Friday, October 8, 2010

The End of the Innocence

One of my classmates did a cool thing the other day: brought a small, flowering branch to our Research and Statistics class. It was from a local bush called Sweet Olive which, he told a couple of us during lunch, blooms during sudden changes in temperature. He said the smell, more intensely than any other sensory data, brings back a childhood of happy time spent outside. That reminded me of Proust’s madeleine—the capacity of scent (and for me, music) not just to evoke, but almost to conjure or reinstate the past. This is why I could never really get into Buddhism; because I find the past to be one of the best things in life. Why try to detach from it? Why not just wallow in it?

I remember returning from class one gloomy October day during my sophomore year of college to find my suitemate, Dawn, sitting alone in the dark, listening to music and weeping. I hope it doesn’t ruin this if I say, the music might have been Journey. I must have attempted to console her; she tried to explain to me that one day, I would understand and even welcome the pleasures of melancholy. I think I may have since taken her message a little too far. She also suggested that I would not always feel the need to hide my long brown hair under a hat—which I did for roughly 3 years of college, either a baseball cap or the soft, velvety winter hat given to me by my grandmother, the queen of hats. She was right about that, too. I probably could have learned more from her; but in her wisdom she soon transferred from Colgate to a much more liberal school in Massachusetts, where people probably understood such things automatically.

Anyway, in the car this morning on the way home from Sara’s daycare—where, when I lingered too long, my child ordered me to “leave, mom!” in a tone that made me flash ahead to her teen years—I heard a Don Henley song on the radio that catapulted me back. I somehow drove home but I was not really aware of my current surroundings. Instead, I was in the summer of 1994 when the man I was in love with (my first requited love, which is a powerful thing) had made me a mix-tape—to take the sting out of the fact that he was spending the summer after our Freshman year strolling around Princeton with his long-term girlfriend, and I was spending it working at Drug Fair and DJ’s Fast Pizza, as well as cleaning the 4 litter boxes in my parents’ basement. (I remember counting down—only 64 more litter boxes before I go back to school...) On lunch breaks from Drug Fair, I sat on the bleachers behind the middle school with my Walkman and listened to the tape, which had on it Henley’s “The End of the Innocence”; “Nights in White Satin” ('Cos I love you, yes I love you, oh how I love you); Simon and Garfunkel’s suicide-inducing “Scarborough Fair”; and the REM song with the refrain I’m SOORREEE… Oh, the drama. I sat out there crying, my headphones sealing me into a private world in which I was the star—not a minor player relegated to ringing up people’s cigarette purchases or sneezing over cat litter boxes. The songs he gave me, while they did not help me to stop imagining him in bed with her, did help restore me to myself, and that was quite a gift.

Hearing that song today, I felt some tears for him (who I am still in touch with, of course, on Facebook); tears I had thought, 16 or so years ago, would never stop. But they did. And that is the real “end of the innocence”: to become aware that it all passes; a well that seemed inexhaustible goes dry. I used to think love meant marriage and a future. Now I know that if love comes into my life, I can’t assume I know what it means. I should just be thankful for its fleeting presence and the enduring sensory traces it leaves behind, the being happy inside the being sad.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Life as a pair of pants

My friend Elizabeth told me about a study showing that things which annoy you on a daily basis can cause more mental harm, over time, than larger events such as divorce or job loss. The researchers’ finding was that if a minor annoyance—the broken fridge door, the tree in the yard that blocks light and generates a litter of needles, the paint flaking off the ceiling—is not dealt with, it spreads like a stain, causing mental anguish and slow physical decline. Well, for the past five years, my pants won’t stay up. Maybe this explains…a lot about my recent life.

Let me start at the beginning, during the time when my pants sat cozily at my expanding waist: marriage. Living in small-town Alabama with no access to decent restaurants, my spouse and I cooked pasta, filled our recycling bin with wine bottles, and ate cheese. A lot. I gained 15 pounds, he gained 20, and I hadn’t got the memo telling women that to be fashionable, jeans were now supposed to reveal the butterfly tattoo flowing out of their ass crack. Not only did my jeans button way high up, they were baggy, tenting out around the crotch like those worn on the Northeastern college campuses of my early-1990s youth. I think the intent of this style was to redirect attention from the butt toward the brain, as this was the hopeful early-Clinton era, when egalitarian relationships seemed possible. (Remember?) At any rate, I had no idea that the winds had shifted…until my separation from my husband when, sooner than I’d imagined, I began dating. As well as dropping the 15 pounds from stress and a cross-country move. When I went to the local mall to find some new clothes for my new, uncharted life, I found a curious dichotomy. There were hideous, “sensible” garments meant for folks in my age-range (I was 30), who were clearly perceived as spending all their time in a corporate office or on a golf course—or boat. Alternately, there was Juniors: clothes designed to make teens look like hookers. I didn’t want to appear 53 at 30, so I chose hooker-wear (I chose…the microwave!), and my lower back has been chilly ever since.

As the weather in my Northern town cooled and my pants sexily offered sparse cover, I began dating a 25-year-old—who later became the father of my child, but that’s another story. He told me that in his college classes he often noticed girls, as they rose from their chairs or walked around campus, spastically yanking their pants up in attempt to recapture parts of their lower back/ass that were poofing out. I don’t think he perceived this as flattering. So if this style disaster has been an attempt to please heterosexual men, one might question its success.

When I “became pregnant” a year later, I settled in for 9 months of pants misery. Anyone who has ever enjoyed maternity wear, and the changes of pregnancy, knows what I mean: at a certain point the pants either retreated in horror as they were forced toward my thighs, or, after seeming to fit, loosened and slid toward my enlarged feet. In the last trimester I often felt that I would give my kingdom for a pair of jeans with a zipper . But my post-pregnant era has provided scant relief for the overriding (low-riding) problem of pants designed to punish the fact that most of us, unlike prepubescent girls, have got “back,” and fill our stomachs with good food occasionally. OK, there’s also vanity. I could buy the golfing/ yachting/ office pants and have done with this. But I want to appear as if I have a sexual pulse, which has meant, among other things, never working in an office. I also have a generously-proportioned ass that requires restraint or containment, so baggier or high-waisted pants make it look HUGE. And I don’t have the budget to acquire whatever new styles are available to rich people, which may have moved on from the plumber-crack trend: I’m stuck in thrift stores where the jeans are from at least 5 years ago.

I wrote this because all morning—dropping my kid off at daycare; purchasing an iced coffee; crawling back into bed to stay warm, since New Orleans’ temperature has, in two days, just dropped from 89 to 59 (hi, Fall!)—I’ve been yanking and pulling at the little lip of denim inching down my post-brie-consumption hips…and realizing I don’t have a single pair of pants that gracefully accommodates this ever changing, feast-or-famine portion of the figure which is like a barometer of one’s moods and stance toward life.