How to Lose Friends and Ignore People: A Dealer’s Fable

It was 1975, the year Squeaky Fromme attempted to assassinate President Ford. It was a volatile year. Charlie Chaplin got knighted and the Watergate gang was convicted. In local news, a crime wave was hitting the grocery store a block from where I lived. A thief was lurking among Safeway’s aisles – dressed like a seven-year old girl. Sometimes in a Girl Scout uniform.

I prowled the aisles, shifty-eyed and indiscriminate in my larcenous hunger. Some days it was the candy near the checkout lanes, but other days, I’d be emboldened by the surplus gum packs down the aisles. I was a second grade shoplifter.

canstockphoto9650094I didn’t take it for myself. I took it for my friends of the future. Friends who would gather about my locker clamoring “I want one, too!” I gained a reputation. I could hook you up. Sometimes it was Tic-Tacs, other days I got a line on some Bits O’ Honey. Kids talked to me, shot me secret smiles in the hallway. I had what they wanted and they provided what I wanted – the illusion of being liked.

The nobility of poverty is bullshit. As one of the shyest, poorest kids in my grade, my character was in need of self-esteem and cash. I didn’t get the whole “being enough on one’s own”.  I was not a likable child. I was quiet, horribly self-conscious and somber. And then there was The Incident, which triggered my life/week in crime.

canstockphoto0952980Spelling test day. October 1975. Substitute teacher – the mean one. The order was always to push our desks apart for tests. Second graders are well-known for their propensity towards plagiarism and skulduggery. We were scattered about the room and given strict instructions to not speak unless spoken to. If we wanted to be spoken to, we must raise our hands. Up to this point, I followed rules. The letter of the law had no spirit.

I’m a bit of a freaky speller, so I smugly finished the test within minutes. I would have savored my success, tapping my eraser on the desk to let the other students know what canstockphoto2706524dunces they were, had it not been for the milk at lunch. I’d held out through recess. I’d held out through reading time. It was time. I raised my hand to go to the bathroom. The teacher wasn’t looking. I raised my hand a little higher, starting to shift in my seat. She kept her back to me. The rule was not to speak. I did not speak. I did, however, pee. And still, I remained silent.

We pushed our desks back together. At seven, child development experts say that children have reached the Age of Reason, when intellectual capacities are more developed, as is the ability to lie. I reasoned that since I was no longer in the same locale, my secret would remain undiscovered, but I had not yet honed my lying skills.

“Who did this?” The teacher shot red angry beams from her eyes. Sparks snapped and crackled off her fingertips. Her hair stood on end and the vein in her neck throbbed. Well, I was seven. She looked scary. She pointed to the large yellow puddle in the middle of the floor.

I raised my hand slowly and her fiery glare zeroed in on me.

Oh – NOW you see my hand, lady?!

canstockphoto12906996I was marched down to the nurse’s office where I was changed into clown clothes or whatever was in the lost and found that day. Do not ask about the underwear. I try not to think about it.

That was the day I turned towards the darkness. A day of singular humiliation. Until a week later, when Martin peed his pants and got sent to the nurse’s office, after which he wore what looked like girl’s bell bottoms all day long. But it was too late by then. I had ground to regain. I had gum to steal.

There should be a moral to this story. I didn’t get caught. I didn’t find a true friend who was uninterested in a sugar high. The store owner didn’t befriend my little bedraggled self. I got tired of being afraid. I wasn’t getting an adrenaline high from the steal, I was getting a rumbling, burbling stomach. Likely the Bit O’ Honey didn’t help (always test your own goods).

Getting tired of being afraid. It’s sometimes as simple and selfish as that. I got tired over the years of dealing with friends who I didn’t really trust. I got tired of worrying about whether or not people thought I was good or smart or kind or friendly enough. I got tired of living life as if it weren’t my own. It’s an amoral fable of the unrealized criminal. The payoff isn’t good enough to justify the anxiety.

Forty years later, I realize that I learned three very important life lessons in 1975.

  • Real friends don’t need to be bribed at the cost of your personal integrity.
  • Speak up on your own behalf. Some rules are just stupid.
  • Go to the restroom whenever you get the chance.

Volunteering Again: The Definition of My Insanity

On my fridge, I have a magnet with the picture of a housewife saying “Stop me before I volunteer again.”

A wise-ass friend mailed it to me after one particularly long gripe about how much I hated parent volunteer meetings. And every year I think this magnet is hysterically funny – after the fact. By the time I remember it, I’ve lost my marbles trying to do everything for everyone.

This is my oath before the start of every school year: “This year, I will focus on developing a business/career, getting home renovations done and getting in the best physical shape of my life.” Two months later, I’m cutting out Frankenstein heads for Halloween bingo at a school party, manically humming the Monster Mash.

My daughter’s school has a high percentage of reduced lunches (Read: economically challenged, overworked parents and understaffed classrooms). My guilt about working part-time from home means volunteer recruiters love me. I rarely say no. We’re made for each other.

So here I am again, chairing a fundraiser and preparing to organize classrooms of Halloween parties. I’m presenting art lessons in the spring, doing admin work in the classroom and chauffeuring field trips in between.  It doesn’t earn me a paycheck, provide me a network of career contacts or even give me much in the way of personal kudos. Multitasking is second nature. Saying “no” is apparently third or fourth.

Six years ago, Montessori daycare moved my two year old into a chaotic toddler room. The transition coincided with a time when my less-than-stellar people skills had gotten me into hot water at work. I talked it over with my husband and we decided to change our family plan. We wouldn’t carpool to our downtown jobs together anymore. He’d bus and I’d stay home with our daughter. We withdrew her from daycare. I resigned from my job.

For the first six months I wallowed. I cried a lot. I skipped showers on occasion. I got into fights with my husband about little things. I was frustrated and depressed, feeling like dead weight. And while people go on and on about the most important job in the world being a parent, most of us are more than the custodians of our progeny. I was watching bits and pieces of my identity disappear. I’d worked at one job or another since I was 10 – and full time employment since becoming an adult.

In a fortunate turn of events, my former employers asked for help transitioning between managers and eventually hired me part-time in my old job. This has allowed me to work from a home office, which I’ve been doing for the last five years. I’ve tried to turn this time into an opportunity to pursue writing, since that seems like such a solid long term career. I just can’t seem to wrap my head around a plan. In its absence, I say “yes” to whatever comes my way.

It isn’t that volunteering doesn’t have value, it’s just never been part of my values, since I was always working. It is really not in my skill set. Usually my goal is to not alienate people when I volunteer alongside them. That means no eye-rolling, swear words, snorting in contempt or using my drill sergeant voice to get things done. “Come on, you bunch of blabbering cupcakes, get a move on with the juice boxes!”

When I’m feeling soft and cuddly (usually for about 15 minutes on Tuesdays or during the full moon), I am glad that I have the time and luxury of being able to help at my daughter’s school. Eventually she’ll  pretend she doesn’t know me when I see her at school. Now, she’s delighted when I go on field trips and come to her classroom. Her classmates holler happy hellos to me in the hallways and her teachers are always appreciative. It’s the only performance review I get these days.

If balance is key to contentment, I haven’t found it yet. Perhaps I hope that if I juggle a job, volunteering, working out and writing, that somehow in the end, it will all even out. Until then, put me on the list. I’m sure I’m available.