Friday, September 10, 2010

Finding My Humor

(Note: This is the first column I wrote and sold after 9/11. I normally repost it around September 11 every year, but I think it is more appropriate to repost it now.)

Finding My Humor
By Felice Prager

"I'm holding up well. We all are. I was home all of last week but tried to go into work today. I was able to get into the building, but we didn't have any power or phones, so I went home. It was pretty strange downtown. The smell of burning was everywhere and there were still ashes drifting around. Strangest thing was seeing the soldiers though. On my way home, I stopped by the deli where I get my breakfast every morning to make sure everyone was OK. They were a block closer and at street level. They were all fine. We hugged and cried. Very emotional. The building guy said ConEd was working grid by grid. I won't go into the city tomorrow but probably will try again Wednesday. I need to think of other things. How are you? Written anything lately? I could use a laugh."

(Email from a close friend who worked near where the World Trade Center used to stand.)

Through dark clouds of smoke, I open my eyes slowly, take a deep breath, and decide I must go on. I must be wise. I must look ahead from the darkness and the horror. I must remember. I must be strong.

I receive an email from my oldest friend who is still living in New Jersey.

"Do you remember when we hid under your bed during the air raid drills when we were in second grade?" she asks. I was just telling my kid about that last night. Air raid drills. A hundred years ago. A different world ago. Wearing pedal pushers and Keds, giggling with my best friend as we played with dolls during a safety drill, beneath the lavender bed frill on my lavender carpet. "Your father brought us cookies," she writes. "And then he told us not to make crumbs because your mother would be mad."

In my self-imposed solitary confinement, I must force myself to go out. I must not be alone. I must reach into my humanity and be part of the whole, not a piece floating on the edge. It is not a comfortable fit for me. With the world turned upside down, my thoughts have been squeezed beyond recognition and my heart has been emptied.

My older son comes into my office with a gold pencil sharpener in his hands. It is a replica of the World Trade Center. We got it while visiting family back east in 1991. We took the Path train under the Hudson River into the city and went to the top of the tower. The helicopter he could see at eye level mesmerized my younger son, but he says he doesn’t remember the trip at all. He doesn't remember his comments about cars looking like Matchbox cars below. My older son remembers his ears popping in the elevator and that it took a long time to get up to the top.

"Want this pencil sharpener for your desk?" he asks. "Maybe it will inspire you. Maybe it will help you write."

Self-motivation drives writers in various ways. With me, I know what I have to do to get in the mood. I know what works for me. It usually doesn’t take much. I love what I do, so getting in the mood to do what I love isn’t difficult. When I’m not stimulated enough to be creative, I know tricks to get there. However, the occurrences in the world have sent me soaring downward, and like everyone else, I keep reaching for a lifeline, and my hand keeps missing it. I am drained of emotion and full of emotion. I am confused and angry. I have more emotions going through me than I can control, and I’m afraid. Beyond that, I feel guilty.

I hear others talking, explaining, looking for words, "It’s hard," they say. "It’s just really hard."

It is hard.

"What do you remember most about New York?" I ask my husband. We haven’t lived there in more than a dozen years. "I mean besides the obvious. Besides the theater and the restaurants. Tell me some things you remember. I need something to hold onto. Tell me something funny you remember about New York."

I am looking for my humor. In the turmoil and sadness, it’s been buried deeply, and I’m feeling guilty even trying to find it. Where I can usually find words and twist them into humor, there are none. My words are mundane and trite. My words are cliché. At best, my words fit poorly.

"I remember when we you used to meet me in the city after work. Before the kids were born. When we used to go to the theater or dinner. You always insisted on wearing stupid shoes, and you always complained that you couldn’t walk because your feet hurt."

I did wear stupid shoes. I couldn't walk.

"That’s what you remember?" I ask him.

"You wanted something funny," he says.

"You find my foot pain funny?" I ask. "I wanted to look good for you. Those shoes were very fashionable."

"You did look good," he says. "You looked great. You just had to stand still the whole time."

I laugh and feel guilty laughing.

We watch some TV. We see the haunting images. We sit in silence.

"Remember the dessert at Windows on the World?" I ask. That was the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. "The best chocolate pecan praline mousse I have ever had."

We watch a bit more and my younger son comes in the room. He has a picture he’s printed out from something he's seen online. "Look at this," he says. "It was in the news." He shows us a picture. "People are saying they see the image of the devil in the smoke." It's a picture of the enormous clouds of smoke when the towers fell and within the smoke, there are definite shapes. I squint my eyes and see how they can see the shape of a devil, but shake my head at the thought.

My husband looks at the picture. "Adrienne Barbeau." He says. "That’s what I see."

"Jenna Berman," says our younger son. "That’s what I see."

"Who is Jenna Berman?" I ask.

"Period Four. Near the door. Blonde. Hot."

"Oh, he sees Jenna Berman in his Cheerios," my older son says.

We look at each other and there is some levity, but it’s short lived.

It's early in the morning, with the sun behind me. I head over roads with names like Squaw Peak and Dreamy Draw. I am in my Jeep. The top is pushed back. I see 200-year-old saguaros surrounded by concrete growing out of modern cement structures. I see pencil palm trees soaring above the world. I see architecture, crisp, new, and inventive. I am speeding. My foot is pushing, pushing, pushing on the pedal. The wind is blowing my hair into a river flowing behind me. The adrenaline is pumping me up to the place I need to be.

While driving with my senses in overdrive, I know I am going to get there. I will get my drug. I will have a great day of writing once again. I hope. My pad on the passenger seat with the pen in my hand, I am driving one handed, scribbling thoughts, words, sentences. I am getting past all the dysfunctional places I hate thinking about and getting those words onto paper. Whether or not I will be able to read them later is questionable, but it doesn't matter.

I’m sitting at a red light behind a white Dodge Grand Caravan. I can see through its rear window that the driver is a blonde woman and that there are two bouncing toddlers in the backseat. The children are not in car seats and from the height of each of their bounces, I can tell that they aren’t wearing seatbelts. The woman is putting on mascara with her head bent, keeping her cell phone tight between her shoulder and her ear. The traffic light turns green. She continues talking on the phone and applying her makeup while she drives through the intersection. She is drinking a can of Coke without a straw. I watch her bring the can to her mouth several times, tilting her head back to take a drink, presumably taking her eyes off the road. Every few minutes, I also see this multi-tasking wonder woman turn her head 180 degrees to yell at her children. She’s driving above the speed limit, and she is not staying in her lane.

Very out of character, I don’t get angry.

I’m singing again where I haven’t been able to sing. I’m harmonizing with Dave Matthews, occasionally getting a whole stanza of lyrics right. I’m bopping, even if slightly out of rhythm. With my blinker as warning, I calmly pull past the Caravan of Confusion. I don’t even give the driver of the Caravan the finger. Instead, I wave the small American flag I have on the passenger seat. She points to the flag on her car and gives me the thumbs up sign.

The volume on my CD player is on high, front and back speakers are pumping, woofers and subwoofers are earning their keep, and I can’t wait to get home. There are words screaming out of my head. I can’t scribble them down fast enough at the red lights. I can’t save the thoughts. They’re spilling out of my ears and out of my mouth. They’re sweet. They’re ripe. They taste so delicious. I want to seal my mouth shut so I don’t lose any of them. My heart is thumping. My head is screaming. The fear of losing them is panicking me. Gotta write. Gotta write.

I get home and write for hours. When I read back what I've written, I'm very disappointed, but at least there are words.

My younger son comes into my office after school. "I came up with a great way for you to support our economy," he says. "It's your patriotic duty. It's the American thing to do."

He puts a catalog in front of me. There are a bunch of tee shirts on the page. "I want this one," he says. The tee shirt is black with white lettering. It says, "What if the Hokey-Pokey IS really what it's all about!"

"Well?" he asks. "Can I have it? It's for America. It will help improve our economy."

I give him one of those looks that mothers reserve for sons. It's a look that can be interpreted many ways. My son interprets it internally and leaves my office, but he's laughing. "I knew you'd like that shirt," he says as he leaves the room.

I'm looking for my humor and it's appearing in small doses and on tee shirts in catalogs.

My humor is coming back.

But it’s hard.

It’s just really hard.
©2001 by Felice Prager.