The night my friend Leslie and I went to see David Sedaris, I convinced her that we should arrive about an hour early so we could have our books signed. We stoked up on Bloody Marys first, then hightailed it down to the theater and were one of the first people in line. The theater lackey was there to write everyone’s name on a sticky note so David would know who the dedication was to be for, and to speed things up. We both got up to the table, and feeling a little drunk, I kind of hammed it up – like I tend to do when I’m feeling the intoxicating effects of alcohol or a morphine drip. I’m sure we were somewhat memorable – or maybe not, but…
David’s second reading that night was titled “April in Paris” which was about the spiders he became attached to, that lived in the window at his house in Normandy. He named the spiders and recited their names. When he got to the name Leslie, I turned to Les and cocked my eyebrow at her. She shrugged. Later in the essay, one of the other characters was named Karen. She cocked her eye at me. I shrugged.
Later in the car, we discussed whether or not the fact that both of our names were used was a coincidence. “I think not!” said Les, sure of the fact that David inserted our names in his essay as a tribute to our memorable sassiness and all around wonderfulness. The next day, I continued to wonder whether this was a fluke or an intentional use of our names. Since he referred to it as a New Yorker essay, and knowing that The New Yorker put some of his essays on their website, I decided to try to find it online and determine once and for all if we were, indeed, as special as we thought, or if I was destined to be – as I have always suspected – not really that special at all.
Alas, the essay is not online and the question has yet to be answered.
Specialness: We all want it. Some of us think we deserve it. Some of us don’t. Some of us wonder why anyone would think we’re special at all.
When my brothers and I were kids, we definitely knew we were not that special. When we were little, kids we were not doted on and treated like kids are today – like princes and princesses. We knew the score.
We knew that the really special people were the adults.
Adults had everything. My parents had their own lives. They frequently had dance parties in our basement and it was made clear to the three of us kids that we were to stay upstairs. Kids were not allowed. Not like today, when it seems the kids are included in every aspect of their parent’s lives. My parents had a TV and a phone in their room. When I asked if I could also have a phone in my room, my parents gave me a look that said “you must be joking.” Same with the TV question, except that look came with the words “you must think you’re something special,” which meant I wasn’t and I’d better stop acting like it. Acting like I was special meant that I was putting on airs. The only people who deserved anything special were adults.
Today’s generation of children and young adults are the offspring of my generation and we achieved our own special place in the world by stopping a war. Pretty special, huh? OK, so some of us just rode the coattails of that accomplishment, but we were there in spirit – even if we weren’t quite old enough to get out there and protest and make a difference. Once our generation realized our own uniqueness in the scheme of things, we sired our children and raised them with a sense of their own specialness; handed down like a family heirloom in the form of stickers and trophies and grade inflation. Everything from toilet training to shoe tying is hereby decreed worthy of The Medal of Honor.
I was about 11 months old when my mother found out she was pregnant with my brother. Once the panic of the situation wore off, I imagine she sat me down for a heart-to-heart that may have gone something like this:
“Look Karen. I’m going to have another baby. The timing’s not exactly great and the last thing I need is two kids in diapers at the same time. So help me out here. I’m begging you. You need to learn to use the potty. Now. OK?”
For good measure she may have shown me a picture of a mommy walking out the front door, bags packed, children and husband crying in the background. According to her I was potty trained before my brother was born 6 months later. Without stickers or candy or new doll clothes. Imagine that. Sometimes I wonder if she’s exaggerating though. My own son wasn’t completely on his own until he was three, and he had the benefit of all the modern-day potty accoutrements: potty books, potty videos, and yes, stickers. Or maybe mom just approached potty training as a survival exercise: Get the kid out of diapers or perish in laundry and poop.
My mom was what we now call a stay-at-home mom. Back then she was called a housewife. Everybody’s mom was a housewife and what they did all day long at home when the kids were at school is still a mystery to me. When summer came around, I could detect a glint of panic in mom’s eye. Every summer morning we were shoved out the door at dawn and expected to not come back into the house until dad got home, except for a brief lunch period for boloney sandwiches, potato chips and milk. I imagine our mom resented having her secret life interrupted for 3 long, hot, un-airconditioned months during the summer and this was her way of reclaiming the peace and quiet she had grown accustomed to during the school year.
Each summer our famly took a 2-week vacation, Griswold style – meaning long, hot car trips with two adults, three cranky children, and my dad’s Winston habit.
“Roll the window down, dad!” we would beg as dad lit up his 9th smoke of the morning. “It stinks in here.”
“Je-sus Christ!” my dad would bellow. “Would you babies shut the hell up?”
These days you can get DFS called on you for even thinking of lighting up a cigarette within 100 yards of a child. But not back then. No siree. We spent umpteen hours bottled up in a smoky car with my dad, who probably figured second hand cigarette smoke would toughen us up. It takes 3 days to get to Los Angeles from Kansas City if you’re not driving straight through. I can’t say I remember much about the scenery but I do remember the constant bickering: “He’s touching me.” “She’s looking at me.” “He’s taking up all the room.” and my dad flicking his Zippo open to light another Winston, saying “If you kids don’t shut the hell up, I’ll give you something to complain about.” The trip across the Mojave desert was the worst part, especially in a car with no air conditioning. At least we got to open all the car windows and were able to breathe air that wasn’t a sludge of cigarette tar for that leg of the trip.
One year my dad was able to get an air conditioned car from the car dealership where he worked to take on vacation, probably hoping that it would simmer us kids down and make for a more pleasant trip. The other part of my parent’s master plan that summer was to put Paul, the littlest one, in the front seat with them for the duration of the trip. My dad confessed years later that they resotrted to that seating arrangement because they were afraid my brother and I would kill him if we were all three in the back seat. There’s probably some truth to that. You’d think the A/C would have kept the yammering down to a dull roar but all I can remember about the car ride is this one exchange:
“It’s hot back here. There’s no cool air.”
“If you kids would just stop moving your mouths, you’d be a lot cooler.” Flick open the Zippo, light up Winston #32 of the day that would not end.
No, we knew for a fact that we were not special.