Friday, April 16, 2010

In Medias Res

I've been thinking about how the flapping of my butterfly wings at work and at home is capable of generating tornadoes or soothing breezes.

There are the events I know about--tornadoes that make the news and gentle puffs for which I am thanked. I receive some feedback on a daily basis, what with the flipped fingers on the freeway and the occasional nasty--or grateful--email.

But I am left to imagine just how many tropical storms actually die out over the ocean before they're detected on my radar. And how many full sails lead ships to safe havens. At least in part, because of me.

When I have been in a meeting at work with contentious factions, felt the stress of the participants, and then played a role in successfully mediating a productive outcome, I can't help asking, "I wonder what would have happened if I weren't there?"

But I also go home and question the collateral damages my children suffer as a result of children.

In my first year of teaching (oh, the innocence!), I once woke myself up in the middle of the night recalling that a child had asked me earlier for some tape, and in the chaos that was my classroom (not a theory!), I told him to wait a minute and then, forgot. I forgot to give him tape, and he was the kind of kid who would have waited, silently and patiently, until 12th grade.

He's currently adhesive-deficient, and he's out there somewhere coming unglued.

Honestly, I don't give myself that hard a time, but, like all of us, I muddle along without the benefit of an omniscient judge chiming in with appraisals like, "Congratulations, you have gracefully managed to avert disaster at a crucial juncture in a young learner's life! He will go on to confidently manage a company of 300 satisfied employees because of your wise intercessions," or, "Your angry outburst and the Time Out you prescribed Little Sis effectively isolated her and weakened her confidence. She will ultimately regain her self esteem, but will suffer from post-traumatic stress in her twenties and an aversion to seats in the style of the Naughty Chair."

So I rely on my own sense of confidence or lingering guilt as a barometer, and continue to suppose I could have just really mucked that whole thing up. Or, alternatively, made someone's day.

When I was a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series. The books were usually set in exotic locales, with the plot lines interrupted by crossroads for the reader to contemplate: "If you decide to take a rest in the shady grove and drink water from your canteen, turn to page 10. If you decide to follow the green dragon into the deep abyss, turn to page 99."

It didn't take a genius to figure out that choosing the lower-number page usually meant prolonging one's "life" in the book. But the true fun of choosing "Your Own Adventure" was that you could go back time and again and assess all the possible outcomes of each fork in the road. Hindsight was truly 20/20: twenty pages of different endings. Choose the most favorable.

Wouldn't that be nice?

A friend of mine characterizes those big "What Ifs" in her life as Sliding Doors moments, a reference to the movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The film demonstrates how one moment at a subway stop and one variable--missing or catching that train--creates two possible and divergent life paths for the protagonist.

The big What Ifs are pretty darned scary. You've got the "What If I Had (or Hadn't)"s and the "What if I Now"s, and the consequences of exploring either can be daunting. "What If I Hadn't Taken This Job" can sometimes inform "What If I Now Jump This Job Ship," but we don't get to turn to page 39 or 56 to preview the ramifications.

We all really just want to know if, on the last page, we're gonna be happy.

How I would love to peek at the pages after "If you attempt to have/adopt a third child..." and/or, "If you decide your life is fulfilled with your husband and two daughters..." Just how upset would become our apple cart? Or how augmented? What other unforeseen upsets is our apple cart subject to? And/or which enhancements?

No crystal ball, alas.

I'm connecting the dots, instead, between the minor adventures I choose on a daily basis, and my own happines and the happiness of others.

In the adventure series written about life in our family, the plot line in which I am the protagonist can sometimes sound like this: "Your daughter is whining incessantly about various injustices. Your husband is going out of town but forgot to do this, that, and the other thing before departure. If you decide to hiss at your daughter to knock off the whining and give your husband a silent guilt trip, turn to page 82. If you decide to step out outside and take the dog for a walk, turn to page 41."

I am coaching myself to choose Door #2 more often.

"If you decide to take on more than you can handle and become exhausted and stressed out, turn to page 76. If you decide to be honest about your limitations and offer genuine help where you can, turn to page 24."

"If you decide to blame your job for your poor eating habits and lack of time to exercise, turn to page 101. If you decide to work on balance, and make time for exercise and stop eating all that junk, turn to page 16."

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that choosing the lower-number page probably prolongs my life, even if there are no guarantees or sneak previews. And decisions that make me happier likely make others happier, too.

Ultimately, it seems like: if you're willing to forgo instant gratification, well...keep reading.


Jared and Kate said...

You will likely never regret another little life, no matter how much it upsets the apple cart but you may regret not having that little person.

Ms.F said...

I loved "Choose Your Own Adventure" books too! What a fabulous (and also frightening!) way to consider the "what ifs" of life...Right now I'm definitely having that "sliding doors" feeling -- like I'm closing a door on one life by turning to page 107 to move to NYC.

FYI -- we need to clone you because while we need Ms. Fer the administrator, we also need Ms. Fer the English teacher, and Ms. Fer the writer, and Mom Fer (who I fully plan on regularly emailing for parenting guidance when I finally turn to THAT page), and so on and so forth... :)

Mama Deb said...

This is seriously so bizarre...just yesterday I was thinking about how life IS sort of like a choose your own adventure story!
I, too, often think about that crystal ball...and about adopting that third child. It's hard not to worry about how these things will affect everyone's lives, but sometimes you just have to go for it.