Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Grasshopper and the Ice Cream (Thinking The Lions)

I talk a lot on here, now, about the twins and the trials and tribulations of raising them.

But you should not forget that Sweetie and I also have older children, older children who aren't children at all any more because they're all over the age of 18, but who still somehow end up needing almost constant attention, and can derail an entire day by making me prove a point, as Oldest did yesterday, when I got home a little early from a trial and was looking forward to relaxing for a bit, maybe going jogging at the club and then, possibly, getting to finish up the book The Infinities, which I'm going to tell you I'm only finishing because Sweetie goaded me into it and because according to my Kindle I'm 88% of the way through it, and you can't quit on a book 88% of the way through it.

That's Oldest, helping
Mr F eat some french fries.
Mr Bunches and I are looking down at
her from inside a playland. The reason
this picture is here will eventually be explained.

Can you?

I didn't get to do any of that last night, including not getting to answer the question of whether a book can truly become so bad that with only 10% of it left to read, I might actually stop reading it. I didn't get to do that because instead Oldest called with a crisis

Oldest has been in a crisis for a week, or for 24 years, depending on how you're counting; the current iteration of the crisis has to do with the fact that her car busted a belt and it'll cost $3,000 to fix it; Oldest doesn't have $3,000 and has been going through all kinds of contortions and schemes to get a new car, something that's made more complicated by the fact that she doesn't actually have a driver's license right now, for reasons that are too long to go into in this post.

I became aware that Oldest was having a crisis when, after my trial ended early, and ended, too, decently enough that I would get to spend the 2+ hour drive home enjoying myself and listening to This American Life and eating cold pizza instead of spending the 2+ hour drive home fuming or fretting or reiterating things that had gone badly at the trial; the long drive home from a trial that has turned out poorly is the lawyer's version of the walk of shame, only I don't carry my shoes in my hands, and while I probably still would have ate the cold pizza, I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much, and I certainly wouldn't have begun the drive by actually eating the apple that I had in my lunch, too. When something goes wrong during the day, that apple, or vegetable, or whatever other sop I'm making to my health, is generally the first to go, and it's likely that had the trial not gone as well as it did, I'd have simply tossed the apple out the window and focused on the pizza while trying to distract myself from how badly the trial had gone.

As it was, I was in a good mood, it was earlier than I'd expected, the roads were fine, I had podcasts a-plenty on my iPod to listen to, and thus I set out on the drive in high spirits, spirits which lasted until I turned on my cell phone and got bombarded with messages that Oldest had left me: voicemails and at least two texts asking me to please call her please.

It was the double please that really put me on edge. Oldest doesn't call me in the first place; it's not like she just calls up and says "Hey, how's it going?" She's 24, and we have little in common beyond being part of the same family. So when she calls me, period, it's usually because something's going wrong. The calls almost always start like this:

Me: Hello.

Oldest [grimly, in a monotone]: Hey.

Me: What's going on?

Oldest [even more monotonedly, with an extra slab of grim on it]: I have to ask you a question.

The question is never... thank God... actually as serious as it sounds like it's going to be after that introduction. It never begins with something really ominous like "So I was googling how to dismember a corpse..." or "Did you know that there were not one, but two heavy metal bands staying in a hotel near my apartment?" or anything like that. Instead, it usually revolves around one of three topics:

1. Oldest needing money, and assuring me that eventually she's going to enroll in school.

2. Oldest needing money really badly, and assuring me that eventually she's going to enroll in school, or

3. Oldest asking me if she can sue somebody, which I take as a sign that she needs money and which I refuse to answer until she assures me that eventually she's going to enroll in school.

Put simply, Oldest always needs money, and Oldest, up until the current car crisis, has always found money, in the most serendipitous of ways. Seriously: I have on many, many occasions told Oldest that she needs to attend church far more often than she actually does, because she really owes God a lot of favors. In that sense, Oldest is the exact opposite of The Boy, who obviously has irritated The Universe so much that The Universe now has it in for The Boy.

Oldest has always come into money at the most opportune of times, thereby preventing me and/or God/The Universe from ever teaching her a lesson about the desirability of saving money and planning for a rainy day.

Remember the story of The Grasshopper and The Ants, and how the Grasshopper parties all summer while the Ants worked, and eventually winter came and the Grasshopper froze to death while starving?

That's not actually how it went, of course; in reality, the Grasshopper was welcomed into the Ants' hill and fed, thereby teaching the Grasshopper the all-important lesson that not planning for the future or working hard will result in some momentary discomfort which will soon be alleviated by well-meaning, hardworking individuals. So why bother working, at all? Or why bother working harder than is necessary to avoid just that momentary discomfort that you'll suffer through until the Ants open the door?

I've never understood that fable.

In any event, Oldest exemplifies the Grasshopper, only she's the Grasshopper if the Grasshopper had a bunch of well-meaning relatives who will inadvertently chip in to help her out, and if the Grasshopper kept stumbling across winning lottery tickets left on the ground, thereby frustrating the Ants' attempts to ever get the message to sink in:

Ants: Listen, Grasshopper, it's all well and good that you've been lucky, but this is the fourth straight winter we've had to save your butt.

Grasshopper [scratching off Instant Win Lottery Tickets]: Hey, I just won $10,000!

Ants: Sigh.

Here's a picture of Mr F at that McDonald's. I'm getting
around to mentioning why we were there. Don't rush me.

Oldest once had a bunch of friends planning on going to Great America, a day that would cost about $40 to go on. She tried to borrow the money from us, but Sweetie and I put our feet down and said no. She hadn't saved, and hadn't been working, and we were not going to loan her money to go have a day at an amusement park because that would send the exact wrong message.

Oldest moped around for a week or so, bugging us over and over, and I finally said I would pay, not loan, her the money she wanted. I said if she helped me in the yard, I'd pay her $10 an hour and she could earn as much as she wanted to get to Great America, and she said, and I quote:

"I don't do yard work."

So I decided tough, and let it be, and Sweetie and I were somewhat gleefully-- don't judge me, you're not a parent -- awaiting the day that Oldest would have to watch her friends go off to Great America while she sat home, learning a lesson, but the very day she said she didn't do yardwork, her aunt called her up and said: "I'm going to be coming to town and I remembered that I hadn't gotten you a birthday present, so I'm going to drop that off for you."

And she gave her the money Oldest needed to go to Great America.

And I trimmed the lilac bushes.

And, I must say, I did it badly. But that's not the point, and that wasn't really Oldest's fault. I'm just terrible at yard work. Those lilacs have never really recovered, and I'm pretty sure that, too, is on the list of reasons my neighbors are putting on the secret petition I suspect they're circulating to force me to move.

Another time, Oldest overdrew her bank account... by $800. That wasn't a typo: EIGHT HUNDRED DOLLARS. Some bank, somewhere, had given a 19-year-old... no, not just any 19-year-old but the only 19-year-old whose immaturity even approached how immature I was at 19... a debit card, and had then let her, in the span of about two weeks, withdraw not only all the money of hers that was in the account, but $800 of the bank's money, too, with the result being that the bank then had to ask Oldest to pay it back, and when Oldest declined to do so on the grounds that she didn't have any money (that's why she had to use the Bank's, you see), the bank then sent a collection agency after her...

... a collection agency that promptly violated federal law collecting against her...

... by illegally calling me about her debt...

...without, apparently, knowing that I make my living suing debt collectors for violating that law.

The end result of that being that I was able to not only avoid her paying back the debt, but I also got her $2,000 on top of that. I'm surprised she didn't try to run up more debts after that.

(And, before you go chiding me for doing my job, keep in mind that she owed us money, too, and she used the debt collector's money to pay us back. Probably because I had the check sent to me at my law firm.)

That's been the pattern of Oldest's life, and it continued uninterrupted until this last week, when Oldest's car broke down and she was suddenly stuck without a car or the money to fix it, and she did what she always does in those situations: she called us.

Unfortunately for Oldest, Sweetie and I had made a secret vow between ourselves to never ever ever lend the kids money again, especially Oldest. That was a vow we've made before, roughly 1 jillion times, but this time we were serious, unlike the time that I swore I'd never loan Oldest money again only to then loan her $80 to buy a winter coat because I felt bad that she didn't have a winter coat, and then felt worse when Sweetie pointed out that Oldest had a perfectly good winter coat, two, in fact, she just didn't like them.

This time, in fact, not only were we serious, but we were also not in a position to go around lending people money, for anything, because not only did we just learn that we'll have to pay taxes this year instead of getting a refund, but in the exact week we learned that, we also learned that jumpropes don't flush down toilets, and that when someone tries to flush one, anyway, you're going to have to spend a week without use of that toilet while the plumber convinces you to replace it entirely with a new toilet, one he promises "could flush a football," but which, it turns out a week later, can't even flush a tiny plastic frog that one of your twins decided to send on a journey, the result being that the plumber has to make a third trip to your house to unstick the brand-new, football-but-not-frog-flushing toilet, all of which makes it very easy to not loan money to Oldest, because the plumber has all of ours.

That left Oldest scrambling for other sources of car-replacing or new-car-buying income, calling other relatives and repeatedly asking us, anyway, if maybe we could after all give her some money ("Why don't you call our plumber?" I wanted to ask her. "I know he can spare some right now.")

And that left me dreading the phone calls and texts I got from Oldest on my phone as I prepared for what should have been a nice drive home on a pleasant March 1.

Rather than call her back, unarmed, as it were, I called Sweetie to find out what was going on, and I got this, verbatim:

"She wants to talk to you because remember that accident she had where she didn't have insurance and you worked out a deal to set up a payment plan so her license wouldn't be suspended? Well she went to the DMV to find out if she could reinstate her license because she can't get insurance to buy a new car unless she has a valid driver's license, but the DMV said it wasn't just the two tickets you got taken care of for her that were holding up her license it was that she also missed a payment on the payment plan so now her license is suspended and she wants to talk to you about it."

I was quiet for a long time after that, and when Sweetie asked if I was still there, I said:

"I was just thinking about pretending that my phone had lost reception and then enjoying my drive home in peace and quiet."

But that clearly was out of the question. I can't lie to Sweetie, not even when cold pizza and This American Life are waiting for me. But I did say that I would call Oldest when I got home, and gave myself at least a little respite, and by the time I got home and re-talked it over with Sweetie and decided to call Oldest, I had a plan firmly in place:

I would bore her into not asking me for advice.

With that, I got Oldest on the phone and listened to her repeat, almost word for word, what Sweetie had said, and I then launched into a lengthy lecture about how she didn't really need a car, and how she should, instead of going through all this money-borrowing and trouble-causing and stress-inducing (for me) maneuvering to get a car, she should use this as an opportunity to change her life around and start doing something she always wanted to do. I pointed out that she'd never really liked her job and that nothing was keeping her from getting a different, maybe better job that was on a bus line and that she could then attack her problems without borrowing money, and that she could use this time to explore and find out what she really wanted to do.

I really was on a role, and I wish I'd transcribed it, for reasons I'll get to in a minute, but even aside from that reason my speech was a 40-minute thing of beauty, in which I actually said "When you've got no options in life, that's when things really get interesting," a pithy little quote that I explained means that once you think you've got no options you've got to get really creative and also that having no options frees you to do what you really want to do. Oldest, I explained, had no option but to quit her job, because she couldn't get to it anymore, which made this the perfect time to really get out there and find out what jobs she might actually like, and I compared that, rather brilliantly, to what it's like when I get onto a plane, where I've got no option but to relax and read, so I get enjoy the fact that my choices are made for me, and I can just go with the flow and do what I really wanted to do anyway but had never done.

I mentioned the plethora -- I used that word -- of options that she had, including going to school for real, and even managed to work in underwater archaeology, because you knew I would, as an example of something she hadn't even known existed and pointed out that she now knew that it did and that was proof that there were greater things out there than she could imagine if she'd just... go... try them and she could use not having a car and being forced to quit her job as an excuse.

I mentioned how she'd wanted to go to San Francisco, or open her own business, and urged her to start actually living the life she wanted to read, and she assured me that she would and then had to go.

And a little while later, texted me back. Not to thank me, but to say that she'd made up her mind to go apply for a job as a waitress at TGI Friday's, but the bus wouldn't get her there until 8:30 p.m., so could I come over there and give her a ride so she could fill out an application?

All of which is how I ended up not reading the last 12% of The Infinities but instead hopped into the car with Mr F and Mr Bunches in tow, heading over to Oldest's to pick her up so she could chase her dreams by applying for a job as a waitress, something that took less time to do than the drive over to get her, and, afterwards, we were heading back to drop her off when she asked if we could go for ice cream.

"I'll pay," she offered, but as I very much doubted that she had the money to pay, I said that I'd buy but that we were going to go to a McDonald's where they had a playplace, so that the Babies! could get out of the car and have some fun.

And we did have fun -- at least, Mr Bunches and I did. While Mr F (who's not much of a one to climb around in cramped labyrinths that smell of feet and diapers) hung out with Oldest and ate french fries, Mr Bunches and I climbed through the tunnels, heading down the spiral slide, waving and hollering to Oldest and Mr F (and taking their pictures through the windows in the playground) and climbing up to the top where they had not just a jet to sit in but a helicopter, too:

Is it really a helicopter?
Or a manifestation of this?

and while we did that, Oldest sat down below and kept an eye on Mr F, and kept an eye on her ice cream, and no doubt pondered whether she should have taken career advice from a guy who was even at that moment telling her that the helicopter in that photo above looked exactly like the interior of a TIE Fighter from Star Wars.

I, on the other hand, wasn't wondering that at all. Instead, as I clambered around the maybe-TIE fighter jungle gym, I was struck by the thought that maybe, Oldest had again worked the system: What if, I wondered getting free ice cream had been her goal all along, and she'd figured this all out as a way to get me to buy it for her?


UPDATE: I actually wrote this all on Wednesday afternoon, but didn't post it right away. On Wednesday night, I found out from Sweetie that Oldest doesn't intend to actually leave her job at all. So it really was all just a scam to get some free ice cream.

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