Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Are You Waiting For? (Some Thoughts on Life Expectancy)

Last Spring, I participated in a few sessions of a women’s networking group. I was looking for ways to promote my novel, The Somebody Who, and I thought these monthly gatherings might be helpful. At the third of the three consecutive meetings I attended, I grabbed a chair that was next to a woman who was new to the group (or, at least, new to me). She was raving about something she had heard that day. She was excited because she had learned that some authority somewhere had suggested that life expectancy could be 140.

When I rolled my eyes, I must have done so audibly. When she turned to me, I apologized. “Sorry,” I said, holding up my novel. “But I’m here promoting a story about dementia. I just can’t get excited about that news.”

But she was. She really was excited by the prospect of living to be 140. And I just don’t get that.

You want to live to be 140? What? You want to take up space and resources that other, younger people need? Are you kidding? How do you envision all those extra years? You think you’re gonna have some good times? You think that, as you near the end, you’re gonna still have it together? Hell, I could be wrong; maybe you will live to be 140. Maybe, in fact, you’ll be in such good shape that you'll be able to comfort that daughter of yours. You know the one I’m talking about … think ahead: your little girl is 115, and she’s going through a rough time. But the two of you are close (who wouldn’t be after more than a century of bonding?), and so she’ll appreciate your words of motherly wisdom. She’ll appreciate your telling her, “Hang in there, honey. And don’t worry. It’ll all get better soon. The 120’s? Those are the best!

… A part of me feels that if you don’t do the first 70 right, you don’t get another 70. You just don’t. (And, if you do do the first 70 right, you don’t need another 70. Follow me?)

I know I’m weirdly cavalier about the whole lifespan thing. I remember, three or four years ago, when I was getting ready to go back to Virginia to see my folks, a friend here in L.A. said, “Remember, Katie, this might be the last time you see your Dad.”

“That’s true for all of us,” I replied. “Every time we see each other. That might be the last time.”

Case in point:

In early March of '08 (a few weeks before my Dad died), I was running an errand in the Valley. I parked my car on Ventura Boulevard, and when I went to the meter, I realized I didn’t have enough change in my wallet. I had to head back to the driver’s side of my Corolla so I could get some quarters out of the compartment just left of the steering wheel. I took a broad step off the sidewalk, and when I took the next broad step, a piece of raised pavement threw me off in a big way. I tripped, but I didn’t fall. And after I didn’t fall, I took notice of the SUV that would have flattened my head if I had fallen.

Standing there, tripped but not fallen (still alive), only one thought crossed my mind: “That’s what I’m talking about, people! That’s what I’m talking about.”

Don’t wait for your 120’s for everything to fall into place. There are too many SUVs out there.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Intuitive Jog in the Sidewalk

On a Saturday evening, back in the summer of ’02, I took a quick trip to the corner market with my friend and neighbor, Julie. The hot August day had cooled off, and the stoop in the courtyard was beckoning. To accompany the stoop, Julie and I had picked up some beer, and with our six in tow, we began to head back up the block.

This little part of Los Angeles is on the cusp of everything: Los Feliz, Hollywood, Thai Town, Little Armenia. Separating the corner market from the stoop are ten or so buildings that run the gamut. There's the large rental property that (at the time) had been abandoned since the Northridge earthquake. There's a beautiful, new complex that was built by a housing development corporation for low-income families. And there's a halfway house, which (at the time) was allowing a lot of rabbit copulation. (It seemed that every two months or so, a new generation of bunnies was hopping around the front yard.) Describing my block (even today) is difficult. Eclectic is too limiting a word, really.

There's also the sidewalk itself and the not-so-straight route it takes up the street. Tree roots have buckled the cement in several places – creating rises, angles, and tripping points. At a certain spot, about three or four buildings up from Hollywood Boulevard, the sidewalk takes a distinct jog to the left, and a rather large plant leans toward the street. The jog therefore creates a pedestrian’s blind spot.

That summer night in '02, Julie and I were at that blind spot, and so we were both surprised when we found ourselves face-to-face with a neighbor-friend. “Nick!*” Julie said, enthusiastically, when we saw him.

(I didn’t say anything, but something in my head spoke. Something in my head said, “Maybe it’s time for Nick.”)

He was on his way to the market, also in search of beer, and he invited us over to watch a movie he had rented, as well as a home movie he had shot with his teenage daughters earlier that day. We agreed to the plan, and once he had returned from his errand, we went over to his place – a small, cluttered, studio apartment in the building just north of ours.

We watched the first movie, which was feature length, and then we watched the home movie. Then, when Julie made indications that she would be heading back to her place, I decided to stay. What ensued was awkward (in my memory and in my opinion), but it was something Nick and I had to get out of the way. It also was worth it to experience that initial clumsiness. Because for the three years that followed, he and I enjoyed one of the best intimate relationships I have had in my life.

Had our relationship not unfolded, I might not have remembered hearing what I heard. I might not have remembered the "voice" that said, “Maybe it’s time for Nick.” I might not have come to view that particular location as The Intuitive Jog in the Sidewalk. But: I did hear that message. I heard it loud and clear. Its power fueled me with the audacity to remain in Nick's apartment after Julie headed home.

Was there something pre-destined about what happened that night? Nick had been a neighbor for several years. I always had felt an attraction to him. Until that night, though – until it was “time” for him – I didn’t know what to do about the attraction. Apparently, that night, I did the right thing. Anyway, it all worked out for as long as it could.

Fast Forward, April 2009: Having just returned from a week in Virginia, where I visited family and did a speaking gig regarding my first novel, I’m returning from a trip to the corner market. It’s Monday or Tuesday. I am passing the Intuitive Jog when I notice a beautiful cat crossing my path, heading from the street toward grass and shrubbery. I look to my right, and I see a few adults standing beside a double-parked car. Something in my head says: “Those people just dumped that cat.”

I turn from noticing them, and I gaze at the cat, who is looking at me. “You’re beautiful!” I say to the beast, admiring its tabby markings and large, engaging eyes. “You are so beautiful!”

A part of me wants to pick this cat up immediately and take it home, and I know that’s an odd reaction for me. I see beautiful cats all the time, but that doesn’t mean I want to bring them home. Besides, I have two beautiful cats at home.

I keep walking, and after I enter my apartment and greet the pre-existing feline conditions that grace my one-bedroom, the brief encounter is forgotten...

Thursday of that same week, I have to run a quick mid-day errand. I have to meet a client nearby and pick up some documents. We are both pressed for time, and because we are meeting in a rather low-income neighborhood (he has just done a workshop with an elementary school class), our rendezvous has all the markings of a shady deal. He barely slows his car, hands me the envelope and drives on. I then return to my car and drive back to my apartment, where I’ve got about ninety minutes to kill before I need to head out the door for my weekly gig in West Hollywood.

I climb the stairs to my apartment door, put the key in the lock, and look down. There’s a cat – a beautiful tabby cat – with its eyes wide and its arms stretched up, leaning against my door. He is indicating that he would like to come in.

I know cats. I’ve known them all my life. And one of the things I like about them is that they don’t do this sort of thing. They don’t implore. They don’t ask. They just expect. (And, generally, their expectations are met.) But this cat is asking for something (rather imploringly). It is asking to be allowed into my home.

I stop. I look at the cat. And then I say, “Hold on a minute. Don’t go away.”

I enter my apartment and shut the door on the big-eyed tabby. I scoop up girl-cat Vesta, who is napping in the living room. I put her in the bedroom, where boy-cat Griffin is already lounging on the bed. I then bring food dishes and one of the litter boxes into the room. “See you guys, later,” I say, as I pull my bedroom door shut.

I then return to the front door and open it. The big-eyed tabby cat is still there.

“Come on in,” I say.

The cat makes his entrance.

“So here’s the deal,” I tell him then. “I gotta leave in just over an hour. I’m going to keep the front door opened until then, and if you want to move on, you can. But: if you’re still here when I have to go, then this is where you’re going to be for this afternoon and evening.”

...The cat was still in my apartment when I left for my West Hollywood gig. The cat is still in my apartment today. I named him Lotto, and he’s my buddy.

The Intuitive Jog in the Sidewalk. Strange. Was that Lotto I saw that night? And was I correct in assuming that the people standing by that car had “dumped” him? Could be. If they paid more than $6.00 for their shower curtain, they probably weren’t pleased with what he can do to that particular part of bathroom d├ęcor. If their home was absent of people throughout the day, I don’t even want to think about what they returned to in the evening. Lotto needs a person to hang around. Lotto needs a person to taunt. Lotto needs, every now and then, to be told (kindly and lovingly), “Stop it, you brat!”

And maybe I needed a brat. (Vesta and Griffin are both 13.)

Here’s the other weird thing: before I left for my April trip to Virginia, I had begun a new novel. It takes place in my neighborhood and features a protagonist named Martin. In the first chapter, a tabby cat climbs in through Martin’s bedroom window (which is on a fire escape). Eventually, Martin accepts that he has been adopted, and he names the cat Dude. The part I can’t remember, though, is this: does Dude like tummy rubs because Lotto does or… vice versa? I can no longer recall the chronology.

I am sure, though, about the order of some other events. About 10 days into Lotto’s and my cohabitation, I was sitting at my work corner, reading the novel pages I had written the night before. “Something needs to happen,” I thought.

In response to this narrative need, I decided that, while Martin was on a business trip, I would have Dude fall out of Martin’s fifth-floor window. (When I lived in New York, my cat, Mort, fell out of my fourth-floor window, so I knew the drill.) I made a few notes on that score, and I put away my novel pages for the night.

The next morning, after I got up, I counted cats. Vesta: check. Griffin: check. Where’s Lotto? I looked everywhere, and then I applied some deductive reasoning. From observing his habits and interests, I had ascertained that (at the time) he liked to retreat occasionally behind the floor-length bedroom curtains. So I walked to the far side of the bedroom and pulled back the curtains. That’s when I noticed the window screen on the ground below.

Racing downstairs, I berated myself for coming up with that “fall out of the window” idea. Why did I think of that? Damnit! I walked around the building. I called his name (though, it’s a name I had only given him about three or four days before; how was he to know?)

No sign of the cat.

I came upstairs and felt despondent. I called my neighbor Debbi. “I thought he was happy here!” I told her voicemail. “Damn!”

I had brought the window screen back upstairs with me, and when I noticed that it wasn’t bent, I got more concerned. I wondered if maybe he had leaned into it, and that’s when the fall occurred. I knew, from a New York friend’s experience with a cat who had fallen a short distance, that sometimes short distances are more dangerous. With short falls, cats have less opportunity to make the aerodynamic corrections that allow them to land on their feet.

I went back outside.

This time, I looked more carefully under every shrub in the area. I checked to make sure none of the grates leading to the building’s bowels were accessible. I knew that if he were hurt, he would have crawled somewhere. He would have crawled somewhere possibly far from my grasp.

I was relieved to see that there was no way he could get underneath the building. Still, though, no sign of the cat.

I returned to my apartment, and as I prepared my first coffee of the day, I felt sad. At a loss, really. I mean, what would the sign say: “Found Cat Lost”? He wasn’t even mine. (Are cats ever “mine?” Or “yours?”)

I sighed and shrugged and thought, “Well, that was nice for a minute. Oh well.”

My coffee was ready, but I wasn’t. Not ready to give up, anyway. So I thought, “I’ll just go down to the stoop and drink it there. Maybe something will happen.”

I opened the door to my apartment, stepped out onto the small landing at the top of the stairs and looked down. Just then, coming around the corner, was that face. Beautiful tabby markings. Big eyes. Looking up in my direction.

“Get up here!” I said, with a certain degree of playful authority.

And he did.

He hasn’t left since.

I’ve begun some good relationships at The Intuitive Jog in the Sidewalk. With any luck, this one will last for more than three years…


*not his real name

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Short Letter to the Moon

Dear Moon,

I heard the news last week on NPR. Curious to learn something about the existence of water within your sphere, NASA decided to hurl a rocket at you. I am so sorry. Please know that this was not my idea, and I would never, ever approve of such a thing.

I should probably tell you that science has never been a strong suit for me. I’d attribute that status to disinterest, but that’s not accurate really. Actually, what I feel for science is awe -- inexplicable, I-can’t-even-deal-with-it awe. I mean… is it just me, or isn’t it kind of amazing that we’re all living on this big round thing that’s spinning so fast we don’t fall off?

Anyway, Moon, I think it’s really wrong that NASA hurled that rocket at you. Sure, I know, meteors are slamming you a couple times a month (or so I heard on NPR), so what’s another blemish on your already cratered landscape?

For me, the problem is that it’s a man-made blemish. For me, NASA’s decision to hurl a rocket at you was tremendously disrespectful. So, if you start messing with the tides, I’ll totally get it.

Anyway, I’m sorry. (And, by the way, if you have water, hang onto it. We people on Earth are totally disrespectful of that, too.)

Your friend always,

Katie Gates

Friday, October 9, 2009

Let's Talk About Cilantro

For years, I was paranoid. Extremely paranoid.

I’d take a bite of the gourmet concoction that was a feature of the Ford Foundation’s employee salad bar, and that would be the end of that course. (I actually would become frightened by what I had just tasted.)

I’d dip a tortilla chip into some guacamole (after my then-husband and I had moved to California), and I’d think, “okay, I really, seriously don’t like avocado.”

I’d spit a full forkful of an Indian dish into a napkin, knowing there was no way it could go further in the other direction…

And then one day, in the early ‘90’s, at the first of several L.A. nonprofits that would welcome me to their staff, I walked into the employees’ kitchen …

Joie was in there, chopping a large bushel of something green. I took a whiff, and I immediately exclaimed, “That’s what I hate! What is that?”

“Cilantro,” she replied.

What a relief to know that this green thing had a name and that it actually was a “food product” that people really liked. For years, I was convinced that some weird underground of disconnected evil types was just hell-bent on poisoning me!

Taste is a strange thing (and I’m talking only about food at the moment). Regarding cilantro, I was relieved to learn – through a dialogue I recently heard on public radio – that there’s actually a gene that makes one extremely adverse to the herb.

It’s good to have that excuse.

Regarding my other food aversions, I can’t really claim some genetic predisposition.

I recently participated in a wonderful meal event that was inspired by the movie, Julie & Julia. My friend, Maria, found a bunch of Julia Child recipes, gave us all shopping lists, and invited us over to begin the cooking at 3:00 in the afternoon. It was better than Thanksgiving. It was awesome. Those of us who contributed to the prep (i.e., the women) made things we had never made before. (We became chefs!)

I also appreciated that, during the planning, Maria had conveyed to others my aversion to mushrooms.

Her comment, apparently, had stayed in some memories. At a certain point, during the hours of prep, one of the Julie/Julia’s was slicing vegetables.

“Katie,” she asked, “do you do mushrooms?”

“Oh my,” I laughed. “Not in thirty years!”

(One of the husbands, who was washing some of the meal-prep dishes, chuckled then.)

I closed the fridge and explained myself. “It’s not an allergy,” I said. “It’s just… I don’t know. It’s like, one time, in the restaurant where I used to work – in midtown Manhattan – a tourist couple was in one of my booths. From Europe, probably. Anyway, they weren’t fluent in English. So when the man pointed to the menu – to the listing for Spinach and Mushroom Quiche – and he asked, ‘Vat eez mushroom?’, I swear for the life of me, all I could think was, It’s a fungus that grows in cowshit.”




Hands down, given the choice, I’d rather have that fungus that grows in cowshit than that poison they call cilantro!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Groucho, Gandhi, and Me: an October 2nd Story

I’m not a group person. Or, more accurately, I’m not terribly motivated within a group setting. (The virtually badgeless girl scout sash I sported in the fourth grade exists as proof.) So when my friend, Diane, asked if I would be interested in joining a theatre group, I didn’t jump at the opportunity.

It was the mid-80’s. It was New York. Diane, whom I had known since our prep school days in Virginia, was pursuing an acting career, and she was in the theatre group for that very reason. Comprising actors, actresses, directors, and writers, the collective was dedicated to staging original work. And they were always looking for writers. Diane hoped I’d bring my pen to the table.

I suppose there was a lull in the telephone dialogue (while I was trying to motivate myself to become something that I’m not). Diane jumped into that lull. “Katie,” she said, “all the men are straight.”

“When’s the next meeting?” I replied.

The thing is, I have always been attracted to right-brain men, and in New York, the idea of a theatre group filled with straight men was something I just couldn’t resist. So what if I wasn’t a “group person?” I was in my late 20’s, and finding a man was at the top of my agenda.

It took only a few weekly workshops (and the ever-popular post-workshop pitchers of beers) for me to befriend a fellow writer. Like me, Josh* was doing everything he could to get published or produced. We bonded over the struggle. We also were attracted to one another. And so one night, we left the post-workshop soiree together, and we rode the subway up to my apartment on 110th Street.

Shortly after we entered my large room, I filled in the awkward sense of what’s next? by picking up an item that had been in my Christmas stocking just two months earlier. It was one of those little desktop calendars that used to be popular: 4” by 4”; tear off the day and move on. This particular calendar was dedicated to Libras, and so each page featured that day’s horoscope. Each of the pages also included a list of three famous people born on that day. (So, in a sense, it was not an exclusively Libran accessory.)

Given that Josh and I were both writers, I was using words-on-paper to make the first move. (We needed to get the foreplay going, after all.) I flipped the pages of the calendar so as to reveal the three people born on my day (October 2nd). With pride, I showed him my list: Groucho Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, and… okay, Rex Reed. (The third name would be different today, no doubt. Kelly Ripa? Sting?)

Josh was clearly impressed, and he also felt challenged. When he held out his hand, I knew he wanted me to pass over the calendar. I did so, and he quickly found his birthday (May 10th). Together, we looked at the list. Silence. Who are these people? Truly, the list might as well have said John Doe, John Doe, and John Doe. (Had Rex Reed been born on May 10th, he would have held the number one spot.)

Josh – my fellow writer; my comrade in the struggle to be published or produced – was clearly disappointed. But he had the presence of mind to buy a little time...

He looked at his list in consternation...

He flipped back to October 2nd and looked again at my list...

He nodded (again) to convey respect...

He then returned to his list.

Then, he looked at me. “You’re gonna have to work a lot harder than I am,” he said.

*not his real name; he probably wouldn’t care, but since I haven’t been in touch with him…