Artist Date 98: What Sylvia Says

Image.  Moira Whitehouse, PhD
Image. Moira Whitehouse, PhD

My alter ego’s name is Sylvia.

She’s about 4 feet, 10 inches tall, wears coral-colored lipstick — a little bit outside of the lines — and sandals with stones in between the toes.  She likes pedal pushers paired with a cropped mink coat.  And now 80 something, has recently taken up smoking again.

I’m not exactly sure when Sylvia came into my life.  However, I distinctly remember when she came into the lives of others.

I was 25 and living in San Francisco.  A single girl.

My friend Teresa was performing a one-woman show, The Life and Death of Stars, at The Marsh.  And Sylvia appeared in a cameo role.

“Men are not magical beings,” Sylvia said through Teresa, taking a long drag off her Virginia Slim 120.  “They’re just people.  With penises.  And problems.”

She appeared again when I was dating Alex, who Teresa fixed me up with.   He was a foot taller than me, from my home town and said he couldn’t wait to get old because he was going to wear “Sansabelt pants up to my tits and the biggest fucking gold Chai I can find.”  He seemed like a good match for Sylvia, if not for me.

He wasn’t…for either of us.

Sylvia was wise.  Loving.  Kind.  Funny and to the point.  A straight shooter.

I had not thought about Sylvia in a long time, until last Thursday — watching Birdman at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 98.

Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton’s) alter ego, reminded me of my own.  Except mine is more gentle and far less destructive.  And I found myself wondering what she might be whispering to me right now.

I do not even have to ask.

“Honey, go!,” she says, in a voice much louder than a whisper.   “Why are we even talking about this?

She is referring to my noodling — or, as she calls it, sitting — on TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification and moving to Spain or Italy or Portugal, to teach.

She reminds me that I am husband-boyfriend-booty call-child-pet-plant-mortgage free.  But that I might not always be.  That my parents –now both in their 70s — are in good health.  That they do not need me.  That I have no obligations or responsibilities.  And that this may not always be so.

But what about finding work as a trainer and facilitator?  What about making money?  Being fully self-supporting?

What about sloughing off the title of chronic under-earner?  About being a responsible adult?

She brushes me off —  literally waving the back of her liver-spotted hand dismissively as if I were a waiter asking if she’d like more decaf rather than her uncertain, 40-something self.

“All the time in the world for that…” she says, adding that the two are not mutually exclusive.

It seems that what I know if my head, Sylvia knows in her heart, in her bones.  She’s lived it.  And then some.

She knows there will always be jobs.  And, God willing (She puts up her hand again, this time her palm out as if testifying.  “Preach.”) there will always be Italy, Spain and Portugal.  France too, she adds.  But that time and ideal conditions are not similarly static truths.

She knows that security is an illusion.  That the work will come.  That the money will come.  And yes, and even though I didn’t ask, that the man will come too.

It always does.

So what am I waiting for?

Becoming The Man I Wanted To Marry

In the past 48 hours, I have found myself thinking, “My ex would be so proud of me.”  A lot.

But the truth is, I’m so proud of me.

2014-01-02 23.03.37I’ve been doing a lot of the things he used to do.  And doing them well.  Or well enough.  Most of them, weather related.

I grew up in Michigan and lived there until I was 24 years old.  So by rights, I shouldn’t be phased by snow.  But I am.  Especially driving in it.

Living in California for 14 years meant I didn’t have to concern myself with it.  Except in the mountains, and only then when there was accumulation.  Climbing the winding roads to Bear Valley, I would pull to the side when we hit the snow line in Arnold, and without a word, hand over the keys.  Without even asking.  It was just understood.

When we moved to Chicago in 2007, it was similarly understood that he would drive when the roads were dubious.  That he would dig the car out, if necessary, and carve out a parking space on the street — “holding it” with random household items that would not blow away.

This is no longer an option.

I realized this on Tuesday afternoon, New Year’s Eve, as I watched big, fluffy flakes come down in sheets, sideways.  I had made a commitment for the early evening and invited a friend to join me.  It was her first New Year’s Eve single again, and without her children.

And so, with no one to hand the keys to, and a strong desire to make good on my word, I got behind the wheel.  The side streets were a mess.  The main roads weren’t much better.  Snow was falling faster than the plows could pick it up.  And it seemed there were precious few out on the roads.

As my friend Chris often advises, about most everything, I “took it slow.”  Like most everyone else on the road.  I didn’t hold the wheel with a death grip.  I didn’t take silly risks either.  I met my obligations, but also made it an earlier night than originally planned.

Feeling bolstered by the experience, and also frustrated by letting the weather dictate my social calendar, I drove to the South Side on Wednesday for a New Year’s Day party – filling the hours with good friends and good conversation, and my belly with black-eyed peas and seven greens, for health and good luck, as is the tradition in the south.

Driving home I could feel the snow rising under my car.  Gliding on top of it.  It felt scary and kind of fun at the same time.  And I was both pleased and relieved when I parked the car for the night.

Luck ran out this morning when the Honda couldn’t quite make it over the inches of fluffy powder that had accumulated around it, and that continued to.

2014-01-02 20.04.51I sort of expected this and took the train to work.  On the way home, I bought myself a spendy new pair of winter boots, as the ones I was wearing had begun to leak.  After dinner, I went back outside.  Started the engine, brushed the snow off the car and shoveled a pathway out from the white swath that neatly tucked it in.  I knew I had to before it froze overnight and I was stuck until spring’s thaw.

I know this all seems terribly basic.  But the truth is, I haven’t done it in more than 20 years.  Since I left Detroit.  And there, I depended on my father to crowbar open the occasionally frozen-shut door.  Or I skipped work entirely if the roads seemed questionable.

It all sort of reminds me of this great line from Torch Song Trilogy.  In the final scene, Harvey Fierstein tells his mother, Anne Bancroft, “I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, build furniture – I can even pat myself on the back when necessary – all so I don’t have to ask anyone for anything.”

My foray into shoveling and driving in inclement weather doesn’t go quite that far.  Nor would I want it to.  I’m ok with asking for help.  And I’m grateful for the people who do for me what I truly cannot do for myself.

It’s more like the postcard I have stuck on my white board.  A Lichtenstein-style cartoon of a woman, her word bubble reading, “Oh my God! I think I’m becoming the man I wanted to marry.

It’s true.  I have.  And not just when it comes to snow and cars.