nonBlog – December 2009

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25 Things About Me, Even Though You Didn’t Ask—Sunday, December 27, 2009

It’s nearly the end of 2009, which means it’s time to clear the decks for another year. In our era this usually entails clearing out your computer. I was hunting through my file of ideas and writing notes from the last few months, and I came upon this list. I wrote it during the Facebook “25 Things About Me” craze, but I didn’t post it because the backlash had already begun, and on Facebook, backlashes are not a pretty sight. So for what it’s worth:
1. I am the oldest of three girls and I gave birth to three girls. I was hoping for boys so I wouldn't be tempted to make the same mistakes my parents did, but now that I have three girls myself I understand that it's part of my life's work to raise them differently.
2. My single biggest regret is having wasted my time at Dartmouth. Once I got there, I didn't know what in the heck to do with myself. I spent the years from freshman spring until graduation in what I now understand to be a near-clinical depression.
3. Close friends who know the details of my childhood are always telling me how surprised they are that I'm not more screwed up.
4. If I never had to talk on the phone again for as long as I live, I'd die happy. I can only maintain friendships—even long-distance relationships—with people who love me enough to text, email, or see me in person.
5. I have never knowingly slept with a Republican.
6. My resting pulse is 50 beats per minute.
7. I've never tried a single illegal drug, not even pot. I don't drink hard liquor either.
8. When my dead father wants me to know that he's watching over me, he sends me someone from one of the two Long Island towns where I grew up. On the day Dad would have turned 70, my childhood babysitter contacted me after 31 years for no good reason.
9. I am a very spiritual opponent of organized religion.
10. I wake up every morning excited about what I get to do that day, no matter what it is.
11. If I could watch only one movie for the rest of my life, it would be Kevin Reynolds’ 1985 film “Fandango,” which most people know as a coming-of-age film but which I consider to be about the kind of heartbreak you never exactly recover from.
12. I don't have the least bit of talent as a runner, but when I tore a ligament in my hip and was told I could never run again, I cried like a baby. I miss it every single day.
13. For the parlor game “Identity” in which you make a list of who you are, I would have to put “writer” before I’d put “mother” or “wife,” even though I suspect that makes me a bad person.
14. My last name is Dutch, a shortened version of Cornelius, and our family has been in America since the 1600's. My middle name, Kip, is Dutch as well. It means chicken.
15. I live in fear that something will go awry and I won't be able to live in San Francisco anymore.
16. In the fall, I miss the turning leaves and autumn smells of New York terribly.
17. I didn't have the first idea about how to dress until I was 42 and hired a stylist to teach me.
18. If I could, I would drink champagne every night.
19. I love to cook dinner for friends but I've never thrown a cocktail party because I'm convinced it would be a disaster.
20. Since the age of 11 I've suffered from shyness so debilitating that it has had an impact on every area of my life, but when I tell people that's the problem they never believe me.
21. As a baby I started sleeping in a folded-over lotus position, which doctors ordered me to stop doing when I was 37, and to this day I can easily put both of my legs behind my head.
22. I'm mortified that Tom and I gave our oldest and youngest daughters, Olivia and Ava, such popular names. But I still adore the name Greta and I'm relieved it hasn't shot to the top 10 too.
23. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of etiquette and have to stop myself from judging people who don't follow the rules.
24. I have a giant spatial relations deficit that gets in the way of everything from driving to dancing to math, but it doesn't bother me because I don't know what it would feel like to live without it.
25. I wish I were just a little taller.

What Wrinkles?—Saturday, December 19, 2009

Our oldest daughter Olivia turned 15 yesterday, and since I gave birth to her just shy of my 30th birthday, that means I’m headed for the midpoint of my likely lifespan when it’s my turn for a birthday a few weeks from now. People have been asking me how I feel about the above milestones, and I keep having the same odd reaction to the question—some version of What do you mean? or Why are you asking? But I realize that the question is what’s normal and my reaction is what’s off, which means it’s time for a blog. Oh, and the reason for my off reaction has to do with the answer to a third question I’ve been asked recently, which is, “What’s the other story about why you’re not afraid to die?” (See my entry for December 2nd if you don’t know what I’m referring to.) I realize it doesn’t sound like these three events could possibly relate to each other, but you’ll have to bear with me for a moment.
Last answer first. The other story about why I’m genuinely not scared of death is that I thought I was about to die in a car once and it wasn’t that bad. Tom and I were driving to Yosemite to climb Half Dome, and it was the last weekend the cables were up before the onset of winter ended the climbing season. La la la we’re rolling along on October 4th or so on dry roads, when all of a sudden we’re driving on snow. The transition was that quick. We started to skid, and the car spun 180 degrees to the edge of the opposite side of the road. I looked to my right and immediately below me was a cliff we were about to go over. I knew we were going to die. It was exactly the way people tell you it will be: time slowed agonizingly. I couldn’t hear anything. I had just two thoughts, both calm. The first was, “Ohhh, Liv and Greta are going to have to grow up without us.” (This was before we had Ava.) The second was, “Oh well, I did everything I wanted to do.” Then Tom remembered that the Ford Explorer’s high center of gravity means that you have to do the opposite of what you’d do with any other car in a skid, which is turn the wheel to allow the skid instead of fighting against it. And poof! He got traction, the car stopped, and we were alive.
It was a gift—I was only in my late 30’s and yet I discovered I had found my place in the world, which is the point after which you know you can leave it in peace. I had written stories that had triggered change; I had published a book; I had gotten married and had babies; I had moved to a city that felt like my truest true home; I had run six marathons and climbed six fourteeners; I was surrounded by more friends than I had time for whom I loved and who loved me back; I had traveled some and studied some and hurt some and recovered some. I knew my own heart and I was following it. I wasn’t asking who I was or what I wanted or what I should do with my life.
And that’s the thing with birthdays: they force you to take the measure of where you are versus where you thought you would be. When your oldest daughter turns 15; when you look up and realize you are entering the second half of your likely lifespan; you take stock. But I don’t take stock in that sense any longer, and wrinkles don’t figure. I have goals, oodles of them, enough goals and hopes and dreams to take up the second half of my life and then some. Things I want to change, even. But nearly going over that cliff means that when Liv turned 15 all I thought about was how exciting it is that she’s entering this part of her life when she is no longer a child but not yet a woman; and what a wonder of a young woman she has turned out to be. And when it’s my birthday I’ll be thinking about how great it is to reach the stage when you’ve achieved mastery of yourself, and can spend all of your time playing jazz.

Release—Tuesday, December 8, 2009

My close friend and the head of our daughters’ elementary school, Holly Horton, died last night of breast cancer at the age of 58, and all I could think of to do was write. It’s all I can ever think of to do, since I was eight years old. I’m happy, I write. Something happens which is simply not possible, I write. Holly’s death is simply not possible.
Today I woke up after holding Greta, whose little body just couldn’t handle her grief, through the long night. The kids went to school and I was on deadline, of all things. I couldn’t think, and tears kept squeezing out: tears when my father-in-law asked if I had taken my convalescing mother-in-law’s clothes to the drycleaner; tears when I drank my coffee; tears when I stared at my email. I Googled Holly’s name in search of her obituary, but there was nothing, and it occurred to me that I was the only writer in the Live Oak community with a Chronicle column. I had to say something, no matter how broken my mind was. I wrote this eulogy in such a state that I included at least three major typos I didn’t notice until hours after the piece went live.

Then something happened that has never happened to me in all the years I’ve been a writer. People wrote to thank me for helping them process Holly’s death. Dozens of notes. You helped me release some tears I really needed to, one said. I'm not sure I needed another cry today, but thank you for giving me another excuse for one, and for capturing the spirit of Holly so lovingly, said another. I’m glad you are there, to express for the Live Oak community, our loss, said a third. And finally: You are a beautiful writer.

I thought of the time a few months after my father’s death when Tom and I attended an intimate Shawn Colvin concert at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. It was just Shawn and her acoustic guitar, singing alone on a stage. At one point it was as if she had reached across the rows and touched my cheek, and I cried so hard I couldn’t speak. I was so grateful to her for helping me let go. Tom and I waited on line to greet her after the concert—something I’ve never done before. When it was our turn I told her that her brother Geoff had been my editor at Fortune years earlier. “Thank you for your beautiful work,” I said. “You made me cry.” And she gave me a quizzical look and said, “That’s my job.”

Losing My Religion—Tuesday, December 2, 2009

I am suddenly becoming conscious of the fact that for an areligious person, I have a pretty complex and pixilated belief system. Call it the Church of Stephanie. It has only one member and, judging from its contradictory teachings, that’s all it can handle. Here are its tenets; please be kind.
There is no God, except when there is. I hate to think in terms of believing in God or even to use the word God—it’s so…male, and I’m so…not. Except that this poses a small problem, which is that I am convinced there is something out there, and It requires naming. In conversations I am a linguistic mess: I hear myself referring to The Force, The Universe, The Gods; even, when truly at a loss, The Thing.
The not-God communicates with humans via a complicated series of signs that must be interpreted hourly. I expend an enormous amount of energy attempting to take notice of tears in the fabric of my life—times when things out of the ordinary are happening in sequence. Why a power greater than myself doesn’t just take the easy way out and send me an email when it wants me to go in a certain direction is beyond me, but nonsensical as this theory may be, I’m not sure I can stop embracing it. I figure The Force starts small. It hides your keys. Or a few people say the same odd thing to you on Monday. But you keep going straight; you haven’t noticed, you take no turn. So The Force works a little harder—more signals that point to the same route. You’re still oblivious. At this point there’s nothing for The Force to do but throw the kitchen sink at you. Like, you’re rushing about trying to make a flight and your dog throws up on the carpet and the school calls to tell you to pick up your sick kid immediately and the car stalls on the way back to the house and—you miss your flight. The plane crashes, and you’re not on it. But none of this would have been necessary if you had just noticed back when you were buying the ticket that there were too many conflicts and you should have scheduled your trip for the following weekend. Jerk.
The unGod does not respond to personal requests, except when you are beyond desperate and ask really really nicely. Readers of this blog know that my father—the one who brought me up to be a nonbeliever in brick and mortar worship—considered himself to be our family’s conduit to Yahweh, whose aid we reserved for genuinely dire occasions. I have a childhood friend who fell into a clinical depression a few years ago, and she replied to an email of mine by saying she was in so much pain she couldn’t speak to me. I was scared in that metallic way that grabs you in the throat. I called my father, who promised to make contact with Yahweh to discuss the matter. Three days later Dad called me, and with the gravity of a Shaman he said, “Rest easy. Yahweh says he will make sure your friend doesn’t hurt herself.” And she recovered. Right now another friend—my honorary sister K—is fighting a dangerous cancer, and as frightened as I am, I know that Yahweh is protecting her. Because my dad asked him to.

If you don’t appreciate the not-God’s gifts, He will smite you.
I was always a wee bit pissed at Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and all those other Bible scribblers for depicting The Force as this meanie who went around punishing his followers left and right. Didn’t he have better things to do with his time, like design the dodo? But the truth is, I do believe that The Force wants you to appreciate it when he goes out of his way for you. On the one hand, no god I could believe in would ever take pains to hurt someone. (Like, if I may interject, this baptism thing. God doesn’t let unbaptised babies into heaven? Please.) But at the same time I am absolutely sure that if I don’t express gratitude for my every blessing, lightening will strike me dead in the street. Or my next story will get rejected by every publication I send it to. One or the other.
There is no heaven, except the one in which Dad is currently surfing the tasty waves. I’ve never known what to think about heaven. Hell is easy—it’s clearly man-made. But some form of continuing? Some further consciousness after death? I wasn’t sure I believed in it after my grandfather died, because I simply couldn’t sense him anymore and I loved him very much. But after my father died, he visited me regularly and vigorously, doing showy-offy things in the terrible year after his death when my keening grief stunned even me. Time and again it was obvious Dad was involved because he had a great love of the past, and when he wanted to help me he would send long-lost people to give me comfort. And it was obvious because I could feel him, because I could see him, and I don’t care how that sounds—he is out there, young and happy and walking. Which is one of two reasons I truly do not fear death. The second is another story.

New, or Practically New

  • Fame and Fortune: Currently working on, and shocked to find I’m making headway with, the latter. Partly because of a bit of movement on the former. Perhaps endurance is the key to everything after all.