Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Gray Desk

A small, private moment—almost missed and never intended to be witnessed. The top of a staircase; a glance right instead of left, and a single instant in time becomes the defining line of "before" and "after," a shift in the balance between protected innocence and mutual knowledge. I was eleven, maybe twelve. We were living in Los Angeles at the time, and the stairs were the ones leading from the open space near the family room, up to the landing where my parents and I went our separate ways: my room to the left, the master bedroom to the right. Framed in the doorway, shown in the afternoon light cut to ribbons by the vertical blinds in my parents' room: a desk, curved on its outer edge to form a softened L; the smooth, pale gray surface of a hard, poly-substance, veined with white to look like heavy marble. Behind the desk, a tall-backed chair, wide and thickly padded with light gray suede. A powerful executive chair—one I used to like to swivel in—not at all the chair of a man with his head in his hands, making quiet sounds of self-doubt. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry. It took me a moment to realize that this was what he was doing. He had left a high-profile job to hang his own shingle so to speak, launching a management consulting business that he would abandon and then rebuild with great success some years later. At this time, though, it was all struggle and very little payoff, I suppose—at least in proportion to the debts of mortgage, auto expenses, private school tuition, and extra-curricular activities that my parents never let me think were a burden. I was too young to understand the grip of "money worries," the reality of financial pressure. In my presence, these things were talked about in only the most oblique ways. My parents tried always to give me the gift of a wider window of childhood freedom: freedom from worry, from fear, from all the ugliness in the world. It's not that they hid everything from me—not that my life was sheltered or naive in any unusual way—but I was never allowed to fret about these things, never allowed to doubt my (or our family's) basic security. Childhood is short enough, and where is the harm in shoring up its foundation? But in L.A., along the fault lines, foundations are only as solid as the plates of land beneath them. At the top of the stairs, approaching the gray desk, a seismic shift was taking place. This is the moment I remember as a catalyst for the new knowledge that the world was truly bigger than us all, and that it was not only children who felt powerless at times, and small. At the time, my father was not much older than I am now. Now, it's all too easy to put myself in his position: with America's economy in shambles, with my own uncertain shingle hanging outside my door, I sit often at my desk and wonder how we will pull through, how I will manage to not fail my son but to give him the opportunities he deserves. Remembering my dad in this low moment, wondering about the touch of embarrassment—no, shyness—that maybe we both felt at the time, I am nevertheless happy to have spied it. Shaking as it was, it was in no way a tumbling from a pedestal; rather, it was the gift of first knowing the humanity in the man.

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