Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Quite Possibly the Youngest Soul on the Planet

He so easily could have been a brat.

The fifth child in a Virginia family, he was born to three older sisters and an older brother. And because the family was so very Virginian, the girls ruled.

They ruled.

Oh my gracious, how they loved their “Bob-o-link!”

Were he alive today, my dad would grimace, scoldingly, at the nickname. (He also probably would curse.)

Were he alive today, that scolding grimace (and accompanying four-letter word) would probably be the only time you’d recognize something other than childlike wonder emanating from his face.

My dad died two years ago yesterday, and in writing this, I’m not seeking either to expel personal emotions or to solicit condolences.

I’m just writing to honor his life.

I also should say that I was relieved when he died.

I was relieved because, for the last few years of his life, he was very frail. His needs were taxing my mom. He needed to die.

As for the years that came ahead of those? I have one vision: Dad, with eyebrows raised and a jaw dropped just enough to create an “O” with his mouth.

My vision is Dad, amazed.

I’m not kidding.

Robbins (“Bob-o-link”) Gates was born – and probably died – amazed.

I remember one time when he and Mom visited me in New York. We were having dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue , and my parents were expressing curiosity following some bad vibes that had just occurred with friends of theirs – friends with whom they’d shared a rented house on Cape Cod.

I had been in that house for one week of the two-week rental. I knew the players. And so, after listening to Mom and Dad’s description of events, I shared my perspective.

Eyebrows raised, mouth slightly opened, my dad looked across the table at me.

“How did you get to be so wise?” he asked.

I smiled, shrugged, and offered that I had simply observed.

I don’t know that I got my wisdom from Dad, but I know I got some serious DNA. My soul may be older than his, but I think a part of me still inherited that beautiful wonder.

It is because of Dad that I want to learn.

It is because of Dad that I am never sure.

It is because of Dad that I feel the world is my oyster.

I may have been born old, but because of Dad, I get to feel young.

So, Dad?

Wherever you are.

Keep being amazed.

It is your sense of wonder that keeps us all going, and we need that.


POSTSCRIPT: Gratitude to my sister, Martha, for providing the first line.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Remembering Busy

When I was a kid, I was hell-bent on interpreting everything literally.

At bedtime, my mom would sweetly ask, “Want me to tuck you in?”

My reply was not so sweet.

“You don’t tuck me in, Mother,” I’d say. “You tuck the sheets in.”

Somehow, and in spite of my flippancy, Mom maintained her smile and exuded her love as she performed the ritual.

The next morning, after a sound sleep (thanks, no doubt, to being properly tucked in), I’d head off to school, where the day would begin with roll call. The teacher would go through the class roster, reciting names in alphabetical order. As each name was called, the appropriate classmate would respond.

Some would say “present.” Others would say “here.”

As for me, I always said “here.”

Okay, not always… There was one exception. On that last school day before the Christmas break, I said, “present.” Why? You guessed it. I’d brought the teacher a present.

Is it any wonder I went through an I-wanna-be-a-teacher phase? I mean, what kid can resist the prospect of so many presents every day?!)

I grew out of being tucked in when the age was appropriate, and by the end of first grade, I’d become wise to the meaning of “present” in response to roll call. It took me a bit longer, though, to comprehend fully the telephone’s “busy signal.”

I should mention, at this point, that if you’re a young person reading this piece, the rest of what I’m about to say may go over your head. Which is to say, if you’ve never lived with a “busy signal,” you need to do a little research before reading on.

As for those of you who remember that tone-tone-tone, I’ll pick up my story now.

I recall sitting in our kitchen, dangling my legs from one of the tall stools that surrounded the half-oval counter. Dad was probably sitting on one of the other stools. I don’t know where my sister was at the time. I imagine it was a before-dinner hour. It was relaxed and anybody’s.

My mom had just dialed her friend’s five-digit number on the rotary phone. Several seconds later, she returned the phone to its cradle. “They’re busy,” she said. Then, she crossed to the stove to continue dinner prep.

Although I’d personally experienced the tone-tone-tone of the busy signal, my mother’s wording really threw me off. Her stating “they’re busy” gave the signal new meaning.

As I sat there with dangling legs, I felt truly perplexed. All I could think of was, How does the phone company know they’re too busy to talk on the phone?

What a concept today, huh?

“Too busy to talk on the phone?”

No way!

You can drive, shop, have a meeting, get your nails done, do your laundry, prep your taxes, check out craigslist, change the kitty litter, sign up for Netflix, consult your horoscope, remember the Alamo, and you still are not too busy to talk on the phone.

… Recently, when speaking with a friend (on the phone), I referred to what I was doing as “juggling.” It’s true. That’s what I do. I never say I’m busy. I say I’m “juggling.”

And you know what?

I’d rather be busy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hormones from Hell

The first symptom of menopause came early to me.

I was not quite 39 when I started having hot flashes. And while they were tremendously uncomfortable, I gradually learned how to deal with them. It’s about dressing in layers. It’s about getting ahead of the surge.

By my mid-40’s, I was nonplussed by my body’s unique sense of seasons, and I had no qualms about making public adjustments. Onlookers be damned, I’m going to take this jacket off and put it back on as many times as I please.

The next symptom presented itself as what I call “word issues.” While I rarely had challenges at the keyboard, I would find myself frequently stumped in live conversation. I’d be in the middle of a statement, and I’d feel compelled to stop.

“The next word,” I would say to my listener, “is an adjective. It has three syllables, and several R’s…”

A few more years passed and another manifestation of menopause became apparent: insomnia. Now, I must admit that for me, this symptom is a bit hard to detect. Fact of the matter is, I am relentlessly nocturnal. (I have been since I was a kid.) Particularly when I am on a creative jag, my productivity soars when everyone else is sound asleep.

For right-brain activity, I love the nine-to-five shift that begins after most people have had dinner. BUT, if I would rather sleep during the nighttime hours, I deeply resent my inability to do so.

(Moreover, as I watch late-night television, which features countless commercials for sleep aids, I apply that resentment to the ad copy. I don’t know which of the drugs boasts enabling one “to sleep in a non-habit-forming way,” but whenever I hear that line, I absolutely want to scream. I already sleep in a non-habit-forming way!)

Speaking of wanting to scream, this is where it’s become dicey. A couple of years ago, when I was dealing “only” with the hot flashes, the word losses, and the insomnia, I thought I was doing okay with menopause. I figured those symptoms were my cross to bear, and I was glad that no one else was suffering.

But then, SHE returned. The PMS bitch. The woman with absolutely no patience for anything.

I have a favorite anecdote that best describes the PMS bitch. It comes (as so many favorite anecdotes do) from my years as a waitress. Okay, so picture this: I’m working my station at my midtown Manhattan lunch place. It’s the informal, burger-in-a-basket type of restaurant, and the day in question is one of the month’s majority of days – which is to say, I am not in need of an exorcist. I pleasantly approach the party of four who are sitting in one of my booths. I deliver the four burger baskets, and one of the gentlemen looks up to catch my eye.

“Could I have a slice of raw onion?” he asks.

“Absolutely,” I reply, smiling. “I wouldn’t think of enjoying a burger without a raw onion!”

I then skip merrily to the kitchen where I retrieve the succulent garnish, and I deliver it to him quickly and cheerfully.

Okay. Same scenario on one of two days during that same month:

I pissily approach the booth where four obnoxious, irritating people are taking up space in my station. I slam their burgers down in front of them.

One of the jerks looks up at me and asks for a raw onion.

I sneer at him, make an abrupt about-face, and stomp back to the kitchen. En route, I mutter, “Fucking asshole should have asked for the onion when he ordered the burger.”

Notice the difference? (I realize it’s subtle; feel free to read those paragraphs a second time…)

Needless to say, I never liked that hormonal so-and-so who used to possess my body and spirit on a monthly basis for anywhere between 24 and 48 hours. But at least I knew when to expect her, and I knew that she would leave fairly shortly. I also knew that she wasn’t me, and that I could control – to a degree – how much she interacted with others.

That bitch is still not me, but she has become the fourth manifestation of menopause. The problem now is that she has absolutely no schedule. Soy as I might*, I cannot control or anticipate her arrival. She just shows up (most recently, in Rite Aid, when I was trying to find cotton balls).

The good news, I guess, is that she doesn’t seem to stay for very long. For that matter, I sometimes go an entire two months without a visit from the hormonal hellion.

But still… I don’t like her, and I am so over this stuff!

My sister once theorized that all these menopausal issues prove that God is a man. Her reasoning? A woman would not do this to another woman.

I don’t know… it might depend on that woman’s “time of the month.”

But I shouldn’t imply that I’m at odds with my sister’s sense of feminism. In fact, I share it. In fact, I have my own theory around the same general subject area. I believe that if men had periods, tampons would not only be free, they’d be delivered. And by now, the boys in charge undoubtedly would have found a “cure” for menopause.


*Yes, I meant to say “Soy.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Earthlink, We Have a Problem

Last Friday, a friend called and asked if I was okay. She had sent me two fairly time-sensitive emails over the course of two weeks, and she hadn’t heard from me.

I appreciated her concern and let her know that I was fine (notwithstanding the state of the world). I also shared with her that I had replied to her emails shortly after receiving them. For some reason, though, she never got those replies.

She and I both have Earthlink accounts, so I became curious. I sent myself a test email, and while it showed up in my Sent file, it never reached my Inbox. Hmm….

I went online to the Support Center and saw alerts regarding email outages and a large volume of calls. I figured they were “on it” and didn’t pursue it further. Besides, it was the beginning of Oscar weekend, so I had things to do. You know… prepare a speech, borrow some baubles from Harry Winston, consult with Vera regarding the length of my train, decide on an updo, all that stuff. (And on another astral plane, I had to clean my low-rent apartment in advance of friends gathering ‘round the telecast.)

By Monday, I was ready to get back to my life outside the Academy, and I still was not receiving test emails. I headed to the online Support Center. Seeing no indication of outage alerts, I pushed the buttons that would begin my live chat with a techie named George.

Devoted to the script in front of him, George began his end of our cyber-logue by apologizing for the inconvenience. Then, over the course of 30 minutes or so, he coached me through some maneuvers, ultimately enabling me to receive a test email. Problem solved?

I closed the window on George and did another test. No sale. The problem persisted.

I won’t go into the details of my subsequent pursuits of technical support, but by the end of the day, I had spent about six hours with Earthlink. I tried an actual telephone conversation following the first chat with George, and when that didn't resolve the issue, I returned to online live chatting, the fourth session ending well after midnight. But whether I was communicating with George, Paul, John, or Ringo, the lines they typed were always the same: “I apologize for the inconvenience;” “the problem is solved;” “you will not have this problem again;” etc.

Apparently, there is no statement on their script that says something to the effect of, “We have no idea how to solve this problem, but we’ll do our best to figure it out and we appreciate your patience.”

The thing is, the problem itself is really minor, as computer issues go. I seem to be getting all my other email, and others are receiving mine. I also now know where to look for the emails that are not making it into my inbox. So that part is not so frustrating. What frustrates me is that this feels like another instance of corporate unwillingness to confront a problem candidly.

Granted, Earthlink issues do not lead to cars speeding out of control, and there’s no threat to life here, but please, don’t blame the floormat if it’s not the floormat’s fault. And if you don’t know what the problem is, quit pretending that you can solve it.

Own up, people! Believe me, I’m not looking for perfection. If I were, I’d have to start with myself, and if I ever tell you that I’m taking that on, well… that’s just a load of spam.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The High Cost of Low Rent

Back when I lived in New York, there were always neighbors whose rent I envied. On Broadway and 108th Street – my first post-college digs – a dynamic guy named Manny lived next door. He had an expansive corner unit that was easily half-again the size of the apartment my roommate and I shared. And because he’d been there for way more than a few years, Manny’s rent was dirt cheap – significantly lower, anyway, than what my roommate and I were forking over for an airshaft view.

Three apartments and about eight years later, I was living in Brooklyn, on the edge of Park Slope. My then-husband referred to our area as “Park Slop,” and he did have a point in designating it as such. But, we were close enough to the hub of trendiness. High-end retail venues and a variety of great restaurants were just two blocks up First Street, and beyond that were the types of brownstones that inspire one to play Lotto regularly.

When we moved to “the Slope,” we committed to a rent that would soon cross the $1,000 mark. I realize that seems incredibly low by today’s standards, but at the time, it was average, and insofar as my husband and I were the starving-artist types, average was a stretch.

As for the building’s average, that’s another issue. Within weeks, I was once again envying the next door neighbors.

Okay, I probably should clarify that. I didn’t actually envy Blanche and Maria. I envied their rent. Thanks to rent control, they paid about $175 a month. Of course, I should mention that this mother and daughter combo had a relatively small one-bedroom, whereas my husband and I had a fairly spacious two-bedroom. So, while my husband and I chose to share a bed, Blanche and Maria felt compelled to share a bed. Not an optimum situation for a two-generation family pair whose combined age exceeded 100 years. But still: a hundred and seventy-five dollars for a one-bedroom in Park Slope? Really?

Oh, how I used to envy those people who had been around for so long!

And, now… I have become that person.

I’ve lived in my Los Feliz/East Hollywood apartment for more than 15 years, and I still don’t pay as much rent as I paid in Park Slope. But the folks moving into my building? They’re paying more than that Brooklyn rent, even when you factor in the reductions my landlord has had to offer in the current economy.

Yes, I have finally become the neighbor I always envied.

But I’ve also learned that there’s a price.

When you’ve lived in a building as long as I’ve lived in this one, you find yourself saying good-bye to people who have become family. And it’s really hard to see them go.

There were glory years here, and they probably kicked in around 2001 or so. That’s when the sense of sibling-hood among four of us really solidified. It was a good feeling, going to bed at night, knowing that I shared my roof with loved ones.

But almost two years ago, Julie moved. She’s just 40 miles away, but she’s no longer under the roof…

And last weekend, Deb headed back to Colorado, where she will initially share a roof with her real siblings.

So now it’s just Tim and me. The upstairs/downstairs sibs. We were both here for several years before Julie and Deb arrived. Who knows how long either of us will stay?

I appreciate my cheap rent. I really do. Having watched the turnover around me, though, I get a little worried. I don’t want to become the old lady in the building.

But time is time.

The longer I stay, the older I get.

The longer I stay, the less likely it is that I will move.

… I tearfully bid good-bye to my younger surrogate siblings, and I wish them well as they start new journeys. I stay behind, possessing the rent I always envied.

Still, though, as I did in Park Slope, I look covetously at the real estate that is just a few blocks up the hill. I play Lotto, and I dream.