When I was younger — and, let's face it, up to now I always was younger — I was convinced that the world, or at least the part of it that was relevant to my existence, operated on a caste system, and that movement across those social strata was less common than the American We the People mythos would have us believe.

I perceived three subsets: lower, middle and upper, each of which was divided into three further subsets: lower, middle and upper. The bottom of the range was therefore Lower Lower (duh), while the top was Upper Upper (double duh). I should have known that there was something askew with this scheme when I couldn't locate the dividing line between Upper Lower (#3) and Lower Middle (#4), despite the fact that crossing that line was high on my list of Things to Do; I saw myself as Middle Lower (#2), and that sight made me ill.

At its worst, this illness would manifest itself in the form of a panic attack, like this one:

How many times have I been to Target? Fifty? A hundred? Certainly it's not the sort of place a reasonable person (defined, for this purpose, as "a person whose expenses do not exceed income by more than thirty percent") would have any reason to fear. And yet as I darted — well, actually slogged — through the automatic door this morning, I felt the icy hands of pure dread pushing me back: "You don't belong here. Go away."

I fought off the creature, or whatever, long enough to buy a few small items of marginal necessity — surely there must be some justification for keeping three liters of mouthwash on hand, and if I ever think of one, I'll let you know — and get myself through the checkout line. There were still errands to run, but I got back into my car and drove home, still shivering.

Inasmuch as I'd just undergone a serious health procedure that week, I assumed at the time that this was a delayed reaction to the procedure, the drugs it required, or the verdict it called for. And if it wasn't that, maybe it was just good old Non sum dignus: "I am not worthy." This explanation was not satisfactory. I can understand it in the context of avoiding dates, maybe. But Target? For all its designer pretentions, Target, even if you pronounce it tahr-ZHAY, ain't exactly Saks Fifth Avenue. Still, when your subconscious demands that you carry a sign and shout "Unclean!" as you approach, something's seriously askew.

Some time after my 49th birthday, things started to dawn on me. Noting that I was still living in an indifferent (at best) flat in an uninspiring part of town, I reflected on why I was still there:

I am legally an adult — for crying out loud, my children are legally adults — but something inside of me hasn't gotten the message. It's not some atavistic Peter Pan fancy, either; I am reasonably conscientious, I keep my nose to the grindstone, and I generally behave in a manner that borders on mature. Still, there's some barrier, some threshold, some something I've surely crossed chronologically but never quite got past emotionally.

But the turning point came the very week I turned 50, by no coincidence the week I left that flat behind forever. Within a month, I had written this:

The real question, I think, is "Do I belong here?" For me, this is not an idle query; for so long, I have felt so much the misfit, so completely out of step with the rest of the world, that the thought of being in the Wrong House is every bit as scary as being in love with the Wrong Woman. (I've done that too, but that's a story for some other time.)

I didn't notice it at the time, but the anxiety attacks, which used to be as regular as complaints to the landlord, have since dropped to zero. I still have my berserk moments, but it's frustration, not fear, that spurs them onward.

Could it have been, then, that I was simply envious of people living a life I wanted for myself? It might well have been. In an experiment today, I drove out to see this imposing structure under construction on the city's northeast side. In days gone by, the sight of such a thing would have sent me off into all sorts of tangential thoughts — who is this person with the budget of Croesus, where does he get off showing off like this, and why the hell can't something like this happen to me fercrissake?

This time: "Hmmm. Nice house."

Just to make sure that that's what I said, I drove back home through Nichols Hills, a place which used to intimidate me quite a bit and now draws mainly shrugs. (Well, that and a few grumbles as I remember that the speed limit is 25 and they frickin' well mean it.) On the way down Pennsylvania, I asked myself what I want that I can't have.

And I came up blank. New computer? Ordered this morning. New car? Enjoying not having car payments too much just now. Backyard pool? If I felt like writing a big-enough check, I could have one. House six times the size of mine? Thirty-six times the cleaning.

(Oh, yeah, there's that. But when you introduce a second person into the mix, it's an entirely different ball game, one I'm probably not ready to play just yet.)

So maybe I did have a serious case of envy, worse than I had ever imagined. If it's well and truly over, good riddance. I just wish our society hadn't institutionalized this sort of thing under the guise of "compassion."

The Vent

  15 April 2006

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 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill