Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Life in an Elevator

It's funny how people react when they find out what I do. A couple of weeks ago the very nice young man from Enterprise came to pick me up at the office, to take me to pick up my rental car. It was a pleasant ride down Veterans, with minimal traffic, and he seemed eager to fill the potentially awkward spaces with chatter about his life--the long hours demanded by his employer, his dream of becoming a manager, how he hoped the forecasted thunderstorms wouldn't ruin his weekly touch football game. And then:

"So that was your office, huh?"

"Yep." I tried not to sound depressed.

"What do you do there?"

"I work for Jewish Family Service."

"Uh huh." He nodded enthusiastically, which I took to mean he had no idea to what entity I was referring. "I'm a clinical social worker," I added.

"Oh! That's great." He seemed relieved. "So you help people get jobs, or what? You help people with the Road Home program?"

"Actually," I said, "I'm a therapist."

"Oh," he said, looking confused again, "you mean like a physical therapist?"

"A counselor," I said. "A psychotherapist."

"Ahhh," he said. "Oh. Okay."

We rode the rest of the way in silence. I had succeeded in scaring the living crap out of this poor guy.

Contrast that with the conversation I had with the very nice young man who drove me back to the office the following week, after I had returned the rental car.

"So, where we going?" He thumped the steering wheel to an imaginary beat. I gave him directions. "And what do you do there, if I may ask?"

Recalling my experience with his co-worker, I decided to cut to the chase.

"I'm a therapist," I said. "You know, like a counselor."

He turned in his seat to face me. "You're kidding." I raised my eyebrows. "I think that is so awesome. I've been needing to talk to one of you guys."

You can imagine the rest, I guess.

There is a man who works on my floor, a tall man in his fifties, with a pock-marked face and a Chalmette accent. He is so nice, one of those cheerful people who make me feel like an alien, make me wonder what exactly is wrong with me that I cannot seem to muster the same enthusiasm under the terrible lights of our common hallway. I'm not sure what company he works for, but he always seems jolly, more than happy to be there. We often share the elevator on our way into or out of the building, and yesterday afternoon we got to talking.

"You work for the Jewish Community Center, dontcha?" This is a common mistake, and I let it go, like I always do. "I've never been in there, myself."

I smiled. What could I say?

"And what do you do there?"

"I'm a clinical social worker."

"A-ha." He grinned at the woman standing next to him. "I have no idea what that is."

"I'm a counselor." (My spiel is getting shorter by the day.)

His face changed then, quite suddenly: the ever-present grin dropped away, his brows furrowed, he became...what?...grim. And he told me his story, which was not over by the time we reached the bottom, but the kind woman riding with us held the door open and waited, quietly.

He lives in a FEMA trailer in Arabi--he comes from Arabi, all his life. He's still in the trailer, he's the only one for as far as he can see, but he's not moving, he's going to stay in the trailer until his house is finished, neighbors be damned. "I guess I should talk to someone about it," he said, "but I guess I don't know what I would talk about." I didn't know how to respond to that. How do you respond to that?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

22 Months

This morning Sydney's teacher, Ms. Gwen, pointed us to the classroom across the hall--the two-year-olds' room. As of the end of next week, this will be Syd's new classroom. The munchkin seemed happy: she prefers the big kids, and when we walked in they all had their shoes off, which scored major points. She didn't even throw a passing glance my way as I left, being completely enthralled by the plastic cash register she'd spotted on a low shelf on the opposite side of the room.

This is going to be piece of cake. For one of us.

Monday, July 23, 2007

This is the part where you tell me to get over it...

I mean, it's just a book, right?

Cade took Sydney on Saturday morning, while I was teaching a piano lesson, to Maple Street Children's Bookshop to pick up our reserved copy. We'd made a deal: he could read it first if he promised, swore on the graves of every person who'd ever loved him, that he would not give an iota of precious information away. No gasping, no muttered reactions, no eyebrows raised meaningfully on the way to the bathroom--nothing. And so far, so good: he finished the book on Saturday night and has yet to say a word about the fate of Harry and his friends and enemies. As of this morning, I'm about halfway through.

You know, I'd be a lot less anxious if the title were a little different. Oh, I dunno, maybe something like 'Harry Potter and the Really, Really Happy Ending.' Or 'Harry Potter is Totally Going to Kick Voldemort's Ass.' Or even 'Harry Potter is Not Going to Die, I Swear,' or something like that. Anything but the 'Deathly Hallows.' I mean, is she trying to induce a full-blown panic attack, or what?

Thursday, July 12, 2007


"Life can be painful if you do it right. Anyone brave enough to love another person, anyone who loves enough to take onto herself another person's pain and fear, anyone compassionate enough to feel the pain of all that is wrong with our world, learns how challenging life can be. Sometimes the heart that opens itself to love becomes so overwhelmed with the feelings to which it has made itself vulnerable that it breaks."

--Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Too Fine a Point

I found this article a few months ago, after Google-ing (and what is the verb usage here? drop the e, or not?) something like "feminism motherhood." I didn't make it all the way through on my first pass, as anger and disgust repelled me from my desk. I remember tossing wet baby clothes into the dryer with unnecessary force, stewing over Hirshman's assertion that "elite" women's (oh, yuck, yuck, yuck) decisions to stay home with their children instead of pursuing high-powered (read: high-paying) careers amounts to a "loss of hope for the future," and her re-iteration of the old feminist assertion that housework and toilet training are tasks fit only for animals. I mean, shit--I would hate to be her housekeeper! I stewed and stomped around the house and only later contemplated the irony inherent in the fact that I had been engaged in housework for the duration of my private rant. Hmmm.

So I read the article again, and this time I finished it. Still, it didn't sit well, particularly the part where the author advises young women to "marry down." I get her point, I think--fight fire with fire, do what men have done for centuries, hook up with someone you know will support your lifestyle--but I find the prospect repulsive. But then, I find most decisions made pragmatically to be, at best, a tad mystifying, and at worst, more than a tad repulsive, so maybe its just me. Which brings me to my next point.

So this is the real deal: I sometimes wonder if I am, on a fundamental level, a fighter. I have always been billed as such--as someone who pushes herself harder than she should, who expects a lot from herself and from others, who doesn't take the easy way out of difficult situations. I'm not sure now that I've really earned this reputation--a point which is easy to illustrate in light of my current struggle. Comments made after my last post really made me stop and consider what I bring to this current dilemma. It would be easy, and it is surely tempting, to blame society for my misery, to pin my anger and frustration on the legacy left by the feminist movement, to blame my husband (and his parents and their parents and so on) for leaving me to do the bulk of the housework, but none of that seems to hit the bulls-eye. While these struggles are real, and important, and totally pertinent to my current situation, the larger, looming truth is more personal, and far more painful. I can fairly easily give the proverbial finger to a boss who punishes me for having a family, but admitting my own insecurities, what I perceive to be my own frailties, is far more difficult.

Hirshman reports that

a common thread among the women I interviewed was a self-important idealism about the kinds of intellectual, prestigious, socially meaningful, politics-free jobs worth their
incalculably valuable presence. So the second rule is that women must treat the first few years after college as an opportunity to lose their capitalism virginity and prepare for good work, which they will then treat seriously.

Okay, I find this too repulsive, and I guess that just puts me in a category with the rest of the women she describes: a self-important idealist. But maybe she's right; I've always felt ill-equipped for the corporate work world. The silly hours, the busywork, the terrible lighting--they call this evolution, civilization? It has never made sense to me. I just can't figure out whether this is a perfectly acceptable and essentially intractable facet of my personality or something that is fundamentally wrong with me. I know what a therapist would say about that, but therapists are sometimes full of shit.

I find this quote so painful--so painfully true--that I take it out and read it only occasionally. It is just so incredibly sad.

A man should have the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world.
-John Keats

Friday, July 6, 2007

A Daring Adventure

Last night, on my way out of the parking lot after a 10-hour day in a sucky office, I smashed my car door against a concrete pole. Neither my current state of mind nor the bleary-eyed stupor induced by a day of flouresent lighting and emotional tirades can excuse this sort of stupidity. I mean, I simply forgot the pole was there, and instead of backing straight out I turned the wheel and caused myself a nice little cruncher.

I got home to a feverish baby, who awoke this morning with an even higher fever and some stomach issues. Poor baby. Cade's at home with her today, as I'm pretty sure I would be frowned upon for taking the day off at this point, and here I sit, waiting on my next client, cloaked in misery and self-recrimination.

Right now I'm pissed at the Women's Lib-bers. Right now it would be nice to to know exactly what my role in life should be, where my time and energy should be focused. I think I know the answer, but the part of me that values my independence rails against this knowledge. I have always worked. I cannot imagine not working.

But is it really possible to be a mother and an employee? Especially in the line of work I currently love?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Lying In It

I've never understood that old saying, the one that starts with You made your bed...but that's the phrase that keeps running through my head these days, over and over, like a soundtrack in a foreign language: You made your bed--now lie in it.

What I have made, truly, is a big old mess. I have somehow landed myself smack in the middle of an episode of The Office, except that my new boss is both competent and productive. So what's the problem?

Where shall I begin?

The flourescent lights, for one. They make my head hurt. The eerie, buzzing quiet. The recycled air on the 6th floor of a Metairie high-rise. The parking garage. The quota. The fact that, despite the fairly frank conditions I set forth in the interview, I am expected to stay until 5 p.m. or later every single day. This last one alone is enough evidence of my dilemma.

And so I find myself in an awkward position. I love the work, I love my clients (appropriately), I really love being a clinical social worker. But this is bad, so bad, and I don't know how to extricate myself. I have spent the last 3 weeks in a state of near-perpetual agony, wondering what in the hell I was thinking, why did I do it, how can I get it back, why am I crying again, am I really going to do this in front of the gas station attendant? Again?

It's funny: when a big crisis hits, I'm cool as a cucumber (see Hurricane Katrina, 2005). But when faced with a crisis of personal meaning, I'm all over the place. I'm a total mess.

I've found that in times like these I start to notice everything--I become hyper-alert, my senses primed for incoming stimuli. Maybe it's that survival instinct kicking in, searching for new information to counteract the old. Whatever the reason, I happened to be sitting in an office the other day, trying not to cry, when I noticed a small scrap of paper in a frame on the wall. The paper contained a quote attributed to Helen Keller:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

Leave it to someone with real problems to make mine seem pretty inconsequential.