For some Americans still finishing up the last scraps of their Thanksgiving turkeys, hosting a meal for 8 or 10 or 16 or 20 is a feat worth celebrating in itself. Here’s a totally subjective list of activities or events I think mark the end of innocence:
1) Your first successful dinner party. I chose dinner, instead of lunch or a shower or a party with chips and dip, because, done well, it demands forethought, planning, shopping, inviting, re-minding the people you’ve invited, making sure they won’t die at the table of allergic reactions, choosing a menu that makes sense and, if you’re as insanely fussy as I (and my name has been used as a verb, meaning “to fuss”), choosing the dishes, flatware, linens, candles and flowers to make the table lovely. Nothing has to cost a lot, but it does require effort and grace and timing and coordination; sweating and shouting tend to run the effect. This is why the cook always needs a good stiff drink beside them in the kitchen. You’ve got the desire and skills to make a lot of people comfortable, welcome, happy and well-fed all at once.
2) Coping with injury. It might be a broken bone or recovering from ACL tears or rotator cuff surgery. Pain and months of rehab force you out of your private, swift-moving individual self into the wider world of the slower, those who wince when they reach for things, the land of imposed patience. It slows you down so much you start to notice much more. You also see who gives up a bus or subway seat or who kindly opens a door for you and those who let it slam in your face. It’s really hard for some of us to ask for help, to be visibly wounded, to accept generosity. It’s not a bad thing. People’s kindness can stun you.
3) Attending more than five funerals of people unrelated to you. It’s an arbitrary number, but it marks your soul to see someone you loved and respected lying in their coffin, and to watch a room fill, as I did at the service for New York Times photographer Dith Pran, with so many people they run out of chairs. People who met him once for an hour years ago and who drove four hours one way to be there to pay respects. Another Times colleague, David Rosenbaum, who was murdered the day after he retired; people came from across the country to be there for his family, as they did for Pran. A neighbor’s husband, who died a brutal death from cancer. A neighbor’s wife, my age, dead of cancer. It’s anyone whose family you want to support. You know someday you, or your loved ones,will need it. It’s our job to be there for one another. It is often not much fun, but it’s essential.
4) Buying or re-financing your home. Unbelievable! We’re, thank heaven for our good fortune, almost through the tunnel of re-financing our apartment, a process that’s included almost a month, so far, of negotiating with and coordinating with eight busy, and some incommunicative and deeply confusing individuals. (Talk to the paralegals, not the lawyers!) I’ve been on the phone sometimes three times a day bird-dogging everyone and trying to keep straight who’s doing what and when. People charging you $$$$$$ for their time need a lot of managing to get to your timely goal.
5) Coping with a friend’s serious illness or that of their partner. Right now, a friend from church is battling cancer and a friend out West has a husband likely to die of it within a month. What can you possibly say? Or do? It’s terrifying. They’re terrified. Their partner or spouse might be angry and lashing out at them, which I’ve heard of many times and have seen in my own family. It is so tempting, and so many people give in, to just flee. To hide behind your own fears or inability to help. I call, send flowers and cards. It’s not much, I know. I’m not sure what else, from a distance, one can do. I helped one overwhelmed neighbor find a hospice for her husband. Cook a meal, babysit their kids, walk their dog. Do whatever you can. When it’s your time, you will need help as well.
6) Prolonged unemployment. Much has been written of late about how all the fresh new grads will be scarred by coming out of school into this recession. It will hurt their incomes and their ideals. It might.
It might also, as those of who who’ve now lived — and survived — through three recessions since 1988 know, toughen them up, albeit sooner than they’d planned or hoped. Yes, student debts are onerous and scary. Yes, it’s deeply frustrating to not do what you want and have worked and studied hard for. Join the line! Right now, millions of unemployed people who have done the same are also staring at the walls and wondering what, if anything, they are going to do to find paid work and put food on the table. Your dreams may change, even for a while.
I moved to New York just in time for the first recession in my industry. I knew no one, had no job, no alumni ties. I cold-called strangers for six months and finally, truly in the depths of despair by that point, found my first Manhattan publishing job from a newspaper ad. Those six months of incredible frustration forced me way beyond my comfort zone and challenged every comfy certainty I’d had about my skills and talents and experience. It was useful prep for the next two recesssions. It sucks. It won’t kill you. You will, and will have to, find new reserves of strength, flexibility and ingenuity you had no idea you had. It will also remind you that a laissez-faire capitalist system is based on “shedding” labor whenever and wherever and as quickly as those million-dollar-earning CEOs think necessary. Don’t rely on their goodwill or loyalty, ever.
I know this list skips three standard measures, having kids — which some of us never do, getting married (which some people do four or six times) and facing the death of one’s parents. I am lucky enough still to have both of mine and dread those days.
What are your signs?