12/15/2010 09:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Christmas Present to Humanity

According to Scientific American, the experience of Schadenfreude activates the same pleasure center of the brain as does a good meal.

None of us is above it. No matter how personally evolved you are, you've got one too: That dirty, grubbing, little Id beastie, deep down inside, who slurps a custardy dollop of wrongful pleasure at the misfortune or folly of others. Don't deny it. It's okay! Really.

It makes perfect, primal sense: In paleolithic terms, some other hapless biped gets trampled or dragged off (or is too depressed to join the hunt today)? Cool! More mastodon meat for me and my progeny.

Nothing has changed.

Further proof that it's normal: The complete LACK of such satisfaction when those who are suffering happen to be of your blood, from your tribe. To picture it: My kids, in pain? Schadenfreude non-existent! Hell no. Instead, there is only a commanding urge to feel the pain for them, to spare them at the expense of my own life if necessary. But make no mistake: That's not altruism, but evolution, at work. It's the human animal obeying the imperative of its DNA, playing out the feelings and actions that will best ensure propagation.

So, let's forgive our Nature. In fact, let's be more generous altogether. Now is the season of giving, and that brings me to recall the looks of deprivation on certain persons' faces while they were being informed of my divorce. Because, for the most part, there were no accompanying tales of betrayal, drama, violence or any other such hideousness. I know; no fairsies to the gossip-mongers! Poor things.

I wonder if I appeared smug to some? That would have been a fraudulent veneer. I was profoundly wounded-y for a considerable period of time; heck I still have *those days,* though I keep thinking they should be well behind me by now. And oh, how I wish I could forget some of the unplanned spillage: Moist, quivery gobs of emoting inadvertently plopped down in front of people during the past couple of years:

There was that one tearful, spontaneous overshare that left me feeling as if I had committed the verbal equivalent of throwing up on a friend's shoes. (And she, stunned but astonished at her "good" fortune as recipient, having done nothing more than cross paths at school pick-up and say "Hello, How are you?" with just the right tilt of the head to set me off into mental upchucking.)

Well, I took measures after that incident. For example, I would drive rather than take the train into the city, avoiding chance encounters that might lead to *The Conversation.* And no stopping for local coffee, either; strictly To Go cups of home brew. Oh, those poor vultures in the community, the extended family, or in-law circles; stooped, salivating and ready, but denied their heaping serving of the carnage that was my life. How could I have been so mean?

That is why, This Yuletide, I offer up the gift of My Failures and Shortcomings, for all to enjoy. Think of it as a handy step-stool that brings you up to the level of being just that much better than me. Because in many ways, you are, and you deserve to enjoy it. It's a calorie-free indulgence, from me to your inner Beastie. (Structured so as to parallel the Twelve Days of Christmas. Try singing along. Kind of works, doesn't it?).


My first way of messing up, a gift to you from me:

1. Failed to Blossom like Eat, Pray, Love.

In fact, I failed to finish the book, and I refuse to see the movie. It's not that I'm one of the EPL haters, I swear. It's just, partly, a disconnect on the socio-economic level, and partly a personality clash is all: I do not "Go Girl," and even as I don't judge it, I am utterly unable to fathom how this level of self-focus and limitless fascination with one's individual existence is possible for someone who has taken a vow of marriage. I guess channeling our inner 20-year old has its merits. But my inner 20 year old is so horrified into paralysis at what has become of her, that she couldn't possibly muster the werewithall (nevermind the cash), take hold of the reins and charge off into a new life (or the arms of another, uhm, rather strapping 20-year old) like that.

My second way of messing up, a gift to you from me: (and so on, I will not inflict this tedious intro on you 10 more times; you get the idea.)

2. Curse in Front of the Kids.

In case I had any illusions that they don't pay attention...
The little nuggets of loveable-ness are adapting and triumphing like champs, by the way. Here's some feedback from one of them on a school year off to a good start: "I love my teacher so much, Mom. She's just like you, but without all the cursing."

Oh for Chrissakes I do my best! Sometimes. That is, I hold high the double standard. Our last skirmish involved the middle-schooler letting fly with a bad word that I had just used. Of course I stopped her in her tracks with a magnificent speech/scolding about how vulgar language represents everything from a lack of linguistic imagination, intelligence and self-control to plain old low class.

Oh well.

3. Serve Bottled Salad Dressing!

Oh, and it gets better: Sometimes? I even buy the pre-cut salad greens.

Organics? Are you ready: Sometimes yes, sometimes: ...No! But C'MON, seriously? The bugs in the broccoli! I can't be the only one who doesn't want to deal with `em anymore, am I? Those little critters know how to CLING, even (especially?) after death -- then they go soft and just spread into tiny black smears when you try to wipe them off, right?? I know, I know, they're not as harmful as chemical residue, and I'm a horrible, lazy mother.

But wait, this is just me NOW. Back in the day, I was a foodie before the word existed. You wouldn't believe... With the 25% or less that remained of my take-home pay every month (after the rent, the student loans and a tenpack of subway tokens), I would scour the markets in neighborhoods almost as bad as my own, borrow a volume of Escoffier from the public library, and spend a weekend learning how to make demi-glace. In the 80's!

...Right, let me stick to confessing, not explaining. Why is this such a significant shortcoming?

I grew up eating from the garden in the backyard, in a family that butchered and smoked our own local meat without even viewing it as a lifestyle choice. Now? Now, I find myself wondering if it's time to resurrect those kitchy casserole recipes that involve cans of Campbell's soup.

How far I have fallen, in so many ways.

4. Still Want to Be Rescued.

It's true dammit! It's brutal out there, emotionally, financially... Just the complete opposite of fun, and I'm sick sick sick of it. A total big baby. Help!

Okay. To review: Have I made my own way in the world? Yes. Did I come to marriage from a place of strength, not desperation? Absolutely! Was I the gal always telling my friends NEVER to settle, but to be our own Heroes? Hell yeah! Then came the kids, and the fact that my Former could out-earn me exponentially. Not to mention that I voluntarily took the Mommy role of witnessing everything from their first steps to their first pubic hair. Meanwhile, the monthly nut grew as did the number of years I was out of the job market, and the cost and consequences of full-time childcare made full-time work an illogical choice. Every step along the way made perfect sense.

Except that now, somehow, they have added up to me feeling inadequate, obsolete, and unattractive.

So, somewhere in me lurks a battle-fatigued, insecure little creature who just wants *him* to show up and tell me I'm wonderful and make everything all right. Even as I reach an age where it is nothing short of laughable to entertain such fancies.

It's not as if I wouldn't do my part; I always have. I'm just, well, awfully tired is all. And why is it that when we are at our lowest, that is when we are guaranteed to be left alone!? Wah.

I know better: Only when we meet our own needs does the guy show up wanting to serve them. So it's time to close the fairytale book and face the music (what a bore).

5. Fumbled on the One Yard Line!

Okay, this is hard. Whose idea was this little exercise anyway?

Yep: This one definitely is my "Five Golden Rings" F*#k Up. The final throes of my marriage woes: My Fault. I gave up. I acted out. And I had been SO good, for SO long! I was the rock, the glue, the long sufferer!!! (Disclaimer: This is only one side of the story. No doubt my Former and those on "his side" will have a very different, and equally real, version that involves me being as hard to live with, all along, has he was.)

Here's where you get to fill in all kinds of sordid details; scenarios that will, without a doubt, be far more salacious and ugly than what actually transpired. Because here's where I must honor my Former's and my privacy. However, here is also where I must insist, with much consternation: I HAD it, I HAD it in my c l u t c h e s -- Moral High Ground was mine all along! But then, at the very end, I was just as wrong -- perhaps even more wrong -- than he was.

6. Second Guess my Choices.

Do I cheat on recycling? At this point, you probably know the answer to that one.

As for things that can and should be disposed of once and for all -- as in, irrevocable decisions and actions? At times there is no end to my capacity to re-use them as convenient tools with which to poison any given moment:

Why didn't I insist on having more say in the financial decisions?
What if I had refused to compromise from the get-go?
Were the private schools the wrong choice, even when there was enough money for tuition?
Would it have turned out better if I had hung on for a few more years?
Am I a lousy role model because I lack a successful career and a life partner?
If I had done something differently, could I have avoided the C-sections?
How delusional was it to think that I could manage this house by myself?

Turns out there IS one endless natural resource in the world. If I choose to tap the supply: a bottomless well of potential regrets.

7. Am Chronically Unorganized.

I do not need coaching, guidelines or tips. It is not a mystery, but a malady.

My nature is that of the uber-organizer; I have it in me, always have. It's just that I have slowly drowned in the clutter, and it's going to take some time to dig out. More often than not I fail to stretch the hours of the day far enough to cover the tasks that need doing, and I can feel my chest constricting & temple pulsating, just thinking about what I was supposed to accomplish last weekend. The gleeful voices of my children, as they count the days to Christmas, are the shrieks of demons tormenting me.

...Okay, that one about holiday stress was overly dramatic.

If I wanted to, I could retrace/rationalize exactly how and why things fell to the wayside: Marriage crises, 9-11, financial crises, moving too many times, deaths in the family, more financial crises, health crises, more marriage crises. No matter how understandable, I have gotten myself into a position of shouldering a mountain of unfinished business, physical clutter, and personal loose ends, and I must get myself out. And elaborating any further would undoubtedly be as punishing for you as it already has been for me.

8. Thought that I was special.

Turns out that I have failed in very mundane ways. How about that!?

It's not that I had felt entitled or superior, it's just that I did believe things were *different* when it came to my Former and me. Sure, we would have our problems, but we were not like other people, right? I would never , ever, be one of those women griping to my friends about my man instead of working it out with him. He couldn't possibly, ever, reach a point of wanting distance, withdrawing from me instead of connecting at the end of the day...

Hubris. Doesn't every couple believe that they have it right, or at least "different?" And then:

How sickening is it when the one who held you in such a treasured, sacred place, their co-conspirator in life, their Priority One, then pushes you away? Into the exile of "Otherness."

9. Want Plastic Surgery.

...or at least injections. But here I am, unmarried, forty-something, in the New York vicinity, and aging naturally. Yikes.

Oh, how my inner 32 year old smirks at this one. (That was my physical peak, I believe. Such an easy position from which to declare that one would never go down the road of age-intervention.) But what the hell does a thirty-something know about anything, anyway!?

A recent moment: I was looking through photographs with a dear friend: Spotting a pretty one of me, she remarked, "Oh look how young you were then!"
The photo was taken Three Years Ago. Um. So. ...Yeah.

Never thought that I could be so vain, so concerned about the superficial. Oh, but I bet there are scads of sassy younger women who also believe that their values run deeper than this. Well, just wait `til they hit midlife, or have to face being alone when it's not by choice! ...Oops; I swerved off into the hypothetical rebuttal zone. Back to simply taking inventory:

What happens is, you grow accustomed to routinely being mistaken as 10 years younger than your age. Then, after a decade or 2 of real life, the shocks, battles and ordeals leave their marks. Hormonal balances change and skin changes with them; sleep deprivation and stress take their toll... The Invisibility Cloak of "Ma'am-hood" sneaks up and envelopes you before you can say "old gray mare."

I don't know what to expect in my 50's, but one thing is clear: Turning 40 was just a lark. It's like being an improved version of thirty-something. It was fun, in fact. But the changes from the early 40's to the late 40's are like nothing I have seen in any other 5 - 7 year cycle up until now.

And somewhere in the future, if I live that long, perhaps there is a fifty-sixty-seventysomething version of me shaking her head at this one.

10. Haven't Made a Contribution.

This may seem repetitious, but it deserves its own title. And this post deserves a break from long explanations.

So, I will sum it up this way: The generalized failure of me as a person in the world can be described as Renaissance potential, with Dilettante manifestation. A bit of talent, creative sensibility, deep thinking, great ideas, good intentions; So What. None of it matters if, at the end of the day, instead of creating and producing, I fold laundry, clean up the kitchen, pour a glass of wine and catch up on "Boardwalk Empire."

11. Hate that Life's Unfair.

After all, part of being an adult is accepting that life in fact is not fair. This is a lesson that comes very early in the game. And I know it. And I like to think that I accept it. And yet. Sometimes I still rail against it. What's up with that? Such a time-waster.

The funny (as in, funny because it's pathetic) part: A certain amount of talk therapy and intelligence can result in a person who may seem to be conducting a worthwhile self-examination, but who in fact is indulging in a Pity Party. ...Not that I would know anything about that. Nah.

12. Fear that It's All Over.

This is the most dangerous, and encompassing of the demons. Fear. Fear kills. Fear breeds other destructive thoughts and feelings. It's a monster, but like all of the preceding, it is a choice.

Late Bloomer? At this stage of the game, it's either that or a wizened little bud.

To wrap it all up, let the bow on the present be a quote from writer Catherine Aird: "If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning."

If there is anything about this full-frontal flaw-fest of mine that might spare you any "learn the hard way" incidents, then it will have been worthwhile, and I am honored to have been your "horrible warning."

May your days be Merry and Bright. May your *real* gifts be sweet, sustaining and of Good Will (the kind your beastie may not savor, but your higher self will embrace).