Friday, September 7, 2018

Home, finally

Motif #1 is said to be one of America's most photographed scenes. It's located in Rockport's harbor, and sometimes it gets wrapped up in a big green bow for the holidays.

A few of us awaken to home; others have to seek it. I’m one of the latter. At 70 I’m finally here. Home.

For a few years in the early ‘90s I lived in the downstairs apartment of a big house owned by Lura Hall Phillips. An activist on behalf of Rockport, Massachusetts, she never held still. She was 94 years old and easily moved up and down the steep staircases in the house and in and out of Rockport’s business.

Lura introduced me to many like her, creative characters and doers who worked hard for our town. Roger Martin and Ted Tarr were among those who responded to her calls for action. At her memorial service a few years later in Millbrook Meadow, a magical place across from Front Beach that she worked to preserve and restore, Roger called her the ‘town prod.’ Ted said his day started at dawn when Lura’s to-do calls began. “I knew better than to ignore Lura Hall Phillips,” he said, laughing. He took the calls and did what she asked.

It was Rockport that inspired such devotion to duty. I responded, as well. For 10 years I wrote and published weekly essays, many about Rockport. They were really love letters and everybody who read them knew it. I received a drawerful of happy mail, mostly from people who understood. They loved reading about their special town. 

All the same, I knew my place. Roger Martin called me one night to explain that I was not a true Rockporter. I don’t think he held my Southern California roots against me, but he made sure I knew the nuances of home. To this day, I do not refer to Rockport as my hometown; instead, it’s the place where I live. I told Roger that it didn’t take a local to know a good home. I had journeyed from place to place, lover to lover, job to job, for 45 years. Yes. Rockport was home. The motherlode. After so many years of strife and rootless angst, I found home, safety and serenity in large part thanks to Lura Hall Phillips. She decided I would have the downstairs apartment over 85 other applicants because she said she liked my writing. Did she suspect that I, too, would catch the bug and carry on her tradition of serving Rockport with my writing and small but important civil actions?

I just finished reading and reviewing a novel I really enjoyed by Stephen McCauley, who also has a residence in Rockport. The book is smart, funny, full of warmth and love, and presents a view of humanity rooted in Rockport. Also, “My Ex-Life” is a page-turner. 

The the book is set in Rockport McCauley calls it Beauport. I’ve written fiction set in Rockport and I call it Lodgeport. I like Beauport better, but now it’s taken. I should note that part-time Gloucester resident James Masciarelli has a new novel out this summer, as well, and it’s called “Beyond Beauport.” But the fictional Beauport he references is Gloucester. The bigger point here is that writing about Rockport and Cape Ann will go on for as long as there are writers and a Cape Ann that’s still above sea level.

My Ex-Life,” which I reviewed for Gatehouse Media newspapers last week, portrays a Rockport many know well — a pretty place, unpretentious, in need of a master plan for its commerce and its future residential development. Like me, its characters lived hard and busy lives but, happily, found their way home in time to enjoy their good fortunes.

I ended up buying Lura’s house from her estate just a few weeks before she died. She’d fallen and broken a hip, and was in Addison-Gilbert Hospital when I told her the good news about the approval of the mortgage. She held my hand and told me she was really happy for me. “I love that house,” she said. “Now you can watch over it for a while.” She died just a week later.

This morning as I write this, I sit on the deck and look out over the ocean. Big clouds are building in the north. It’s 86 degrees and humid. Storms are predicted. During the Perfect Storm in 1991, the winds blew so hard I could not stand up outside without holding onto to something. It was my first night in the apartment. Terrified, I ran upstairs to Lura’s apartment and asked her what we should do. 

“Why, nothing. This has been home for many people for many decades. It will withstand the storms.”

 "It will withstand the storms."
                       — Lura Hall Phillips

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Pas de deux with swan at lake

When I come to Southern California, where I grew up, I know to bring sunglasses. It’s so sunny I must squint to see. I’m pretty sure there’s such a thing as a squint headache.

There are dark places here, too, in this land of extremes. I go there quickly enough, starting back in early childhood. Like Oz or Hogwarts, Southern California has its curious and dangerous places that call to kids and imprint for life.

In one instance while hunting butterflies in Oak Park, in Santa Barbara, I ducked into a bathroom to pee and a man pushed his way through the door my girlfriend was leaning against. At the sight of him, she fled, screaming. I was stuck.

In those days, the grownups called what he did “exposing himself.” That’s how the police wrote it up though it’s never just that. The nondescript words bleach out the ugliness, scrub away the potential for peril and let the police off the hook. Like the ubiquitous Peeping Toms in our neighborhood, those perverts were tolerated. The man with the zipper problem followed me and showed himself to me for several more years. In 2014 I went back to that bathroom to see what power it still held over me. Wisely, they’ve removed the door that turns a bathroom into a holding cell where anything can happen, undetected.

Oak Park is full of bushes, trees and brush. There are boulder dens and those dank and mildewy public toilets and secret places down in the creek. Men, over time, wore trails not much wider than game trails into the brush. They entered and they emerged. It was not a safe place for solitary young girls. I should have known to stay away but I was enamored of nature, the creek, the butterflies and, later, the tennis courts. I spent scores of day-dreamy hours in Oak Park and some of those hours were interrupted by acts of perversion, and in one instance, violence.

I am still drawn to areas where woods and water converge, even though some of these places will never be safe for me.

On this West Coast trip to visit my sister, I am staying at the Best Western at Sepulveda and Burbank in Sherman Oaks because it is near her house and, also, within walking distance of a sweet nature preserve packed with birds. Every morning I run and my husband walks along the main path that circumvents a marshy lake, but there are lots of spurs jutting off into the underbrush. Just like in Oak Park.

I run around the lake twice each morning and it is glorious. There are so many birds singing that it is downright noisy. At 7 a.m., the brush already simmers under that bright sun and expels a familiar pungency. It feels like Oak Park. And because of this, I can’t relax.

I am still a stalking victim. I say victim because I don’t fight back. This time, it’s cyberstalking and quiet endurance is the only sane tactic. Cyber stalkers have outsized personality disorders and are offended by your silence but they are enraged by the most innocent of utterances. I once (and only once) wrote, “OK,” and a world of vitriol flooded my inbox for days. Cyber-stalkers turn your Twitter account into a porn site. They make up fraudulent Facebook personas and post lies to your community of friends. They robo-call you scores of times a minute, day and night. With every email or phone block comes a counter-punch — a new cell number or FB persona. The laws are just now catching up to them. Cyber-stalkers see every digital move you make.

A personal safety expert recently told me: “You cannot rely on anyone to save you. You are on your own and must save yourself.” This coach, a woman my height — 5’11” — is skilled and experienced. She has been maced more times than she will say. She showed me how to hold mace and a flashlight and car keys all at the same time, and all with weapon potential.

This morning I had the best run yet of the four I’ve done since landing at LAX on Saturday afternoon. On my second day out I found a functioning box cutter in the middle of the trail and I stuck it in my pocket. Instant relief. While running I talked myself through how I would use it. Women, when attacked, are less likely than a man to use a weapon to save themselves. So I made myself promise I would use the box cutter if it ever came to that. You can’t fight to injure; you must vanquish. Eyes. Jugular. Face. Wrists.

I heard her voice: “Save yourself.”

The homeless have encampments here. They use the trail spurs. They emerge and they disappear. Vaporize, like ghosts. Their presence, even if they are hidden, is obvious. They don’t have access to showers or toilets or anything else. People leave them food in takeout containers, complete with utensils and napkins — set up on overturned boxes so the offerings resemble table settings.

I run past a bench where I see a small vial of perfume inside a zip-locked baggie and a few discarded tissues. Here’s the story I make up: A romantic liaison occurred on this bench, helped out by a splash or two of scent.

Ahead of me on the trail I see a man wearing a blue hoodie and shorts. He’s walking. He rounds a bend and I lose sight of him. When I round the same bend just seconds later, he is gone — vanished — down one of these spurs. Which one? I look around to see where he might have gone. Nothing. Whoosh. Minding his own business, just like me.

I worry all the same: Will he re-emerge behind me? Where is he?

And so it goes. The head dramas I make room for if I want to have a life. 

I spot a man with a long lens for photographing a hawk he’s been watching for days. A lens that, when it hangs from his side, looks like my childhood stalker’s erection. I run by, initiating a greeting with an upbeat “Good morning!” and he smiles and replies in kind. It feels right to sow smiles as I go.

Ten minutes later, in the dense vegetation where the trail turns, I encounter two men on bicycles. I don’t like them. They are too friendly and want to talk and I accelerate my gate and push my elbows away from my torso like one of those aggressive male swans on the edge of the lake — wings similarly arched away from its body — protecting his mate and his nest. Angrily puffed up, I shout a deep “Hello” that really says, “I want nothing to do with you” and I feel blessed to have my phone in my right hand with the little button on the home screen that says, “emergency.”

I left the box cutter back at the motel so I take a lesson from a swan.                                                     

I catch up with my husband. He has bad knees and I can circle twice to his half-circumambulation.

“Did you see those two guys on bikes?” They had no choice but to ride this way.


Ah. What to make of this? Spurs that even I, the most hyper vigilant of all, didn't notice.

My run is great. Fast and fun over the dirt trails I like best. And Jim is pleased to have made these walks every day, as well, and to have heard and seen so many birds. We are bird deprived this time of year in New England.

We agree. This is the best day yet at the Sepulveda wildlife sanctuary. Together we sit on a bench under the oak trees and watch a snowy egret fish. There are so many gifts. More light than dark today.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Leg room

Proof of leg room

5 a.m. — dazed awake
5:05 a.m. — shower, finish packing, water plants, take out garbage. is that everything?
6:20 a.m. — 24th Street, 20 degrees, breezy. load car. 2 suitcases, 2 briefcases. speed to JFK from Chelsea no problem. find long-term parking lot but no parking. wait while man from Florida figures out how to scrape snow off windshield. should I help, I ask Jim, thinking of “Fargo” and that furious scraping of windshield. Lot — $18/day.
7:45 a.m. — scurry across expansive wind-tunnel lot to tram building. freezing. mishap getting on tram. jim rushes on tram. doors whoosh behind him. closed! Jim wrestles doors open. I get on. man follows. gets on. doors close on another wife. Jim wrestles again, woman gets on, joins horrified husband. “don’t have heart attack, please,” I say, watching Jim’s sweat dry. people in tram car joke with Jim. Jim jokes to saved woman, “you owe me 10 bucks.” she tells Jim which terminal to get off at and says, “$20 please.” lots more laughing. terminal 5, JetBlue (2 round trips with legroom $1500), swift tram trip, no further tram drama.
8 a.m. — auto check luggage doesn’t work, get help. ushered into zip lane for security clearance, shoes stay on feet and no groping. fantasize about sneaking into the “Flight to Cuba” line; eat scrambled eggs; buy colorful pens at Muji. .38 and .25 tips. $39 for breakfast; $22.05 for pens, eyeglass cleaner & plastic pen case.
9 a.m. — buy two sandwiches, 2 bottles of sparkling Smart Water, two cookies from Boar’s Head for the 6-hour plane ride. $22 for sandwiches. Jim pays $13 for rest.
9:20 a.m. — late for priority boarding. line up with everybody. seated in row six, right behind first class where they eat for six hours straight between glasses of wine, hot towels and comfy blankies. 3 dedicated attendants for 10.
10:30 a.m. — lift off. extra leg room for Jim & I @ $50 extra ea. way for ea. of us (6’5”, 5’11”); we cross legs in appreciation. flight attendant to me: “Are you able to open exit door if there’s an emergency?” yes, which could be a lie. it’s not something we practice.
? p.m. — 35k feet, time on pause, suspended-animation zone — TVs don’t work; get free movies. read 50 pages of “Unbanking of America” by Lisa Servon for book review; watch “La La Land” to bone up on contemporary LA. everybody eating free chips. Jim has bloody mary at 11 a.m. to quell flight nerves. no charge.

View from an overpass near Best Western.

2:30 p.m. — smooth landing. get luggage, call Uber ($23), check into same Best Western room we had last year, $169/night. free delicious Earl Gray tea. happy people at front desk. parched. get free bottled water.
3 p.m. — sister’s caretaker gives us ride to sister’s house. Sherman Oaks. Nice long visit. Talk about crazy mother, crazy brother, other crazy loved ones all gone now. uncomfortable topics for ailing sister. hospice angels. gratitude. sister's friends implore: hold all those stories till we get there. still don’t tell her about memoir. 
7 p.m. — order takeout. Thai.
8 p.m. — food arrives. 11 p.m. “our time.” gobbling as if just had colonoscopies.
9 p.m. — call Uber. go outside. 84 degrees. full moon. honeysuckle so strong. swoon. to Jim: we grew up with this sensual largess. the best part.
9:10 p.m. — where’s Uber? try again. wait 4 minutes. $6 w/tip.
9:30 p.m. — unpack; have free green tea; plug in multitude of devices for charging. text loved ones. “all ok here.” downplay southern california weather. minus 9 degrees there. 

9:40 p.m. — XpenseTracker total 3-11-17: $2,440 or thereabouts
9:45 p.m. — suddenly sleepy. collapse

Enormous balloon structure at entrance 
to a homeless encampment. 
Southern California always surreal. 
Like growing up in a Stephen King novel.