Thanks to made-for-TV movies, we're prepared for any cruel twist of fate that life brings. Flesh-eating virus, crashing into an iceberg, any disease known to mankind, we've been there, done that. We know the drill.
And thanks to real movies, we are also prepared for the unexpected in any manifestation-attacks by radioactive worms, scaly aliens with super powers and telepathy, indestructible evil robots, ghosts that walk through walls, and kids who can turn their heads 360 degrees. If a spaceship landed outside my window right now, I would be surprised, because it doesn't happen every day. But shocked? I don't think so, because I've "seen" this from StarTrek to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I'm well prepared for the plane without a pilot, the eighteen wheeler with the demented driver, or herds of living dinosaurs. It's the expected that never fails to surprise me.
We go to school. We're well prepared. Our parents tells us stories of their own first days. We ease into it through pre-school and kindergarten. They even hold a get-acquainted, no-risk practice days so we won't be traumatized by the transition. Turns out, it's a piece of cake. In the back of our minds we know that school will end some day, and we will work for the rest of our lives. But no one ever tells us about how to manage this transition. The end of school comes with a frenzy of exams, a blaze of pomp and circumstance, and a celebration that doesn't seem to end. The last thing anyone thinks about is what happens next. The cliché (and the truth) is that looking for work is the hardest work of all. Jobs require the one thing that the recent graduate doesn't have, experience. Last spring's phi beta whateva' is this summer's nobody. In the blink of an eye, you go from the Big Deal on Campus to looking up at the low man on the totem pole. After a life in which just showing up at classes was an accomplishment, now the challenge to convince some stranger that he needs you. This is preceded by a gulp that accompanies the swallowing of pride. (Take heart, young graduates, it gets easier the next time around.)
Sex, love, marriage (not necessarily in that order) are comparatively easy to handle. Assuming we've logged our generational quota of sitcoms, we're relationship experts by our late teens. Parenthood, however, is counter-intuitive and catches many of us utterly unprepared. This is in spite of the fact that we have diligently attended classes, read books, watched explicit videos, and mastered Lamaze breathing. The reality of parenthood arrives unexpectedly, and hits you on the head with a two-by-four. My personal story: My wife and I drifted seamlessly through the classes, the baby showers, the war stories of other parents. We were, in our minds, utterly prepared. Labor came. It was difficult, but we were prepared. There was the unanticipated (but, not entirely) complication of a Caesarian, but we got through that, too. The next morning we held our son, our little miracle. The sun drifted through the hospital window, casting a friendly glow over the congratulatory flowers. My wife was making her first attempt at breast-feeding. It was a tableau of tranquility, painted by a French Impressionist. Then, suddenly, rudely, violently, a stream of golden liquid arched across the room. My wife and I looked at each other in stupid, paralyzed panic. In none of our child preparation courses had it told us what to do if an arc of golden liquid, emanating from within the child, shoots across the room.
"OMIGOD," I thought, my mind adrenalized by emergency, "HE'S SPRUNG A LEAK!"
I leapt into action, but I didn't know what to do. Call the fire department? Dial 911? Find a cork? Duct tape? My memory is fuzzy, but I think that for thirty seconds or so I moved alternately one foot to the left, then one foot to the right. My wife, immobilized by her own confusion, watched me as she would a tennis match. Eventually, we realized that the emergency equipment we needed was a diaper. Oh, and a towel to wipe up the floor.
The kids grow, but now we're in familiar territory, remembering what it was like when we were kids ourselves. Doesn't seem that long ago. Just as you've got it figured out, your kids become teenagers. These are turbulent times, troubled waters, a standing chop as the tides change in the sea of life. It's chaotic, uncomfortable, and unpredictable, just as you knew it would be. The FBI at the door? The World Banks wants its twelve million dollars back? A timeshare in Jamaica? The daughter of the Chief of Police? You don't expect this, but you are prepared. You shrug your shoulders, smile that wry grin, go heh-heh-heh, and sigh: "Teenagers." Everyone understands. Then, it's time for them to go. You've been so busy getting them ready to spread their wings and fly that you've forgotten to prepare yourself for them being gone. It's devastating. You've spent the best years of your life caring for these little SOBs, now they abandon you. As you scramble to redefine yourself and re-establish your foundation, the kid calls in crisis to remind you that, even though you've been abandoned, you are still needed.
Life stabilizes. The kids are launched, and you remember that you still have a life to lead. No one has prepared you for this, but you still have dim memories of a life pre-parenthood so the challenge is surmountable. You take that role in community theater, rekindle your love of photography, breathe your way through a yoga class, but then, just as you feel yourself becoming your own person, life plays its next mischievous trick. Your parents start to slide.
What's up with this?
This isn't fair. They've always been there for you. Twin Rocks of Gibraltars. And now they are showing signs of becoming … infirm? Intellectually, you know about aging. You know that all people die, but not your parents. They've always … been … there. This final act in the play of life is infinite in its hues and variety. Just as with birth, each death is unique, the only commonality is that no one appreciates its subtle plot so much as you. When the final curtain draws, you are now alone in the world, a jumbled blend of sweet memories and comforting platitudes. Caring for your parents in their declining years is not without rewards. It mends a few of the rips and scars left from your own fledgling process as a teenager. You knew it would come to this. But when it does, you are caught completely off-guard. I'm now in the part of life where my infinite wisdom and vast life experience are more important than my dashing good looks and quick reflexes. What I'm finding is that I am being constantly surprised by the expecteds of life. Such as birds. The birds have always been there, but not so that I noticed. Now, however, the glimpse of a bluebird on its way through, or the wing-print in the snow from a red tail's attack on a mole, or the trill of a nondescript vireo are small miracles. A flock of turkeys, eleven strong, march past my office window at nearly the same time each afternoon. I have watched them evolve four adults and seven chicks to their current status of equals. I stand at the window, transfixed by their stately procession. I am compelled to count, to know if one among them has fallen to a fox, coyote, or hawk.
Then there's the garden.
I've known, vaguely, that food does not originate at the supermarket. And I remember from freshman biology (is it now "freshpeople"?) about pistils and stamen and the cycle of life. I even did my share of throwing seeds at the ground, freezing broccoli, and putting up jars of dilly beans. I never expected that the garden would become the biggest unexpecteds of my life.
I claim no special prowess, only a deep well of appreciation for my little patch of miracles. I religiously mix ashes from the woodstove with kitchen scraps and lawn clippings to make compost to build the health of the soil. I marvel when the first green sprouts of garlic push through the mulch in spring. I plant my seeds much too early, so anxious am I to eat something that has grown from my own tilled earth. I pay attention to the bugs, and weeds, and butterflies. I let them teach me.
I plant for aesthetics, putting circular patches of radishes between a rose bush and Swiss chard with rainbow stalks. I plant for variety. Does anyone really need so many types of heirloom tomatoes? When I grew up there was one tomato-red. I plant for experimentation. Will fennel bulb out properly in Vermont? Can I coax my eggplant to fruit before the first frost? I plant to eat, and I plant for exercise, and I plant for economy, and I plant to save the planet. But mostly I plant because it's so much damn fun to see what comes up.
Birds and gardens surprise and delight me, but I am also sustained by the changing of the seasons, weather in all its northland variations, the cycles of the moon, and light, which connects all of the above in a palette of infinite nuance.
We expect the unexpected in life. The unexpected is our source for high drama, the key to connecting us with deepest emotions. I'm content to rent my drama at the video store. When it comes to unbridled, hedonistic pleasure, the source is the backyard, the window, fireflies on a summer evening, a sun-warmed tomato, and the first peepers in Spring. These are expected. They never let us down. The only thing unexpected about them is how much they reveal of the privilege of life.
I hope I see those turkeys today. I expect I will.
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updated 29 November 2004 : 9:53 (m) Caspar (Pacific) time
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