North Haven, CT, 1987

In 1987, after thirteen years in Phoenix, AZ, I was released from my exile. I returned home to the greener, softer Northeast in a gentle summer. It rained a lot, and most days were unseasonably cool. On my birthday, in the first week of October, we had snow flurries. I was home at last.

It was a relief to be out of the brutal heat and vigilante mentality of the desert southwest. Gun-toting drivers routinely shot at one another, gossip-mongering moms unabashedly encouraged their children to ostracize “others,” and students in the ghetto of downtown Phoenix were deprived of equal education by the closure of neighborhood schools. Moving to Connecticut felt like ascending to heaven that first year. I expected to find safety. Refuge.

On a glorious bright blue Sunday morning in early Fall, my husband and I decided to take a walk to a restaurant not far from the center of our new hometown. The abundant leafy greenery had already begun to spin itself into gold and orange. The sky was the color of Delft, and a gentle breeze teased the edges of the exiting “Indian Summer” heatwave. We were in high spirits, talking about how nice it was to be cool in October. I regaled my husband with praise for having moved us. I actually said, “It’s such a relief to known that I am back in the land of diversity.” Phoenix had been far too awash in Aryan complexion.

Just then we hear the distant sound voices chanting. They were coming from the north. The words of the chant were indiscernible. But the sound was something like a nail gun rhythmically shooting nails into a wood post. They were accompanied by the sound of marching boots, coming ever closer. Then came the words. Words I that became more distinct as the sound approached, punctuated by the perseverating boots.

“Blood and Soil,” they shouted. “This land is ours. Niggers and Jews go home.”

Then the voices stilled. Nothing audible but the clomping of the boots. Stamping out a message as clearly articulated as the hateful slogans.

I froze. My recurring nightmare played in my head. Nazis have discovered where my mother ran to escape them. They have come to America to carry us back to the gas chambers.

The stomping feet grew louder. I could see a cloud arise as the boots kicked dust into the air. Then the cloud was pierced by a flock of disembodied white cones bobbing into town. Soon after by a flow of white-robed bodies. All moving in rhythm to the marching boots. When they were close enough for me to see the individual participants, I realized with horror that each of them had raised the mask up, so their faces were exposed. Expressionless faces. The chantrecommenced. Staring hatefully like the mesmerized mob seeking blood from the Frankenstein monster.

“Blood and Soil. This land is ours. Niggers and Jews go home.”

They looked neither right nor left. The were as a single eye, focused on a goal or a sign only they could see. They squinted with resolute seriousness.

“Blood and Soil. This land is ours. Niggers and Jews go home.”

“The kids,” I said to my husband. “We need to get home to the kids.”

“There are only a few,” he pointed out. “And they don’t seem to be headed toward the house.”

He was right. There were no more than twenty or so bodies. But they moved with the precision and the deliberateness of a single predator. And their presence, exaggerated by the metal on metal combined sound of the voices and the boots, dwarfed reality.

As a single entity, they turned into the parking lot of a strip mall. A strip mall owned by a Jewish owner, where rents were purported to be high. They chanted louder, but now they had turned their backs to us.

My husband touched my arm. “We should go,” he said.

I tried to move. But my body trembled so I had no strength in my legs. I sat on the ground and sobbed.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Trumped

Until I met James, I was comfortably ensconced in my bubble. A New Yorker, surrounded by like-minded denialists, I was comfortable in my belief that Trump supporters were no more than white walkers. Mythological beasts I must never acknowledge. Thanks goodness for James. I now know they really exist. I can face the demons down.

I met James online. Even though I know better – I am happily resigned to being single – I accepted an invitation for three days of free dating from an “elite” site. The site promised a higher caliber of prospects, no losers. What that meant, I came to understand, was that the median incomes were above 100K per year. How I got an invitation I’ll never know. If income is the scale by which my worth is measured, I have none.

But James found my profile and thought I was kinda cute. He said he liked my sense of humor. That should have tipped me off. My profile page was dead serious.

“I’m looking for a smart woman to share my life with,” he wrote. “And my experiences with online dating have been disastrous. But you seem different to me.”

Of course, I was hooked. Call me different, and I’ll follow you anywhere.

I have to admit that from his opening salvos, I could see the red flags bursting in air. “I like a woman who knows how to dress,” he bragged. I assured him that that was not I. He thought I was joking. I wasn’t.

But I liked that he was Irish. My undergraduate thesis was all about James Joyce, and I let my preconceived notions prevail. I expected to be refreshed by a wry sense of irony. Nope. No irony. But plenty of Rye. Yup. An in-tact stereotype. The man is a drinker. Big time. I could smell it over the telephone.

We spoke several times in the first two weeks. Despite the obvious obstacles – he lives in New Hampshire, I in NYC; he hates cities, and I dread NH – we dived in. He reached out to me just as I was preparing to spend a month with family in Thailand, and he had lived in Thailand for thirteen years with his second wife, now deceased. What couple could have more in common?

On the telephone, James spoke of many things. Things that he does. Things that he knows. I would have chimed in, but my contributions to the conversation were met with grunts or groans and unh-hunhs. I got it. I needed to wrap it up. I did. And I kept on listening. It felt quite natural. The men I have chosen to have relationships with have traditionally dismissed me this way. I even ignored the fact that he stopped me in mid-sentence with, “I don’t know anything about that, and it has no relevance to my life.” When I disclosed that I am vegan, he was silent for almost a second. Then he said,”I might learn how to grill vegetables. But green is not a color I like to ingest.”

Like most septuagenarian men I’ve encountered, James was worried he might come across as old. He made it a point of recounting his farming exploits. He’d farrowed the pig. Split wood at a faster clip than his 40-year-old neighbor. “And I’ve got the blood pressure of an 18-year-old. Honestly. Whenever I have it taken, the nurse tells me she has to do it again. It’s too good to be true.” He also said often that he has a stellar memory. It was on his monologue loop.

Then he forgot everything I told him. But drinkers do forget. And it was clear when he paused seven or eight times in a half-hour conversation to “top off the whiskey,” that drinking was a sport he had perfected. He was a far better drinker than any man half his age.

Clearly, I have serious self-esteem issues. I still did not shut this down. When he told me he had had little exposure to “coloreds,” I almost did. But then he qualified his statement. He couldn’t say he was prejudiced, but he couldn’t trust ‘em neither. “Did you vote for Trump?” I asked warily.

He was sly. He knew this was a deal breaker. “No,” he lied. “I don’t dislike him, but I didn’t vote for him.”

Actually, it was more than self-esteem. I was in a fantasy. A fantasy where this man with plenty of money offered to be my partner, to help me pay my bills and allow me to give up my day jobs, to take some sort of retirement. I guess I was gold digging. What else could I have been hanging on for? It was clear I was not going to like this guy.

By the end of the second week of communication, we decided we needed to meet. We chose New Haven, a city I know well, one that’s not difficult for him to reach. He took two rooms – see, I might like him after all! – in a quasi-swank hotel downtown, and he made reservations for a posh dinner overlooking the Green. That afternoon, we met up with some old friends of mine. We hardly spoke to one another. He was huddled in a corner with my friends’ cousin, an IT guy who’s had some bad luck.

When they left us, the first thing James said was, “That guy is all right. He should have learned some kind of a trade though. It’s no good his wife has to take care of them. Only thing I don’t get is they’re Jewish, right? Why doesn’t he just take his money and buy himself a business?”

Looking out on Yale at dinner, he spouted, “You know this place is run by Communists and Jews, right? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t care. But they own an awful lot of this country. And control it.”

With his next breath, he told me that if I committed to him, he would buy me a car. “Just come up, and you can choose whatever model you want. That way you can come and go at your own whim. I’ve got a room where you can write. Maybe we can work out a way that you can do more writing and less teaching.”

How could I end it now?

I was grateful to the drinking. No blue pill. No expectations. Simple cuddling, which he demanded rather than encouraged. I was grateful for the simplicity of it and went to my own room, where I slept soundly in a delightfully comfortable bed.

Over breakfast, he admitted his lie. It began as a paean to Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. I had asked him who his heroes were.

“The three men I admire most,” he asserted, “Are Warren Buffet, that guy from Microsoft, and Donald Trump. Best president in decades.”

I gulped. “Funny. Buffet and Gates both abhor Trump,” I stammered.

“That’s a lie,” he said. “Fake news. Some moron wrote that.”

I wanted to stop him. But I couldn’t. Suddenly I saw the light. These people do not simply haunt the internet netherworld. They are flesh and blood.

He went on to explain why welfare was wrong, how money is a sign of competency and intelligence. “What do you think of the Gates Foundation?” I asked him.

“They do Microsoft research,” he replied.

“They fund startups and health care and . . . “

“There you go spouting fake news again.”

“No,” I shook my head. “I read primary sources too. I’ve actually read stuff published by the Gates –“

“He has a pack of propagandists working for him. They don’t have a clue who he is. He’s like me. A tradesman who’s made a lot of money. He dropped out of Harvard because he’s too smart for them.”

The fallacies had a personal resonance with James. He never dreamed of Harvard. Wanted nothing to do with college at all. His father, a second generation American, had established a successful crane business in New Hampshire. Dad wanted James to go to college, but James had other ideas. He joined the Navy to avoid the draft and Viet Nam, served two years, became a master electrician, then came home, where daddy gave him an ultimatum. No education, no inheritance. He went to a small local college and majored in pre-engineering. He graduated. Daddy died and left him the crane business, which James successfully sold to a large corporation for millions of dollars. He is not a self-made man. He did do well at his electrician’s trade. He still does some of that to prove he’s not old. But the money he has invested in things like Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway came from the sale of Daddy’s business.

“I pulled myself up by my boot straps,” he told me. “I understand people like Bill Gates and Donald Trump.”

I already saw that I was enabling him. But he promised me a springtime trip to Iceland. How many 70-year-olds get a chance to entertain the thought of a sugar daddy? I could not let go. Not yet.

He called me every day. Proffered every kind of carrot imaginable. The best was a room of my own with a view of the White Mountains, where I could write. No more schlepping to the Bronx to teach Freshman Comp. No more summerschool writing classes. Pure soporific.

One day, out of the blue, he sent me a joke email. A tasteless anecdote about a divorcee who squeezes her husband’s balls for money. I wrote him telling him that as the recipient of a very raw divorce deal, I took umbrage at the joke. He never replied. I even let that slide. A room of my own!

Our next meeting was in Boston. He met me outside the hotel, and by the time I got to the room, I knew I was done. Almost. He was muttering a mile a minute already as he helped me with my suitcase.

“This is some cheap suitcase you got here. You could have bought something with revolving wheels, something I could drag more easily.”

“It was a gift from my son,” I said.

“No wonder. Didn’t you tell me he was Jewish?”

“What?”

“Your son. Remember? You said you celebrate their Sabbath with his family. I told you not to bring them to New Hampshire on Friday night because I can’t cook Kosher. And –“

“It’s my Sabbath,” I said softly. “And none of us is kosher.”

We had lunch in a restaurant he chose without consulting me. A less trafficked Little Italy establishment with no wait. They had nothing for a vegan. I didn’t even mention it, and he didn’t notice. He ordered veal parm. I had a lovely plate of lettuce. Romaine. He offered me a bite of the dead calf on his plate and asked me if I ‘d like a gelato. I said I would prefer an ice. He took me to a gelato place with no ices. “You should try this one,” he said, and bought two of what he was having. Before dinner he hovered as I checked my email. “Why are you getting alerts form youtube about John Oliver and Stephen Colbert? They’re morons.”

“Well, that’s interesting,” I answered. “I guess I’m a moron too. Because they think like I do.”

At dinner he got angry at me for ordering broccoli rabe, the only thing on the menu not meat or cheese. His ire was stoked by the fact that I asked them to cook it without the usual sausage. “Do you have to be so picky? You could just take the meat out and give it to me.”

Over dinner, his full Trump colors emerged.

“When you go to Thailand, you’ll fly first class, right?”

“Hell no,” I scoffed. “I’ll be in economy.”

“I would never stoop to flying economy. Ever. I worked hard. I deserve to fly first class, and that is all I will fly.”

“Good for you,” I said enthusiastically. “You should.”

“I know,” he said. “If you had worked hard, perhaps you could afford to travel first class as well. But a teacher, well, you were doomed when you chose that one. Hardly any work and no money.” I shoved a giant forkful of the rabe into my mouth.

Still, I couldn’t pull myself away. The next day he had booked us a whale watch, at my request. It was prepaid. No matter how I remember James, I will always be grateful for that whale watch. What a spectacle. We saw eight humpback whales rolling, lolling, cavorting in the wild. I was enchanted. He was disgusted by the numbers of passengers spewing their guts into garbage bins or over the side. The sea was rough. I loved every minute of it. Then over our last meal together, he inflicted the coup de grace.

“What did you do this morning when you went out so early?” He asked with an air of near honest interest.

“I was in the lobby.”

“Doing what?”

“Talking to the receptionist.”

“You shouldn’t mix with underlings. It gives them the impression they are as good as we are.”

“I was also reading the Times.”

“The New York Times?”

“Yes.”

He turned beet red.

“You read that junk? It’s poison. I once heard the President” – here he snapped to attention – “speak, then I read about it in the Times. The exact speech, they completely turned around. Lies all lies. I just heard him, and what they said he said was never said. Horse dump. Morons.”

I decided to turn silence into my own currency. He didn’t care. I had already ceased to matter to him. He rattled on until he took me to the bus station. There, he told me he was going to go explore the area and find himself a great pub. He could not wait to get away. He gave me a peck on the cheek, pivoted, and walked away.

He has not contacted me since. I wrote to him and said I thought it was silly for us not to say good bye. He likes to read wordy, meaningless novels, so I wrote him in a style I thought he might appreciate.

“Ours was an uncomplicated short story” I wrote. “It would be unsatisfactory to leave off before writing the resolution. That our friendship failed somehow (our core values just don’t jibe in any way) is no cause for resentment. During our time, we laughed, we were comforted by one another’s presence, and we envisioned a future. That that future was impossible for us is neither’s fault, and we have nothing to regret.”

He did not reply. I am fine with that. I got way more out of this encounter than I hoped. It was a great learning experience. For the first time since the upset of 11/9, I understand how The Carrot got elected. I can see now how we, who would never have wished it, helped make it so.

My Pledge of Allegiance We’re Still Here

“The white tape works for roommates but not for patriots.  America needs us now more than ever.  Don’t ever let them forget WE’RE STILL HERE. ” Bill Maher 11 Nov 2011

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-11-51-36-am

All over Facebook I see people writing things like, “This will help” as introduction to a posting about how the “real” Donald Trump won’t do any of the things he threatened during the campaign. “He was just campaigning,” they say. “The REAL Trump is not that guy. It’s okay. We’ll be fine.”

It doesn’t help. At all.

In fact, it just makes things worse to know that in order to gain power, Trump fed a hunger for hatred and encouraged the ingestion of bigotry that caused the great belly of this country to spew forth a mandate that normalizes misogyny, sexual assault, anti-LGBTQ behavior, racism, and exclusion.

It is NOT okay, and it’s not going to be okay if we accept the soporific that the “real Donald” is a better man than that.

All the disclaimer proves once again is that Trump is a con man, a demagogue, an inveterate opportunist, and he will continue to sell his snake oil, to poison the atmosphere with lies and empty promises until his supporters, his soldiers and slaves, awake and see him for what he is: stark, raving naked. But that will take time because having drunk the Kool-Aid, the minions of deplorables, who voted this man in, are infected with the absolute conviction that they are now in command, that their man will make them great, that they will defeat the insidious factions that seek to destroy them, and it will be a good long while before they realize that they, in fact, are their own worst enemies.

Trump is not a new phenomenon. Nor is he a surprise. Plato warned us of him in The Republic, Book VIII. No fan of the common man – he referred to the populace as a great beast – Plato argued that Democracy instills a lust for absolute freedom, a concept most are not equipped to understand. The people, he suggested, will inevitably assume that the democracy entitles every man to expect to get exactly what he wants, in material goods and individual rights. But the reality is that there will be inequities, and those inequities will increase as the rich get richer , and the poor are disempowered; the democrats will seek to placate the masses by stealing from the rich, and the poor will grow impatient, feeling increasingly disenfranchised as their dreams become ever more elusive. Then, says Pluto, the great beast will elect “a violent and popular leader,” whose power will grow as he fans his people’s fears by making them distrust one another, fueling suspicions of iconoclasts of any kind. He will tax the citizenry to fund his substantial army and his schemes for world domination, and he will trust no one while relying on criminals to do his bidding. Those henchmen will collude with him to enact crimes against the democrats who elected him. It is, then, the responsibility of the thinkers, the compassionate, the artists in a society to hold the mirror up to the nature of the state they are in and engender revolution.

Of course, it doesn’t help to know that Plato predicted this anymore than that Trump may not have meant what he expounded. Naturally, he was playing a character for the purpose of rallying the people, and Plato simply gives us a historical perspective. But it sure isn’t reassuring to realize that Trump has successfully painted himself into a corner where he must make good his campaign promises.

What does help is to know that there are armies of sentient sensate people out there, who will make sure we do not go gently into that dread night of total darkness that history warns is possible. We have a window of opportunity to avert the worst, and I know for a fact that there are more who disdain what has happened than those who rejoice, and in our numbers is the strength to prevail.

So, it’s not okay, but it could be. Eventually.

I have, over the years, kept in touch with scores of my students, many of whom are now approaching or are well into their forties. They are bringing up their children with deeply humanistic values, are setting an example for the millennials to follow. In their multivarious roles, they are provoking thought, are reconstituting our intellectual infrastructures, making differences.

When I returned to earn a second Master’s Degree in Fine Arts, I sat at tables with some of the finest writers and poets and playwrights and actors and visual artists I will ever have the honor to meet, and I heard them speak, read their words, experienced their work. I have faith in these young people, most of them millennials, and I know they will carry on, will pledge their talents to keeping the country awake, to reminding us all that we must not be silent, must eschew complacency, must be unafraid to remain committed to the fight that only began in the awful campaign of 2016.

Now, in fact, the fight has escalated. Truth is, we are again engaged in a great Civil War, testing and being tested. If we are to endure, we must choose to stand up and take a side, must commit to preventing the miasma from enveloping us, from defeating us, from suffocating us.

Like so many others, I have of late been stultified by the cataclysm I awoke to on November 9. But I need to reanimate. As a woman and as a woman who has experienced sexual assault and harassment, as a first generation American, as a Jew, as the sister of a beloved man who loves men, as a teacher in the CUNY system where most of my students are considered “others,” as friend to so many iconoclasts of all shapes and sorts, as the mother and grandmother of powerful, brilliant women, I am appalled.

But it’s not over till the diva sings her last, and I hear no America singing the heroine’s dying declarations. Rather, I hear bells ringing nationwide, and they are tolling for me and for thee.

It’s not okay.

But wall is not yet lost. We can still win by working to make sure that within the next four years the siege of terror comes to a halt. We can still win by acting in a way that proves that MOST Americans welcome others into our midst and value all contributions, by standing up to bullies. We can reject the notion that only losers need help and reach out to bring comfort to the hungry and the sick. We can lobby for better health care and universal insurance, for the environment; we can educate the masses about carbon footprints, about the ethical, responsible treatment of our earth and all its creatures, including our fellow man. Et cetera. There is no end to what we can and must do, what we must do together.

Together, most importantly, we must insulate ourselves from hatred by refusing to abhor the representatives of evil that seek to subjugate us; they must be shown that they cannot own us. By being unafraid, by insisting on turning our other cheek, not in submission but in defiance, we retain our power over ourselves, and we win.

They will go low. That’s a given, but that’s okay.   Because we will go high.

 

 

 

 

Kol Nidrei

theamom

To Thea

I feel you in the music of the clouds

When the rain keeps rhythm in my heart,

Or when my soul can’t breathe. You left me, sister,

Here under mother’s rueful gaze, her pain

A poison I no longer fear, now loathe.

Remember? You mocked me when I called you

Foe, your frailty my rival. I prayed

For illness, sought to suffer like you did

Knowing mother loved your infirmity

Resented my health, my robust, boy-like

Strength. I wanted all you had and were.

While mother wanted nothing more than you

And a son, the treasured son I cannot be.

You alone said, “Nonsense. You’ll be brilliant.

Just find a concerto of your own.”

Now you’re gone, and who will help me string my

Bow? Who will turn my pages, make me smile

Through Dvorak, Schumann, and the rest? No one.

My cello is buried here. My music was you.

charlottecello

Charlotte With Cello, by Borislav Bogdanovich (http://www.bogdanovichcollection.com/biography/)

A Little Bit of Sycophancy

Before you read my review of All the Ways to Say I Love You, I would like to say a word about Judith Light.

When I was about to meet the actress in 2003, the prospect did not thrill me at all.

My writing and producing partner Daniel Fine had been invited by the Directors View Film Festival’s Executive Director Robert Kesten to create a tribute event for Arthur Penn, who was that year’s winner of the festival’s Joseph L. Mankiewicz Excellence in Filmmaking Award.imgres-2

Dan and I read and watched Arthur’s vast body of films and fashioned a script from scenes we’d cobbled together for Daniel to direct as a tribute reading. We then invited actors, who had worked with the director onstage as well as in his films, to participate, and though we had no budget to pay the actors or to transport them from any further than New York City, we were able to come up with a formidable company of very talented, willing professionals. When I sent the list to Mr. Penn, he shot back that he was disappointed not to find Judith Light; we hadn’t called her because she was not named as anyone he had previously worked with. “She’s brilliant,” he said, “and I would love to see her. I know she’s back in NY. Why not get in touch? She should read the Gibson stuff,” he said, referring to the pieces from the plays he’d directed by William Gibson. “It’s all written for a tough, smart woman. That’s Judith Light.”

I was skeptical. I mean, all I knew of her was an electronic face I had seen at intervals when passing through the family room, attempting to get my children to turn off that ‘80s television sitcom, predominated by what seemed to me an automaton blonde. But Arthur Penn wanted her in, and who was I to doubt Arthur Penn?whos-boss

Well, Judith Light showed me how wrong I was about her.

She got the script a few hours before the reading, and we had one rehearsal.  But by the time the introductions were made, and the reading began, she had somehow managed to learn several lengthy monologues from the dense Gibson material she was assigned, and she easily swung from making Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s mother (The Miracle Worker and Monday After the Miracle) and Golda Meir (Golda), come alive. They were flawlessly believable. She disappeared first into the subtly Irish Sullivan, then into the patrician Southern gentlewoman and the Russian immigrant American Israeli Prime Minister with polished ease, as though she had been studying the roles her whole life, as though she had rehearsed them forever. imgres-1imgres

I became a fan and have since seen almost everything she has done on stage(she’s since won two Tonys and a host of other accolades) and on streaming video (Amazon’s Transparent, for which she won an Emmy); I am a grateful admirer of the nuanced older women she animates.light-in-transparent

Her Shel Pfefferman has taken her place alongside Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein (Grace and Frankie), my much-revered imaginary alter egos.

Which is why I knew she’d be great in All the Ways to Say I Love You.  (My review follows.)

What She Did For Love

Theater Review: All the Ways to Say I Love You
written by Neil Labute, directed by Leigh Silverman, starring Judith Light

As the house fades to darkness in the Lucille Lortel Theatre, Judith Light seems to bring up the stage lights as she makes her entrance. She crosses down center and stands absolutely still for a moment. She is pensive, oblivious to the applause from the audience who, having not yet met the character, cheer for the star they recognize. She waits for a beat before she walks to Stage Left and slowly crosses back to Stage Right, each time stopping to scrutinize the first few rows of the audience, clearly looking for “someone” to talk to.  Judith Light disappears, and her character Mrs. Johnson launches  into the monolog that is All the Ways to Say I Love You.  The result is a 90-minute stream-of-consciousness outpouring, the unpacking of personal history and emotion by Mrs. Johnson, a woman who has lost herself in the jumbled morass of others’ expectations and her own passions.  

images-1

Judith Light as Mrs. Johnson, in The MCC Theater Production of Neil LaBute’s All the Ways to Say I Love You, directed by Leigh Silverman, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 141 Christopher Street, NYC. (Photo by @JoanMarcus)

The experience of following the Mrs. Johnson’s narrative, deftly written by Neil LaBute,  is something like being on multiple amusements at a fun park, riding them in such quick succession that there is no way to regain composure.  Mrs. Johnson recounts her life, breathlessly purging herself in chilling, even sometimes disgustingly vivid detail, leaving the audience as winded as she is.  Even the silences, the long pregnant silences, don’t enable her to breathe.  She is thinking, feeling, processing, and the effort of it exhausts us as it seems to deplete her.  But then she rallies, and her energy seems boundless, as she drags us into yet another corner of Mrs. Johnson’s past.

Light’s commitment to her character is absolute, unflinching.  She introduces herself at the top of the play as a high school English and drama teacher doubling occasionally as a guidance counselor, who has perhaps given her life to her profession while withholding too much from her marriage.  Allowing herself some self-deprecation, she amuses herself with her witticisms, even as she reveals, in the first few moments, that this will be the story of her relationship to a whopper of a falsehood.

“What is the weight of a lie?” she says a student once asked her, and though she goes on to say that she was unable to answer the question then, there is no doubt that the play is about to provide one.  Over the next 90 minutes, in fact, she peels back the layers of linen that shroud her lie, laying all its harrowing consequences bare and judging herself guilty. She has sentenced herself to a life of misery.

LaBute’s writing draws the audience into the judgmentalism of the moment, so much so that they are left with a sense of a larger crime even than the one to which Mrs. Johnson admits.

“She’s a pedophile,” I heard a woman scoff as she jumped to her feet to join the standing ovation at play’s end.  “I don’t understand why I am so enthusiastic.  I’m applauding a blood-sucking pedophile.”

In truth, it’s a trap LaBute has set most effectively. From the start, Mrs. Johnson makes it clear that she has indeed broken the laws of all that is holy to any sentient being and has had a prolonged affair with a student, but she has repeatedly mitigated that pronouncement by emphasizing that she did so with “a second year senior,” meaning a 19- or 20-year-old, clearly someone past the age of consent.  There is no pedophilia.

“He’s a rapist,” says the woman’s companion.  “I should hate her.  Why don’t I?”  Perhaps, I think, because there is no rape.  Again, LaBute has muddied the waters with a shadow of doubt; Mrs. Johnson clearly states that it was the boy who made the first moves, that it was he who insinuated himself into her life before she chose to allow him access.  It’s a subtle nuance but critical to the character because her little loopholes are the devices that enable her to maintain a modicum of self-respect, and allow her to believe herself a good teacher, a wise counselor, a loving parent with less delusion.

I felt close to this character.  She has, like so many women in my generations, tried to shrink herself to fit the prefab molds she’s been required to fill.  She has sublimated herself to the work that now defines her, but she has received no rewards for her efforts.  And she has fallen into an abyss most sentient adults would have avoided at all cost, has lost herself to the delusion that, having given so much, she deserves to take something for herself.  It’s not entirely her fault, but we will blame her nonetheless. Her Fifteen years in the classroom, teaching English and directing the drama club like Mrs. Johnson, her story resonates in me.  I knew my share of bold boys, those who envisioned themselves men enough to seduce the teacher.  And I knew how tempting some of them could be.  Male entitlement has the potential to beguile and can be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Most of us realize that to give in is idiotic folly, and we never do, but for Mrs. Johnson, the stakes are complicated.

Her husband, a mixed race man, has suffered many hardships for standing out as different in their small town community.  Over and over, she tells us she loves him, she will do anything to save her marriage. He wants children. Desperately, she says.  But no matter how hard they try, they remain childless.  She wants him to excite her, and she longs for him to find her attractive; but as they try more arduously to make a baby, they lose interest in one another, all of which renders her as vulnerable as a woman can be.  That boy is insistent, and he has a hunger for her that is irresistible.

That hers is a terrible mistake, one predicated on a huge fabrication, is undeniable, and she will be punished. Endlessly.  Which, I suppose, is how the women were mollified and convinced not to lynch the actor at the end of the play.

Even as I found Mrs. Johnson a reliable narrator of her tale, I couldn’t help wondering how much of the story lives in the character’s head, how much is the dramatic story she fed herself during times when teaching was, as teaching can be, stultifying, when she felt her creativity drained, and all her efforts were on her students’ or her husband’s or her lover’s behalf.

The silences on stage enhanced my sense of the character inventing herself as she went along.  Long, pregnant silences orchestrate transitions of story, mood, tone; they are silences most actors and directors fear.  Light and Silverman plumb their depths, and in their deafening stillness, we see a woman growing older, fighting the urge to enlarge the truth while persistently diminishing realities. 

So, I am still not sure how much of what Mrs. Johnson remembers is the babbling of a woman descending into old age, seeking comfort in believing that once, even when it was totally inappropriate, she sacrificed herself to love.

I See Old People!

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston.

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston. (Netflix photo)

Sometimes the things that frighten us most when we are young turn out to be the very things that save us when we are old.

I know this because when I was newly married, I was terrified that I would wake up one morning and realize that oh shit my husband didn’t really love me. I used to have nightmares where he would come to where I was eating a salad or shaving my legs, and he would say, “You know I don’t love you. I never did.” And I would wake up screaming, “Please no. Don’t say that. Noooo.”

But by the time I had been married for twenty-five or so years, I began to see that I could do very well without him, that my fear had set me up to allow myself to be taken for granted, and worse, to be emotionally and verbally abused.

In the end, I was the one who left.

Looking back, realizing that my fears were, in fact, grounded, that we really didn’t love each other enough, that he failed to love me in the way I deserved to be loved, fueled my decision to move out. Ten years later, I have to say, I want to call him up and thank him for all the times he called me names or refused to buy something I needed or threw something at me in a rage. If he had been more loving, I might still be with him, and all my energy would be suffocated out of me instead of channeled into rebuilding my Self. I’m better off.

My experience was not unique. Many women, especially in our blooming boomer days, when being married, being loved were a woman’s salvation, when her route to a credit card or even a bank account was closed off unless she had a man or was fabulously well off, accepted – settled for – less than we actually wanted because we believed we had no choice. Most of us stayed put, and many of those who left were pushed out by that long-feared, oft-dreaded blow. “I just don’t love you anymore.”

Which is the premise on which Grace and Frankie, the Netflix original series, starring Jane Fonda as Grace and Lily Tomlin as Frankie, is based. They are jilted wives set adrift by their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), only to discover that being discarded is the greatest gift either husband ever gave them.

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (photo from Netflix)

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (Netflix photo)”The men are never demonized, are heroic in their way.”

At the beginning of Season One, Robert and Sol disclose to Grace and Frankie, women who’ve entered their 70s believing they were in rock-solid marriages, that both marriages are over. For twenty of the forty years they have been together, both men, who shared a law practice and were apparently devoted to their wives and families, have been carrying on a secret love affair. It’s time, they tell the women, that they came out once and for all; they are getting married, and nothing the women can say or do will change their minds.

The women are devastated. How will they ever live without these men, who have been the center of their lives for most of their adulthood? Over the course of the initial thirteen episodes, however, they learn to adjust; in the end both realize from individual epiphanies that they were never fully themselves as married women, that each has compromised herself and has lost sight of who she was to begin with.

perfect and hippie

Too perfect, too hippiedippiedoo (Netflix)

In Season Two, Grace and Frankie have accepted the rearrangement of their lives. They have learned to like each other enough to actually enjoy sharing the beach house to which they have been summarily exiled by their ex-husbands; it is a house the men jointly bought for the two families, and in the past, the women had gone out of their way to avoid getting to know one another intimately. Grace is too body-obsessed, too protocol-conscious, too money-hungry for Frankie’s taste, and as far as Grace is concerned, Frankie is too weird, too hippiedippiedoo, too 60s-leaning addled.But lo and behold, they find that the women buried in the personae they’ve become have more in common than they ever imagined, and together they set about figuring out who they might be under the camouflage.

I do not mean to suggest that Grace and Frankie represent the majority of my sisters. Nor have I stopped believing in happy marriages; I know that those do exist, and Grace and Frankie are by no means the “normal,” which I believe there is such a thing. But I identify with them. They resonate for me in ways female characters of my own generation rarely do. They are fleshy women who transcend the caricatures of older women we are usually presented with: dotty bats or bitchy, lonely success icons. Except that they are too rich and live a life too rife with options, they are real. . . and flawed.

Grace and Frankie are damaged goods. Grace can’t get through a day without excessive amounts of alcohol, and she rarely eats, slavishly catering to her nearly anorexic body, protecting the copious dollars she has expended in preserving her looks. Frankie needs mind alteration and seeks it out in peyote, in ganja, in muscle relaxers; she calls herself an artist but has been unfaithful to her art and has hidden herself in new age homilies and soporifics. Each of them experiences a crisis that leads to a shared epiphany: Frankie’s religious beliefs and spirituality are tested by the dying wish of an old friend, and Grace’s are challenged by the booze and a near affair with an old, still-married flame (Sam Eliot).

Grace and Frankie at the beach

Grace and Frankie at the beach (Netflix)

At the end of the second season, both women are forced to come to terms with the need to take hold of their lives, when Robert and Sol present yet another fâit-accomplit – they have put the house they have been living in on the market and are planning to move out. The house, which was where Robert and Grace raised their daughters, went to Robert in the divorce settlement, but the announcement that the men are divesting themselves of this vestige of their old lives sets off a firestorm of revelations.

Sol, seeking to clear his tortured conscience before he moves into the next phase of his new life, tells Frankie he fabricated a story of how, when they were very young, he had sold a piece of her art work off the wall of his law office to a famous client. The story has been Frankie’s life raft of self-confidence. She is devastated, protesting, “It’s the one thing that proved to me that I was really an artist!”

A few moments later, Robert gives Grace a carton filled with “thoughtfully” prepared gift boxes, each containing a pre-wrapped item of jewelry, pre-staged with an anticipatory card attached.

There’s a gold necklace: “Sorry you had a bad day.”

And a diamond bracelet: “To Grace. Thinking of you with love. Robert”

An emerald ring. “Happy anniversary to Grace from Robert with love.”

Another and another, each signed “Love, Robert.”

“Seriously?” Grace bellows. “They’re not personal. . . . It’s like a jar of treats for a dog. . . . . “ She stops, lost for words.

“I used to think,” she goes on, fighting the tears, “how nice! Robert went out and got me something because he knew I was sad. Or . . . Robert got me something special because he knew I was right, and he was wrong. But that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t for me at all. It was for you, so you wouldn’t have to deal with me. So you didn’t even have to think about me. . . . We’d have a fight, and you’d give me a gift from your stash. I used to think you gave me gifts because, I don’t know, you weren’t a talker. But it was to keep me quiet, hunh? To manage me. To handle me. Never, not once was it because you loved me.

“I never understood our marriage until right now.”

All at once, with just the subtlest shift of her body and a gentle sigh, Grace is grateful that her marriage is over. To learn, a year after the divorce, that your husband never really loved you is the worst lie to own up to because it’s a lie you had to be telling yourself or it never would have flown.

Frankie, too, must come to terms with the great lie between her and Sol. She has built her trust on Sol, based on his assertion that he sold her painting so easily because he and the client were so impressed with the art. He thinks he did her a favor.

“I believed in you and wanted you to believe in you too,” he says. He’s sincere. Which makes it all the worse.

Because it is so entirely dismissive. He has robbed her of respect, has failed to trust that she could own her own need to develop her art; he perceived her to be such a child that he needed to candy coat a truth that might have engendered her professional growth.

Grace agrees and accuses Sol of belittling Frankie.

“I was not belittling her,” Sol declares. “I was not dismissing her. . . .”

“Oh really,” Frankie rejoins, “Because ‘her’ is still in the room, and it feels a little dismissive to ‘her’.”

Too pervasively, we women – especially women of the baby boom generation – are programmed to accept men’s condescension, to feel flattered when they humor us, when they patronize us, when they throw us bones. We all have learned to call ourselves happy when our men acquiesce to allowing us to live, even as we stifled our own breath.

Grace and Frankie cogently captures that dynamic, the underlying and agitating essence of what taints too many marriages. It makes the show a continual revelation, a source of satisfying binge watching for this older woman, who hardly expected to see herself represented on the small screen.

Grace and Frankie is not perfect. Although I’m grateful that the show doesn’t pander to the view of older women as finished products, I wish there were less emphasis on the women’s quest to find the right man. They are so much more complete when they don’t kowtow to the opposite sex. But the men they are interested in are far more interesting than the men who have thrown them to the curb, so there is a relief in that.

I also wish that the women’s substance abuse were a subject for more serious investigation. Perhaps it will be in Season 3, when they embark on their next adventure together. I don’t want to see them continue to get in their own way, to stifle their own ability to make themselves happy.

But it is refreshing that neither woman is willing to put up with the stream of put-downs we usually hear in sitcoms; nor is either reduced to silly one-liners that put their men in their places. This is no Everybody Loves Raymond battle of the sexes. It’s rich, convoluted, frustrating, confusing, terrifying, exhilarating real life.

And the men are never demonized. They are easily loveable, even heroic in their own way – after all they have come out to family, friends, colleagues, the world, and have married after 70. That’s courageous. Both former couples are fully fleshed characters, and the actors play them with remarkable aplomb. In a way, because they have clearly found a perfect niche, Sam Waterston steals the show from Sheen, as Jane Fonda does from Tomlin. Still, Tomlin and Sheen are wonderful; this is a full complement of entirely credible actors deftly playing deeply human roles.

I called this a sitcom. That’s not accurate. I guess one would call it a dramedy. I warn you, I cry at least twice in each episode. The stories cut close to the soul, and they can wring emotion I forgot I felt.

I do laugh. But mostly when it hurts.G & Frankie like each other