The reward for conformity—everyone likes you but you Rita Mae Brown
The most exhausting thing you can do is to be inauthentic Ann Morrow Lindbergh
Horror—a suspenseful love story about death, dread, violence, what we fear, and our reactions
In 1986, there were so many things I wanted to be—like a better version of me—than I was; a college grad with a 4 year BA/BS degree (that had taken 15 years to NOT finish); and a natural blonde, rather than a titian haired woman whose highlights were painted on. When men gazed at me (those that still did), I wanted them to see an expensive cut of meat, not a skirt steak, or chuck roast with a vein of gristle and a salty crust. I wanted to be elsewhere, not back within 30 miles of South Mountain. Living in a pied a terre north of Paris or an English cottage transplanted to Donegal (with all my stuff) would have been swell…
I wanted to be more champagne bubbly and less hydrogen peroxide hiss and froth. I was damn weary of waiting to inhale/exhale the scent of a man—of the man I would call lover without conceding within that word lurked the inevitable term over. My dragon nature wanted to set things on fire—not in a pyromaniac sense—in a rekindling of nearly expired embers roaring into brilliant flames way. I wanted everyone I loved to outlast the ephemeralness of the heat and light they generated, and become masterwork creations fired in their own kiln.
Isn’t there nearly always a honeyed quietness before storms, moments of normalcy before a life implodes or a rocket bound for outer space blows up 73 seconds after launching, like Space Shuttle Challenger did January 28, 1986? Isn’t there nearly always a split second where time suspends before one decides fight or flight, stay or go? The movie camera whirls to slow motion frame mode; we hit pause on the remote, and our hypothalamus pulses four choices across our forehead: fight, flee, feed, or f&#k. Jean-Claude Duvalier decided to flee Haiti in February of 1986. I came close to fleeing the mountain’s shadow again, flitting like Hailey’s Comet across the big pond to start a new life in an old land. Instead I began to write a book (working title: Hailey’s Comments) about how life might have turned out had I streaked elsewhere.
There I was, smack dab in the middle of 1980s international chaos and my own personal begin again, try, fail, try Hades…It was a decade of assassination attempts and successes; AIDS; mine explosions, too many plane crashes, massacres and murder, terrorist hijackings and suicide bombers, and more than one train wreck. On top of that floated an oily sheen of technology, from build your own personal computers to momentary escapes via Nintendo Game boys, Sony Walkmans, or VHS home movies. Cold war walls came tumbling down in Germany and in the US, there was idle talk of building border walls.
The outline for Hailey’s Comments remained a work in progress due to my lack of knowledge in Astronomy and Mathematics. This prompted me to reenroll and finish that damn degree and while I was at it, get a grad degree as well. Perhaps that’s why—amid challenges with my 14 going on 34 daughter, breakups, and hard push to find a better boss caused me to ignore certain world events. On April 14, 1986, the US launched air strikes against Libya in retaliation for Libya sponsoring terrorism against American troops/citizens. Qaddafi’s government had financed Muslim/rebel groups worldwide—from Palestinian guerrillas to the IRA and Black Panthers. In response, the US imposed sanctions against Libya. The raid involved 100+ US Air Force and Navy aircraft, and was over within an hour. Five military targets were hit, including HQ of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.: 15+ people died when US planes bombed targets in Libyan capital, Tripoli, and in Benghazi region as part of Operation El Dorado Canyon.
April really was the cruelest month that year. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster left over 4,000 locals dead and radioactive fallout that caused nearly 360,000 people to flee and resettle. A TWA bomb exploded in flight, killing 4 and a Berlin Disco (US solider hangout) was bombed, leaving 3 dead and 230 injured. Two FBI agents were killed in Miami, 5 were wounded. Plot instigators were also uncovered regarding 1985 bombing of US Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. In 2023, conflicts continue. All foreign citizens and embassy staff have been advised to flee or have fled.
Out of Africa won Best Picture at March Academy Awards and after watching David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, everyone rushed to their dentist for a silly whiff of nitrous oxide. We finally had a female hero in uniform via Aliens Ripley. Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters almost made me wish I was Jewish and had sisters that were more like Hannah’s or at very least be able to take a Ferris Bueller day off in NY with them.
Too many doors slammed; too much late night drinking in 86…lots of cheap air fares and plane hopping, last minutes weekend fares took me to Boston, Vegas, and NY for less than $99 RT. A breakup with current roommate allowed me to spread my wings and reconnect with several foreign flingsters. At work, this nervous Nellie for flying asked engineer buddies to explain how is aerodynamic lift off possible? Meanwhile my across the pond reconnoiter with a British subject resulted in a temporary anatomical hydrolics problem. Was it married man guilt, a medical complaint, or something else? This was the man with whom I’d joined Jong’s mile high club a few years back.
My engineering buddies explained flying as application of Newton’s third law of motion, and Bernoulli’s fluid dynamics theory, i.e., it’s about decreases in pressure on a curved surface as velocity increases—and other factors—that result in lift? The issue with my Brit was cause/effect, induced by his spouse’s indifference, resulting in lots of solitary simulations to sustain lift off. He would require a refresher course in Newton’s 2nd law (acceleration of a body is proportional to force exerted on it) and a graphic high/low pressure demonstration to reacquaint him with synergy and magic of sustainable flight when right amount of friction and thrust is applied. As for what causes the pressure to build in the first place (beyond mutual attraction), no one provided a satisfactory explanation. But for a moment that year, it felt like we’d solved a paradoxical Newtonian riddle: what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force?
We were both being pulled in different directions. He was engaged in ladder climbing and the need for the illusion of domestic tranquility; I was determined to acquire sheepskins of knowledge, find a writing job that paid well, and work on un-alienating my daughter and making peace with my father. It’s strange to look back on what’s now a distant time, and see patterns there all along. Culture was heading backwards. Mom and pop businesses started to disappear. Small and independent publishing companies, record labels, networks, glossy magazines, and boutique shops were beginning to consolidate. Art was unexciting. Where were the daring darlings?
Long before the 2nd decade of the 21st c (when folks were saying Netflix, cable TV, art, culture, and food was boring and there was nothing new under the sun or stars), I too was having a ho-hum moment. Or had I become jaded by all I’d seen and done? I had to get my boho vibe back. Despite working and going to school full time, I wasn’t being challenged. I’d left the ABnormal Florida Keys (previous year) for mid-Atlantic suburbia and was drowning in a sea of beige blandness. I’d lost track of my avant-garde and EU friends, and was surrounded by milquetoast Americans. A few drank to excess, smoked weed, or whispered about a past scandal, but most of my 30 something friends were content to watch paint dry and assume the role of responsible parent, loyal employee, or faithful spouse.
No one wanted to speculate on politics or developing Iran Contra Affair, which exposed Ollie North and his secretary (who shredded docs) for selling weapons to Iran and channeling proceeds to help fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Colleagues were reading Jackie Collins (Hollywood Husbands), Danielle Steel, and Stephen King. I joined a local book club that was at least reviewing a few classics, along with Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, Clavell’s Whirlwind, & Ludlum’s Bourne Supremacy. But instead of discussing how these books did or didn’t mirror/impact the real world, fellow book clubbers wanted to pick nits at the writer’s garbled dialogue, implausible plots, or need to leave something undone to ensure folks would buy the next book in the series. The book clubbers reminded me of a William James quote; they thought they were sophisticated intellectuals. IMO, they were only rearranging prejudices.
When it was my turn to select a book and I chose Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides, a collective moan was heard. Conroy was compared to the Judith Krantz’ and Danielle Steel’s of the world. They strongly suggested Louie L’Amour’s Last of the Breed (the only one of his books I actually liked), featuring a Native American Vet defying the odds to survive a daring escape across Siberia. I left the group and watched Prince of Tides become a best seller, be optioned as a movie starring Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte, and nominated for 7 Academy Awards. I recommended the book to anyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family, or suffered a childhood trauma. Years later, when pages of my well-thumbed, annotated paperback began disintegrating, I bought a used hard copy. It remains one of my 10 favorite books.
Things I’d loved, cherished, frequented, supported were disappearing. What was replacing them figuratively tasted like stale junk food. What was coming would be soul changing. Sagan, McLuhan, Nasbitt, and certain visionaries had been providing hints, warnings. Did winter come early in 1986 or was I experiencing chilling heart of darkness apocalyptic shudders? Did I need a kick in the seat of the pants, or a whack in the head? My dad reminded me you don’t learn much from the 2nd kick a mule gives you. I was short one magical crystal ball but I still had a strong sense of intuition, an ability to recognize patterns and prepare for the shape of things to come.
1986 was the first year I wished I could cancel my secret clearance and what went with it. The surveillance state was evolving, becoming more sophisticated; whistle blowers were easy targets. Sen. Tower led the Tower Commission, which investigated the Iran-Contra Affair from 12/1/86-2/27/87, then published a NY Times book of findings. Conclusion was CIA director, William Casey, should have taken over Iran-Contra ops and notified the President and Congress of risks (as was legally required). Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, National Security Advisor John Poindexter, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weingberger were implicated in the report (and charged, though charges were dropped 9/91). Charges were also dropped for National Security Advisor John Poindexter, who was convicted for lying to Congress. On 5/5/91, Senator Tower and 22 others were killed when their airplane malfunctioned. A decade before Martin published Game of Thrones, I knew winter was coming.
Most Halloweens I donned a witch/sorceress costume (except for the year I was a devil in a blue dress and for a New Year’s masquerade party, I was Lewis & Clark’s Sacagawea). I eschewed attempts to dress me as a bride (including for my own weddings), so when my youngest sister asked me to be a bridesmaid and wear a poufy red lit up like a tree dress for her December church wedding (she was agnostic), I baulked. Five years earlier I was accused of being a runaway bridesmaid when I learned my friend’s casual, on the beach I do’s had been moved inside and were being orchestrated by her momzilla.
My sister didn’t save the drama for her mama; she kicked and cussed—called me that word that rhymes with witch. I told her I’d be a lousy attendant; loathed pre-wedding party games, churches, and the word maid. I didn’t do line dancing; don’t like wearing matching anything; and questioned her choice of a mate. Only thing I was good at was writing funny toasts and roasts. I attended my sister’s wedding reception persona non grata but not by my dad. We’d had a serious discussion that spring about me always being his daughter but not being his child any longer. I’m not sure my sister ever forgave me; not sure I care either.
Between required textbook readings and churning out papers and government proposals, I searched for folks that knew and liked the Existentialists, Kafka, dubbed European films, Dylan’s and Simon and Garfunkel’s ballads, Susan Sontag’s essays, and poetry by Yeats, Plath, Jong, Brautigan, Bishop, Lowell, Sexton…to no avail. After a strange encounter with roommate’s not quite ex, who also made late night calls, I wrote a letter to her commanding officer. By December, a few days before my sister’s wedding, his divorce was final. I made sure I was at the other end of the ballroom when my sister threw her bouquet.
In 2023, folks use buzz phrases like you got this, quiet quitting, and digital dust mining. In 1986, we asked where’s the beef and said I’ll be back with a phony accent. PeeWee’s Playhouse had a word of the day. I probably said Cheers too much and quoted funny bumper stickers, instead of creating original, funny sniglets, like lemonator, to describe a person who made sour comments. Sometimes, despite best efforts, you just hit a wall—lightly or head on. But if you look closely, use your tactile senses, you’ll find the magical sweet spot, which will enable you open a crack wide enough to slip through. Sometimes finding a crack or a hole isn’t a good thing. In 1985, they discovered a serious hole in our ozone layer. My company had a contract to study it, work on a solution.
Ozone is a pale bluish gas, slightly soluble in water. It smells a bit like chlorine and has many uses, one of which my dad had been harping about for years. It shields Earth from harmful solar ultraviolet radiation. Our fair skin was vulnerable. He’d been right all along, and was probably right about many other things I’d been ignoring since the 50’s. It’s predicted the ozone hole will be completely patched by 2040! That year I patched things up with my dad, and got 10 terrific years with him. So back to that wall, should you encounter it…You could try removing bricks one by one, or you could feel for the sweet spot. That’s what I did—after hurling a few and scribbling some choice graffiti. Never again did my dad say to me ‘it’s like talking to a brick wall.’
Next Dirty Dozen Year: 2010
I guess we all spend more time rearranging our prejudices than we should. But you’re doing something more…the early 80’s are further from us now than 2060, and while the future may not be to our satisfaction, the past appears wild and overgrown with incident and chance…Stephen King writes about how a song can help us access a slew of memories, and I love the way you map your own development in tandem with world events. I’ve no time of literary or cinematic snobbery, and hear you on Pat Conroy; let me offer up my own favourite, Judith Guest’s Ordinary People. The film was something else, but before that, it’s a book I must have read a dozen times, and those who think of the film first don’t know what they’re missing. Another great little essay with a goldmine of experience to share, a female Forrest Gump with a lot more truth and a lot less folksy sentiment; what else can I say, we existentialists have to stick together, don’t we…
Guest’s book, blast from past, poignant, chilling, amazing for 1st novel. I think I’ve written before, borderline awful as my mom was, Beth was worse… I’m not M T Moore fan, but thought Hutton’s acting was fabulous; Sutherland too! We are beautifully flawed beings; I think there’s even a foundation by that name. Need to check what you’ve insightfully critiqued today…
“I searched for folks that knew and liked the Existentialists, Kafka, dubbed European films, Dylan’s and Simon and Garfunkel’s ballads, Susan Sontag’s essays, and poetry by Yeats, Plath, Jong, Brautigan, Bishop, Lowell, Sexton…to no avail.”
OK, that got a laugh. I remember back in the ’90s there were people who thought the Internet was going to bring groups of such like-minded individuals together to form online intellectual communities (one scholarly type in particular never stopped dreaming of discovering a group of fellow devotees of the poetry of Henry Vaughn). Instead, it just revealed that such people do not, in fact, exist.
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The Internet did help me find and join several groups I might otherwise not have known about…(as they were across the pond). I joined Ripperologists and attended yearly conferences for a decade and a half; joined Lindbergh kidnapping and armchair criminologist group (Canada); several writer groups; and 2 occult/esoteric groups, one of which still part of today.
Did I find a group of existentialists? Sort of, found Objectionist Society/2 Mensa related and several surrealistic groups in late 90s.
Know a bit about Vaughn via alchemical research but his poems were hard to slug through, and rather melancholic, if I recall. Hmmm, a Vaughn group of kindred souls, why not?
Several of the groups I joined were into secrecy, even had tests and initiations, which I’m not a fan of. Could be why such groups are hard to find…don’t want to be found, at least not online, but in early days of Internet, there were those ‘cracks’ in a few walls. Thanks for reading one of my wry confessions!