like a remote beach in Thailand, perhaps.
Probably there is some way that these aches could be translated into New Year’s resolutions — off to Thailand! someday! — but resolve is the thing I need to resolve about. I feel like a blob. I haven’t had that thought in a long time but I used to have it all day every day in my early adolescence, when everything about me, physically, mentally, and emotionally seemed to be a hopeless sloppy mess. It’s nice to feel connected to my younger self. Depression as nostalgia.
I have been dreaming often about my parents; last night I was going back and forth with my dad about mailing a box of books I left in the house on Dwight Drive. It amazes me how they live inside me forever, the way I Dream of Jeannie and Larry Hagman lived in the TV when I was seven, putting on their show for us once a week and never changing a bit. To think that the premise of that show was a grown woman living in a bottle wearing a velvet brocade brassiere, unloved love slave to an idiot astronaut, never using her magic powers to change her own life — oy. And how we adored this show! Who can believe it even existed in our lifetime?