Today I was reading a friend's facebook status. He was posting about the recent death of a friend's father from lung cancer. The friend was giving away stuff after and gave him some packs of his dad's cigarettes. As he put it, dripping with nicotine and irony, he was smoking a dead man's cigarettes. Addicts are funny that way. I probably would have done it, and felt creepy about it, but done it anyway. Because addicts will do just about anything for that addiction. We will justify whatever we need to do or say to get it.
It's been nine years. Nine years. And I don't want a cigarette when I used to want to cut off a body part to get one. But now it makes me curl my lip and turn away. I hate them. Hate the smell, hate being around them.
It's not as bad when I'm outside with the smokers but generally the smell just nauseates me. How did I get this way? From a die hard pack a day smoker with a heck of an addiction to someone who loathes the sight of them...
Self hypnosis, I think.
I had long and difficult realizations about how much cigarettes, the evil monkey, controlled my life and told me what to do and when to do it. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life, quitting for good. But when I made the decision, I was able to stay with it and be done. Finally. Because I quit like four or five times before, but it had not been a permanent thing. It's a mind set shift.
My final quit went like this...I was pregnant so I HAD to quit. I did it every time I was pregnant but I knew this time that this was my last pregnancy so I may as well quit for good. I had a pain in my chest every time I inhaled and I knew this was only going to get worse. And even though I was pregnant and didn't want to be forced to quit, I knew inside that it was time. And that if I went back after I had the baby, it would be totally stupid. Get it done now. I gave myself about two weeks to quit and I tried the whole... okay all the cigarettes are gone but it just did not work. I became neurotic as hell and went out and bought more. Even though I was only smoking one or two a day at the end, just the safety net of knowing I could get to them seemed to calm me.
So, I tried to get through one day without them, just set a goal of one day. I kept about five cigarettes in my bedside drawer. Just in case I was losing my mind. I counted the hours away from them. Told myself I could make it one hour, then one day, then one week. I forgot about them, eventually. I had been telling myself in my head every negative thing in the world that they had done for me.
I smiled at the thought of going on an airplane and not thinking about them the whole time. Flying all the way to Australia without a nicotine fit. Not having to step outside in the snow and cold to smoke. The thought of my hair smelling sweet again. Waking up in the morning and not coughing for ten minutes. Not having to leave the party and the conversation I was enjoying.
Finishing my thoughts without the monkey nagging at me. Being able to smell fresh cookies baking and the subtle scent of flowers in the next room. I thought to myself, what am I giving up but prison? I am giving up monkey jail. I am taking back my life, my freedom, the person I am, not the person I am with cigarettes. I no longer need them to feel less shy, less awkward, more cool. It was me there all the time, not them.
I found those cigarettes in the drawer some years later and I laughed and tossed them out. Because I no longer needed them, no longer wanted them. That quit was nine years ago. I have zero desire to have a cigarette. No temptation. And I realized that what I really found in all of this was ME.
This is why I don't drink really. Because I enjoy being my authentic self. Because I am fun, I am lively, I am enough. But somehow I did not know I was enough when I was a kid and I used cigarettes to ease the awkwardness, to fit in, to have something to do with my hands and to mask the confidence I did not have.
I had always quit before with the pregnancy and a temporary promise. To quit... until I was done carrying the baby.
I could do anything on a temporary basis. As soon as it was only me, I went right back to the monkey.
I had to find a way to change me. To find me. To convince me that I was worth saving all on my own. I would never let anyone boss me around like cigarettes did. When I realized that, I was free. I know it is over for good now. I love that. But I also know that others have to find their own path. At first, I tried to share this miracle secret. It worked for me, it will work for you. Hmmm, probably not so much. People have to find their own path to everything important and personal. If this story helps someone, I do hope it does but I realize now that my method was not the ultimate cure for anyone but me.
I wish luck out there for anyone that is going through this right now.
Today, July 20, 2014, I read this for my mother at her funeral service. I have copied it here.
I think the first thing that you should know is that, my mom was awesome. Really awesome. And all of you that knew her knew what a great sense of humor she had. She was so funny and she loved to laugh. I would come over to her house meaning to just drop something off and we would end up in the kitchen having tea and just laughing and telling stories. I told my mother everything. My husband would call and say where are you? And I would tell him I was with my mother and he knew he wasn't going to see me for a few hours.
My mother left me a lot of beautiful memories for a lifetime of stories. I can only share some of them with you here today but I will be talking about my mother for the rest of my days. She was the first person I loved, the first person I smiled for and to say that I adored her is an understatement. She will always be my heroine. My mother told me a lot of stories growing up about her mother, her grandmother and all the really amazing women in her family and her life. Her stories were so vibrant that even if I had not met these people, her words always left me with pictures in my head.
She would always say to me “Vanessa, you inherited all of my vices and none of my virtues.” and then she would smile, because I think she was quite proud I inherited her strong will. You see, my mother was always quite determined, and when she got a thing in our head, she would find a way, even in the rest of the world was not quite sure she should.
My favorite memories will always be coming in to her bedroom at night and getting in bed with her while she had her evening ice cream. She used to share the ice cream bowl with her favorite cats, who would wait at the end of the bed until she was done and then lick the bowl. Her favorite cats were never the easy, friendly ones. She loved the difficult cats who did not always come to you, but when they chose you, they loved you completely. My mother always appreciated a bargain, a coupon or gem of a thing underpriced at a flea market. She taught me to haggle and she taught me to walk away if the price was too high. But mostly, she understood the value of things, and she knew the value of joy in what you loved was not a thing to be taken for granted.
My mother loved opera, cats and chocolate. Not necessarily in that order. And she loved to travel. Many times, I traveled with her and she took me to the most wonderful places but the times I did not get to go, she always brought me something. The souvenirs were lovely but the best thing she brought home were stories.
Once I asked my mother what she would do if she won the lottery. She smiled and told me “I will never win the lottery because I don't gamble. I learned my lesson a long time ago about gambling.” and of course, there was a story to come with that.
Once when she was quite young, she and some friends went out to Coney Island for the day and they ended up doing some gambling. My mother bet it all and lost it. Her friends ended up leaving and she got into an argument with the boy she was with and he left. There she was, alone without any money or way to get home and in quite a fix. In desperation, she combed the beach for empty bottles to turn in for enough change to catch the subway and after a long time, she had enough. As she was riding home on the subway, she told me, she made a deal with God. She promised she would never gamble again if God would arrange for her to have an opera ticket whenever she really needed one. And God kept his part of the bargain. She always got an opera ticket when she needed one. Even the most extraordinarily difficult tickets to get. My mother always found a way.
When she first heard that The Three Tenors were going to do a concert in Italy in 1990, I could feel her excitement and I knew this was a concert she simply had to attend. That concert was going to be magic and tickets were brutally difficult to come by. In the first round of sales, she was not able to get one.
By sheer coincidence, my mother had gotten a grant to go to Italy that summer and do research, so that was the beginning of the stars aligning. On faith alone, and without a ticket in hand, she traveled to the ancient Baths of Caracella and was lodged in a nearby convent. A woman named Laine was there with her daughter and they did not have tickets either. Laine had gotten a tip earlier in the day of a woman who had two tickets for sale and she invited my mother to go with her, but alas there were only two tickets and not three. Still, my mother did not give up, she spent all day looking and asking and finally, she ended up sitting and waiting at the box office hours before the concert. Then, miraculously, a few tickets became available. Because she had been so kind to the woman at the box office, my mother was the first to be called over when the returns started coming in and she got her ticket at last.
Turns out, this was the beginning of a very beautiful friendship with Laine and those two had more adventures than I can describe here today but I can tell you, I loved hearing about every one.
Opera was always important to my mother but as important was education. I don't think I understood how important for a long time until she told me this story.
My mother got her Bachelors degree in English from Hunter College but she wanted more, so she applied for a scholarship and was accepted to Yale University into their PhD program. I asked her once why she chose Yale over other Ivy league universities and she smiled a wry smile at me and said “It was close enough to New York that I could still take the train to the opera whenever I wanted.”
My mother came of college age in the 1950's when America was telling women to stay home, be housewives and don't think too much. But education was important to her. Hanging on the wall in Forsyth, Georgia are the diplomas of her grandmother, and her mother. So, she pursued a higher education in a time when women went to college to get their “MRS” degree and quit as soon as they would accomplish that goal. Though my mother had a lot of suitors, she met and married my father at Yale in her first year, but she never once considered giving up her education goals. She actually only missed one class when she was pregnant with my older brother and that was when she had to take the train to New York to give birth.
The following semester, she returned to school and was called in to the office to discuss her scholarship. It had come to administrations attention that my mother had gotten married to my father, a fellow scholarship student, pursuing his degree in English. She was told that she was losing her scholarship. My mother was stunned. She couldn't understand what she could have done. She was an A student. When she asked for a reason, she was told that administration no longer felt she needed the scholarship and that it should go to some young man who needed it to have a career and support a family. After all, she was told, it was unseemly for her to undermine her husband in this way, she was married, she did not need her education, she should now be supportive to her husband. My mother then asked “Am I being kicked out of the program?” He said no, she was just losing her scholarship. She asked “If I find the money to pay for school, can I stay in the program?”
In my mind, I imagine the shocked look on the administrators face as he hears this question. And the answer. “Sure, if you can find the money, you can stay and finish.”
In my mind, this man did not expect my mother to do it. But he did not know my mother very well. If you put a brick wall in front of my mother, she just found a way to climb it.
And because my mother was who she was, she found a way. She worked two jobs and went to school full time, she got some help from her family and she finished her PhD, while raising my older brother. I cannot begin to tell you what this means to a little girl who happens to be her daughter. The day she told me that story, I knew my mother was magic. I knew that I held in me a piece of that magic and I knew that day that I would always find a way to reach my goals because she had. She had showed me that the impossible is sometimes possible anyway.
As she stood beside me the day I graduated from college, I knew that I had found a way because she taught me not to give up on your education when you really wanted it. My mother loved us all fiercely and we loved her just as fiercely. An extraordinary woman. An extraordinary life.
Recently, I spent two days working on a film for a guy I know who is a pretty talented film maker. I like his work, want to see him succeed and therefore I volunteered my time to help his film get made. I also donated to his crowdfunding campaign. Supporting local talent is important to me. I chose to be a production assistant for him for a couple days I had to give him that would not cost me a babysitter or anything but my time. I like and admire this filmmaker, he cares about his craft and I wanted very much to see how he worked.
I did get the opportunity to learn about him, too and the way he works. This is all very useful and interesting to me to watch others practice their craft. There is always something to be learned and absorbed. I've learned a few things about myself in that time as well.
First, I'm too experienced in this business to be a production assistant (PA). It's frustrating to me, but there were definite pros in this situation. It really is barely one step above extra in the process and while both roles are completely and utterly necessary, and very important, it's hard for me to do for a number of reasons, which I will explain in a minute. But first, the positives, of which there are many.
I'm glad I did it. I got to watch the behind the scenes in a way from a point of view that I haven't in a long time. I watched how people treated me. These are people I might hire later to work on my shoot. I want to know what they are like when they are not kissing the producer or director's butt. How will they treat an extra or a lowly PA? Not just to their face but behind doors when they think no one is listening. It's kinda like being undercover boss. Oh, how much you can hear when no one thinks you care or are listening. Or everyone just kind of believes you are nobody. It was nice to be anonymous or, mostly anonymous on this shoot. A few people I have worked with. It's enough to have some friendly faces and some good conversation.
I got to talk with the actors, the crew and the extras, that is really nice. And it was a little humbling at the same time to see myself back in this position and view it in a different way. I haven't been a fresh faced PA in a long time
and it was eye opening.
The funny part was I do a lot of this stuff on my own sets. When I produced a feature film last summer, I did a lot of cleaning up, a lot of setting up and a lot of helping out. That is just who I am no matter what set I am on.
So... setting up craft services is nothing new to me. Being told to do it is. I'm usually the one either doing it or telling people what to do. I'm used to being the producer or the director. I did a good deal of PA work and enough extra work in college to let me know I don't want to be an extra again. Not that there is anything wrong with it. Being an extra is great for people with no film experience or little acting experience that just want to meet people and see what a movie set is like. It's even fun for them. It's not fun for me. At all. I think it was the first time but I am just too ambitious to be happy in that place. If you want to be an actor, be an extra once or twice but don't make it a regular thing. Audition, take acting classes, study your craft.
If you don't want to be an actor, but you love movies, please be an extra! It will be fun for you and you will get to see yourself in a movie. Show up and expect to wait but know that we filmmakers are very grateful that you are there. Thank you for your time and your energy. You are very important and we value you more than you know.
Now, I said there were some less than positive things I figured out.
I remember when I was ten years old and we were asked to run for class president for a month. I didn't want to. I didn't want to be a leader. It terrified me. I thought I would always be a follower, that I would always be the person who was doing what I was told to do and was grateful just to be there. I'm not ten any more. I'm a leader. I had no idea I was meant to be that way but at some point I grew into it.
No one wanted my opinion of what the shot looked like or the camera position of what I thought of the actors. That is what I am meant to do in this world. I am meant to direct and when I am not doing it, well, it actually physically hurts! It actually bothered me deep down in ways that I am not sure I can adequately describe. It's kind of like watching through a window.
There is great joy for me every time I am on a movie set. I love the action, everything going on, I love a working set and this set, I must say, it ran beautifully. Great people were hired, there were wonderful attitudes and smart people and the set was terrific.
But I was consistently stifling who I am.
I need to stop looking for other people's work to do and get my own done. I was not meant for that job. I have too much ambition, too many ideas, too much... other.
If anything, it reinforces for me how far I have come over time. I am ready. Oh, the things I need to put out into the world. I'm not going to be truly happy until I am leading my own set. This was an exercise in frustration for me and I don't need any more frustration. I need to find funding and get my dreams on paper and then out into the world.
When I was a teenager, I remember the pressure to drink was kind of intense. Everyone was doing it. Personally, I hated alcohol, from the way it tasted to the way it made me feel. Sure I tried it, but I hated it. Still, I noticed people had a comfort level at parties and if they saw that YOU were not drinking, they avoided you, somehow felt you were judging them. I've never been willing to "acquire a taste" for something I don't like. Why? I don't care for coffee or scotch. I don't see that changing. I'm not sure where the line changes for people's need to have alcohol to have fun- no one suggests that a group of 8 year olds at a birthday party needs to "have a drink" so they can lighten up and have fun. I think 8 year olds have pretty much cornered the market on having fun. Yet, somewhere along the line, somewhere between say... 8 and 14, somehow it is no longer acceptable to just have fun without the addition of some sort of artificial fun stimulant.
I see all kinds of facebook posts telling women to survive parenthood you need wine. I guess in the fifties wine was also valium. So, in some way we are supposed to start suppressing whatever emotion we have and then we get to a party and we need to stimulate it so we are fun.
When did we lose the ability to just have fun? We need permission to "let loose"?
In high school, it was easy... I noticed that if they "thought" I was drinking, that was all that mattered. So, I would casually take a beer, open it up, take a horrendous first sip and set it down next to me.
I never touched it for the rest of the party. Someone would come by and ask me "hey, you need a beer?" and I would say "Thanks, I just got one." or "Whew, I need to sober up, you got any soda?"
This did not get any better when I was a grown up.
But I did stop faking it, because, it wasn't really MY problem if you thought I should drink. I have always known how to have a good time and I make my bad decisions sober, thank you very much. I like my wits, I've spent years with them and I like to take them out at parties and show them off, as for my sense of humor, it's just fine. I don't need to enhance it with dulling my senses or interrupt my hilarious story because I have to go puke now.
I encourage teenagers to "fake it" because two things- first, you learn that it really is okay to be the sober person at the party, and second, you learn that people's perception really is a false sense of security. If they perceive you as drinking and you learn you don't need to do that to fit in, you really have an easier time figuring out who you are, absent some fake fun stimulant.
Underneath that beer, that double vodka tonic... I hate to break it to you, you are still you.
But all that being said, I never cared if other people drank or got drunk or made general fools of themselves. It was amusing to me.
I have been drunk in my life. It takes far less for me to get drunk and it happens pretty fast. I have had the experience, and I have never much cared for it. Sometimes I will have one drink, sometimes even two. It's a rarity but a lot of times people love that I am always willing to be the designated driver.
People got used to me being sober, my real friends did. Strangers and new friends still question me regularly. Why don't you drink? Is there some reason you can't drink? (That's code for 'are you an alcoholic?')
What do you mean you don't like it? Well, I guess I shouldn't drink if you aren't going to. NO, please, by all means, go ahead! If I ask the waitress to hold the tomatoes on my sandwich, you do not need to hold the tomatoes on yours! It's not necessary!
I tell you what, I have done more foolish things sober than I ever did while I was drinking. Maybe I just don't need my inhibitions lowered because I learned how to relax and have a good time without the additional fun stimulant. I guarantee that I was just as shy if not more shy when I started out, I was terrified to talk to people I did not know. When I was a teenager, it was really hard, sometimes it was cripplingly difficult. I know- hard to believe now but I was terrified. But I just got out there and did it to the point that eventually I was comfortable. I guess alcohol was not making it better and it might do that for some people, I have sympathy for that, I really do. It's darned hard to be terrified to talk to people at a party.
I've been with alcoholics after they get sober. They are lost at a party, it's really hard for them to figure out how to socialize without the alcohol. I feel bad for them. Now they have to answer all those same questions and when or if they reveal the problem with alcohol, people get all squirrely and stupid and make them even more uncomfortable. It's ridiculous.
I guess my whole point here is that-- we really should stop pressuring people about alcohol. It's your problem if you want someone else to drink to make you feel better. Get over it. I'm sorry if you perceive me as not fun because I am not drinking, that really is your problem. Yes, I like to go to bars, yes I like to go to parties, yes I like to go to concerts and yes I like to have a good time!
I don't want to have to fake drink to make you more comfortable. We should be past that by now, don't you think?
When I was growing up, I was an only girl and all the time the boys in my family were allowed to walk at night alone and do things and go places I was not allowed. I was taught to fear the unknown and fear being raped and attacked and that somehow if I stayed in or was never alone this would not happen.
Nevertheless, when I was a teen, I snuck out of the house at late hours and walked at night, by myself in the middle of the street, fearing the bogeyman on every block. I did it anyway. I was hyper aware of myself and everything around me.
I wish I could tell you that bad things never happened to me. They did. A couple of times. But not because I was walking alone at night. But because bad things happen. In my own home, I was beaten up by my father, so being home did not protect me, either. Once when I was seventeen and walking at night. Once I was with my boyfriend at night in the garage behind my house and a stranger came in and held a gun to my head. Once I was in the parking lot at Taco Bell at 9 PM and I was mugged and punched in the face. That was the time I fought back and refused to give up my car keys.
Another time some creepy dude was yelling obscenities at me and following my boyfriend and me through Paris and I chased him away. Yep, I used to cower but now I just have decided to be a bad ass bitch about it.
So, since bad things have happened, you would think I would "know better" than to walk through parks at night and to go to dangerous places in Central London and Times Square or Toronto and walk around at 3 am. But I refuse to let the bastards who hurt me or fear of the unknown keep me inside when I feel like taking a walk or being out. And of all the times I have been alone at night in places, very rarely have I been attacked.
I lived in London for three months and I walked home alone every night through alleys and side streets and along main roads. And all those times, I survived just fine.
I am aware of two things. First, that anything can happen to me at any time. My dear friend was kidnapped and raped while she was walking her dog in a lovely "safe" neighborhood at 9 am. A perfectly acceptable time for a woman to be outside. Second, I refuse to let fear rule my life.
Men do not live in the same way that women do- they have not grown up with the fear of rape being pounded into their heads to the point that they believed somehow that their actions will prevent that bad from happening. They are not street harassed and physically and sexually intimidated the same way we are.
And I live my life aware, I listen wholly to my instincts. If something tells me to get the heck out of there, I do. I don't bother with pretense if someone is walking to close to me and I don't care if it seems like I might be hurting their feelings if I cross the street. But I will not allow all this to make me afraid to be out at night. Ever. Not everyone can live this way and I don't expect them to do so. I'm not advocating this for anyone else>
I refuse to be kept inside. I refuse to modify my life to accommodate some terror that people want me to believe and honestly, if something bad happens, I'm not going to hold myself responsible. Fortunately, I have survived some pretty awful stuff. I refuse to let this stuff make me miss out on living my life in the manner in which I want. I refuse to apologize for being unafraid to go places I am not supposed to go.
This is still my life, I still get to own it.
As a theater artist, and a writer, my emotions are always right near the surface for me. It's this access to emotions that allows me to do what I do. I'm easily moved by things connecting with me on an emotional level and it's easy for me to make those connections when I am doing theater.
Last year, I co-wrote a piece with Joan Lipkin called "One World". All the performers used our real life experiences to draw on for material to talk about. It's an emotional piece of a story I give, and it took me a long time to fight the emotion back when I give the monologue, but I can keep it at bay now. I've said the words enough. Everything is still real, just not raw like it was when we first started doing it.
I mean, I know me. I can't speak of the story of the death of my cat without crying, and there are many topics which I feel very deeply. I'm rarely caught off guard at my emotional reaction to things. It doesn't mean I'm sad and I hate that it makes some people uncomfortable but it's who I am. I feel deeply, completely and with my whole body. I feel lucky that I can do that.
I think I'm just used to being out there on my own with those emotions. Not like I don't have very supportive friends but there are so many times when I don't have time to be emotional and fall apart. Uh oh, my kid just sliced himself open. Time to head to the emergency room to patch it up.
I don't have time to cry when things need to be done. That's the way it is with being a mom.
When I was told my son had autism, I didn't really believe it. I didn't believe what they were telling me. I pushed down every emotional reaction to it.
It was largely their fault. They told me in the worst possible way. I paraphrase...
"We aren't really sure what his issue is but this is as close as we can come, so we are fitting him in this box."
They led me to believe that it may not be a real diagnosis. They let me be in denial. They allowed me the opportunity to keep him in denial. I joined no support group. I searched out no one with a similar diagnosis. I didn't really tell my family. I glossed over the truth regularly.
Later, much later, as I began to look closely at it, I realized he really was a kid with autism. Middle school and high school came along and teachers began to list for me the things he would never do.
He won't go to college.
He won't be able to have a loving relationship.
He won't be able to have a complicated job.
He will never understand figurative language.
I became very angry with this list. They don't know! He was always a little genius inside that mind. His artistic sense was very strong. He did not have the patience for school and they would never really understand him.
My monologue is this:I will never know if my son was born this way or he became this way. When he was ten years old, he was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder. This is a form of autism. It came with a list of things they said he would never do. I never showed him that list. I burned it, along with the idea that he would ever be limited by someone elses narrow definition of who he is.
Today in rehearsal, as we were playing around with those words and different inflections of that monologue, we decided to try having some of the cast come up behind me and lay hands on my shoulder.
I thought this was a great idea!
And then it happened, the first woman lay her hand on my shoulder while I was saying those words.
I'm afraid those emotions got loose immediately.
What I had never allowed myself at any time was to feel or ask for any support in all of this. There was business to be done. I would go in and routinely fight for my son, fight to get the most of out the IEP. Grieve when his flat affect would cost him job interviews. Rage when teachers would not understand his disability and argue with him about the most mundane things like taking the trash out.
That small moment of support... and where it came from... completely undid me. Those tears fell hard and fast because I pushed them down for years. I did not even know I had that well in there. I did not know I ever needed support, but apparently, I did.
I love rehearsal. I love creating. I'm not going to uncover that anywhere else exactly like that. I know there are so many mothers out there stoically carrying on. Not even realizing they have unshed tears they are saving up in a box for some other day because today, we have to fight this battle and there is no time to cry. And I know, one thing I know for sure, is there is going to be that person in the audience who will connect with that moment. Meanwhile, I am thankful to have found it. It's good to know it is there.
Let me start at the beginning. Stick with me through the prologue...
In 1970, a Washington University student named Howard Mechanic was accused of throwing a cherry bomb in a Vietnam war protest on campus. This cherry bomb started a fire and Howard was arrested. A bunch of people thought Howard was innocent, and one of them was my dad, who was a professor of English at Wash U. So, faculty and staff all went down to the courthouse to help post bail for Howard.
Now, why his family did not do this, I have no idea but Howard had a lot of support and quite a few people showed up for him. Lucky guy.
But the judge was kind of an ass, and wouldn't take bail from all these people- instead, he insisted one person or one family be on the hook for the whole thing, and unfortunately my parents were the people with the house to put up.
So, the judge made my parents, with four young children and a pretty new mortgage put up their house as collateral for this student they barely knew.
My mother said she made him look her in the eye and promise that he would show up.
This is a longer story, but feel free to google Howard Mechanic to get his story.
The end of this one is- the jerk did not show up. He jumped bail and disappeared for 28 years. My parents almost lost their house. Four children were almost made homeless. Luckily the community came together and saved our family from this awful fate, not that Howard Mechanic ever knew or cared about the consequences of his actions.
Well, one day, 28 years later, Howard Mechanic is caught doing something stupid (running for office in Arizona) and there is a media frenzy. My mother hears this on the news and just shakes her head. My father thinks this is nice and for some reason is all about being on board with Howard being pardoned. Really? What about what we know he did for sure? Like jump bail? Even if he is innocent of the cherry bomb crime, he still committed a crime, and put us in a terrible place. But no thank you to us. No apology for almost making four kids homeless.
But I digress. The media frenzy is happening. Howard is all over the news. The reporter that discovered him is all over the news. St. Louis and Washington U is all abuzz with the news. The marquis of the record store up the street says "Free Howard Mechanic" and I call them and ask them to please take it down, my parents live three blocks away.
Then, Dateline calls. They have discovered my parents are the ones who put up the bail. Immediately, my dad says yes to the interview. I was very excited. I wanted to watch all of it and I did. I took the kids to school and show up at my parent's house and watch the whole thing! I chatted with the camera guys... I was in film school at the time. My mother respectfully declines to be interviewed but Josh Mankiewicz smells blood in the water. My mother does not agree with my father. She's still pissed off with him about what he did. He realizes quickly that this will make a better interview with her.
So, the producers do what they do best. They flatter and convince my mother to get on camera. It doesn't take too much, and my father realizes that she is going to have her say. I am in the background silently cheering! Go Mom! Be the one person who says it is not the act of a HERO to run away! Stop making this guy out to be some kind of martyr for the cause. The justice system is still the bad guy but this is not how you deal with problems.
My mother famously says "I always tell my children, 'say what you mean and clean up your own mess' Howard Mechanic did neither."
This quote makes it on the air and I cheer. It was a good interview but they use just a clipping of my parents, which is fine. Story is not about them after all.
Now all in all, this is a pretty good story as is. The Howard Mechanic group sends my dad a plaque for his support. What the hell ever. There is still no apology from him. There is still no offer to pay us back the bail money. But that is all over and life goes on.
Until the phone rings... and there is a complete surprise on the other end.
Now, before I tell you this part, I'm going to back up a little bit.
All my life, my mother told me stories about her very best friend growing up, Elaine. My mother grew up in New York City in Queens and all I ever heard about was how much fun Elaine was. She was smart and beautiful and kind and she was the best friend ever. Honestly, Elaine was larger than life to me. I would get so excited when my mother would tell another Elaine story. She told me once that she had even considered naming me Elaine at one point. I knew right then and there that I wanted to name a daughter Elaine.
When my mother was pregnant with me, we had gone to California to live and I was born out there in Santa Monica. Around the same time, Elaine had moved to Florida and they had lost touch with one another. One of the saddest parts of the Elaine stories was my mother lamenting how much she missed her and how awful it was to have lost touch with her. It made my heart ache and I wanted more than anything to find Elaine for my mother.
The years went by and I did indeed have a daughter, and I named her Cassandra Elaine. I smiled and wished that just once, I could meet Elaine and tell her how much I had enjoyed hearing about her. But more than anything, I wanted my mother to be able to reunite with her best friend.
And who knew that Howard Mechanic and all of his misdeeds would lead us to that moment... for the voice on the other end of the phone indeed did belong to Elaine. She had been watching that episode of Dateline and there was my mother on her television set. She found her listed in the phone book and called her up the very next day.
And yes, of course, there was the most joyous of reunions. They connected like not a day had gone by as only best friends can, and shamelessly, I admit, even now I have tears in my eyes writing this because that happy ending could not have come for two better friends.
I met Elaine a few years later when I was driving down to Florida. She was a little surprised I wanted to meet her so much but I really did. I made a special trip to Winter Park, Florida. This woman was a part of a story in my head. When she opened the door to me, she lost her breath for a minute. I look a lot like my mother and apparently this really stunned her. Behind me was another daughter who looks just like me, and just like my mother when she was about eight or nine and that threw her even further.
Elaine was delightful and I wasn't at all put off by the staring. I understand that part. I'm going to end this story here in that, this is one of those really bizarre miracle things that happens. I don't want to be exactly grateful to Howard Mechanic but it makes it harder to completely dislike him. Instead, I'm happy that the Universe aligned in such a way that all those thoughts went out to connect two friends one more time.
Early on, when I was learning to tell stories, and sitting in my writing classes reading other people's stories, the idea that truth is not credible came up as a topic. And I find myself nodding vigorously.
I'm one of those people who, when watching a movie or reading a book, will say "Oh, come on, that would never happen! It's not credible, it's not possible, it's too much of a stretch!"
And in class, over and over I would hear...
"But that's the way it DID happen!"
When will you all realize- that doesn't matter? Truth will always be stranger than fiction. Unless you're doing a documentary, you cannot tell a story that way. Why? Because your audience has to believe you! Your truth is not a defense if we, the audience does not believe you. Yes, you have to be a skilled liar.
I don't spend a lot of time lying any more. I tried it out when I was around 9, 10, 11 and found out- making things up to make my life more interesting was getting me in trouble when I got caught out. It wasn't worth it. Instead, I made my life more interesting, so my true stories were more fun to tell. And when I had something I wanted to make up, I channeled my lies into my fiction and worked very hard at making them credible.
But I learned HOW to lie.
I think lies are important.
Sometimes, they are necessary and life saving.
You should be judicious with them and save them for only the most dire circumstances.
Casual lies will kill your credibility and destroy your friendships and ruin you.
If I tell a lie, which I don't very often, it's for a much greater good. I find casual lies stupid and pointless, and I have removed them from my life so that I can build positive and strong friendships, and of course, I am thankful that my bff weathered this period of my life with grace and love and taught me that she could catch me out every time, I am so grateful she was such a good detective. Life lessons from your friends are sometimes painful but when it is done with care, they are good! But I digress.
Here, I want to tell you a true story. A story I could never turn into fiction, as so much of my truth ends up in my fiction, and I tell lies around it. Here is a very true story, though.
I recently went to Florida with my husband and we decided to leave the car in long term parking. At this point in my life, I have a 16 year old daughter. This combination of things has led me to this particular memory.
When I was sixteen years old, I was pretty adventure seeking and engaged in some risky and exciting behavior. I freely admit I was a thrill seeker and I was a kid with a very active imagination. This is one of my stupider antics.
My parents already did not trust me for a number of reasons. One of which was that I had a history of "borrowing the car without permission". So, they had to take a weekend business trip and instead of just taking a cab to the airport or getting a ride, they decided to leave the car in long term parking. I was not going to be allowed to use it for the weekend. It was the first time they had ever left my brother and I alone for the weekend. I was 16, he was 14.
Naturally, I was dating a jerk who really brought out the worst in me.
I'm not saying this was his fault, but every time I would have a stupid idea, he encouraged me to go through with it.
I'm not sure I would have even listened to my best friend on this but she and several other friends with common sense would have at least attempted to talk me out of it. But no, I surrounded myself with people who would encourage the thrill seeking and foolish behavior.
I knew my mom pretty well and my mom, much to my chagrin, knew me pretty well. She assumed that I might be up to something and also thought that leaving that car in long term parking MIGHT keep it safe.
What I knew was that I could get by with using the "lost ticket story" and pay the maximum. I think it was something like $12 or $15. I cannot remember how but someone gave me and my idiot boyfriend a ride out to the airport and dropped us off. I immediately went to the cheapest lot, no way my mom was going to more when she didn't have to! And, miraculously, we found the car right away. Talking my way out of the lot was easy. I'm a girl. I looked innocent enough. They have a policy on lost tickets. We were soon on our way to freedom and a car for the weekend.
Very carefully, I took note of three things, the gas gauge, the position of the driver's seat and the parking space the car had been in. I knew that I had to return the car with exactly the same gas, exactly the same seat position and put it back in the same place. Okay, so I know you all are thinking, how stupid was I? Someone else was going to park in that spot, right? In fact, I worried about that all weekend.
The first thing I told my idiot, asshole boyfriend was "Whatever you do, don't smoke in the car."
He promptly scoffed at that and told me he could roll down the window and it would air out in plenty of time. I'm ashamed to say I allowed him to do this without kicking up a fuss and when he mocked my driving and my gender, I also allowed him to drive. (Well, anyone that knows me now can clearly see how all that has changed) Back then, though, I was a real pleaser and desperate for him to love me and to make him happy. It's easy to see now how being raised by a controlling and punishing abusive father and a mother who would do anything to keep the peace resulted in this. Fortunately, I was able to carve out a better future for myself, but this asshole was only a version of my dad, a drunken version but a version of a controlling, abusive person nonetheless.
But I'm not blaming him for this. This was, shamefully, my idea. I let idiot boyfriend drive even though he didn't even have a driver's license! So, you know, we used the car all weekend and we didn't even do anything that exciting that we couldn't have done without a car. We picked up some people for Rocky Horror and drove them around. Big deal. They could always find other rides. On Sunday, I was starting to feel deep regret and deeper worry. You see, I could control the gas gauge and the seat position, but the parking space was another matter entirely. I started thinking to myself how pointless and stupid this whole thing had been. I was going to get myself in trouble for no reason at all other than my own stupidity and selfishness. It was partly an experiment in what I could get away with, I guess?
I don't know, I didn't usually do things like this. This was purely an exercise in foolishness and while I could certainly be foolish, usually the things I did had actual purpose, even if they didn't make sense to anyone but me. But this time, even as an impulsive sixteen year old, I was clear headed enough to see I had gone too far and the likelihood that I was going to get caught was increasing by the second.
Idiot boyfriend went with me to return the car. He insisted on driving again. My nerves became increasingly tight as we got nearer to the long term parking lot. Then, the worst happened. The lot was blocked off entirely. No one was allowed in. The sign at the front said the lot was full. I couldn't even return it to a nearby spot. Completely screwed!
We circled around to a place where he pulled over and Idiot boyfriend rolled down the window and lit a cigarette.
"What are you doing??" I yelled at him.
I mean, really, what did he care if I got caught. It was all on me, wasn't it? He couldn't even be bothered to get out of the car and smoke. I was so angry. But he just yelled back at me that it didn't make any difference now and he needed to think. Blah blah blah, the selfish prick continued on. Idiot boyfriend proceeded to curse and bang on the wheel and generally make an even bigger idiot out of himself.
Then, I did something. I told him to get out of the driver's seat and put out the cigarette and I was going to do the thing I knew how to do. Charm and convince.
Idiot boyfriend was never going to have that skill, and I have to tell you, it was something that was going to come in handy for me again and again. Make fun of my gender all you want, insult my driving because I am female and because you think you can, but YOU, idiot man with no couth and no charm, will never be able to convince a complete stranger to want to help you.
And that is what I did. I rolled up to the guy in the booth and I told him a sad story. I don't even fully remember what it was, but it was a lie so convincing and sympathetic that the gate opened. I told him I needed to get that car back in that lot and could I please, please just go in? And he let me. Because a smile and a kindness and honey in my words are something my idiot boyfriend will never recognize as a skill.
And this is the part where I could never fictionalize this story. This was the miracle. That same spot was open. The place I had taken the car from just appeared in front of me. And I pulled into that spot.
Joyfully, we celebrated, jumping up and down in excitement! I adjusted the seat back and exited the car and we ran to catch our ride home. I remember thinking to myself, the only thing that can get me caught now is the smokey smell. But who would believe it? How could my mother possibly believe that I could take the car, joy ride for the weekend and return it to the same spot? It was impossible, right? Never happen that way. No one in their right mind would believe it. I could never tell a fictional story and get you to believe that happened that way. But it did.
So, I went home and sat in the living room, feeling fairly confident that I would not be caught. I mean, I wanted to be an actress, so I just acted calm. I waited. My parents came through the door and everything seemed normal for about thirty seconds. I had gotten away with it. I mean... like most kids, I had gotten away with multiple things that my parents did not know about, so... this would be the next thing.
I have to tell you, from my sixteen year old perspective-- this was a victimless crime. No one got hurt. The car was in as perfect condition as when they left it. No harm, no foul, right? But that feeling of well being did not last long at all. In a few minutes after they put their luggage away, they started to question me. In a way that implied they knew I had taken the car. They told me that the attendant had ratted me out.
Really? That seemed kind of strange to me. I had that guy on my side, I was sure of it.
Eventually, though, I just confessed.
Yeah, I did it. I mean, what were they going to do now? It was over, the thing had happened, it was over. I had been caught after, not before. So... okay. I was in trouble. What else was new. I was always in trouble back then.
So, I had to know. What tipped them off?
The smell of smoke?
Turns out not so much.
It was the seat position. It was not exact. Now, I KNOW I put that seat back! I know I did.
Last week, I went to my mother and asked her what it was. I mean, all of the things were so minor, unless someone is paying a lot of attention, you would really not even notice them. How many little things do we let go of on a daily basis. You know, that mirror is not in exactly the right position... hmmm, maybe I bumped it? Both my parents drive that car and they both move the seat from time to time...
But here it was - what tipped my mother off (because my dad did not suspect a thing)
She said to me. "I knew you were going to do it."
I asked "Why is that, Ma?"
She said "Because I knew YOU."
And really, at the end of all of this, it was because my mother knew how I worked. She was paying attention to me. All this time, I thought she had no idea who I am (and now my own sixteen year old daughter thinks I have no idea who she is) but my mom knew who I was. She knew my favorite meals, my favorite color, my strengths, my weaknesses. She was paying attention to who I was. Not some version of me like my dad made up in his head. So, when she got into the car, she was already looking for the little signs that would tip her off, and so they were easy to find.
Ah, the fierce love of my mother. Last week, I told her I was sorry (again) that I did that. I took full responsibility for the stupid, reckless and idiot thing that I did. She shook her head and said this was probably her fault somehow. No, Ma, that will never be your fault. You definitely raised me better than that, it just took a while for me to stop being so foolish and to grow up.
Still, it is comforting to know that there is someone in the world who knows me, my strengths and my faults- and chooses to love me, anyway.
I welcome 2014. As someone with a silly ass fear of the number 13, I did not take many risks in 2013. I just tried to survive it. Silly, I know, but my life did not take any major leaps. I was just waiting it out like a bad storm.
This year a new moon fell on January 1st, the first time that has happened in 19 years. Coincidentally, it was 19 years ago on New Years Eve, as Blueberry Hill was closing that an impulsive 20 something guy surprised me by taking me gently by the shoulders and planting a kiss on my lips in the new falling snow as I bid him goodnight. Nineteen years later, that guy is my husband and he kisses me on New Year's eve under the new moon as we arrive home together.
On the way to attending a party, in the car, my husband says to me. "I'm really glad 2013 is over. It was a terrible year."
"Really?" I said "Name three things."
He thought for a minute and said "Well, my stupid car broke down like once a month, so I couldn't save any money."
He went on. "And we had to get the terrible news that our daughter has ADHD and dyslexia. Now we have to pay all that money to a really expensive school."
I said "Now, hang on a minute..."
I say, and prepare a really good answer for this...
"This is not a matter of bad things happening. This is a matter of your perspective on things."
"How do you mean?" He asks.
"Think about it," I said. "We had been wandering around in the dark not knowing what was going on with Isabella and she was steady struggling with a terrible teacher in a school that totally misdiagnosed her. By the time we got her to a real doctor and found out what was really wrong with her- even though it punched us in the gut, it was really good news. We finally had answers! We finally knew definitively what was wrong and we had a solid approach on how to treat her. So, if you think about it, that was actually good news."
"That's true." He said.
"And as for that expensive school, I am happy to spend the money at a school where our daughter can get the education she needs. I'm grateful for that place every day. And you love it as much as I do. But most importantly, Isabella is happy there, and she is learning to work with her disability. We found a really great doctor and the medication she is on is actually working. How are these things bad?"
John stops and thinks "You're right, you know? I guess those are good things."
"Now, as for your car..."
John said "just stop there, I'm feeling better. Quit while you're ahead."
Happy New Year everyone. I hope your perspective stays optimistic and your struggles have purpose.