Monthly Archives: May 2014

I am poor (wanna make somethin’ of it?!)

It’s a funny thing; I’m an educated, middle class woman who is poor (by U.S. standards). I could probably qualify for free government cheese (I think I still occasionally see notices about free cheese. I wonder what the chances are it’s any good, like a nice Provolone or Havarti? Of course, it wouldn’t be Brie…. oh who am I kidding? It almost certainly would be gummy, processed American.) What was I talking about? Oh yeah, qualifying for free cheese. I wouldn’t do that, or anything like it, unless I found myself desperate. It isn’t that I enjoy being poor so much that I know I’ve always had options. I just didn’t like a lot of them. What I’m trying to say is that I’m in a bed, or maybe it’s more like a cheap cot, that I most certainly made.

I tend to get treated to one of two responses from other people. The first is a kind of envy; how nice it must be to have free time and minimal obligations, how lucky I am to be able to spend so much time outdoors, how it all must be so easy for me. Don’t even get me started on what I think of this. It’s too early in the day for a rant.

The second response is what I believe is a deep unease, demonstrated by people making suggestions and encouraging me to do this or that. Mind you, I haven’t – I promise! – been complaining or asking for help before someone starts down this particular path. I know they are just looking at me, unable to make heads or tails of the way I live.

I’ve had people suggest I go to school (I don’t usually bother to say I’ve been to school and have the diploma to show for it). They’ve wondered why I don’t have or get a car (I’ve had one and it was like supporting a dependent and I concluded that was unwise – I spent more on the car’s health than I did my own, and that, my friends, considering my part-time income, was whack.)

An old boyfriend suggested I take a full-time job (not a particular one, but a full-time job) for one year, I guess the idea being if I gave it a mental end date, somehow I’d find it more palatable, or realize at the completion of the year’s time, that it wasn’t so bad or I “loved it!” I told him if I DID take a full-time job, the first thing to go would be him. (To be clear to you the Reader, I have worked like that and I know myself, and there’d be no spare time, no spare energy left.)

At a different time, yet another boyfriend (unwisely) brought me a job description, claiming it was passed along by a mutual friend. “Why does she think I’m looking for a (full-time) job?” I asked. He looked uneasy and didn’t answer. I then knew damn well why – the two of them had been discussing me and my shabby little situation. I read the description. I had no foggy idea, what with all the gobbledy-gook, nonsense speak of the typical white-collar job description, what it meant. They all sound like death on a spit.

One time years ago, a cousin got table-pounding angry (there was beer involved) over what I said about my lifestyle, namely about its good points. He lived in another state, was someone I saw at reunions, and in no way supported me, financially or otherwise. The attack – and it was one – floored me, although admittedly my cousin seemed to be going through an angry phase in general. I like my cousin and the incident proved to be a one-time anomaly, but it isn’t as if he ever apologized or we specifically cleared the air in the years since.

I could understand people’s discomfort better if my situation somehow infringed on them. If they were supporting me, or carting me around because I was always asking for rides, or I was just a big mooch. But none of that is true. Or ever was. Nobody is talking about my prospective happiness or fulfilling my destiny or making the most of my talents either. Again, all that I could see. I think the unease is inside them. Something about what I’m doing is scary, unsettling, even threatening. I don’t think they’re afraid for me or on my behalf. That never enters the conversation, nor does any fear I might have. It strikes more of a free-floating existential fear.

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Hey Writer, I think you SKIPPED a part

It’s disconcerting when I’ve been reading a book, sometimes fiction, but more often autobiographical, where the author has been going along recounting everything in extreme detail, from meals eaten to exact conversations had, and reaches a point where the story abruptly stops, and the writer then says something like, “…Twenty years passed and I now was married, with 3 glorious children, living in the beach house, and had published 13 books.” Whaaaaa?? Wait a minute! Just a darn minute.

For 280 pages you’ve been telling me things like how you ate your 2 eggs over easy on the daisy-patterned plate that had a chip on the edge with a slice of Rye bread topped by a teaspoon of Huckleberry jam on a particular Sunday in a particular week in a particular year, and how the sun streamed in the window and created an image of Lake Chickamauga on the surface of your swirled coffee, and how Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl was playing on the radio, and Jim looked up from watching George Stephanopoulos on TV and said, “Next week I’m going to paint the shutters Cerulean blue” and now, NOW, all you can say is TWENTY YEARS PASSED??!!? and everything was swell??!?

Is excitement a four-letter word in disguise?

When you get older, things aren’t as exciting as they once were. That’s generally accepted as common knowledge. Even as someone who can still get pretty excited over a variety of things other adults might find commonplace – from finding a quarter on the ground to glimpsing the ocean after a long time away to the prospect of a big bowl of pasta for dinner – I have to say it feels true. I’ve been trying to parse out why exactly, though. Is it because all is so fresh and new when a person is young, unsullied by repetition or knowledge of prior disappointments? Or is it because younger people have limited control over their lives and are dependent on others to introduce exciting events or circumstances, and the randomness and surprise generate excitement? (A big, special event or gift or vacation successfuly planned and executed by someone else IS more exciting, I reckon, than one you do for yourself, whether you are 5 or 50.)

Is it instead because life deals out so many frustrations, disappointments, and painful losses along its path that 1) older people are too wounded to get excited, too muted or distracted by the weight of assorted difficulties that sap their attention and energy? or 2) essentially a lot of things that were supposed to be exciting, which came with lots of advance press turned out to be a big, fat bust, or short of that, were merely blah, humdrum, or flat when they occurred?

When I was a child, still in gradeschool, my father’s work took him briefly to Florida and it was decided to combine that obligation with a family trip to Disney World. I have to tell you the “magic kingdom” was all I could have hoped for and more. I was besotted with the place and told myself when I grew up, I’d come back and work there. (I did no such thing and my naiveté over how fun I thought it would be to work at Disney World or any amusement park both bemuses and sort of touches me now.)

Since that trip, I have always wanted to go back to visit but I haven’t. Not for any interesting reason. I do wonder, though, what would Disney World seem like to me now? The excitement of that first trip could surely not be matched. Moreover, I’d be much more likely to notice and mind things I hadn’t on the childhood trip. Oh…things like commercialism, white-washing of history, the conditions for employees, and whether the entirety of Disney is good for children or not. Yeah, here she is, Ms. Buzz Kill! Or more kindly to myself, maybe Ms. Knows Too Much.

I’ll tell you a story that might illustrate what I’m talking about. When I was older, living on my own, a radio station sponsored a contest to win a trip to an amusement park (not Disney) located in an adjacent state. The contest was one I was sure I had a crack at winning: coming up with as many words as possible using only the letters in the name of the park’s new roller coaster. When I put my mind to something, look out. I wanted that trip. I came up with over 600 words and won one of the trips. I could take a couple people with me and did. On the designated date, we drove several hours to our lodging, only to get a cool reception (we probably did look a little ragtag, certainly not high rollers), but worse, discovered no meals were included in the prize. Probably would have been better to have known that beforehand. [Insert unhappy face.] So, tired and hungry, we found ourselves prowling a local grocery store for provisions the first evening.

The amusement park held a special “grand opening” for a select group of which we were included. I didn’t give a flip about the roller coaster (and was more interested in the snacks & drinks tent), which was just as well as the ride malfunctioned on its maiden spin and riders were unloaded and walked down from an unpleasantly high point. My companions and I had access to the park on a subsequent day as well when it was open to the public. The grounds were theoretically separated into geographical themes, but I soon noticed not much difference among them, all with a certain homogenized vibe, down to the food, which was supposed to represent the cuisine of various countries, yet all tasted the same, mediocre at that. Should I now mention there was interpersonal friction among our little group that started early and never fully let up, making the trip even more crummy, capped off with a sullen, several-hours drive back home? Yes, well.

The youthful Disney trip and the “young adult” amusement park prize trip were so very different. I don’t want to draw too many conclusions but I can’t help but make some. I had nothing much to weigh the childhood trip against, no knowledge that might work against my excitement. The prize trip I came to with excitement and hopes, but knowledge that took away from the experience. Was I too jaded, too inclined to weigh actuality against expectations, and end up disappointed? As an adult, do I merely tote around too many notions of how things should be?

I don’t much like Official Holidays now. There’s something about the excited expectation and subsequent, typically less thrilling reality that doesn’t sit right in my being. I am MUCH better off when lovely days come along by happenstance and feel like a holiday. I throw myself into such days, excited and happy, and pleased to note, not at all jaded. Is it ultimately that my capacity for excitement isn’t diminished but that expectations are really my bane? It’s weird. I am easily pleased so long as I have minimal opportunity to generate expectations or excitement in advance. Is that it? And how true is that for other people?

As I write this, I keep coming back to a particular mental image, namely that of a typical old lady being feted on her birthday, a paper party hat incongruously strapped onto her gray-haired head, a sheet cake on the table in front of her. I think I’ve seen variations of this scene a lot, in life and onscreen. I always wonder about the elderly lady. Could she possibly be enjoying the event? Is this exciting? It doesn’t look that way. It looks like all the excitement is over for one life and that this is the end zone, stuck in a paper hat, trying to look gracious and pleased.

Think of all the senior lady must have lived through in her decades – sex and love and passion and vacations and marriage(s) and children and deaths and jobs and homes and Christmas gatherings and family reunions and delicious feasts and leaps into swimming pools and driving tours and ceremonies and funerals and parties and monopoly games and feuds and lush gardens grown and luncheons with ladies and arts made and symphonies heard and on and on with all that goes into a long life. And yet the people around her expect her to be excited over the paper hat and cake. I really can’t fault her if she isn’t.

I [insert word] the internet

An older man commented to me this week that he was glad he’d lived long enough to experience the internet. I understood the general sentiment. I feel like I’m one of those people the internet was meant for – I love the written word, ideas, conversation, and information, all of which abound online. But the gift is also the problem, the abounding. There’s just too much, so many demands and temptations for your attention, not all of it so rewarding. Sometimes I equate going online to tumbling down the rabbit hole.

I am also glad I lived a life pre-internet. That I was an adult when I first went online. It is difficult enough to find a way to accommodate online and offline life so that they complement but do not contradict or negatively interfere with each other; I’d think always having lived in both would make the boundaries less clear, sometimes in very costly ways. I can, as one online survey question recently asked me, imagine going without the internet. I wouldn’t like it and am pretty sure I’d have withdrawal symptoms, especially over losing email (unless the reason I was no longer online was apocalyptic in scope and then I guess I’d be too preoccupied with more pressing concerns to care), but I can still can conjure a vision of me that exists independent of the internet. That seems important somehow.

Nobody taught me how to use the internet. I imagine no one taught you either. And yet, managing it, finding and maintaining the role it plays in a well-rounded life, not to mention deciding how to conduct yourself online, is a skill. I’ve fumbled around, learned things the hard way (what else is new, ay?), and tried to use it in such a way that dovetails with values I already had. That – aligning it with values I already have – is one of the keys. When I’m uncertain about something that is occurring online, whether it’s in personal emails, or public discussions, or shopping, or group memberships, or anywhere I might be, I try to resolve my issue with real/offline knowledge. It’s not foolproof, but it offers a guide.

I resist more things online too. I dig in my heels and refuse to go past certain self-imposed restrictions. Like? I won’t argue with strangers. That’s a big one. Also, when baited, be it by someone I know or a stranger, I carefully consider my response, if any. Mostly, I am content to stay out of the fray across the board. And there’s A LOT of fray to be found. We get so invested in what happens online – well I know I do or can – that pulling back can reboot perspective. “It’s just words on a screen” I sometimes tell myself.

I try to be discriminating in what I’ll read, particularly on an ongoing basis. There’s so much that is ugly and vitriolic. It’s rampant and even found in what might have seemed the most innocuous of subjects, so it isn’t as if simply choosing “safe” or “nice” subject matter provides inoculation. A keyboard is too often the internet equivalent of a car on a highway, where a person is safely anonymous surrounded by a couple tons of steel and metal, free to be a jackass to other people. My skin has undeniably thickened since I first went online, but again, I resist getting too used to the nastiness out there – I don’t want to. That too seems important.

It is hard to use the internet and continue to think of yourself as a highly original person. It can feel as if every clever thing you’ve thought of, a dozen others (or more) thought sooner. Any time I need or want to write an original word or thought or witty bit, I Google first. So many are “taken”. It’s maddening! Especially if it took me awhile to summon up whatever it was. It can be difficult to let go and not use it. But I do and make myself think of something fresher.

You might rightfully ask why bother? Why not just go ahead and say whatever even if it’s not original? Well, sometimes I’ve entered humor contests, for one, where what I wrote had to be utterly original (yeah, they checked). My competitive self gets a kind of satisfaction too, when I can crank the ol’ gears around sufficiently to come up with a line or phrase no one else has yet said. And, writing here as I am this moment, I want to give you an incentive to read me. As I said, I know how much competition there is for attention. I don’t want to write things a (potential) reader has seen twenty times, a hundred times before. What would be the point? I know that I get itchy and restless when I keep seeing variations on the same things over and over, no matter the subject.

I learned a term, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), not long ago. Forgive me if I’m hopelessly out of date and everybody already knows it. I thought it was particular to the internet and that urge which drives people to go online, checking, checking, checking. But no, the term is applied more broadly. I think in offline life, I’ve tempered that feeling, i.e. FOMO, but it still is at work in my online psyche. I don’t want to be the person who doesn’t know what’s going on, who misses cultural cues that are mainstream, or has no idea what other people are referencing in conversation. True, a lot of it hardly seems worth learning in the larger picture, but it’s not possible to know that beforehand.

It occurs to me as I write this, that probably about the time I feel I’ve got all this down or at least managed, a new twist or innovation will be added that’ll mix the whole shebang up again and bring new quandaries. What will it be I wonder?

Things Men Have Said to Me (#2)

ME: “In some ways I trust you a lot, in other ways not at all.”

HIM: “That’s because you’re smart.”

Short Thought 28

I am a mostly vegetarian/pescatarian and eat health-consciously, but lately found myself craving meat, maybe because I’ve been doing a lot of physical work. (I took extra B12 thinking it might suppress the urge the way Magnesium curbs chocolate cravings but it didn’t work.)

I saw hotdogs on sale and despite everything I know about them, they appealed to me, so I bought a pack and a bag of nutritionless buns too. It’s been so long since I had them that I read the cooking instructions. Here they are, verbatim. Place Frank In Water, Heat To Boil, Remove Frank. Gee, that sounds rude. What did Frank ever do to me?

An old boyfriend comes to call, er, I mean email

As often happens now that most of us live in or regularly visit Internet Land, a man from my past turned up online. Slight correction. He was a boy when I knew him before, literally. Teenage. Now he was married and living in another state. We caught up in emails, cleared up a few things from the dusty past. He had a relatively strong memory of me to offer, as well as regrets and apologies I never expected to hear but found gratifying.

He’d played a significant role in my teenage years and was able to fill in a few blanks in our narrative for me, things I hadn’t understood at the time. Also, a devastating event had occurred later in that general time frame that had nothing to do with our specific (long over) relationship, but which had haunted him since. I was not impacted the same way but had known about it, remembered, and could discuss it now. The interplay was cathartic on both sides. And honestly, because he’d turned into a skilled and witty writer – a talent there’d been no evidence of in our history, however brief – it was fun. About as close to time travel as I’ve found possible.

I needed to know for my sake, who this person was now. A single, real-time conversation would do it, so at my suggestion, a phone call – a lively, funny one it turned out – followed. This guy was a stranger in so many ways and yet I picked up on traits that must have been the same ones that appealed to me in the teenage boy. Smart, a shrewd wise-ass with a big personality. In fact he was the one who made this comment: https://writerinsoul.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/somebody-will-cry/. There were signs of other attributes I did not relate to so well that I don’t need to elaborate for the purpose of my story. But there’s a bigger point. As I alluded via the need for apologies, he hadn’t been the nicest guy when I’d known him years ago. He’d left ill will in his wake. I held judgment in reserve but couldn’t escape that million dollar question: Do people really change? How young is your essential personality really set?

I’ve read what academics have to say, I’ve talked this question over with friends, and still, I wonder. Strokes, Alzheimer’s, or other big life-altering events and conditions can alter someone’s basic personality. But I’m talking about shy of that. If you believe you’ve got someone’s number at age 15 or 18 or 20, can you safely assume you’ve still got it at 30, 50, 70, always? Despite any claims or assertions to the contrary?

It turned out he was going to be passing through my area. Now, don’t be sitting there thinking, “Oh SURE, he just HAPPENED to be passing through your area! I’ll bet. Did he just HAPPEN to book a quiet dinner for two at a nearby hotel too?” Give me some credit. His mother still lived in my state and I wasn’t the only person from his past he wanted to see. His wife knew he planned to meet a few people. I got the idea it might have even been a sort of Making Amends Tour. And if I’m wrong about that, it was definitely to catch up with more than just me.

When we met, the only thing that seemed familiar from the past was his voice. Not surprisingly, the ease of the emails and the phone call were not immediately at hand (I’ve been down this particular road before). But we managed. He seemed tired, and maybe uncertain about me. I sensed he wasn’t saying something, or was waiting perhaps for a sign from me, although quite what, I couldn’t say with certainty (and I’m fairly good at this if I do say so). As he had in emails, he said he’d like to stay friends but had no real answer when I asked exactly how that might work. (If I may, I will offer that wives as a rule don’t line up suggesting I befriend their husbands.) Please forgive the cliche but I was not at a place in my life where I was in the mood for nonsense or anyone trifling with my feelings. I didn’t want to be the Secret Internet Friend, to provide entertainment or counsel or titillation – if it came to that – on the side. I’ve learned a thing or two or eight and was only interested in entertaining a scenario on the up-and-up, if at all.

He’d made arrangements to catch up with another guy from the old days that evening, someone I’d known but not well. He wanted me to join him. There was going to be a band and a bar on the itinerary. Our time together, and the point of it so far as I intended, was over. I gave an unequivocal no. I didn’t hedge or coyly try to get him to talk me into it. I didn’t say this to him – although I had brought up something related in email – but I knew the moment I got in his car a line would be crossed. “Date” was the word in my mind. Get in that car and I’m on a date. I don’t drink but could foresee the role alcohol might well play in the remainder of the day as he and the other old friend kicked back a couple brewskies and caught up. There I’d be.

We parted without fuss. There was no follow-up. Months later I emailed, with the express caveat it was a one-time thing, to share with him news of another guy we’d both known well and had wondered about when we reconnected. The story I told was way too good not to share, particularly given that back in the day we both had been on the receiving end of sh*t from this other person and it was a bit of a bonding point.

He loved the story, chimed up again that he still thought the two of us should be friends (I’ll resist putting that last word in italics or quotes even if I thought it came across a bit breezy) and that he was in a time crunch, but would write more later. He didn’t. You’re not surprised are you? Neither was I, even if I allow it didn’t make me feel all that great. I kind of saw that he’d already told me all I needed to know. For my purposes here and now. And I was glad we’d reconnected, truly. The bigger questions I’ll keep thinking about.