The Life I Could Have Had – November 20, 2003

I think sometimes about the life I could have had, if I had done what my parents wanted and moved back to New Jersey after college. I would have gotten my own apartment, a job, a car inherited from another family member. I would have commuted to New York on the train, or driven to an office building in a suburban town. I would have dated a nice man who liked my family, and I would have been liked by his. I would have seen my parents every week, my aunts and uncle, my cousins. This would have been annoying sometimes and comforting at other times. Around the holidays, we would have cut down trees together, at the same Christmas tree farm we have visited since I was eight, and then we would have spent the day decorating it and listening to Christmas music and baking cookies. This is the life I was supposed to have in my parents’ dreams. It is a good life; I can see that.

Except.

I never would have known what it is like to live truly on my own. I never would have known what it is like to live with a guy, or decide not to live with him anymore. I never would have found out what it is like to go past all my parents’ rules and boundaries and realize they still love me on the other side. I never would have spent two months straight playing a computer game because there was no one to pull me away from it. I never would have reached the point where I deleted the game myself because I wanted my life back. I never would have returned home and found out I had left for all the right reasons the first time. I never would have chosen where I wanted to live without other people’s obligations weighing on me. I never would have moved across the country with four suitcases and a laptop computer. I never would have learned that I Can Survive. I never would have had space and time to figure out who I really am, without anyone else’s expectations clouding the picture. I never would have walked along the Sunset Strip and realized I hate it. I never would have learned to drive as well as I have. I never would have found my tai chi instructor, or my writing teacher. I never would have known some of my best friends. It would not have been my life.

So when I’m sitting here in my apartment, listening to Christmas music and feeling sad that I don’t have a tree and lights and my family nearby, I can recognize this feeling for what it is — nostalgia — and then go out and buy a tree and call my friends and have dinner with them. I can visit my parents in New Jersey and realize that a visit is exactly what it should be, that I am free, and that I love them even more because of it.

Leather Coat – August 30, 2003

My leather coat has history. It’s six years old now, and the girl who bought it for $99 at Wilson’s in Ann Arbor’s Briarwood Mall doesn’t exist anymore.

She had never been in a leather store before, not even a chain like Wilson’s, and she fingered the material as if it were special, foreign, a hint or promise of what her life could be like. She imagined motorcycles, fucking, smoking, cool, leather on leather, black, smooth, then cracked and imprinted with fingerprints that would never quite fade. Other people’s fingerprints, her own, it didn’t matter; all recorded in the soft press of flesh on leather.

So. She bought the jacket. She was with her first boyfriend, who had taken her to the store, and he thought this one looked good. It zipped up the front, two pockets low on the sides, lined with thinsulate for the Michigan winters, and a thick belt strung through loops and tied.

She sat in the bus station, wearing the jacket, staring out at the salt-stained road. Going back to Chicago. Weekend visit over. One leather jacket acquired. One hotel room paid for. One bed defiled. Huddled in the corner of the seat on the way back, sky threatening snow but not releasing it, trees stark against gray, rows upon rows of houses blurred in rows upon rows of small towns, unnamed, unknown, uncared-about, just places between here and there. Curling up in the jacket against the seat, smelling new leather, and the stench of that waterproofing junk they’d sprayed over it, and the guy. The first real smell it acquired.

Other smells joined it. The bitter cold of a Chicago winter. The stench of stale sweat despite the chill. Exhaust fumes from cars and buses, and the slight hint of mildew. The warm, homey scent of her parents’ house in Jersey. New York on a spring day, still a little windy. Heat. Sun. Musty closet odors, from being stored for months. Men. Women. Friends. Love. Tears. Anger. Hope. Screams. Ambition. Fear. Daring. Life.

Cracks appeared; the waterproof spray wore off and was never reapplied, though she wore it in the rain all the time. Stains, with unremembered origins. Tiny tears. Softness she never would have expected. Age. Wisdom. Years.

Now it hangs in my closet, unused. It is not cold in L.A. There is no wind to cut through your bones like a razor blade. I have a much nicer leather coat, a soft-as-butter lambskin number with no lining, unemcumbered. It frames my body better. It cost a lot more. But it is not my coat, and I am not its whore. Its softness is not acquired; it has no experience. It is a high-fashion stranger; it just looks good on the surface. My old coat knows me, through and through: who I was, who I am, where I’ve been, how I grew, who I’ve loved, what I’ve done, things I’d never tell anyone. I will never leave it behind. It has a soul, and it is mine.

Ultimate Reality Show – April 15, 2003

I want to be a contestant on Double Dare. You remember that game show, from 10 or 15 years ago, don’t you? With the pools of green Jell-O and the giant noses full of slime and the slides greased with whipped cream and chocolate syrup? And Marc Harmon as the host. Not covered in whipped cream and chocolate syrup, thank God, though I always thought they should make him try the obstacle course and see how well he would do.

I think they should bring back the show, but not as a show for kids on Nickelodeon. No, there should be Double Dare for adults. With questions focusing on different categories — perhaps pop culture, but perhaps something as serious as ancient history, as staid-seeming as Jeopardy! categories. Then — bam! — the second round is over and it’s time for the winning team to take on the obstacle course. Imagine the ancient history scholar or pop-culture queen running frantically toward a jacuzzi filled with marshmallow fluff. Breathing heavily, panting, in a frantic effort to capture the flag before time expires. It would be fabulous. There could be celebrity Double Dare sometimes — imagine the ratings! See, this is a genius idea. I should design game shows.

But let’s not stop there — no, let us go on to create the ultimate game show, a show that cannot be missed by anyone in the world. It goes like this: Contestants audition for the show in venues around the country by taking a difficult written test covering many subjects. The top 30 in each test location then must sing a song of their choice in front of three cranky judges who have had to listen to far too many songs. This is, after all, a number one-rated show. The final 32 contestants are flown to an otherwise deserted island, where they must eat rat flesh and learn to fish. Each week for four weeks, three people are voted off. The remaining 20 people must race each other around the globe to the city of Los Angeles. The first 12 to arrive are crammed into a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, where they are forbidden to leave the premises and their every waking move is taped and selectively broadcast. Each day, the viewers vote someone off. When there are only 6 contestants remaining, they are driven to a TV studio where the final show is broadcast. In the first round, they must categorize obscure lists of items in exact chronological order while sitting in chairs surrounded by flames. The first three respondents to successfully complete this task without hyperventilating or screaming for their mommies must match wits with host Ben Stein. The last man standing must face — you guessed it — the Double Dare obstacle course. The ultimate prize: Ten million dollars — and an iron-clad contract requiring participation in the next edition of Joe/Jane Millionaire.

Time to Go – February 28, 2003

It is nighttime. Dusk, actually, if you want to be accurate. I can hear cars passing by on the road outside my apartment. There are many cars; it is Friday evening, the middle of rush hour. I am home and safe and warm and tired. In another half hour, I will drive out of the garage, onto the streets and over the mountains — I really shouldn’t call them mountains, they are only hills, but I want to believe they are mountains, want to believe they tower over Los Angeles and are capped with snow and that the air is clear every day and not just after a rainstorm — to Halle and Lena’s apartment, where we will have fondue and catch up because we haven’t seen each other in a month.

I wonder when that happened — when we, all 30 of us out here in L.A., stopped hanging out together. When once or twice a week turned into once a month or every few months. When the stories we always tell became the same old stories. When big gatherings stopped. When the drifting apart began.

I miss the closeness, on the one hand; on the other, I sense that this is natural, and that friendship doesn’t always have to mean constant contact, that it can feel crazy and pressure-filled when it does. We are all more tired, entrenched in our jobs or looking for a job, worrying about money, worrying about war, running out of time — time to cook, time to write, time to clean, time to read, time to relax and have picnics on nice days, time to appreciate that we have had it good for the majority of our lives so far.

It is time to go. I am looking forward to seeing my friends again. I am looking forward to sleeping when I get home. I am not looking forward to facing the traffic.

WTC from Below – September 11, 2002

I knew the World Trade Center from below. I never went up in the towers. I stayed at street-level, where the PATH train from Hoboken would arrive and the doors would slide open. Then along the platform and through the underground mall, with classy shops and a small bakery with a counter where people could sit. Next to it, the entrance to a Borders store, where the travel section was inexplicably located on this basement level, tiny and un-Borders-like with a colorful carpet. Up a narrow escalator, and the store spread out to become the usual array of bestsellers and wannabe bestsellers. Out the doors and onto a street corner, with noise and passing traffic and soaring hotels, all dwarfed by the two towers. I met friends here.

Before that, I was four, clutching my aunt’s hand and staring up forever. I forget why we were there. Fireworks were exploding overhead, so it might have been the Fourth of July. What I remember is that the surface of the skyscrapers shone gold in the light. “Look, honey,” she said to me. “It’s the Twin Towers.” Maybe she picked me up in her arms. I don’t remember anything except the reflection of light on tower glass.

I don’t really have much to say about September 11th, 2001. I wasn’t there, had left the area more than a year earlier to come to L.A. I didn’t lose any relatives, though we knew of my sister’s friend’s uncle, and my parents saw the cars parked for weeks at the local train station. They emailed me a list of the missing from our town. I didn’t know anyone on it, though I recognized one of the last names. I thought about the people I worked with in a building just north of Canal, how they probably had to evacuate and stay home for several days while lower Manhattan was closed. The guy in my old screenwriting group who lived in and loved Battery Park City. But it was distant, like a cousin once removed. I was horrified, scared, sad, but I couldn’t make it real in my mind, because I couldn’t picture all of those people suddenly gone, vanished like the buildings. And it wasn’t real to me until I went home for Christmas, took a bus into the city and saw the skyline as we approached the Lincoln Tunnel. There was a hole. Something was missing. And I think it was important.

Becoming a Fan – September 12, 2002

I remember the first time I really got into a TV show — became a fan. I was staying with Anna in L.A. for a week, sleeping on the couch in her living room with Valley heat outside and two cats inside that I was apparently allergic to. Bright blue carpet. I’d curl up under a borrowed blanket and pillow my head on a cushion and drift off.

On my last night there, I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t ready to go back. I was ready to move here, now, and have a good time at sushi bars with dancing and singing, or at big birthday parties in relatively expensive restaurants, or just curled up on the couch, watching videotapes. All my stuff was packed in my carry-on bags. I was returning the rental car in a few hours, then getting a ride to the airport and leaving behind the city and my friends.

I saw a videotape lying on the end table. It wasn’t in a case, and I flipped it over to see what was written on the label. It said “Becoming 1+2.” I was bored. I couldn’t sleep. I popped it into the VCR. Two hours later, I was sitting on the couch, huddled in my quilt, crying quietly. Because of a TV show. I never would have pegged myself as a crier-at-TV-shows. I wrote an outline for a spec script on an index card, shoved it in my bag, and closed my eyes to get three hours of sleep before morning came.

Hiking and Might-Have-Beens – August 17, 2002

I went hiking this morning. It was gray, with light rain falling almost imperceptibly, and clouds had descended over the mountains. Incredibly beautiful, and not like L.A. at all. When I woke up at 6:30 and looked outside, I knew I had to go.

I wasn’t disappointed. Hiking up the dirt path, the air seemed fresher than usual, so that just breathing it was energizing. Vistas that are normally choked with smog were obscured by mist, with only the shapes of trees and mountains and here and there a house on a hill. It was early Saturday morning, so the noise of traffic was muted, and the sound of everything else seemed amplified — birds, wind, something yowling down the mountainside.

The trail I took winds back and forth four times as it ascends, and the sight of mist-cloaked hillsides at every turn was breathtaking. Then I was over and into the valley and along a forested trail, with a few other hikers and their dogs passing by. A swarm of bees hummed loudly at the exit of the trail, where the route descends down a side street lined with secluded mansions, but I moved on quickly and never saw them. A sprinkler arced over the road, soaking the pavement, so I pulled my jacket around me and rushed through it, laughing.

I’ve figured out why I can’t write about bad things as they are happening; it’s a sort of paralysis. It’s not caused by depression or an unwillingness to share, but rather by an inability to choose between the millions of possible paths that spring from the present moment. If I don’t know the outcome of a situation, I find it extremely difficult to talk about it with anyone. I imagine thousands of alternate paths, with different fears and different endings, and some are ridiculous and others horrible and others happy, and there’s just no way to choose between them with any degree of honesty or comfort. On the other hand, once I know the ending, not only can I write about it, I also feel the need to explore the alternate routes, the might-have-beens, in an effort to figure out where I’ve landed.

Adrenaline Crash – August 23, 2002

I wonder what I am after. I moved here to write. I moved here to be with friends. I moved here to be independent. I moved here to Do Something. I moved here to escape. I got all of those things, but I still feel like I have not achieved what I am meant to, have not done what I will end up doing. I wonder if everyone feels the same way, thinks they will soar across the sky like a comet, leaving a trail of little sparkles in their wake. I don’t like to admit that I feel I am on a journey, that I can almost feel electricity crackling around me when I am feeling good. But I do.

I am afraid I will fail. I am even more afraid that I will succeed. I feel pulled in a million different directions — do I work on my Web site, write another spec script and then another and another, take an acting or improv class, learn how to program, consider graduate school? I do not want choosing one path to preclude the others. At the same time, I cannot do it all at once; I am past that point where I can drive my body toward exhaustion, sleeping four hours a night, fueled by junk food and caffeine, working on sheer adrenaline. I wonder if there are too many choices, if it would have been simpler to follow the proscribed path of undergrad and then grad school immediately afterward, then work and marriage and children and never thinking about the sky and comets at all. Would I have been unhappy? I think I would have been, in spare moments here and there while washing dishes or sitting beside a child’s bed, but I do not know.

I am not done yet with the screenplays, the TV specs, the novel. I will be done, most likely, in a couple of years, and it will be time to take stock. I am afraid of that time, of the moment when I walk into a Kaplan center and sign up for the GRE. Am I defeated if I do that? Or am I doing the logical thing and moving on?

Going to grad school doesn’t mean I can’t still write, but it would be an ending, a coda to something that started when I collapsed beside my bedroom wall in New Jersey and decided I had to get out of there, had to give life a shot, had to get away from hospitals and sickness and the possibility that I might never leave my family and grow up. I don’t know if I am ready to give up all I have gained since then. I don’t know if I ever will be. But I am happy — full up with happiness, for the most part, as I drive through traffic at dusk with the windows down and music blaring and ocean air all around me. I want to share it with everyone, this feeling, but I don’t know how.

Peak Country – August 27, 2002

I was talking with my mom tonight on the phone. In the course of our conversation, I asked if she thought the United States has already peaked and is on the decline as a superpower. Personally, I believe it is. Several factors are gradually building to a head.

Retirement – Masses of people who are now in their late thirties to early fifties have saved hardly any money for retirement. Many of them carry credit card debt. They do not have IRAs, their 401(k)s have been hammered by the market, and pension plans have become virtually nonexistent in this country, so most of these mid-career workers do not have them. Is an entire generation that is used to a middle-class lifestyle going to subsist happily on Social Security? I am afraid we are becoming a society in which many people can never afford to retire. I think the phasing out of pension plans is a huge problem that will only become evident over a long period of time.

Health care – It’s not news that health care costs are out of control. But no one seems prepared to do anything about it. Legislators are beholden to insurance companies, so they are unlikely to initiate needed reform, and employers can only pass along so much of the cost of health insurance to employees before employees cease to be able to afford coverage. Health insurance needs to be decoupled from jobs, so that all people have access to at least basic care, with supplemental options for those who can afford them.

Credit card debt – The average American has several thousand dollars of credit card debt. With this kind of debt, it’s very difficult to save money, because interest accrued on savings is probably outweighed by interest accrued at high rates on credit card debt. Credit card companies may be happy with this situation, but who else is benefiting from our credit-crazy culture? Many apparently solvent people seem to be teetering on the brink of financial disaster, just a layoff away from bankruptcy.

As a result of these and other problems, the middle class is slowly shrinking as the costs of buying a home, paying property taxes, paying for college, etc. soar. Our educational system is in dire need of a complete revamp. We sue each other at the drop of a hat. Executives sell out shareholders while cashing out shares. We are at each other’s throats. Who needs wolves?

In contrast with earlier generations, I believe many Americans have grown up lazy, selfish and cowardly. After 9/11, a friend pointed out at dinner the other night, people offered a vast outpouring of sympathy and rediscovered the U.S. flag, but there was no increase in military enlistment, no long-term increase in charitable donations, just a return to bickering and self-righteous posturing. If something catastrophic were to happen, and a draft were instituted, I think there is a good chance that about 50 percent of those called would head for Canada.

It upsets me that I feel this way about my country. The United States is one of the greatest countries in the world — I have opportunities here that I would not have elsewhere, and I treasure them. I love America. But there are times when self-interest stops benefiting society and starts harming it instead. I believe we have reached such a point. With the number and complexity of problems we are currently facing, we need to work together to find workable solutions. I just don’t know if we have what it takes. I wonder what my grandparents would say we are missing.

Sister Act – June 25, 2002

I walked in the door, and she wasn’t there. The room was clean, fresh-smelling, the window open. She had taken the cell phone I left on the file cabinet. My note was still there, scribbled in red marker, with instructions for how to use the phone. I hope she remembers them.

I pick up my phone and dial my cell number, but I am shunted straight to voice mail. She does not have the phone turned on. That is understandable if she is at the Getty Center, as I suspect; art museums and cell phones don’t mix. But I wonder if she even went there; I wish she’d left me a note. My parents would be laughing at me now. I did this to them a lot.

I leave a message on the cell phone, playing it casual. I hope she’s having a good time at the Getty Center or wherever she went, and would she please give me a call if she gets this message and let me know where she is and when she will be back. That assumes she remembers the voice mail password, which is written on the sheet of paper on the file cabinet.

I remind myself that she has lived alone for a couple of years, that she knows how to take care of herself, that she has been to places I have not. I know she is fine, but I still worry. I instructed her to take a bus that I have never taken. It is mostly populated by students and tourists on the Getty Center route, but still. I am going to demonstrate the use of the cell phone when she gets back, instead of leaving a message on a piece of paper while she is still asleep.