Monday, June 25, 2018

"The Teenager"

On August 2nd, 2017, my nephew, Tomás Del Pino Coffey, came to live with me and my husband in Huntsville, Alabama, for the 2017-2018 school year. He was 13 at the time; his 14th birthday was October 2nd, 2017. (That was a “cheat day,” when he allowed himself to go off his strict-but-plentiful diet). As a CrossFit devotee, he was into protein and carbohydrates, but not fat or sugar. On “cheat day,” however, he and Russell had breakfast at IHOP (International House of Pancakes), we all had burgers and fries for lunch, followed by donuts.
That evening we went out to a pizza restaurant, where Tomás consumed an entire large pizza and glimpsed his first American football being played on the television there.
He found it boring compared with soccer (which he’d played at school in Spain).

By his birthday, then, we had adjusted to his being here. His bedroom was my former office space. I was attuned to his needs, fixing his breakfast (three eggs, two waffles, fresh fruit, ice water) every weekday morning at 7 am. He was picked up for school (freshman class at New Century Technology High) at about 8:00 am by a friend whose daughter went to the same school. I was responsible for picking both of them up three days a week in the late afternoon. At first I would get to the school very early to get a parking spot and wait in the car, listening to the news. As the year went on, I pushed my arrival at the school later and later, but I was always there before “the bell rang.” Tomás was bored with school, for the most part. He turned out to be slightly rebellious in his approach to his “studies.

Having access to YouTube to learn anything he wished to learn, he didn’t appreciate having to listen to things that weren’t interesting to him. It turned out that English literature and history were two of those things.
This was shocking to me at first; as a high-schooler, I had initially respected the “authority” of my teachers, and even admired some of them. I wasn’t sure if I should scold or push him or leave him alone about it. It took me a while to remember that I, too, had rebelled, in a worse fashion. I had skipped classes, wandered off, and finally dropped out. Tomás wound up with A’s and B’s anyway, for final grades. He’s a smart kid, math-oriented, but not a reader. This meant that the enthusiasms and recommendations I had to offer were not needed. Instead, Tomás introduced us to newer, contemporary amusements via his cell phone.

Most evenings, I’d drive Tomás to the CrossFit “box,” a ten-minute drive. The class was an hour long, which meant I had to drive back to pick him up an hour later. Sometimes I’d grocery shop during this time; sometimes I’d take the dog to the dog park. My life became a series of car trips. Grocery shopping had to be done at least every two days. The kid ate a lot. I was making meals on the 1950s plan: a meat, a vegetable, a “starch.” My sister had given me access to some money in an account, which paid for his food. He’d eat twice as much meat as I did, or even Russell did, and would often follow dinner with a huge bowl of cereal and milk. Gallons of milk per week were also mixed with the protein powder he needed before and after workouts. He started indulging in a self-created workout at 6 am in addition to his evening WOD (CrossFit-approved Workout of the Day), doing “double-unders” (jumping rope) on the deck, swinging a 50-pound kettlebell, pumping 50-pound dumbbells. Of course, we’d hear his thumping as we lay in bed, not quite ready to get up ourselves. Tomás’s body shape was spectacularly muscular, and he was enamored of this aspect of himself. I (the contrarian) tried to ignore that aspect and pay more attention to his mind.
He was a funny guy. He and Russell had a rapport, part of which involved speaking in Maggie the dog’s voice, a rough, gangster-style persona that Russell invented before Tomás came, but to which Tomás added an incredible backstory that kept growing and growing. Maggie was more than a hundred years old, it seems, and had been everywhere and done everything, and been responsible for almost every important technological development of the last fifty years. She was a braggart and sometimes a liar; not to mention a narcissist, violent enforcer of her likes and dislikes, and a cattle baron (because she liked steak). Maggie, through Tomás, would berate me for not giving her enough steak.

In March came the workouts for the CrossFit Open. Five consecutive weekends of brief, but strenuous workouts that were scored by his coach, Nathaniel. Tomás wanted to do each workout twice, once on Friday and again on Sunday, to see if he could improve his score. He always did improve his score, and ended up 70-something in his age group in the world, out of nearly 2,000 contestants. A few weeks later he was officially invited to do the Online Qualifier workouts, which were to be filmed. I think he had hopes of jumping up to the top 20 with these four workouts. This was unlikely, but he was very angry with me for messing up one of the films (I was not used to using my phone for filming, and ended up switching to my video camera). With these workouts, he rose to 62nd in the world in his age group, a fantastic achievement, but only the top 20 would go to the annual games in August.
Before I witnessed Tomás doing this competition, I had no idea of his capacities. I was blown away, watching him. He was a real athlete, possibly even “gifted.” The first hug he ever gave me was after completing the very first competitive workout in March.
I was as supportive as it was possible to be, and would become as nervous as he was before one of these competitive workouts, the first series of which were done in groups, with a judge for each contestant, and a big digital clock ticking away on one end of the gym. The more “reps” and rounds of activities that were completed within the allotted time, the better the score. Usually the weight to be lifted was prescribed, but there were two workouts that involved increasing the weight. The kid dead-lifted 235 pounds, if I remember correctly. Some of the other activities were pull-ups, ring-muscle-ups, “burpees,” and handstand pushups. He was impressive at all of these. I was his CrossFit mom.

I don’t think Tomás and I started to become “close” until later in the spring, after the competition was over and he had resigned himself to not being in the top 20 this year. His achievement was amazing, but he had had an unrealistic, ideal goal. It took him a while to accept that, and to move his hopes toward next year’s games (2019). We would talk (or argue/discuss) while I drove him here and there. We would talk at breakfast and at the dinner table. For a while he was learning the guitar at school, and I shared some musical knowledge with him; I feel I could have done more of that, but I didn’t. It was difficult to get him to watch an entire movie unless it was an action picture. We did manage to expose him to “2001” and “The Wizard of Oz.” I took him to a shooting range because he wanted to try that. And, while he was here he found a girlfriend, Karla. She was 15, a bit older. They saw each other at school, but would occasionally meet other friends at the movies (more driving for me). After school ended, Tomás had ten days before his scheduled return to Spain. During this time he wanted to get together with Karla frequently (even more driving for me). By the time it came to say goodbye, the scene was a bit heartbreaking. Tomás had attended Karla’s sister’s wedding all afternoon at a house in Decatur. I went to pick him up at 6 pm, and waited for more than half an hour while they said goodbye, trying to give them privacy in the carport (I don't think they saw me take that picture). Karla cried. Tomás wanted to cry, but didn’t until later. The next morning, we all got up at 5 am to leave for the Nashville airport at 6:15 am.

So, this was my year to attempt to be a mother, since I don’t have kids myself. What I discovered was that it’s mostly a lot of hard work, none of which I minded, because it kept me busy and kept me from thinking about things I hadn’t done for myself, or in my own life. I felt a vicarious thrill when Tomás did so well in the competition; I was very proud of him. I adjusted to his not being an “intellectual” in the style of his mother and my father. He has a very healthy ego. He is not “troubled,” as I was at his age. I am sure he will endure some more disappointments in the next few years that may be even worse than not making the top 20 CrossFit kids’ list (in the damn world). He will grow and learn. He may or may not keep in touch with Karla, although at this point, he wants to come back to visit at Christmas. We don’t know yet if that will happen; flights are expensive.
What else I discovered was that it’s not possible to see into a teenager’s mind or soul; I could only surmise, suspect, project, and express caring, and laugh at his jokes (not difficult). When here, he did not have a problem with confidence; he indulged in over-confidence (it seemed to me) a lot of the time, but that is part of being a 14-year-old, good-looking male with physical energy and a future ahead.
As many young men do, Tomás fantasizes about being an “entrepreneur,” and not having to go to college or pay workplace dues or be under the thumb of a boss. He thinks he will invent, implement a thing or a process, and become rich and powerful. Some other ideas that he toyed with were becoming a CrossFit trainer, a policeman, or joining the U.S. Army (he has dual citizenship).

But now Tomás is back home with his mother, my beloved sister Felicia, who has lived in Spain for almost 30 years. She’s recently divorced from Tomás’s (and his older brother Gabriel’s) father, so it’s a bit tough for her to do all that chauffeuring and cooking, since she’s also working, teaching English at the University of Seville. Gabriel (18) now works as a steward for Ryanair, based in Frankfurt, Germany.
He comes home to Seville once a month. Tomás is having a summer of leisure at the moment, except for CrossFit. I saw him on Skype the other day, wearing the gray hairband I gave him to hold back his fashionable top-of-the-head long dark hair. We miss him, but it’s not that yearning kind of missing a person. It’s more like, “Wow! A teenager lived with us for a year, and it was pretty cool!” Should it be a yearning? Did I grow to love Tomás? I already loved him by default; he is family. I acquired more intimate knowledge of him, and that is part of love, I think. I care about Gabriel, too. We chat sometimes on WhatsApp, during which short moments I try to persuade Gabriel to give up being a fan of Donald Trump. Tomás does not share Gabriel’s political taste, fortunately, and I think Gabriel adopted his attitude partly to counter his mother’s very liberal influence; to be different, to have his own identity. They are so young, these nephews.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Gilmore Swirls...

Oh, how I’d like to watch another episode of “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix right now instead of write this. I never knew of the series until the recent resurrection of it that got lots of publicity. A friend of mine wanted to watch the new episodes, but felt compelled to catch up on the old ones (from 2006 to 2011, I believe) before she indulged in the new material. Against my better judgment (as my mother used to say), I followed my friend’s example. Now, at the beginning of Season 2, I can’t say I’m hooked on “Gilmore Girls,” but I do enjoy the experience of disdain I feel for the character of the mother, "Lorelei." The actress, Lauren Graham, is, of course, attractive in a chipmunk sort of way; and self-absorbed as the day is long. She possesses the gift of gabble, the clever repartee of a dozen television scriptwriters working overtime. They gave the character their severe caffeine habit, among other things. And what’s with all the handsome people of color in the background? That is not realistic for a quaint New England town without an Ivy League college located within it. Or maybe things have changed, I don’t know.

Having come of age (12-18) in a quaint New England town WITH an Ivy League college in it, I suppose I’m nostalgic and jealous of the Gilmore Girls’ “Stars Hollow.” I could have stayed in Wellesley, right? I could have remained a town character (like I actually was for a year when I was 30, living in an apartment on the third floor of an historic house around the corner from my mother’s house, with a series of pathetic roommates). That apartment’s rent has probably quadrupled by now. I worked at the town newspaper (since swallowed by a generic publishing company) as a typesetter and artist, and had a crush on the one lowly photographer there. I had bad dates arranged by friends (the photographer was taken). I took to drinking apricot brandy with milk every night at bedtime. I didn’t stay in bed, though; I took night walks and ran into the another town character, Harry, who worked at the grocery store, was in his fifties, had a lisp, and apparently wanted to be spanked. I do not know if he ever found anyone to do it. I would wander by another historic house wherein lived another town character who smoked weed a lot, and I would partake, although it always made me paranoid. That feeling, pre-David Lynch, was not a good one. I saw “Eraserhead” in the fall of 1980, and thereafter I felt more comfortable with the paranoia that pot gave me. I applied for a position on the Wellesley Youth Council based on my experience with waywardness when I was a youth (and continuing), but didn’t get the acceptance letter until I’d already moved to Huntsville, Alabama. I wrote in my application that youth needed real adventure, and that was what had gone wrong. There was no longer any real adventure for the sheltered darlings, so they had to strike out.

And now, after 35 years in Huntsville, Alabama, I’ve retired from a job I enjoyed for almost 18 years, as secretary for the Department of Art & Art History at an Alabama state university. There were struggles before that university perch welcomed me, other jobs. I suppose I, and probably my brother Michael (only a year younger than me) considered ourselves scrappers, fighters, outsiders. We would NOT succumb to a secure, full-time job. Michael was tempted several times (once by the Harvard Law Library) but resisted. I succumbed to the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Michael is now an expert organic farmer doing what is really “sharecropping,” and has no home-base, now that our parents’ house has sold. I’m getting a pension and Social Security and married to a self-employed magician (and fellow art major) who is not YET retired, and probably never will. The amount of stuff accumulated in our household is appalling, because while I was working full-time, I paid no attention to my house as a place. The computer screen removes one from one’s immediate circumstances, as we all know. The pile-up resembles somewhat the pile-up my mother once created, with her bags of saved junk-mail and holy relics. I swore I’d make a film (I’m an amateur filmmaker) about her collection and her personality, and actually BROUGHT bags of junk-mail back with me from my expensive ($450 flights from Huntsville to Boston and back) cleanup sessions in her bedroom in Wellesley. But, by golly, I’ve LOST INTEREST.

Which is the main point of this blog post: LOSING INTEREST. What does that mean? How can I be consumed by one idea for about a year and then just LOSE INTEREST? I hate myself for this! The people I worked for bought me a very nice video camera for a retirement gift. How can I “betray” them by doing nothing with it? I have taken plenty of classes in the medium; I know what I could do. I just DON’T WANT TO. This is a betrayal of my mother’s life and of my department’s parting faith in me! I just don’t know what how I can go on with this charade. I have various “talents” and abilities. I have propensities, like the propensity to write. But gosh, unless I have someone demanding artistic products from me, I am NOT going to all that effort. And yet I go to simplistic physical effort three or four times a day to walk my newly-acquired little dog. Having taken plenty of (free-because-employed by same) UAH classes, I know that the idea of a “TEACHER” demanding things is something I’ve always responded to. But is that really “ME”? Why should I, Marylyn Coffey, make cheap little films when gods like Mike Leigh are making expensive, fantastic films using hundreds of people to help? I never was a team player. What am I supposed to do now? That is my question. And I have only beer, no apricot brandy at this time.

Monday, July 18, 2016

On second thought...

My blog post of the other day was, essentially, an attempt to be positive. Stretchy, shiny, cheap plastic thoughts with no air filling them; not even as lively as balloons. Limp assertions.
The truth is, I am bitter about my life, a lot of the time. At least work distracted me from this bitterness and threatening depression. Now, having retired, I have to distract myself, and I’m not up for it. Nor am I up for all the “creative projects” I thought I’d be rarin’ to be doing.
This morning I was pondering what it “means” to be an older person who doesn’t have children. Since my husband is spending a lot of time dealing with his elderly father who is in “rehab” after a stroke, I can be glad that at least I won’t be inflicting that kind of obligation on a son or daughter (only on said husband or a couple of caring friends, or more likely, strangers).
It also means that my family’s genes won’t have as much of a chance, or at least my particular combination won’t. A total of five male offspring have been produced by two of my five siblings, but no female offspring. It would have been nice to provide my family with one female descendant. I had the opportunity, back in 1979, but I wasn’t brave enough or stupidly optimistic enough. And I didn’t think about my family’s “legacy” at the time. I was selfish, scared, and heartbroken because my boyfriend didn’t want to proceed with the project and had moved to another state. He was going through a divorce, and I had just been through one. Sometimes life is not a fairytale.
My overall estimation of myself has improved somewhat since then, because I have made better choices. But still, what have I really done? Nothing very brave or unusual at all! As a white woman from the suburbs of Massachusetts, I was, yes, privileged, and even though I felt the effects of the “second-class citizenship” that feminism fought against, I still got away with a lot. I worked hard, but only when I felt like it. I took responsibility, but only for things that seemed interesting to me. I looked on “love” as something I could “get” when I needed it, with very little effort, simply because I was female and attractive. It took me YEARS to learn that sex and love were not the same thing. I was a naive idiot with intellectual and artistic pretensions. I didn’t know how to really LOVE anyone. I knew who pleased me and gave me attention, and I experienced what I thought was “suffering” when those people left. And of course I tried to make everyone “like” me, if not “admire” me. I fooled a lot of people into thinking I was a “good” person. I really wasn’t even a person. I still don’t know if I am.
I’ve been re-reading some letters from the 1960s, sent to me by friends. All of us were doing a lot of soul-searching in those days, yet it was so solipsistic. We were exploring our own moods, our own feelings. We were constantly disappointed in other people because they didn’t share our values, opinions, or energy level. We were prematurely disillusioned without even experiencing much of the world outside ourselves or our “crowd.” Sure, some of us traveled, but the efforts were superficial, considering all the drug-assisted writing and poetry-making and music-listening that seemed to fill each day. We were having an effect only on ourselves as individuals. We often thought the world owed us a living for being sensitive and creative and easily wounded. I admit it!
I could have read more books. I could have NOT dropped out of history class in high school and somehow gotten away with it. After my year of being away from high school, I returned to a groovy, “special” school that overlooked the gaps in my previous curriculum and eased me on to graduation with courses like “Journal Writing,” and “Photography.” I deserve to be the subject of a parody, only it’s a bit late. Maybe I can do it myself, if I can sum up the motivation (which I probably can’t).
Yes, I indulge in a vicious assessment of myself sometimes, having practiced attitudes taught me by my mother, the stern Catholic authority figure of my childhood. But since I “lost” my religion when I was 15, I can’t seek help from the saints. Often, I don’t even recognize that I’m down, or might need some fun, or might need to talk to a friend. I just stay at home. I make clever remarks on Facebook. I try to remain kind, or at least civil, toward my husband. He’s very important to me. I would say that I love him as much as I can love anyone, and also that I need him. I have needed him ever since we met and I saw what a genuinely kind person he is. I benefit from that kindness. I have survived because of it, I suppose. We have been together more than 30 years. My own father used to claim that marriage was simply an economic arrangement; I don’t know what philosopher he’d been reading at the time. But it’s more like a psychological arrangement for me!
So, in these days of racist violence and religious wars and poisoned politics, I am trying to become more aware, and to see if there is anything I can do to “help.” But usually, on any given day, I have only enough psychological energy to do something like give a ride to a friend whose car is in the shop. I’ve become more introverted; I’m not into neighborhood watches or peace rallies. I suppose I should be—I keep beating myself over the head for not doing things like that, because I no longer have the excuse of having to go to work. I exercise, but only because I don’t want to die before my time. I have always treasured “the life of the mind,” but I am distracted by the constant guilt of not doing enough for others. It is hard to find peace. So there, previous blog post!
Photo credit: Edith and Little Bear play with a toy camera and their teddy bears. Photo by Dare Wright: Photo from "The Secret Life of The Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright" by Jean Nathan.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Parakeet in a new cage

Many years ago, I had the chore of placing a pink cloth cover on our family parakeet's birdcage each night. On the fabric, which was sewn into a box-like shape, was a picture of a bird, with “Time to retire!” in large, cursive letters above it.


Now I have retired, not just for the evening but from my most recent full-time involvement in the work force at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. It was a decision made in February 2016, and as the date of release, May 1, came closer there was a feeling of impatience: soon I could stop doing all these by-now boring things for other people! But there was also a feeling of dread: would I feel like a useful human being? Was that important?

My 66th birthday occurred just before retirement, so I was eligible for close-to-maximum Social Security benefits. I also have a pension. Of course, as an hourly, not salaried, staff assistant in the art department, I wasn't making big bucks, and I'm not making them now. I have to watch my spending. There won't be any trips to Europe or even Alabama beach weekends, unless I diligently save for months. But there's enough for occasional fancy olives or local craft beer.

My job was the best (and longest) I'd ever had during my varied career. I carried a lot of keys. I was “in charge” of many things. People came to me for help and advice. My ego benefited from this. I was the “go-to” person for everything from getting an I.D.card activated for lab access, to contacting people outside the university for exhibit space or publicity. I had developed habits of responding and feeling that seemed to be “who I was.” But now I know that they were just habits, and possibly, coping mechanisms.
I always knew, deep down, that being super-responsible and available to everyone for more hours than I was paid was not always healthy. I threw myself into it. And I was able to do that because it was not my enterprise. In other words, I have been the kind of person who finds it easier to believe in the causes of others than in my own causes, whatever they might be. And although I'm capable of great selfishness, the expression of it has often been accidental or desperate rather than intentional and rational.


The first thing I discovered, not having to be at work every day, was that I could slow down. Activities that seemed a nuisance when done in haste became pleasurable when done slowly. Doing the dishes. Changing the sheets. Cooking a meal. Completing my morning exercise routine. These ordinary tasks took on a charm they hadn't had before. Perhaps it will wear off, but now I know it's a possibility.

The occasional bout of insomnia, once alarming because of how it interfered with my effectiveness the next day, is now an exploration of my own thoughts: I travel through time and visit many places, review memories and emotions, even chase a creative idea or two, knowing I can sleep late if necessary. This sometimes hours-long mental meandering is not always a source of pleasure, but at least it no longer causes panic.

I am more available to friends. I am happier when they call. There had been so many times when I experienced their invitations or communications as interference with “work.” Now I can pay more attention, be kinder, agree to meet for coffee or lunch or a drink, appreciate knowing them, and experience their unique qualities. This new openness of mine reminds me of when I was a hippie, before work slowly took over my life. Being a “people person” for work was not as sweet or sincere or rewarding as the years went by. I had no choice of which people, and the role was necessary all day long, which was exhausting. Now I can choose.

Finally, after some subtle sparring (my husband is self-employed and is at home a lot) with both of us feeling observed and perhaps assessed by the other, we realized that neither of us is always going to do what's silently expected or even out-loud asked. Rooms aren't going to get organized immediately, the way I pictured they would. Home improvements will be incremental, and maybe never happen. And it's not the end of the world. Instead of worrying about all that, I've agreed to rent half a room in the house of a friend, and will go there in the afternoons with some materials and my video camera to start working on a short Ken Burns-style film about my mother. There's an October deadline for a festival. I know what I'm doing from having taken a couple of courses, and I'm looking forward to the mind-trip that the process will afford me.

I now suspect that I might be old enough and mature enough, and possibly flexible enough, and perhaps capable of supporting my own causes enough, that it was truly “Time to retire!”