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Archive for December, 2010

fast-forward 25 years

A link to this 25-years-from-now video time capsule just landed in my inbox, and I went over to the “In 25 Years” web site and looked at some of the sample videos.  As I did so, I actually had a mental math shutdown. I was unable to subtract 1953 from 2035, which is when the time capsule will be opened, and just as unable to add 25 to 57.  Both of those numbers would tell me the age I will be 25 years from now. But I’ve managed to face the truth, the answer is 82, and I have to wonder not only what shape this poor sweet world will be in by then, but whether I’ll still be alive to see it.

The time capsule project was thought up by a bunch of young people: a young Californian named Pearl Wible and, from the looks of the web site, a couple of her young Californian friends.  The most ambitious part of their plan is that after they’ve “sealed off” the video time capsule (which will live somewhere in the internet cloud, as near as I can tell), they will try to gather together all the contributors they can find in 2035 for a huge middle-aged reunion.

I love how some of the people talking into their webcams say things like, “Hello future me.”  Such confidence.  Such sincerity. But there’s some black humor there, too, like the young guy who says, “If you’re seeing this now, it means I didn’t drink myself to death.”

If I made a video and were talking to my 82-year-old self, I would no doubt say something different than these 25-year-olds are saying as they talk to themselves at 50.  I’m not sure what it would be, though.  Would I tell my 82-year-old self that I should have realized that my 50s were my best years?  Would I tell her that I expect she’ll have found out that things kept getting better the older I got, as I watched daily tribulations fade away and leave me with concerns only about what really mattered?   Or would I be using the time-capsule video to talk not really to my future self at all — since there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll have died by then — but to my future middle-aged daughters, to tell them how central they were to my life?  Who knows.  Maybe I would just use it, once there’s nothing left to lose, to tell all the annoying people in my 2010 life to fuck off.

In a way, we all want to know how the story of our lives will turn out.  But in a bigger way, I think, we don’t.  I love the idea of the video time capsule, to be opened in 25 years, but it’s more than I can bear to try to picture my 82-year-old self clearly enough to have a conversation with her.

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Nutmeg and I have started a book club, and last night we had our third meeting to discuss Room by Emma Donaghue.  (I think Nutmeg and I loved it a little more than the others did, but we had a rousing conversation even with those who were a little less in awe of the book, which I still heartily recommend.)  In the course of our book talk, we ended up talking about The Bridges of Madison County, a book Nutmeg picked up the summer before she went to college, read without knowing anything about it, wept, and proudly announced that when she went off to college she would have a ready answer to the inevitable question, “What’s your favorite book?”  Easy, Nutmeg said; her new favorite book was The Bridges of Madison County.  To which Meta promptly replied, “That book is crap.”

It was a funny story, and it was germane to our discussion about whether Room is a gimmicky book like The Bridges of Madison County or some Stephen King books, or whether it’s something better.  But I took it another way.  As we laughed at Nutmeg’s story, she said something that made me a little sad.  “Yeah, she knew it was a dumb book.  That’s because Meta was the smart one, and I was the stupid one.”

That’s not exactly true, but it’s truer than I want to believe.  Meta was always super-smart, almost dysfunctionally so, and she was a tough act to follow, even for Nutmeg, who was really smart, too.  Meta always was reading, inhaling Shakespeare and Victor Hugo from a very young age, and Nutmeg liked books but had other things she preferred doing.  I tried to deny that we had typecast the girls quite so blatantly, but Nutmeg was insistent.  “Remember that card Dad made when Meta graduated from college and I graduated from high school?” she said.  “That was the running joke — she was smart and I was sporty.”  She smiled as she said that, and it looked like an  authentic smile — but this morning I’m not so sure.

I was especially sensitive to this whole idea of typecasting and favoritism at the book club meeting because I had, just hours before, had a long phone interview with a sociologist who’s spent the past 20-plus years studying the effects of parental favoritism, both on the parent and on the child.  She told me that almost every mother she interviewed (who were generally in their late 60s to early 80s) was willing to admit that she preferred one child over another along at least a couple of dimensions.  They were responding to questions like “Who do you feel closest to?” and “Who would you call in an emergency?” and “If you need caregiving, who would you most like to provide it?”   Just recently she started asking another question, an especially fiery one: “Which child has most disappointed you?”

And here’s the thing: the preferences are normal, and inevitable.  But the “kids” (who in this study were generally in their 40s and 50s) suffered as a result.  In families in which the favoritism was most extreme, the researchers found, kids were most likely to have psychological problems like depression.  And this was true whether or not the kid in question was the most favored one.  In other words, in families where it’s clear that Mother prefers one kid over another, it’s just as oppressive to be the chosen child as it is to be the unchosen one.

All of which makes me wonder: when we joke around with our kids about which one’s smart and which one’s sporty, when we make the suggestion to one of them that the other one’s driving us crazy, when we babysit more for one son’s kids than for another son’s or give one daughter a necklace that the other one wanted, are we doing more damage than we know?  In that same hand-made graduation card that Nutmeg referred to last night, iDaddy and I had included the line, “and they loved them very very much, and exactly equally.”  Because we did — we do — love them equally.  But is that enough?

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