Monday, October 13, 2008

I want to grow up—or do I?

As if two hours of waiting, diagnostic mammograms, and ultrasounds were not exciting enough for one day, last Saturday evening (October 4) I met my first college roommate, H (an ENT); her husband T (a radiologist); and her sister, Ta (a dentist) at Tavern on Rush. I’d come home from the hospital thinking I didn’t have quite enough time to go to Bonjour and relax, but I found enough to shower and to nap. Light napping is how I keep my sanity in this surreal world.

It’s not that I had to brace myself for a social ordeal. Although I had not met Ta, H and T are easy to get along with, and all I need is a somewhat interesting conversation and someone willing to carry most of it. As long as I don’t have to fill in the silences or cover the gaps in my knowledge, I’m content.

It turns out that this early October trip to Chicago had a purpose—to celebrate H’s 46th birthday. Should I have noted that lately I’ve celebrated my birthday by getting out of Chicago?

They reminded me of an incident I had forgotten and that I can’t believe H remembers—I gave her a half can of beer, which made her drunk. In fact, she claims she passed out. I don’t recall that part, but I’d thought she had been acting snookered. I was assured that it was not an act, just as T was about to order the wine.

What had happened to my serious, studious roommate who one day had woken up at 2:00 a.m., peered miserably at her alarm clock, chided me in Vietnamese, and hurriedly dressed in her sweater-and-jeans uniform, all before I could persuade her that she wasn’t about to miss an important class on her medical doctor journey?

There she was, mother of four girls, dressed in a stylish suit, heels, and glasses, downing wine without obvious impairment—and enjoying it.

During a discussion about sleep apnea, she told Ta she should learn how to make some device for her patients because it’s not hard to do, insurance pays for it, and it makes money. Here was a pragmatic side I had never seen.

The conversation turned to H and T’s children, none of whom seem inclined to follow the medical call—to the great disappointment of their parents. Indeed, one wants to become a graphic designer, perhaps without fully understanding what that is.

“It’s okay as a hobby,” Ta declared, as all dismissed graphic design’s potential as gainful employment. They looked to me for my opinion. Uh-oh. “It’s competitive,” I stumbled. “If you’re talented, you can do well.”

“She’s very good at math and science,” they reassured themselves, still hoping the light would dawn.

“People can be critical of your work; everyone’s a graphic design expert,” I added. Aha! “She doesn’t take criticism at all well.” “No, she couldn’t handle that.” “It’s a good hobby.”

Not for the first time I realized how little I know about many of the people I know—their likes, dislikes, aspirations, fears, and motivations. I thought, and I may have been right at the time, that my roommate studied to be a physician because that's what her father (a physician) wanted her to do. She was committed to becoming a doctor, but if there was passion under all the effort I never sensed it. Even now I wonder if the love of being a doctor is practical, a psychological adaptation to the reality. I also wonder if their viewpoint is entirely practical—if one is "good at math and science," then medicine offers a mostly secure future for the competent. But I do not know what it is about it that they love. It will be interesting to see if any of the daughters continue the tradition and the careers that they do pursue.

Inevitably, politics came up, and H said their youngest daughter is terrified that her parents will vote for Obama and that he will be elected. "He will take all of our money away," she worries. But she has an even greater reason for thinking Obama is evil incarnate. "He smokes!" she exclaims. Even now, I remember being young enough to think smoking revealed lack of character—even though my parents and many of my relatives were smokers. All I could say, only partly tongue in cheek, was, "Perhaps it's time to teach her critical thinking skills so she can see beyond the campaign rhetoric and media distortions." In fairness, it's not just children who have barely reached double digits in age who think Obama is going to take all the money away—that is, from anyone who has any left.

Before Obama takes away their money, though, they'd spent much of the day shopping at outlet stores in Aurora. Later, as we walked toward Michigan Avenue, they discussed the work of several prominent designers (few of whom I recognized). Here was another new perspective for me—the sweater-and-jeans-clad, serious medical student had become a fashion plate. Perhaps she had always had the potential, and adulthood and prosperity had drawn out her inner clothes horse.

After we parted and Ta had driven me home, I thought about how each generation ends up very much like the previous one, taking perhaps slightly different paths to the same place—marriage, career, children, and middle-class values, combined with an understanding that they'd known their destination all along. It is I who never had any goals or purpose in life and who never knew that I should or what those goals should be. I keep waiting for rather than seeking an answer that never comes. While everyone I knows leads carefully arranged lives in carefully arranged homes, I still live like a college student—day to day, amid the random clutter accumulated over my lifetime. My apartment looks more like a dorm room than a showcase home, and I don't see that changing no matter how long I live.

And still I am waiting—waiting to grow up.

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