Wednesday, August 11, 2010

coloring outside the lines

Trying to decipher my parents' checkbooks — and realize they're written in code. Began code-breaking today...

My dad's checkbooks were pieces of impressionist art. The numbers were all rounded out to aesthetically pleasing figures. The entries almost all consisted of contributions to one good cause or another. And most of those contributions were to Children's Cancer Funds. We should have guessed. My sister died of brain cancer when she was about five months old.

Now that my dad is gone, I've had to decipher every line. And thank god he actually stayed between the lines. It's only the numbers themselves that are fuzzy. Only the numbers that are purposefully imprecise. Lies, every single one of them.

My mom's checkbook, on the other hand, is another kind of art altogether. Zen art. A few brushstrokes spanning the Register page. In dictation shorthand that hasn't been used since WWII. Illegible, incomprehensible — but lovely elegant strokes across the lines. The numbers, on the other hand are meticulous and orderly. If only I knew what they referred to. Are they taxable expenditures? Are they bills? Who knows, until I piece together what really happened, and balance the whole damned thing. Trying to forestall the disaster of their taxes at the end of the year, by trying to tame it all each month.

My mom told me today that she hates the tyranny of staying between the lines.

The lines offend her. But so does imperfect math. She wants the numbers to come out exactly right. But she's compelled to color outside the lines. She is, after all, a poet. With poetic sensibilities.

Now, I always thought that I was what used to be called a non-conformist. As a child I was determined to grow up to be a beatnik. What that meant to me was pillows on the floor. Passing the pipe around. Playing slow jazz, or folk or just plain drums. Long straight hair. Wearing nothing but black. When outside my little universe, the world was filled with pink poodle skirts, pink faces, blue eyes and button-down shirts. Buddy Holly and brand new rock-n-roll. The world was bifurcated. Beatniks colored outside the line, and that's what I aspired to. I forced my dad to drive me to City Lights to sit at the feet of the poets. I was in fifth grade at the time.

Of course, I didn't own a checkbook back then to show me what I really was.

I'm beginning to think that checkbooks tell the truth. And all those decades of long straight hair, wearing black, Bedouin jewelry, outsider mentality, Sufi music — whatever is the tipping point between poodle skirt on the one hand and beatnik on the other — I was always very clear which side of the line I stood.

Until today, when I really looked at my checkbook. I was showing my own Register to my mom in the hopes that she would follow my example. So that when the year is at a close I can put her taxes together with less anguish than last year. But what I saw in my own Register was shocking.

Every line in meticulous order. Every word not just legible but rational. (With a monthly budget to back it up, and a quarterly budget to back that up, and yes — a yearly budget to oversee the totality of it all — expenditures mapped out a year in advance, so as to encounter no surprises). Every number balanced every month. To the penny.

And yes, my friends make fun of me. And I stick my chin in the air and sniff proudly, that I need that kind of order to make it through the month. Anything less is just too anxiety provoking.

And I realized that at some undefinable point, I stopped coloring outside the lines. I stopped protesting, stopped the usual kinds of activism, stopped drugs, stopped even music. Cold turkey. I became an obsessive budget-keeper. A petty little accountant. At some point, I just wanted all the numbers to work out.

Actually, it's a very definable point. February 16, 1995 I became an obsessive-compulsive realist. It was supposed to be February 14th — but I was asked to delay those two days to not ruin Valentine's Day forever. On February 16th, 1995 I moved out on my own.

And from that day onward it was up to me, and me alone, to make all the numbers work out right. So much for the quest for freedom.

I learned slowly to color inside those blasted lines. Learned to take comfort inside those lines. Learned that behind the scraggly hair and all-black beat facade, that much to my own surprise, I work well within the system. Who would have known? I'm more conformist — more conservative — than my parents ever were. At least, that's what my checkbook is telling me. I broke the code: I learned that my donations are more banal than those of my parents. More predictable. I learned that I've got not a shred of Zen in my notations. No impressionism in my numbers. I learned that if anything, my checkbook is hyper-real. Maybe more Dali than anything else. Both meticulous and wild.

Maybe being an anthropologist is the best balance I could have asked for (though balance was nothing I ever aspired to). Academia forces you to stay between the lines, of schedules and committees, and dossiers, and requirements, and then rewards you with a regular paycheck. But it also gives you the wide latitude to study absolutely anything worth exploring. So, what does my checkbook say in code? It marks me as a careful obsessive, with only a periodic hankering for the wild side.

And right now if you sift between the banal lines of obligations paid in full, there are hints. Like a crystal ball, the checkbook reveals not just the past but the future as well. It says I'm heading for New Orleans in the fall, to our panel about Trance. Where horns and drums will find us, and I might be forced to dance. And I'll be wearing black of course. Bring a carnation for Madame. We'll color madly outside the lines.

And run back home again.

And the numbers? Well, all those numbers will be forced back inside the lines just as soon as we fly home.


  1. Lines, lines everywhere lines. Some are mundane and others surreal, pick carefully which you allow to measure your life.

  2. Or stop measuring, altogether ...

  3. I don't think that being very aware of, and careful with, your resources equals conformity - in fact, looking around in Amurika today, I'm sure it does not.

    Sometimes delineating a boundary can, paradoxically, create wider freedom within it. I've seen folks w/o that careening around wildly until they naturally harm themselves, then after that, retracting up so tightly that there's no space left in them at all.

    I'm looking forward to those horns and drums. And I think we should bring some home.

    - Tina