Thursday, April 21, 2011

Give My Regards to Broadway

Baby June
When I was a child my best friend was Laura Robb, a girl who wanted more than anything in the world to be a great actress. Her parents were quite a bit older than mine, and had a lot more money. Their goal was to make Laura’s dreams come true, so every Saturday Laura and her mother traveled by train into New York City where Laura studied acting, elocution, modeling and anything else her parents could find to help her learn to be an actress.
    The Robb's had a pool, a rarity in our town in that era, and my main goal in life was to be in it. Laura would rather play acting. So we bargained. First we played Rapunzel, with Laura in the lead as Rapunzel, me in the supporting role as the prince, and the baby grand in Laura’s living room (she took lessons) as the castle. After a couple of rounds of Rapunzel, Laura would agree to an hour or two in the pool. And so it went, first drama, then sport. That is until the acting bug bit me.
    Sometimes I was invited to go with Laura and her mother for Saturday in New York. Her father had an apartment there, too, and sometimes we stayed overnight. From the first day I stepped foot onto the marble-tiled floor of Grand Central Station, New York became my Heaven on earth. Weekending there with Laura, was as sweet as my life got.
    We lunched at Tad’s Steak House, and saw movies at Radio City Music Hall, which in those days, featured the fabulous Rockettes. Divine! Then we taxied to Laura’s various groomers -- her orthodontist, her elocution instructor, her ballet teacher and her acting coach, the great Judith Martin. Miss Martin’s studio was in the Carnegie Hall building. Like everything else in New York, Miss Martin was incredible. I was smitten with her, her clothes, her scent, her voice. I was enchanted by everything she said and did. And it seemed she was similarly enchanted with me. I was not accustomed to an adult showing such interest in me and my ideas, which only deepened my love for the drama that was New York.

    On one Saturday I was invited to have a private chat with Miss Martin. She had an idea to propose, she told me. She wanted me to become her student. I would live with her in New York, and she would teach me to act. She was confident she could get me work in television commercials immediately, she said, and I would easily repay her for my acting lessons.  We could make a lot of money together Miss Martin said, as long as my mom and dad agreed to her plan.
    I was so excited I could barely wait to get home and report this good news to my family. Only 50 miles separated my parents' house in South Salem from Judith Martin’s grand salon in Carnegie Hall, but it might as well have been 50 million light years. Precocious though I was, progressive though they prided themselves on being, my parents were outraged at the thought of me leaving home at the age of 8 years old to seek my fame and fortune as an actress. And that was the absolute end of that.         
The most elegant man I've ever seen
    On the next Saturday morning I sat next to Mrs. Robb, in the lobby of Carnegie Hall, crying, as we waited for Laura to have her acting lesson with Miss Martin. Sick with disappointment I sobbed aloud as Mrs. Robb tried to comfort me. I had missed out on the golden opportunity of living in the sophisticated universe of Judith Martin, a person who recognized the greatness inside of me. 
    Suddenly the most elegant man I’d ever seen, tall and handsome in a dove-gray suit, was towering before me, looking down at me with questioning eyes. I looked up with my tear-stained face and he said something like “Why are you crying?” I told him that I wanted to be an actress but my parents were blocking this from happening.
    He spoke to me just as Miss Martin did, with patience and interest. And in the most distinguished voice I’d ever heard, the man told me all I would ever need to know about acting.
    “If this is what you truly want, you will be an actress,” he said.
    He said that no matter what my parents or anyone else had to say about it, I would be an actress.  If it was truly my fate it would happen because I would make it happen. Acting would be the only thing in the world I would care about. Nothing else at all would ever matter to me. It would be the one and only focus of my heart and my soul.     
    I listened, mesmerized, and silent, knowing that acting would never claim that much of me. Ever. Then I asked if he was an actor. Yes, he said. His name was George Sanders. He patted my head and strode off into the crowd.
    I dried my tears. Presto! My broken little heart was broken no longer, because suddenly I knew, with absolute certainty, that I did not want to be an actress if it meant abandoning every other deliciously fascinating thing in my life.

    One of my favorite movies is All About Eve, featuring my great teacher George Sanders. Clearly, he loved acting, at the exclusion of all else. How brilliantly he plays the heartless cad! Who else could do that without looking silly? Who else but a passionate and seasoned actor like George Sanders.
     What I did not understand that day in 1958, but I do now know, is that he was telling me something else, too. He was describing the agony of having no other choice.
    “Are you one of us?” he seemed to say. “If not, recognize it now and get out of our way.”
Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night. All About Eve
    This week my husband, who loves theater, is reading a book by James Lipton, host of Inside the Actors Studio. Lipton recounts his relationship with George Sanders, and Sanders’ heartbreak when he learned his wife was dying of cancer. Sanders cried like a baby and begged to be released from the show in which he was starring. His wife did die, and five years later, Sanders died, too. By his own hand. But before he did, he penned this note:  “Dear World: I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

You're The Cream In My Coffee

My morning cup 'o joe .  . . or whatever it is now.
Cancer changes you. When I was diagnosed with throat cancer, I was a swiller of black coffee. But radiation treatment left my throat ragged and raw, and black coffee no longer worked. So I experimented with various combinations of agents designed to mute black coffee’s shrill edge. I tried milk, half and half, heavy cream, fake sugar, real sugar, and then something new, something I call “Faux Cream.” 
    Deep in the darkest throes of cancer treatment, I found myself with a totally foreign problem. I lost interest in food. I lost an enormous amount of weight. I wore the same size jeans I had at age 20 -- which are no longer as flattering at age 60. Considering my body to be thinner than he believed to be healthy my oncologist suggested that I eat something preposterously fattening every day, like cheesecake, he suggested. Ugh, I said, not even on a good day! So just what does taste good to you? he asked. Coffee with Faux Cream. You know - the stuff they advertise on TV commercials with healthy-looking couples sharing steaming mugs of coffee, heavily doused with faux cream -- just like in a sophisticated coffee shop! I love that stuff! I told him. So drink lots of that, he said. Surely it’s full of calories.
    Suddenly Faux Cream was available everywhere! At the supermarket, of course, but also at CVS and Walgreen's, and even at the hospital where I spent four weeks having chemo infusions. My friend Brigitte, a secretary, regularly delivered to me large styrofoam cups of coffee laced with Faux Cream. They served it in the hospital cafeteria! For many weeks it was the only thing I could swallow.
Flowers in a Nescafe jar
    For months afterwards, I continued my love affair with coffee and Faux Cream. I dreamed of it every morning as I dragged my recovering body out of bed and into the kitchen. As my health and my appetite returned, I felt that I should go back to unadulterated coffee. To celebrate this return to normalcy my husband gave me a one-cup coffee maker for Christmas. Since I am the only coffee drinker in the house, it made sense that a single “pod” of coffee, expressed through the one-cup machine, would efficiently provide me with a freshly brewed cup of steaming hot coffee every time. There was a stunning array of flavors of pods to choose from. And I tried a dozen, at least, before I realized that the one-cup coffee maker, with its promise of great, black coffee was, in fact, so much weak tea. What makes my one-cup coffee maker such a flop is it’s inability to keep the coffee steaming hot. So those little cleverly designed pods of coffee grounds just didn’t have a chance to express themselves. At 50 cents a pop I want an expressive cup of coffee, capable of standing on its own, without the crutch of Faux Cream.
    Over a restaurant lunch one day, after I’d ordered my second cup of black coffee, a friend who is a doctor told me that he’d read that black coffee is believed by some to have a toxic effect on the tissues of the throat. Considering what my throat tissues have been through, it was a short trip back to my beloved Faux Cream, which comes in nonfat or non-sugared versions. Now my place of work features a great stainless steel box called the “Cow”, with three udder-like spouts, each delivering a different flavor of Faux Cream. Because of the exploding popularity of Faux Cream, the cow is often dry, particularly since it was discovered that the vanilla flavor is wonderful on instant oatmeal. Which led me to reason that instant coffee might serve as a cheap and flavorful conduit for the real deal, Faux Cream. Did you know Cafe Bustelo comes in instant? Yummy. Nescafe, I discovered online, is considered by instant coffee connoisseurs to be the best instant and I’ve found that the empty jar makes a dandy flower vase.
Celebrating my birthday with black coffee
He's the cream in my coffee
    The other day I was shopping in Winn Dixie and found this deal: Buy one bottle of the brand name Faux Cream, and get one Winn Dixie brand, same size, same flavor, for free. I did it. And yes, it tastes just as good as the brand name stuff. I’m sold. Now I get my daily caffeine via coffee crystals, enlivened with Key West’s own boiled tap water, laced with Faux Cream. I awaken daily with a Pavlovian yen for this tasty elixir.
    Yesterday was my birthday, a special occasion. We went out for breakfast. The day was bright and hot. The crepe was fine. But the coffee, brewed strong and swallowed black, while gazing into the sky-blue eyes of my lover—that was perfection.

Check this out. Copy and paste this address in your browser for the coffee song that put Marlene Dietrich in the movies.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why Youth is Wasted on the Young

A case of arrested development. Miguel and Michael clowning for my camera.
My one and only son Miguel and I were driving around Gainesville the other day. Miguel was reminiscing about his years there, pointing out various apartments he’d inhabited and locations of crazy experiences he’d had in them. I remembered visiting one of his places back then and being awakened by a phone call at 5 a.m. Miguel was asleep. I told the young lady looking for him that her pre-dawn call was in very poor taste. She did not seem impressed by my scolding.
    “Just around this curve there’s a straight part in the road,” Miguel said. “And then a bridge. We used to love speeding right through here.”
    He told me that once he’d nearly gone to jail for speeding at this spot in the road. He’d been sneaking drinks in a club. The way home took him through the aforementioned straightaway. With youthful exuberance he’d floored the gas pedal, and sped down the flat toward the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, a cop cruiser awaited.
    “Either you’re stupid or you’re drunk,” the cop had said.
    Irretrievably caught, Miguel confessed to being both stupid and drunk. When the cop asked him how much he’d had to drink, Miguel replied “just one or two,” like they do on Judge Judy. The legal drinking age was 21. He was 19.
    “I could take you to jail right now,” the cop said. “But since you’re honest and reasonable, I’m gonna give you a big ticket instead.” The speeding ticket cost him $285. 
Miguel and me. New Years Eve, 2010.
    The 32-year-old Miguel of today chuckled ruefully at the foolishness of the brash young man he’d been. Then we talked about how kids do stupid things, and what a treacherous time youth is for even the best people.
    “What will you do if someday your own son comes home with a $285 ticket for speeding over that same bridge?” I asked him.
    He sat silently, mulling over my question.
    “Maybe nothing like this will happen to your kid,” I said. “Maybe your own son will be smarter at 19 years old than you were at that age.”
    “Mom,” he said, “that's not possible.”

    He’s right. Kids do behave foolishly and impulsively and dangerously and short of tying them up at night there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. Youth is fearless. Young people live with the impunity of youth, the vast majority of them surviving their teens and growing up to become the tortured adults we call parents. I once read that this sense of reckless abandon is necessary for the human race to advance. No doubt a teenager invented the wheel. An adult would have thought such movement way too risky. The Wright brothers were teenagers when they endeavored to fly. Romeo and Juliet did it all before they were old enough for learners’ permits. Adults don’t take those kinds of risks. Only dumb kids do, and we who love them must bear witness to their absurd confidence in their own invincibility.
    “Why did you do that?” parents ask their misbehaving kids.
    “I don’t know,” their kids truthfully answer.

    The next morning, back in Key West, my husband Michael and I took our breakfast out onto the deck. As we ate I told him about the story Miguel had told me.  I said I felt like having a kid was like having a chunk of your heart out there in the world, alone and unguarded, naked and vulnerable on this ever more terrifying planet. I told him that parenting was the worst job in the world.
    “You can’t stop them from making the same universally ridiculous mistakes that you made,” I said. “They don’t hear you when you can see exactly what they’re doing wrong and tell them that you’ve already been down that road they’re traveling and the road is a dead end. You have to stand by and watch them being stupid, getting hurt, having their hearts broken, suffering . . . doing all the dumb things they don’t have to do if only they’d listen to you.”
    The sun was shining. Palm fronds clacked lazily in a soft breeze. Two doves cooed on a wire over the church across the street.
    “So now you know how God feels about his children,” Michael said.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Light My Fire

A few good men: Mike is in the black shirt. His son, and mine, is Miguel, in red,  In plaid: my husband Michael. Also standing, Grampa Mike.  If you get a chance to dance with a Cuban, do it. Thirty years later you may find yourself taking a sweet photo like this one from my collection.
Last Wednesday my son Miguel received word that his father was critically ill and hospitalized in Gainesville. We thought of driving up but Miguel said he’d go nuts driving all that way, not arriving till the early hours of the following day. So we hurriedly jumped on a plane and headed to his bedside. My ex was very ill, and we were glad we’d gotten there quickly. A crowd of family and friends, and his girlfriend Beni, as well as our son Miguel and I were there to see him through the scary night. He made it.  When I was confident that he was getting all the care and support he needed, and that he was not going to die, I decided I needed to get back home, back to my job on Friday and my PET scan on Saturday. Bad weather grounded flights out of Gainesville. So I rented a car. On Thursday I didn’t blog like I usually do. Instead I drove. And drove.
    Gainesville is 500 miles from Key West and I spent many hours on the road with nothing but the radio for company. Normally I’d be armed with a well-stocked iPod, or a talking book, or a pile of CDs. But, like I said, this was an impromptu trip and I was not prepared. I was alone, with my thoughts, and some scary interviews about the state of the world on National Public Radio. My first goal was to outdistance the horrible weather. I did. I drank fast-food coffee and felt my throat getting sore.
    Every hour or so my son called to check on my progress and update me on his father’s condition. My heart was aching for him, his worry over his father’s condition, his frustration with the confusion over what exactly was wrong with him and what was going to be done about it. The doctors and nurses seemed to have no clear answers. Everyone in his life responded differently to the shock of Mike’s illness. His father, Miguel’s grandfather, broke down and sobbed when he arrived at the hospital to see his son critically ill and barely conscious. It tore everybody to bits to see the old man so sad. The thick mesh of love we've woven through the years, the affection we share, saved us like a net when we wobbled on that awful tightrope of not knowing.

    I know a lot about being ill. I’ve been there and done a lot of that in the last couple of years. Cancer treatment is brutal and horrible to endure. But what hurts more than being ill yourself is to see someone you love suffering. I'll swap witnessing a sick loved one for being the sick loved one any day.  It doesn't hurt nearly as much. Believe me. Seeing my ex husband in a hospital bed was a sickening shock. And it hurt me deeply to witness my son’s torment and suffering. There was nothing I could say to assuage his grief. We talked about funny stuff his father had said or done. We talked to calm ourselves.
    Meanwhile, back in Key West my husband Michael -- yes, I married two guys with my same favorite name — jumped each time the phone rang, nervous at what the news might be. We talked throughout the day, too, about the fun and good things that made our lives sweet. My son told me that my ex was asked if he knew his last name. He said he thought it might be “Turner.”  It isn’t.
    “He thinks he’s Ted Turner,” I told Michael, “that’s why he spends money like he’s got lots of it.” 
    A traffic jam in Hollywood cost me two hours. I was hungry and thirsty and miserable. I had to pee. I wondered why you don’t see more people peeing on the side of the road in such situations. I remembered my mother saying, when I was a little kid, that if you peed on the side of the road you’d get a sty in your eye. Did she make that up? Or did her mother tell her that? I imagined creating a portable privacy potty, made of canvas, that could easily be erected on the side of the road to accommodate the aging bladders of people like me during traffic jams. They could come as standard feature in new cars. I see the ad on Saturday Night Live . . .

    As the sun was setting I entered the Keys and my gloom lifted ever so slightly to be back on the islands, on familiar ground. I found Keys radio stations to listen to. I watched the mile markers zip by. And as they did, I realized that my own life was zipping past, too, and that these terrifying episodes, growing more dire as we grow older, are the mile markers on the road that is my life. I ached to talk to my mother. But she died in August. I wanted desperately to talk with my friend Jennifer, whose children gleefully call us BFFs. But Jennifer was felled by a stroke in September and has not yet recovered to the point where she can talk to me in the sweet, steady voice that has steered me though so many rough spots along the way.
    Then my mind moved to that PET scan, the ultimate cancer check-up, looming on the horizon. What if it was bad? How in the world would my son handle that? Was Miguel about to become an orphan?
    On Big Pine Key, at the place where you slow to 35 miles per hour to avoid hitting a Key deer, two cars tore past me at lightening speed and another tailgated impatiently. My mood darkened. Is nothing sacred?
    Then, salvation. "Light My Fire" came on the radio. Jim Morrison. That voice. That song. That time, when music lifted me up and out of the darkness, and the agony of my '60s adolescence. Please, I prayed to the Gods of Rock 'n Roll, please, don’t let it be the abbreviated radio version. Let it be the long version, the album cut. And if it is the original version, I thought, I will know that everything is going to be OK. We will abide, just as music abides. We will live forever, just like Jim Morrison.
    It was the long version. I made it home. I made it to work Friday morning. I made it to the PET scan on Saturday morning. I did have a sore throat by then, but, the test proved, I didn’t have cancer. I don’t have cancer. Miguel’s father has remembered his name. Miguel’s sunny world is intact.  And so is mine; my fire burning bright.

        Listen to this. Have yourself a Doorgasm. Everything is gonna be all right.