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Lost & Found

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Are You Ready? - Luscious Jackson (mp3)
Tattoo - Matt Cranstoun (mp3)


Emma (not her real name) was standing in line at Starbucks as I sat reading the latest Atlantic Monthly, an engrossing article about an organism in cats that might well explain why certain people are a little off their rockers. Or I should take advantage of the research pun and say they’re “Cat-Shit Crazy.”

Her beige skinny jeans revealed legs shaped by copious exercise and a love of outdoors. Her hair was streaky-faked blonde. Her stance -- arms crossed at stomach, hips centered over the left leg -- did nothing to harm her attractiveness. She didn’t see me staring at her, and it took me several minutes before I elected to get up and say hello.

One of my clearest teenage memories of Emma was of my knees practically quaking apart as a friend and I waited outside her front door. Emma’s parents lived very close to our school, and we were bored one evening and had heard that her mom welcomed in our kind and usually offered a cookie or two. The combined temptation of cookies with the opportunity to stare (or try not to) at Emma in her very own home was enough that we managed to talk one another into going.

Despite not being remotely attracted to either of us, she sat politely and let us revel in our moment. In hindsight, there was always this Estella-esque coldness to her. Nothing sociopathic or evil; just a little frosty. Some would say “bitch,” but I’m not generally fond of that word unless it’s attached to “sonova,” because I know lots more sons of bitches than actual bitches. Besides, when you’re a clueless and starving teen-nerd, a girl’s coldness can be easily ignored. Just ask Pip.

Several years after I’d returned to my hometown, I wound up in a similar circle with Emma. She was fresh out of college, living with her parents, and moving into the real world. We were never actually friends, and a safe sense of distance remained even as our lives regularly intertwined. But she always seemed... cold? Sad? Despondent? Distracted?

Six years later, she was a divorced mother of one. Her minister husband took a job out of town, and she remained behind, the easiest way to get a divorce in the 21st Century and a method that’s much more common than some might realize.

Because of our concentric circles of friendships and acquaintances (and of course through Facebook), I kept up superficially with the drama of her life. Her love life became strangely soap-operatic, with at least a couple of on-again, off-again lovers and even one episode involving stolen ex-boyfriends, jilted lovers, and mass emails. Something seemed to have awakened inside her, something more sexual, and a bit skankier. But still chilly.

Perhaps a bit... feline...

A couple more years pass, and I see her in Starbucks, and strangely, I can’t help but view her through the lens of fatherhood.

My interpretation is completely speculative, but my theory is that Emma spent her teenage and early adult years attempting desperately to live the life she thought her parents wanted for her. She was never very happy about it. She might have been downright resigned to it, which would certainly explain her coming across as cold or bitchy.

Then, at some point after marriage and motherhood, she realized she could no longer continue in her fake existence, that she was lying to herself and everyone around her. If she’s miserable now -- and she still seems a little sad and cold -- I think it’s more to do with the inability to escape a sense of disappointment, possibly for herself, possibly for her parents.

Maybe I’m totally misguided here, but it seems the ultimate big-picture challenge of a parent is to create a foundation of morals and values where our kids can thrive and survive into adulthood. If we do it right, they can build an amazing life on that foundation. If we do it wrong, they don’t know what to build for themselves and wait for their parents to build it for them. Or, even more frightening, what was supposed to be a foundation instead becomes a cage or some kind of pre-fab double-wide they never can consider their own.

As a parent, I’m still in rough draft theoretical mode, but I don’t think parents are supposed to be architects. We’re supposed to be tour guides, pointing out and highlighting the scenery of an environment we’ve lived in far longer than our children, telling the stories and histories of locations and events. Perhaps most importantly, we are supposed to be there to answer the questions asked and to anticipate the ones left unexpressed.

And, most importantly for the best tour guides, we have to remember that there are no stupid questions, only incompetent tour guides.

I don't mean to damn Emma's parents. The human ecosystem is far too complicated to oversimplify things and lay blame at two people's feet. Mostly I just hope my weaknesses and shortcomings don’t do too much to hold back my children.

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