Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The drift

I've been speeding through my next book for review -- Hats And Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair With Gambling, by Martha Frankel. The bulk of it is a breezy memoir about growing up a precocious math whiz with an extended family that played the ponies (and less reputable games), getting interested in poker while doing research on a screenplay, and becoming a successful home game and card room player. But at the end it takes a dark turn, with the author becoming addicted to internet poker and losing a small fortune.

While reading it during lunch, I was blindsided by a scene that left me blinking back tears at the cafe table. In the grip of online madness, unable to tell anyone about her failures, Frankel neglects her loved ones and loses her grasp on normal relationships. Several months into the episode, in 1999, her mother calls her up, causing her to lose her dialup connection to Paradise Poker. Because she'd told her family and friends to stop calling her at work for this very reason, Frankel snatched up the phone and snapped at the caller. But when she heard the desperate voice of her mother, one of the women who taught her to love gambling, on the line, she became frightened. Her mother sounded on the verge of a breakdown. Frankel was afraid that she was ill, that there had been an accident, that some tragedy had occurred.

When her mother finally blurted out what was wrong, between sobs, she said, "What have I done to hurt you?"

Frankel's short temper, her refusal to come visit as she used to and her distant demeanor when she did, her anger and depression and coldness toward her mother -- as toward all of her family and friends -- had caused her mother to conclude that she had wronged her daughter somehow, without knowing it. After months of suffering, she finally worked herself up to the humiliation of asking how she could fix it.

Something about the mother's tragically mistaken read of the situation moved me deeply. I see parents and children in the process of estrangement all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Heck, I was estranged from my parents for a few years after college, and I know it hurt them terribly. The worst part must be the powerlessness to fix it, the inability to repair the relationship. And in this case, when the mother blamed herself, at least in the way Frankel told it, there was no martyr attitude to the move, no claiming of the moral high ground of victimhood -- just a naked plea to be allowed to apologize and make it right.

The saddest thing about Frankel's story is that she can't confess to her mother, even then. She turns off the computer, drives home, and spends the rest of the day talking to her mother on the phone, weaving a system of false explanations and reassurances. And then next day she turned on the computer and lost another three hundred dollars.

There's an extremity to the situations I sometimes see between my students and their parents, as there was on a smaller scale with my family at one time. Boxed in by the press and weight of the obligations they've taken on, oppressed by the looming expectations they feel from their families, students sometimes light out for the territories, burning their bridges behind them. I can empathize with the attractiveness of that kind of escape. The problem is that life goes on, the relationships do not dissolve, and at some point the consequences of running will be added to all the other consequences being run away from. And that particular tragic arc hits me right where I live.

No comments: