The hardest part about being able to remake myself so often is that I’m never sure who I am.
The other day my son said, “Mom, what’s your name right now?”
I said “Penelope”. I knew that was the right answer, because everyone in my life calls me Penelope. But it’s not my legal name. Adrienne is still my legal name. So sometimes, I get into trouble, and he sees it. Like the time we checked into a hotel and I had no ID for the name Penelope so I told the hotel clerk to look me up on Wikipedia. My son stood next to me the whole time, ostensibly eating free snacks in the lobby, but clearly the scene made an impression. (At airport check-in he said, “Mom! Let’s use your Wikipedia page to go to the front of the line!”)
What I’m working on now is trying to see myself how I really am. I’ve been looking at this photo of me on the bed since last summer, when the Farmer took it. I think to myself: is that really what my body looks like? Because honestly, I hate my body. Sometimes I love it and I think I’m lucky, like I won the lottery in the body department. But now that my body is older I can’t stop thinking about how Demi Moore changed all the bulbs in her house so that she didn’t have to see herself in bad light.
It’s so hard to see yourself clearly until you have hindsight.
For example I just, in the last month, finally understood why I was paired with an absolute genius for junior varsity debate.
I figured it out by obsessively googling old debaters. For those of you who did not do high school debate – which surely is most of you – what you need to know about it is that it’s so incredibly hard-core and time consuming, and the kids are so incredibly smart, that they all get straight A’s and are excused from any school activity they want to be excused from because they are so smart. (Look at this link. You will not believe how insane top-tier high school debate is.)
So in my extremely intense high school, everyone got tracked. And I was not on the super-smart track with the rest of the debate team. I was on the mediocre track, failing classes like chemistry and gym. (It is very difficult, by the way, for someone with Aspergers to move between classes in an efficient way. So I just stopped doing that. It never occurred to me that people fail gym. Or that gym is required for graduation. And I will just tell you right now, so you have a picture of what I was like in high school, that my senior year I had four periods of gym so that I could graduate. Which, actually, worked out ok for me because I didn’t have to switch classes.)
Back to debate. The sponsor of the debate team was Mr. McClain the former head of Northwestern’s debate team, which is a huge deal. You had to take a prerequisite class for debate, and he’d choose you if he liked you. In the prerequisite class, I did my final speech on how to juggle. I juggled the whole time I gave the speech. When I got to four balls, I dropped them a few times, so I was chasing them around the classroom but still giving my speech.
Mr. McClain said it was the best speech he had ever seen in his twenty-whatever years of teaching this class.
I thought he was lying and put it out of my mind.
Which means I had no answer for anyone when they asked me why I was slated as the top debater coming into the junior varsity debate team. Everyone is ranked. There are no secrets. My partner, Henry, was an absolute genius. Incredible genius. So far above me that it took me a few months to even understand that he was running circles around me.
People wondered why we were partners. I wondered too. Most teams traded off who gave the important speeches and who gave the more automated speeches. We stopped trading. Mostly because he had a fit that I was so much worse than him. But also, I loved that he did the hard parts. Policy debate is hard. It’s hard work to argue that the CIA should stop selling torture weapons to Honduras (yes, the CIA did that) and then have to deal with the argument that if you start regulating the CIA the US government will crumble.
Henry yelled at me often for not understanding things. “You must win the categorical imperative argument to win the thumbscrew argument!” he’d scream at me. And then he’d throw index cards full of Kant quotations over the tops of my books and I’d stare, wishing he would also tell me where to file them.
Then I realized: The reason Mr. McClain made me and Henry partners is because I did an amazing job with my juggling speech. And, actually, I’m an amazing speaker. Look, I make $15K a speech, talking with no notes, about a wide range of topics. And people love me.
The people on the debate team had a different kind of intelligence than I have. But I didn’t see that.
I wonder, what is the thing I don’t understand about myself today? I don’t want to take twenty years to figure it out every time. So I started looking for areas where I look like I don’t belong.
One of those is money. You know how the debaters looked at me and thought I was an idiot for not being as good as they are? People think about me that way with money. I make a lot of money, but I don’t have a lot of money. The Farmer has earned roughly $15,000 a year for every year of his adult life. And he has way way more money than I do because he doesn’t spend it.
If getting rich had been on my father’s agenda, he’d have had no trouble becoming the wealthiest man in the village, of that I’m sure. But he was a dragon among men, and dragons have no interest in accumulating property. You’ve seen critters like squirrels and rats dig holes to store food, but who’s ever seen a tiger, king of the animals, do something like that? Tigers spend most of their time sleeping in lairs, coming out only when hunger sends them hunting for prey. Similarly, my father spent most of his time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income. … Father made his living by his wits.
Now I do not have to see myself as bad with money. I am with money like I am with juggling; I’m good with money, but in a different way from most people.
I want to have a great body like most people have a great body. But I don’t. I have a great body when my husband snaps a miraculously perfect shot of me as if we are shooting for American Apparel. (That link is NSFW.) But then I think, “Oh, but that’s the only way to have a great body today - with a camera and some distortions.”
And then I’m back to not knowing, really, who I am, or where I fit. The world is full of distortions – from the high school debate team and then everything going forward. Our job, as adults, is to sort out the distortions, across days and months and years. Because it’s a big project that we never finish, but the picture gets sharper and sharper.