Tag Archives: essays

The 21 Year Old Divorcee

She was 21 when I met her. She spoke loudly about her name change to our newspaper advisor with no regard for the others in the room. When I asked why, she fed me a line about adoption. That she was divorced came to me through rumors from other people, an explanation for why she got that extra large dorm room all to herself, why she lived on campus year round.

The idea of it – a divorcee close to my age – seemed strange and out of place at  the small college.

Over the next two years, I heard bits and pieces of the story. Most of it came from her. Some of it was gossip about her – how she cheated on him, how he was part of the mob, how wealthy he was.

I was inclined to believe the bad stuff based on how she treated me. She made three threatening phone calls to me in the course of my time there. Disks for the newspaper got “lost.” My name ended up on some appalling things, and at one point I think she started a rumor I was having an affair with a married staff member. When she got in disagreements with that staff member, she would actually scream at me if I didn’t take her side. I recognize now the hallmarks of a narcissistic personality. I never connected her to divorce to her behavior.

My roommate did. “You can’t trust a 21 year old divorcee,” she said after a 4 am phone call from her ended in a broken, collector’s item Mickey Mouse bank.

I didn’t agree that a person’s marital status indicated trustworthiness. But there was definitely something wrong with that particular 21 year old divorcee.

She always finds me in a crowded theater

It always happens in a crowded theater. She comes sometimes with a husband, sometimes without. She is somewhere between 60 and 70; she wears her hair short and tight. Even sitting down, she’s short. I never remember what she’s wearing – summer, winter, it never registers. No matter: the way they decorate their husbands gives much more information about education and economic status.
Exhibit at Central Library

She somehow finds her way to a seat beside me. She always wants to talk. She talks at me, to me, even if I clearly have a date, a companion, a book, an electronic gadget purchased expressly to avoid human interaction. Headphones do not deter her – she finds a good reason to ask me to remove them and thus moves in on my attention at the next opportunity.

The lady of winter finds me at a public reading for a cookbook. Pohlad hall overfills. When I grabbed a seat in the back row, I chose poorly. I find myself standing up constantly to let other ill-prepared women in and out of the aisle.  She asks me how I found out about the event – she just happened upon it in the newspaper. I am on the mailing list. She has rediscovered cooking for home after a career in food for the masses, marketing recipes and writing about them all the time. She fascinates me, as all people with strong careers and hidden passions do.

It comes up that we both write, have had careers as journalists. I mention in passing that I just got a book back from a copy edit. She asks me what it’s about.

Shit. This is not the time or place for that conversation.

I tell her it’s about divorce for those under 30. She had that experience. She asks me what we’re all doing wrong. I say “Unrealistic expectations combined with underdeveloped frontal lobes.”

It is true. My book says something about the first part – I only learned about the second part recently.

The summer lady finds me at a play. Her husband wears tailored slacks, a button down shirt of a light and expensive fabric. He has a nicely trimmed full head of hair, white. She keeps her trophy nicely, but a full head of hair at that age does not bode well for her sex life.

The play, called The Naked I, gives voice to queer and gender fluid experiences. The play is itself is quite fluid.

“I’m conservative,” she says before the show starts. “Are you conservative?”

“Not even remotely,” I tell her.

She recently watched a Fringe Festival show about two women who fell in love, one while married to a man. The story ended badly for everyone. “It just showed how painful that all is,” she said. I didn’t press her. I got the impression that for her, the play confirmed that being gay just couldn’t work – that the straight way was the right way because it wasn’t just the only way that saved pain.

I’m pretty sure that the play meant to send a message about how the rigidity of monogamy, patriarchy and homophobia wound up making three people miserable.

At intermission, she tells me she’s just thrilled with this play. “It just shows so much of the experience!”

I wonder what message is going through what filter. On the one hand, I admire her for exposing herself to something I am assuming she is opposed to. On the other hand, I suspect she is finding confirmation of her “conservative” beliefs in what she sees, despite a pretty loud message that challenges most conservatism – she’s focusing on how life is made miserable for the gender fluid, sees in it the benefit of conformity.

Maybe she’ll remember the joyful bits, too.

I dodge her personal questions. “Conservative” might just be code for straight. I have no problem admitting my heterosexuality, nor my allied status. But conservative, like liberal, is a tricky status to claim. It’s not just about who you accept or don’t – sometimes it’s just about how fast you want to move, how much skin you wish to cover, how much you tell a stranger in a theater about yourself. In some ways, I’m as liberal as you can get while remaining clothed. In other ways, I’m pretty damned conservative.

Those slight, frozen moments, they happen from time to time. I’m uncomfortable coopting the language of “out and proud” when it comes to my spiritual status. I tell those who can handle it. Any person with sufficient Google-fu can find out that I’m Pagan, that I like Doctor Who (but somehow don’t have as much to say about it as other fans), that I adore Julia Cameron, that I’m fat and that someone at some point gave me a camera.

They might find more with greater digging. I’m not really hiding… I’m just not waving a flag.

These women pick me out for some reason. Maybe I look like a character popular during Baby Boomer childhood. Maybe they just see a fat woman and assume she’s lonely. Maybe they think I’ll boost their egos.

Maybe I just look safe.

The American Dream: what does that mean, exactly?

800px-J20_corporate_flag_dcWhen I was working on my undergraduate degree, I got stuck in a speech class with some shiny-eyed young women who were Republican, conservative and were quite proud to carry on every single value their parents taught them without any thought to how it fit into their futures and even less thought as to whether or not those values actually served or improved their parents’ lives.  A popular argument they kept raising was, “It’s the American dream…” These girls believed in the dream. They thought of it as a documented fact. But when asked to elucidate it, the smarter of them got a fuzzy look on her face and stammered out, “If you work hard enough you’ll succeed!”

I didn’t ask if her parents were both hardworking AND successful. I did gather, from comments made in class that her parents were divorced and struggling, and I did get the impression they were very hard working. But it was clear that those girls’ families had not achieved that so-called dream, yet the girs believed in it, had faith in it, like it was their Jesus about to come again.

And here’s what I have to tell you: There never was an American dream. It is a popular illusion, a vague idea about two cars per driveway and a TV per household.

The Library of Congress offers this on the subject: “The term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America which was written in 1931. He states: “The American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

So, according to Truslow, the American dream is nothing more – and nothing less – than equal opportunity. And it is equal opportunity, but there is no promise of equal outcome. Considering that he wrote this during the Great Depression, this is still astonishingly optimistic and amazingly gender inclusive for the time. He wrote this when most North Americans had nothing but the land they’d grabbed.

Without getting into a complex capitalistic argument, I want to say this: quit quoting “the American dream.” First of all, Martin Luther King’s dream was much more interesting and productive. And second of all, I actually believe his dream existed and has real meaning.

I am absolutely loyal to my country, but I don’t think its mythologies are serving anyone particularly well these days. George Washington never did chop that cherry tree, and Abraham Lincoln is the guy who said “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

This is the age where citizens need to start claiming all of their rights and responsibilities far and beyond just voting, rather than snoozing on about an illusory dream.