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"Thank you, sir! May I have another!?"™, Day 20: Gloomy Manor

This is Day 20 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in a classic film of my generation, Animal House. biernacice

One of the sad facts of divorce is a general reduction in circumstances, especially for the mother, and children, if they stay with her.

The facts of my own parents' divorce are far too byzantine to cover in this post. The split had its roots in my parents' ridiculously short courtship (a long weekend at Jack Webb's fabulous Palm Springs getaway), fundamental incompatibility, and unfortunate coming of age on the cusp of the era of self-awareness. Too much possibility and too few tools to deal with it.

But for the sake of our story, let us oversimplify and blame this on the mother. The father, who always did his duty and yet was never quite There, was as bewildered as I that this shit was going down. He was forced into moving off-campus into a dreary, studio apartment, followed by an equally dreary one-bedroom apartment, while we stayed in our fabulous (if largely unfurnished) co-op by the lake.

Within four years, however, their fortunes had reversed: Dad moved into the swingin'-est 2-bedroom bachelor pad I've seen yet, rooftop pool, living room furnished with pinball machines and parade of hot stewardesses and all, while Mom, little sister and I moved in with her parents.

On paper, things still looked good: gigantic mansion on Lake Michigan in a tony suburb, weekly visitation with Dad and private, Catholic school for the two of us. In day-to-day reality, though, things were a little different.

First, we moved into Enablers Central. Mom found two new instant drinking buddies in her own father and eldest brother, who'd been booted out of his own household. They had different poisons of choice, but weren't all that picky, so anytime after about three o'clock (depending on day of the week and state of employment), you were pretty much guaranteed that someone was going to start tying one on.

Second, the Chief Enabler, our otherwise astonishingly responsible and competent Swedish-American grandmother, was, um, stingy with a few things, including the food. I don't mean that things ever got completely Dickensian on us, but she came of age in the Great Depression and I, more often than not, was hungry. (Although because she was a kickass cook, what there was to eat was always pretty darned tasty.)

A teetotaler, devout convert to Catholicism and frugal genius without par, Grandma had one human weakness: an insane sugar jones. Everyone knew where she kept her cookie stash; we also knew exactly how many we could poach without getting busted. When the selection was Pepperidge Farm Sugar Cookies, it was tough, pretty difficult concealing cookie leakage in that small, tight stack. You were better off around certain holidays, when there were tins of home-baked goods. But you didn't even look for the good candy stash. You pretended you didn't know about it (even if you did), and waited for her to haul out the Fannie Mae and offer you a piece when she was feeling itchy and generous.

Possibly worse than the food situation, although for a 12 and 7-year-old, not much, was the heating and plumbing situation. While the house was grand and gorgeous, with beautiful bones, plenty of space and a gracious flow, it was a sumbitch to heat and maintain. Everyone in Chicago was hot in the summer (well, except my beloved paternal grandparents, who got A/C shortly after it was invented and were never without), but I wonder how many people in our ZIP code were as cold as we were in the winter, there on the lake, in that huge house with the wind rattling the old storm windows, and the heat turned up enough to keep the pipes from freezing but not much else. It wasn't bad when you were fully clothed, and we learned the benefits of layering early on, but there was this insistence on bathing that made life difficult at times.

Which brings me to...the plumbing. The original plumbing, no doubt, with next-to-no water pressure and never enough hot. Forget that we were only allowed to use three squares of toilet paper per seated occasion (god knows I'd like to); far, far worse was shivering in the shower as you tried, TRIED, I TELL YOU, to get your 1970s, long-and-parted-down-the-middle girl-hair wet, shampooed and rinsed. At some point, our uncles took mercy on us (my beloved youngest uncle had moved in by then) and let me use the special shower they'd added on to one of the rooms. It must have had new pipes coming up from the main, because compared to every other faucet in the place, it was like standing under a hot fire hydrant. Which, in January, just off the lake in Chicago, is as close as it gets to heaven.

Life there was not, I must say, an unmitigated hell. I escaped every day to my wonderful, amazing grammar school, albeit an hour away by bus, and in the dark, for this was during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s. Gloomy Manor itself was an amazing place to explore and imagine, with four floors of who-knows-how many rooms, and a huge yard with steps down to the beach. I had dolls and books and all the paper and pens I wanted, plus hours and hours to myself, which I've always loved. If we lost half the house to the winter, sun porches and side porches and attics and basements, there were other, warmer rooms.

And while it chapped her hide, Mom never actually shut my sister and me up as we washed and dried every night to the sound of ourselves singing "If Mama Was Married" from Gypsy. While we were a dark family, we all appreciated a good joke.

Still, it was with profound relief that I welcomed her next husband, my ex-stepfather, into our lives. We went out to dinner, we sang in the car and everyone was allowed to stuff herself with food. He laughed easily, which was none too common at Gloomy Manor, my paternal grandfather's grim-joke name for this fallin g-down house by the lake full of stoic and/or drunk people. Our rental house that summer in Evanston before I started high school was a paradise compared to the remote prison I'd been stuck in for a year and a half. I barely cared that we were moving to a new place with a new school where I'd no know* nobody in my class of 1,000; freedom was in sight.

What is there, then, in that 18-month sentence, to be thankful for? Well, Youngest Uncle, for starters. He introduced me to Led Zeppelin and Monty Python and the National Lampoon during my stay, and besides saving my bacon, opened new worlds to me. Almost 20 years younger than my mom and only 10 years older than I, we probably never would have gotten close were it not for us being thrown together as cellies.

There was the quiet, too, and the isolation. Perhaps not the best for building critical preteen social skills, but while I was sequestered in the North Suburbs, my Chicago friends were starting to get into some pretty grownup stuff. I can't prove it, but I'm guessing that getting pulled from the city slightly before I hit 13 probably helped me hang onto my innocence for an extra four years, not at all a bad thing, in hindsight.

Most of all, though, came a fine appreciation for simple luxuries: the hot shower. The warm room. A full belly.

Love, expressed out loud.

It would have been devastating to have been deprived of these things from childhood, of course. But to have them, then have them taken away...well, like it or not, it probably contributed greatly to my gifts as an artist, not to mention my ability to see the humorous side of things. What is the comedian's curse again? Damn you for giving me a happy childhood?

They did their best. I know that, too. Nobody writes down, as the saying goes; in the same way, few people are intentionally awful to their fellow man. There is patterning, followed by a tent of darkness.

Some of us, if we're lucky, get just a peek under that tent. A small peek, bracketed by lots and lots of sunshine and warmth.

I am one of those people. And that is why I do what it is I do.

Thank you, Gloomy Manor, for the inadvertent gift of understanding. It's taken me a while to put it into play, but with some luck, there will be many, many years of illumination before this light is put out.

xxx c

*Wow. I was so overwrought, I plumb forgot my words.

Image ©2007 MichaÅ‚ Å»ebrowski.

"Thank you, sir! May I have another!?"™, Day 16: Arnie McScruff

This is Day 16 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in a classic film of my generation, Animal House. Arno J. McScruffington

I don't know whether to chalk it up to the writing gene or the bad-brain-chemicals gene, but all my life, I've grappled with depression.

It doesn't hit me as hard as some of my smarter friends or those relatives further over on the Irish-Swedish side of the spectrum (thank god for being sort of a dumbass and half-Jewish, I guess); in me, it's less of a steady condition and more of a trigger-driven one. Too little exercise or too much sugar/caffeine/bad food or too much passive media intake and I'll slip into what Truman Capote so perfectly named "the mean reds." Always liked that better than "the blues." The blues are for sadness and wallowing. The mean reds are sons of bitches on a covert mission to fuck up your soul.

I hadn't had a bout in a long time, so they sort of crept up on me this past week without my noticing until they'd really taken root. And once that happens, uprooting them is like battling a flea infestation: slow, painful and largely Sisyphean.

There is not much good to a bout of the mean reds, other than coming out on the other side. The last round of them happened after 9/11 and stuck hard, so hard, in fact, that my therapist came very close to "firing" me. Just the thought of having to go on meds put the fear of god in me (I swear, our mom raised us like Christian Scientists); I did a ton of internet research on depression and came up with a mix of exercise, media blackout, stimulant/depressant fast and vitamin cocktail that lifted the horror long enough to get the talk therapy to work.

I'm off the good insurance now, so talk therapy (outside of the once-monthly session I can afford) is out. Fortunately, my new pal, Arno J. McScruffington, is in (see above for photo of my strikingly handsome savior.)

Within five minutes of meeting him, I felt the clouds part. Just being in the house with him shifts the energy of the place, and makes it a better, healthier, happier place to be. It reminds me of how much I need to get my own house in order, so that I can create my next living space: something with a separate room for an office; a space to house large gatherings of my friends; and an animal companion.

I have never been a Dog Person. Or perhaps, I never knew I had it in me to be one.

So here I am thanking those motherfucking mean reds for introducing me to the miraculous healing powers of the canine rescue pup. (Can you believe someone could not love a face like this?)

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to get me a good dose of Arnie...

xxx c

Image by The BF, with and via his iPhone. Yes, all this, and an iPhone, too.

"Thank you, sir! May I have another!?"™, Day 12: Look, Ma! No coverage!!

This is Day 12 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in a classic film of my generation, Animal House. high wire unicycle

I have already alluded to the sorry state of my teeth, gums, cancer resistance and internal chemical management systems. May I now bring up the fact that in another seven and a half months, barring some sort of miracle from on high, I will join the ranks of those unable to pay for the regular maintenance and catastrophic repair of same?

I never thought it would come to this. Really. Had I known, I would have bought private insurance years ago, and not depended on what I now see are the vagaries of the employer-paid group insurance system.

The thing is, when I started out, in my 20s, all pluck and vinegar and walking ball of parentally-induced obligation complexes, I was 100% sure I'd be working for The Man the rest of my life, and that he'd pay for all the digestive disorders and other stress-induced diseases he was responsible for. That and a 401K? More than a fair trade, as far as I was concerned.

When I left my full-time ad gig in 1992, reality struck in the form of COBRA: expensive and time-limited, I quickly realized that the most important thing about being on COBRA was using the time to figure out how to get off COBRA. Fortunately, the ex-husband was healthy as a horse and whatever weird lady-surgeries I'd had were distant enough to be paying just an arm, not an arm and a leg. We scored some insurance with a deductible my younger, pre-preexisting conditioned self found outrageous. You know, the kind I'd crawl through hepatitis-infected glass to have today.

Still, it was enough of a drain on the household finances that I finally begged my dad to help me find some menial job with one of his beneficent corporate pals so that the Chief Atheist and I would qualify for coverage. I wanted to act, which required me to actually be available for auditions when asked (however seldom). But the cost was a wash, cheaper to work for slightly above minimum wage than to pull down $500/day and buy private.

All that came to a glorious halt with the SAG years. Sweet baby Jesus, the SAG years: coverage the likes of which I'd not seen ever, even in the fatcat, go-go, Madison Avenue years. For eight years, I never thought twice about going to the doctor. Not that it was anything I, you know, looked forward to; it was just that I wouldn't worry about how I was going to pay for something that happened out of the blue.

No more. Today I'm on COBRA again, and clinging for dear life. I've already informed all my providers that I'll most likely be entering the High Risk Pool next July, which means that I'll pay roughly $600/month for coverage that doesn't kick in for thousands and thousands of dollars I hope I never need to ask for. All of which means that anything needing to be probed, sampled or excised must happen now, or possibly never.

There is not much good in this. I am not thankful for the way our country treats its citizens when it comes to medical care. I am not thankful that I will join the ranks of the barely cared for, and pay an enormous price for doing so.

But I am also considering what a great gift it is to finally find out how most people live. For one reason or another, my whole life I've been sheltered from what I once saw as a petty concern, though it shames me to say it. I'm also thinking about creative solutions to the problem: of opting out, perhaps. Of taking the almost-$600 monthly and sticking it in some sort of investment account. Of letting my poor, old body crap out when its time. Of not fixing it, but, and really, heaven forfend, should the occasion rise, using myself as an example. Liveblogging my demise. Morbid? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Maybe a bunch of us have to throw ourselves under a bus to get Congress to get our legislative and executive branches of government to take notice.

Or maybe I'll join the ranks of the Starbucks unrevolution, work for The Man pulling espressos for my coverage. Maybe it's time for a little wax-on, wax-off. I'm not averse to a job-job if it doesn't mean selling my soul.

Whatever winds up happening seven months from now, I'm thankful that, for whatever reason, I'm not worried about it anymore. Me with my bad teeth and diseased gut and cancer-prone tissue. Maybe it would not be such a shame for my voice to get loud one last time over the indignities too many have had to suffer getting to this state of crisis.

I'll be truthful: I'd rather stay. But if it comes to it, it might be the noblest way to go.

And I am truly, truly thankful that I no longer consider living out this one particular life in some particular way to be a must-do. There are bigger things in life than this old bag of cells. I am glad that, at some point before I must go, and again, I hope it's a long, long time from now, that I finally realized it.

xxx c

Image by Gary Henderson via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.