I grew up learning about the world in the harsh, vindictive Scots-Irish tradition. Some of it was articulated — e.g., pride goeth before a fall. Some of it was implicit in the fundamental attitude we live in a hard, unforgiving world, where an implacable, Old Testament fury would exact payment for any lightheartedness or happiness.
No wonder all these feel-good churches are propagating like sex bunnies in our 21st-century world. Who needs all that Scots-Irish negativity when you can be deliriously thrilled with yourself, your cup running over with self-esteem?
Still, try unloading your childhood lessons. It doesn’t always work (and I do have the undying belief that all the wrong people in the world are the ones with an excess of self-esteem; see Palin, Sarah).
All of which is to say I wasn’t entirely surprised when my luck started to go bad. After all, my husband and I had just had a great time in New York, we’d both sold books, our kids were doing fine. Who was I kidding? Someone would have to pay for all that good luck — and God knows, it wouldn’t be my husband, who’d been reared in a guilt-free, laissez les bons temps rouler Episcopalian household. It would be me.
First, it was my debit card, getting hacked to the tune of $1,500 by some assholes in Helsinki. Then our kitchen ceiling developed a leak directly below our upstairs shower.
“I’m beginning to feel like Job,” I told my husband.
He told me to get some perspective. “Job didn’t have indoor plumbing,” he said.
Our new plumber came and went, returning with a small army of workers. Sure enough, our shower pan needed to be replaced. The house rattled and echoed with the sounds of hammers and saws and occasional thuds.
“I’ve never worked on a shower this old,” one of the workers said. “The old pan was made of lead, man.”
Figures. My husband and I have the bad habit of falling for old, charming houses; show us a disaster with no central air and heat and we’re in love. We see only the possibilities — the good possibilities, I mean.
The hammering and whacking continued and I got an email from my credit card company that my card had been compromised. But, so what? The new card was en route.
The new card showed up and I called the 800 number to activate it. Then the guy on the other end of the line told me to forget it: the new card number had already been used in Brazil, for God’s sake.
“I need to destroy the new card?” I said. “Are you kidding?”
No, he was not kidding, probably because he had no sense of humor. But then, by this time, neither did I.
Oh, so shit happens and life frays and you get hacked and flayed — but at least I could do something positive by continuing to exercise, right? Yes, I could — but I slipped and fell this morning on the path leading to the local hike-and-bike trail, badly skinning my knee.
I limped to the nearby water fountain, cleaning off my leg while the blood streamed down. Like your usual disaster site, I attracted a fair amount of attention. One runner told me how he’d once tried to get a pebble out of his shoe with an icepick and managed to slice his hand open.
Then I ran into my friends Paula and Carol, both veteran mothers, both bossy. “You need to go to one of those clinics,” Paula said. “I know. I have three sons. We were there all the time. Tell them I said hi.”
“Definitely a clinic,” Carol said. “You didn’t skin your knee, so stop saying that. You have a hole in your knee.”
So Carol drove me to one of those doc-in-a-box joints, where I got a big white bandage and antibiotics, which I paid for with one of my few remaining, unhacked credit cards. Then I went home to hear that the wallpaper had to come down in the bathroom and the sheetrock replaced on the kitchen ceiling, and this extra attention would cost almost as much as the Finns’ whooping it up in Helsinki.
But, indoor plumbing or not, my Job delusions had departed. I’d listened to Paula tell me her blood counts were raised a little after her recent bout with cancer, and I could recall precisely what she was feeling — that icy terror in her gut. I’d gotten Scots-Irish indoctrination as a child and, better, a decent sense of perspective (as well as cancer) as an adult. Both phases of my life were ganging up on me, telling me to shut the fuck up and remember how lucky I am. Jesus, who would have thought the Scots-Irish could swear like that?
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about my tough gang of ancestors