Monday, February 08, 2010

The Refuge of the Roads

"These are the clouds of Michelangelo
Muscular with gods and sungold
Shine on your witness in the
refuge of the roads"

-- "Refuge of the Roads," Joni Mitchell

This last year has been both some of the most fulfilling and most stressful of my life.

Going into the nursing program at Truman College, a Chicago City College, was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I am thoroughly enjoying everything about the program-- the material, my instructors, my fellow students, everything.

My old friend Michael used to have a tag on his email that is variously ascribed to different people: "You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans."

My plan a few years back was to go to Pharmacy school and to work at a fancy downtown restaurant while I did it. I've changed the school plan-- for the better, I think. And I got fired from the fancy downtown restaurant when I walked in on the manager doing coke. Also for the better, I think.

Still, the last year had a couple of unplanned crises. In June, a guy blew through a stop sign with his SUV and hit the door of my little Toyota Corolla dead on. The sidebeams held and my son and I walked away from the accident, despite the car being totalled. About a month later, the recession caught up with us and my wife was laid off from her job.

We weathered 5 months of her being unemployed-- and me trying to adjust to starting nursing school at the same time as I was trying to adjust to having her here in the day, when I was used to having the place to myself. And we've been weathering money problems.

I've done some short term things. First, today, I contacted Vonage and changed our phone number. For less than $12, I've stopped the creditor calls. In the long term, tomorrow I'm calling a credit counseling agency so that I can manage the credit cards I've juggled my debts with until I finish nursing school.

The upshot of it was that I really needed a good weekend.

I had a feeling that the fact that my son had no high school commitments-- no band, debate or bowling bode well. I was right.

Friday evening I ran and picked him up and brought him home. I cooked up my famous chicken enchiladas while my kids chatted and played video games. Kim got home and we had a rarity-- a dinner with all four of us there. It was a delight.

Kim, who'd had a hellacious week, went to lay down and while the kids played an old Nintendo 64 game they love, I cleaned the kitchen and caught up with my emails and chatted with some friends on Facebook.

I'd Netflixed the last Indiana Jones movie, so Adam and I got ready to watch that while Mel prepared to watch a movie with her movie boyfriend Alan Rickman in it. Before the movies started, they asked if I could make some microwave popcorn. There would be no such thing. I was making it from scratch.

I dragged out the now-beautifully-seasoned iron skillet I dragged home on the bus sometime back in the early nineties-- before either of them were born. As I poured olive oil and popcorn kernels into the skillet, my kids crowded around it. I realized all of a sudden that they'd grown up with microwave popcorn. They'd never seen popcorn popped the old-fashioned way-- the way my mother had cooked it for my brothers and I when we were little-- in an iron skillet. Their fascination with this provided me with a really enjoyable parenting moment.

The skillet, which has been seasoned by thousands of meals cooked in it over 17 or 18 years, cooked the popcorn perfectly. We sat down to eat the popcorn and enjoy our movies.

Saturday morning, I took Adam for a visit to the dentist-- the first one in a couple of years. I provide health insurance for him, and recently Blue Cross/Blue Shield offered to add on dental coverage for $26 a month. Over a year, that's about the cost of two checkups. I had recently come to the realization that his mother was not going to provide dental care-- she hadn't brought him to the dentist for a couple of years (when I'd last provided optional dental insurance). When he visited my parents around Christmas, my mother had noticed that his gums were red, a sign of gingivitis. Sure enough, the dentist confirmed this. Fortunately, she told me, there was no infection or abscess or permanent damage to his teeth. Needless to say, he'll be going every six months from now on, now that I'm in charge of it.

I realized that from here on out, more and more was going to fall on me. His mother fought me tooth and nail over custody, yet she is completely oblivious about a bunch of basic parenting stuff.

Not surprisingly, the lion's share of teaching him to drive has fallen on me. Beginning last fall, I began taking him to a high school parking lot near my home to begin the process of learning to drive and specifically to learn to drive stickshift. His mother has done some driving practice with him, but I realized that he needed a long drive on the open highway. With that in mind, we planned a long trip, to my college town, Charleston, Illinois.

To kill two birds with one stone, I made plans with my old friend Dan H. to meet up with him while we were there. He'd worked as a journalist when I met him about 25 years ago and a few years ago took a job teaching journalism at Eastern Illinois University.

As we hit the road, Adam was a little wobbly with the stickshift-- he'd driven his mother's car, which has an automatic transmission. Within an hour, he was much smoother.

I was exhausted from having worked late the night before, but enjoyed for once being the passenger on a trip I've made many times over the years-- since graduating I've gone down to visit friends down there.

I was a little nervous the whole trip-- he's doing a great job, but as any parent who's done this can tell you, it takes a while to be totally comfortable with your child driving. As he drove, I remembered being nervous for another reason-- when I'd nervously driven him home as a newborn nearly 16 years ago.

As we pulled into Charleston, I called Dan and made plans to meet him in about a half hour; I wanted to show my son around the campus. He knows most of the people who were my friends there and has heard many of the tales of what went on there. I wanted him to get a picture of the place where this all went on.

We met Dan at the Starbucks-- I'm still in disbelief that my college town has a Starbucks. Within minutes, we were talking about the things we always talked about-- politics, comic books, history-- as my son joined in. I regretted that our visit had to be short-- a half hour (I had to get Adam back to my ex's house by 5 pm). We could have talked for hours. I promised Dan that we would get down there for a longer visit.

I realized later that the road trip was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Later, Dan messaged me on Facebook and complimented me-- on how intelligent my son was. I realized that Dan, who was part of a big group of friends I've mentioned before who hung out together and met every Saturday afternoon at what we called "The Gentlemen's Lunch" (though there were eventually many women included in the Algonquin Table-like weekly gathering) was a big part of whatever successes I've had in raising him. It was in that social circle that I felt, for the first time in my life, that life could be intellectually stimulating, satisfying, and, well, fun. I've tried never to lose that, and I've tried to impart that to both of my kids.

When I met Dan, I was a pissed-off 23 year old guy with a big chip on his shoulder. I was sure that I didn't want kids and sure I would never make it to 30.

But I did make it to 30. And 40. And I'm creeping quickly up on 50. I've ended up with two great kids. And here I am getting ready to start one last career. Despite the fact that I'm overworked and completely broke I've realized that for the first time in a long, long time, I'm really happy with my life. It's finally sunk in that it's not just the destination, but the road itself.


Churlita said...

What a great post. I'm sure you'll fix your financial problems and things will get better and better this year.

bubbles said...

Very enjoyable post, JY. I've got a second driver coming this year. More worries! We have a great driving school here, which has helped a great deal. Good thing they take credit cards...