Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The white seal

Years ago, my daughter saw a cartoon about a white baby seal. It was a 1975 film based on a Rudyard Kipling story, available at the library on DVD. 

The seal's name was Kotick, but the actors pronounced it "Koteck." Watching the movie with my daughter, I was preoccupied with how much the seal's name sounded like a certain feminine product. I half-expected him to get covered in blood and unceremoniously thrown in the trash. That was not Kipling's plot, however.

My daughter --  then about four years old -- fell hard for the white seal. She watched the film over and over, yearning for a seal of her own.

At a toy store downtown, we found one: a plush white seal cub with melting brown eyes. My daughter took it home and cherished it. It slept in her bed. She introduced it to all her other stuffed animals.

The other day, she brought the brother of Koteck in from the garage. This was an identical white seal, purchased some weeks after the first seal.

Tucked in her bed with the white seal at her side, she looked adorable.

"I'm glad you brought Koteck inside," I said. "He missed you. I can tell he's happy to be with you again!"

"Mom," said my daughter, suddenly awake, her eyes shining with merriment. "Remember the first white seal? Remember what happened?"

"Uh, no, I guess not. What?"

She recounted how her brother had been lying on the couch, sick, when he suddenly leaned over the side and threw up. By sheer coincidence, the white seal was on the floor beneath him. 

Helplessly my daughter looked on as waves of vomit erupted onto the head of her white seal, to the sounds of groans and retching.

Needless to say, the white seal was defiled beyond repair. I bagged him up and threw him in the outside trashcan.

"Oh yeah. Now I remember!" I said. We had a chuckle, though it had not struck her as funny at the time.

While just as cute, the second seal was not quite as beloved as the first. By the time he came along, some innocent corner of my daughter's heart had closed forever.

Now seven years old, she gave a last cruel laugh at the memory of the white seal and fell asleep next to its replacement, a faint smile still on her lips.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Neck fund

So we were watching Downton Abbey. He was following the plot (something about a child abduction and a pig farm). I was focused on people's necks.

Actors have good necks for their ages, because at some point -- as a professional requirement -- they get "work done." Between the pale swan neck of Lady Mary and the firm, still-elegant neck of her mother, Lady Cora, there was not as much difference as one might think. Around them swarmed the young, fresh necks of various servants and attendants.

Jail, trench warfare, heartbreak, the occasional pensive smoke after serving a six-course meal from silver tureens: none of it took any visible toll on anyone's neck. Nor did advancing age or rustic medical care from a 1920s village hospital. It was uncanny.

"I'm going to start a Neck Fund," I remarked to my future husband. "If I sock away $40 out of every paycheck starting now, by the time my neck is in really bad shape, I'll be able to get it fixed."

Dave said there was nothing wrong with my neck. Though supportive by instinct, he seemed confused by the topic.

"All older women are obsessed with their necks," I explained. "Nora Ephron -- the famous screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally --  published a book of essays called I Feel Bad About My Neck."

"Men don't care about stuff like that," he said.

I didn't care that men didn't care. This was about me, my neck, and forty-five hundred dollars, give or take.

We riffed about Dave explaining to his accountant "my wife's Neck Fund." We discussed the Neck Fund's rightful inheritor in the event of my untimely death.

"One of my resolutions for 2016 is not to look down," I confided. "Looking down at your phone, at a book, at anything? It's really bad for your neck."

He mimed holding his phone above eye level and looking up at it. "Like this?"


Being engaged is so great! I probably will never get around to starting a Neck Fund, but if I do, I feel like someone will have my back. Neck.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Questions for the married

So I recently got engaged. Yay!

Excited about a future wedding, I asked my officiant-of-choice if she would do the ceremony. She would! Yay!

Within five minutes, I thought: Crap! I forgot to run this decision by my future husband!

Luckily, when informed post hoc, he thought it was a great idea. But the incident was a sobering reminder that I was no longer in Single Mom Mode.

Single moms don't have it easy: They are one person doing a two-person job. As a consolation prize, their title at home is Queen of Everything.

No one points out their mistakes, oversights, and small hypocrisies ("You guys can eat dinner in front of the TV just today, okay?"), because no one knows or cares what they do except children, who have few standards. The single mom's home is a black box in which she operates with near-total impunity. And if the kids are fed and clothed and seem happy? She's doing great!

I function well in Single Mom Mode, because I like efficiency and lack of fuss. After my first marriage ended, I learned to trust my own snap judgments. I relaxed into a semi-responsible parenting style. The bar was low, there was only one of me, and I didn't care much about most things anyway. It was a non-match made in heaven!

Yet by 2016, I had taken Single Mom Mode as far as it could go. Dave and I both were ready for something new, a shared life richer and more challenging than bumping along on our own. In video game terms, we were ready to Level Up. (In fact, foreshadowing my son's proposal to his future wife, the actual words used were: "Would you do me the honor of Leveling Up?")

So I love the idea of being married again, but I'm a bit rusty on the details. It's hard to recall how married people behave -- or should behave -- if I ever knew. Questions arise about how the thing operates in day-to-day life. Help me out, marrieds, by clarifying a few key topics:

Subject: Brangelina

Q: Is it possible for a married person to "commandeer" the living room on a Friday night in order to watch the new Brangelina movie, in total sincerity, without anyone saying anything about it?

Q: What if they are wearing a pore-refining mud mask? Could the situation still pass without remark, and even engender a respectful silence?

Q: Is said married person entitled to only half the leftovers in the fridge during this theoretical Brangelina-thon, even if she cooked them herself, and God knows the kids won't eat them?

Q: Could a married person plausibly remark  -- as the credits roll for By the Sea or whatever -- that while they enjoy Brad Pitt as a character actor, they find their spouse far more attractive and that Angelina, while beautiful in a severe way, seems like a real handful?


Those actually are all the questions I have.

Thank you.

(Image: AJ and BP at the Cannes Film Festival, by Georges Biard [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Goodbye Girl

At twenty-three, I lived in a house in North Berkeley with wooden floors and a koi pond in the backyard. My room cost a few hundred dollars a month, and I had two housemates: girls with long, blonde hair and baggy, ethnic-print clothes.

One's father taught public policy at Harvard, a fact she seemed to find exasperating. Another had a boyfriend who was always around. One week a third girl visited us from Ohio. Her dad had announced he was transitioning into a woman, and she was shopping around a memoir-in-progress on the subject. This struck me as a shrewd response to her dad's news: a "what's in it for me" approach that I respected as an artist.

I didn't live there very long and never grew close to my co-tenants. I preferred to sit alone in the sunny, half-wild backyard by the koi pond, watching the brilliant-colored dragonflies alight and fly away, alight and fly away. This experience felt like pure freedom -- freedom from people, responsibilities, and even my own thoughts. I knew it wouldn't last and tried to soak it in.

The other thing I liked to do was watch The Goodbye Girl, a 1977 movie written by Neil Simon and starring Richard Dreyfuss. In it, a single mother (Marsha Mason) is forced to share her Manhattan apartment with an aspiring actor (Dreyfuss), who is starring in an off-Broadway production of Richard III.  

As was often the case, this movie was more real to me than my own life. I had no interest in dating anyone, as I was on some level "involved" with the Richard Dreyfuss who existed when I was five years old. Sure, it was complicated. But I was busy, get it? 

The Goodbye couple's relationship -- triangulated by a ten-year-old child -- fascinated me. Beneath its romantic-comedy surface, it seemed to hold some vital message.

Paula (Mason) is an average-looking woman in her thirties who distrusts men after being jilted by her boyfriend,Tony. Elliot (Dreyfuss) is pugnacious and a bit of a loser, hanging his hopes on Richard III. Both of them are adrift, nor do they like each other very much -- initially.

Then there is Paula's precocious daughter Lucy, weighing in with her own opinion: 

Lucy, although she likes Elliot, sees the affair as a repeat of what happened with Tony. Elliot convinces Paula that he will not be like that and later picks up Lucy from school and takes her on a carriage ride, during which Lucy admits that she likes Elliot, and he admits that he likes her and Paula and will not do anything to hurt them.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Here was a love story different from every one I'd seen about childless people. It was more domestic, more cautious, tinged with awareness of a vulnerable third person. Paula and Elliot make jokes and argue, negotiate domestic compromises ("No panties on the rod!"), learn each other's quirks, and test their compatibility, all while living in close quarters with each other and the offspring of a former relationship.

In the end, they don't get married, but when Elliot has to film a movie in Seattle, he leaves his treasured guitar behind to show Paula and Lucy he'll come back. (This may be as close to a committed relationship as anyone got in 1977.)

That summer in Berkeley, I watched The Goodbye Girl over and over, studying these flawed, funny grownups as they fell in love and learned to coexist.

It seemed like the best possible use of my time.

* * * *
On the last night of 2015, Dave and I played Scrabble.

Using a new cookbook, we made a brie and pear tart, but it was just okay. We put honey on it and ate half of it with a glass of wine. 

At some point in the game, we opened a bottle of champagne. 

There were some good potato chips in the pantry, so why not? 

After a few good words, I won the game. Dave later said he was glad I'd won: It was, in his view, more romantic. 

At midnight, we said Happy New Year. And at 12:01, he proposed.

The next morning, the kids came home and we made waffles. The neighbors and their kids dropped by. We didn't tell anyone just yet. 

I finally had what I'd wanted: the grown-up version, kids included. 

It was magnificent.