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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Something I wish I had known in 1979

We dropped the second child off at college on Friday.

The first child was already there, well moved into her new apartment, full of the confidence one tends to get when one achieves senior-in-college status. But the second child is, I think, proportionately filled with intrigue and fear, and because the two of us are emotional clones, so am I.

Yesterday I felt like I had a slight flu.

"Oh," I said to myself. "That's right -- this is what happens sometimes when I think I can escape Actual Feelings. I feel like I have the flu."

And then I reminded myself that this is just how it works, at least for me. No big change in life may go unregistered by the mainframe. There is no way out of the mourning for whatever it is that has come to an end (for instance, my time as the center of my kids' universe). The mainframe insists: We Will Have Feelings.

This is OK, because what I know now that I didn't know in 1979, when I was a terrified (and, as it turned out, depressed) teenager being abandoned by my primary care units on the very same college campus where I dropped my kid off on Friday -- what I didn't know then is that feelings aren't dangerous.

Yes, this sounds stupid. We're supposed to know that, but I didn't. Back then, it all terrified me: the depression, the wonder, the loneliness-in-a-crowd thing, and the fear itself. So that first year was terrible.

What I want the second child to know are two things. The first: Unless you're a robot, or perhaps escaping some truly abusive home situation, you cannot avoid having a lot of strong feelings during times of big change. Like, say, going off to college for the first time. The feelings WILL BE HAD. Sometimes they'll feel like fear and loneliness. Sometimes they'll feel like fatigue or anxiousness. Some of them will be good and exhilarating. Many will. But there will likely be a storm of feelings in your first weeks and months.

The second thing is: The feelings are not dangerous, and they settle down as you settle in. It pays to notice and acknowledge them, but don't let them run away with your reason. Think of them as that friend who you love but who tends to tell little lies. You learned a long time ago that you can't totally rely on her. So you don't let her make the big decisions requiring good judgment.

You give the feelings a nod, when you're having them. You say to yourself, "Oh, that's right. I'm in the middle of a big new thing and this is normal." Then you suck it up and take a walk or do your homework or otherwise refocus on the kinds of things that make your higher self proud.

Had I known this in 1979, my first year would've been less dreadful and more fun. (It was some of both, by the way.) But I know this in 2013, and now so do you.

Friday, August 09, 2013

What is the animal thing all about?

My childhood dog was a dachshund named Rudy. He arrived as a puppy when I was about 4 and departed when I was in high school. Family lore differs on whether he was A Good Dog or A Difficult Dog -- he barked with religious devotion at the mailman and bolted long and far on the rare occasion he got loose -- but I loved his presence. He was reliable company, and he made our family dog people.

One afternoon when I was perhaps ten or 12, a neighbor's tabby cat wandered into our rock garden. It curled around my legs and allowed me to pet it, and when it didn't scurry off in reaction to my attention (that was the kind of behavior I'd come to expect from my friends' cats), a felt a strong affection bloom inside my heart. Surprise, surprise. We were dog people, but a sudden fondness for a cat somehow had found me. Day after day, I hoped the cat would return to our yard, which it did with a frequency that annoyed my mother. I don't remember admitting to her that its visits pleased me.

Today, we still know dog people and cat people. More and more, though, thanks to the interwebs, we know seriously dedicated, almost bent animal people. More and more of us ARE such folk, encouraged by advertising and Facebook posts and just a general trend that feeds our pro-beast leanings. More of us joke (sort of) that we get along better with animals than with people. More of us actually do.

I'd like to think the zoophilia signifies an element of pure human goodheartedness. Maybe it does. It seems to me, though, that all our swooning over coats and beaks is as well a symptom. For those of us who find cultural gyrations spinning just a few hundred rpm's too fast, a beastly presence supplies calming influence. Office drama and family trauma and the straight up insanity of politics at every level -- well, it's all just a bit much, isn't it? It's weighty and frustrating and dispiriting, and for this we have an antidote in the form of a garden cat.

Or in dogs sleeping on tattered couches.

Or in videos of big burly men singing puppies to sleep.

Or photogenic lizards.

Or poignant journalism about places that care for orphaned elephants.

Most dog people will tell you that man's best friend offers unconditional love. True enough. Many cat people will tell you more or less that their cats allow them to share space with them, and that this, combined with their cat antics, is somehow pleasing. Whatever else these creatures bring to our lives, they deliver simplicity and straightforwardness and innocence -- qualities that eclipse whatever sins they commit by way of dining-room puddles and wrecked upholstery.

Our devotion to our pets, and our fascination with the rest of Noah's menagerie, is telling us something. Our world has gotten hard and fast and stupid, even as it has become wildly interesting and efficient. We are full of love, yes, but we are also looking for rescue from an environment that moves too fast and unpredictably.