A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The One Secret Trick...

Based on the ads that clutter the edges of my computer screen, I should be worried about a lot of things.  These include my wardrobe (“The latest in plus-size fashion!”), my finances (“Interest Rates Plummet!”), and my shoes (“Dozens of cute styles!”).  But there is one problem that the Internet Gods feel is even more appalling than my lack of trendy new pumps: the hideous signs of my decrepitude.

I should be stressing out about the dry skin on my feet, the wrinkles on my face, my maternal abdominal fat, and my general overall sagginess.  Scars are a biggie, too.  I should be trying to smooth them.  Erase them.  Photo-shop them.  Something.  Anything!  Indeed, I should be in a state of continual semi-panic about the visible effects of the Sands of Time. 

My proximal reaction is amusement at how poorly the digital universe seems to be tracking me. I’m not terribly prone to tinfoil-helmet-type fears; my thoughts are not valuable enough for anyone to want to steal them.  Still, it makes me snort and giggle to see just how wide of the mark these ads fly.   I’m pretty sure it doesn’t take an MBA to guess that a person who spends her time reading peer-reviewed journal articles, cracking obscure Star Trek jokes, and utilizing an online text-to-hexadecimal translator is probably not in the market for “The Revolutionary Secret That Dermatologists Hate!!!”

Come on, Google and Facebook, can’t you do any better than that? With all my keystrokes at your disposal, you still don’t know me one whit!

Or… do they? 

Oh, I don’t mean that I’m about to get liposuction and dermal abrasion, or start sighing abjectly in front of a mirror. (I can hear my friends snickering.)   Nonetheless, I do sometimes feel a disorienting disconnect with my sense of self.  Is that forty-two-year-old mom really… me? 

I clearly remember the summer day when I had recently reached the exalted age of ten, and my mother divulged that, deep down, she was still a ten-year-old, too.  The idea that my reliable, stolid mom-parent was simultaneously the pigtailed child grinning impishly from black-and-white post-WWII-Britain both comforted and terrified me.  Part of me wanted to cling to the childish idea that she – and all grownups – were omnipotent, omniscient beings who existed in a higher plane than my own.  But at the same time, I was already feeling the complex world of adulthood closing in on me like a pall of dense smoke.   I already knew that I didn’t ever want to lose my essential self. When it came time to navigate that daunting world, I wanted to still be me.  The me I knew. 

I am now the age that my mother was, on that particular day in 1982.

I don’t obsess over vanishing beauty; I never had it to lose, anyhow. At ten, I was not an adorable Shirley Temple; I was a grubby little nail-bitten creature often found somewhere high up in a tree.  At fourteen, I was not a peachy, blossoming young sylph; I was an uncomfortable collection of bony elbows, scraped knees, and miserable uncertainty.  At nineteen, I was not a gorgeously unblemished young lady with perfect curves; I was a doughy lump of acne skulking in a shapeless pair of overalls.  But through those horrifically awkward and sometimes terrifying years, I still believed that I could grow up to do world-changing things.  Cure cancer?  Visit Mars?  End war?  Discover new subatomic particles?  Heck, yes.  I adored logic puzzles, science fiction, running around in the woods, and asking way too many questions.  I liked inventing, and building.  I liked playing.  Playing!

And then Father Time wreaked a quarter-century of collateral damage. 

Facebook wants me to worry about the physical wear-and-tear and the visibly droopy bits, but what about the metaphorical scars and blemishes?  The wrinkling and graying of my perspective and personality?  The cumulative scarring of all of life’s failures and disappointments and disillusionments? Those seem far more difficult to treat with ointment, loofahs, supportive undergarments, or That One Secret Trick Your Doctor Won’t Tell You*. 

A few months back, a friend in his late thirties who is half-heartedly doggy-paddling around the dating pool expressed consternation about the fact that all the women he met had “emotional baggage.” 

My middle-aged cynicism kicked in instantly.  Baggage?  What, just like mine?  Just like yours?

Jay, who has been married to me for a full dozen years now, was about as unsympathetic as I was in the face of our friend’s complaint.  His thoughts on the matter, however, were radically different from mine.   While I inwardly harrumphed that all of us middle-aged farts carry a gray, wrinkly knapsack of past woes, Jay stoutly (and sweetly) maintained, “That’s silly.  Not all women have baggage.  Nancy doesn’t have any baggage at all.”  Yes.  He actually said that out loud.

Oh, Heavens to Betsy.  The assertion alone threw all the dirty laundry in my head into a fast spin cycle, churning up the staple set of humiliating and miserable memories that refuse to fade into obscurity.  I’m sure that hundreds of happy days have blurred together into a polyglot, but the most sparkling examples of my personal idiocy, embarrassment, and loss are as immovable and as obtrusive as pillars of polished marble. 

I should pause here to say that, given that I don’t have Baggage-with-a-capital-B, I have absolutely no ability (and no right whatsoever) to comment upon the agony of extraordinary emotional pain, loss, or paralysis, any more than I have the ability to imagine what it might be like to suffer physical paralysis. Nor do the Facebook ads that plague my screen offer cures for debilitating diseases, severe burns, or past abuse. They focus on the superficial effects of the passage of years: the everyday wear-and-tear and the inevitable scars, not the profound ones.  The ones we all acquire.  With time.

I worry that the impacts of all those small scars have cumulatively, yielded a crop of cynicism, inertia, and stolidness.  I peer in the metaphorical mirror, suspecting myself of giving up adventure for security and reneging on idealism and perfectionism in favor of Just Getting Shit Done.  Do I see just a hint of jadedness around my eyes?  Is my optimism sagging, thus allowing my sarcasm to flop around?  How did I get to be forty-two years old without ever paragliding, publishing a novel, or setting foot in Africa?  Why can’t I watch romantic movies without groaning and rolling my eyes, rather than sighing and tearing up?   At what point did the wrinkles of time inform me that my vote in the next Presidential election probably won’t matter, the Indigo Girls aren’t all that profound, and I’m never going to go to Mars?  My idealism is mottled with stretch-marks, dammit!

Stretch marks.  Yeah.  Okay, fine.  What about them?  The real, physical ones, that is.  Maybe there’s something I can learn from the physical that will inform the metaphysical.  So, okay, what of all the other physical changes and scars? 

I took stock of my scars.  And I found a few stories.

Left knee: don’t slide into first base if you are a second grader playing whiffle-ball in a parking lot. 

Right thigh: don’t go hiking up snowfields with an ice axe that you don’t know how to use. 

Left thigh: if invited by a family of Jamaican farmers to stop by any time before five o’clock, do not arrive five minutes late, after they have set loose their pack of trained German Shepherd guard dogs.  But if you do, pretending you came to play super-fun doggie games will fool five-and-a-half of the six. 

Lower abdomen: removing twelve pounds of tightly wedged twin by C-sections, by Jay’s report, involves a crowbar. 

Left breast: some lumps are benign.  Some days are full of gratitude. 

Arms: if you donate blood enough times – like maybe fifteen gallons or so by now – you’ll eventually have a collection of little needle-marks.  But they’re not junkie-marks, okay?  Okay? 

Face: for gods’ sake, stop picking at the acne!  Also, dusk in moose territory is a bad time to be driving relatively fast on a gravel road – but the doctor and two nurses in Meadow Lake Saskatchewan in the summer of ’99 were a kind, down-to-earth, and deeply generous team with a copious supply of heavy-duty black thread.

What does this all add up to, other than a complex roadmap of scar tissue (private tours -- by invitation only)?  Well, first of all, it shows that modern medicine is nothing to take for granted.  Second, it’s clear that I’ve gotten off pretty darned easily.  Third, it shows that scars tell a complicated story of good and bad luck, good and bad choices, and lessons fairly or unfairly learned.  But I think it offers a few broader hints, as well. 

One of those hints is – I kind of like my scars.  Mythologically speaking, those who try to turn back time do about as well as those who try to stop the tide or fly with wax wings.  But I don’t want to stop time, and more than I want to erase my scars.  My worries have less to do with my neck-veins, my unsightly calluses, and my too-too-solid thighs than with world-traveling still undone, world-saving still unaccomplished, and relative lack of parties at which everyone blasts the music immoderately high and starts taking clothes off – and these desires, I now realize, don’t have to be tied to anyone’s calendar but my own.

Yeah, I’m female, and yeah, I’m middle-aged.  As a result, the Advertising Gods think they have me pegged: “You Won’t Believe Our Miracle Scar-Erasing Crème!”

No, you’re right, I won’t believe. 

But there are things I do believe – and one of them is that I’ll happily ignore you, Facebook Advertiser.  I don’t want your snake-oil goo.  I don’t want your Dorian Gray outlook on life. I don’t want to erase my scars, expunge my past, return to high school, or reclaim all the fears, credulity, insecurities I’ve shed along the way. 

On the other hand, there are things I do want to hang onto.  My optimism is one of them. I want to believe that I can make a difference, that some songs are worth getting stuck in my head, and that sure, I will still travel the world one day with just a backpack on my back.  I want to stay up too late, and run around in the woods, and ask too many questions.  I want to eat s’mores with that once-me ten-year-old.

I’m pretty sure she’s here with me for good.  She’s a bit battered and scarred.  But… that’s okay.  She’s in for the long haul.

*Admittedly, my doctor does seem awfully youthful, but I’m pretty sure she’s not holding out on us.