Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The wisdom of the Unconscious

Whoa, nelly. I'd just like to put it on record that upon falling asleep after writing the last post, the one where I tearfully confessed to desiring a real old-fashioned proposal of matrimony, I dreamed the following dream:

The ex-boyfriend and I were going on a trip. He had set up a very crafty plan wherein he doused the truck we were driving in thoroughly with gasoline, and set up some wires so that when the truck started moving, it would explode in an enormous fireball, killing everybody nearby. The plan was that after this apocalypse, we would miraculously be thrown into a raging river, full of dangerous currents, large flesh-eating animals, and industrial waste, with no vehicle, no clothing, and no sunscreen. We would emerge unscathed, far down the river, having fooled everybody.

So we set off in the truck; I wasn't entirely sure how we were to survive the flaming explosion, but trusted him completely. Many people were walking around in the parking garage where we were, and the ex was pleased that they would all shortly die in a fireball. As we moved the wheels caught fire, but unfortunately for the ex, the car didn't explode.

Suddenly we had switched to MY truck, which wasn't booby-trapped; this was a bad thing, we must get rid of it immediately. Fortunately a crazy man came running up and tried to steal it from us. This suited the ex quite well; he drove the truck into a convenient obstacle in the path, threw us out of it, and cleverly let the crazy man drive off with it.

Now came time to throw ourselves into the raging torrent. A huge, fiery-eyed wolf riding a gigantic boar came floating up and glared at us. I was glad that I was too brave and experienced to be scared; I knew we'd come out okay in the end, but I kind of wished that my truck wasn't gone. I was all set to jump into the undertow, despite the large jagged chunks of industrial debris being flung around like guillotines, but suddenly remembered that I hadn't put on any sunscreen before jumping out of the truck. All this and sunburn too? I woke up with the skin on the back of my neck prickling.

This would seem too straightforward to require much Jungian analysis. Thank you, subconscious. The spell hath been broken. My ex is, simply, a raging lunatic and I am well shot of him.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Caroline brought me a big bunch of flowers. Her students gave her about a barnful of them for a Christmas present. I'm literally carrying mine from room to room with me as I work around the house, so as to spend as much time with them as possible--the two red roses and one pink one, the pink and orange lilies, the Gerber daisies and assorted exotic waxy-stemmed things. This may sound silly, but I have been CRAVING flowers ever since I brought my beautiful vase home from my dead gallery two months ago; I scrubbed the vase very carefully with a toothbrush and set it in the window, where the light catches it, and wished for flowers every day at breakfast, but could not justify the expense. I'm afraid Caroline thought my reaction was a bit over the top.

Last week I think I hit the Holiday Nadir. At least, I hope it doesn't get any worse than that. It's sort of frightening, how closely my mood is now allied with my work; if my painting is going well, I answer the phone with a delighted trill, and wish the telemarketer a happy holiday, and am not interested in movies. If my painting is stalled and bleak and bland and I can't see my way out of the pit, I start thinking about the Man That Done Me Wrong, and cry a whole lot, and sleep even more, and the world dwindles down to haunting guilt feelings over owning two healthy ficus plants when I very well may be out on the street in another few months.

I have never been one of those people who hates holidays, a priori. Among my group of friends I consider myself radical, original and wildly creative for actually doing Christmas. "You're so *traditional*," sneered Sarah-from-Hell, my (thankfully) ex-roommate, when I came home with a tree one year and commenced stringing lights, mulling cider, and baking cookies. Traditional? Me? How so? *Traditional* Christmas activities, at least among my segment of Generation X, involve sinking into profound states of angst, carping about wage slavery, refusing to buy gifts on principle, going bowling, making arch comments involving 'happy winter solstice holiday,' and escaping from oppressive familial atmosphere to somewhere one can get laid with sleazy strangers. My habits of playing Anglican choir music, drinking eggnog, and reading Dickens can only be seen as charmingly retro, bizarre but basically harmless. Or at least, that's what I used to think.

But last year really took it out of me. I have never yet written down the story of What Happened Last Year; I'm not sure I'm capable of it, truthfully. Each little bit sounds so trivial, petty even. "This friend came to stay with me. She whined. She took all of her money out of her bank account and forced it on me, leaving me no choice but to pay her train fares, museum entrances, dinner tab and cab to the airport. She complained that there wasn't any sugar, she didn't like honey, the soap made her face break out, the cat was staring at her and she couldn't sleep. She didn't like my toothpaste, she had to go buy some Crest RIGHT NOW. She was afraid to take the train alone, even though she had no problem with walking up to a stranger in a yarmulke and saying, 'what's that little hat called? We don't HAVE Jewish people where I come from.' She wanted to do whatever I wanted, only whatever we did, she was loudly miserable about doing it."

And after weeks of preparation, of apartment-cleaning, wreath-hanging, light-stringing, grocery-shopping, menu-planning, laundry-washing, not to mention running a double business single-handed during my first commercial holiday season, I could not handle it. On the sixth whine of Christmas, my houseguest moved in with Caroline. "Serena yelled at me because I had cramps," whimpered the houseguest. "Serena just snapped," said lovely, patient, understanding Caroline.

It's not like I have an agenda, not really. I just figure that well, peace, love and understanding, and lots of wine and cookies, what's not to like? It baffled me and brought me to my knees, having someone in my home who evidently believed that Courtesy=Martyrdom. Loud, 'extroverted' martyrdom. And then there was the boyfriend, Scrooge Junior--it made me laugh, with tragic irony, when I later remembered that I'd invited the houseguest in the first place because I'd thought that her sunny, bawdy, spiritual nature would offset his determined negativity. Ha. At least, when I showed up on his doorstep two days after Christmas, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he condescended to snuggle me a bit.

Now it's a year later, and it's not as cold as last year, but plenty cold enough, and dark, and rainy. I am no longer a Christmas Holiday Merchant, which makes me glad, but I no longer have an income, which causes me to wake in the middle of the night with my heart thumping wildly. I get up in the morning and I can either work in the studio or not work in the studio; if I do go to work, I still have no income, only maybe possibly, if I don't totally screw up this very expensive piece of linen, someone might pay for it, a few years from now, maybe.

And every now and then I have this stupid memory of once, sort of hoping, I mean I just kind of imagined in a wild flight of retro fantasy, that, like, I don't know, someone might, well, you know, ask me to marry him. You know, fireplace, little antique platinum ring with, you know, sapphires, something unique, nothing boring and conventional. I can't believe I was so stupid and it makes my stomach shrivel up just thinking. Not that I am a total asshole who believes that men should support women financially, not at all. It just seemed like a romantic adventure to fall in love and actually work things out together, as partners, for better and worse and everything in between.

But anyway I've been kind of slow in getting the decorations out of the box at the bottom of the armoire, this year. Over the weekend I got out the Anglican choir CD, listened to five seconds, shut it down and tuned to WNYC instead. The painting is going better. Caroline liked it. Maybe by next weekend I will have perked up and made the cookies.

Sunday, December 05, 2004


I found a ladybug in the arugula. It must have been in the fridge for at least three days. It was an amazingly stalwart little beetle--as soon as I put it on the china doll, it commenced munching away upon the infestation of prehistoric-looking mites that has plagued my household in recent months. That was three evenings ago, and it is now basking on the underside of a leaf, replete and toasty. I can't tell you what satisfaction this gives me.

PMS has struck with a vengeance. Last night I hit the wall with the painting I have been working on all week; the joy went out of the process like someone had turned on a great spiritual vacuum cleaner. I chewed my nails and blundered around for the whole duration of "Prairie Home Companion," searching for the precise shade of blue-gray to interpolate between the barium-orange sun and the deep purple shadows, and when I finally found it, I didn't even care. I slapped it on in an uninspired manner for another hour and a half, but finally concluded that if *I'm* not feeling the joy while painting, the viewer will not feel it while viewing. So I made corn bread and watched "Muriel's Wedding" instead.

As further proof of the PMS diagnosis, I offer this list of movie moments that have induced actual tears, during the last week:

1) "Music from another room," where Jennifer Tilly, as the blind sister, tells Anna, "Danny's love for you is SO ENORMOUS that it spilled over onto the rest of us," and I had a flashback to my now-ex-boyfriend telling me, "You are scattering sunshine all over everyone," and yet a year later he was so unbelieveably horrible to me that it does not bear belaboring.

2) "Laws of Attraction," despite the fact that the script was every bit as lame as the critics said it was; where Pierce Brosnan, as Daniel Rafferty says, "I'll give you a divorce, because I happen to believe that when you care deeply for someone, you give them what they want." I really enjoyed the fact that the male character was the decent, stable one, and that Julianne Moore was psycho and committment-phobic. Come to think of it, though, Bridget Jones was like this too. Maybe it's Republican backlash propaganda--"Look, WE MEN are noble and decent, and love women even though they are scatty and foolish and deluded about the idea that they need careers." But I don't think I'll pursue that. People who rant about the dangerous social implications of Really Good Stories irritate me. Good stories are always relevant; it's when people put the moral before the story that it all falls to pieces.

3) "A Cinderella Story," the ball scene, in general. I suppose the fact that I'm even watching these movies at all is a dead giveaway.

"Muriel's Wedding" didn't make me cry too terribly much, though I did cackle and whoop during the Abba lip-synching scene. Living alone is NOT making me strange, I have always been this easily manipulated.

Yesterday I biked into Manhattan for breakfast at the Lotus Cafe, which was a disappointment. The whole point of biking across bridges for breakfast is the cozy, tingling feeling you get after braving traffic and freezing temperatures so that you can snuggle down in the window seat with a cup of coffee, bagel and good book; the experience falls to the ground when you cannot ever get warm. Evidently the Lotus Cafe does not make enough money to heat itself properly, or even to serve decent coffee, if it comes to that. After forty-five minutes of still not being able to feel my feet, I re-boarded my steed and raced home to a hot shower and a nap on the couch. This may sound like sloth, but you cannot be too careful during flu season. I stick to the Tea Lounge until spring.

I have been struggling, lately, to articulate my notions about envy. It's nonsense that there are no taboo subjects in our modern, liberated society. Shame is the biggest, and envy is not far behind. I have gotten hate mail for even attempting the subject. The painful and dangerous conclusion I have come to, lately, is that 1) people, close friends even, have gotten envious of me; and 2) this can cause, has caused, serious problems in my life.

It has taken years to arrive at these conclusions. I have had periodic, painful fallings-out with intimate friends at intervals over the last twenty years, and these have always been accompanied by a great deal of soul-searching, minute examination of my own character, as to what fatal flaw might be there that I could correct. It is only after writing reams of exhaustive speculation as to what horrible thing I could possibly have done, what thoughtlessness on my part, what blind spot in my character, motivated this dear person to seduce my lover, befriend my ex's new girlfriend and invite her everywhere, stop returning my phone calls when I've been beaten up in the street and am homeless, forget to introduce me to her art dealer, leave my manuscript unread on the coffee table for a year and a half--that the awful possibility begins to dawn on me. It seems a terrible thing to think of anyone--that they would be JEALOUS? Of ME? WHY? And that they would act with malice and passive-aggressive spite because of this? Surely this could never be. Surely I am an evil person for daring to think so.

And yet, this seems perfectly natural to a large segment of society. I remember back in art school, explaining in shocked bewilderment to my tutorial advisor, how my closest friend had suddenly gone berserk, hauling out every vicious personal insult in the broom closet of her brain, knocking me down and literally clawing my throat, when all I did was mention that some guy had called me up and offered to curate a show for me and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She replied blandly, "Oh, she's just jealous," as though this excused everything. In later years this particular advisor became "a second mother" in promoting my ex-friend's career, while pointedly avoiding me when I dropped in to say hello.

In fact, even mentioning the topic can be seen as bragging. In theatre circles, "I hate you" is a compliment. All this, and envy too! The icing on the cake! How dare you complain?

THIS IS HORRIBLE. It is horrible when your friends rejoice in your failures and mope at your successes. I actually confronted someone about this, once; about how, when I called to let her know that my boyfriend was cheating, I got evicted from my apartment, or my work had been turned down for the fifth time in a month, a note of unmistakable glee would creep into her cries of commiseration. Whereas when I had some positive news to impart, I had to be careful how I broke it to her, and cringe at the wail of misery it usually provoked. It got so that I was exaggerating my problems and concealing my joys when talking to her, as though I had no right to be happy until every one of my friends was married to Prince Charming and living in a castle in Spain. When I finally brought up the subject, she burst into tears, hung up and did not call again, which was, by then, a great relief.

So I just don't see it. For me, envy is fundamentally an error in perception. I do not believe that life is in any way a competition, or I might have begun this story like this:

"I found a live beetle in the lettuce. I screamed, made my boyfriend come kill it, and threw the lettuce out. I won't be shopping at THAT co-op again! Ugh. There are mites on the houseplants, too. Living in Brooklyn is just so gross. Better get some insecticide at Home Depot this weekend."

Dear reader, of course I know that if you hung out with Valley Girls, you wouldn't be my friend. But it is surprising how not-obvious it is that all facts are relative to the perceiver, not to one another.

After, as I mentioned, a great deal of soul-searching and discussion of the issue with my wise and infinitely trusted sister, we concluded that the only way to cope with envious people is simply to avoid them. Living a life of habitual gratitude helps to ward them off. There are a lot of people, posing as politically correct progressives, who think that if you dared to have a happy childhood, a loving family, and enough money to live on, that you owe them your boyfriend, your apartment, your car, your career and your peace of mind. Can I just point out that this attitude is unloving, illiberal, irrational, and bad karma? Life is not a zero-sum equation. When you dim your light so that another may shine, the whole world gets darker. And so on.