growing up, self-acceptance

The Way We Weren’t

 

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I’ve noticed how my perceptions of movies have changed over the years; when I saw  GEORGY GIRL  as a teenager, I identified totally with the title character, but upon watching it 30 years later, I felt much more in common with James Mason’s  character.

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Likewise with

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LAST TANGO IN PARIS,  which I saw when I was the same age as the female lead, Maria Schneider.  I was amazed when I watched the film again in the mid-90s, to find that instead of empathizing with her, I felt for Marlon Brando’s  character. The same was true when I revisited NETWORK  after a couple decades.

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Where I had initially seen myself in Faye Dunaway  I was now was all-in with William Holden.  It wasn’t just the wrinkles… something else was also going on.

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Since its release in 1973, I’ve probably watched THE WAY WE WERE  at least a half dozen times, swept away with the “romance” and soaring (and Oscar-winning!) title song/score, and empathizing with Barbra’s  character.  Supposedly the lovers’ “political views and convictions drive them apart”,  but upon my latest viewing, I don’t see it that way any more. What I DO see is how brittle and insufferably humorless our heroine is – and wonder how Redford could abide her for even 10 minutes!? She doesn’t truly love him “the way he is/was” because she keeps trying to change him! Conversely, she doesn’t exist as a real, whole person to him – I don’t believe he even likes, let alone loves her for who she is!?

Okay – it’s only a movie. I get that. But these are the stories we all grew up on at our collective movie-theater-campfire. As unsettling as it may be to see them for what they truly are, isn’t it better to know what we’ve been fed and been feeding ourselves, than to remain ignorant of how these stories inform our lives?

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growing up, self-acceptance

Rewriting History

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“…contrary to what you may have heard or learned, the past is not done and it is not over, it’s still in process, which is another way of saying that when it’s critiqued, analyzed, it yields new information about itself. The past is already changing as it is being reexamined, as it is being listened to for deeper resonances. Actually it can be more liberating than any imagined future if you are willing to identify its evasions, its distortions, its lies, and are willing to unleash its secrets. “

Toni Morrison at Wellesley 2004

My mother spent a lot of time during the last years of her life sifting thru memories, looking for insight and clues to the meaning of events that had affected her; trying to understand, to make sense of it all.  I find myself doing the same thing these days – and am comforted by Toni Morrison’s commencement speech to Wellesley College 2004, where she rails against “adults being exoticized into eternal juvenilia” and “cultural vapidity” that appears to only have become more rampant in the past 13 years.  

I confess that in the past I’ve been quite critical of people who rewrite history; I’ve judged them as being guilty of denial, of being delusional, of sugarcoating reality. I used to wonder about this aspect of Christian Science when I was an active student – sure, it was helpful to reframe troubling scenarios in a more spiritual context, but wasn’t that cheating somehow?

I believed “what’s done is done” and there was no way to fix the mistakes I’d made in the past. But upon further reflection, I’m coming to see the wisdom of reframing what happened and the choices I’ve made. For one thing, it helps me to (re)view the past with compassion and kindness, towards myself and everyone else.  I now don’t think it’s too Pollyanna-ish to look for the benefits of any given scenario, and many things that happen can hold just such hidden blessings, if we’re patient and motivated to identify them.

Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all of what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free…

Toni Morrison @ Wellesley 2004

One of my biggest regrets was my relationship with an early boyfriend who turned out to be emotionally damaged and eventually became mentally ill. I met him when I was 17 and didn’t recognize the warning signs that anything was “off” about him. But over the few months we were seeing one another, I became alarmed at his fits of rage that erupted at random times for unknown reasons. The night he grabbed my arm violently leaving a nasty bruise, I knew that I had to break up with him. Initially he seemed to take it well, but then he began stalking me at school and broke into my home when my roommate and I were away. He’d become downright creepy, seemingly overnight. It wasn’t safe to love him any more.

The stalking continued without direct confrontation for 2½ years – I’d catch sight of his red scarf across the street or feel eyes on me when I was working in a practice room, but we never interacted. Then after I graduated, he disappeared, only to resurface a few years later by showing up unexpectedly and uninvited at my apartment door. The building doorman had to threaten to call the cops to get him to leave, and entreaties from both of my parents and their lawyers for him to stop stalking me were unsuccessful. I felt sufficiently scared at that point to take legal action to get him to leave me alone, which he managed to do for another few years.

But then he began writing letters. In spite of being reminded that 10 years had elapsed since the relationship had ended and being informed that I was now a married woman, he continued to send letters demanding me to return to him. Year after year after year, no matter where we moved, the letters would follow us. We contacted the Postal Inspectors and after they investigated and interviewed him, their legal advisors told us that he was disturbed and receiving psychiatric help, that he was harmless and should “get a pass”, to just discard the letters, since there was nothing they could do to get him to stop writing and sending them. So for many years, that’s what we did.

Over time the letters became more and more offensive, as he scribbled his rage and hateful comments on the exterior of the envelopes, making the most outrageous claims, (his version of rewriting history) and blaming me for everything bad that had ever happened to him. I began to think of the letters as “Hate Mail from Hartford” and saw myself as a victim as their delivery continued unabated. Some days I could handle it, but other times I felt overwhelmed and oppressed.

The toll this took was rather like Chinese water torture; while the mental dread was much worse than the actual pain inflicted, it also didn’t help that the authorities were dismissive of my complaints. After all, I was “only” receiving non-stop written verbal abuse from an obviously delusional man – how bad could it be, really? Compared to former boyfriends who went after their exes with guns and online revenge porn, nasty letters are pretty small potatoes.

Still, I wondered what the hell I had ever done to deserve this ceaseless abuse; as I recalled, I had treated him sweetly during the time we were dating. And I wasn’t cruel or insulting when I ended it; I had never made any promises of exclusivity or for a future together, and it just didn’t make sense to me that he was so fixated on a brief casual relationship that had ended so long ago.

I tried to rise above it; to take the higher view, to forgive him and see him bathed in white light. Since I feared him and resented his pervasive presence in my life, I couldn’t bring myself to actually love him, but I prayed for his healing. For decades I had shredded his letters or tossed them into the trash. On the advice of a shaman, I’d even tried burning them at the mailbox, so as not to allow their negative energy into the house.  I marked them “Return To Sender” and “Refused” and sent them back, reasoning that this was his bad juju and I didn’t have to accept it – and then he stopped putting his return address on the envelopes, so I couldn’t even do that. I felt more and more trapped.

One day on the way from the mailbox to the trashcan I noticed he had progressed to making death threats, which alarmed me enough to recontact the police and the Postal Inspectors. But follow-up with them yielded disappointing results; restraining orders would prove ineffective and the USPS didn’t want to get any more involved with him.  Turns out there had been many complaints about him from many quarters, as he was still writing to psychiatrists, nurses and caregivers who had retired and even died. He’d been cagey in his assaults-by-mail to everyone who had ever tried to help him over the past 47 years and avoided breaking the law, at least to the extent that the district attorney didn’t consider it to be worth prosecuting him. He was intractable and adamantine in his conviction that he’d been “done wrong” by anyone he’d ever met (especially me!) and we were all apparently going to hear about it forever.

To have an apparently unsolvable problem like this is something I’d never wish on anyone.  But in the course of all this drama, recently a couple of things fell into place for me:

I made the decision to see his letters impersonally – as “junk mail” instead of “Hate Mail from Hartford”. No one rails at receiving junk mail, after all – it’s just a fact of life, like robocalls, spam in your email inbox and commercials on TV. You just toss it in the recycling pile (after blacking out any identifying information), just like you push the mute button when that annoying ad comes on for the umpteenth time in the middle of your favorite show. It’s nothing personal. No drama. That helped some.

And then I came across the following:

I have breathed my way through so many people I felt wronged by; through so many situations I couldn’t change. Sometimes while doing this I have breathed in acceptance and breathed out love. Sometimes I’ve breathed in gratitude and breathed out forgiveness. Sometimes I haven’t been able to muster anything beyond the breath itself, my mind forced bland with nothing but the desire to be free of sorrow and rage.”

– Cheryl Strayed in her book Tiny Beautiful Things

Reading this passage the other day is what finally unfroze my heart re. this guy who’s been stalking me all these years. I realized that because of his abuse, I’d been partially adopting his version of the story on some level, instead of fully embracing what I knew from my own experience to be true. I understand that it’s not safe to be in touch with him now, I have no interest in his circumstances and it’s not my job to fix him. But I did love him back in 1970, the best I knew how, until it became unsafe to do so. I don’t need to deny that I loved him then to feel safe now.

“Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones who do by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone.”

Toni Morrison at Wellesley 2004

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romantic

My Disco Date with Frank

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Frank and I had only danced together once before in public – at the final gig our mutual friend Cindy was working as a go-go dancer in a Paterson, NJ bar. The inebriated patrons’ interest in Cindy’s provocative pink costume had waned by the last hour, and Frank and I had consumed maybe a few too many gin and tonics, so we decided to liven things up by joining Cindy atop the bar. After a few songs, Frank and I got sweaty and took off our shirts. As the patrons began to get a bit rowdy, the bartender got nervous and locked the doors (!?!) but we made it out of there alive, laughing all the way back to the Upper West Side on the bus at 3 AM; it was one of those adventures that seems a bit less risky in hindsight.

So I wasn’t prepared for the magical night Frank had planned for just the two of us a year later. Neither one of us was seeing anyone seriously and Frank wouldn’t tell me where we were going or what we were going to do – but since he was paying, I went along with the program.

OMG, we were at Trude Heller’s nightclub in Greenwich Village!!  First there was a delicious dinner – I’m not sure what it WAS (we’re talking 40+ years ago, folks!) but it was scrumptious, as was Frank’s company (as always!). When the floorshow began, I was totally delighted by “the band” – The Manhattan Transfer – a group I’d never heard OF, let alone HEARD! And after their set, the mirrored ball descended and it was Disco Time!  Frank and I hit the floor, along with everyone else in the club. I wasn’t yet familiar with all of the songs; “Rock The Boat”“Rock Your Baby”“Come & Get Your Love”“Love Train”“The Love I Lost”“Never Can Say Goodbye”“Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love”…  but I have never forgotten them since that night.

Probably because there wasn’t any sexual agenda between us, Frank has always been one of my most affectionate, tender and supportive friends – a man I truly treasure. Which is not to say I don’t have romantic feelings for him – how could I not? Frank IS “as charming as a prince could ever be”! And he treated me to “A Lovely Night”

 

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music biz, romantic

Barry Wants to Sing

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Confession: I love Barry Manilow. I love singing along with him on long road trips in the car. I loved when he and his entourage came in to the Carnegie Deli while a friend and I were enjoying a pastrami sandwich. I’ve always wanted to cowrite songs with him or have him cover one of my originals, which he’d be perfect for! (hear that, Barry?)

My mother always was a fan of pop songs – more Jerome Kern and Gershwin than anything that was currently on the radio – but after divorcing my dad, in the 70s she fell in love with a married man and wound up playing the role of The Other Woman – to the hilt. Mr. Wrong had additional “other women” besides her; his then-current wife had been an “other woman” before snagging him from his first wife – so there wasn’t any dewy ignorance going on.

When I read Romy’s blog post today, I recalled how my mother would rise from sitting cross-legged on the floor (she didn’t like furniture) nearly every day for months on end, with the pronouncement, “Barry wants to sing!”  Then we’d all get to hear Weekend In New England at least once – and frequently many more times than that. Barry never sang any other song for my mother – no “Could It Be Magic”, “Mandy” or “Even Now” – only the uber-passionate song where “with you there’s a heaven, so earth ain’t so bad”.

The affair went on for at least 10 years – I remember Christmas breakfasts where her bitter tears salted the blueberry pancakes and New Year’s Eves where she wept into her Asti Spumante, wondering if she and Mr. Wrong would ever be married. (He’d promised!)

At one point there was a grisly face-to-face confrontation in a parking lot with the wronged wife, who took off her shoe and hit my mother, splitting her head open. She was too ashamed to go to the E.R. or see a doctor, even with blood streaming down her face and onto her clothes – instead, she drove herself home and patched herself up the best she could manage.

And Barry continued to sing.

I’m not sure the “strong yearning” ever DID end.

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growing up, music biz, romantic, self-acceptance

My Romances

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My initial plan was to become a brilliant concert pianist, marry Van Cliburn and live happily ever after. I figured that since we both had naturally curly hair and loved Chopin, it was a perfect match. But before that, I was going to EXPERIENCE LIFE!  Which meant, being a child of the 60s and 70s, that I would have many lovers and flirt outrageously with Johnny Carson, just like Eva Gabor and all the other glamorous women guests on the Tonight Show.

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It didn’t work out exactly like that. My first boyfriend was the head usher at the Allyn movie theatre in downtown Hartford. Wayne lived in another part of town, went to a different high school and was very cute. We would sneak up to the balcony on breaks for closed-mouth kisses and while it was new and exciting, I wasn’t really interested in HIM.  I knew I liked being liked but that was about it. The one time he dropped by my house on his bike, out of uniform… well, it was a real disappointment.  (it was a VERY snappy uniform!!)  When I was fired from that first job, it was a relief that I wouldn’t have to see him any more.

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The vibes coming from our parents had always been such that, even tho nothing was said overtly, we knew we weren’t encouraged to date.  That may have been due to the troubles brewing in their own relationship, or my mother’s terror of our becoming pregnant (and trapped!) or my dad’s unwillingness to see us grow up, or some combination thereof. My dad warned us that “most men see women as meat – something to be pursued, used and disposed of”- a rather unsavory picture of romance for a teenage girl. Still, sexual freedom was in the air and I felt urge to get GOING already as I had devoured all those magazines and read Helen Gurley Brown’s SEX & THE SINGLE GIRL cover to cover.

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I’d had crushes – all unrequited, of course – on the handsome but somewhat dim boy in German class, the substitute teachers who looked SO much like Freddie of Freddie & The Dreamers, Paul McCartney and let’s not forget Van Cliburn!  And I’d held hands with the accompanist and kissed a singer from the InterHigh Choir on a concert tour to D.C. There was some smooching with a fellow cashier at Korvette’s – but nothing serious – nobody even got to 2nd base. Boys were so FOREIGN and they stayed that way for me through high school.

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Once I’d moved away to college, there was more freedom to meet with boys but dating per se had somehow disappeared. My girlfriends who came of age in the 70s agree: in the musician/artist crowds we ran with, NOBODY actually went out on dates!  You’d meet someone interesting, flirt, and… sometimes it was almost like shaking hands, it was so casual. From age 18 to 27, I think I may have gone out on no more than a half dozen actual DATES. We didn’t call it a “hookup” or a “booty call”, but for those of us who weren’t in a serious relationship, that’s essentially what it was.

I had always been drawn to musicians – especially those who could really PLAY. It didn’t matter whether they were married or not – in fact, I was more comfortable if they were already spoken for, because I had no intention of letting anything as trivial as sex derail my career ambitions. I wasn’t tuned-in enough to attempt to parlay my affections for career advancement – not that I entertained any idea of “the purity of being in love” – but it just struck me as cheesy. Looking back now, I’m not sure whether I missed some great opportunities or whether it really would have been cheesy!?

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I bumbled along through the 70s, never committing to anyone. There were many months at a time when I had no gentlemen callers, even though I rarely played hard-to-get. A lot of time I was mighty lonely. Instead of building connections in the music industry while I was Gil Evans’ copyist, I distracted myself by flirting with his band. Mostly I was judicious and paid attention to my own radar, so I didn’t wind up with many head cases, but I still have plenty of memories that make me cringe to this day, when I was shamed by lovers who somehow felt justified to put me down, criticizing the body they had just enjoyed. In my experience, the sexual revolution did very little to remedy the double standard.

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I was confused in many of my relationships – frequently mistaking my interest in men as sexual in nature, when what I really wanted was their friendship and camaraderie.  I loved how they played music, their enthusiasm for life, their creativity, their energy… and in many instances, it would have been a travesty to muddle my admiration and affection for them with sex. And yet I did, all too often. The smart ones talked me out of it and I wasn’t too difficult to dissuade – I don’t want to be around anyone who doesn’t want to be around me.

There were certain mileposts of progress – when I turned down a last-minute visit from a gorgeous, brilliant saxophonist because he called after midnight after months of hearing nothing from him – and when I realized that I could actively choose who I wanted to be with and not wait around to be noticed. It wasn’t exactly liberated, but felt like baby steps towards sexual self-esteem.

Romantic moments that actually made me swoon were few and far between, and generally weren’t sexual so much as warm and affectionate; the composition student who held my hand during a string quartet recital or listening with a friend to jazz piano at a NYC club while drinking one too many gin and tonics.  Being actually SEEN as a person – and knowing that whoever is seeing you is LIKING you!?  To me, that’s the gold.  All the other stuff is posturing.

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