(April, 2000)

I love the movies because they mirror life and teach great lessons. Sometimes though, the moral of the story is not on the screen but in the audience. Such was the case when I saw the movie Hanging Up. Walter Mathau was the star and remembering the grumpy old men movies, I expected a light, perhaps touching no-brainer.

The trailers led me to believe it was a comedy about three sisters, perplexed about their cantankerous, aging father. That sounded similar to my own life with father story so I was ready for some ironic laughs.

That day, as I walked toward the theater, I noticed three women who’d each driven up in their expensive, shiny new mini-vans. One was the newest Mercedes Benz model. As they walked forward, it was clear they knew each other well. They were madly checking their cell phones and answering last minute calls as they entered.

They visited loudly from a row or two in front of me and sounded like the typical women I’d often see around town in our area. Cedarburg is a bedroom community north of Milwaukee, an old farm town being taken over by suburban yuppies turning fields of grain into sub-divisions of mansions.

“North Shore Nancy” is the somewhat unflattering name given to anyone who is generally a stay at home mom, wife of a high powered business executive, with lots of jewelry, perfect hair and designer clothing. From what I could tell, these ladies fit the description perfectly.

The movie started and within half an hour, it was taking a more serious turn than I’d expected. Though basically about three sisters who were pursuing careers and trying to remain connected to each other and their aging father, it was also about deeper and darker things.

As their dad becomes older and frailer, his needs change and most of his care falls to Meg who’s trying to maintain a small business in order to prove she’s worthwhile. As dad’s condition worsens, Meg becomes more frazzled with the responsibilities and finally breaks down.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Meg’s parents divorced long ago. Dad, a hopeless alcoholic, has not adjusted well. This fact gives us much insight into Meg’s behavior as an over-protective caregiver and her general doormat attitude.

Then, Meg becomes acquainted with an older woman who counsels her much as her own cold, abandoning mother never did. Meg is encouraged to “hang up,” to disconnect from the frenzy of life and its unrealistic expectations. This piece of sage advice is given to Meg as she and the woman are sitting in a bustling hospital cafeteria; the constant ringing of cell phones from one end of the room to another and the jumbled noise of many interrupted conversations drives home the point better than any lecture.

“Just hang up,” she repeats. Meg is energized, goes through her home, car and entire life getting rid of all the faxes, phones, pagers, answering machines, cell phones and anything that even roughly resembles a communication device.

It’s exactly at this point, when Meg is being told to disconnect, that the cell phone of one of the North Shore Nancy’s goes off. We, the audience, mesmerized by the scene, are mildly distracted by the flurry of activity while “Nancy” picks up her call, talks a bit, then moves to the lobby.

A few minutes later, “Nancy” returns to pick up her things, and with a few hushed comments and a giggle to her friends, leaves the theater. I think I heard her say she had to pick someone up.

Within a few moments, the rest of her party also departs and we, the audience, are left to watch the rest of the movie in peace. They didn’t get it, I’m thinking. Disconnect. This message was lost on them. Just the people who really need it.

Meg did better. In the end, she disconnected a little, just the right amount. The final scene shows her better in control of the situation. She asks her sisters for help, has a long, serious conversation with her father and renegotiates responsibilities with her children and husband. The usual Hollywood ending, some would say. Or maybe a message for us all.



“No Writer Long Remains Incognito”

(a writing prompt from Elements of Style)


Oh, but so many writers do remain incognito all their lives.
They start out that way and end up that way.
So busy saving face.
Playing it safe.
Afraid to show their true colors.

If they no longer remain incognito,
then everyone will know about their
sometimes uncharitable
but oh, so true thoughts.
Or many will not appreciate
Their ironic take on life in general.

And some certainly won’t see
the humor in a piece written about
that last family reunion
When Uncle did that embarrassing thing
For the umpteenth time.

Then too, Aunt will know she’s that irascible,
Cantankerous neighbor in your novel.
Your brother will never speak to you
If he sees your essay on tips
for getting along with a problem sibling.

Or, like when your sister read your essay
about an aspect of foster care.
There’s clear disagreement.
When she realizes she can’t change minds,
She counters grimly with:
“You are so cold.”
No more sharing about work, I see.

Of course, it’s those who remain incognito
who end up not being read,
not getting published.
So far, that’s me.
No wonder I can’t find my voice.
I’m afraid of what it will say.



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