At the age of 65, I now finally know my mission in life. I’m a real-live crash test dummy.
Crash test dummies (CTD’s from here on) test out the risk factors of dangerous potential scenarios so you can learn from them and avoid damage yourself. Strap the dummy in, let ‘er rip, see how it goes and set your own course accordingly. I’ve been a vicarious CTD for many friends and acquaintances nearly all my life, though I only realized it fairly recently.
Let me explain. I never thought of myself as a big risk taker: I grew up the only child of older, conservative parents in the white-bread suburb of Lake Highlands, Dallas, Texas. I was a straight-A student who never cut class or snuck out of the house – like I heard other people did – and a Girl Scout; in the senior year awards ceremony I was given the non-coveted “Citizenship Award,” which might just as well been named The Goody Two Shoes Award.
However, there was a curious flip side to the normalcy of my Dallas childhood. My dad was executive camp director of YMCA Camp Grady Spruce on Possum Kingdom Lake, and every June we packed up to move out to camp for the summer, where I (with the exception of my mom and dog Mitzi) was the only female among 200 male campers. I learned how to shoot rifles, shotguns and bows and arrows; paddle a canoe; drive a ski boat and ski slalom; sail a Sunfish; and cut and stamp leather belts. Made me just a tad competitive.
On our family vacation time, we drove from Texas to Canada to camp and fish at remote fishing camps on unnamed lakes, with a canvas tarp as a tent, strung with a Baker-Bowlin half hitch rope knot. Sometimes I hung back from all-day fishing to play in the woods with the Objibwa kids whose dads were fishing guides; we had real knives and food snatched from their kitchens and real fire to cook it on.
Which brings me back to CTD’s. Looking back (with the help of my life coach, Nils, who I still Skype with in Oaxaca), I note with great interest that I never, ever chose the easy path – to anything. Given 10 possibilities of a road to take, I almost always chose the hardest one. The one where there were no guidelines so I couldn’t get it wrong by not doing it right. The one where I would never be bored.
Most dramatically and recently, I lived in Mexico for a decade plus change, flouting norms of what people do in middle (OK, old) age when you get divorced after 29 years and the kids move out. “I wish I could run off to another country and learn another language,” said many people, meaning they’d like to see how I fared first.
I have to say, I think I did encourage dozens of middle-aged women to travel and live abroad since nothing truly awful happened to me in a decade of doing it (scorpion sting and gallbladder surgery in a second-world country aside, with just enough minor mishaps that could be respun into grand adventures).
Graduating from high school, I ditched the safe college choice of Texas Tech after flying to Lubbock and realizing, duh, it was a cowtown with cows and cowboys. Not for me.
I quickly pivoted to Hendrix College, a small private liberal arts college in Arkansas brimming with smart and quirky students who played chess and did math problems for fun after class and canoed and rappelled in the woods on weekends. I transferred to the University of Missouri to study journalism in the heyday of Watergate, when everyone wanted to be an investigative reporter – though I studied magazine journalism. Yeah, I graduated from a prestigious J-school – but with a straight-C average and a miserable social life, not a ringing CTD success except for my stellar education.
After graduation and marriage to my first college sweetheart, I applied for and received a Rotary Fellowship to study journalism in Strasbourg, France. “Boy, I wish I could do that,” exclaimed many, though in truth not many really wanted to leave the US for a year to bomb spectacularly at university studies in another language, live in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment and deal with the complexities of snobbish French culture and language. Though I earned no actual diploma, I got a crash master course in cultural awareness and travel.
Although I raised a family in the suburbs of Dallas for nearly two decades and pretty much played by the rules, I did my CTD time at work. For nearly 40 years, I was a consultant for the Dallas County Community College District, now Dallas College. My primary role was as a writer, but often I took on the projects that were so new and unformed that I had to figure them out on the fly. Most prominent was the one they called the Program Profile Pages (PPPs), a long-term project to create individual webpages for the district’s 75 technical programs, not list them as subsets of the seven colleges, with all different content. To a created template that included information not listed anywhere else – skill sets, potential workplaces, possible job titles and salaries, along with testimonials from students and teachers – I researched, interviewed and wrote content for two PPPs a month for three years until all 75 were completed and posted. Then I spent another decade revising them and keeping content current. It was interesting, varied work that I could do anywhere I had my laptop and internet– and which I did for the last 10 years from Mexico.
So, Mexico. I enrolled in three weeks of language school a year post-divorce and fell completely in love with the country, culture and people. After the first year of increasingly longer trips to San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, I sold the house in Dallas, took a lark trip to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead in November 2009, and went back to live for good in January 2010. I rented a year-round apartment, volunteered for a women’s microfinance organization, took buses to mountain villages on weekends, and applied for a permanent resident card (didn’t change my citizenship status in the U.S. at all, and as far as I know pretty much only got me reduced bus fare and some senior citizen privileges at public hospitals).
“I’d love to check out of the rat race and move abroad,” said many, though stymied at possibly having to live without central heat and air, a washing machine, dishwasher and car, like I did. “I’d love to learn another language,” said many others, though seeing how much I studied and struggled and sounded ridiculous for a really long time, didn’t make it past a few Rosetta Stone CDs. It’s those verbs that’ll get you, every time — especially the beautiful, lyrical subjunctive, grammar of hopes and unrealized dreams. I was still living mostly in Oaxaca, Mexico, when the pandemic hit and grounded me in Waco, Texas, where I’d bought a little house this winter for the future . . . only the future arrived sooner than I thought.
Here’s what it means to be a CTD: what people really want is for someone else to do the uber-risky stuff first to see if they get through it OK. Are there just a few nicks and scratches? Proceed, but with caution and note where the dummy got banged up so you can avoid that. Does the dummy’s head explode? Might not want to try that one.
I ‘m nobody and nothing special in intellect, though I can say that I’ve had a lot of instructive life circumstances that have created some interesting skill sets. My parents used to put me out on a Canadian island at the age of 8 while they fished in a boat around it, for crying out loud. My biggest flaw may also be a strength: I’m stubborn as a mule and don’t like to be told no. So I plow on through first and second and third attempts until something works, damnit.
The non-English-speaking Mexican boyfriend for almost a decade, that was a big CTD test that few truly wanted to emulate, despite the intrigue of a motorcycle and tattoos. I could possibly have picked a lesser challenge that didn’t involve conducting a serious relationship not in my native tongue with a never-married man who had spent 30 years as a street drunk before he found AA. Just a teeny bit challenging, perhaps, but I gave it a dang good shot and I wouldn’t give up that decade for anything.
So now, Waco, Texas – where’s the risk in that? Well, there’s buying a house with a mortgage, after 11 years of being so commitment-shy I didn’t even have houseplants, much less a signed apartment lease. Retirement from a beloved career, and what that means for structuring my time, nurturing creativity and staying afloat financially. Surviving and even thriving in a pandemic with risk factors of age and health.
And entering into a new relationship at the tender age of 64, downright terrifying with all of the baggage that it entails when maybe – if we’re lucky — two-thirds of each life has gone by with habits set in stone and a complete roster of kids and grandkids, even great grandkids. Do you sweat the inevitable differences, or do you just go with the broad strokes, like wanting to be with someone who makes you laugh and gives you tools as presents? “I wish I had the nerve to be vulnerable with someone again,” said one friend, a fairly new widow whose husband of nearly 40 years died suddenly. “That scares the crap out of me.” Honestly, me too.
I’m not sure if I alarm or inspire those friends who kinda, sorta wish they were out there putting themselves on the line but have no real desire to buckle up themselves to conduct the crash test. But they’re sure as heck keeping an eye on me and how I fare in this next round of potential disaster. In the middle of a pandemic.
Hey, I’m the CTD.
— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org, 9-2-2020