Observations on Adaptation

From a very early age, I learned to assess my circumstances and those around me, and to adapt myself–my behavior, my demeanor–to suit the situation. The legend in my family of origin is that when I was barely a toddler, I shared a bedroom with my older sister (a toddler herself). We were each in our cribs, doing whatever it is that toddlers do–you would think I’d know by now what that is, for heaven’s sake; I’ve been the CEO of a child care center for almost a decade–and she would be making noises or pitching a fit, and our dad would stomp into our room and bellow at her to be quiet or to stop fiddling or to somehow just soothe herself already, for the love of God. Sometimes he would smack her; there was always an abundance of smacking and spanking and shaking going on in those early years when our dad was around. So I would sit quietly in my crib, a silent witness to all of it, and that’s how I learned that as long as I was near anyone who was more unruly or disagreeable or needy than me, I could position myself as “better than” and therefore avoid whatever harm or trouble or annoyance or unpopularity that befell my counterpart. I learned how to read his “tells” and could make myself into the good girl that all manic-depressive angry controlling Italian mama’s-boys wanted. It was a great lesson.

All of this is not to say that I never suffered the wrath of my dad, who could accelerate from charming and funny to animated and outraged in the blink of an eye. He despised having to get up in the night to tend to me and my two sisters. If we were sick and had a coughing fit, he would yell from the master bedroom, “Cough into your pillow!” I can remember crawling under the covers head-first, with my pillow, to try to muffle the sounds of what was probably pediatric tuberculosis so that it wouldn’t arouse him–because if you kept it up, you could be damn sure that he would get out of bed and stomp into the room, turn on the overhead lights, and start yelling and smacking (physical abuse being such an excellent cure for the common cold). Another time, I remember feeling REALLY nauseous after I went to bed. I called out, “Mommy, my tummy hurts,” hoping that my mother would come in our room and tend to me–but my father barked, “Roll over and sleep on your stomach!” in such a menacing tone that it almost scared the sick right out of me.

Almost.

When the nausea reached its summit, I whispered to my sisters asking what I should do. My older sister hissed back, “Go to the bathroom!” I quietly got out of bed to go, and no sooner was I upright than I began vomiting. I puked my way into the bathroom; there was no way you couldn’t know what route I took. It was like a solid path of undigested dinner from my bed to the toilet. From their bedroom, I heard my mother say, “Bob, I think one of the girls is sick,” to which he hollered, “Who’s throwing up?” My older sister hollered back, “Elisabeth!” I’m sure she was eager to point his anger in any direction other than hers for a change. My mother and father both emerged from their bedroom, and I remember my mother tending to me in the bathroom, leaving my father to clean up my regurgitated yellow brick road. Take THAT, Motherfucker!

There were good times too. My parents would sometimes have dinner parties and would parade me and my sisters downstairs to model our pristine bathed-and-pajama’d selves in front of the guests. Had we been upstairs the whole evening? Who bathed us? Did we even get to eat dinner? All I remember was that any event that didn’t involve one of my father’s tirades was a “good” event. I’d like to think that I had early lessons in establishing low expectations, because when I think that, it puts the entire scope of my love life into perspective.

When I was eight, and my sisters were seven and nine (c’mon, Mom, haven’t you figured out how this works?), our father drove us to the Frosty Cup–a classically dumpy little 1970s restaurant between Cadillac’s two lakes–and told us that he would be leaving town the next morning to go live in Vermont. (I certainly hope one of us asked, “What’s Vermont?” but I can’t confirm we were brave enough at that age to ask him anything, ever, lest it launch him into one of his fitful lectures. If they ever make a movie of my life, I will insist that one of us–okay, that I–ask the question. I will make sure that the actor playing the child-me has big brown innocent eyes and an almost-perfect bowl-cut head of straight, black hair to accentuate the misery of always being mistaken for a boy. The actor will have have tears welling in her eyes as she asks the question, which is a serious embellishment because our father had little patience for crying–but fuck it, this is my story, I can craft it whatever way I like. Which means you can count on the adolescent-me having REAL BOOBS that require a bra, rather than the feeble pancakes that barely emerged in the fourth grade.) I don’t think our father even bought us ice cream that night. Asshole. Serves him right that he hit a deer the next morning while driving to this foreign Vermont place, totaling his car and forcing him to come back for another day of ICK while he got something to take its place.

The moral of this story is: Always buy ice cream for people before you shit on them, or risk the epic humiliation of not being able to carry out the shitting you had planned. Simple.

Also, there’s the lesson of being able to adapt to your circumstances in such a way as to preserve your safety, your pride, your mental health, and your chances of either (1) having successful, fulfilling, lasting, and meaningful relationships; or (2) having ice cream. Personally, I think it would be better to just build your life and your career in such a way as to be able to maximize the chance of ice cream, and then have a successful, fulfilling, lasting, and meaningful relationship with IT. Efficiency, Bitches!

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