Friday, April 27, 2012

Return to Normal

Well, I just put the suitcases away.

The suitcases I used for spring break, I mean. Never mind that I arrived in Jordan just about 11 days ago this minute, I always linger a little in unpacking and putting the suitcases away since that definitely signals an end to the break! The suitcases were in the middle of the floor of the second bedroom here in the KA apartment. There were several suitcases involved. There is the big dark green one, capable of being filled easily and weighing 50 pounds easily (the weight limit before they charge you on the airlines,) and then the All Ohio Youth Choir duffel bag that I won in 2008 at an All Ohio Youth Choir reunion (I pretty much win any contest now of the game “Who came the farthest?????!”). That one is great, of course, because it can be folded up to practically nothing on the way over, and then filled to about 38 pounds on the way back. Then there is the nice rollaway carry-on bag that fits a laptop and a surprising amount of stuff, be it books, or cheese or Girl Scout cookies. That’s another 30 pounds easily for the plane. You notice that the weight part matters here. No, I don’t really need clothes to be in the suitcases either direction—I have enough clothes on both sides of the Atlantic. But I do bring a considerable amount of groceries (like 50 pounds!) and new books and things! Anyway, I got the suitcases away finally.

You know, the other day a young colleague asked me where I had gone for spring break. I smiled, and said, “I went home.” The colleague looked at me with a mixture of regret and pity and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask.”

Okay. Yes, many colleagues went on glamorous trips in our 11 day spring break—they went to India, or Thailand, or Africa, or Spain, or France, or England, or Turkey—and they had—wait for it—an a-maaaaaaaaa-zing time. Good for them! For the fifth spring break in a row, I went to my two homes, my New York home and my Cincinnati home! And how interesting that the colleague felt the need to apologize for asking me and finding out I went home. What did that mean? Okay, I get it. They thought I missed out on an exciting trip abroad, discovering a secret beach in Thailand, or an obscure town in India, etc. But I rebounded to the colleague, “Oh, I wanted to go home—I like to return to my normal life when I am on a break. Besides, I have been to really exciting places around the world. I actually find it strangely glamorous to go home to that normal life.”

I am not sure she really believed me! I have talked about how fun it is to return to the US and my two homes before in blog entries. I have talked about how much I love returning to the New York world of walking around Manhattan, eating at my favorite places (and even ordering the very same thing every time at Saigon Grill, Tom’s Diner, Patsy’s Pizza, and Ivy’s Chinese) going to theater every night, going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as often as possible. I thrill to the return to the Cincinnati food haunts, seeing the New York A-list, the Cincinnati A-list—it is practically the same break every single time! I love it! It’s my normal!!!!! But I am experiencing a different understanding of that impulse for “normal” right now as I look at the suitcases high above the closet waiting for their trip back down to my level on June 20.

Hmmmm….I was in Cincinnati talking with a friend about our summer plans (yes, there would be a healthy amount of time in both homes again) and I commented, “Well, you know my family is going to Disney World again.” I am pretty sure I said that with a dollop of world-weary disdain and maybe even irritation. Maybe even an eye roll. You see, my sister loves planning the Disney World trips and we have had more than our fair share of trips to Orlando (to be exact, I went in the 3rd grade, and then 30 years later again, returning over and over in the last decade, in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and now gearing up for 2012. It’s more than the Olympics!) My sister loves going there. My sister loves going there. (I know I said it twice.) She loves our family going there. My sister loves the luxury of the Polynesian resort. She even knows what room she wants us to stay in. She will have the entire trip planned out, and we will be doing many of the same things again—uh-oh… Whoa! It’s fine for me to yearn for a return to my normal and not for my lovely, wonderful, sister???? I better take back that eye-roll…okay, I withdraw the dollop of disdain and irritation.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mind going to the Happiest Place on Earth. (I mind going in the summer actually, because of the humidity, but whatcha gonna do?????) I guess I mind that my sister isn’t dreaming up a new (!) daring (!) totally unpredictable (!) obscure (!) unknown (!) trip that we hadn’t done before.

Let’s get a little historical perspective. In the 1920 U.S. presidential election, the Democrats pledged that the United States should embark into the brand-new League of Nations and take a huge risk on this new chapter of world history. The Republicans offered Warren Harding, a candidate who looked like he would have fit right into the world-view 20 years earlier. He pledged that a vote for him was a vote for the “Return to Normalcy.” Harding won handily.

We like a normal. Nobody’s normal is quite the same as anybody else’s normal, of course. But I reveled in my normal over the spring break. I reveled in seeing Anne Siviglia and Kate Lamper and Harrison Unger in New York and Sylvia Weber in Cincinnati. I reveled in that familiar perfect taste of the lunch special at Ivy’s and the arugula salad at Patsy’s and the Skyline and Graeter’s and LaRosa’s of Cincinnati. I wouldn’t dream of ordering something new!! Not when my normal is so good! My sister feels the same way about Disney World—she understands every contour of the trip, every challenge, every wrinkle and she works it out to be a perfectly timed, well-oiled machine of morning racing around, afternoon relaxing and evening buffets and light shows. She knows it like a trouper in a long-running, exquisite Broadway show knows her stuff. And I should be more supportive of her normal. After all, I got my normal. Why shouldn’t she get hers? I am retracting my comments about the trip before. She will come home from Orlando, put the suitcases away, and have the same sense of satisfaction and perfection about her normal as I did about mine.

Well, one of the facets of my normal in New York is of course seeing theater. Wonderful Christy belongs to this service to which we joined years ago when you can see non-sold-out shows for $4.50. Stop and smell the roses about that one! Revel in the cheapness! So on my Saturday we did a normal thing for us—we saw two shows!! A two-show day is blissfully normal. We didn’t really plan carefully what we would see, we just took advantage of the phenomenal $4.50 deal. But let’s take a moment to juxtapose our two shows from that Saturday. At the matinee, we saw a new play (from 2011) in previews, The Lyons, and then in the evening we saw a production of a 1918 Eugene O’Neill drama, Beyond the Horizon, the play that won him his first Pulitzer, some 90-odd years ago. Hmmmm….here is another fun thing for us that is normal. We look at our oddly-planned, collage-like day, and usually some fine insight emerges from what we juxtapose. Both plays are about families—dysfunctional families (don’t they make much more fun plays???). Both plays deal with the stuff of dysfunctional families, like loss, betrayal, disappointment, and the banality of our existence. The contemporary, 2011 play is an out-and-out comedy, however, and the 1918 play is, well, a conventional tragedy. But the plays are virtually the same structure. Interestingly, we realized that today we might actually laugh, gasping at the same time, about family tragedies and the stupefying nature of what is “normal” in a family.

The contemporary play was more thrilling. Oh, they’re just awful people, those Lyons. They’re whiny, denigrating, vicious, self-centered, recriminatory — the sort of blood kin who can’t cling to one another without drawing blood. The kind that might be fun to watch on a reality show going to Disney World. And believe it or not, they’re a family that you would really, really want to spend time with. Honestly. They are hilarious as they kick the ego out of one another. But as we looked at them close — no, closer — uh, oh, we’re likely to find an intimate mirror of our own frightened self. As I said before, compared with the O’Neill heavy drama, with The Lyons, there’s often a gasp within the chuckle. Playwright Nicky Silver’s characters crack wise not out of loving, familiar irritation but from a forlorn awareness that there’s no lonelier place to be than in the bosom of your own family, even — no, especially — in times of crisis. A shade of existential emptiness and anger hangs over even the jolliest exchange in this play, the first act of which is set in a hospital room, where Ben Lyons is ungraciously dying of cancer, while Rita (Linda Lavin of 1970s sitcom Alice fame), his wife, looks forward to life in his absence. Seated at the deathbed of her rancorous, obscenity-spewing husband, Rita ladles out sweet-and-sour reassurance. “I’m dying, Rita,” Ben says. Rita answers: “I know, Dear. Try to look on the positive side.”

Given that scenario, you might be tempted to think of Mr. Silver as the strange progeny of a coupling between Neil Simon and Eugene O’Neill!

Enter the children, God bless them. Those would be Curtis and Lisa, bearing potted plants and heaping doses of blame for the parents they believe destroyed them. Bickering, sniping and betraying each other’s secrets, Curtis and Lisa are glowering evidence that a death in the family doesn’t automatically bring out the best in people.

As we thought about the two plays, thought about our own families, we were so grateful for my return to my “New York Normal.” I had come home. I spent time in my two homes! So happy! Home, for Playwright Mr. Silver, is only a myth we invent to reassure and torture ourselves. Is that normal??? The Lyons, which is ultimately not without an endearing gleam of hope, suggests that once you accept that chilly reality, that normal, you just might be able to make a life for yourself.

Oh, I love my normal!!