Living in First Person
Join me at the Tonga Room. I'll be the one drinking out of a pineapple and wearing my garnish.
This is going to be a good story, I swear. But to get there, I first have to tell a sad one. A scary one. One that haunts me.
A few years ago I offered to prepare a meal for an older female acquaintance. She has lived much of her life in the service of others as a devoted mother, loyal daughter, dedicated wife, and through her chosen work with young children. She is a helper, a teacher, and a support to those who know her. And she could not for the life of her name her favorite foods for her celebratory meal.
Pause and think about this for a second. The intimacy, self-knowledge, and pleasure wrapped up in savoring one's favorite foods is intensely personal and indicative of who a person is at their most essential. I think that Iron Chef's Chairman Kaga* was really onto something when he began his legendary kitchen battles with Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's quote: "Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are." And, even more telling, when a person states what they'd most love to eat they're revealing even more by sharing what they'd love to be. To not be able to answer that question, to not know what food would most gives them pleasure, is bleak. And the thought of giving so much of oneself to so many other people that one has forgotten one's own favorite foods is chilling.
It puts me in mind of a similarly disconcerting scene in the movie The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio, based on the memoir of the same name. Its main character, Evelyn Ryan, supports her 10 children (and abusive alcoholic husband) by winning jingle-writing contests in the 1950's and 1960's. One of her biggest prizes is a trip to New York City, including a night in a fancy hotel room. The voice-over narration explains that that is Ryan's first night eating a meal that she did not prepare and sleeping in a bed she did not make, and the image of Julianne Moore sitting stiffly and uncomfortably in that crisply made bed has haunted me. She finally has luxury! And comfort! And ease! And she is putting on a brave face and pretending that it's enjoyable because she is unable to take pleasure in her own pleasure. Because experiencing her own gratification is impossible without it being connected to the gratification of those she cares for.
Care giving, especially parenting, and, I think, especially mothering, can suck the first-person right out of you. It can take the clear knowledge who you are, what you enjoy, and what is essential to you as an individual and opaque it thickly with your children's urgent demands. It is so easy to lose the first person - the "I" of who you are - and focus only on your relationship to the third person "you" or "they" of your children. I know because I, in all my self-actualized, Smarty smugness, got to experience firsthand this loss last month.
In anticipation of a weekend out of town visiting friends in the Bay Area, my hostess with the mostest asked what I'd like to do when in town, and I had to really think about it. I mean, REALLY think about it. Because, dammit if I couldn't remember what kinds of things I like to do in the absence of my usual traveling partners, my Smartner and Smartlings.
Do I want to seek out a microbrewery like I usually do with the Smartner? NO, I DO NOT! Do I give half a shit about playgrounds and children's museums? NO! NO! NO, I DO NOT! Well then, shoot. What DO I - first person singular - care about doing?
And in my fear of not remembering, I thought about it. HARD. And in thinking about it I made a list. I care about bookstores, museums, eating, drinking, and wandering idly in a new city. And so, that is what we did with wonderful intention and consciousness.
My dear childfree hostess asked me early on in the trip what I was most excited about and, remembering the list I had to sit down and make, I said "being in first person" and explained about how absorbing it is to manage the needs and desires of my Smartlings and how self-abnegation is a risk for even the mouthiest of mothers. And so, like a tender and patient lover, she checked in with me a couple times a day during our long weekend together to make sure I was serving my first person well. "Do you want to take the ferry or the train over? Would you rather walk downtown Oakland and see public art or head into the city now? Do you want to walk through the twee hipster neighborhood or head up to the columbarium and be creepy? Would you like to head to City Lights before or after we get a snack?**" And I got to answer. I got to choose. I got to demand. I got to be the mistress of my own ship, with a trusty and trusted, lovely and loved guide by my side.
It had been so long, Smarties. And it felt so good to make decisions based on what I wanted. It felt like a honeymoon, but I got to sleep through the night in a pull-out bed of my own. It was a luxury and a treat, one that hopefully will happen again soon.
But even if this trip - this voyage into my own desires and pleasure, to say nothing of Oakland and San Francisco - isn't exactly replicable as often as I like, the first-person is. It just requires the conscious decision to break away from my usual life - a vacation from my familial roles*** - and a return to what I like to do and how I like to do it. It can be an afternoon in an art (not children's) museum. A stroll through gallery (not zoo) exhibits. A morning with a coffee (not a shared water-bottle) in the grown-up (not kids') sections of the bookstore. The first-person is achievable, but only if I remember to seek it out and achieve it.
And you can, too, Smarties. You might not be lucky enough to have an attentive guide to remind you and reacquaint you with yourself, but you do have a paper and pen. Get those out and make that list of what you love. Then get out your calendar and book some hours for yourself to have a date with yourself doing what you like to do. Take a friend (first person singular is not mutually exclusive from first person plural, as long as you're serving your own needs) or go alone. But go. Be a person. Use your first name. Get your you on. You deserve it. We deserve it.
*Hey, remember that time I so wanted to believe that the conceit of Iron Chef was real that my smartner had to explicitly tell me that the show was all pretend and that Chairman Kaga was an actor? That I was so in love with the idea of an eccentric millionaire who built a kitchen stadium that I engaged in thinking magical enough to render me temporarily insane? And that I now help run a magazine dedicated to being smart? IRONY, people. IRONY.
**BOTH, you guys. It was both. It is always ever both.
***Fuck yeah, I pronounced it like "a vacation from my problems" from What About Bob?. Deal with it.