On Settling, and On Moving On

Update 2/20/08: I forgot to point out that, once again, this post is all the Hermits’ fault.
In 2003 and 2004 I was 27 and 28 years old and living in suburban Chicago. I was mostly unemployed; I was thoroughly directionless; and I was defensive, bitter, and not very happy.

Because I had a lot of time on my hands and high speed wireless internet and a laptop (the same one I’m typing this on now, actually), I read a lot of things online, including just about every article in the Life section of Salon.com. A lot of them bore a strong resemblance to Lori Gottlieb’s argument for settling for Mr. Good Enough instead of holding out for Mr. Perfect. The people who wrote for Salon were not necessarily giving the same advice that Gottlieb does, but they were writing about the same sorts of things, often from the same place–twenty- and thirty-something professional white woman considers the vicissitudes of romance.

Of course, I was also an upper middle class twenty-something white woman, only I didn’t have a profession, and what I thought when reading those pieces was mostly along the lines of “maybe I should just get married and have kids, because then I would have something to do.”

Having something to do is very much a feature of having children, from what I can tell–in fact, quite frequently parents are unable to do much of anything else–but it’s not a particularly good reason to have children, and so I think it’s just as well that I didn’t meet anyone I wanted to marry and I ended up going to library school and getting a job and fulfilling my dream of living in a small town in the West and traveling and hiking and blogging and other things that are more difficult to fit in if you have kids.

That takes care of the kids part, but what about the marriage part?

I’ve always figured that the chances of my marrying are slim to nonexistent. The marriage track record in my family is not very good–so much so that I once burst out laughing when a therapist suggested that in order to make my own relationships work I look to the successful relationships of close family. members and people I knew grewing up. And although, as Laurie Colwin points out in an essay in one of her books about food, you do not have to be beautiful or talented or even thin to fall in love, that entirely sensible argument is hard to uphold against the romantic comedy paradigm that is so heavily promoted by popular culture.

According to Gottlieb, if I tell you I’m not particularly worried about marriage, I’m either in denial or I’m lying. If I’d said that at 27, I would have been. At 32–when, in the world according to your biological clock, I should be more worried–I’m not.

The world according to your biological clock view promoted by the sort of professional white women who write articles like Gottlieb’s–and there are many, many such articles–is only one view of the world, and, however prevalent it may be, it’s not necessarily the best one.

I suspect that Gottlieb is right that your chances of finding Mr. Absolutely Right are pretty slim. The reality she doesn’t acknowledge, however, is that you might not find anybody at all–and that that, too, may be all right.

Gone Suburban No. 8

So it seems I am soon to be a tutor, for over-privileged suburban kids, to the tune of $30/hour (except, of course, at one local high school, where the going tutoring rate is $50/hour, which is what my mother used to make at her moonlighting job during her residency–yikes!).

I have various objections to being a tutor, although I’m afraid that the money means that none of them are going to keep me from doing it. My first objection, of course, is that people who live here already have enough priviliges in their life, and they hardly need a Latin tutor to insure that they get better scores on the goddam SAT. (So far as I know, the only reason anyone ever studies Latin is to up her SAT scores. This is not why I studied Latin, but I was an odd duck. I studied Latin because of my dead father. Dead fathers are, of course, another time honored reason for doing things, so perhaps I’m not that odd).

In other news, it seems that I am now married. Three or four times in the past couple of weeks I have either been addressed as “Mrs.,” or asked for my husband’s name or profession. I suppose they think any woman out and about here in the ‘burbs in the middle of the day must be a housewife. (The vet’s office has been the chief culpritl, although I will say that they all love my cat, even when I told them I was a single cat mother). When I was a graduate student, people seemed to assume that I was basically asexual and never dated. Now it seems everyone assumes I’m married. Either way, as I recently said to a friend, I’m not getting any.

Gone Suburban No. 8

Tonight I feel like an ad for something: drinking my brand-name microbrewery beer (but not too micro, mind you–we want it to be recognizable to the American viewer), watching a rerun of The West Wing, playing on my laptop computer. Frightening, I tell you.

It seems that Rob Lowe (not settling for top billing in The West Wing), will now be starring in his own NBC sitcom, about (of all things) a law firm in DC. Yeesh. This is what our lives have come to.

Gone Suburban No. 8

The nice thing about doing the dishes is that it always works.

This may not seem to have anything to do with the suburbs (other, of course, than those many cleaning product commercials featuring the prototype of the soccer mom and her mother), and it doesn’t, except that, what with the number of technological and electronic and mechanical innovations and improvements we’ve been doing around here lately, the dishes, as a chore, seem quite appealing. Better, I would say, than being on hold with the cable company or the DSL provider or the phone company or what have you, or setting up any of the above things (the dual-deck VCR, the DSL, the digital cable, etc.).

Comparatively speaking, you see, I find the dishes almost soothing. Hot water, soap, dishcloth; apply repetitive motion, and there you go.

Then again, I do like the DSL. What is one to do?

Gone Suburban No. 6

In the words (as close as I can recall) of that venerable if short-lived TV series “My So-Called Life:”

People are always asking how school was today. It’s like asking ‘How was that drive-by shooting today?’ You don’t ask how it was; you’re lucky to get out alive.

Today’s Suburban Life announced that area high schools will be instituting new security measures, in the wake of Columbine, 9/11, and funding. (Funding rarely seems to follow quickly in the wake of events–just ask the people who run homeless shelters these days). Schools will now boast off-duty police officers (both uniformed and plainclothes), drug-sniffing dogs, locked doors, lockdowns (in which the whole school is held in place and the drug-sniffing dogs are released), color-coded ID cards that tell what floors a student is entitled to be on at any given time, and, in some cases, metal detectors (some signs left that this is the ‘burbs and not the ghetto, I guess).

Plusses listed in the article: increased security, safety, and control.
Minuses listed in article: cost.

The reporter apparently felt it unnecessary, or unimportant, to consider other possible points of view. Color-coded IDs?!? Telling students they can only be in designated places at designated times, and enforcing this not merely with a few announcements at the start of the semester, but with a digitally-equipped ID-checking system? It sounds like prison, except, of course, that prison is a lot worse.

I was fearful for most of my years in high school. Terrified would be a good description of my primary attitude at school, when not bored out of my mind. But the threats I feared were internal, not external. I was terrified of the attendance office. Because my mother worked for a living (God forbid), she had a tendency to forget to call the attendance office when I had a doctor’s appointment or something. I was (it seemed to me, though in retrospect it was perhaps not that often) continually getting called down to explain my unexcused absences. I was so frightened of this that I would generally come back immediately from any appointment, even if my excused absence lasted several more hours. I was terrified of not having my homework done properly (except in English, where I held a contest freshman year to see who could write his paper closest to the time of class–I beat the boys [hence the “his”] the day I got full credit for an essay I’d written in algebra class, the period before English).

But mostly I was terrified of my fellow students. I was terrified because my freshman year, a girl had been Saran-wrapped naked to a tree by a group of her “friends.” I was terrified because people always seemed to be disappearing, rumor had it to rehab. I was terrified because the president of Students Against Drunk Driving carried a case of beer around in his car, and boasted about it. I was terrified because I was against the Gulf War (the “first” Gulf War) and most people were at least nominally for it, and some of them were virulently for it. I was terrified because grown-ups had so little understanding of the real prevelance of drugs and violence, and because their actions to prevent it, like those of the suburbs here, were so wrong-headed. I was terrified, in short, because I felt I was living in 1984. Students here, it seems, now actually will be.

Gone Suburban No. 5

Today I read in the New York Times magazine (from last year) about the year in ideas (again, that would be last year in ideas–we’re a little out of date in this household) that S-M-L (not to mention XS and XL) as sizes were going out of style. Tailored clothing is the way to go. According to the author of this little blurb, tailored clothing was once considered unAmerican (after all, who has time to get his suit fitted properly when waging a war to protect his precious bodily fluids from Communist infiltration?) But I guess the war on terror requires a more tailored look–guess it must help when hob-nobbing (uh, excuse me, negotiating) with all those oil barons.

Because we’re so behind the times here in the house that the S-M-L revolution forgot, I am only now just getting around to reading the most recent Harry Potter book. In the bit I just read, they’re trying to clean out a house:

Snape might refer to their work as ‘cleaning,’ but in Harry’s opinion they were really waging war on the house, which was putting up a very good fight, aided and abetted by Kreacher. The house-elf ekpt appearing wherever they were congregated, his muttering becoming more and more offensive as he attempted to remove anything he could from the rubbish sacks.

This sounds so exactly like my family’s attempts to deal with this house, in which the majority of my family plays the role of Harry & Co., and my grandmother plays the role of Kreacher. Ostensibly, my purpose here is to create order out of chaos (an honorable occupation, since I have no marketable skills and the economy sucks anyway). In theory, this would mean that vast quantities of things (slides of the Grand Canyon, more slides of the Grand Canyon, and several thousand other slides of similar things; pieces of things that no longer exist or are broken or generally unidentifiable, dusting and ripped garmet bags, business cards from several decades ago, tail ends of wallpaper that is no longer manufactured and no longer in the house, cords missing appliances and small appliances missing cords. . .). In practice, it means that I mostly move these things (after dusting both the thing and the space) from one place to another, under intense supervision. Occasionally, I am able to sneak something into the trash, but there is always the danger that I’ll be asked to retrieve it. Today I managed to throw away some cracked leather shoes (white low-heeled sandals, actually, although they were no longer exactly white) and some broken crayons. I was rather sad about the crayons, as they were old Crayola crayons, with the colors that aren’t made anymore. But one must be ruthless in this business, or one never gets anywhere.

Gone Suburban No. 4

Blogger, the folks who supply the stuff that makes it possible for me to write these things and then have them appear on a website,* have a slogan: “Push-Button Publishing for the People.” It’s a slogan of the sort I’m inclined to like–a ‘zine published in my old home town always said it was “Free for the People.” (To give fair mention, it’s called The Garlic Press. I take no responsiblity for anything they do (or don’t) say).

Of course, judging any enterprise positively because it says it’s “For the People” is undoubtedly a dangerous exercise, but one I think about a fair amount, especially these days.

You see, I don’t know who the People are out here in the ‘burbs. This is one of those places that doesn’t have poor people–or rather, it may, but you don’t see them. Or you do see them, but you don’t recognize them as poor. I just read that 30 million Americans work low-paid jobs–defined as $8.70/hour or less. That works out to around $18,000/year, the poverty line for a family of four. (I made nearly $17,000 in my last year as a graduate teaching assistant and complained of poverty. Those grad students who also have families are legitimately poor, but a lot of us are just whiners). The last staggering statistic in this article (which, if you want to look it up, is called “Four myths, 30 million potential votes,” by Beth Shulman, published in the Alameda Times-Star, August 24, 2003) is that those 30 million low-wage earners represent one out of every four American workers. Yikes.

But you get the picture. Enough for now.

*Addendum on 15 January 2006: These Gone Suburban posts started out on Blogger, and I’ve just now moved them over to my main WordPress blog, much of which is a retro-blog to begin with.

Gone Suburban No. 3

This morning I bought vacuum cleaner bags from the hardware store and summer sausage, eggs, lettuce, apples, tomatoes, and something else I can’t remember from the grocery store, all without laying out a dime. How, you ask?

“Charge it, please!”

The suburbs hardly compare to the Plaza, where Eloise so famously got to order up for room service and “charge it please!” every few pages, but you can actually hold charge accounts around here. It amazes me. At the hardware store, large numbers of my extended family are listed on my grandmother’s charge account. We could all being going wild with spray paint and she’d never even know (until she got the bill, of course). At the little grocery, not only can you charge things, but it’s often very difficult to keep them from carrying your groceries to your car for you. There’s nothing more embarrassing, to my mind, than being young and able bodied and having a gangly teenaged boy carry a bag with croissants and spinach in it the five feet from the door to my car, as if I couldn’t manage it myself. Really, I ought to learn to live it up–training to be a suburban matron, or soccor mom, as they are called these days.

Gone Suburban No. 2

Today I went to Utah. Or rather, my friend thought I had gone to Utah (based on a garbled message) and was surprised when I called her back so quickly. Actually, I went to a meeting of the Illinois Task Force for Utah Wilderness, which sounds a lot like a student organization back when I was in grad school that called itself the Iowa Society for Virginia People. They seemed to be very good at getting money out of the coffers of the student goverment and various other bureaucratic entities at the school, although so far as I know their function was purely social. If you could combine the financial finesse of those Iowa/Viriginia people with the serious cause of these Illinois/Utah people, you really might have something going.

As it was, I spent an hour in a room with a dozen or so octogenerians (plus a few token middle-aged folk) and listened to a somewhat younger man explain the inner workings of RS 2477 and FLPMA 202 and 603 and other arcane bits of environmental legislation. Then he very carefully explained what we all ought to do in order to prevent terrible things from happening. Mostly this involved calling and leaving messages on Congressional voicemail numbers. There was some discussion of the merits of calling vs. e-mailing and faxing vs. letter-writing. Calls and hand-written faxes seemed to carry the day. All in all, it was sort of like a paint-by-numbers kit for activism. In the suburbs, even the impending destruction of wilderness is presented in a soothing fasion, in the rented meeting room of a greenhouse/conservatory.