Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hope and Dread

When my friend Rob is faced with a difficult choice, or when life is simply being hormonal, he likes to slap himself, in an hommage to Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. "My sister. My daughter. My sister. My daughter," he cries. This is a pretty close approximation of how I feel after two years on the West Coast.

There is a corner in front of a Friends' Meeting House in North Berkeley, where vagrants, eccentrics and the occasional mangy professorial type congregate to smoke, argue and promote world peace. Last month as I walked by, I noticed a fellow with a single, remarkably wide grey dread sticking out of the back of his head.

East Coast me went crazy over the thing. It looked like a beaver tail. No, it didn't. It looked like tribble road kill. No, it didn't. It looked like a petrified hair ball retrieved from the gut of a fossilized saber-toothed tiger. Yes. It. Did.

I was musing over the eerie similarities between the dreadlock and a big wad of dryer lint when West Coast me commandeered my brain. Wait a minute. This guy is clean, harmless, being himself. He washes that dread. Perhaps he even irons it. How intolerant, how small, how judgmental of me to entertain myself by mocking the man's choice of hairstyle.

I am wracked by this kind of ambivalence. Just this week,waiting my turn at the CVS register, I froze in fascination at the sight of an elderly lady - a Goya hag with Lautrec coloring. Eighty if she was a day, with brutally ground-in rouge and long, thin cotton-candy hair dyed a faded peach color. She wore a short skirt and leggings and was entirely bedecked in rhinestone jewelry - necklaces, earrings, bracelets. She sashayed proudly past me with her old (and I do mean old) man at her side. East Coast me was appalled. I felt awful for her. I wondered how can one not see the mirror, lose perspective to that extent, be that delusional?

But West Coast me was amused. You had to give her credit for trying. The old girl had spunk. She was having a good time. Why be mortified for her when she would never in a million years feel that way?

My sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter.

In these lean economic times, it's hard to find the right tone in which to talk, the right frame of mind from which to function. When all your friends are unemployed, you don't want to hear some bleeping Pollyanna's delusional thinking. You feel like you should look reality right in the eyeballs. And yet too much hand wringing isn't constructive either because we must all persevere. If you are fortunate enough to be making some money – even if it can't compare to your salad days – if you are paying your bills, then this is no time to feel sorry for yourself. Everyday, I see people suck in their guts, smile gamely and push on as best they can. So yeah, you can indulge in the gallows humor, in the right context, with the right folks. But you have to remain positive. No matter what coast you're on, it's the right thing to do.