Thursday, December 31, 2009

what dreaming means . . .

I just finished reading an excellent novel, Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Not only impressively incandescent writing, but a truly moving meditation on love and loss. He sets much of it in 1974, the frame focuses on Petit's high wire act between the Twin Towers. I too write about the past, trying to tap into a more innocent time. Perhaps it's because the older I get the messier things are.

And then there are the brave people of Iran. Those who walk out into the streets to defy their government knowing what it may/will mean. I can't even imagine where their courage comes from, but it starts with a dream.

I return to 1980 in my novel because it was a time when New York City was still a city I recognized. Every corner on the Upper West Side held memories for me, some good, some bad, some indifferent. All gone now, but then the city was gritty and vibrant, still the city of my childhood and my adolescence, still a place where anything was possible, all you had to do was try.

Amelia dreamed, her dreams draw us in even now. Of course, change is incremental, still did I think we'd elect an African American president in our lifetime in 1980? There are reasons to weep, and reasons to be joyful. . .

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

leaving home and second chances

I think of how it felt, leaving home for the first time. Imbued with a sense of what was possible, but always aware of how easily one could get caught. If Amelia got to choose to live her life again, would she do what she'd done before? Would she believe that this was her best opportunity to complete that task, to finish that journey, to circumvent the globe again? Would she regret too much, or too little? We all have regrets, they're what comes to us when we first wake, the echo of the dream that we can't quite recall, the things we should have said to those we've lost or have lost touch with, the harsh words we've spoken that should have been held back. I think about Amelia and about her regrets and I think about how life unfolds. Here, not in my usual perch but on the other side of the Atlantic, in the city where she was feted so many years ago, I wonder about regret, about the road not taken. Amelia looking down from above, sees in such a different way from the rest of us. We are caught in our own lives, we are in awe of the smaller things, the way the sun slants in the afternoon as I look out the door of my kitchen at my children, so much smaller, racing each other across the hot summer grass. The smell of summer comes back to me. And that time too. Moments of happiness like snapshots, all that we get down below. Above the world is a map and you ride on, oblivious. Down here it is all about the moment, when he first kissed me, when he first let down his guard and when I let down mine, life is filled with things one doesn't expect, for Amelia too I believe that would come. She would think she was meant to go on as before, but then she'd realize, second chances come for a reason.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Traveling the world

Once when I was young I thought I would like to travel the world. I imagined myself the kind of person who could do that. I didn't know myself too well, instead I promptly fell in love, and committed myself to stability and a routine. I forced myself to write on a daily basis, worked hard on my writing and on making a living. My husband and I traveled a bit, though we were always pinching pennies. Once we had children, it took us a while to realize that we wanted to take them on an adventure. Ironically it was my children who forced me to travel again. And they're fine companions.

Amelia never felt that she wanted children, she assumed that having them meant being tied down. She was certainly correct in that assumption, she could hardly have risked life and limb with the same alacrity. For her home and hearth was counter-intuitive. She chose 'the journey.' As she wrote, "It may not be all plain sailing, of course, if one chooses to step out informally over strange country visiting unfamiliar landing fields. But the fun of it is worth the price."

I see her as someone who was both self possessed and driven. She was always careful when she wrote, choosing her words, choosing how to describe everything. She saw writing as a way to explain her choices, but not as a way to expose her inner workings. I imagine that she would find all of the self exposure that is the art of memoir today, incomprehensible.

I think for her flying was art. When she did it, she was completely in the moment. She was as engaged as any writer, or sculptor, or painter or musician. She was in touch and in tune. It wasn't traveling that mattered, not in the way we think of it anyhow. When she landed, she was like anyone else, touring the sights. But in midair, she was something altogether different.

It's her artistry that draws me in. Her passion for flying is the same as any other passion one has, if you give yourself to something you are transported. It's just that in her case the word had both literal and figurative meanings.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Music and Amelia

I'm a contemporary music fan. One of my son's is a musician, both listen to alternative rock. Some of the bands aren't exactly to my taste, a little too loud, a little too intense, but others are incredible. They remind me that there's still life in this old gal. The Ipod ad works so well precisely because my generation has been brought up with their own personal soundtrack. Mine began with the Beatles, from there I graduated to Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. Later on there was time for the Incredible String Band and Joni Mitchell's first two albums. I didn't go to Woodstock, my parents wouldn't let me to my eternal regret. But I did spend a lot of time at the Fillmore East, my hearing has never recovered from a certain Jefferson Airplane concert, the amps were piled so high they reached to where I sat, in the first row of the balcony.

Music has always mattered, it mattered when my husband to be took me to see Sonny Rollins on our first date, and introduced me to jazz in all its incarnations. It mattered when I discovered Otis and Aretha. It mattered every time I felt miserable or elated, because there was a song that came to mind and I played it over and over and over again. When my father was dying, I listened to Warren Zevon's haunting Keep Me In Your Heart.

I think of Amelia and her friend Louise enjoying free concerts on the stairs outside of Carnegie Hall.I believe she would have adored Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton. That she would have danced to Cole Porter and sung the lyrics softly to herself, no one wrote better. That she was partial to Louis Armstrong's version of St. James Infirmary, that music was also her soundtrack.

When she returns in 1980, much has been transformed. Would she even tolerate rock music? Would she think it was music at all? Amelia is about to listen to a whole lot of Grateful Dead when she hitches a ride with some strangers. Yes, the name is meant to be ironic in this fictional case.

I saw the Dead in their heyday, they were a band that was so involved in making music, the original jam band. Will she find anything in this, or will she think what my parents thought . . ."God in heaven, what is that horrible noise?"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

first meal?

Okay, it's a strange premise but go with it. If Amelia was alive in 1980, say if she came to life and had to do it over again, what choices would she make. Number one, what would her first meal be. Think about that, and think about food. Food is what makes my day go round and I'm assuming if you'd been starving for a while, it would make yours as well. So I offer Amelia a few dozen choices, granted she doesn't have money in her pockets but she won't notice that yet. What she will notice is how desperately hungry she is and how much there is to eat and how hard it is to choose. Not your last meal, but your first, your first that might be your last, so that makes it doubly hard. Do you choose comfort food? Do you opt for a gourmet's delight? Do you go ethnic? Do you pick something that harkens back to childhood or steers clear?

I pose that to you oh noble readers. What would your first meal be if you were allowed a first meal knowing all you know? What fabulous feast would you choose? Would it be the best slice of pizza you'd ever had with all the toppings? Would it be dinner at Babbo? Or in Amelia's case Delmonico's? What is food for you? Is eating something you do to go on living, or is eating one of the greatest pleasures in life?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Socialized medicine

Amelia Earhart attended at least one I.W.W. meeting back when. She agreed with many of the views aired. Her sister Muriel writes "Amelia staunchly upheld her ideas of fair play especially in regard to the rights of those less fortunate." My own ninety six year old mother's dream was that there be universal health insurance in this country. Now, this morning I read that Senator Joe Lieberman, an abrasive and insincere man who might have been our vice president, (imagine!) is going to filibuster to make sure a watered down reform bill is never even brought to a vote. Americans apparently don't deserve medical care. Only members of congress do.

Every poll, every single poll supports a public option. People know what they want, and more to the point, know what they need. I am self employed and my own premiums went up thirty percent this year. Who can afford that? Meanwhile the insurance I buy doesn't cover anything. I find it astonishing and depressing that we are still fighting for something that is a basic human right. It is a right Amelia Earhart believed in, back in 1920. I find it appalling that my mother will not live to see even the most rudimentary change in a broken system. And that profit is all people like Joe Lieberman care about.

Friday, December 11, 2009

managing fame


A friend posted a query to Facebook, to paraphrase, she wondered why she was the only woman who hadn't slept with Tiger Woods. Perhaps by now she has. Certainly this man was both arrogant and incredibly stupid. Had he never turned on a TV set? He must have, considering how many commercials he was featured in.

We follow our celebrities' indiscretions with a compulsive and obsessive national glee. We're so pleased to note how far the great have fallen! Human beings are all about elevating their idols, then shattering them and history is filled with the wrecks. Yet Amelia avoided this fate. It had something to do with the times, you could control your image and she did that with impeccable grace and style. But it was more than her stringency. Reading her biographies, I'm always struck by what's missing. Her core is always absent, even as the details are there. Each biographer has a theory; she was a pawn in her husband's publicity game. Or she was the one in charge, aggressive and impulsive. As for her sexuality? There is no proof she was a lesbian, though there are those who are certain she hid that side of herself away. What there is proof of, is that she slept with other men, particularly with Gene Vidal. We have Gore Vidal's testimony. And that hairbrush he saw with her initials on it in his father's hotel room.

I believe it isn't just how she died that draws us in, it's how she lived. She managed to stay above the fray always. She managed that trick that almost no one can, she was elusive, her personal life and personality always masked. Only certain iconic figures today are able to pull that one off. I think Amelia started practicing for escape early on. Her father's alcoholism, her mother's anger, their endlessly compromised living situation, the slide into instability and poverty, all were lessons. She wanted a private life, and she needed to be solvent. But she didn't crave safety, perhaps she saw the cost that came from demanding it, the blame that was leveled at those who couldn't provide. Or perhaps she was just born with that special spark, the one that makes us willing to try what can be tried, to push herself further because she saw what might happen if she succeeded, the rewards were too great. She understood that life can be bitter, and maybe that's the point. If the worst can happen, then you might as well attempt the best. Even if you fail, you've failed nobly. Non, je ne regrette rien.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

John Lennon and Amelia, or I'm more famous than Jesus


Yesterday was the anniversary of John Lennon's murder. I remember the night he died, my husband and I held each other, and we cried and cried and cried. John was my favorite. Did it matter? There were some wonderful articles written after the fact, and one horrible one that went on about how they wished it had been Paul instead. I lived on 105th Street then, and we huddled inside the house for a week overcome with grief. But we went out on the day of the memorial service to Central Park. It was a perfectly clear day but at the exact moment the service took place, the sky filled with snow.

So many people had been murdered by then; Malcolm X, both Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr. Why did this upset me more? Not that the other deaths didn't stun me, or change my world in larger ways. Imagine if all of these seminal figures had lived? It would be a better world, I really have no question about that. Would John Lennon have changed the larger world as much as any of them? I think it's possible, I think cultural change is as important as political change. Last night I watched old footage of John being interviewed by Gloria Emerson, a brilliant journalist who rightly told him that his idea of protest was solopsistic. I remember listening to him and Yoko singing at the biggest protest march I ever attended in D.C. the Moratorium and thinking how naive they were. I was a jaded New Yorker, and a jaded American. Yet now I find their optimism wonderful.

When he died, I felt as if I'd been robbed of all that I could have been, and all I'd hoped to believe in. We'd lost our innocence so many times, but that day it mattered more than ever.

We invest those who are famous with so much. They become a piece of us. We think we know them, and worse we think we own them. It's a great burden to carry, one which they can't possibly understand when they set out, full of ambition. In her time Amelia was equally famous. She chose privacy early on. John went after it later, he withdrew from the public eye and when he was murdered was just returning to the limelight, having taken time off to care for his son, to be a private citizen and walk through Central Park with the rest of us.

This one's for him.

Monday, December 7, 2009

girls and guns

Which sister was guilty of murder? Each one blames the other. In Amelia's autobiography, The Fun of It, she writes about that Christmas. "Sister also triumphantly produced a little .22 popgun which she had wheedled on her own. . . after a few short days of popping bottles off the back fence, it mysteriously disappeared. When it was hauled out of a secret hiding place some time later, the explanation that little girls should not go around shooting was given as sufficient reason for its seizure. As soon as my sister regained possession, she used it for shooting rats in a particularly well inhabited barn. . ." In Muriel's book Courage is the Price, she begs to differ."Amelia's crusade against bubonic plague led to a decimatinon of the rat population of the barn . . ."

When there's a gun in a story, I've been told it has to go off. I love the disparity here, each sister claiming the other is the one responsible for killing the rats.

Memory is a slippery thing, you're certain you know what happened and then someone who was there with you says you're entirely mistaken. As I write about Muriel and Amelia I try to think of how they each would have viewed their shared history. In the end, what happened becomes less important than how it's remembered by each of them, and how strongly they cling to their version of truth.

Friday, December 4, 2009

amy and edwin earhart

fathers and daughters

Last night I dreamed I was in the small cottage in Westport where I spent the happiest days of my childhood. This is the house I was married in, the house I consider my true home. I was there surrounded by my family, and by cousins. One cousin showed me a tattoo she'd had done, a remarkable piece of work as much video as two dimensional art. I'm pretty sure this is because my son is getting his first tattoo next week as a birthday present. And because tattoos have come to represent something else, but once they were the province of sailors, true adventurers. My cousin is from the former Soviet Union. She's traveled the world over.

In the dream, my mother was around but I didn't see her, and my father was clearly gone. It will be six years since his death, six long brutal years of mourning. I never knew it would take me this long to accept losing him. Or that it would hurt this much. So this is for you dad.

Amelia's father was clearly a vivid presence in her childhood. She writes about the letters he sent her, his love of language, the stories he invented that became dramatic plays. Every child in the neighborhood was an active part, chasing down the bad guy, (Mr. Earhart) and surrounding him. He'd turn, fake six guns blazing, giving them a thrill as he died a thousand brilliant deaths. Both Muriel and Amelia make it clear that when they were children, he was a vivid presence, but then he began to drink. He ended up changing their lives, ruining his marriage, and offering his daughters the freedom to pursue a different course. His failures predicated their successes.

By the time he discovered religion and sobered up, his marriage was over. He'd made a new life in Los Angeles, had a new wife as well. When Amelia made her fortune, she bought him a house, and when he died, his new wife lived there, but the deed was in Muriel's name. Perhaps we all have to learn that our fathers aren't superhuman. We all do have to grow up. At least some of us do, because in my own family, my siblings still imagine our father was perfect. I saw him differently. He was a mix of many things, stringent, and demanding, loving and seductive. He was my father, I loved him dearly and I wish I'd had an opportunity to carve out a place that was mine in his heart.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Earhart the Pacifist and Afghanistan in the now

Amelia worked as a nurse in Toronto after the First World War. She got to see the aftermath firsthand. “I realized what world war meant, instead of new uniforms and brass bands I saw only the results of a four years’ desperate struggle; men without arms and legs, men who were paralyzed and men who were blind.” She became an ardent pacifist, yet she was also a strong supporter of a woman’s right to serve. She had the idea that in leveling the playing field, she would be able to do away with war completely. That was na├»ve, she was wrong in “feeling men would rather vacate the arena of war altogether than share it with women.” War seems to be a constant human condition.

Today the president has announced a plan to add thirty plus thousand troops to bolster our presence in Afghanistan. I can see no good outcome here. Am I surprised? No. Am I saddened? Yes. Do I think this will lead to an end in our imperial purpose? Likely. We will spend money and lose good men and women and in the end gain nothing for it. That’s what war is; loss. Some wars are necessary, but this one clearly isn’t. It’s a mess and a muddle. Do I know what Amelia would have felt about it? I think so. She would have opposed this so called “surge.” She would have spoken out against it. She would have done now, what she did then, and listened to her conscience.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Amelia and the right to choose


Amelia spent one year at Columbia doing pre-med work. During that time, she managed to conduct experiments and kill quite a few white lab rats. She also made a best friend, Louise de Schweinitz who chose to continue on and become a doctor. I thought about the two of them yesterday, while waiting for the result of my yearly mammogram. Much has changed in the years since, women are no longer forced into pediatrics because they're good with children. There are now female surgeons (though obviously not as many as men). And medicine is no longer the glamorous or lucrative career choice it once was. These days women aren't denied places at medical school. Back then it was quite different. My mother who applied to graduate school a few years after de Schweinitz was admitted to Boston University. She was one of only three women in the entire class. She'd was denied admission to NYU because they'd already filled their quote for Jews and women.

My mother was one of the first doctors to fight for abortion rights, a fight that is never over. In this week's New York magazine a feature article tells chillingly of many young women who are fervently anti abortion. I know which side Amelia was on. It wasn't an accident that she never had children, it's obvious she used birth control. If she had gotten pregnant, I seriously doubt she would have had the child. Children were not something she wanted. She wanted a place in a world full of men.

Yesterday I waited with the women, curiously quiet. Usually there's talk when women are together but not when we're waiting for results that will change our lives. My mother had breast cancer, and she chose surgery. She has lived cancer free for thirty years. Was she lucky? Was her cancer the sort that would never have killed her? These are questions that we're still asking, there are new arguments about the validity of these exams. I wonder if men were being exposed to radiation on a yearly basis if we would know so little. But then I think women's health has always come second to men's.

Amelia dressed like a man. She claimed it was easier to manage in the cockpit. I have worn pants most of my life. I believe it's easier to navigate the world and control the input. No male hands can work their way up through a pair of jeans. Sometimes you have to wear armor to make it through. Or be taken seriously. Amelia owned her body. And in all these years I have to wonder what has changed. So much, yet so little. We still fight over what should be a personal decision. Every woman should have the right to choose.