When I was twelve my mother, Alice, sat me down to talk. Talk meant pronouncements and that was never good.
She said she wasn’t cut out to be a housewife, staying at home. She had always hated it. Now that I was old enough, she was going back to work. Sounded reasonable.
Then came the part about me. I would make dinner four nights a week. I would do laundry, polish silver and clean the house except my brother’s room. I already did most of that. For a while she sent ironing out but it always came back smelling of wood smoke. So I took on ironing too. I didn’t mind since I could watch an afternoon movie. I was also to do her hair and her nails. Since she was far-sighted I was to pluck her eyebrows and, yes, the ingrown hairs on her legs. Negotiation was never an option.
One Saturday afternoon my parents announced that they were going out to look at cemetery plots. So my mother put me in charge of a pot roast she had started. My primary duty was, “don’t let it burn.” Easy. I sat at the kitchen table reading a book.
I heard the car doors slam and looked up to see that the meat was scorched. I was terrified. This was an incident that could cause the walls to shake. Instinctively I dashed to the nearest door, the utility room, out the side door and into the garage. I stood there terrified that my father and his temper would find me. I noticed the axe lodged in the log where he chopped wood and grasped that this wasn’t the smartest hiding place. With no better plan, I crept back into the house. I heard my parents and brother in the dining room eating the pot roast I thought I had spoiled. I slipped up the stairs in the back to my room and laid on my bed in the dark.
Nothing was said, ever.
In the early 70’s I commuted daily between Manhattan and New Jersey: Hackensack to be exact.
I had splurged on a new pair of ski boots. Not just any boots, they were filled with foam for a custom fit. All boots caused agony since skiing as a child. Every time I’d get down to the bottom of the slope I’d unbuckle to relieve the pain and re-buckle at the top again. I still do and have frostbite.
On the same evening I picked up the new boots, friends from work wanted to go out to drink. These were the days when I was still cultivating a capacity for alcohol. But that evening stands our since we didn’t have anything to eat but peanuts at the bar. And, I was lugging the heavy box of boots.
Forget walking to Port Authority, I got a cab with only a few scotches and peanuts on my stomach. It wasn’t until the cab began speeding up and screeching to a halt at lights that I realized the world was spinning, or I was. I held on hoping I could make it into the bus station. The hope was pointless. Just feet from my destination, the contents of my stomach had to leave my body and there was no stopping it. I could not get the window down in time. The prized box of ski boots was spared, but the cab interior was not.
I already had cash out for the driver and handed it forward, left the cab and closed the door saying nothing. All I could think of was getting into the building.
For the next month every morning when I exited the Port Authority building, wearing dark glasses, I looked for that cab driver lurking, certain he would track me down for revenge.
In the spring of 1983, I worked at a radio station that was consistently the #1 or #2 station (of over 70) in the New York City market, and I had without doubt the best job in broadcast advertising, anywhere. I had my modest house in Connecticut, had built a house in East Hampton with a friend as an investment and had the use of a rental apartment in Manhattan during the week if needed. I was exceeding my financial goals every year with the most prestigious clients in New York. This was the work I had sought for years.
And I wanted to quit.
I was 35, had been in the job for over five years and I didn’t want to become a dinosaur. That sounds young, but it’s a business of youth. I watched the guys in the gray suits who couldn’t afford to change. They had orthodontists and college educations to fund. I didn’t.
I worked hard, was knowledgeable and never took business for granted. I had originally been brought into the company to move through the management track, but now made too much money to take a different position: a velvet cage. On occasion when I’d whine about how little I contributed to the world, a colleague reminded me that it, “wasn’t brain surgery, relax and enjoy it.” Money wasn’t my goal, just my report card.
My best friend’s cubicle was next to mine. I lunched at the finest restaurants with clients and saw nearly every play that opened. There was no man in my life since I had ended yet another disastrous relationship.
I did not live extravagantly, however bought a beautiful mink coat. Ironically my income increased after that. I shopped for clothes big time twice a year and my closets were filled with beautiful suits and dresses. This did not make me happy.
Then there was the commute. From Norwalk, Connecticut by train every day door to door, was about one and a half hours, over three hours a day. NEVER having been a morning person, that got worse. I read everything I could get my hands on to pass the time and for reasons I’ve never understood, I read as fast as the train traveled. If the train got stuck so did I. And the train was getting stuck every day. The newspaper was depressing. Looking out the window at burned out buildings in the Bronx got depressing. I did not ride in the bar car for the trip home, though the usual suspects gravitated there. I kept to myself while lively gin games picked up where they had left off that morning. Wives met inebriated husbands at the station.
We lived through a garbage strike and then a transit strike, so a co-worker and I drove in together every day. That was a grind. As a commuter, I knew more about politics in Manhattan than Connecticut. I couldn’t even name the mayor of my town. I didn’t belong in either place. Working for an all-news radio station made me feel that I was doing something worthwhile, but that wore thin. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t fulfilled. If you aren’t happy, you aren’t happy.
I didn’t consider the possibility of moving into the city again, or the possibility of another profession. I was arriving later and later at the office, waking later and later every day. I decided to take a vacation where I would ponder the notion of just leaving. Nothing rash.
I took an elaborate trip to Europe, including a night on the Orient Express, the first year it went back into service, and immediately realized that if I quit the job, that’s it kid, no more big vacations.
The second morning after my return I caught the train, now fairly determined to appreciate my good fortune. The man seated next to me was about to retire. He had been selling socks and catching the train for 37 years, longer than I had been alive. I got out my calculator and allowed for generous vacations and assumed the train was always on time, which it wasn’t. I calculated that he had been sitting on that train in the smoke and musty air for about five years of his life.
When our train arrived, I walked the three blocks from Grand Central, went directly to the sales manager who was a friend, and resigned. He had been in that business far longer than I and recognized my weariness. I didn’t ask for a sabbatical or leave of absence.
It was done.
People were shocked. But, mostly they lined up for my job.
My college roommate at WSU was from Boulder, Colorado, so she flew back and forth on vacations. Airlines still gave out free cigarettes then and her collection was substantial. Several of us planned a smoking experiment on the floor of our dorm hallway and lit our first smokes. In unison, the gagging and coughing began. Good thing we were sitting down. That was it for me.
Throughout a masterful career as an all round athlete, exceptional student and generally Mr. Clean Cut All American Boy, my brother was vehemently against smoking. He announced often as a teen that he never would take up the hideous and unhealthy habit. Back then, it was the judgmental dividing line. Wild kids smoked. Good kids didn’t. That is except for sex and I was still very much in the dark about that.
About sex. A friend and I went into her father’s library one day. He was our Methodist Minister. She knew right where to find a book that explained and diagramed the mystery. So we learned what different body parts did, in theory anyway. It would be a long time before my body parts had the opportunity to do any of that.
But back to smoking. I was about 22 when I learned that my brother had been a secret smoker through High School. My sister-in-law eventually shared the story of how he had a very bad car accident in High School. His face went into the windshield of the family Volkswagen. Instead of worrying about the lacerations on his face, his first priority was to get rid of the cigarette he was smoking. I remembered the accident but had no clue about the evidence. Somehow he hid it from our parents too. At least I understood now why he always made me ride in the back seat of the car, even when it was just the two of us.
I didn’t want my brother to smoke. But he had managed this for years. And I had zero pull with him. How could I stop him? Completely deluded, I hatched my plan. If he saw his sister breathing out smoke, he’d see how terrible it was. With the horror of that picture he’d throw away his smokes forever. And my sacrifice would be rewarded.
So I lit a cigarette. And another one. And another one. He didn’t flinch. I forged through the dizziness, the hacking and coughing, and increased my stamina to become a fully fledged smoker. I too hid it for a little while.
I’m pretty sure my brother still quietly smokes. But if he does it’s in the garage.
I quit smoking for about 3 years. Then on a trip to London I wanted to “just try” a British cigarette. I returned to New York and went through customs declaring two cartons of the damn things.
Finally got smart 25 years ago.
There was this thing I did when my life was struck by a medium to large sized emotional earthquake. #11The Air Vent Conversation Part III.
When a couple lives together, with no agreements about expectations, anything goes. There is no right or wrong, no fair or unfair, no mediation factor. You put your name in your books. After that, there is only the hopeful possibility that two people will care enough about one another to be decent and end things with civility.
That was not our case.
Though in my heart I knew ours was not a great love match, I was committed to us, loyal as a bird dog. I did resolve to leave once, but he convinced me to stay, throwing himself in front of the car. Looking back, he may have just wanted the car.
Here’s the thing. I wrote a letter to his parents.
I wish I could block it from my memory. I’d like to stop writing this now. But it’s on the “stupid” list. I got out my pen and I wrote to those nice people in Oregon about how terrible their son was to leave me in the lurch. I know I didn’t use harsh language or a word like lurch. I was too shy, sweet or stupid to be rude. As if writing the letter wasn’t rude. I started out only to tell them that the end of the relationship was sad and I would miss them. But I didn’t stop there and went on to couch words saying vaguely that it was terrible that their son had spent three years of my life moving me about and then pulled the floor from under me. Or something like that.
In later years if I had a serious complaint to air to a friend, I typed it. Once anyone got one of those letters, I NEVER heard from them again. There’s a line in the 1939 movie The Women. Paulette Goddard’s character says, “You’re passing up a swell chance, honey. Where I spit no grass grows ever.”
Brutal enough that I turned to his parents for some indefinable justice. Worse, I don’t think I was done. I know I considered this but do not remember if I kept writing, by letting them know that there were rumors about their son being “less than heterosexual.” Yes, that’s how wimpy and couchy the language was. His own brother had said the same to them, probably just as spitefully. But why oh why would I? Because I was pissed. Because for once in my life, I wanted someone to do something about my pain.
Did I really think that they could make this right? Maybe. Did I consult anyone about this? Of course not. Did I put the letter in a drawer for 24 hours? No. Did I hear from them? NEVER.
In the summer of 1968, a close friend and I got it into our heads that we needed to lose weight. No, that’s not accurate, not lose weight. This was the age of Twiggy. Though unlikely we ever said it, we wanted, we needed to be thin. There was the Holy Grail of a “clinic” for just that purpose in Seattle.
I had spent part of the previous summer never venturing past Seattle’s University district. But now we were headed back to that beautiful city with the Space Needle in one direction, our own Olympic Mountains far off in another and Mt. Raineer as a majestic exclamation point. Forget all that! We had grown up with it. This was about Getting Thin!
We earned our own money. She told no one. I told no one. We drove the two plus hours to Seattle for our appointments with the man who was known as the “Diet Doctor.” Thin was always in: thin thin thin we would be. That meant happy. I was not overweight, but life was not happy then for me as described already. Now thin would be under my control. As in most ventures I did no research. He was a doctor. What else did I need to know? Thin was happiness. Thin was success. Thin was security. Thin was beauty. Thin was comfort. Thin was not impossible but now it was going to be easy. Skinny would be even better. Sunken tummy, protruding pelvic bone, thin.
We arrived at the Seattle office building and entered a crowded waiting room. I don’t remember the faces of the people there, except that they were almost all women. A receptionist took our names. How long would we spend with the doctor we wondered? He would have the answer to all that glittered in life.
I know I met the doctor, but it’s a blur. I can’t tell you what he looked like. Various attendants weighed me, and measured every inch of me, even my wrists. I don’t think there was any blood work. But a variety of nurses spoke with me and I filled out forms and signed papers, doubtless without reading.
Eventually everyone was herded through and I was given written instructions and THE PILLS: little envelope after little envelope of pills. We called them rainbow pills. Nurses explained, and I swear this is what I was told, that some pills were for thighs, some for the tummy, some for hips. I remember the number 23 per day of these small pastel yet vibrant tiny M&Ms. We thought they must be brilliant people because my friend and I didn’t have the exact same combination of pills. They were custom designed.
We drove back to our Olympic Peninsula with the secret elixirs, eager to get started. Pills were to be taken at certain times of the day: upon waking, before eating, after eating. It was fun to get on the scale.
A few weeks later we secretly went back to Seattle to weigh in and get more pretty pills.
I was working hard, going to school, loaded with energy and not sleeping. It took a while to realize why. By now you understand that it takes a while for anything to sink in with me. My eyelids would not close. I put on a dress that dropped to the floor. WONDERFUL! Even my shoes were loose. I wouldn’t have been allowed to donate blood. And no one asked a thing.
One night I was lying on the couch watching a movie, and either there was an earthquake (We did get them occasionally) or my heart went kathump-bump-kathump-barump-thumpy-pause-thump-pause-patter-patter-patter-pause-kathump-long pause-thumper-kathump-bumpy-bump-speed-bump-faster thump. It was not an earthquake.
I got up, found the stash of pills and flushed them down the loo. My apologies to the fish. It was three days before my eyes actually closed at night to sleep.
About a decade later an expensive Park Avenue Cardiologist informed me of an electrical problem in my heart. I’d need a pacemaker one day and was advised not to run the Boston Marathon. “No problem there,” I said. And, so far so good.
A few years after our pilgrimage to Seattle, the “Pill Peddler” went to jail.
In 1964 it was time to apply to colleges. Or it would have been but there was only one I was expected to attend: the same one my brother had, Washington State University: WAZZU as it’s listed in Wikipedia. I had wanted to go to a small school in Connecticut. Partly because I knew a boy in the east who was going there, partly because I understood that I had no study habits and that small would be better, and partly because it was reasonably close to New York.
WSU is a fine school. It’s fine and it’s huge. Edward R. Murrow went to WSU. The school was all there was really, in the middle of wheat and hops fields, only seven miles from Idaho. John Candy sang the fight song in the movie Volunteers For our parents it was perfect because it was too far to go home on weekends. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to go there. Of course I went there.
Tests proved my intelligence. You’ll have to take my word on that. But I never learned how to study. I have to say this again because it’s such a damned dilemma. I never learned how to study. I excelled in English or Art but Math and all Sciences were agonizing. I could not memorize what I didn’t understand. As my “Stupendously Stupid List” attests, I also didn’t know how to learn. I didn’t know how to learn to learn. I was smart enough in High School to get by.
One of the biggest things I wanted was to learn to fly. Without telling my parents I went to see the local Air Force recruiter. He leered enough at me to end that notion: That and the fact that I was near sighted. I wanted to travel. I never had the courage to mention The Peace Corps since I barely passed Spanish. I was seventeen and I needed a year. Who doesn’t?
Neither of our parents went to college. My mother’s parents had a great deal of money and by her account she was an A student, but then women didn’t generally go on for a degree. My father escaped a dreary childhood by running away to join the Navy at 15 or 16. For him, our educations were paramount. But actual careers were never discussed. It was partly the 60’s, girls were either teachers or nurses. I don’t know the details, only that my brother was expected to excel. There was never a discussion of what I would study. When we were little we met a man who filled Twinkies for a living. I guess we both knew we’d better go to college.
I had already had the cozy experience in high school where my father was a teacher and my brother and I were students. Now my father was going to rely on my brother to protect his little sister away at the big University. But my father didn’t know what I knew: that my brother hated me.
In spite of what I understood about my inability to learn, I took on a grandiose load. I had Chemistry in high school so I could ace it now. Ha! Suddenly they were teaching it in Kurdish.
I was in massive lecture halls for Philosophy and Psychology. The only classes in which I got A’s were English and believe it or not, Fencing. But my nemesis subject that first term was Political Science. There was no life plan but having been a politically active kid I had a sliver of a fantasy of being a diplomat: Thus, Political Science. But not for one mille-second did I belong, nor did I soak in the freedom or feel anything but out of place. I was fast sinking in an academic quicksand that you can not see. My roommate didn’t know I was sinking, the dorm adviser didn’t know I was lost. I had never once gone to see my assigned adviser who ran the radio broadcasting program. I didn’t understand why he was my advisor. Ironically just a few years later I drifted into that career.
Over winter break my family went skiing. I had an assignment for a paper on the World Bank. I don’t understand how the World Bank works today, so want to imagine what I knew then? I took library books on the trip. I don’t know if I had procrastinated, though that’s very likely. I sat in the ski lodge and managed to cobble together a paper by the time I returned to school. Creating a document wasn’t my problem, understanding the subject was.
Soon after returning to school I was summoned to the professor’s office. I was shaking but without expression. He was stern. He was particularly pompous on the rare occasions when he lectured, leaving most everything to teaching assistants. I had trouble looking directly at him that day. I didn’t know him. But I recall a reddish beard and tortoise shell glasses. This was the first time I had seen him within 40 yards.
He challenged my paper and said that I had lifted and reworded passages directly from a book which he named by title. Hell, he may have written the book. I mumbled a denial, but of course I had done it. My stupid stubborn lack of a confession sent him from stern to angry. He accused me of a slew of horrible things and screamed “plagiarism.” My real misdemeanor was a shortage of footnotes. He shamed me but my shame wasn’t as strong as my fear. I don’t remember if I cried and I don’t know what would have happened if I had admitted how completely overwhelmed I was. But I didn’t do that. For my double crime, I was dismissed from his presence like an insignificant wormlike repeat offender. And I never spoke of the incident to anyone.
And I never became a diplomat. Except in a way, decades later in The Russian Adventures.