Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I Even Surprised Myself

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

“Bandits” is a movie about two bank robbers who are exact opposites and a “kidnapped” heroine. Billy Bob Thornton plays a nerdy, neurotic hypochondriac with Bruce Willis playing a good looking womanizer with anger management problems. They rob a few banks and become well known. The heroine, an unappreciated housewife, fleeing from her self-absorbed husband and boring life runs into Thornton with her car. She makes him get in so she can take him to the hospital. Then he tells her that he is a dangerous, desperate man and she responds with, “You don’t know the meaning of desperate!” She gets involved with the bandits and eventually falls in love with both men. She can’t choose between them because in her mind, together they “make the perfect man.”

Being the wife of an ambitious husband and the daughter of a traditional, slightly crazy mother, I identified a great deal with the characters. I appreciated Thornton’s neuroses and the humor related to it. But the thing I enjoyed the most was the fantasy that Cate lived after her escape from the stereotypes, and expectations of others. “Bandits” was meaningful and enjoyable to me because of the colorful, daring characters, and the dream of doing or being anything that I would want without the insecurities and weaknesses that I’ve had throughout my life.

I immediately related to Cate’s character. During the first scene she is in, Cate is singing, dancing and cooking in a beautiful gourmet kitchen. I, too, love to do those things, especially for my family and friends (except for the dancing in public part). But then her doctor-husband walks in and when she excitedly tells him that she has made him an elaborate meal, he says he already ate and has to go to the gym. Why doesn’t she go see a movie? I remember a situation just like this one. Early in my marriage, my husband had just finished finals and was reading a novel. I had been looking forward to finally spending time with him and was peppering him with chit chat about the kids, my day, and anything else I could think of. He got frustrated with me for interrupting his reading and told me to call a friend. The feelings of disappointment and rejection really struck deeply and I felt devalued. I believed that he thought I was only able to take care of the house and children and that was all I was good for. Worst of all, I believed it, too. Because of this belief, I felt powerless and trapped.

The feeling and fear that I would be trapped in a stereotypical role of woman, wife and mother started well before that incident. My mother told me that although she, herself, always got As, she could have never taken a higher level of mathematics, like Trigonometry, because it was too hard for women. Women didn’t need all that stuff, anyway. I believed her and was always afraid of “hard” subjects that were traditionally for men, like chemistry and math. Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Bandits is a lot like my mother, smart, obsessive, overly cautious, analytical, neurotic, and dependant on others. My mother has a horrible, graphic story for every occasion. She told me repeatedly about the dangers of walking (OK, she said running) with a toothbrush in my mouth, falling in love, and believing anything I read. Yet, I should believe her because her life experiences and reading proved her wise. I thought at the time that I didn’t believe any of it, but as I’ve looked back, I can see that I did believe a lot.

I loved the movie because it let me escape even if just for ninety minutes. I became Cate, bold enough to leave my role and go on a crazy, spontaneous, rebellious joyride with two men who appreciated me for who I was, not what they thought I should be. But I tried the crazy, rebellious joyride once, and failed. I was not as successful as Cate. Right out of high school I took a far away job in San Diego working as a nanny for two U.S. Naval officers that were man and wife. This was my big chance! I was going to the big city to get some life experience so I could write my first book. I thought taking care of children would come naturally because I was a woman. I really stank at it. I was more interested in playing, reading, and writing than working. When I realized it and went to quit, I was called a “social butterfly” by my female, commanding officer boss and was told that I would never amount to anything unless I broke away from the false traditions that I had been taught about the place of women. Being crushed by her words, yet denying them, I went home and started my first freshman classes a week later. I was going to be the successful college student, career woman and prove them all wrong. But I got really sick two weeks before finals and didn’t take my exams. I thought I didn’t need those classes anyway, because I was engaged. I got two Fs and a D. I didn’t tell my mother. I thought she would again say, “I told you so.” In my mind, I had proven her right. I was a woman and a failure. All I could do was get married, have babies and keep a relatively clean house (of course it wasn’t as clean as my mother’s).

So I did. Surprisingly, my mother said that I took care of my husband, house and kids better than she had. I was grateful for that and I believed her. I had two children and decided that I wanted to try the school thing again. Because my husband and I were starving students, my father paid for my classes, again. He knew that I had made a mistake earlier and supported me in trying. My father had always supported me in anything that I tried. But for some reason his voice was quieter than others. I should have listened more closely. But I had to prove my own beliefs wrong before I could hear him. That first semester back, I got straight As. I got a 98% overall in my math class. My female teacher suggested I go on to Calculus because I had a gift and that was when math got fun. I felt empowered. I was a success at something other than motherhood. I no longer believed that I was powerless and trapped. I was 23 and had the ability to do anything I wanted. I could do it all if I wanted. But I knew that there was only so much of me to go around so I stayed home for another 15 years to be a mother, because I loved it, chose it, and am great at it. Since then, I’ve been told that I am bright and successful in many areas of my life, not just by my peers and teachers, but by a very surprised mother. And I believe them.

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