Never Been There,
By Cynthia Kaplan | Perhaps it is a result of the astonishing surfeit of survival shows on TV, or the 15-year-old holiday card I came across recently, depicting my husband and his buddy Bill in hiking boots and do-rags, astride motorcycles in some remote corner of Thailand, or perhaps it is my secret love for expensive performance outerwear, but it has suddenly occurred to me that I may never have an adventure in a foreign country. I didn’t have the guts to do it in college or in my twenties and now that I feel ready, it’s too late, because I’m saddled with the husband and children I always wanted. And, coincidentally, as if the point needed hammering home, I seem just as suddenly to be finding myself in conversations with people who once lived in a hut at the base of Kilimanjaro, or hiked across Indonesia with only a Nikkormat and a spoon, or thumbed their way through Ireland getting thrown out of pubspeople who dedicated a reasonable period of their young adulthood to adventure travel, the upshot being that their minds are expanded, their bodies possessed of certain intangible but unimpeachable foreign sense-memories, their photo albums of serious interest. They are semi-fluent in several languages and have acquired a bevy of international friends and acquaintances whom they will visit and who will visit them for the rest of their natural lives. When you talk to them, all their sentences begin with “I met Dominique in Budapest … ” and end with “ … so we climbed Machu Picchu.”
Some of their adventures were actually altruistic. These trips were about following the conscience, wherever it took them. I didn’t have any of those, either. In the past three months alone, I have discovered that friends of mine variously taught elementary school in the Congo, built bridges in Nicaragua, and gave out eyeglasses to impoverished Mayans. Their sentences begin with “Then, when we were with Médecins Sans Frontiérs, sorry, that’s Doctors Without Borders … ” and end with “ … so that year we spent Christmas handing out Hershey bars to orphans in Colombia … sorry, it’s just … (Sob.)”
It has never occurred to me to climb Machu Picchu, much less join the Peace Corps. Extreme altitudes make my head ache, and I have a rational fear of rebels armed with AK-47s. While I have rallied to a number of causes I believed in, none of those rallies took me beyond a three-mile radius from my home, unless you count the address on the envelope I put the check in. I’ve never even worked on a political campaign, stumping around my own country, staying up all night to make signs or cold calls, or blow up balloons. I didn’t meet my husband at a caucus. I’ve signed a few petitions in my time, but I never traveled by bus to Washington and stood in the rain on the Mall waiting for Jesse Jackson to speechify or Pete Seeger to sing. I did stand all night in a freezing rain outside Madison Square Garden waiting for Springsteen tickets to go on sale. He sings that old song about war.
Anecdotally speakingand what other way of speaking is there, reallyI have nothing to offer these buccaneers in return. Which I resent. What else do humans do besides sit around and tell stories that make them look cool? I’ve certainly never heard of a dog rhapsodizing about a three-year tour teaching English as a second language to children in Mauritius. ( … and by then the flood waters were as high as the tree stumps they use for desks! Woof!) So, what I usually do, because I don’t want to be left out of the conversation, is make a big deal about some little event, tell a grandiose tale of a weekend car-camping or hunting for old doorknobs or some other pointless endeavor. And I put a funny spin on it. Then there was the time at the party for Bob’s 75th birthday when my hair was attacked by a horde of freaked-out luna moths. Hah hah hah. Woof.
I am sure it is horrible when the only route out of the ancient ruins is washed away in a mudslide, and one might certainly have second thoughts about one’s calling after moving to a third-world country and wearing the same pair of underpants for a week while digging irrigation ditches. But there must be, or they all wouldn’t talk about it so much, an enormous sense of accomplishment at having done it, survived it. I’ve seen the looks of pride on the mud-covered faces in the photographs, the shit-eating grins and sinewy, tanned bodies. (Sound romantic? Does to me!) The wages of sweat equity.
And the wages pay dividends. For years to come, these world-travelers/do-gooders will dine out on their stories, and do-nothings like me, with neither the experiences nor the tales they inspire, will listen with a mixture of envy and annoyance.
In college, when other people were making plans to take a semester abroad, I assumed that if I left for that long, I’d lose all my friends, or they’d become better friends with each other than they were with me, which I think they were anyway. They’d have all these outrageous experiences, urban myth-forming experiences, experiences they’d spend the rest of college reminding each other of and laughing about in front of me. I wasn’t just paranoid. All I had to do was go to sleep, and life happened without me. One cold winter night, after I’d yawned myself back to my room off campus, four of my friends ventured out in the predawn freeze to paint the front steps of a house on Spruce Street pink and green, a mock tribute to the preppy boys who lived there. This prank became something of a legend that was told and retold for years after. Often people assumed I’d been involved, and I did not dispossess them of this notion.
Strangely, none of the men I know who are husbands and fathers feel the same waythat they missed out on something important, perhaps mind-altering or life-changing, before they settled down. They don’t want to be anyplace or anyone other than where and who they are (except, maybe, on a tropical island, divorced, with hair), because they did the big things first. And perhaps they were able to do those things because sperm have the same half-life as a sea turtle, somewhere between 80 years and oblivion. Of course, women, too, go on trips and to graduate school and have careers, but in the back of their minds (and if I’m not talking about you, or you’ve read any of the three gazillion books recently written on the subject, feel free to skip this part) they are tormented by the presence of a very persistent voice, a nudge. The nudge, who might sound a bit like your motherthat’s not uncommonsays that it’s fine to venture out into the world and make something of yourself, but while you’re at it you should get married and have kids. The nudge understands the desire for freedom but is having a hard time living the dream. And the worst part is that the nudge speaks a modicum of truth: you can’t argue with biology.
Now that I actually have, among other things, a husband and two children, meaning, I don’t need to hang around trying to get them anymore, something quite remarkable has happened. My fear of mudslides, guerillas, etc., has all but disappeared. My fear for my own safety has been supplanted by my fear for that of my children. The old worries have been replaced by an entirely new set, wherein windpipe-sized gum balls, nippy schnauzers, and desperate, childless strangers lurking in department stores top the list. My body as I have known it has evaporated into the cosmos and its particles have been reconfigured and it has returned, postpartum, as the force field from Lost in Space. My job now is to protect my children, not myself, except to the extent that I, the force field, am obliged to remain alive and well in the general vicinity of said children in order to be effective. Also, or rather, more to the point, I have begun to imagine myself to be, in my new, unself-conscious manifestation, a buccaneer. Handing out eyeglasses. Joining that club for polar explorers. Flying on airplanes. As long as my children are safely on the ground, well, la dee da.
This revelation may account for the feeling I now have that I’ve been living in a snow globe. Maybe the kind with music, sure, but I have been, for most of my life, happy to look out on the world from the relative safety of my winter wonderland and gasp with amazement and admiration at the derring-do of others, at their selflessness, at the ease with which they have inhabited the real globe. While I wouldn’t trade my life right now for (almost) anyone else’s, I’ll say this, though it was recently the plot of a failed sitcom: I wish I could take how far I’ve come and go back to where I was, just for a little while.
So, what to do? While most of my peers lie awake at night conjuring images of larger apartments and luxurious vacations, I fantasize about all of the gritty, dangerous places I’ve never been and the perilous, character building things I haven’t done. And maybe one day, when the kids go to college and I get a divorce, I’ll embark on a journey someplace to which JetBlue does not fly. I will get a job as a foreign correspondent, wear hiking boots and a tan vest with many pockets. There will be others of my kind, smart-talking women, and probably, hopefully, men with English accents, and we will sit up at night in foreign hotel bars, drinking whiskey and trading outrageous anecdotes. Oh, the stories I’ll tell.
Cynthia Kaplan C’85 is the author of Why I’m Like This [“Off the Shelf,” Sept|Oct 2002]. This essay is excerpted from her new book, Leave the Building Quickly: True Stories. Copyright ©2007 Cynthia Kaplan. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
|©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/28/07