Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hold Tight and Pretend It’s A Plan!

Wow, it has literally been years since I made a post. This is not necessarily the dawn of a revivalism of this blog—you’d be much better off checking out what Rosemary, Cat and I are doing at Lightbox Heroes(shameless plug) if you miss my ramblings. However, this last weekend was a situation that lent itself particularly well to the written word, so I break my silence in the name of epic adventure. 

And by adventure I mean mostly ridiculousness.

The Epic Tale, or, And You Thought You Were a Fan of Doctor Who . . .

It was Saturday night. I had already had a tumultuous day of nothingness: my brand of coping in the face of looming deadlines, job searches, and a vague sense of academic inadequacy is to do absolutely nothing useful. The idea was that I would devote the evening to my studies, but having twilight come at four thirty in the afternoon was enough of a bummer that I had reopened negotiations with my anxiety for another extension of slackerness. The perfect excuse for another night of nothing had already presented itself: the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who had aired today, and my slow internet was just minutes away from completing the download of those 76 precious minutes of joy and escapism.

In preparation for my “study break,” I had decided to get comfortable. In the spirit of consistency, I had been putting off doing my laundry as well as my grading and final papers, which left my selection of comfortable loungewear a little lacking. Luckily, for my last birthday my mother had given me a present that demonstrated how tuned in she is to her grown daughter’s stunted sense of whimsy: a pair of bright yellow pajamas, liberally decorated with the characters of Dr. Seuss’s classic aquatic tale “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” Did I mention this pair of pajamas were in fact onesie footie pajamas? With one long zipper bulging erratically from naval to chin, these pajamas are the picture of efficiency, simultaneously keeping me warm in my drafty Milwaukee apartment and providing a big blaring sign of “VIRGIN” to anyone who chances by. I would have preferred if the signal from the pajamas could have loudly signaled “VIRGIN BY CHOICE,” but there’s really only so much one can ask from a single measure of unapologetically yellow fleece.

It was now seven thirty at night (yes, I had already donned pajamas at seven thirty on a Saturday, keep your 
judgments to yourself). I was pretending to skim articles on Skopas, while in fact clicking over to the status of my downloading Doctor Who episode approximately every 2.68 seconds. A low, mechanical drone started to sound. It was coming from the hallway, and it was certainly loud enough for me to hear, but I couldn’t identify exactly what the sound was accomplishing. Living in an apartment building that has over thirty units, you get relatively used to strange noises that never get explained. When that building was also built over a hundred years ago, and has fixtures and radiators that were probably installed by an employee of the WPA, every day there are a number of auditory oddities that I just shove into the periphery of my awareness. In essence, while the almost moaning sound was persisting unabated, I was not terribly concerned.

I’ll be perfectly honest: it did cross my mind that the sound I was hearing could be some antique approximation of a fire alarm.  My doorbell sounds like a buzzer used in a 1950s game show when the contestant gets a question wrong, so it would make sense that the building’s fire alarm sounds equally bizarre. I contemplated this possibility, sniffed the air for smoke, and went back to watching my Doctor Who episode finish downloading. In my hierarchy of needs watching this Doctor Who episode was in slot number one, tied only with my desire to not get up from my armchair.

I started to hear a fair amount of running and pounding from the apartment and hallway directly above me. I was unperturbed. Ten minutes went by, all the previous noises were still continuing in the larger building, and I remained a fixture in the corner of my living room, cursing utorrent for teasing me with its “Downloading: 98.9% complete” message. There was a heavy pounding, this time no longer above me, but actually at my own door. I half stood up, and then became very conscious of the virginity-affirming pajamas. I remained there for a few moments, waffling between being seen in such getup and ignoring the knock. I finally stood all the way up (begrudgingly), padded over to the door, and carefully stuck my head out the door. There was no one in the hallway, just a magnified version of the same mechanical droning and more hurried, stomping feet coming from the hallway upstairs, with the occasional muffled shout added to the cacophany.

Here’s where I’m going to lose most of you: I then went back inside, sat back down on my armchair, and kept on waiting for Doctor Who to download. I had concluded at this point that there was most likely a fire somewhere in the building. But I was quite willing for the people directly affected by the situation to handle it. I had a plan for how my evening was going to go, and not enough outside stimuli had been introduced to prod me toward giving up that plan. It’s a big building. I still couldn’t smell (much) smoke. As far as I was concerned, they could come get me if it was that big a deal. Oh, if wishes were horses.

About five minutes later (utorrent now read as “99.4% complete”), there was a second pounding on the door, followed by a booming “Fire Department! Open up!” This kicked me into a slightly higher gear, meaning I didn’t pause when rising from my chair, and I somewhat hurriedly threw my green plaid robe over the unabashedly chaste pajamas. Answering the door, the (obnoxiously handsome) pair of firemen barked at me that there was a fire, and that I needed to be out of the building. It was only at this point that I got a little flustered. Why I got flustered then, I couldn’t tell you. I had had fifteen minutes of preparation, where I had actively acknowledged the almost certainty of a fire, and chose to make like inertia and not act until acted upon by an opposing and irritatingly attractive force.

With the two offensively hunky firemen looking on, I scrambled for my keys and started to put on boots to protect the soles of my footie pajamas. It would be great if I could muse here over how basic motor skills often get compromised with a rush of adrenaline, but that would incorrectly lead you to assume that in times when rugged men aren’t watching me I am fairly competent at putting on my shoes. No. Even at the best of times, shoe-putting-on is not a strength of mine. Normally, I at least know that I have to sit down on any available surface to be successful. I suppose it was that command center of the brain that failed me in that moment, letting me blithely try to achieve what I can’t do even at the best of times.

I tried to hop on one foot while yanking the boot onto the other, ignoring the added challenge of mashing in extra fabric from the pajamas into the same space. The yanking motion completely threw off my precarious balance, and I abruptly transitioned from being upright and balancing on one leg to my rear making violent contact with my hardwood floor, my legs splayed out at crazy angles and the cinch of my robe coming loose so that the robe parted in the front. The two fetching firemen cooling observed the tableau, patiently waiting for me to stop being an irritation in their work as other equally brawny men started to use the back of their axes to get through the door across the hall from me.

I crammed my toes into both boots, my heels not even close to being in the right place, and awkwardly pranced out of my apartment. I then carefully closed the door behind me, and pulled my keys out of the pocket of my robe so that I could secure the lock. Halfway through that motion, with my two virile companions incredulously looking on, I started to process how me locking my door might be a) slightly not helpful in the context of firemen actively knocking down the door right across the hall, b) certainly caused my two assigned firemen to doubt my sanity, since I didn’t seem in any hurry to get out of the building. I quickly put the keys back in my pocket while avoiding eye contact with the pitying paragons of masculinity in front of me.

Muttering something incoherent, I did an about-face and headed toward the stairwell so that I could get out of the building. There were multiple hoses crisscrossing the hallway and stairs, demonstrating that I was definitely late to the evacuation party, and was most likely the only one who had needed a hand-delivered invitation. I pushed the swinging door that was at the head of the stairs, and smacked the fireman standing on the other side of the door right in the face. Luckily his helmet took most of the blow. It should be noted that this door has a fair-sized window in it, and that I had seen the fireman before pushing the door forward. And yet, I was still quite surprised with how that situation unfolded.

Tripping across multiple hoses as I descended the stairs (remember, I’m still basically walking on my toes, since my heels are uselessly jammed into the ankle part of my boots), I navigate my way out of the stairwell and around the outside of the building to the front entrance, successfully avoiding getting smacked in the face by all but one of the fire hoses. I got over to where all of the other less avid Doctor Who fans (or perhaps people with a stronger survival instinct) were gathered to watch the impressive flames in the window of a third-floor apartment. More firemen were hauling a long ladder across the lawn to set up underneath the window closest to the most violent area of the fire, armed with axes so they could smash through the window and directly address the fire with their prepped hoses.

I should mention here how quickly watching the heroic struggle between man and fire gets tedious when it is fifteen degrees outside, and you’re standing there in fleece footie pajamas and a robe. Any romantic symbolism that might be seen in this battle with the elements that makes or break man’s progress freezes in the air along with your breath, and you just start to look at the flames with a certain degree of longing.

I started to notice how the other tenants of my low-rent building—all of them types that I would probably cross the street to avoid directly passing on a dark street—are edging away from me, the crazy lady dressed in an adult version of pajamas a two-year old should be wearing. This also dimmed any interest I had with how the firefight is going. I blessed my brain for at least remembering to grab my keys (even if they were grabbed with the intent to lock the apartment door and impede the progress of the firefighters, I was still going to latch on to any small victory), and retreated to my car that was parked on the street, completely locked in by the four fire trucks and eight fire department SUVs that lined my no-outlet street.

I squeezed myself into the front seat in the small opening I could manage between my door and the SUVs, started the engine, and let the heaters do their work. I leaned back, surveyed the chaotic scene in front of me, tracking how the swiveling red lights threw into dramatic relief different areas of the trauma. As the vents started to warm up I leaned back, closed my eyes, and mourned the fact that my laptop was still in my apartment, probably with a fully downloaded Doctor Who episode on its hard drive. The universe can be so harsh sometimes.

I spent the next four hours in my car, calling old friends to keep myself entertained as I waited to find out the fate of my apartment. At around eleven thirty we were informed that no one was permitted to return to their residence for the night, but we could be escorted to our apartments to pick up anything we might need for a few days away. I returned to my apartment to find a hole the size of my face kicked into the lower part of my kitchen wall. Apparently the firemen had needed to transport some equipment to the apartment across the hall (the one directly below where the fire had originated, both of which had a great deal of fire and water damage), and the hall wasn’t wide enough.

My kitchen floor was covered with splintered wood and paint, but I still consider myself remarkably lucky, especially considering how idiotic my initial response to the crisis was. My landlord was waiting for me to finish packing up my things (you better bet my laptop with the precious episode was the first thing put into my shoulder bag), so I grabbed the necessities and shoved them all together, doing such an excellent job at packing that it was impossible to zip up the top of the bag due to the bulging hodgepodge of clothes and hair products. I deemed it good enough and picked my way back through the darkened, smoky hallways.

Considering the . . . “iffy” nature of my neighborhood, I decided driving another ten miles to find a hotel near the airport would probably result in much safer and cleaner accommodations.  Nearing midnight now, I walked to the front desk of the Clarion Hotel with my bag in one hand and a 24-pack of Diet Coke in the other (it had already been in the trunk of my car, I figured it was worth bringing along). I politely asked if there were any vacancies. The woman at the front desk seemed a little flustered and said she would check, but her eyes darted between me and the screen at an alarmingly rapid rate.

She told me there was an opening, and hesitantly told me it would be 95 dollars for the night. I considered her demeanor to be a little odd, even jumpy, and didn’t understand why she seemed surprised when I said I would take it. It was only when I went to retrieve my wallet from the pocket of my robe that I really took stock of my appearance: I looked like a crazed homeless woman, wandering the cold streets of Milwaukee in infantile pajamas, a bathrobe, and an inexplicable supply of diet soda. I was the definition of a potential unpleasant incident for a night clerk.

The clerk was relieved when I explained my situation. Not relieved that people were out of their homes, but relieved that I was now a known entity, one that would probably not start screaming hysterically in the lobby or striking up conversations with the potted plants.  I was happy for her peace of mind, and chose not to tell her how far my love of Doctor Who had led me away from rational behavior. I don’t think she would have processed that information in a way that painted me in a kind (or sane) light.

Things I Learned

1)      I suffer from the most pervasive malady of my generation: obliviousness. I always knew my connection to reality was a bit tenuous in general, but this certainly hit that home in a new way. I am obviously an idiot for how I behaved before exiting the building, but I would argue that I am not that far outside of the norm for my generation. Sure, most wouldn’t avoid a fire because a Doctor Who episode was on the cusp of downloading, but there is definitely a generational disconnect with the unavoidable cause and effect of choices. This is easiest to see online, when narcissists post every detail of their personal life in their facebook status, or passive-aggressively attack family members and roommates through the well-placed tweet or blog post. Ideas of keeping public and private spheres separate, of addressing conflicts in person and not dragging issues through the digital sphere, of consciously decided not to permit evidence of passing anger or malaise to endure forever is something my generation doesn’t understand. Yes, I am definitely harping on a common problem in order to distract you all from the fact that I’m such a media junkie I almost achieved a nice toffee-colored complexion from an even roasting. It’s all about misdirection, folks.  
      2) My mother is awesome. My initial response to the crisis was “oh, I really hope my parents don’t find out about this.” With them living twelve hundred miles away, I didn’t want them to be stressed about my situation, or somehow find a way to interpret the problems with an apartment I chose to be the sign of deeper trends toward irresponsibility. This is left over from the much more combative relationship I used to have with my parents during the first half of my twenties, and is an attitude that is actually unworthy of the reality of my parental unit. I quashed my initial response, and instead called my mother the next day at around noon. I briefed her on what had happened (ok, ok, I skipped all the Mary-made-like-an-ostrich-and-buried-her-head-in-the-sand-for-fifteen-minutes-before-getting-kicked-out-by-firemen part of the tale). I told her the condition of my belongings and my apartment, told her where I was currently staying, and that I was still waiting to find out when I could move back in. She listened, asked a couple follow-up questions, told me she was very glad I was ok, and we swapped goodbyes and I-love-yous before hanging up. The whole call took six minutes in total.

       Darling mothers and fathers out there: This is how you need to parent your adult children. It was awesome. There was no hysterics, no incessant peppering of questions, no doomsday speeches or blame or micromanaging of my behavior. Any of those would have driven me right up the wall with both frustration and anxiety. Instead, there was respect and affection, and a trust that I would keep her updated if anything came up that I needed help with. Otherwise, it was my own business. I can’t stress how nice it feels to not be infantilized by your parents when you’re 27 years old. I’ve observed enough to know my parents are exceptional in that regard, and I couldn’t be more grateful for my luck in scoring these guys. 
      3) My friends and sister are da bomb diggity. I called and texted more than a few individuals while I was forced into a Who-less stasis for the majority of that Saturday night. I wasn’t traumatized by what had happened—I think the word trauma gets thrown around too imprecisely. No one was hurt, and I was fairly sure my apartment wasn’t burning down. I was mildly inconvenienced and shocked out of my normal routine, not staring down the fragility of my existence. As such, I was calling and texting people just to kill time and share a fun story, and there’s something magical about how many kindred souls I’ve collected over the years that knew how to respond. Connected with how much of a nightmare it would have been if my mother had had a meltdown from the news, it’s a real sign of friendship and connection that no one I talked to tried to whip me into hysterics. They settled into jokes and their own stories, filling the time as I watched the fire engines slowly return to the station in my rear view mirror.

      These are the kind of people everyone should actively seek out and cultivate in their life—friends and family that contribute to you keeping your life balanced and manageable. I can be proud that over the past five years I have weeded out people who are only interested in highlighting drama, fixating on unfairness, and ramping up discord. Those people would have loved a phone call that night; they could have vicariously feasted on the chaos, and victimized my circumstances stretch out the drama, but I wouldn’t have gotten anything positive out of that interaction.

      4) I have a complicated relationship with my own independence and letting others help me. But I don’t necessarily think I’m the one that needs to change. Here’s a truth: despite the fact that I’ve technically been responsible for my own education and living expenses since I was 18, I’ve only gotten a good handle on it in the last couple years. Imagine my impressive ability to deny the danger of fire in the face of Doctor Who, and you have a good idea of the financial quagmire that was the majority of my twenties. I was raised by parents who were not only incredibly responsible with their own finances, they went out of their way to train me in good habits and warn me of the pitfalls that could arise from not keeping a handle on spending and budgeting. Apparently I don’t learn through excellent guidance, I learn by drowning for years in my own denial and not even being able to communicate how much trouble I’m in because I’m incapable of admitting to weakness and mistakes in judgment.

      Why am I sharing this information that seems embarrassing and uncomfortable? Context. All told, I now have a line of credit of about $2,000, and it took a complete turnaround in my attitudes toward money and my general problem-solving habits to be eligible for that much. I pay off my credit cards every month, which means late on a Saturday night when I need a place to stay, I can hand over my Vis and charge my room without any problems. You need to understand: I am so proud that I was able to financially and emotionally handle this, it’s been all I’ve wanted to talk about. This felt like an incredible proof that I have progressed exponentially in areas that I know to be weaknesses in my character and a danger to my long-term goals.

      So, when I told people at my church and school about what had happened, and I was scolded for not calling them up at midnight on a Saturday for a place to stay, I didn’t know how to process their conviction that I was doing it all wrong. I was met with almost universal disbelief that I would check into a hotel rather than find someone to take me in. Here’s the thing: I never doubted the generosity of spirit the people in this area have toward their fellow man, including me. But I, to my complete delight, was capable of taking care of myself in an emergency, and so I did. I derive so much more peace of mind and general comfort in that knowledge than I would have from accepting the kindness of acquaintances.

      I’m no solider of Ayn Rand. I don’t hold to an insane level of self-sufficiency that removes compassion for others from the equation. I’ve certainly had to avail myself of the kindness of family, friends, and strangers in the past. But in this circumstance, I was able to prove to myself that I will be able to handle both the emotional and financial fallout in the face of an unanticipated hurdle. Do you have any idea how empowering that is? Especially for someone who is coming up on the daunting task of job hunting once I finish my degree this May? Basically, there’s something to be said for doing all you can before seeking out the help of others. It doesn’t mean asking for help is shameful—not at all. It means that you get to carry around with you the knowledge that you are capable, and able to master many situations on your own, including the situation where asking for help from the right quarter is what the circumstance demands.

      Huzzah for independence, for self-reliance! I could really get excited about this. You’ll see me punching the air jubilantly every time I’m able to pay an unexpectedly high water bill, or roll with the additional challenge of a disruptive student. Sure, I’ll look like a crazy person, giving an empty room an enthusiastic round of high-fives and doing a one-person wave, but I’ve looked stupider. I’ve checked into a hotel wearing yellow footie pajamas, for crying out loud. I can do anything.

            . . . Except put on shoes without some sort of support structure


The Kessler's said...

Even after all these years apart, I love you more than ever. And I love how responsible you've become. You (a few years ago) sound just like me. I remember sitting in my car, after running out of gas, not knowing how I'm going to pay rent, much less get home, and just laughing and laughing. Unfortunately, I haven't improved at all. Glad you're okay!

Cat said...

Mary, you are wonderful. And responsible. And completely have your priorities in order, because Doctor Who ALWAYS takes precedence.