Monthly Archives: January 2017

How Do You Get to Know Your Parents?

I’m reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake right now, and it’s affecting me on a very personal level. I know I should wait to find out how this plot gets resolved before I discuss the novel as a whole, but this isn’t a book review. This is more like a dialectical journal, running thoughts I’ve had since little Gogol Ganguli grew up and the point of view stopped being from his parents’ perspective. Here’s how it goes so far:

This nineteen year-old girl in Calcutta marries a fellow Bengali a week or two after their parents introduce them. Her betrothed is studying in the U.S., and so that’s where he takes her after the wedding. The novel begins with this girl, Ashima, trying to make a recipe that reminds her of home using only ingredients that she can scrounge up around their Boston neighborhood in the late ‘60s—I remember Rice Krispies and some other unlikely candidates in the mix. She is disappointed with the flavor. Something is missing. Then her water breaks.

We spend a few intimate chapters inside the relationship of this husband and wife, chronicling the birth of Gogol, their daily lives, their move from an apartment to a house, and the growth of a network of friends, all Bengalis, around the Boston area. Ashima and Ashoke can only afford biannual trips back to India, so occasionally their American lives are interrupted with a tragic phone call—the news of a grandparent’s death, then a parent’s death. The phone becomes symbolic of their alienation.

Then Gogol, their oldest child, grows up. He moves away. He does stuff that college kids do. He finds work, falls in love with girls who aren’t Indian, and he lives an American life. Consequently, he lives two lives, one in which he is Indian, one American. Sometimes, especially around his girlfriends, he’s embarrassed by his parents, ashamed of their beliefs and their habits. Lahiri spends several chapters in Gogol’s head as he compares how his girlfriend’s Manhattan family lives and entertains with how his Boston parents live and entertain. So far, he sides with a lifestyle in complete opposition to the one in which he was raised.

He’s conflicted in a way that I will never be. My parents and I were born in the same area of the U.S. We were brought up with vaguely similar belief systems, food, and cultural norms. But we do have our generational and regional divides—especially now—and they’re big enough for me, big enough that I can relate to Gogol’s (and Ashima’s) conflict. There’s stuff about his parents that he doesn’t understand, and rightly so because they don’t tell him everything. But some things just can’t get told. For instance, there’s no way that Gogol will ever tap into his mother’s emotions on that day in 1968 when she tried to replicate a familiar Indian recipe, the day her water broke. Even if Gogol cared, even if Ashima were capable of verbalizing her feelings on that day, what mother in any culture will share such intimate details with her grown son? In many ways, Gogul will never know Ashima, his mother.

What I’m waiting for as I read this novel is not for Gogol to know his parents but for Gogol to want to know his parents. I think it’s coming. I at least think he’ll want to know his father. But right now, at my stage in the reading, Gogol thinks he already knows them, and there’s the grown child’s biggest mistake.

This recent election and the ideological divides that it revealed between some parents and their children has slowed down one of my most important tasks as a grown woman to date—to find out who my parents are, or at least to find out a few key details about them as people that they wish I knew. Doesn’t have to be everything, just has to be what they want. I don’t want to assume anymore, like Gogol assumes. Assuming we know who our parents are is an arrogant luxury reserved for the arrogant twenty and thirty-somethings.

I am 45, and I want to know my parents, but I don’t know how.   How do I tap into those snapshots of my parents’ early lives—decisions they made that they might have thought at the time were temporary, ideas they had about what marriage should be and what the future looked like and what they expected of their children? I don’t know. I can only guess, and like Gogol, my assumptions are probably wrong.

To Burn Out or to Fade Away–I’ll Take Fade.

For most of my life, I assumed that everyone else in the world considered suicide in varying frequencies or degrees. I didn’t know why professionals made such a big, stinking deal over the mention of it, I just learned very early NOT to mention it around certain people and to outright lie to others: Have I had any thoughts of suicide? Nope. Not a one. What do I look like? A crazy person? A weak person? Meanwhile, I would wake up in the morning wondering what it would feel like to jump off a tall building or put a bullet in my head. Quick and efficient stuff I’d think about. None of this slow bleeding in the bathtub nonsense, hoping someone might run in and save me. I always knew that if I actually did it, I’d do it right. I’d do it to get it done. For most of my life I drifted in and out of these fantasies. I could come up with a hundred reasons to hate myself in the course of a day.

It wasn’t until I met my friend Fluoxetine, at the age of 42, that I learned otherwise. Fluoxetine, and the man who prescribes it to me, taught me all kinds of things about how other people can see the world. For instance, some people NEVER think of suicide. Not just once a day or once a month, but NEVER once. These are probably the people who freak out when they hear you mention suicide as casually as if you’re talking about flossing your teeth. They probably feel sorry for people like me who see no other way to see the world. Hell, I guess I would feel sorry for me, too. But I didn’t know anything different. My doctor said freedom from that world, the only one I’d ever known, would feel like a weight being lifted. When my surroundings became more than a fluctuating shade of drab, I would wonder how I could have lived for so long the way I did.

I was skeptical, of course. I’m always skeptical of the therapy trade. But this dude was more than a therapist; he was a doctor who could make a precise diagnosis. He was a man who didn’t pity me or fear for me or for my condition because he knew it was treatable. No drama. No endless talk therapy.

I was one of the lucky ones who reacted positively to the antidepressant right from the start. I remember so clearly driving to the grocery store, exuberantly singing along to whatever came on the radio, and giggling at nothing. I remember walking through the aisles of the store, trembling a little because I just wanted to FUCKING DANCE! That first day was like a pure coke high without the bleeding nose. My doctor said it shouldn’t have happened so quickly, that my body needed time to adjust to it. But I tell you, it happened. I actually wanted to dance in a public place, and I don’t dance, anywhere. It was a sign.

So what’s my point? I guess it’s this: in all those forty-two years, during those times when bleakness would interrupt my thoughts at random and make the whole world seem absurd, I never did it, never acted on the dark fantasy. I seem to have a strong survival instinct. I found ways to adapt to whatever it was, just like I need to find ways to adapt to whatever this is that’s happening now in the world. I need to adjust my perspective, to compensate, maybe to up my dose. I’m considering going full-throttle into hippiedom and embracing peace, learning how to play the guitar, maybe go vegan, never step on a bug. I’m tired of conflict. I’m so damned good it, so good at starting fires and stoking them, but I always get burned.

The Facebook Dilemma

5df6bdfae83c2009884fea46f785bd4f“…la lala lala lala… Should I stay, or should I go now?   La lala lala lala…

If I go there will be trouble (la lala lala la), and if I stay it will be double. La lala lala lala…”

I’m talking about FACEBOOK, that social media site that’s causing intellectual cancer in the 40-and-over community. “It’s for old people,” say the five children I vacationed with over inauguration weekend. And it’s officially ruined the dignity of us old folks by revealing our thought processes. My dilemma today is figuring out which generation I belong to—do I belong to the really old one who abuses social media or to the moderately old one who wonders if she abuses social media?

I heard a stat recently that 50% of Facebook users get all their news from Facebook. Should I be surprised, shocked that the generation that bemoans online culture is as corrupted as our youth?

Not really, cuz here’s what I’ve learned in recent months about the older generation (including myself)—it’s the same as any other. Each generation is populated with its critical thinkers and its mouth-breathers, its diplomats and its reactionaries, its educated and its uneducated. The old farts who bloviate about the indignities of Madonna and memorize political memes simply fancy themselves to be on a higher level than the kids around them, because they’ve “lived,” because they’ve “seen” things, because they “read.” Well, I’ll tell you what—you can spend six or seven decades alive on this earth without acquiring any new wisdom if that’s how you choose to live it. I’m quite certain that many of my own family members have “lived” in this manner—unyielding, loyal to fossilized ideas and suspicious of the ideas of people standing in front of them. They make fun of me for changing up my viewpoint from time-to-time, see that as a weakness. I haven’t considered my ability to think and change to be a flaw since I first read Emerson:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” 

My father makes the same comments about spending and liberals and welfare that he made in the Reagan days.  My mother refuses to acknowledge new ideas as such, and falls back on simply shutting out thought altogether. And my brother, well, we’ve discussed my brother. They all have their own Facebook communities.  What’s interesting about these three and their Facebook companions is that they claim to be the leading critics of the media that feeds them. My father will only change his mind if the idea is sanctioned by his media source (Fox). The man who lived through the Cold War is now ready to jump into bed with Putin. Maybe my mother learned about Anne Frank in school, but that doesn’t stop her from advocating that we label the Muslims living and working among us. Their media is as poisonous as they claim others to be.

So my thought right now is that I just want to leave one corrupt media source–Facebook–, to avoid the temptation to get my hands dirtier and my dignity crushed. I could leave this weeping, ranting, raging, cyber fray and learn instead to talk to my family. I have never asked the right questions, never asked my mother, for instance, why—before the Republican Party took up the pro-life platform—she once angrily ranted about “those pro-lifers,” but now she has become one. I never asked her what annoyed her then about the movement that doesn’t annoy her now.

I have plenty of friends in my exact age bracket who ignore social media, who are suspicious of it and always will remain so. I respect them. I might not know what they are doing every minute of their days, but before Facebook and MySpace, nobody knew that anyway.

So do I leave it? In doing so, I’ll lose my only contact with people I like, I’ll lose eight years of uploaded photos. I’ll lose those “hey, here’s what you were doing three years ago today” posts. But I might learn how to be a better thinker, better communicator. Should I stay or should I go?

“Will Never Do”s

I didn’t post much in 2016, something I vaguely attributed to being drunk much of the time, but I wasn’t drunk for the entire year. I spent some time early in the year training for the AVON 39, a 39-mile charity walk that—due to poor planning, I believe—turned into a 43-mile walk. It was gratifying, and I’d do the walk again if I didn’t have to raise the $1800 required of me to participate. I’d experienced extreme physical tests in my life, but never that extreme.

By the end of Day 1, after crossing that 26.2 mile mark, which was arguably a 29 or more mile mark, I was too exhausted to eat or shower or even move. I hunkered in my pink tent, waiting for a tentmate that never showed, and considered calling an Uber to take me home. The only thing that stopped me from walking to an Uber was the thought of the pain of walking to the Uber. So I just lay there on my unopened sleeping bag until I felt energetic enough to walk over to the “relaxation” tent with the inflatable couches and the warm lighting. After some hot tea, I could eat. After that, I could sleep. I got up in the rain the next morning, dismantled my tent, threw on a plastic poncho and trudged the last arguably 13, though more like 14 and some change, miles back to home base, and I was done with that milestone.

After walking arguably 43 miles in two days, I briefly considered training for a marathon until my father told me in so many words that I was nuts for considering it. He was tactful by never admitting that age was an obstacle. Like me, he had started distance running in his thirties; but unlike me, he had run the marathon before he developed issues with his knees, something that appears to emerge on both sides of my family.

“You can do it,” he explained, “but it’ll take a permanent toll on your knees, and then what’s the point?”

After the marathon, there would be no point, I suppose. I’d have issues with both knees, and I’d be years closer to replacement surgery than my father had been. No point to do it, I suppose, except that I hate closing doors on possibilities. I’ll never be able to stick a 26.2 sticker on my rear window. Boohm.

You know what else I’ll never be able to do? Lots. Here is the list of as many as I could remember in the thirty-eight seconds I gave myself to remember and write them down (NOT necessarily in chronological order):

  • I’ll never be a foot model.
  • I’ll never be Miss America.
  • I’ll never be the President.
  • I’ll never work in Turkey.
  • I’ll never be a high-class prostitute.
  • I’ll never be a mother.
  • I’ll never be a lawyer.
  • I’ll never run a marathon.

I’m sure there were more, but those are the ones I remember as clearly as my conversation with my father about not running a marathon. There are just times in your life when you admit to yourself that something isn’t going to happen. I assume we all do this, and by “we all” I mean people over forty. For you I can’t explain why I considered that I’d never be a high-class prostitute, but I will put it on the list.

And, you know what? My list of dead possibilities is SHORT! I haven’t been wasting my time entirely here on this earth, and life’s adventure ISN’T over. There are so many possibilities left to us at our age, and we’re in a position to pursue any one of them.  The position isn’t financial or familial, it’s primal—We see the end. We grasp the moment. We shit, or we get off the pot. We live, or we die.

2017, Meh.

2017, Meh.

That about describes it—“meh.” It’s more than just a word. It’s how I felt ringing in a new year that I didn’t look forward to. Everyone around me was saying, “2016 just needs to be over! 2016 sucked!” I don’t feel that way. So yeah, in 2016, the historical pendulum swung into outer space and a contentious president was elected. Sure, in 2016, a few childhood icons died. Regardless, 2016 was my peak. It was one big party that I didn’t document. I welcomed it at the craziest one I ever attended—the party that made my husband and I say to each other in the wee hours of January 1, 2016, “This will be our year.”

So fast forward to now. What did we say to each other this year?

“I am going to control my road rage,” he mumbled in the wee hour of January 1, 2017. He must’ve dug deep into the pits of avoidance to come up with that one. I didn’t even bother: I couldn’t think of anything except all the ones I broke last year. My husband brought up one of our shared resolutions, and then I wondered, “Maybe I have peaked. Maybe this year that I am tossing out right now was my last good year.”

And that was that. Happy New Year! My mother-in-law gave us blue sparkly top hats and noisemakers that I tried to hide from the kids. Shortly after the ball came down (which, incidentally, only about 1/3 of us actually saw—the ball drop has cheapened since Dick Clark), we all went to bed.