We have moved to the set of The Truman Show. At least, that’s what I keep telling my husband. In the movie The Truman Show, a man (Jim Carrey) is going about living his mostly idyllic life that, unbeknownst to him, has been a carefully orchestrated and scripted Hollywood reality show. The houses are charming and the lawns well cared for, the neighbors friendly and helpful, the wives beautiful, the husbands successful and handsome, the kids cute and perfectly behaved. We live a short walk from a cute downtown with a combination of boutiques, cafes, and “everywhere” stores (Gap, Pottery Barn, etc.). Carter rides his bike to school three blocks away with his new best friend who lives across the street. For every three people there is a golden retriever or labradoodle. There is no road-rage. Everyone waves and smiles when they pass each other on the street. It’s wonderful…and unnerving. I often find myself fighting the urge to walk around saying rather loudly, “This is all a charade! You’re all actors! You can stop it now! I know what’s going on!”
And I feel guilty as hell. The deep, Protestant, you-can’t-go-to-enough-church-to-wash-you-of-your-sins, kind of guilty.
Shortly after we moved here, I was on my way home from driving Justin to work (I was driving our convertible Mercedes because our SUV was in the shop…not because it was broken but because it was getting serviced, what a luxury) when I stopped at a stoplight. I was on a busy street lined with old apartment complexes built in the 40’s and 50’s that haven’t been touched since and are now occupied by low and middle income families. Outside my window, I watched as a man dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and baseball cap stood in the doorway of his apartment, said his goodbyes with a kiss and hug to a woman and then leaned over and kissed a baby in a stroller. I was struck by how similar that scene looked to the one that had played out countless times in our own house. Justin goes off to work (but dressed in a button down shirt, khakis and dress shoes), kisses me goodbye and hugs and kisses the boys before he goes off to work. For some reason, I was momentarily comforted by watching this universal ritual unfolding in a setting so different from my own.
But then, in a fluid motion, one that revealed it was something this man had done countless times before, he picked up the baby in the stroller (tiny little bundle!), wrapped it in thick blankets, put the baby on his shoulder, hopped on his bike and pedaled down the street, holding the baby with one hand and steering with the other.
I couldn’t believe it. Forget that he didn’t have a helmet on (I could hear my son’s panicked voice in my head, “Mommy! He doesn’t have a helmet!”). Forget that the baby wasn’t wearing a helmet (they don’t even make helmets that small, do they?). Forget that the baby wasn’t even in a baby seat or baby trailer. Forget that the man was riding down one of the busiest streets in the area. I had a million questions flood my mind. Where is he going? Is he taking the baby to work with him? Is the baby sick? Are they going to the doctor (the only legitimate reason I could come up with for why he would put his baby at such risk)? Or is he dropping the baby off at a babysitter or daycare? Where, in God’s name, is he taking a baby wrapped up in a blanket while riding on a bicycle?
As I sat in my convertible Mercedes, I thought of my boys and the obscenely expensive, currently empty car seats carefully and tightly strapped into the rear seats of our SUV and how much energy I had expended in the last four years ensuring my kids were securely strapped into the seats every time we went anywhere in our car. We rode bicycles for fun and only after lengthy lectures on safety and responsibility.
My momentary comfort in the universal ritual of dads saying goodbye to their families in the morning fell away. I had no context or perspective from which to view this scene.
My guilt and confusion was overwhelming. I began to sob. And there I sat in my convertible Mercedes driving back home to our newly painted and decorated house in Burlingame/Truman Show, CA to ride bikes with my four year old who was most certainly already having his Oma help him get the straps to his bike helmet tightened under his chin. And when I got home I would carefully strap my two-year old into our way-too-expensive stroller so we could take a walk to the neighborhood park to play with other kids who were in all likelihood doing just about the exact same thing.
I came home and told my mom who was visiting for a few days what I had seen. I said, “It’s not fair that I get the luxuries of safety and security and education when so many other people don’t. Why am I any better or more deserving than anyone else?” Because I worked hard? Lots of people work hard and don’t get what I have. Because my parents could afford to send me to college (at a state school with ridiculously low tuition)? Because I can afford to pay my law school loans (because of said ridiculously low tuition)? Because I married a man who also works hard and is smart and works in an industry that compensates him well? Because, frankly, we had also been very lucky?
And then my mom told the story of my great-grandmother whose husband died unexpectedly when my grandmother was a senior in high school. There she was. Mother of four kids aged 17, 16, 14, and 12 years old with a farm in Iowa to run just as the Great Depression was starting. How unfair. She did not wallow. She did not feel sorry for herself (of course she did but no one knew it). No time for that! And she did everything she needed to to keep the farm afloat (it is a business, after all). Rather than sending her two oldest girls to college, as was the plan, she kept them close to home and they worked in town, giving all of their pay to keep the family farm alive. My great-granmother got up before dawn to tend to the farm animals, gather cow pies (that’s dried cow crap for you city slickers) to burn for fuel. She turned her home into a boarding house to help bring in a little more money. Once the two youngest boys were old enough, they started helping with the farm, too. This wasn’t temporary. This was how she spent the majority of the rest of her life. She saved the farm and it’s still in the family. One of her great-grandsons still lives in the house. Below is a picture of it that I took during our trip to Iowa this summer:
The four kids helped my great-grandmother as best they could, all raising their families close to the farm. My grandmother later married my grandfather who also lived in the small Iowa farming town and moved to a nearby farm. Here, they raised my mom and her two sisters. Farming life is not easy nor lucrative. My grandparents worked very hard, lived modest lives and sacrificed like crazy to give their three girls a chance at going to college and having careers. Which they all did (still do).
My mom married my dad, also raised on a farm in the small Iowa farm town. My two aunts married men from the same farming community as well. And they all promptly got the hell out of Dodge. Not in a spiteful way (our family remains close-knit) but in a way that honored the opportunities my grandparents tried to create. And my parents did everything they could to provide me and my siblings the same opportunities, with an exponential increase in expectations and sacrifice. Standing on that foundation created by my parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ sacrifices (and the inherent advantages of being a middle-class white female in our society), I went to college and law school and built my career and life with my husband. And then Justin and I made our sacrifices to start a family and began to build a foundation for our children on which to build their futures.
Maybe the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby is doing the same thing…he’s just a couple of generations behind my family. The evolution of wealth is usually slow.
Maybe. Maybe not.
I still feel guilty.
I also told my husband about the-man-on-bike-with-the-baby and in the only way that he can give me an ass-kicking, he gave me an ass-kicking (reason #3 I married him). He said, “How do you know that the man you saw is not actually every bit as happy as you? Maybe his life in the last 10 years has been hell and he’s thrilled to be enjoying the life of a new dad and he’s grateful for a job that makes it possible for him to live in that apartment. Just because the two minutes of his life that you witnessed is shocking to you doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his life.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Justin was also just trying to make me feel better (reason #8 I married him).
The truth is, I have no idea where the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby was going and whether or not he was happy or satisfied with his life. Just like I have no idea whether the beautiful wives, handsome and successful husbands, and well-behaved children we are now surrounded by are happy or satisfied…or not.
But, right now, I am happy and satisfied. And I’m going to enjoy it and be very, very grateful for this moment in time. My great-grandmother wouldn’t want me to take my happiness for granted but she’d be damned if I felt guilty for it, too.