Archive for November, 2008

a sunday economic portrait

For about 15 years now, I’ve used Microsoft Money to keep track of my checkbook, bills, etc.  It satisfies the OCD in me to keep such meticulously detailed financial records.  In Bill Pay I have a weekly gasoline purchase scheduled, and about 6 or 7 years ago, I set the average purchase at $12.00.  I’ve since watched the actual amount paid go up and up, topping out at about $38.00 a couple of months ago, yet for some odd reason (especially in light of said OCD tendencies), I’ve never adjusted that average up from the old amount.    Today I paid $14.00 to fill up my car, the first of many stops I made on my venture out to the local shops to purchase some necessary items.  

In addition to being a bit OCD, I also have an aversion to Sundays.  The whole day just strikes me as sad and depressing – it always has – and since shopping can be therapeutic, I save up my “fun” shopping for Sunday mornings.  And by fun, I mean Wal-Mart – the best people watching place under one roof.  It’s vital to get out there in the morning as opposed to the afternoon, when everyone else seems to go, and it’s even more important to time the trip to our local shops area (which I refer to as The Liberty Triangle because it’s like a soul-sucking vortex of consumerism) to be completed prior to 12:15, when the local Baptist Mega-Church lets out and hundreds of newly cleansed souls drive directly into the Triangle Area for lunch and shopping, causing traffic jams and general mayhem.  I believe a recent church experience makes many of these Baptists feel invincible, and their driving reflects it.

Money’s tight these days and it’s evident even at WalMart.  Instead of the usual hum and thrum of excited shoppers spending money aimlessly and happily, there was a palpable air of desperation today.  Shoppers were grim-faced, peering at their lists of items, and steering ever-so-carefully down the aisles.   A shopper stops in front of a needed item, prices are scrupulously checked.  A selection is made,  the item is carefully placed in the cart, and a sigh is brought forth after mentally recalculating the total dollar amount of the cart.  Even the children, usually hyperactive and driven into a frenzy by the bounty of cheap goods from China, were subdued and well-behaved. 

I was doing my own careful perusal of prices, mindful of the precarious state of the industry that currently provides me a living wage.  In addition to my usual Sunday cheerlessness, I was feeling somewhat anxious and fretful and it seemed that everything I needed wasn’t quite available in the form or brand I required.  I’d decided that I needed a little more color in my wardrobe, (as opposed to the black that currently permeates it – never mind that I look fabulous in black) and what I really wanted was a red turtleneck sweater.  Not a ribbed sweater, mind you.  My cleavage is a little too ample and the ribs tend to go all wavy instead of maintaining their perfectly upright vertical line on me.  Not a good look.  And it couldn’t be candy cane stripe red either; that primary shade of red is too perky and optimistic and seems to require a cheerfulness I don’t normally possess.   What I really wanted was a deep, Cabernet red – wine red if you will – that didn’t require a smile as an accessory.   

Like I said, what I really wanted and desired today was not going to avail itself to me.  The reds available during the holiday season are of the primary color palatte only, especially if you’re shopping at WalMart, so I paid for my few belongings and headed to the car. 

Time seems to expand inside WalMart.  Two hours seems like one and before you know it, it’s way past the time when a safe escape from the Triangle on a Sunday morning can be made.  Snapping out of my fugue state I started the car and headed out of the parking lot only to discover, to my horror, that The Baptists Had Already Invaded The Area and they were speeding down the main thoroughfare I needed to be on in order to make my escapt home.  All the other cars also needing to make their escape were darting out during any semi-reasonable break in the flow and the entire process seemed to reek of recklessness and desperation: all of us non-churchgoing, wallet-clutching sinners in our lower-middle class cars insinuating ourselves amongst the shiny Cadillacs and Hummers of the mega-church elite.   The haves versus the have nots.  Our economy depicted in this traffic war.  I resist the urge to stick my tongue out at the driver of the Hummer I pull out in front of – practically daring him to hit me. 

I wonder if he’s also happy about the newly reduced price of gas.  I decide he probably is.

all our children (and the lies we tell them)

Between Ken & I there are four adult children.  Ken’s the more prolific one, bringing three messy, complicated lives to our relationship.  I only have the one messy, complicated child, probably because I intuitively knew that one would be all I could tolerate in my own messy, complicated life.

I often wonder what our children would think of us if they knew us as just people and not as their parents.  What would they think of us if they could see our lives as we’ve actually lived them and not through the colored lenses we hold over their eyes?

 For example, what if my child knew that once upon a time, mommy was thrown in jail for drug possession?  A long time ago, when the boy-child was still a boy, I decided that if the topic of drug use ever came up, I was going to lie my ass off.  No, of course  Mommy never did drugs.  Mommy was too cool to do drugs.  See how cool mommy is now?  You too can be as cool as her WITHOUT DRUGS.  What if he knew that I spent the latter part of my teen years and most of my twenties stoned?  Wouldn’t that have given him a license to do what I did?  Perhaps he would have justified it by using my relative adult successes as an excuse, but what if he failed where I succeeded?  No, I was not taking any chances on that.   Let me be clear: I lied like a dog.

What if our children knew about the Who Would You Fuck? game Ken & I play sometimes when we’re out in public?   Or the books of erotica I hide in the hatbox?  Or of the struggle we’ve had as a couple this past year which sent us into a spiraling nosedive?  The struggle that’s led us to redefining our relationship in very nontraditional terms?  Do they have any idea what’s gone on right under their noses?  I wonder how differently they would see us.

It’s not like our children don’t eventually discover the fallibility of us as parents.  I considered my father’s tall tales and exaggerations as gospel truth until I was an adult, when it dawned on me that he really could not have owned his own gas station when he was sixteen years old and still in high school.  To this day, I run smack into my father’s braggadocio in odd places – the car repair shop owner I recently spoke with wanted to know more about the car dealership my father used to own (untrue) – or the eye rolls I catch family members making when dad rips off another incredible story at holiday gatherings.  Daddy’s a natural storyteller and he’s usually the main character.  And while this certainly colors my perception of him, it’s a color that blends in well with the rest of the palette.  His stories are about successes he never actually had or dangers he’s really never encountered, not about his very real downfalls in life – those he has hidden from view.  Only through other people have I heard the true stories of business failure and emotional devastation, the hospitalization, the bottle of whiskey and the shotgun he had to be talked out of. 

He hides the bad stuff from his children.  We all do it in our never-ending quest to show them as much adult perfection as we can muster.  And we fail, sometimes miserably, to hide our very real imperfections which we are afraid will disappoint them and keep them from being the best person they can be.  Personally, I hope to keep the facade alive for awhile longer, because they need to feel, even as adults, that there is normalcy and continuity in their parents.  I want to believe they can look at us and see what’s possible – stability, normalcy, success, happiness – and not what’s sometimes lurking below the facade. 

None of our four kids has given us grandchildren yet, but we’ve reached that age when we’re ready for it.  How interesting it will be to watch our kids as parents, projecting their best selves onto them, imprinting them with their own stories of hard work and success, hiding the bad stuff as best they can, all in an effort to direct them down the path that will lead to happiness. 

It’s what we do as parents.

the life sentence

The baby was born to parents who didn’t love each other:  His father was often made angry by alcohol and his mother was driven to desperation by that anger.   During the pregnancy his father’s true madness was revealed to his mother and she began making her plans to end her life after the baby’s birth.    Carbon monoxide delivered on a little-used road – she already had the location picked out.  Little did she know about giving birth and loving a child, and the feeling that washes over a parent, consumes their hearts and souls and holds them hostage.  Little did she realize that she would never be the same person ever again.

————————–

I don’t know exactly when I first realized that there would never be an end to my job as a parent.   When he was a child, it just seemed logical that I would cease to be parent eventually –  he’d grow up, become an adult,  I could pick up where I left off and continue on with my “real” life – but I do know that it began to dawn on me during his last year in high school, after his father and I had been divorced for about 5 years.  A cruel joke had been played on me.  Why had no one warned me that this parenting gig was FOR LIFE?  That no matter how old this person was, I was doomed to a life of worrying about him – his safety, his ability to make a living, to have successful interpersonal relations, his HAPPINESS for God’s sake.  Why wasn’t I told about this before?  Does every parent reach the same horrible conclusions or was I the only one who felt deceived somehow? 

Households with teenagers vibrate with tension and hostility anyway, and each day seemed to present another battle of the wills – him pushing the walls of parental boundaries further and further, me constantly struggling to find the right balance of pushing back without pushing him away.  I just wanted it to end – this parenting game full of constant worry and consternation and frustration.  So little joy and so few immediate rewards.  Left to battle it alone (who knew how utterly useless his father would actually turn out to be?  Why was I so determined to stay married to him for so long?), I constantly questioned myself.   Perpetually on edge and alert (for I knew all too well the kinds of trouble a teenager could get into, could find with no trouble whatsoever, could willingly put themselves into the middle of) I struggled to deliberately project an air of serenity and assurance in front of him that I almost certainly didn’t feel.  

And while all this was happening, while I was struggling to raise this boy who had turned into a long-haired, mostly silent stranger, depression visited me once again.   Sadness sank into my brain and enveloped me in its sticky web of deceit, convincing me of my own worthlessness.  Self-loathing begets hopelessness/begets more self-loathing.  The voices in my head taunt me –  “No one cares.  No one loves me.  I’m worthless”  – until a long-buried solution is remembered, brought out into the light of day, inspected and finally approved.  Death seems logical when the world – with you in it – looks as fucked up as you feel.  You easily convince yourself that the final solution will be better for everyone – your lover, your child, your parents  Everyone.  The time spent thinking about it, planning it and preparing for it becomes your only source of joy.  It’s a relief to finally know exactly what to do to make things right again.  Lists are made of bank accounts, life insurance policies, passwords, important information that will be needed to access the money.  Beneficiaries are checked and updated.  Pills are acquired and stockpiled until there are enough to do the job.  And all the while, I parent this boy who is legally still my charge, but at age 17, I tell myself, is old enough to fend for himself.    All the while, the voices keep spewing their vile litany of reasons to die, just die.   It still seemed so right. 

Then something began to nibble at the edges of my preoccupied mind.  Something I hadn’t thought about before:  I was also somebody’s child.  And that meant my own parents still worried about me, my life, my sanity, MY HAPPINESS, for God’s sake.  And if I died, they’d feel exactly the same way I would if my own son took his life under the incorrect, chemically imbalanced assumption that everyone’s life would be better without me in it. 

I suppose I was looking for a reason not to go through with that final solution, so my serotonin-deprived brain snuck this one coherent thought across my neural synapses:  I was a child too, and I’m sure my parents had no more planned a lifetime of parenting than I did.  Removing myself from their lives in one dramatic action would doom them to a slow, painful death of sadness, regret and bitterness.   It simply would not be fair, now would it?

These days the voices are silenced with medication.  Although I still live an incredibly internal life, I now find it a comfort.  I’ve made peace with my life sentence of parenthood and faced my own son’s descent into depression.  I sat on tenderhooks when I realized he could be contemplating his own Final Solution and forced myself to talk to him about what that feels like.  And while I still reluctantly face this lifetime of parenting, I’ve found that it gets easier every day.  The sullen teenager has reached his early twenties and it seems that my parenting skills were at least somewhat successful.  I think he’s going to make it. 

I think I will too.

age rewind

The great thing about getting older
is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”
Madeline L’Engle

I noticed the young man right away.  Always attracted to sweet, shy boys, he stood out among all the other men at the party.  Men much, much closer to my age who came with their practiced party banter – honed on decades of beer bashes – and their tendency to sit in groups by the fire, rather than stand in the shadows chatting up (or feeling up) their chosen date for the evening.  The younger man immediately stood out, and as I looked at him, I felt mentally transported 30 years back in time to the tender age of 21,   the age I approximated he was closest to and light years younger my actual age.

Twenty-one.  My physical prime.  Oh, don’t get all tsk, tsk and throw cliches at me –     “You’re even better looking now than you were then”  or “Fifty is the new forty” or my personal favorite – “You’re only as young as you feel” – because they’re just lame attempts not to state the obvious:  We’re never as beautiful as we are in our early twenties – when a girl could throw on a halter top & some shorts, run a comb through her hair and be ready to go all day (and all night) if need be.  In 1978, winking at a boy could make him your instant bed partner and lethal venereal diseases did not exist.  Sex was our extreme sport and we were dedicated to our training schedules.

This young man made it all come rushing back and made me feel, if only for an hour or so, like that 21 year old girl again. 

I suppose that to him, this cute young man with the boyish smile lighting up his face, I many have looked like a very silly lady that night.  Dancing in the crowded garage, my limbs loosened with liquor, I shimmied provocatively with him, my eyes flashing with some distant memory.   I looked at him.  His young face was open, unlined, optimistic; the face of youthfulness.  He had a look of expectancy, the secret wish we all have at age twenty-one, that perhaps great things actually do await us a little further down the road – after we’ve lived the life of youth first, of course. and before we realize, too late, that it doesn’t last forever.

Briefly that night I let myself be that young woman again.  The one who existed before the awful marriages and divorces; the one who didn’t have to touch up her gray roots; the one with the too-wide hips whose belly hadn’t softened with childbirth and whose knees didn’t ache in the morning.  I was her again, smiling into the face of a boy I was attracted to, who was smiling back at me. 

The music stopped and all of us stood in a group laughing at ourselves, sweating in the unseasonably warm November night air, gulping fresh drinks.   It was time for the young man and his date to leave – a warm and friendly girl his own age, she seemed slightly amused by the innocent flirtation.   Secure in her youth and oblivious to the blank slate of her next 30 years, she almost certainly has no concept of the oceans of tears yet to be shed or the moments of pure exhilaration she will feel.  She doesn’t yet know that she will remember each decade of her waning youth with acute clarity.  If she’s really lucky, she’ll one day find herself dancing with a handsome young man decades younger than herself, feeling that elusive feeling of youth wash over her once again.

 …we don’t lose the other ages we’ve been.   Thank goodness for that.