Victoria Jelinek


Covid-19–March 13, 2020

FondueMy son was thrilled to discover that his school would be closed “indefinitely,” even as we attempted to discuss – in a child’s terms – that it wasn’t ‘good.’  The day was gloriously sunny and the drive up to Geneva was gorgeous and quiet. My school had resisted closing down, feeling it was alarmist and that there was money to be lost – social distancing and staying home if ill or afraid seemed okay. Finding and containing worked in China and Korea, so why not in Switzerland? But I knew that now that the USA had banned Europeans from entering the USA as of midnight Friday the 13th, France had closed all educational institutions from Monday (indefinitely), Belgium, Germany, Spain to follow, and the alarming rate of infection and the consequent lock-down in Italy, Switzerland would have no choice politically but to shut down.

We had a meeting. The head of the school spoke. We would move to online teaching for the high school for the following week and re open the week after. I was devastated. I’m a substitute teacher – at one school, granted* but there can be time between gigs. For me, this was a five-week stint due to an accident, and I was loving being there every day in the classroom teaching literature, and among people who are interested and knowledgeable about books. To close it now was devastating for me personally. Moreover, I wouldn’t get paid if I wasn’t in the classroom. My husband, who runs a touring company, was struggling with the looming threat of Covid-19 hanging over travel and holidays.  We’re building a house and renting an over-priced one next to the land. Ostensibly, the teacher who had had an accident could teach online, so I was out of an income for the moment.

But, what could I do? After classes, I went for lunch with a friend and colleague and it was great. Later, upon return to Chamonix, I went to our local bar to meet friends for a drink while the kids played. It was hopping. I felt a sense of relief and hope by the fact that so many folks were out despite the threat of this disease, even as I also felt slightly anxious and it felt surreal with the jocularity and close quarters when the ‘plague’ seemed to be at our door. After a couple of hours, my husband, son, dog and me left and went to dinner. The local restaurant had some customers, but everyone was sitting at a distance from one other, and we were near the door, so we felt fine and it was a jolly meal of fondue.

And, I began ‘speaking’ to two dear friends I’d known since the 1970’s and early 1980’s, respectively, in Oregon, and who I had just spent my 50th birthday with, about what was going on here as well as there. I believe our text conversations will prove to be the saving grace at this time…

*We were called “floaters” at the literary agency that I once worked for in Hollywood. Floaters were ‘vetted,’ employed, but didn’t have a desk/’master’ of their own, and would help out or stand-in at a given desk or office as was needed.



XV: Cancellation Culture

My brief response to a recent event in France in which, “…the entire board of the César awards, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, has resigned two weeks before its gala ceremony amid growing controversy over the French-Polish director Roman Polanski, whose film An Officer and a Spy leads the 2020 nominations. ‘The French film academy says unanimous resignation was to honour the film-makers and ‘regain calm’ of the festival.’” https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/feb/14/leadership-of-french-oscars-resigns-amid-polanski-controversy

“Liberalism is totalitarianism with a human face.” Thomas Sowell

Femme and fierce - hand drawn lettering phrase about feminism isolated on the white background. Fun brush ink inscription for photo overlays, greeting card or print, poster design.If I disagree with your brand of “feminism,” am I no longer a critical person? If I don’t believe a woman’s claim over a man’s denial, am I no longer a lifelong feminist? By being skeptical about the “Me Too” movement, or French subsidiaries such as Nous Toutes (All Of Us) and Osez le féminisme! (Dare Feminism), am I immediately branded as an unwitting stooge who has been blindly indoctrinated by the global patriarchal system? If so, doesn’t it define those that would judge me thus as narrow-minded, illiberal, and non-progressive?

With the inalterable definition of what it means to be “liberal” in mind, how do many women (and some men) think boycotting a retrospective of a body of work, or a film by Polanski, or ‘banning’ songs written in the 1950’s, or admonishing folks not to look at art that has breasts on display, is going to change the power dynamics between men and women in the workforce, in political representation, even in domestic models? As Johnnie Tillmon once declared: “Every woman is one man away from welfare.” Social systems in which women have to fight to be educated, are judged differently than their male counterparts, are paid less for the same job, are called derogatory names for the same traits men are lauded for, do not form at least half of our representatives in public governance, or on corporate boards, are held to traditional standards as a mother (by both men and women), are expected to be both a mother and a worker (in that order), are the societal elements that need to be challenged and changed. Not the filmmakers, artists, and writers who are generally the first to be killed by a fascistic regime. Nor does forcing the resignation of an entire board of an organization which celebrates excellence in filmmaking going to make a real difference other than to headlines and articles, for the moment.

To be absolutely clear for the more zealous or obtuse: I am not defending the fact that the most of the voting membership for the Cesar’s (or the Oscar’s) are men and that’s not fair. Nor am I defending Roman Polanski the person. I am, however, defending Polanski the filmmaker, whose body of work includes several modern masterpieces. If it’s necessary to attack the cultural industry in order to receive more media attention in the name of modern feminism, could these movements not focus on, for example, why it is that the heads of departments on almost every film (with the exception of hair, makeup, and wardrobe) are invariably men? Or why, even as there is an overwhelming amount of women in publishing, most publishers are men?

Infighting about art and culture is what the capitalistic white men who dominate the world want. They do not care about national boundaries, much less culture, while they play their geopolitical power games. Division, scandal, and media sensationalism decreases the credibility of these feminist movements. Moreover, boycotting films, art, and books is akin to censorship. Does this suppression help or hinder women’s movements that claim to be fighting injustice? Art and the humanities are meant to enlighten us, provoke us, trouble us, entertain us, and inform us. To broaden our minds. To create space inside us that invites redemption, hope, possibility, and reflection about what it means to be alive – even if it’s uncomfortable. Familiarizing oneself with and having a general appreciation of culture develops critical abilities (the basis of democracy and why public education – and the arts – are always under attack). Art celebrates humanity with all of its foibles. The film, the painting, the book is not the same as the person who created it. The person who created it forms part of the context in which the ‘product’ is created, but the operative idea, here, is to have a sense of context.

By fighting over the personal lives (based on hearsay) of filmmakers, artists, and writers, one denigrates their works, many of which are fine and deserve to be honored by us, the public, by both men and women. Otherwise, we risk destroying excellence in film, literature, and the fine arts, and in my opinion, these fields make the world more beautiful, arguably more complicated, and definitely worth living in. By jumping on bandwagons with pithy and/or emotive “handles” because of our justifiable frustration, one is operating within a mob mentality, rather than with judiciousness.  Is it okay to believe a woman over a man simply because of gender? Is it fair to try a man in the media first rather than a court of law? By publicly destroying the careers of those who have brought art into the world by slandering and censoring them in the name of ‘justice,’ are we not also undermining art, artists, culture, the rule of law, and, ultimately, ourselves as rational women?

Just as it’s advisable to “follow the money” to get a sense of bias in politics, I ask you — who does this censoriousness of culture ultimately serve?

 



XIV: Maudlin

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Maya Angelou

cat-ready-to-pounce-thinkstockphotos-511776453A city girl who lives in a village.

A muted erudite.

A smoker who can’t smoke.

A drinker who can’t drink.

A carnal creature sans sex.

Vivacity rendered torpid.

A bird in a cage of its own making.



XXIII: Blue Dog Day

Depression is melancholy minus its charms – the animation, the fits. Susan Sontag

depression long roadMy mind has been playing tricks on me all day. I almost convinced myself that my bad liver was a result of my candy intake. Seriously. For a moment, it seemed real. So real, that it almost justified my drinking at 9am. The rest of the day, I’ve been thinking that I’ll try to make it through fifteen more years. That’s the goal. Ten to see my son off to university, then five more years to have fun, do what I want, potentially decimate my body. Then, like a cat when its ready to die, I’ll quietly go off somewhere by myself. These morbid thoughts give me comfort. I think, “I can make it through today…” Then, “I can make it through the next year…” Then, “I can make it for ten more…I think…” “That’s all, that’s all…” But that “all” is everything.

It’s horrible to feel this way. It’s heavy and dark and bitter and mean and uncomfortable. I want to escape me. Barring that, I want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head and just pass time. The day, the year, the ten years, the fifteen. However, there are always people around me. My husband would interrupt this. Not because he would be concerned, but because it would annoy him that I was in bed ‘lolling about’ while he was taking care of our child, our house, and ‘business.’ Then, of course, there’s my son. My precocious, sweet, talkative boy who hums and sings to himself as he skips up the stairs, heads out the door, or plays by himself. He zones in on me like I’m a beacon whenever he’s home and demands I engage with him. Not in a pushy, aggressive manner, but because he likes me and wants to show me things, talk to me about what he has seen or done, and to hear what I have to say about it. He’s still cuddly, even as I can see the man that he will become, and he’s way too big for me to lift up. I try to engage with him. To pay attention to what he’s saying. I try to put a smile on my face. I try to pretend not to be me for him.

It’s entirely for him that I’m not drinking and inhaling to my heart’s desire. Or staying in bed all day. Or running away to somewhere else more suited to my real self. Somewhere dirty, large, and anonymous. He’s the reason I stay. He’s the reason I try at all. He’s the reason I will make myself go to the grocery store to get food, even as I absolutely dread the inevitable prospect of running into someone I know. He’s also the reason that we have any semblance of a social life. As an only child, or a “unique” as the French say, he wants playmates. As a naturally curious and social boy, he wants company and activity around him. As he’s still very young, he can’t arrange them or go by himself, and his father is unconcerned with having a social life, happy, instead, to be a homebody. So, I must arrange ‘play dates’ and social plans. Then, I must stay for a “hello,” and a “how are you?” and sometimes a cup or glass of something to be friendly. However, I find these interactions very hard. I feel as though I am perpetually masquerading as a ‘normal’ person, and consequently, am such a fraud. I don’t know how to have small talk when I’m sober, and I know people don’t want me to launch into “serious” talk, which is a “downer.” Having to interact with adults and children alike is painful and anxiety provoking for me. And now there’s no reprieve from the stress of it all.

Moreover, ‘the slings and arrows’ of children and their parents’ politics are very hard for me to observe, digest, and remain calm about. ‘Cookie cutter’ type kids and their parents are popular. They’re confident about asserting themselves. The kids spot the ‘Achilles heel’ of any child and exploit it cruelly. The other kids gravitate to these types. Prompting me to wonder if there isn’t some truth to the idea that people, in general, do like dictators – someone to tell them what to do and how to be. Tennessee Williams notes in “Night of the Iguana” that humans are the only creatures that won’t do anything to get out of a trap, such as bite off a foot or an arm. The kids ‘fisty cuffs’ are generally all forgotten relatively quickly, but it’s terrible to watch when you consider that these human propensities begin early. Ugh, and the little clusters of cliques, with those who are the ‘henchmen’ to the popular kids often being the meanest. Girls seem to be the worst. Or the best, depending on how you look at it. I think of the film “Mean Girls” frequently. Even among the hierarchies of adults. I hate observing these dynamics. It ‘winds me up.’ It makes me feel like I’m in grade school or high school all over again. I hated those years. I felt like a captive.

I keep looking for justice and signs of human thoughtfulness: to notice the person who picks up after himself when leaving the cinema. Or notice the car that uses only one parking space. Or notice the person who lets someone in front of them in the line at the grocery ‘cause they only have three items and the other person a trolley full of goods. Or see ‘the chancer’ get fired summarily. But it’s so hard to do when I feel so fucking bad. And, it often makes things worse ‘cause I don’t see these things everyday and then I’m angry. Then, like the masochist I am, I sling abuse at myself for being “so negative.” I tell myself that it’s MY fault that I see the ‘bad’ things about people in the world! I’m sending out that ‘energy’ and it’s causing a reverb by bringing negativity to me!” “If I could only change my perspective then it would all be fine. All would be different.” “It’s how I see things that’s the problem.” “It’s me. I suck. I’m horrible, beastly, angry, critical, and judgmental.” “I should relax and not think “too” much.” Problem is, the only way I don’t think too much is to ingest a mind-altering substance. If I’m to make it another fifteen years, I can’t. It’s already ‘dicey’ that I’ll make it that far with what I’ve already done to myself.

And that’s when I want to spend my day in bed. It’s then that I see little point in venturing out into the world. It’s then that I return to the idea that I’ve had a good run and I’m eager to be done with it. I’m tired of watching imposters get ahead. I’m tired of bullies dominating society – both on a micro and macro level. Of mediocrity reigning. Of the rise of pride in ignorance and the consequent disdain of intellect. Of no one really giving a shit about anything. I’m tired of it all. I’m tired of me.



XXII: Radio Play

We are taught to consume. And that’s what we do. But if we realized that there really is no reason to consume, that it’s just a mind set, that it’s just an addiction, then we wouldn’t be out there stepping on people’s hands climbing the corporate ladder of success. River PhoenixLove in Recovery

In my opinion, the best humor has a tragic core. And, what better source for dark and amusing material than addiction? Think of Carrie Fisher with her book (then film) Postcards from the Edge. Or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Mall Rats, or Get Him to the Greek.

Addiction forms the setting for Radio 4’s fantastic six-part series Love in Recovery. It’s such a funny and interesting radio play that after a friend sent me a link to one show, I plundered the BBC I Player back catalogue. I have both laughed and cried on occasion while listening. It’s sharp and fresh, even as the story of immoderation in alcohol is age-old.

There are lines throughout that I have pondered after each of the 15-minute vignettes, such as, “The hardest thing in the world is just getting through…” Or, “I waited to feel better…it never came.” Or, “There is no cure. You will never be fixed. It’s horrible. But it’s just the way it is.” These motifs speak to me. The illogical sense of complete failure, disappointment, and a life full of more regrets than triumphs are familiar. That unhappiness, insecurity, and the sense that I’m not what I might have been had I been someone else (if that makes any sense to a rational person) is the albatross I’ll carry forever. That drugs and alcohol blissfully stop my brain from thinking too much. The characters in Love in Recovery feel much the same way. It rings ‘true’ to me. And it should. The writer, Pete Jackson, has an interesting backstory, which provides the lynchpin for the radio play’s authenticity.

Amidst the distress and pain is much humor. There is the subtle (sic) nod to the great British ‘art’ of “grumbling,” as well as slang, dialects, and cultural references that contribute to a sense of the everyday and the ‘everyman.’ Like Andy, for example, the needy group leader, who’s constantly offering cookies (biscuits) to the participants with the enticement that, “They’re from M&S.” And, as is often the case in the best Brits, humor coexists with self-deprecation and sadness. For example, one episode finds Julie (Sue Johnston) giving an unwaveringly powerful portrait of a woman who attempted to find happiness at the bottom of a glass after her husband of 40 years left her: “He went off with the cleaner, who ironically turned out to be a dirty bitch.”

All the actors are stellar. And, the sentiment resonates. It’s fundamentally about how even though you feel alone, that you have the worst difficulties, that you are the worst of the worst, you’re not. That even as you have some slim understanding that this vicious voice telling you these horrible things is false, and the facts belie this ‘self-speech,’ there are others who also find life hard. However, by sharing our stories, our difficulties, our successes, our failures and our disappointments, we can help one another take one day at a time. This works for anything, really, whatever the issue. Addiction takes many forms – alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, fornicating, exercise, and work. Or all of the above. Perhaps, as is the case for me, it’s ‘simply’ the compulsion to excess at all times, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Both substances and through actions. Big happy. Big sad. Big success. Big flop. For me at least, it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in my current struggle for moderation. My own floundering objective to be ‘balanced’ also seems to reflect modern society’s own battle with itself, arguably making addiction a universal story. For me, listening to podcasts, reading books, watching films, and looking at paintings isn’t just for diversion. They provide insights into the human condition. And through this, greater understanding of the world we live in, as well as ourselves. It’s comforting to find a sense of propinquity in the world. And, one can find beauty in ugliness, just as there’s humor in the darkness.

 



XXI: Book Club

“My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.” Jane Austen

Geen-Tea-2I went to ‘Book Club’ this evening. Was loath to go after last night out at two bars with all the drinking, smoking and haphazard talk. Have been ‘twitchy’ and irritable all day as a result. My poor family. Self-recrimination ‘cause I’d had one drink more than my ration. Which was already really hard, given that we were out for hours. Self-recrimination ‘cause I’d been visibly irritated and uncomfortable with the drinking and smoking around me, and that’s not nice for those out to have a good time. Self-recrimination because I should know better than to put myself in the line of temptation. And yet. I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning. I’ve been near-to-tears all day. And, well, ‘Book Club’ is normally a large group of women in what is essentially a ‘book swap,’* drinking a lot of wine and chattering.

So I went late. And, I went only ‘cause it was a bonafide friend hosting it at her house and I wanted to support her. I brought a thermos of green tea and ginger to drink and in order to keep my hands busy and to keep me drinking SOMETHING while, ostensibly, everyone else drank copious amounts of wine. But it wasn’t like it usually is. For one thing, it was just our host, a dear friend of hers, another American who, while I may not agree with her politics, is an avid reader and I trust her judgment on books, as well as our host’s twelve-year-old daughter who is also a reader, and who makes short stop-action films. They were finishing dinner when I arrived, and the daughter had made a peach cobbler. They also weren’t drinking alcohol, just Perrier, and later, tea, so I didn’t feel tempted or preoccupied with others drinking. Best of all? The conversations were dynamic and interesting. We talked about films, and books we’d recently read, and television programs – both in French and English – and we talked about curricula – both French and American – and we talked about travel, and we talked about exercise ‘fads’ sweeping the globe. It was a good evening. Nothing was discussed in too much depth, as I would generally like to do, but, I am, arguably, too serious.  Ultimately, it was an entertaining evening.

What a happy surprise! There’s a moral here I’m sure. Perhaps it’s that I need to only hang out with people who enjoy talking about subjects I also enjoy talking about? Even if that means I am not as social as I generally like to be. There are several people in the valley whose company I find engaging. Perhaps it’s that I can’t be in bars? I suppose it’s like a junkie going to a shooting gallery. Certainly, I can’t be in them for too long. In my previous homes – Portland, New York, Los Angeles, London – I would have discussed the subjects we discussed this eve, such as literature, film, culture, education (and, ideally, some politics!) every time I met up with friends. However, perhaps in those cities it’s more obvious to find more people and situations in which to do so. I mean, my coterie of friends in each of the aforementioned places were filmmakers, writers, painters, musicians, artists, and conversational skill is highly valued as a source of creativity and collaboration. Moreover, these types of people are generally more expressive. Whereas where I live now, people are outdoorsmen. Mountain people. They like to climb, hike, ski, and maintain their fitness in the outdoors, preferably at altitude. That’s their passion and their focus. Not ‘wrong,’ just not me. While I appreciate the mountains, I am claustrophobic in them, preferring the sea always (“Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer”). As a result of both the environment and the community’s subsequent interests in general, I’m often self-conscious, frustrated, and isolated here.

More so now that I’m trying to substantially reduce my drinking, smoking, and drug-taking after 33 years of ‘caning’ it. Additionally, the social life I’ve primarily known here is centered on boozy lunches, afternoons, and dinners…at restaurants and bars…with those that flock to and spend a lot of time in them. However, for whatever reason, tonight I made the happy discovery that while the people and opportunities like this evening might be few-and-far between, there ARE, indeed, situations like tonight. I’ve experienced them here before. Evenings in which I will not spend the entire time ‘clock watching,’ leaning on, or ‘clucking’ for my ‘crutches,’ and can, instead, enjoy what I perceive to be good company. Is this a new direction? It could be. It should be. Is it evidence of a whole new me? Perhaps not. But, perhaps, it is a peek at what the future could be like here, for the remaining years I am here, and that’s a relief from the bleak perspective I’ve been viscerally feeling for the last couple of weeks.

*We don’t read the same book and then talk about it like a traditional “Book Club” does. It’s for Anglophone women to have a supply of reading material without having to buy books, which is a great idea in theory.



XX: Dog Days

My fashion philosophy is if you’re not covered in dog hair, your life is empty. Elayne Boosler

border collieMy beloved dog, a bright Border Collie, is having a hard time adjusting to my rationed cigarettes, alcohol, and consequent change of habits. When I get up in the morning and head downstairs, she greets me at the bottom of the stairs then goes and sits in the kitchen while I make my coffee. Once I’ve poured my coffee, she heads to the back door and waits till I open it in order to go out for a smoke with me. Whenever I head to the kitchen for something she does the same thing. She knows I like something to drink with my cigarettes. So, she gets up from her bed, sits and waits for me to finish in the kitchen, then heads to the back door waiting for me to open it and go outside with her to smoke. Every time I rifle through my purse, she gets up from wherever she’s lying and goes to the back door and waits for me to exit for a cigarette that I would normally have retrieved from it. After dinner, once we’ve cleared the table, she goes to the back door waiting for me to exit, wine in hand, to have my ‘after dinner’ cigarette. When my son has gone to bed and I normally return back downstairs for a phone conversation to the states (time difference), drinks and much smoking, she gets up as soon as I take the phone from the cradle, she stretches, and heads to the back door waiting for me to open it.

I finally ‘clocked’ her behavior last night when I was clearing the dinner table and began cleaning the dishes. Normally, I would have gone for my after dinner smoke before doing this, and normally she would have gone and stood at the door waiting for me after the clearing of the table. But this time she didn’t. She lay on the floor and looked at me. She eyed my every move, but did not get up to go to the back door. Also, I noticed that she has taken to lying at the bottom of the stairs after I go up with my son for bedtime. I haven’t gone back down after putting him to bed in recent days for a phone call or anything. I now prefer to go to bed early, like a farmer might, ‘cause I can’t drink and smoke anyway. It makes the day shorter. One week in and she realizes there’s a new regiment going on (smart dog) but she’s confused. Maybe a little saddened that our rituals together are changed. Then I realized, “She’s a creature of habit, of course! And, for five years – her entire life – she has been my companion in the rain, sun, snow, cold, heat for my frequent cigarettes throughout the day and night. Cigarettes that were habitual – with coffee. With the second coffee. Before lunch. After lunch. In the middle of the afternoon with another coffee. With my first cocktail at ‘cocktail hour.’ The subsequent drinks. After dinner. Before bed while on the phone. And now that’s over. At least I hope it is.  “Well, it’s messing with my head, too, my dear doggie. We’ll get on with it together as best we can. Something tells me that you’ll break the habit much easier than me.”