Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dress You Up

For the past several years I've been invited to Halloween parties for grown ups--or maybe I've always been invited and just haven't gone.  But this particular host (she knows who she is) doesn't take no for an answer, and she gathers a fun group who put tremendous effort into the right getup for the evening.  Two years ago I showed up in civilian garb and took quite a beating, but since I'd just come off of five consecutive sixteen hour days at a Firm meeting and had endured several weeks of anxiety and dread due to morphing meeting agendas across multiple international time zones, I gave myself a break.  Last year I just didn't go, such was my dread of coming up with a costume.  This year I've got two parties, the earlier of which my children will be attending. 

So why not just go?  It's not an office holiday party with forced cheer and small talk---I really like all of these people, but all I want to do is have a glass or two of wine and gossip in the the kitchen.  Why are fully grown adults dressing up?  Once I heard an impeccably turned out colleague of mine say, twenty years ago when quizzed about her garb for a Halloween party, "I got dressed.  I didn't get dressed up."  I took up her advice and decided there was really no need for me to go to a party and look foolish, at least not intentionally.  God knows I can do that all by myself. 

So I've just worked a 65-hour week and feel good because I managed to put in a brisk walk and buy some groceries today.  And now I have to come up with an inspired costume that doesn't embarass me or so lame as to become a story that follows me to my grave.  But if I don't put it out there, I'll be seen as a stick in the mud.  My reluctance rises from, as with so many things, my perfectionism--if I can't do something properly, I don't want to do it--and from the notion that I'll reveal something in my choice of costume that will make people wonder about me.  No, that's not quite it.  My real concern is that it will make people talk about me, the small town girl's eternal fear.  And then there is my quite opposing desire to wear something so scandalous that everyone will talk about it. 

That said, I've got something rather tacky going, involving a leather dress, fishnet stockings and some bondage heels.  But since it's me, I'll worry about looking trashy and might still end up looking like an expensive call girl.  I suppose there are worse problems to have. The evening awaits.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What I Signed Up For

I used to volunteer.  As part of my father's philosophy, I was obligated to as soon as I was old enough.  We weren't trying to change the world (he was a cop, an occupation which inevitably disabuses most of that notion in short order) but Dad was considered a leader in our small community.  So he said I needed to get out there and be a good citizen. I did a little work at the library and coached a couple of soccer teams.  Luckily soccer was considered kind of an odd sport in my hockey-mad town, and the season was mercifully short, so no parents howled at their sub-par volunteer help. I'm pretty sure I didn't get any of those kids on the track to Olympic gold, but I think they had some fun.  I am sure I had a better time than they did, since ten year olds are about as much fun as anything: they have energy and opinions but are basically oblivious to the opposite sex.  So there was a lot of potty humor and very little eye-rolling.

I did some community service of the Big Sister type when I was at university, and when I graduated I moved to Toronto and was a literacy volunteer.  Over my nearly three-year stint, I am proud to say, I helped two remarkable women become functional readers of the English language.  Both had grown up in countries where girls weren't granted educations, and both had been with men who were ambivalent about their learning. 

One was a shy Somalian, a very young mother of a beautiful little girl.  He husband was a Ph.D, and he was encouraging her because he felt she would be a better mother and wife if she could read. The second was a recently divorced mother of three, who had been born in the Middle East and had immigrated to Canada in her twenties. Now she was in her thirties but looked much older, evidence of  too much work and worry from living with a hard man. She was motivated by her desire to read with her daughter, who was in first grade at the time, but as she herself gained confidence, her grit showed through.  She was a gifted cook, so we worked on recipes---reading cookbooks, and then homework where she needed to write out her favorites, handed down through generations.  The act of articulating what her grandmother showed her every day of her girlhood was a huge challenge for her, but the look of triumph and pride on her face when she did so was as much an accomplishment for me as it was for her.  I admired her tremendously, even though I was not yet a mother.  Now I look back and know that her love for her children helped her walk through what must have been a lot of fear.  I often wonder where she ended up. 

When I moved to Texas, I immediately volunteered at a local non-profit dedicated to parenting and children.  I wrote a column for them in a local magazine (yes, they really make the questions up) and taught some parenting classes.  In addition to being an obvious case of the blind leading the blind, I now look back on my experience and remember the parents forced to go to the claustrophic little beige room by a family court judge as part of a divorce proceeding and cringe at what I might have said.  What the hell, they must have asked, does she know? 

Later I got what was considered a moderately important job and was asked to serve on the board of the same non-profit. I liked the people I served with, but found the monthly lunch meetings perfunctory and I was not, by a long shot, in a position to give money to the cause, which seems to be the chief purpose of a board.  Pretty sure I didn't help out many people then, either.  Even worse, it was my first step towards life in a rarified little bubble. 

Sure, I work a demanding job, co-parent two children and manage my own household without paid help or a significant other. I commute at least six, often eight or ten, hours a week.  And to be sure, I can summon up plenty of feelings of guilt and inadequacy without thinking about how I should volunteer.  I'll do that when my kids grow up, I reason, and am pretty sure I will.  The cost, of my non-volunteer world, then is not to those I might be "helping", but the blinders I wear around in my self-involved little universe. 

Everyone I work with, for the most part, is nice and well-educated.  I can afford a house in a good school district, and although I don't live in the prettiest part, I can walk there in three minutes.  I have a nice car, a luxury sedan that's a few years old.  I put money away every month and take my kids on a pretty nice, though not extravagant, vacation every summer.  What I don't think about on a daily basis, because I only spend time around people who are pretty much like me or often much better off, is that there is a whole world of people out there who not don't have these things, but whose lives are a constant battle against minor issues that morph into really big ones, because they don't have the few hundred bucks that make the little ones go away.

I have good friends who do well financially, much better than I, but they also have Real Jobs.  They have no choice but to see this other world, and in the course of their days they actually do help others less fortunate.  Yet for me, it's been a bloody long time since I've done a damn thing to pay my rent on earth.  So today when I went into Municipal Court to resolve a traffic ticket (late with my inspection) I was actually horrified at some of the people I saw.  That I was horrified is a distinct case of snobbery--okay, there were a number of elaborately tattooed busoms and calf muscles and an even greater sum of people testing the tensile strength of polyester, not something, to be fair, one sees typically at an AMLAW 100 Firm--but the fact that I can travel through life in such a way that I am shocked means I am sheltered indeed. 

So what to do?  My life is pretty packed, but I've got to figure out a way to at least take a stab at getting a broader view of the world once again.  In the meantime, I am preparing to work at my Firm's annual meeting, so at some point during the course of a 14-hour day I will soon be having drinks with a quite a few people who went to Oxford or Harvard or both, and will be enjoying a very good hotel and a twenty-dollar cheeseburger from room service.  At least, I hope, on this trip I'll remember just how spoiled I am, though that doesn't count for much, I know.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Election 2010

Last Friday morning I took an hour out of my workday to watch nine eight-graders give campaign speeches for their school's student council.  My daughter was running for secretary, and I wanted to be there for her, but in the process I learned about her environment and remembered my own eighth grade self, who pales in comparison.  I also learned about my child's inherent grit. 

There are 800 kids at her school, and from my anecdotal look at the student body, about 70 percent are Hispanic. There are a few other groups scattered about, but for the most part the rest are the white Anglo kids, who were represented 8-1 on the stage where the candidates sat.  I sat at the back of the auditorium and watched as the mass of adolescent awkwardness lurched in.  Then, at a teacher's urging, I moved into the second row, and my first born gave me a look, but it was a what was I thinking one rather than a please leave now sort, so I was glad to be there. 

The speeches?  There were those who were prepared (the females, to a woman) and then there was the jock, who is a man of few words but still commanded attention.  Then there was the heartthrob, whose personal charm evaporated almost completely in the face of the whole student body watching him expectantly. He had decided to wing it, from what I could tell. I wanted to say, overprepare and go with the flow, dude, but he knows that now.  There was one boy who knocked it out of the park because he did just that and has a good bit of wholesome charm himself.  The most impressive--probably the prettiest girl in her class--gave a sweet and sincere speech about how easy it is to talk about doing the right thing and approaching someone sitting alone in the cafeteria and actually doing it, and then about how she'd struggled with being quiet and hoped she was doing better. 

As a family friend wrote me afterwards, I would maybe have a stroke if I had to make a cogent speech in front of 800 peers.  So I was impressed by every one. I wondered about what it had taken for the single Hispanic boy to run.  He got the most raucous applause, and yet in the end did not win.  For all the discussion about inclusion, most of the kids don't feel see themselves as leaders.  It worries and bothers me, not just because I am seeing it in my children's world, but because I wonder if I live in a culture where this might not change.  Or maybe it's always been the case that twenty percent of the people fill all the leadership roles and we just notice it more now. 

And my own child?  Unlike her mother, who had moved to a new school in seventh grade and who was still the next year getting knocked around pretty good by almost all the girls and had maybe two people to hang out with, was up on that stage, giving a good speech in a strong voice.  I didn't well up but looked at her, as I often do, with admiration and more than a smidge of awe. 

She didn't win.  At least she didn't win the election, and it was very hard, at least for a couple of hours on Friday afternoon.  I believe there was a suggestion she should be homeschooled.  This, even she agreed, was a bad idea when I pointed out that she is already smarter than either of her parents. I also pointed out that she'd gotten a lot more votes than the people who didn't run. Characteristically, she had rallied by Monday, as had the other six impressive people who aren't office holders, at least this year. 

My middle school self rallied eventually, too, once high school came along. I told my daughter with confidence--due to considerable experience, to be sure--that failure is a good creature to become acquainted with early in life, if only so it's a beast with which we are familiar by the time we need to go to college, work, and even volunteer life. There are so few setbacks we can't bounce back from, if only we know that to be true. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

What It's Really About

We all have at least one: a friend who tells us unpleasant things about ourselves for our "own good."  These friends are also authorities on issues in their own families, at least as far as the blinders everyone else in their clan are wearing.  Their own stuff, not so much. 

It's a old saw that it's easier to raise other people's kids than your own, and the same holds true for examining the mistakes each of us repeatedly make.  And, as Penelope Trunk points out in her latest post, almost everyone has a single issue that we struggle with throughout our lives.  She then goes on to talk about her personality type according to Myers-Briggs (she is an ENTJ or a Field Marshal, as am I) and that its particular trouble is that us ENTJs don't do tact.  Then she tries to analyze her husband's personality, writing that he can't plan for the future, but right then she allows her issue with him is that he can't separate from his mother.  Although she goes on to say she knows she, like everyone else with an intractable interpersonal problem, has to make peace with it--Shut up or get off the bus is how she puts it--it's still his issue that she sees as the primary mover in her marital conflict. 

In a more insightful column, Cary Tennis offered this to an advice seeker who felt he needed to tell his brother "the truth" about their father:

This is what I have learned. When you think you should really tell a person this thing or, This person really should know that, just stop first.  Just stop.

He goes on to explain that what really needs to happen, before we blurt out something like, "You let your kids run all over you and they are brats," or "You're depressed because your marriage is slowly and inexorably coming to an end," or "You should quit smoking, because it's going to kill you," you need to bite your tongue.  Not just because the person, at least at three in the morning when she can't sleep, already knows this--it's the elephant in the room, but she does, I guarantee, know this deep down already, and if she had the ability right now to deal with it, she would--but because your visceral need to explain this to them says more about you than about the other person.

In other words, what do you believe you'll get from telling this person their marriage is going to end?  A sense of, well, I've been through it, and let me tell you, this is how it's going to be, and you might think you're better than me but you're not.  Your marriage will end, too, and you'll know--like me--how it feels to have a public failure.  In still other words, we shouldn't tell this person what we really think they should know, because it's just mean. It's not coming from a good place within our ourselves. So unless she asks us again and again why she is unhappy (and even then it's not a good idea to come out with it) it's best to listen and nod, or quietly decide that she needs another friend to talk to. 

This insight from Tennis, I've decided, is a great tool for what I believe to be the first rule of adulthood: own your shit. If you're obsessing over another person's mistakes, why?  What buttons are they pushing?

Which brings me back to Penelope.  She is correct that we each have our own singular issue to grapple with as a life-long project.  Based on the Cary Tennis rule, I realized I needed to figure out why on earth her telling of it in what I believe is a misguided manner bugged the hell out of me.  I've been processing it all day in the back of my mind, and it's boiled down to this: as a fellow Field Marshal, I know that tact is only a very minor manifestation of our own dialogue at three in the morning.  (Do you suppose there are personality types that sleep well?)

No, my problem, as an Extroverted/iNtuitive/Thinking/Judging type, is that I fear chaos.  This is why I want, always, to do things properly.  If I don't, it's a pretty short ride down the slippery slope to my entire life, if not the universe itself, falling apart.  General Patton was an ENTJ, hence the nickname for the Type, and his fears, given that thousands of lives were in his hands, were certainly warranted.  I remember that when I look at my baseboards in need of paint and beat myself up because my oil change is 424 miles overdue, it's not life and death.  But my fear comes from the same place as Patton's--if I mess up, it will be a disaster.  And my ego is big enough to think I'll take a few people down with me.  After all, if I follow Cary Tennis' advice, it really is all about me. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Improvement

This past weekend I scraped, sanded and weatherproofed my deck, a home improvement project that took almost fifteen hours.  My Inner Hedonist was tired, and there was a big wedding on over at Former Husband's house a few blocks away, so my need for smug superiority won out.  By God,  Protestant Work Ethic said, you can take care of yourself.  Go forth to Home Depot and make me proud. 

Understand that this is not a little back porch. This thing encompasses a couple of time zones, which makes it the ultimate party deck.  Unlike the frat boys who lived here before--I live in a college town where, even with locals who are relatively well-off, the students have better cars and nicer houses than most of us--I don't have a hot tub and am happy they took theirs away before I moved in, given what was probably in it.  And although I will certainly allow that there has been some drinking done on the deck since I moved in, there aren't hoards of co-eds on it every weekend.  This I gather was the formerly the case, based on comments from my neighbors and the multitude of beer cans I pulled out of my flowerbeds last spring. 

No, this was the sort of project FH would have snickered at me trying. It was one of the things he was referring to when he said, five years ago, "You think you can do this by yourself? Good luck with that."  So when I had scraped down all 300-odd square feet of it and it looked worse than when I started, I wondered if he maybe hadn't been right.  Then I cleaned myself up and went for some awesome sushi with my girlfriends.  I'd think about it tomorrow. 

The sun rose again, and despite my aching arms and creaky back, I rallied and told the Inner Perfectionist (she's been kept well in line of late, but in low moments she can grow noisy) to go sit in the corner. It wasn't going to be immaculate. The fake redwood paint is still in place on the railing that runs the perimeter, as well as under the trellis where the weather hasn't been as harsh.  So the redwood-tinted waterproofing colors the bare wood but doesn't quite cover up the uneven coloration. Still, the result was a rather shabby chic look.  And it's sealed against the torrential rains and relentless sun of North Texas, at least for awhile, which is as much as anyone can hope for.

I could handle the physical labor, but the the drain was worrying about how I might screw the entire thing up. (Okay, IP got obstreporous several times.  She's a three year-old.) I was all by myself out there, save for a few sweet phone calls from Harley Man, who made FH's voice in my head much, much quieter. And then I remembered the mantra for worriers and perfectionists: what's the worst that can happen?  It wasn't going to fall down, and I could always bite the bullet and hire someone to fix my mistakes.

In the end it's much improved in appearance, and the sticky that was on it (a lot like when my university roommate dropped a gallon of orange juice on our linoleum and it lasted until graduation, no matter how many times we scrubbed it) has evaporated.  And now there is no one to snicker at me.  As one of my wise girlfriends pointed out over sushi, today is your lucky day.  Amen.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Not Missing the Smell of Snow

Does a big change in a person's life, well-considered and planned, have the possibility of changing their happiness in the long term?  I have a friend who wants to change her circumstances, radically--a move, a job change and a totally new life is what she has in mind.  She wants to leave the big city and her high-paying job and go back to the small town life she grew up with.  She wants her child to have grandparents close enough to come for Sunday dinner. 

I am impressed with her bravery and her willingness to understand that the logistics, once we're not twenty with a life that fits in a Honda Civic, will be tedious and many.  To me the real question, the one I keep asking her is, are you really sure once you make these big changes that you'll be any different?  In other words, wherever you go, there you are.  My instincts as a friend are to counsel her to make incremental changes, but this is rich given that I moved not only to America from Canada but to a whole other country in addition when I landed in Texas.  So I know change can be tranformative, but it doesn't fix all. And it hurts while it happens.   

Moving to a place with plentiful sunshine and minimal cold certainly changed me and made me happier than trudging through the snow-filled, four-month tunnel that is the Canadian winter.  I can't quite imagine going back--it's a bit like that old saying about trying to keep them down on the farm once they've been to Paris. But the hundred-degree weather for weeks at a time, though it delights me, drives other Northerners mad.

Divorce is many things, but mostly change. For so many years, I heard from my husband that I was an unhappy person.  A fair charge to be sure, because during our years together I became increasingly so. Now, five years later, there are times when I can be unhappy, but in comparison, hardly ever.  I think of my misery with him the way I consider walking off the streetcar beside Lake Ontario.  It was difficult, but an old life from which I learned what I could live with and what I couldn't. 

So is my general satisfaction with life because I made the choice to be warm and not live with my former husband anymore?  We can't make another person happy or expect them to do so for us, but the reverse isn't true:  people really can make one another miserable.  I couldn't be happy if I was still married to my former husband, but nor could I be if I hadn't examined my closely held beliefs about myself and how I played into the wretched dynamic between us. I wouldn't be happy in Texas if I sentimentalized the autumn leaves and the smell of snow, but I figured out that for me, hot beats cold. 

So to my friend I have to say, leap, but know that the walk through the swamp won't be easy, and it will take a long time to break on through to the other side.  Once you get there, the view is really good.  But to really see it, you need new eyes. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Showdown: The Protestant Work Ethic v. Inner Hedonist

The deck really needs sanding.  It's a great place to hang, and it takes up most of the not inconsequential backyard.  This means I don't have to mow it, but I do have to manage a big chunk of lumber.  The weather was perfect and my Protestant Work Ethic said it was time. My Inner Hedonist said that, although the deck has served her very well so far, 85 and sunny doesn't happen very often in the Lone Star state. Then she got an offer to head down to South Texas to sit on the beach and eat some shrimp and maybe, incongruously but appealingly, to take in a hockey game. IH told PWE to stop bumming her joy already and booked a Southwest flight to the Gulf Coast, stat. 

IH got to eat her shrimp. She also got to spend a Saturday afternoon on a couch and watch a lot of college football, all while reading some great magazines that provided tremendous insight into the male mind. A note, girls: if you want to understand guys, read Men's Health and GQ and skip Self and Glamour.  The hockey game and the other girls there--if you are a hair stylist who is out of work, Corpus Christi needs your services--gave IH a tremendous boost in self-esteem, which needless to say she enjoys a great deal. She wore her bikini, dug her toes in the sand, laughed a good deal and rode on the back of a Harley owned by a very hot guy. Did I write that out loud? Oh, never mind.  It wasn't me, it was IH.  And she doesn't care what people think. 

Upon arrival at the house last night, PWE told IH that she'd been abandoned her post. And had she actually seen the fingerprints on the French doors, never mind the dust on the ceiling fans? And who the hell was going to do the laundry this week?  As for the deck, it didn't just sand itself while IH was off having her fun, thank you very much. It was still there, and "distressed" will soon turn into "rotting" unless she gets off her sunburned ass to take care of it. 

IH opened some wine, grilled a steak and turned on Gossip Girl. Monday would show up soon enough, and she still had sand in her flip-flops.