Generative demolition

21 07 2012

This is what the main bathroom in our house looks like right now:

Matt tears out the floor around the toilet while his dad starts rebuilding the floor of what used to be a closet but will shortly be a bathtub/shower.

Since Wednesday, the crew of two–Matty and his father, Gary–have been gutting things and making startling discoveries, like that giant window none of us knew was there.  Go ahead, mock us; we’ve lived in this house for a year and didn’t know there was a window in the bathroom.  But from the inside, it was completely walled behind a vinyl three-wall shower-unit, and from the outside, well, okay, it’s completely visible.  BUT.  That side of the house was a no-man’s-land of old construction debris belonging to our next-door neighbors and giant weeds taller than our heads, and the house next door is only about 6 feet away from our own anyway, so we were never on that side of the house to look up and count.  Never.  Like: not even once.

Does it make me nervous?  The gaping holes in what used to be the bathroom floor, the wild plans that have grown into mid-room steps and archways while I’ve been running loads of dusty towels and sweaty work-clothes, the fact that it might be days yet before we have a shower… in July…combined with how we have a friend coming into town and a child coming back to our house day-after-tomorrow: they don’t worry me much at all, really.  I have no doubts about the capabilities of this crew.  Last year, they built a powder room downstairs where there were no walls and was no plumbing (which is why it’s not a problem for Matt to be tearing up that toilet, which won’t be replaced until sometime next week, after the floor is rebuilt and then tiled), and it works beautifully and has served us well.  They did that in only a week, and this year they have two weeks, so a more ambitious project seems thoroughly feasible to me.  Of course, I’m the one at the computer, alternating between working on editing projects, uploading Flickr photos to populate albums of life-two-years-ago, and catching up on Questionable Content, only occasionally sneaking in to where they’re sawing and hammering to take a dusty picture or two and retreat rapidly, while I still have working lungs.

I’m finding it all a bit delightful, really.  In the mornings, we have tea-and-coffee together out on Matt’s backyard patio, and I usually find something to put into them at lunchtime, and then in the evenings, I try to feed them properly, although last night we broke with that tradition, as the menfolk had bought meat they wanted to grill and then decided they were too tired to grill it and they wanted to go out, so we borrowed showers from friends/neighbors Alex and Tina and drove downtown, so the fellas could have a few pints at Kitty’s and we could all have a dishes-free (and very good) dinner at Empire.  Back at Kitty’s after, we met up with one of Matt’s friends, who brought one of his own friends, who turned out to be Empire’s master-brewer, and Gary charmed him thoroughly by telling Tim that his amber was as good as those he drinks back home, so we’ve been promised a beer-tour.

So far, it’s acting as a good metaphor for me, where I am, looking around from inside this changing skin.  They’re breaking things.  Loudly.  Things I was used to, a few things I even liked and valued (somebody sat on the shelf we used to have in the bathroom, the one I planned to clean off and put books on for the baby’s room.  It might still end up with books on, depending on the sturdiness of how they’ve screwed it back together, but it isn’t quite the same…).  In theory, they’re making something awesome in the process, but there’s nothing awesome about the work-in-progress.  That room is a drywall scrap, wood-splinter, saw-on-pipe-metal, rusted-screw, rotten-floor, plaster-dust disaster.

And when I look at this immense body I’m wearing around, most often shoved into the ballooning tents of whatever clothes I can force to fit (I do have a few maternity things that actually look like they’re supposed to on this body, but it’s July–it’s too hot for pants with belly-bands that reach all the way up to my bra and add thick extra layers), I feel very similarly about it: it’s a disaster.  It’s supposed to lead to something awesome, of course.  And the theory is that, someday, in addition to the something awesome coming (literally) out of it, it will return again to being not only functional but maybe even good, maybe small enough to be inoffensive, maybe even a little bit pretty.  (The bathroom I expect to be far more than “inoffensive,” and a lot sooner than “maybe someday,” but tools and building materials tend to behave in predictable ways, and the human body is famous for doing anything but.)  So in some ways, to me, that picture of the filthy, shattered mess, is a bit like a picture of me–nothing where it belongs, nothing looking like I imagine it doing, some reminders of what it used to look like, some hints at where it might be headed, but mostly a mess.

The last post was made on the first day of the temporary–really temporary–class I taught at MPH this summer, a week-long class in college-essay writing/revision for a group of what turned out to be four junior and senior boys from four different area high schools.   It’s long-term optimistic, that post, but it was also a bit of an island of sadness, moving into that space knowing how short a time I would be there for (6 hours total), knowing that it wasn’t a “real” teaching job, and that the adjuncting life, hard enough to justify when not a parent, and ripe with the potential to fail utterly at feasibility once childcare enters the equation, was never wanted to do anyway.  I meant to teach in a school.  I got a degree and certification from college 1.1 (in a program college 1.0 cancelled after I arrived) in teaching in the schools.  I intended, when I went for my master’s, to get the degree so I’d be worth more money (I was bored with teaching SAT prep classes and there was too much competition for school positions in Fairfax County for me, at the time, to land one at the time, so it seemed a good use of energy and time) when I went back to teaching in the schools.  And then I got lured into the academy with promises of professorships and cushy research credits and classes full of students without parental interference, and I liked it, so I kept doing it for a whole degree (and accompanying decade) longer than I meant to, only to strike out at finding a professorship and end up on the long-highways-for-few-pennies circuit instead.

The sadness is because I failed–the adjuncting I could have done with the master’s, and thus the decade I spent on the PhD was for naught–and because I quite foolishly got myself stuck in everybody’s least favorite dead-end corner of the American job market maze: overqualified for everything, with all the wrong experience.  I can’t teach in the schools in New York.  a) My certification is expired, b) it wouldn’t count here anyway, c) I’d have to pay for 2 years of coursework out of pocket just to get re-certified, and d) the system, beached on an epic swath of budget cuts, is firing right, left, and sideways anyway.  I might, in a few years, be able to work at a private school like MPH (they don’t require New York certifications, necessarily, so the rules are a little more… bendy), but I can’t do it yet.  A fundamental belief gets in the way: I want to do this mothering thing right, and I need to do teaching right if I’m going to do it at all–both the baby and the students have a right to a full-on commitment.  And at 38, I don’t have the energy to learn to be a new mother and start first-year-teaching all over again.  Something–or more likely both things–would get its corners cut until it bled, and that’s not fair to anybody involved.  So the demolition is more than the physical space of the bathroom, and more than a metaphor for the rotundity baby-incubating requires (and all of the unpleasant extra places it seems to accumulate: there is no reason, at all, that carrying a baby in one’s belly should require one to have fat arms).  It’s also a photograph of my career, the shattered boards all of the failed interviews I’ve been to in the last few years, the dust all that remains of thousands of things about my field and discipline I used to know that I, realistically, will likely never use again.

This doesn’t mean I’m destined for gloom and doom, of course.  Failures are also opportunities to do something different, and just like the bathroom’s inevitable demolition is leading to the creation of a beautiful thing, my crashing-and-burning career is setting me and the careful, observant, scientific, hopeful, research-and-data-addicted brain I’ve spent all of those years in school honing up for new challenges that I hope to grow into new knowledge, skills, and maybe even areas of art and expertise.  There are things I plan to finish writing, and other things I plan to start.  There are physical challenges to meet, like how to cradle a nursing baby effectively while writing.  There are a lot of things I want to learn how to cook, since I’ll be home to do the cooking for a while, and a lot of tricks about feeding a family healthy food without a lot of money to spent that I need to learn too (this is where the research-addict and the typing fingers merge!).  There’s a crash-course ahead in diapering and laundering and trying to make the cloth-diaper-thing work (which I know it can, because I’ve seen people do it, but I don’t yet know if this child and I are going to be those people).  There’s also a lot I have to learn about patience and sweetness and nurturing, because I’m not nearly as any-of-those-things with Caleb as I want to be, and I can forgive me somewhat, because I came to the job late and with a role and a personality already somewhat established, and because I’m sure some of my shortness with him comes from the back-and-forth switch of his instability in our house: he’s the center of the family sometimes and gone other times, and so never really takes up a position of being one contributing member, which means the adults end up competing with him for each other’s attention in ways we never learn our way around, because every few days he’s gone again, so we’ve never had to.  There are going to be a lot of “have to”s that make me different, that grow me up into actually having to learn to be a mother, and not just play one on alternating weeks or sets-of-days.

I’m okay with the “have-to”s, though.  Matt worries, every time I phrase anything as a worry or an obligation, that it means that I’m unhappy.  Every time I talk about growing up, he gets apologetic on me, like he thinks somehow that his job as my spouse is to spoil me rotten and perpetuate my youthful fecklessness a little longer.  Me, I don’t see these recognitions as complaint.  I had a fine childhood, and between my friends’ outlooks, their generosity in sharing what they had, and the simple truths of what it’s like to stay in school and live with roommates for fifteen years past when many people stop it, I had a very, very long American adolescence, and I’m immensely grateful for both of those things, and yes, they were at many points awash with love and beauty, but I don’t regret, at all, that they’re behind me and that it’s time to move into a different role and a different part of this life’s story.  It’s not a hardship to have “have-to”s at 38.  It’s not a hardship to grow up, to leave some things behind, to take on new things.  (It’s going to be a hardship to be in our 70s, still paying off student loan debt and trying not to be bitter about the myth of “retirement” we were fed in our youth, but that’s still a long way off, and there’s an awful lot of stuff we get to do in the meantime!  It’s going to be a hardship to have to choose between food and heat this winter, if I don’t get enough editing jobs lined up to pad our sharply dropping income, so if anybody’s still feeling generous in February, feel free to advertise my services–or send baked goods!)

All in all, though, the smashing?  It’s fascinating.  I might be “bathing” tonight with a washcloth at the downstairs sink, standing in a bowl to gather drips–it’ll hardly be the most primitive bath in human history, and I’m sure I’ll survive it.  It might even be kinda fun.

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