Saturday, October 27, 2012

Career Day

Somewhere around the third grade, on Career Day, when all the other kids were standing up and saying they wanted to be either a policeman, or a fireman, or a ballerina, I decided I wanted to be all three.  I didn’t want to limit myself to just one occupation.  I wanted to be everything from an astronaut to a monkey trainer.   That left me with only one career choice.  I would be a writer.

My classmates looked at me as if I’d just announced I wanted to make a living euthanizing puppies at the pound.  By now, I was used to being a little outside the pack.   I’m not saying I was friendless, but I played alone a lot.  Still, the other kids had learned I was good to have around when it came to imaginary role playing games.   They knew who to come to when they needed a storyline for Roy Rogers or Tonto and the Lone Ranger. 

My desire to make a living using only my imagination and my highly developed skill at hyperbole persisted throughout elementary school and into high school.    My father was an itinerant college professor and we moved around a lot  - throughout the Deep South, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma.  I was always the new kid trying to fit in, the outsider looking in, the breeding ground of all neuroses, angst, and future artistic endeavor. 

I attended public schools in the days before Ritalin was routinely prescribed for bright, imaginative students who had trouble paying attention.  This was in the 1960’s and 1970’s when a public school education still meant something, back before Self-Esteem became the cornerstone of learning.  When my high school English teacher, Charlie Chesmore, called me an ignoramus and a sloth for coming to his class without first reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he wasn’t too concerned about my delicate self-esteem.  The result of this public humiliation was that I showed up the next day having read the play in its entirety.  Go figure.

I went to college to learn, not necessarily to get a degree.  I took creative writing and literature courses from enthusiastic professors who taught me to be a good reader, and, consequently, a better writer.  Somewhere around my junior year I realized that if I spent any more time studying the great writers I’d be too paralyzed with insecurity to write anything myself. 

I left school, married, had children, worked a series of meaningless day jobs, and wrote.  I wrote essays and short stories, which were never published, and novels which, eventually, were.  It hasn’t been easy.  Still, when I think back to that third grade girl who stood up on Career Day and told the class she wanted to be a writer, I’m not sorry for the choices I’ve made.  It seemed so simple then – just a matter of putting a few good stories down on paper and making them all fit together.  Years of hard work, rejection, and perseverance later, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Booze and Bad Decisions

My youngest daughter was recently home from school for fall break.  She goes to college in New Orleans (as did my older two) and she’s acquired that slightly jaded, sophisticated air that the city seems to impart.  Been there, done that, dude.  This is a city, after all, that boasts drive-through daiquiris, karaoke laundry mats, and over 150 festivals a year, all of them involving copious amounts of alcohol.  Temptations are plentiful.  Local law enforcement tends to sport a relaxed attitude toward alcohol consumption (you can drink in college bars with only a school ID regardless of the legal drinking age of 21) and it’s not illegal to walk the streets carrying a cocktail “to go” cup.  For students who’ve grown up in the Bible Belt or the Midwest or even New York, it’s an eye-opening experience.  You either learn to hold your liquor, or you become a raging alcoholic.
I generalize, of course.  The truth is, even as a frumpy, middle-aged woman, I love New Orleans.  I love the history and the culture, the French joie de vivre, the emphasis on good food, good booze, and good company.  Where else in the country does Happy Hour begin at noon on Friday and extend into the wee hours of the night?  New Orleans gave us jazz but it also gave us the Sazerac, the Hurricane, and the Ramos Gin Fizz. 
Despite their urban sophistication, I’m always apprehensive when one of my college-aged children comes home from New Orleans.  Chattanooga, for all its revitalization, is still primarily a small town.  With small-town police officers who take their roles as defenders of public sobriety seriously.  Cabs are hard to come by after a night of heavy drinking.  The downtown bars close at 2:00 p.m. but the free electric shuttle stops running at 11:00 p.m.
We thought when we moved off Signal Mountain into a two bedroom condo downtown that it would make it easier for everyone.  Easier for our adult children to party with their friends and take a cab home and easier for us to sleep knowing they were only a few short blocks away and could get home safely.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way.
Jordan’s first night home, she walked into a bar where there were literally “only six people I didn’t know.”   A good time was had by all and at 2:00 a.m., the time she had told me she’d be coming home, I woke up.  I won’t go into the angst of being a parent waiting for an adult child to return home after midnight.  Suffice it to say, my father used to wait up for me.  And now I wait up for my children.  It’s crazy, given the fact that in New Orleans they probably don’t get home before 4:00 a.m., but you see, I don’t know about it, so I sleep like a baby.
At 2:00 a.m. the first of many texts arrived.  Don’t worry, I’ll catch a cab.  Followed by, The cab isn’t coming.  I’ve called twice, and then,  I’ve walked to my friend Kelly’s house, and finally, There’s some guy here who says he’ll give me a ride.  The last one caused a frenzy of return texting.  Don’t catch a ride with a stranger!  Where are you?  I’ll come get you!
Twenty minutes later, she was home.  This was at 3:30 a.m. and I’m the first to admit, I don’t do well without my eight hour beauty sleep.  The screeching was long and sustained.  No doubt the neighbors enjoyed every minute of it.  She, for the most part, was fairly sober and handled my display with a blasé smirking that further enraged me.
“Mom, I’m an adult.  You can’t wait up for me anymore.” 
Eventually, I ran out of steam and we both went to bed.  The next morning she awoke, sweet and contrite, and apologized for texting me eight times over a two hour period.  She had thought that by texting me repeatedly, she’d be putting my mind at ease so I could drop back into a peaceful slumber.  Apparently, she had been “overserved” at the bar (said with a giggle), and the decision to text had been a bad one.  She had not caught a ride home with a stranger (I’m not stupid, Mom) and her ride had not been drinking (Seriously, Mom, I’m not stupid), and I really shouldn’t wait up for her anymore because she wasn’t a child.  She was an adult.
I could only look at her and remember my own father sitting in his wing back chair in his robe, his eyes bleary, his hair standing up in outraged peaks around his face while I argued with boozy breath that he shouldn’t wait up for me.  I wasn’t a kid.  I was an adult.
“You won’t know what it’s like until you have a child of your own,” he’d said.
Forty years later, I get it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Old Maids of the Mist

I recently went to Canada and Niagara Falls with a group of women I’ve been friends with since grade school.  We’ve known each other for forty-five years and managed to keep in touch, which is pretty remarkable when you consider how disparate and scattered our lives have become.  We grew up in the same small college town, went to grade school, junior high, high school, and the first few years of college together.  Three of us left home and went out into the wide world, while two stayed behind and raised families in the same small community where we’d grown up.
A few years ago, after twenty-five years spent raising families and struggling with careers, we reconnected on Facebook.   Since then, we try to get together every year for a girls’ trip.  The amazing thing to me is how, despite our many differences, we’ve managed to remain friends.  As an adult, I have a tendency to gravitate toward women who dress like me, read the same books, watch the same TV shows, have the same social and political beliefs.   The old “birds of a feather, flock together” syndrome.
But other than our shared childhoods and experiences raising families, there’s not a lot my four hometown friends and I have in common.  A former athlete, a cheerleader, a writer, a sorority girl, and a flighty giggler, I’m not certain if we met today we would even be friends.  So what is it about childhood that makes us so much more willing to embrace others different from ourselves?  Do we simply become lazy, or less willing to compromise as we grow older?
It was in sixth grade that I first met Zona.  She and I were both “new girls,” having moved into town from somewhere else.  I was a tomboy and played mostly with the boys on the playground.  She was prissy and was the first girl in sixth grade to shave her legs.  I didn’t dislike Zona; if anything, I felt sorry for her because she was bad at sports.  All the same, I realized that we probably wouldn’t be spending a lot of time together.   
One morning I walked into the girls’ bathroom to find Zona standing at the mirror teasing her hair.  I watched, fascinated, as she deftly moved a long-handled comb through her curls.  We were still standing there when Ruby Mays walked in.  Ruby was six feet tall and had a deep voice and shoulders like a linebacker.  When Ruby asked you for your lunch money, you gave it up.  I was terrified of her and did my best to avoid eye contact, slinking into one of the opened stalls.   Ruby stood in the doorway, watching Zona with an unreadable expression.   Without warning, she stuck out a large, hairy-knuckled hand.
“Hey,” she said.  “Let me borrow your comb.”
Zona stopped teasing her hair.  She tilted her head and stared at Ruby in the mirror as if giving her request careful consideration.  Time seemed to stop.  My bladder sagged.   Give her the comb, I telepathed frantically.  Just give her the goddamned comb.         
 Zona turned around, her expression thoughtful and pleasant.  “Ruby, I hope you don’t mind,” she said.  “But I don’t let anyone use my comb.”
Ruby’s big fist shot out and caught Zona on the chin, and she went down.  She lay on her back, staring up at the fluorescent lights, blinking.   Ruby helped herself to the comb and then tossed it back to Zona as she went out. 
I went over and helped her up.  She seemed genuinely surprised at Ruby’s reaction.  “Why did she do that?” she kept asking.  I stared at her, grinning in appreciation.  I had never seen anyone stand up to Ruby Mays and it occurred to me that despite her shaved legs and prissy ways, Zona had more courage than anyone I knew.  Certainly more courage than me.
Years later in Canada, while arguing with Zona about politics, that scene with Ruby resurfaced.  And it occurred to me that the spark of courage, the knot of stubbornness that I had admired all those years ago in Zona was still there.  Despite our profound, and sometimes violent, differences I could still appreciate that aspect of her personality. 
Forty-five years later, we still have a connection.  And I’m a better person for it.