Saturday, March 17, 2012

Prolugue: Part Two

As you can probably guess I wasn’t one of the pretty people. Oh no one called me a hag and even if they had my own psyche was free of the stuff that turned kids to anorexia and bulimia or cutting or whatever else it was they did to try and take back some control. On the other hand I was under no illusions that I’d ever give Snow White, Cinderella, or Princess Aurora a run for their money and I was OK with that.

Where I grew up class distinction was still alive and well but it was never openly acknowledged except by us kids. The two primary groups were the “Pretties” and the … well, lots of derogatory words were used but I’ll just call the second group the “Not Pretties.” Under both of these groups existed subcultures … jocks, geeks, Goths, gamers, druggies, rednecks, blue bloods, rich, poor, “good girls,” “bad boys” … just about anything you found in the adult world you could find its doppelganger in the adolescent social circles.

All you had to do was look around as you were walking down the halls between classes and you’d find just about every stereotype ever portrayed in any teen entertainment flick in history; and most of the kids lived in just as big a fantasy world. Verbal altercations over whether Katniss should have wound up with Gale or Peeta were fairly common. And before that they argued over whether Hermione would wind up with Harry or with Ron. For a while there you could find even the most level headed girls arguing about Edward vs. Jacob … like vampires and werewolves really existed. I never got it. Sure, the books were kind of entertaining but they were fiction; to me real people was ten times more interesting than those make believe characters.

The invisible lines were drawn early in life and rarely did a person escape their label after entering middle school. But not everyone conformed to these make believe classes of people any more than people had at any time in history. I was a born nonconformist. Not in a militant sense by any stretch, I actually liked rules and regulations and knowing who was in charge and how the game was supposed to be played. But I was a social nonconformist and that wasn’t always appreciated. Only the cynicism and the weird sense of humor that I my father had genetically imprinted me with helped me to survive those years with my feelings mostly intact.

One of the biggest complaints that seemed to relegate me to having lots of acquaintances but few really good friends was that people had a hard time pegging me into a hole. My parents were well liked but not well off. I had my own car; not as a gift from my parents but because I worked like a dog to get it. I could dance, sing, draw, and play an instrument but wasn’t invested in the arts enough to care anything about being in band, choir, or the art club. I was a good girl but every jock and bad boy in school made it a point to stay in my good graces. Like Aston Rogers, one of the linebackers on our school football team said, it wasn’t my looks or charming personality, it was the free tutoring I’d given nearly all of them at one time or another. I was a geek that could hold my own in the chess club, AV club, and in the computer lab … but my normal weekend occupations had me outside getting a healthy tan and building muscles rather than sitting in front of a gaming console. I’ll admit I kind of wallowed in what I considered my uniqueness a bit. I had a superiority complex like most of the kids my age and predilection; it took some major heartache before I came to understand that my non-conformity was just a mask for an unhealthy dose of arrogance.

Despite the latent arrogance I was a normal kid and my family was pretty normal as well. Oh, my folks had their quirks but I don’t think a kid has ever lived that hasn’t viewed at least some of the stuff their parents did a little cross-eyed.

My mom was a “pretty.” The difference was that she was naturally beautiful both inside and out and I’m not just saying that because she was my mother. Supposedly I looked like her but I never did manage to measure up to her measurements if you catch my drift. I took after her in coloring and in my facial features but the rest of me was built more like my grandmothers and their mothers; sturdy like a Tennessee mule. I guess that’s the kind of women that my grandfathers and great grandfathers liked though because they had enough kids between ‘em to make it seem like I was a cousin either by birth or marriage to just about every family in the tri-county area. I once heard my father say that it was a wonder there weren’t two-headed, six-toed kids in every classroom at County Consolidated.

My dad was good looking too but he’d come into it only after he’d matured a bit … like fine wine or smooth whiskey. He wasn’t real tall so he couldn’t be one of the highest ranking pretty people but he had dark, wavy hair, a manly build and these incredible eyes that made him a real target for female attention. He never let it go to his head though because in high school he’d been just as geeky looking as you could get and still be a good ol’ boy. He said that kept him grounded and by then he and Mom were sweethearts on their way to wedded bliss before Mom was even out of high school. Yeah, I know, sounds weird but life was different then and my immediate family was considered kind of backwards anyway.

My Dad came from a family that were farmers, didn’t have a lot of money, and because of that college just wasn’t in the cards for him despite the fact that he used to read the encyclopedia for pleasure and win all sorts of oratory awards in school. Mom … I loved her but I have to be honest … she was clever and talented in her own way - could do all sorts of needlework, could cook like a dream, and she could look at a plant and it would beg to do her bidding - but she wasn’t exactly into the academic thing. Dad had to help her finish high school; she just didn’t have the ambition for it. All she wanted was a home of her own and a man of her own that would help her get it. Dad was more than happy to be that guy.

Mom’s family were farmers too. Dad lived with his grandparents and their farm was next door to Mom’s parents’ farm. Dad used to say that Granddaddy kept the meanest bulls in the pasture between the two farms just so he would have to walk all the way up the road, down the highway, and then back up Mom’s road to go courting her. Granddaddy was the kind of guy that used to say anything worth having is worth working for and I have a feeling Dad was right … ‘cause Granddaddy could be all shades of mischievous.

Here’s the thing though, despite our family’s background and what most people would think that would lead to, Dad had expectations of me beyond being one of the next generation of farmers. Maybe even because of that his expectations were higher, or maybe he was planning on living the college life vicariously through me. Don’t care either way; all I ever cared about back then was making my dad proud. He was happy that I looked like Mom but he once told me in an unguarded moment that he was happier that I’d gotten his brains.

My dad, despite the lack of higher education (or maybe because of it) was a smart man. He’d seen the economic writing on the wall and even lived it. I was too young to remember when my great grandparents passed away and the farm was chopped up into all these smaller chunks by their kids leaving my Dad out except for the original farmhouse way on the backside of the back forty. But I do remember when Granddaddy lost his farm and everything had to be auctioned off. My maternal grandmother died before I was born – Mom claimed she died of a broken heart because my uncle was killed in action during some skirmish or other during one of the Gulf Wars – and Granddaddy lived less than a year after losing the farm; he just gave up after his reason for living was gone.

Those two incidents and what came out in the wills and probate split the family on both sides. I mean there was blame enough to go around but bad things happen to good people and that wasn’t a good enough reason to cause all of the rifts that happened. As a result most of my aunts and uncles on both sides had moved out of the area by the time I started high school. They wanted more than what the area could offer I guess and sold their bit of the land to people who were trying to escape the big city only to watch the homes they built fall to foreclosure within a few years. All of those little plots of land that used to make up one of the bigger farms out on that end of the highway just went to seed leaving rotting McMansions that could never find new owners. This left an ugly mark on the once beautiful landscape. Have had some of those silly archaeologists out since then wanting to dig around but the only thing left is the foundations, if that, and I’ve told them more than a few times to shoo and go find something more interesting and useful to use their grants on.

I was raised in the farmhouse that Dad inherited, the one he himself grew up in. Mom kept a huge garden but there wasn’t enough land around it to really do much more than grow enough for our own needs during the year and a little bit to donate to the church pantry. We could have farmed more intensively, and my parents had plans to do that, but during their lifetime it never quite happened.

Dad had to work in town at the mill to pay taxes and insurance and provide all the stuff that you have to have when you have a wife and kids to take care of. And admittedly Dad liked his toys … electronic gear out the whazoo, his big ol’ diesel truck, and his obnoxiously orange Kabota tractor with all its handy-dandy implements. And his hobbies took a chunk of the budget too like all of that solar stuff he and I used to build … the solar powered water fountain in Mom’s herb garden was probably the most useless in the long run but that was made up for by all of the other stuff we did. Dad was kind of funny by standards back in the later days of the Before; he never bought stuff unless he had cash in hand to pay for it; I think he and my Mom had one cred card (called a “credit card” back then) between them and the only time that got used was in an absolute emergency.

Dad was even “stranger” when it came to owing people money. Painted onto the plaster above our front door in our entry way were the words “Neither a Borrower nor Lender Be.” All the big appliances in our house were natural gas because Dad could buy the gas and own it free and clear. Doctor bills were about the only thing he would consent to pay in installments and that’s because he didn’t have much choice which irked him immensely. And oh boy did my Dad hate the utility companies … he hated them worse than the tax collector and that was saying something.

We got all of our water from two wells; one residential and one agricultural. And before I entered middle school Dad had disconnected the house from the electric lines. To avoid temptation he cut the wires from the house, removed the electric dog house conduit on the roof, and started a campaign to have the Electric co-op remove all of the poles between our house and the public road. His running battle with the guy that ran the electric co-op is how we got on a serious kick with the solar power.

We didn’t use any electricity we didn’t generate ourselves but the co-op still got a piece of us through property taxes. When I was in middle school Dad got so mad one time because they were trying to force him to pay some really large charge for cost of fuel increases that he literally went out and cut down all of the utility poles from the front of our property back to the house. There was a lot of screaming and hollering that day that’s for sure. They threatened to prosecute Dad for what he did but he said he’d sent them registered letter after registered letter to get their poles and equipment off of his property and they’d failed to do so, so legally it was abandoned property.

People had a hard time deciding whether to laugh at Dad’s behavior or be jealous he was doing something they’d always wanted to do. In the end the county lawyers didn’t want to take a chance of losing in court since we could prove we hadn’t used any electricity from them in over a year so all they threatened to do was charge us some outrageous amount if we ever wanted the electric re-installed.

My dad of course said they could shove it and that was the official end of that and because we didn’t have any of the co-op’s equipment within our boundaries we got a tax exemption which basically added insult to injury in the eyes of the co-op management.

One thing was for sure, the cost of fuel we did use was hard on the family budget and using a generator to run everything that wasn’t propane or purchased natural gas wasn’t working so dad grabbed all of the extra shifts he could get … he was one of their head fixer guys so it wasn’t that hard to do … and put some big money into making the farmhouse as non-commercial fuel dependent as possible. He even started cooking his own biodiesel for the tractor and to keep the generator topped up so it could run when the sun went away long enough to deplete all of the batteries we stored in the shed he called the battery shack. And he made his own charcoal for running this old timey steam engine sort of thing he got at an estate auction two counties over.

So my mom and dad may have looked like the pretty people but they lived more like geeks. They weren’t the eco-freak kind of geeks though, more like I can invent or build what I need to get out from under Big Brother kind of geeks. They just … I guess you could say my dad could work and play well with others up to a point but he did like his independence enough that it sometimes held him back from getting a promotion at the mill and stuff like that. Friends called him eccentric; what his enemies called him would not be polite to immortalize in print.

Mom didn’t care either way about what she considered to be Dad’s hobbies. All she wanted was for everything to turn on and off when she wanted it to. The lack of promotions or membership in the country club didn’t faze her either. She didn’t care about designer labels because she made all of our clothes and she’d just as soon shop at the Mennonite store or the discount barn as get caught dead at the big mall off the interstate one county over. Dad used to joke around and call her a reverse snob but not often because the comment mostly just flew over her head.

Dad and I used to get a chuckle over some of the things that Mom would do or say but it was never meant mean spiritedly. Just as soon as we explained what we were laughing at Mom would often join us in a good giggle at herself, she was just that grounded and self-assured. I can remember one day I’d been conjugating Spanish verbs at the kitchen table and making up sentences. Dad, who’d been forced to learn Spanish because of where some of the mill’s machinery came from, was helping me while Mom was washing dishes at the sink.

Suddenly she turned to me and asked in her deep southern drawl, “Lydie, what on earth is a moo-hair.”

It was a good five seconds before it clicked. Dad and I were laughing so hard we were choking on our spit and had tears rolling down our faces. I suppose you really needed to be there to get it but things like that happened pretty regular. When we could finally draw a deep enough breath to explain that it wasn’t “moo hair” but “mujer” for woman, all she did was roll her eyes and give a chuckle and say, “Well, for Heaven’s sake, it wasn’t that funny.”

On the other hand, contrary to me my little brother was a pretty person straight out of the chute. People were constantly telling Mom she should enter his pictures in photo contests right from the time he was a baby. He had Dad’s eyes, the same as I did, but they were surrounded by lashes longer and thicker than mine and I don’t think he ever went through an awkward phase after he learned to walk and talk … and boy could he talk. He could wrap our parents around his little finger and just about everyone else too. He wasn’t a bad kid, there just weren’t that many things he ever had to work very hard at. He was smart, good looking, and on top of that he was a jock since he’d never met a piece of sports equipment he didn’t like.

I loved Will like only a big sister can love a little brother and I think he loved me back because I was about the only person he couldn’t manipulate. Every so often even pretty people want to hear the truth without any embellishments. I kept him grounded I guess you could say while he kept me plugged in. And he did have a sweet nature (for a kid that was 200% boy) so he wasn’t a total brat. In that respect he took after Mom as much as I took after Dad.

Then one day he got sick and he never got to finish getting better. He might have if he’d been given the chance. Childhood leukemia had one of the highest cancer survival rates of all the bad stuff that can happen to kids back then.

On top of it all, when Will got sick it seemed the whole world seemed to start falling apart. Right after we got the initial diagnosis the folks over in the Middle East decided to take their ball and go home since no one wanted to play by their rules. Well, that’s not exactly a good metaphor for what they did but it was for their general attitude. They just stopped selling their oil to any country that wasn’t an Islamic Theocracy … or what became known as IT countries in the media. The IT’s thought they had the world by the gonads but it became apparent real fast that the IT countries couldn’t even get along with each other. No sell the oil, no fund the rich families. If the rich families no have money then no funds for the Islamic extremist groups and these groups started feeding on their own people. They also found out that all of the IT countries combined couldn’t absorb enough of the oil to keep their economies going which reinitiated the clan and sect warfare that had temporarily ceased … WMDs like chemical and biological weapons were unleashed on ethnic groups left and right, reports of genocide became almost a daily fact of life, and on and on while the religious leaders did nothing but fuss and posture so they could claim the title of most pious. Of course it is more complicated than that but if you want all the details study your history lessons or go to the museums. I’m telling my story not theirs.

While this was going on the rest of the world mostly sat back and watched for a while because with very few exceptions no one was doing too well. The countries that had their own oil sources got a little greedy but many of those places didn’t have leaders strong enough (or mentally stable enough) to keep their country safe from invasion. Then it started.

Russia re-absorbed most of the former Soviet bloc territories … or at least their resources. Venezuela withstood pressure for a while but the little putz that ran the country for so long had burned so many bridges that when he was brutally slain in a coup d’état nobody grieved very much if at all. The only really sane countries left with reserves sufficient to at least temporarily keep their countries from falling into the Dark Ages were the US and Canada and that wasn’t saying a whole lot.

Then some loony tune over in the Middle East used the nuclear option and all bets were off. It didn’t take long for World War III to be officially declared though the US refused to do much more than defend our own shores and protectorates. Too many times in the last few decades our country was burdened with leaders that kept calling every fight “unwinnable” or “criminal” and this time was no exception. Everyone was saying that our leadership had their private parts locked up and held for ransom … a crude but nauseatingly apt metaphor. Certainly none of what they did seemed to jive with the heroic history of our country’s past.

The government even stopped accepting recruits for the military calling it a matter of “economic feasibility.” Lunacy. A lot of people were saying that the government types were afraid of the same coup d’état as what was experienced in Venezuela would happen here. I can remember Dad saying there was definitely some reason for their fear.

As a result of everything going on there was massive shortages and where there wasn’t a shortage there was either massive deflation or massive inflation depending on the market. Real estate became problematic again after finally bottoming out. How bad it became depended on location and available resources. For instance, communities that got most of their power from dams or from nuclear power plants did OK, not great but they were surviving because people wanted to move there and live. Communities like where I lived that were primarily dependent on fossil fuels. People were leaving the area in droves to get someplace where they could turn on a tap or light switch and be able to count on it working. Communities that were completely dependent on buying their power from other communities totally fell apart and dealt with a significant amount of civil unrest.

Food was an area experiencing hyperinflation, but again it primarily depended on where the communities got their utilities … or more accurately where the processing plants and food mills got their power from and how far away the products had to travel to reach the grocer’s shelves. The mega-farms were given priority for fuel despite tight rationing so food was still available, it just wasn’t available in wide variety or all of the time. As a result of that everyone seemed to be growing something, but the fertilizers and pest control products that had encouraged huge yields in the past were too expensive for most people to purchase and even the mega-farms had to ration their use lowering crop production significantly.

And the last part of the puzzle of whether an area imploded or not came from whether they had access to good water and good sewage disposal. Municipalities for the most part did keep the water going, but the water quality and pressure fell a great deal. And the sewage plants were backed up … no pun intended.

My family managed because of the lifestyle my parents had chosen for us years before. Mom had always baked our bread and pretty much preferred to cook from scratch. It had nothing to do with being frugal and everything to do with the way Mom thought. One of the few things that Mom was hardcore about was cooking and sewing so everything she had and did with respect to those two things had to be the best. It was part of her self-image I guess. And because Dad was a sucker for whatever Mom wanted he bought all the whole grains she wanted at a discount from the grain elevators directly; occasionally he’d get a good deal on some partial lots of specialty grains at the mill. She had all these grinders and other kitchen gadgets half of which at the time I didn’t know what they were for.

So when things started getting tough at the grocery store we didn’t feel it at first because Mom would just switch to using stuff she could grow or had preserved herself. Although I have to say that at the time I didn’t appreciate having every spare moment I had away from school and work being put into juicing and canning fruit, helping Dad expand the root cellar and build an extra solar cooler, or prepping foods so they could go in the solar dehydrators that Dad had built to help Mom keep up with the larger garden she had been keeping the last couple of years.

I know I sound like an ingrate and a real brat but the fact of the matter was that I was just a teenager and I was tired of all the gloom and doom. I saw we were doing OK at home so it didn’t really penetrate my awareness as to how bad things were out in the world and even down the street. The school board decided to keep us insulated so our little psyches wouldn’t suddenly turn psycho and a lot of parents agreed with their tactics. I wasn’t completely oblivious but my reaction was muted by the care my parents provided in our home. Not being completely oblivious isn’t the same thing as sitting up and taking notice. I knew just enough to realize the world was in the midst of a pendulum swing but not enough to be scared of how far it had already swung or how far it would eventually swing.

In school I was the second smartest person if judged based on GPA. I won’t say I wasn’t more than a little proud of that; I felt I had places to go and things to do in my life and they didn’t involve living at the farmhouse until I was old and gray. I considered the way my parents chose to live like some kind of cute aberration, something I would one day grow up and leave behind when I went to university and then went to work out in the “real world.” In other words I was about like any other teenager and despite my opinion to the contrary I didn’t really have a clue what “real life” was all about.

I’m not bragging about being the second smartest kid in the high school, it just turned out that way. I was a really great test taker and luckily for me I actually understood and retained what I was being tested on despite being a product of a poor public school district. My Dad demanded no less and face it, most girls want their father’s approval and I saw my grades as a way to do that. I got plenty of reinforcement that it was true – that grades mattered – but I was also blessed enough to know that my parents would have loved me even if I was a mediocre student or even worse, which in a perverse way only made me want to please them academically even more.

Who was the smartest kid in school, the one with the highest GPA? That would have been Matt Lewiston; yeah, that guy in the history books. Believe it or not Matt and I had been paired up since we were kids despite our differences. What could be cuter than two geeky kids as sweet hearts right? Quite a few people thought it was a natural outcome so we lived up to their expectations without really putting much thought into it.

As it turned out Matt and I were both smart but academics was about the only similarities that we shared. It was a long time before I understood what those differences really meant.

Matt, well I guess you could say he was my boyfriend. We didn’t really date exactly. Matt didn’t have a car and my Dad, for all that he tolerated Matt pretty well and admired his academic standing, didn’t exactly have a lot of respect for the boy who was “chatting up” his daughter. Matt was … well, Matt was what you would call non-athletic. He also wasn’t much into the school spirit thing so if I wanted to go to a football game or dance I went stag or with friends. In fact, Matt wasn’t into much that didn’t involve getting into his first choice school MIT. Looking back I can see that Matt was so focused on academics that he was stunted in other areas, but to be honest that wasn’t the only reason he was stunted.

His parents were … well they were a nightmare in my opinion. His dad was an engineer employed by the TVA and traveled all over the state doing some important stuff that I usually just zoned out about when he started expounding. My Dad thought Matt’s dad was a donkey’s behind and I could tell he wasn’t far off the mark even when I was younger. His mom was a former beauty queen who was, to put it bluntly, subconsciously horrified by the geeky kid she’d given birth to. You wouldn’t have known it though if you hadn’t been around the family much. Matt’s mom did try to be a good parent but she was just so wrapped up in Matt’s two older sister’s lives and in the line of beauty products she always seemed to be hawking that he just sort of fell through the cracks at home. The only thing she ever bragged on was the fact that Matt was going to be an engineer just like his father.

Matt and his dad had a lot in common, they were both geeks extraordinaire … I mean the pocket protector wearing, laptop carrying, Segway riding kind of geeks. If you don’t know what a Segway is, look it up; I know they look like ancient toys but at one time they were the epitome of the geek elite. Matt and his dad were the kind of geeks that hung framed posters of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Einstein in the basement beside the shelf with the three different gaming stations all hooked up to a 56” LD HDTV, who had as an application on their iPhones (kind of an early version of the current tablet communicators that have become common), and who viewed the movie Revenge of the Nerds as an instruction manual on how to survive college life. And no, I will not give a synopsis of that movie. Look it up … likely if you are reading this you are going to have to do a lot of that anyway to understand what Before was like.

Matt and his father, as you’ve no doubt learned in history class or watching biographies on the tri-v, were the archetypal geek if ever there was one. But Mr. Lewiston had one advantage that many geeks did not; he came from a very wealthy family and as a result Mrs. Lewiston – a role model of a “pretty” if ever there was one – overlooked his geekness in the interest of a comfortable life. She was known as a trophy wife and very good at her job.

Despite his beginnings I always through Matt was a solid, regular person. He and I had been friends our whole lives and I thought I understood him. We tolerated each other’s parents out of simple consideration. He never did understand how or why my family worked or why my brother and I got along - his sisters were total cats (a descriptive term apropos in more ways than one) - and maybe that was the first inkling I had that our differences were greater than our similarities.

It was raining the day my life diverged from the firm path I had thought it was on; I can remember that clearly. What happened was instead of just Dad dropping me off at school as usual it was the whole clan because they were taking Will to Nashville to get the results of the latest round of blood work. I didn’t even mind arriving to school in Mom’s old Malibu with the headliner that was constantly falling down. We were all pretty excited because Will was looking better than he had in a year; the swelling from the steroids was gone and even his hair had grown back. About mid-morning I asked to be excused and Mr. Sweely our biology teacher gave me a pass as he understood what I was going to do, giving me a thumbs up in support. I went to the office – you had to or they’d confiscate your cell phone – and showed my note and then called my parents.

Everyone in the office waited with baited breath and then cheered with me when I did the happy dance. Will was only two years younger than me, well-liked even by the teachers, and our story was common knowledge. His blood work came back and they said he appeared to be in remission. My parents said they were going to be stuck at the hospital for a while longer doing some follow up and I’d have to ride the bus home but I didn’t care, our prayers had been answered and life was good.

I was walking on cloud nine, not even the cafeteria food could bring me down so I didn’t think anything of it when I got called to the office again later in the day. When I walked in you could tell that something was out of sync. Mrs. Meachum, the girls’ dean was waiting for me at the door and started ushering me into her office but my eyes were caught by the TV that was set to CNN … something unheard of during the school day … and there was fire and smoke coming out of what was left of this vaguely familiar structure … and then along the bottom of the screen came the words Suicide Bomber Attacks Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

The rest of that day and the next couple was a blur I prefer not to dredge up in memory. I think what made it all worse was that a lot of people avoided me as if what had happened to my family was communicable or something. Hundreds of people died that day, not just my family; it was plastered on the news all over the world. People from all over the world sent their condolences. There was a big memorial planned and my parents’ and brother’s names appeared on some plaque eventually erected on the spot. I received cards and letters (via a special program set up by some charity) from people that I’d never heard from as far away as Singapore, Malta, and Taiwan. I got sympathy from people closer to home as well.

People in my community felt bad as well and several churches even sent workers to the relief effort, but I was the one that took it off the TV and brought it into their living rooms. It didn’t just happen to someone else in some other place … it had happened to three of their own. And for that reality check, for making them acknowledge the worst this world can do, a lot of people couldn’t forgive me.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure whether to cheer or sob. ANOTHER Kathy story!!! Yay!! But it's not