The Instruction Book, the Real World and the Sot

“Trust me,” this guy at the party said, leaning in so I could smell every drop of pinot he’d swilled before deciding to share his political and social views with me, “when you have children, you’ll understand.”

I was torn between wanting to pour his drink over his smug head and feeling a little depressed, because it used to be, “Trust me, when you’re older you’ll understand.”

Understand what? Well, according to the ramblings of my friend the Sot, it seems to run the gamut, from “you’ll understand that voting Republican will make your life better” to “you’ll understand why people live in houses that are demonstrably too huge for them and drive cars that pollute the air as well as handle like a pig stuck in the mud” to “you’ll understand that not everybody can have a job they like and you’ll go out and get one you hate just to join the crowd.”

Can we please all just drop the idea that one’s age or state of child-having or not-having is a carved-in-stone indicator of one’s opinions? If it is, why do we bother to read? I mean, take the Sot’s line, and I should just kick back and quit this whole research thing because any day now my instruction booklet will just arrive in the mail. Maybe it comes on CD now, so I can just plug it straight into my head. One more birthday, pop out a kid or two, I guess, and I’ll have it all figured out.

Did I hold views I regretted when I was 19? Sure. I thought keggers were great. I thought kissing strangers at parties was sensible. I thought I could go five nights without sleep and not hallucinate. I thought taxes were bad and all guns were bad and that totally free trade was good and would make us all rich. I thought I’d be a published author by the time I was 30. I thought having plans that ended with “by the time I’m 30” would actually make me accomplish the tasks.

Have I changed my mind on certain things? Yeah. The Salvation Army isn’t necessarily the best place to buy a dress to meet the mayor in. I want to be delicate and skinny but I want to eat Mexican food more. I used to hate red wine; then I discovered I was drinking crap red wine and now I love it. Some corporations are capable of treating their workers decently and acting in a way that approaches benevolent. Some Republicans are fun guys to hang out with. Hemp necklaces are fucking ugly. Patchouli oil is gross, and boys who write one poetry often do not keep their promise to quit cocaine for one nor not to sleep with one’s roommate.

But deep down, have my views of the world, my entire personality, changed substantially in the past eight years? Not really. I should feel bad about that. People change, friends and family often tell me, in a vaguely reproachful tone, as if they’re disappointed I’m the same slightly shrill, argumentative, pushy girl who talked too much and always said the wrong thing that I was in high school.

Well, guess what? My first presidential vote was cast for Bill Clinton, and ten years after that I’m still a Democrat. Age hasn’t changed that. Nor has getting married (my husband’s practically a Green, for God’s sake). Nor has owning a home. If anything, I think my taxes are obscenely low considering what I get: a cop through my alley every fifteen minutes in the summertime making sure the kids aren’t breaking things too loudly, schools that kick ass, and a mayor who returns phone calls personally. Owning a home has made me happier about taxes and government, though not about shoveling snow. I don’t suddenly want to strangle government in the bathtub, Mr. Norquist, so if you want to convince me, it’s going to take a few more crazy interviews with Terry Gross to do it.

Other views that haven’t changed: Public school teachers should be paid in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, just like athletes. If our elected officials want to sleep with their secretaries, errand boys or interns, so long as they don’t vote to eviscerate the Bill of Rights as a result, I’m fine with it. We should have a huge and well-funded military and we should send it to shitty places run by dictators and make those places better. We should start that with Brooklyn and Englewood, and make the drug war a war, because the dealers think it is, and they’re the ones getting rich off it while poor people suffer. We should also be honest about the reasons we’re going places and doing things, and invite as many people as possible to participate. Restarting the draft wouldn’t be a bad idea so long, as my friend Rick pointed out, you give people the choice of two years’ military service or two years’ community service, teaching school kids or repairing crumbling roads in poor towns.

We should socialize the living shit out of medicine, because yeah, Dad, a rich Canadian comes here for health care, but a poor American dies without ever seeing a doctor, so I’ll take the system that at least gives everybody a chance. People should be involved in politics. It should be like crack cocaine. They should stay up all night talking about the World Court and the War Crimes Tribunal and a role for their country and for their city councils. They should argue about it in front of their kids and with their kids and invite the little moppets to join in the shouting as the best way of educating themselves. And if the kids ain’t interested, okay, but at least they know it’s out there for them if they want it.

Street protests and marches are patriotic and brilliant expressions of thought, and that isn’t stupid. If you don’t agree with the marchers, stay home until you find something you want to march about, but don’t make fun of them for being out there. If you can’t find something you feel strongly enough about to march for, don’t admit that out loud.

People should work at what they love, and if they have to eat peanut butter and give up cable to do it they should eat peanut butter and give up cable, and if they don’t want to do that they shouldn’t bitch about it.

Every single person who tells me “when you’re older” or “when you have children” is the person who acts like their big house and their shitty job and their fat car just happened to them. There were choices and you made them. They didn’t happen to you. You chose to stay in a job you hate because you liked the money more than you wanted to do what you loved. You chose to chain yourself to your big stupid house. It’s a house. You could sell it any time you wanted. Yes, you could, if you wanted something else bad enough. Be honest about your priorities before you criticize mine.

Go vote Republican. You don’t need to explain to anyone why you voted the way you voted, unless you want to convince them to vote with you. Go ahead, convince me. Tell me why the party’s ideas and people are better. I really am open to it. I’ve voted for the odd Repub in my life. But don’t tell me why my chosen party sucks more and why I’m morally inferior as well as responsible for all its worst excesses. Cynicism is not argument, and if being ashamed of myself made me stop doing things, I’d have quit drinking long ago.

I could go get a job making three times what I make now, writing. But I don’t, not because I don’t live in “the real world” or because I’m young or childless, but because I choose not to. We don’t need the extra money that much right now, but if that changes maybe I’ll change my mind.

And by the way, there’s no such thing as “the real world.” We all live in the same world, even though we shop at different places and see things differently. It’s the same world. My town is not on a different planet than yours, and red-state vs. blue-state, city vs. suburbs, Wisconsin vs. Illinois, young vs. old, SUV vs. hybrid crap is made up by corporations who think the highest ideals we can aspire to are basically brand loyalties and thus, illogically, our personalities. There’s more to us than that, don’t you think?

My circumstances have changed over the years, and thus, to a certain extent, my priorities. Yeah, I bought a house. I therefore spend more time looking for decent thrift-store junk to put in it instead of the crappy thrift-store junk that worked fine in the apartment. That’s taken a bite out of some weekends. It doesn’t mean I realized that my property values are more important than my personal values. That doesn’t mean I start freaking out when a black family moves into the place next door. It does mean I feel guilty for not baking them a cake or something, just like I felt guilty when the last five new people moved in and received no baked goods.

And when I have children, what exactly will I understand? Will I understand that they’re terrific and funny and smart and I love them more than anything? I hope so, but I would hope parents of all stripes recognize that loving one’s children is not some kind of exclusive property of one set of values.

Maybe I’ll start to understand what it’s like to be a financially-obssessed bigot. Hmm. Will I start choosing their friends based on race or income, choosing their school based on how high it’s priced? Will I move, because there’s been a robbery down the block and the only thing I can think of to do is to run, instead of considering what all the “old neighborhoods” for which we’re so nostalgic would have been like if people had stayed and fought for them and accepted new people?

Will I tell them they should keep a roof over their head and beyond that do what they like, or will I say, “You can be whatever you want to be, but you’d better be miserable and bitch about your job all the time, because otherwise you’re not part of the great American fraternity of wage slaves who take a bizarre pride in how screwed-up they are, but it’s okay, because they can afford vacations they don’t take and furniture they don’t want and a new car every year that they really don’t need?”

Will I tell them the lovely couple of “aunts” they have are sinful because they’re gay, and if they ever grow up to be like them they’ll go to hell? Maybe that’s what I’ll understand when I have children. But Jaysus, I hope not. What a terrible thing to teach them about the world, that the minute you have something to lose, you have to stop risking anything.

I’ve always thought that way. Until the instruction booklet comes, or the magical birthday, or the kid who’ll make me change my mind, I guess I’ll just keep doing it.

Now mothers and fathers, please lend a hand

And don’t criticize what you can’t understand

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command

Your old world is rapidly aging

So get out of the new one if you can’t understand

For the times, they are a changing

— Bob Dylan