Monday, July 18, 2005

I Coulda Been a Retiree

Kathy Bates once quipped at the Oscars that every time an actor wins an Oscar, an agent gets his wings. Well, every time a wife attends a spousal office function; she gets a set of wings too. Ladies and germs, I am tricked out with an Angels in America set of power feathers.

Saturday was a party at one of MZA’s colleague’s house and it was very nice and touching, in that the colleague’s husband was retiring after 38 years as a military and then commercial pilot. He seemed like a nice guy. He married her, a wisecracking, Westernized Asian dame who came to him complete with two kids that he raised as his own. I don’t know, I like that—unlikely couples making mixed families that never would have happened otherwise—a blending of continents and disparate cultures.

We got a babysitter—always a good and righteous thing—and headed off to the serious hinterlands of olde Virginny, to a subdivision of trumped up split levels made of freckled brick. The heat was staggering, obliterating, virulent—absolutely stultifying—and the party was outside with a tent providing only a nominal relief. I didn’t know anyone, always a great way to start things out. MZA abandoned me immediately to drop off his famous Russian tater salad. So I stood there, marooned, but kind of numbed by the heat, as people walked by me smiling. MZA has a habit of disappearing on common errands for periods of time similar to eternity, and then arriving just as I have reached the end of my tether.

I was determined not to be a wimp, but I approached the hostess, Tokyo Rose, to ask if he was inside. She said, in that clipped, perpetually impatient, semi-barking way of many Westernized Asian women, “I have no idea where he is! Why? You hot?” Which means: Get lost you pain in the ass entitled bitch. Mix and mingle and grow a spine. MZA is helping ME now. You’re not the princess you think you are. Shall I go on translating? I am getting pretty good at this!

MZA resurfaced at some point, long enough to recognize that I was going to melt into the spongy, suburban, hybrid grass if I was not immediately transfused with an enormous alcoholic beverage. When I went back for a second glass (ten seconds after quaffing the first one) Tokyo Rose said, “I’ve seen you at the wine table but not the food table!” So I obediently went over to the elevated deck/patio and there was a platter of un-chilled shrimp, hot crab dip, veggies ‘n dip and cubes of rubbery jalapeno ‘n cheddar cheese. Mmmm.

In an unprecedented move, I had to forego the shrimp/crab dip lunge, due to worries of heat+shellfish. I took a carrot, sans dip, and jerked around to see if Tokyo Rose would notice my virtuous and healthy eating habits, despite my inclination, in her eyes, of drinking like a sailor. You know though, at events like that, in the agonizing heat, when you don’t know anyone and it is office related, wives like me should be offered a refrigerated wine tent--somewhere to repair between sessions of pained small talk.

I quickly surmised that the only way I was going to make it was to whip out my incredible and amazing interlocutor skills. Oh yeah! That’s when you realize that the only way the person standing next to you in Cocktail Party Purgatory is going to speak, is if you pepper spray them with ceaseless questions, punctuated with exclamations of unmitigated fascination. Which is probably why I have a blog—to unload all the answers I have to a lifetime of unasked cocktail party questions.

I was introduced to MZA’s colleague Henry, who had a pleasant, laid back way about him. The more I talked to Henry, the more I realized he was actually, to the letter, minus the fish hooks, McLean Stevenson from M*A*S*H—the laconic drawl, the mischievous twinkle in his eyes, the war stories.

He told me a great story about taking up an older couple, against the rules, in a Black Hawk chopper he was flying. The husband had been a pilot in WWII and so Henry took him and the missus up for a spin. I got along with him right well but his wife was wearing cologne that smelled exactly like the paste they apply with a Q-tip on your gums before injecting Novocain. It was killing me. When he told me the Black Hawk story, she stood next to him, giggling nervously and tugging on his arm, asking why he had never told her that story.

I talked to Young Couple and was prepared with a roster of questions, since I knew they had lived in California AND she was expecting a baby! Perfect. But I was wrong! Husband was on low-battery auto pilot—nice, but not even faking his abject boredom and “dragged along spouse” status. He was in what I call “play, stop, pause” mode, wherein the individual is asked a question, which they answer, that is “play” mode, then they hit “pause” until the next question. When there has been a significant gap in the conversation, they hit “stop” to conserve energy. They never hit “record.”

Young Couple Wife was very nice, very friendly, but clearly consumed with pregnancy, birth, the baby, life during pregnancy and the fantasyland of life après baby that in no way related to anyone else who had ever had a baby. This happens a lot with pregnant women. It has to do with egocentricity, as in, I am having a baby and no one else has ever experienced this! Like a young guy I used to work with—extremely nice—who, when he found out I had a son said, “Oh, I have a dog, but I guess it’s not the same.” No, as a matter of fact you’re right! It is not the same! Not at all! And then he turned around and his wife had a baby and suddenly he came close to being Insufferable Daddy, what with the emailed updates and baby photos. And, no questions about anyone else's baby. Or dog.

I guess what I am observing is, there is so little empathy left. And graciousness. And genuine interest outside of carefully calibrated, fenced, homogenized circles. No one knows how to operate outside of their element anymore—beyond the prescribed, predictable, rehearsed, known aspects of life. Hence, lifeless cocktail party banter, not to be confused with canned office banter. Similar breeds, different animals.

There was Comb Over Platitude Man, sassy spaghetti strap Hostess/Daughter, lively, chesty, spitfire Palestinian Woman, and a family of Sikh neighbors who were uncharacteristically belly up to the bar. The guest of honor gave a speech, with notes that he wrote on a name tag. It was very sweet—I was touched because he was humbly referring to his long, and probably interesting, career as a pilot. I could see he felt a little lost, as though he wasn’t quite ready to give up his professional identify and surrender to the deck chair, the tilted, over tilled, V-shaped lawn and a stein of German beer.

So there he was, a man at the end of a 38 year career, reading his professional highlights from atop his patio/deck to a garden full of mostly strangers—his wife’s colleagues and some of their neighbors. He thanked his wife and his adopted kids and made light of how he was truly going to relax. Not do anything. Really. At which point I almost cried because, while he may have felt lost, I would have felt like a heroin-injected wood nymph racing naked through a dewy forest if someone said I could retire right now. Even if I had to spend the rest of my days on an oddly situated plot of land, high above a Virginia subdivision cul-de-sac, with freckly split levels and mismatched neighbors.

I’d take my stein of beer and reflect gently on my patchworked career and look out over the outline of the Blue Ridge mountains in serious contentment. Hey, hand over that retirement buddy! I know. I know he earned it. I’m just a piker, relatively. Twenty years to go and counting. Or something. And there I was, just getting used to the view.


Cynicism is another word for reality

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