Full circle

Caricature of the graduate

I went to my 30th high school reunion and I didn’t get eaten alive.

Not only did I survive, but I also walked away with a smile on my face. That the smile was mostly vodka-induced and not steeped in reality is a story for another day.

In the three decades since I marched to “Pomp and Circumstance” and walked away from the hell of high school, I’ve had an irrational fear of attending any reunion.

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I felt if I were to attend any reunion at all, the 30th would be the one. The reunion is no longer a one-evening event; it’s an itinerary from which you can choose your level of involvement. I chose the informal bar night. The price was right and I had an exit strategy tucked in my pocket.

Filled with enough false bravado to fuel five teenage boys at their first middle school dance, I sucked in my stomach, ordered a cocktail at the bar, took a deep breath, and stepped onto the patio.

I survived the abrupt halt of conversation, all heads turning, and the first of what would become the evening’s refrain, this time from the mouth of a busty redhead with a cigarette dangling from her mouth: Who are you? Did you graduate with us?  

It was at that moment that I realized how far I’d come. There was a time (in high school) that if someone said that to me it would have simultaneously pushed all my buttons, triggering anger, disappointment and despair. Now? Someone else’s bad behavior is a reflection of that person and not a measure of my worth. I answered her in a light and breezy tone with a smile on my face. She shrugged and turned away. Everything was OK after that. I am OK with me, just as I am. I don’t need her approval or anyone else’s to be here.

Sometimes being in a room full of people who remember snippets of you at your worst is more excruciating than helping jog the memories of those who didn’t know you at all. I gave up trying to convince one person that I was not goth in high school, just depressed.

Back then I didn’t have the maturity or perspective to understand that the extreme dysfunction of my family life bled into my social interactions.  I was angry and inappropriate. I used alcohol and drugs and outrageous behavior to cope. Every day was a struggle of fear, hopelessness, free-floating anxiety and self-loathing. My only friends were other social misfits or rebels. We spent most of our time as far away from our idyllic suburban landscape as possible, preferring the gritty neighborhoods of Detroit.

In the years since high school I’ve slowly overcome my crippling anxiety and shyness. I’ve come to understand that my past does not have to color my today. I’ve mostly accepted that I will never be a sunny blonde, long-legged, of the proper lineage, and have a button nose. I am me, good or bad, big nose, wide hips and all. Over the years people have loved me for it. Imagine.

I treated the night like a cocktail party of strangers with possibility. Here’s what I learned:

  • Very few people still look really good 30 years after high school.
  • Shared experiences are priceless. I didn’t have any with the people at this gathering. While I had great cocktail party conversations, there wasn’t a bond between us that erased the years and reduced us to hugs and laughter. I realized how much I had missed of mainstream teenage life.

Of course I had my people and our memories. They just weren’t at this partyI don’t know where most of them are in this world or if they are in this world. (In fact, a good number of them are dead; I had a phone call in April telling me of two deaths this year.)

  • I walked away a bit smug at all the free drinks bought by men, who as boys, would not give me the time of day, and who wouldn’t quit until they figured out why we didn’t connect in high school. What a fun guessing game.  I was a bit rattled that some of them were so forward until someone told me most of them were out-of-towners traveling solo and reunions are famous for the hook-up potential. Oh.

Reunions are a step back in time but they also are a chance to affirm — to yourself — where you are now.  I don’t spend a lot of time with people my age. It was good to see the familiar signs of latefortyness on those around me, to know that even if I wasn’t like them at all back then, we had some things in common now, if only because we are parents, spouses, have aging parents, underwater mortgages or fears of aging and death. No longer are we the future; we are dangerously close to being the past.

What pleased me most of all was that my exit strategy never left my back pocket. I stayed until last call.

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Short and sweet

by alancleaver_2000 via creative commons

My oldest daughter made me cry in public this weekend.

I was front row, center, and caught without a tissue to save me.

Most of what I write about here centers on my life with 5-year-old Girl from the East. I don’t say much anymore about 17-year-old Girl from the West. I no longer feel comfortable blogging about the details of her life. She’s old enough to tell her own stories.

But I want to tell this story. This weekend that almost-adult daughter of mine who often tests the limits of my love and patience knocked the air out of my lungs. In a good way.

After an eight-year hiatus  she walked on that stage before a full auditorium of her peers, teachers, and parents, and sang solo.  I wept.

She kept the whole thing a secret, telling me only a week ahead of time that she was performing in the high school talent show. Last weekend I took her shopping for something to wear.

“Are you alone or with other people?” I ask as we slide hanger after hanger of dresses across the racks, assessing each one for potential.

“What kind of music are you using?” I prod, as we hold up shoes to the dress under consideration.

“Do we need something glittery and showy or something soft and flowing?” I say with growing annoyance.

She has not answered any of my questions. She won’t. I know it. It occurs to me that this irritating habit has some fairly obvious roots.

It also occurs to me that she didn’t really need my help picking out clothes. She wanted my emotional support.  At least she seemed to heed my advice on what not to wear on stage.

After all, there are high heels and sheath dresses and then are YouTube moments waiting to happen.

She did the same thing to me eight years earlier. Made me cry. Kept me in the dark. Back then an even smaller version of this girl stood on the same stage, this time dressed in the rags of a street urchin, dirt smudged on each cheek, holding a straw broom and singing “Castle on a Cloud” in the local high school production of “Les Miserables.”

No one in our family and friends group that evening could believe the clear, sweet music flowing from this child’s vocal chords. Even though she’d been selected from a district-wide audition, we all had braced ourselves for any possible outcome, from perfect delivery to utter stage fright.

Instead, our then third-grader amazed us all with a strong voice that projected around the theater and as much confidence as the teen cast on stage.

We thought it might be the beginning of something for her. She’s been performing in public in odd ways since she was old enough to realize she could attract an audience. (Imagine a four-year-old in Borders getting up on a window sill and breaking out in song and dance while her mother paid for books.) She’s been a member of all of her school choirs, joined local choral ensembles, is a four-summer veteran of music camp, and toured Europe for a month in 2008 as part of an international choral ensemble exchange student program. She’s done all that but she has not reprised the solo since her stint as young Cosette.

I stopped asking her about solos years ago.

Last weekend, she broke her silence and I was caught crying in a crowded theater. I am not a public crier. I’m not even a private crier. But when your child does something to make you that proud, to make you really notice that she’s come into her own, ready to take on the world, it’s impossible to maintain a poker face.

 

 

 

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I can see clearly now;I wish I could walk

Me, 1982

Me, 1982

foureyes

Me, today

Today I provide for you two pictures to illustrate my  post. It’s about my new glasses — the first prescription pair I’ve ever worn.

I consider these glasses — freakin’ progressive lenses, for god’s sake — the official end of my youth.

Friends on Facebook and in real life are always telling me: You haven’t changed one bit since high school.

Sweet things, all of you, for lying to me. I’ll take any ego-soothing lie I can get these days.

But guess what?  I have changed. No more denial. No more faking it.  It took a few doozies — most of them involving cooking disasters —  for me to stop paddling against the current of reality.

So I gave in. I scheduled an eye exam, figuring the optometrist would tell me what I already knew: I needed reading glasses.

Imagine my shock when he told me I was far-sighted and probably had been for a number of years. I counted back at least three years to when I first started noticing eye problems. Not only were my eyes “a little bit worse than most 40-somethings,” but also my work as a copy editor  had exacerbated the problem. Wearing $20 over-the-counter glasses for the last two years hadn’t helped, either.

I picked up the new lenses on Friday. Little did I know there’s a learning curve. There’s about two weeks of adjustment.

“Be careful on the steps,” the optician advised as I pulled on my coat and grabbed my new frames, case, cleaning kit and paperwork.

Did I look like a klutz to her? Maybe she should be careful on the steps, I muttered under my breath as I stumbled out the door.

Within minutes I knew what she meant: Wearing progressive lenses at first is like navigating the fun house at the county fair. Nothing is as close or far way as it appears.  The floor/ground is all-at-once right under your nose and somehow very far away. The contrast between objects near and far almost feels like a 3-D effect. Vertigo hit me almost instantly as I attempted to walk across the expansive parking lot to my car. I felt myself taking big, stiff lurching footsteps like the Frankenstein monster.

When I arrived home, I was overcome by nausea. I had to rest  for a while to get my sense of balance back.

A few days later I understand that I cannot look down while walking. I need to feel my body moving through my environment using instinct and experience rather than trying to navigate entirely with my eyes. Once I had my sea legs, I started really looking at things. Much has escaped my attention in the last few years: mysterious spatters on the walls, a lacework of fine cracks in our plaster, my Girl from the East’s ears (does no one else in this house clean ears at bath time? I thought I was but apparently my efforts were useless.)

I won’t even go into what a terrible job I’ve been doing on my eyebrows. All I can say is I hope most of my close friends have terrible eyesight, too, otherwise let me just add this: I’m not really so slovenly. I thought I was doing a good job on personal grooming and housework. That counts for something, right?

Now I’m adjusting to a piece of plastic wrapped around half my head.  I thought it would be fun. I’m sure over time I’ll forget they’re on. But now, it feels like I’m in a rocket ship, looking through the cockpit window at space junk hurtling toward me at the speed of light.

I’m working on toning down the zombie shuffle, but I may keep it until Halloween has passed.

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Even scarier than a pack of wild dogs

teens

by Marco Gomes via Creative Commons

I do not like teenagers.

Yes. You read me correctly. I do not like teenagers.

I love my teenager.

The rest of the lot? Take them, please.

To those of you who work with this segment of the population: I admire you. Clearly, you are constructed of tougher material. You are sheet metal. I am onion skin.

Why do I dislike those who dwell in the bizarre world between childhood and adulthood?

  • I live two blocks from a high school. For almost a decade I’ve had to pick up their lunch-hour trash, their abandoned sweaters and shoes and other unidentifiable pieces of junk tossed on my lawn. I have to sweep the cigarette butts flicked onto my walkway and gardens. I’ve bore witness to the manifestations of both adrenaline and hormonal surges. Not since my own youth have I seen such passionate ass-kickings and makeout sessions as those unfolding under our golden locust trees.
  • I live with a teenager. My teen is not so bad. So far, so good. Yet, because she is one of them, I must subject myself to her kind. I am finding ways to avoid this.
  • Being around teenagers is a powerful emotional trigger. It brings forth my own journey from Velvet dolls to the voting booth.  I smoked, ran around with a bad crowd, used drugs, had a shoplifting habit, threw away my grade point average in favor of recklessness, spent a great deal of time in detention, and defied my parents in any way I could think of, including having a serious relationship with the wrong sort of boy. While there were teens who far exceeded my level of rebellion, there were so many more who were paving the way toward bright futures.

The person I hurt the most was myself. My self-loathing and destructive behavior may have appeared to be directed outward, but it was really aimed inward. To all the folks who lived by my high school: Is it too late to issue a blanket apology for my behavior?

Even as a teenager I hated other teenagers. I loathed the relationship drama, the bad driving, the false bravado regarding drinking, drug use, fighting and mortality.

I went to school in an upscale neighborhood. There was a very clear line drawn between the haves sporting their stiff-collared Izod polo shirts and Mercedes Benz convertibles parked on one end of  lot and the stoners in their Led Zeppelin concert T-shirts huddled under a haze of exhaust and illegal smoke at the other end.

I identified with the have-nots. But that doesn’t explain everything. There were plenty of haves who were just as messed up. The reasons were different but the results were the same.  When they threw up, it was expensive liquor on high-quality imported rugs rather than the cheap gut-buster wine on the scuffed linoleum.

You couldn’t pay me to relive those days. Even if you offered me the beautiful skin, the skinny little body and the lightning-quick  metalbolism, I’d rather be blotchy, bloated  and sane than be a teenager again.

So when I found myself surrounded by teenagers the other day, quite by accident, I didn’t react the way many of you might: take it in stride, think nothing of it. I behaved much like a captured jungle explorer would when he finds his fate in a bubbling cook pot stirred by hungry cannibals.

A serious error in judgment  placed me in the vortex of the student parking lot just as the final bell rang. Girl from the West generally takes the bus or I pick her up from a friend’s house later in the day. This day was different: I agreed to pick up my girl and a friend and take them to the mall to shop for homecoming dresses.

Finding yourself in the center of the student parking lot of a huge suburban high school populated by drivers whose licenses still have wet ink on them is probably like regaining consciousness from a blackout and realizing you are on the open range with a herd of cattle bearing down on you .

Within moments, it was a sensory nightmare of  moving figures coming at my car from all sides, swearing, shouting, revving engines, blasting music, thumping bass from subwoofers and squealing tires. I attempted to back out of my parking space and extract myself from the melee.

It was too much to ask them to make eye contact with me, to notice my pleading hand gestures, to respond to my blinking turn signal so that one of them would allow me to enter the stream of traffic. It was too much to hope that the drivers behind me would refrain from their own hand signals, to  lift their palms from the horn for a moment, and realize I wanted out more than they did.

Finally a group of students on foot blocked the flow long enough for me to nose my front end into traffic.

The commotion awakened a sleeping Girl from the East in the back seat, who took in the scene and said: “Momma, they’re being very loud.”

To which I replied: “Don’t ever  grow up, sweet pea. It’s just ugly.”

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The L Word

“So, who are the losers here?” asked Girl from the West.
We were seated on a wooden picnic table decorated with balloons, under a narrow sliver of shade in an otherwise sun-soaked waterfront park. As we nibbled on submarine sandwiches and sipped ice water, we both scanned the crowd of beautiful people gathered for Mr. Husband’s class reunion.
Losers? Here? Why, we’d just learned that one of the group had invented a very popular electronic device owned by nearly everyone in the world. Invented. Translate: rich and famous.
But I felt I had to address Girl from the West’s pointed question.
I thought for a moment as I looked around at all the beautiful people: Each one a success story, with enviable addresses, youthful figures and faces, rows of brilliantly white teeth, gleaming diamond settings, and children gorgeous enough to grace the cover of J. Crew catalogs. Did I mention the clothes? Did I mention that one of them invented something amazing that has turned him into a millionaire?

“The losers? My dear, they are the ones who stayed home,” I replied, stuffing the rest of my sandwich into my mouth to prevent myself from saying more than I should.

You see, I don’t do reunions. I have not attended any of mine. I’ve come close, at the pleading and cajoling of friends and one former boyfriend, but ultimately I’ve chickened out at the last minute, feigning a sore throat or some such ailment.

Class reunions to me are the equivalent of beauty pageants: Strut your stuff and be judged. No, thank you. Reunions have me feeling like Mary Catherine Gallagher: hair and clothes all wrong, prone to awkward hand gestures and explosive high-pitch giggles at inappropriate moments, saying too much and overreacting to everything.
Renunions have me feeling like Mary Catherine Gallagher in a room full of these people:

Conjuring up memories of times like these:

And people like this:

Being the sharp tack that she is, Girl from the West asked the next logical question: “Why didn’t you go to your reunion, mom?”
This is the moment when an entire snack-sized bag of Lay’s potato chips found its way into my mouth.
“Well, partly because none of the people I wanted to see were going,” I said. Knowing this would only beg the next question: “Mom, were you a loser?”
Well, it was bound to come up. No one wants to be called The L Word. Those of us who lived on the fringe prefer to call ourselves rebels or non-conformists or artists.
Girl from the West doesn’t get this stuff. She’s pretty and popular and makes friends wherever she goes. She’s a people magnet. She’ll probably be a reunion organizer some day.
Her mommy dearest, a.k.a. MomZombie, was not like that at all in high school. I was more like Darlene Connor from “Roseanne”:

Some of it was not my fault: We were “from the wrong side of the tracks” according to those who made such designations. I was too moody and brooding. My mom didn’t believe in putting me on the medication that may have resolved that issue.
Some of it was my fault: I was too moody and brooding. I had issues of inadequacy and anger management problems. Rather than conform or try to conform, I just aspired to go as far in the other direction as possible. If Goth were a group when I was in high school, I’d have been Goth.

I conclude to Girl from the West that all we can do is be who we are. Some of us are so lovable we are embraced by hordes of people. Others of us are more of an enigma. It takes time to discover the wonderfulness of us. And maybe we’re pickier about who we share it with. Life isn’t high school and high school isn’t life.

I really believed all that until I discovered the Internet. And blogging.

**sigh**.