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November 14, 2011

The summer after I graduated high school, I left home. I worked on the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ with Israelis, Moroccans, Canadians, French and Russians. Those people did crazy things to me. They introduced me to the world. They pulled at my insides, sparks flew, something felt very right, like a calling to turn my life over to God. I was eighteen and still remember sitting in Frieda’s tiny, one-room apartment on Young Avenue. She was a woman with whom I sold t-shirts. A ton of Israelis, after their stint in the army, would live in a kibbutz and would have connections to others who were making tons of money ironing decals on t-shirts at the Jersey shore. Word of mouth sent her here. She knew she could make money under the table for the summer while getting to know America.  In the winter, she, along with everyone else, migrated to Fort Lauderdale, and then back again, year after year, never entirely settling down. There was something familiar in the ebb and flow of the way she lived her life. But I could never put my finger on it.

On a hotplate plugged into the wall she made me “Israeli coffee” and poured it in a tea glass, with sugar. We talked about life on the kibbutz, Shimon Peres and the Palestinians. “We are all human,” she said. She taught me how to say I love you, in Hebrew, which incited me to go around to all my other friends and ask them how to say I love you in their language. By the end of the summer, I could say I love you in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Russian and Hungarian.

It may have begun then.

When I turned 20, I moved to Paris and lived in a one-room chambre de bonne on rue Rimbuteau. I read a lot of Henry Miller, got laid, dropped out of my French classes at the Alliance Francaise and existed in such a state of poverty that my friend Karen and I would steal food from her stepdad’s house during the day, and then at night, we’d flirt with rich exchange students at the Violon Dingue trying to get them to buy us free drinks. I was even homeless for a few days and spent a good 24-hours with a transient, tattooed, pierced, skinhead named Will West who kept me laughing through my vagrancy. We would stay at free night clubs all around Les Halles and dance like zombies until seven in the morning, until the cafes opened and then, we could sit for hours with the alcoholics and street people, drinking cheap coffee and toasted baguette for ten francs. Je ne regrette rein.

When my mother dragged me home in the fall of ’89, I applied for a job as a cashier at John Wanamaker’s. The woman who interviewed me read my application and saw that I had just come back from France. She smiled and said, “Coming back to reality, eh?” It wasn’t long after that that I repacked my bags and took a bartending gig in Greenland. I’ll show you reality, bitch.

Sondrestromford, was a US and Danish military base right below the arctic circle. It was cold as hell. Thirty degrees below zero could turn a flower to shattered glass. There were no trees. Just gray, monochrome hills with dark skies and the occasional aurora borealis that slinked across a sky so lit up by stars you thought you might be looking through a telescope. A fjord the color of wet cement cut along the base.  I served drunks at the NCO Club and dated an American bodybuilder who taught me how to lift weights–there was nothing else to do up there but use the indoor gym, hunt musk ox and make money. I did that for a good five months before realizing that some places are better left untraveled. So, I came back home.

Part of the experience of being away from home, was longing for home. There was a weird dichotomy there. It was like what someone said to me about living in Paris. The only way to continue to love Paris, is to leave. So, for many years, I lived at home to the point of exhaustion and ennui, only to pack my bags, and live somewhere else for a time, until I missed home again. Back home, back out again. Back home, back out again. Just like that.

The older I got, though, the length of time it took to get to the point of missing home shortened. Until eventually, I did the unthinkable. I married and settled down. Granted, I married a Spaniard, which afforded me several costly trips back and forth to Madrid. Kids have to visit their Abuelos, you know. But the truth is, for the first time in my life, I actually liked home. I no longer wanted to run away. Making peace with the idea of stability, continuity, and permanence was a trip in itself. Something I had never known. The drawback is that kids force you into such a state of routine that you end up feeling trapped. At least I did. Drop off, pick up, drop off, pick up, breakfast, lunch, dinner, bed-time at exactly eight. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.  Nothing to jostle the monotony. So, you join the Junior Women’s Club. You go to Longaberger basket parties. You volunteer at school to serve lunches. You ask your mother to babysit so you and your husband can actually be alone and scream during sex. When that only happens once every six months, you go back to school and get a degree and have an affair. Well, you don’t have an affair. He does. And well, then you get to a point where you kinda fondly remember the monotony. But, that’s another story.

Permanence wasn’t my thing anyway. And so, in 2004, three events occurred which, even in their bad sad miserable way, allowed me to reclaim my inherent nature–a traveler. My father died. I divorced. And, I finally got my college degree (granted, the last was a positive consequence of my years as a stable New Jerseyan). When these three things happened, my tether broke. And when a tether on a hot air balloon breaks, there’s no telling which way the wind will blow it.

Within months, of these events happening, I hit the road. Twenty eight days, across the Heartland. Long stays with my kids in the Utah desert. Hiking the red rocks of Moab. Flying over the Grand Canyon. Twelve-hour car rides that had me fantasizing about the practicality of wearing a Depends undergarment so as not to make so many damn pee stops.

Travel is in my blood. Which gets me thinking. It probably didn’t begin with Wildwood. It didn’t begin with Paris or Greenland or week-long trips to Long Beach Island, or summers in Philly, or any of the trips I actually took to simply get away from home, get away from me. It began much further back than that.

In ’67, my mother and father eloped. They packed up my mother’s 1963 Chevy Nova and headed to Vegas. A year later, they made their way back to the West Coast, to Hollywood, where I was born in May of ’68. In November, we came home to Jersey and stayed a while. But not long. And while we never, vacationed, per se, we did move. And every move was an adventure.

In fact, we moved every year, for fourteen years. A new house every year, sometimes less than a year if my father couldn’t pay the bills. Adapting, readapting, not adapting so well. Moving in anger; moving in fear. Moving with our tail between our legs. Moving out of shame and necessity because we had burned our bridge. Moving with elation and joy to be in a new, undiscovered world of hallways and bedrooms and hidden closets and eiree basements and blistering hot attics. We weren’t moving to anything, now that I think of it. We were running away. Well, I wasn’t running away. It wasn’t me who couldn’t pay the bills. I was just along for the ride.

But a funny thing happens to a child whether she likes it or not. She inherits her parents’ hopes and fears and everything in between.  The circular reasoning that makes up 90 percent of the gray matter in her head. There was, in fact, a box of dolls I no longer played with that remained packed for many years because my mother was sick and tired of unpacking them. This frustrated me for a time because, of the few friends I was able to make, most had a wall of pretty little knick knacks, dolls, and porcelain (or plastic) horses on display with which they no longer played. I did not. My walls were bare. And so, when I was finally old enough to take these dolls out of the box, to pull them from their captive bundle of newsprint and bubble wrap, I didn’t even like them anymore. And so, I ended up throwing them away or maybe giving them away to another little girl who might have appreciated them more than I. Their traditional spot on a dusty, permanent shelf, where they could have sat throughout my entire childhood, held no meaning for me. And yet, I was embarrassed for so long at the transience of my life. Even now, when I explain my past to people (because traveling 14 times in 15 years is a bit much for a kid, don’t you think), they ask, “Was your father in the military?” I can’t say that I’m not slightly ashamed to have to say, “No, he was not.”

My childhood was a rich fabric of insanity, joy and adventure. I’ll leave it at that.

But here’s the thing. Every house was a home, a world unto itself –like a country, with a different language spoken within its borders. Each closet, to my child’s eye, was a landmark, a monument; each new kitchen, served a new regional cuisine. Every backyard was a continent, a varied landscape with fields that stretched to the horizon, or snowcapped mountains, or dark forests; seascapes, city lines, quiet, fenced-in corners pulsing with tiger lilies and skies broken to pieces with big white clouds. We traversed New Jersey, then up to New Hampshire, then back again. We lived in farmhouses, big houses, small houses, ranchers and even, what my mother not-so-fondly called, “a cardboard box.” My life is thusly divided into fourteen different worlds, with a myriad of experiences.  The cliché “home is where the heart is,” aptly applies.

In less than a week I’ll be in Holland. A month ago it was Bear Creek for work. Then Sedona.  Followed by Baltimore and now NYC. The instability of all this travel wears me out. Some days, I’d simply rather stay home. And yet, there is the eternal, inborn wax and wane, the coming and going, the internal rotating door that can’t be tuned out. An opportunity to adapt, readapt, not adapt so well. At the heart of it, I suppose, I’m used to the discomfort, the inconvenience. It has meaning. It’s who I am. The doll on the shelf can’t shake a stick at the story I tell and retell. And to me, the significance of that is far greater than any gift I may bring back home to decorate my walls.  More importantly, the child in me is finally OK with the idea that there’s no need to unpack.

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Raising the dead

November 11, 2011

I cried this morning. No. I sobbed.

Pernille sent me an email regarding D and I being picked up at the airport upon our arrival in Amsterdam. We’ve known for quite some time we’d be going; we already have our tickets. So Pernille’s email was simply relating a few particulars on how we’d get from the airport to the hotel. Amsterdam is still very much happening! Within the email, however,  it listed the ways in which the others in our group would be coming into the city on or around the 21st. We would be coming in from Philadelphia. C would be flying in from London. And E would be taking the train in from Germany, I believe, and didn’t need any help getting to the hotel. It was this last bit that reminded me of trains. And this last bit that reminded me I needed to look at a map of Europe before heading to The Netherlands. It’s been a while since I’ve needed to know where anything was in Europe except Spain. Ergo, I’ve forgotten much of my geography. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s the isolationist mentality of the American who knows very little of the world save how to get to Disneyland.

Google maps. Zoom in: Amsterdam on the Markermeer sea, across the North Sea from Great Britain. To the east of Germany. To the north of Denmark, Norway, Sweden. To the south of Brussels.

To the south of Brussels. Zoom out. Draw an imaginary line with finger below Brussels. Bingo.

There it was. Staring me in the face. The proximity of Amsterdam to France, and more importantly, Paris. I sobbed with happiness and release. Twenty-two years of trying to get back to a place I could never emotionally give up. Like a torchbearer for a lost love. Four and half hours by car; three hours and nineteen minutes by high-speed train. A six a.m. ride from Station Amsterdam Centraal will get us to Paris-Nord by 9:35. Petit dejeuner at Les Deux Magots. A stroll through Les Halles.  Notre Dame.  Saint Michel. Jardin du Luxembourg. My old flat on rue Rimbuteau. Le Violon Dingue. Lunch at La Closerie des Lilas. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Henry Miller. Ezra Pound. James Joyce. Dorothy Parker. Camille Claudel. Kiki. Picasso. Ford Madox Ford. DH Lawrence. Rodin. Anais Nin. Gertrude Stein. John Dos Passos. The Louvre. Sacre Coeurs. Dinner in Montparnasse.

The Eiffel Tower.

In the years that followed my father’s death I kept having dreams that he would come back to life. I would know he was dead in the dream and then suddenly, I would walk into a secret room that I never knew existed in his house, and he’d be there in front of me, smoking a cigarette and saying something casually obvious like, “See! I’m not really dead. Just hiding out.” I would cry hysterically and hug him, and think, the nightmare is over; I have my father back. It’s that feeling of raising the dead, that it’s as simple as booking one simple train ride, on the right website, from the comfort of your home. You only have to know how to figure out the puzzle. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. I’ve always had the power to “go back.” And yet, if somebody told me it was that easy, I wouldn’t have believed it. I had to figure it out for myself.

But alas! Perhaps this is all too good to be true. I am waiting on Pernille to get back to me, regarding whether or not we are free to travel that day or have events that I might need to be present for. I am hoping for the former. I’ve come so far. I would hate to think I was given supernatural powers to resurrect the dead only to have them taken away and be turned back into a human. I may have to remind myself that the dead are long buried and there is no bringing them back. That Paris is still very muchly out of reach. At least in this lifetime. Quelle injustice!

A touchy subject, even for the world of film

November 11, 2011

In a few days, D and I are headed to Amsterdam for the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) where a film I took part in, “Love Addict,” will debut. And while I’m thrilled to once again be part of the art world, schmoozing with a great clique of writers, directors, producers and photographers, in Europe no less, I am a little leery.

For starters, the documentary is a topic of interest that might not be, how shall I put this, all that well received. It’s about weakness and that’s something some people have a hard time witnessing. People might laugh. We will, after all, be in Europe. “Oh those Americans,” they’ll say, “Always angst ridden and falling apart over the most luxurious and invented of possible problems.” And it’s true. Love addiction isn’t really about love or anything lofty like that. It’s not even about something as ugly yet facinating as being addicted to sex, meth, hoarding or any of the more lowbrow dysfunctions. It’s about the psychology of personal defense mechanisms and how that plays out in a person’s life. It’s about whining over not being loved, but feeling stuck and doing nothing about it because you don’t believe in yourself. Superficial, self-centered stuff that probably should have been dealt with at age 13, not 43.

And let’s face it. The documentary is not based on “real” suffering, in the broader sense, the kind you find in places like war-ravaged Iraq or Sierra Leone. We didn’t film a heated polemic on climate change or the impending doom of global food shortages. This is self-imposed, I can’t control my behavior stuff that causes suffering. It’s akin to over-eating, over-spending, gambling, drinking. It’s the addiction argument. We participate in these behaviors of over-indulgence and over-consumption and suffer the consequences, then wonder what the hell happened when we fall flat on our faces. We wonder how it got this bad. And why it can’t be stopped. So we call it a “disease.” Really, it’s like cancer; it spreads. Obsessing over that which we cannot have and putting up with bad behavior from others becomes the dominant response. It gets to the point where good judgment is lost. It gets to the point where a husband smacks his wife across the face. It gets to the point where she stays because she “loves” him. She stays “for the kids.” Or she stays because she’s scared to death to be alone.

Sure, people might snicker over my American sensibility for personal growth. And they might even get that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of their stomachs when the director toys with the idea of a woman who resorts to stalking a la Fatal Attraction, or another who dates a kid fifteen years her junior with no job and no real ability to handle an adult relationship, let alone take care of himself. Through most of the documentary, in fact, you find yourself asking, is this a real problem or do these people simply suck at managing their lives. In the beginning you feel like, clearly, anyone labeled a love addict is sick in the head. In the end, you wonder, “Could this be me?”

And that’s a good question.

Maybe the cultural dilemma of how men and women treat each other within a relationship is not as black and white as the media would have you think. Maybe love addiction is a lot subtler than the Hollywood version, or the battered woman version. Maybe the term “love addiction” is a misnomer, and it’s even more prevalent than alcoholism. You remember those statistics from the 80’s? In every family there’s at least one drunk. Or was that “jerk”? I can’t remember now. But I can tell you this: there’s tons of unhappy women suffering through bad relationships right now or stuck in a one-sided flimsy representation of one. It’s plague-ish, if you ask me. Take a good look at all your girlfriends. How many have stayed in a bad relationship or a bad marriage long past the point of dignity? That’s love addiction. How many settle for a “friends with benefits” situation in the hopes it turns into something more? That’s love addiction. How many men or women do you know that have had affairs and destroyed their families on the fantasy-based whim that love with this perfect new stranger will save their soul? That’s love addiction. And how about the hard-working career woman who finds it safer to date a married man, or one about 3000 miles away rather than go out and actually find someone close and available? That too, is love addiction.

It was just this past weekend that my Aunt came to a family party with proof that dating a bad boy is an epidemic among twentysomethings. She showed me a photo of my cousin N, a beautiful Paris-Hiltonish statuesque blond. She was pictured with a cute, smiling Italian guy. The first words out of my Aunt’s mouth were, “This guy is actually [emphasis mine] nice.” I.e. he’s not a f’ up like the previous ones.

It reminded me of my youth. I dated one bad boy after another. Each one ever so slightly less bad than the last. You’d think I’d be trading in behavioral traits in the hundreds instead of making microscopic improvements in increments of one. But were my bad dating decisions so far from the realm of what’s normal? I don’t think so. Sure, some of my friends dated good, kind, loving men who treated them well. But most couples in my circle had problems. And marriage didn’t leave you exempt from mismanaging your life. Marriage and love addiction are not mutually exclusive. And while having problems within a relationship is normal and unavoidable and by no means signifies that you or your partner are addicted to love, the degree to which those problems do exist and the length of time they last are your best indication that you are in a healthy relationship or that serious soul searching is in order.

But getting people to accept that idea is almost impossible. We all have preconceived notions of who we are and Unflattering Labels don’t really fit into our personal worldview, I’ll give you that. Who wants to be labeled a junkie? But remove the label and what have you got? Romeo and Juliet, is what you’ve got. The glamorization of painful, unhealthy love. So, does it really matter what the disease is called? Does it really matter if it’s a disease at all? The lessons are what’s priceless: love thyself, your body is a temple, you are a miracle, you have value, you deserve better than scraps, you need to grow up and get over the fact that life ain’t a Shakespeare play…

This documentary doesn’t offer those lessons. It should, but it doesn’t (it will have resources for how to get help on its website and DVD). What it does offer is the problem. And a socially acceptable glimpse at love addiction. Unlike self-help books, which, let’s be honest, are a bit embarrassing (no one wants to be seen checking out a copy of “ Women Who Love Too Much”), documentaries don’t imply there’s anything wrong with you. You can go to the theater and be a voyeur into the lives of others and you can freely and secretly gauge if this is something you need to investigate further. A documentary is a film. It’s art. And while you can certainly judge the participants of the film—and even laugh at them if you want—you cannot avoid recognizing yourself in their stories, if but in the smallest of ways.

And I guess that’s all I can hope for. That art can still inspire individuals to sustain judgment and think deeply about what this film implies. Not the sloppy Jerry Springerish implication of classless people getting paid wads of cash to beat the crap out of each other for entertainment. But the deeper implications of the human heart, and its delicate  and often feeble inability to always be strong.