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Thursday, Nov. 13, 2003 02:20 pm

Grace about town

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OK, I guess what I'm doing here is trying to prove Tom Wolfe wrong. He went back to his hometown, he wrote a very thick book titled You Can't Go Home Again, and it went on and on and on. I can't remember exactly what happened, but Tom didn't have such a great time, back at home.

I suppose I've done many things in my life because I've tried to prove somebody wrong. Maybe not the best course, but at least it's gotten me out of the house. When I was in college, I had a boyfriend who was furious at me because I moved far, far away from Springfield. Over the phone he sputtered, "You can't keep bouncing around the country like a Ping-Pong ball!" In the background I could hear a siren screech. While he was railing at me, he was burning a letter I'd written him, a Dear John thing, and the smoke set off the fire alarm in his dorm room. But that's another story.

And now I feel somewhere in the back of my mind I wanted to prove to that guy that I sure could bounce around, precisely like a Ping-Pong ball. I lived in New York for a while, in Washington D.C., a few years in Austin, and then a long stretch in LA, where the grass is always green. I had the best time in LA, most likely because I was single and had finally managed to acquire quite a bit of self-confidence.

When I got to LA, I hobnobbed, I flitted, I met all kinds of interesting people, I went to ritzy parties, I attended great concerts. I was constantly on the lookout for celebrities and saw them all over the place. The highlight was at a party late, late at night. For once, I wasn't wearing sweats, and I was looking pretty darn fabulous, if I do say so myself. There were a couple of celebrity types there, but I turned to watch a guy who had just come in the door. He looked scruffy -- beard, flannel shirt, hair sticking up in clumps -- but there was something about his eyes. They were riveting, and he was staring straight at me, clearly entranced.

I turned away from him for a minute and my (rather fuzzy at that point) brain finally clicked - it's ETHAN HAWKE! I quickly smoothed my skirt and turned back with an alluring smile . . . and he was gone.

He missed his golden opportunity. Shortly thereafter he met and married Uma Thurman. After that, I saw them a couple of times in Santa Monica at the farmer's market, their kids in tow, and I kept my distance, not wanting to cause any trouble. But I've been hearing that Uma and Ethan are having problems, he's been seen with other women. Clearly, he hasn't recovered from failing to make a Grace Connection, and he's searching, searching . . . he might not find me here in Springfield. It's the cross he'll have to bear.

The tinsel in Tinseltown eventually started to tarnish. I grew tired of traffic jams all the time, not on the freeways, but on city streets. One day I was trying to get to work, taking a shortcut that involved stopping for at least 25 stop signs in a row. I finally cut down an alley in Beverly Hills, and there was a traffic jam there, too! I decided any place where there's alley gridlock is a place I could live without.The next step would be driving on the sidewalk, not really such a bad idea because nobody walks in LA.

I also missed my family, after spending much of my adult life far away from them. I'd come back for Christmas and for the Illinois State Fair, but on the phone it appeared my family was having a good time together without me.

It's nice to be back, besides the ease of driving. It was neat to see the leaves change last fall. This fall, the thrill is somewhat gone -- yeah, yeah, the leaves change, then they're going to fall off the trees and it will be mind-numbingly cold. But there are plenty of other good aspects to the town. Mel-O-Cream (secret formula) donuts. The Drive-In. More all-you-can-eat buffets than I've ever seen in one place; we need a special Springfield license plate that should read "Land of Lincoln, eat all you want." We have a really cute mayor who looks surprisingly like my friend Dave -- they might be twins separated at birth. And also, if you want to find out about anybody at all who lives here, you only have to ask a few people and they'll provide more information than you probably want to know. This has its good and bad aspects, both, like all-you-can-eat buffets.

I just wasn't sure if I was going to make it through my first winter here. Somehow I managed, mostly by wearing three, sometimes four coats at a time. But one day in the middle of the summer when it was about 95 degrees outside with 95 percent humidity, I was driving down the street and suddenly it hit me -- winter will come again.

So I decided I need a plan for this winter in order to keep from going crazy from the cold. I've been to a couple of things, a concert and a play here and there, and it struck me that (1) they were really good and (2) they weren't so well-attended. So I'm thinking I'm not the only one who hasn't been getting out enough. My plan, then, is all-encompassing: I'm going to get out, and I'm going to let you know how it goes. The all-encompassing part is I'm hoping this will encourage you, too, to get out and try new things, see new stuff, be all you can be.

Let the party begin.

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