Settling for “crumbs of contentment”…

It’s hard to believe that back in the mid 1990s, my husband Bill, who had a degree in international relations from American University, years of military experience as an officer, and an excellent attitude toward work, was reduced to working at a toy factory for about $33,000 a year. On that salary, he was expected to support his ex wife, their two daughters, his former stepson, Ex’s sister, and Ex’s sister’s daughter. It was not work Bill enjoyed. In fact, he had been thinking about becoming a police officer, or perhaps a parole officer. But those jobs were very dangerous and paid about the same as working at the factory did.

How did this happen? Here was this guy, still in his prime in his early 30s, living in podunk Arkansas. They were there because Ex had fantasies of living in an idyllic small town with conservative values. With Ex’s encouragement, Bill decided to leave his position as an active duty Army officer, take a $40,000 severance, and embrace life as a civilian. Upon leaving the Army, Bill joined the Arkansas National Guard.

Freed from the constraints of the Army, no longer beholden to the Army’s whims as to where they’d live, Ex decided they should to go live in a small town in Arkansas. She found a house. It looked like one she’d seen in a snow globe. Even though they didn’t have much money and the house was a money pit, Ex decided they’d make it work. And Bill, being someone who doesn’t like contention or strife, tried to go along with it.

The problem was, there wasn’t a lot for a guy like Bill to do in that part of Arkansas. In the 1990s, there was factory work. There was police work. There was probably retail. I believe Ex worked at Walmart for awhile, eventually getting into bookkeeping and/or management. But she didn’t work all the time. She only did enough so that it looked like she worked. Most of the time, Bill was left both earning the money and taking care of the children.

Bill would have preferred to do police work over factory work. But he had a family to support, and police work in that town offered long hours, very low pay (about $7.50 an hour), and dangerous conditions. So that’s how he ended up making plastic toys on the second shift… boring work in a town that offered little for him personally. Ex wasn’t all that happy, either, even when Bill later got a job working at a now defunct Whirlpool factory. It was his job to supervise a bunch of guys making refrigerator doors, screwing three screws into the doors all day. Those guys were happy to do that job, racking up years of seniority and extra dollars per hour. Bill was bored, and even though Whirlpool paid more, it was still a hell of a lot less money than he needed.

This morning, we were talking about this… We’ve been talking about this a lot since he saw his daughter a few months ago. As they processed their experiences living with a narcissist, they realized that they were conditioned to settle for crumbs of contentment. When you spend your time with a narcissist, you learn to settle for whatever they throw at you. The smallest pleasures are satisfying as you’re driven to give up more and more of yourself for the narcissist’s whims. It’s soul destroying.

Whenever I listen to Bill talk, I see the spark in his bright blue eyes as he tells me about the things that interest him. He likes talking about movies, music, history, religion, literature, and food. Since we’ve been together, I’ve watched him turn into a gourmet cook, a beer brewer, a wine connoisseur, and most recently, a beginning guitar player. When he was married to Ex, he wasn’t allowed to have hobbies. They were deemed “self-indulgent”. His job was to work, and to make enough money for the family’s survival. His happiness didn’t matter.

I remember seeing his old ID card from Whirlpool. He looked about twenty years older than he was. The jovial, kind, friendly expression I’m used to seeing was completely absent. He looked depressed, vacant, and unhealthy– used up and spent. I wouldn’t have recognized him.

After a few years of working in factories, Bill got the opportunity to go back to work full time for the Army National Guard. It would be like he’d rejoined active duty, only he’d be paid by the state of Arkansas and work as a federalized National Guardsman. Even though he would be paid over twice what he earned in factories; he’d have excellent medical benefits; and the work would be much better suited to him, Ex was not onboard with the idea. She wanted to stay in Arkansas in the house that was falling apart. She expected Bill to keep working in the factory to prove his love and devotion to her. When he asked her to give up on her Arkansas dream, she refused. So Bill went off to Kansas by himself.

It was about that time that he and I met online. I was starting graduate school in South Carolina. We chatted online for about 18 months before we met in person. During that time, he and Ex divorced. He lived on $600 a month, because the rest of his money went to her, as she shacked up with her now third husband in the house Bill bought for her. We have heard that #3 is now a certified nursing assistant. To be sure, it’s not his passion, but he’s now having to pay the bills, since Bill isn’t paying Ex anymore. They have two more children to support, and Ex has lots of debt racked up from her failed visions that were overcome by events.

When Bill and I met in person, he’d been divorced for almost a year. He showed up at my apartment in bedraggled clothes that were several years out of style. Ex had bought them at yard sales. I remember wondering how I felt about him. Common sense would have told me to run the other way. But there was something in those startling blue eyes. He was so kind-hearted and intelligent… I wonder how it must have felt to be with someone who valued his opinions and didn’t see him as a slave with no right to enjoy living.

Last night, Bill made a Jordanian dish with tomatoes, peppers, and lavash (pictured above) as we listened to music on Alexa and I tried to play along with the Eagles on my guitar. Then he got his guitar and I showed him a new chord. Neither of us plays well yet, but this is something we can share.

Bill now makes over three times the money he made at the factories in Arkansas. He’s earned two master’s degrees since he left Ex, who seemed to resent that Bill had a bachelor’s degree (when they were married, she hadn’t finished college). He works mostly from home right now, doing work that interests him and suits his talents. Today, we’re going out to lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, where I’ll watch his eyes widen as he tastes something interesting… something that didn’t come out of a can or a box. When I met Bill, he could only cook a few things. Now he tries all kinds of recipes. He’s not afraid of attempting things that are beyond his comfort zone.

I think about what Bill settled for in those years. He would have tried to keep going, but it was impossible. If he had kept living that way, I have no doubt that he would not be who he is today. He would definitely not be as healthy and happy as he is. There was a price to be paid. He missed out on watching his daughters come of age, and they also suffered under their mother’s tyranny. I know he wishes he’d fought harder for them now… or better yet, not settled for marrying their mother. She never did offer more than crumbs of contentment, even early in their relationship.

Somehow, when he was growing up, he missed the very important lesson that you can’t help others until you help yourself. He saw Ex as a damsel in distress needing someone to save her. He felt valiant by rescuing her, but deep down, he felt that she was all he deserved. He thought no one else would value him and, in fact, didn’t actually value her that much, since he settled for her.

She reinforced the idea that she was the best he could do repeatedly, telling him that no other woman would want him and convincing him that she was right. So he stayed with her for almost ten years and settled for what she deigned to let him have. By contrast, we’ve been together for almost 18 years, and those years have been a hell of a lot more fun for him. One time, not long after their divorce, Ex actually accused Bill of taking Rogaine. His hair was fuller and he looked healthier. I look at pictures of Bill as a 56 year old man and he STILL looks younger, healthier, and happier than he did in that Whirlpool factory ID he had when he was in his early to mid 30s.

I don’t blame Bill for staying with Ex. Leaving an abusive environment is difficult. Abusive people have a way of convincing their victims that leaving them is worse than staying. In an abusive situation, a victim can start to believe that the next situation will be worse. They’d rather stick with what they know. I’m not immune to this issue myself. I originally didn’t want to move to Wiesbaden because I was afraid we’d wind up in a worse living situation than what we were in. I was wrong. We ended up in a much better situation. There are things I miss about where we were before, but overall, moving on was the right thing to do.

The last point I would make is that sometimes it takes time to get where you’re going. The first five years of our marriage were lean as we tried to pay off debts and Bill supported his kids and former stepson. But we knew it was a temporary situation if we just worked together and kept our eyes on the prize. We made small financial changes that helped us get ahead on debt and eventually retire it. We stayed flexible toward each other’s goals and needs for happiness. And in spite of everything, we’re still very much in love. We have our ups and downs, like everyone does. But I don’t get off on sabotaging Bill’s successes. I like it when he succeeds, and I do what I can to help him get ahead. Likewise, he wants me to succeed, too, and he does what he can to help me.

Your life is your own. Sometimes you have to make concessions in order to survive. But when it comes down to it, settling for crumbs tossed out by an abuser is not productive. It doesn’t lead to anything good. If I had ever had a child of my own, I hope I would have taught him or her not to settle for crumbs of happiness. Don’t marry someone because you don’t think you can do better or you think they need rescuing. Don’t stay somewhere toxic because you don’t think the next place will be better. Sometimes, you have to take the plunge. Or, as my spirit animal George Carlin would say, you have to “take a fuckin’ chance”.


How an adjunct professor changed my life…

Back in April 2014, I posted the following essay on my music blog, Dungeon of the Past. I don’t post on that blog very often anymore. It’s mainly a place where I write about obscure songs from the 70s and 80s, as well as some musical book and album reviews. I love music, but I don’t really enjoy writing music reviews, so there aren’t too many there. Anyway, since we are all on house arrest, lately I’ve been doing a bunch of new recordings. I was reminded of how my very first voice teacher, an adjunct professor at Longwood College (now Longwood University) changed my life. I’m going to repost that essay, along with some updated thoughts.

I have a few friends who are college professors.  One of my teaching friends is a woman I met while we were both working as waitresses.  She later earned higher degrees in English literature and now teaches at a small college in Virginia.  Yesterday, she shared an article from The Atlantic about how some adjunct professors at colleges are living at poverty level.  While the article itself was shocking reading– it’s hard to imagine a college teacher being forced to sleep in their car— it also made me realize that an adjunct professor changed my life in a profound way.

In the fall of 1990, I was a brand new college student.  I had signed up for the usual general education classes… math, English, history, music appreciation, etc.  One course I had signed up for that was kind of a surprise was voice class.  I chose it because I needed an arts class for my general education requirements.  Of the four disciplines offered– theatre, art, music, or dance– music was the art that spoke most directly to me.  I had never sung before, except in the car when I was alone.  I knew I had a pretty decent singing voice, though.  My parents were musicians as are a number of my extended relatives. I have a cousin who is a professional musician in Nashville. My mom played organ professionally for over 50 years. My dad was a much celebrated singer in many local ensembles.

So I signed up for voice class, which was a one credit course that met once a week and was taught by an adjunct professor named Ann Brown. My father happened to know Ms. Brown’s mother, who is a concert level pianist and was the accompanist for one of the many singing groups of which he was a member. He was excited when I told him Ms. Brown would be my teacher. He knew she was very qualified because he’d met her through her mother. Ms. Brown had attended Westminster Choir College near Princeton, New Jersey and, like me, had perfect pitch (I found out about mine during a brief period during my childhood when I studied piano). Besides teaching at college, Ms. Brown was also a professional singer.

On the first day of voice class, about five students met in the choir rehearsal room at my college.  Ms. Brown was there, looking like she’d jumped off the pages of a Spiegel catalog.  She wore colorful, stylish clothes and had long, curly hair.  She was very tall and seemed serene as she sat behind the grand piano in the rehearsal room.  She immediately put me at ease.

The five of us each had a copy of the required textbook for the class, Basics of Singing.  It was basically a songbook that had a nice selection of songs for beginning voice students.  I actually wish I still had that book.  I see it’s listed on Amazon and very expensive… it also gets low ratings.  Well hell, I liked it at the time.  I sold it back to the bookstore, no doubt because I needed beer money. 

Ms. Brown asked us each to choose a song.  We would be learning three each that semester and performing it in her class.  Basics of Singing had a number of familiar songs in it, which was a good thing, since I never did learn how to play piano and was too poor to buy the optional accompanist tapes.  The first song I chose was “Summertime”, from Porgy & Bess.  I sang it with relative ease and Ms. Brown was apparently impressed.  She took me under her wing.

Sometime near the end of the course, Ms. Brown took me aside and told me she thought I was very talented.  She said I should study voice privately and encouraged me to audition for Camerata Singers, which was our college’s “better” choir.  I had never sung in a choir before.  My dad’s obsessive devotion to his choirs had turned me off of them.  Besides, my mom was an organist, which meant she was always at choir practice, too.  I grew to enjoy the couple of hours with the house to myself.

Studying voice would entail an extra expense.  I would have to hire an accompanist and pay an extra lab fee.  However, given my parents’ devotion to music, I knew they would agree.  They did… especially after they heard me sing for the first time during a beer enhanced Thanksgiving celebration (but that’s another post).

The audition for Cameratas didn’t go quite as well because I was nervous and, at that time, wasn’t such a good sight reader.  Dr. Trott, the director of the choirs, asked me to join the non-audition group, Concert Choir, instead, which I did. 

The following semester, I took private voice lessons from Ms. Brown.  Her class quickly became my favorite, even though I was an English major.  I found studying voice challenging, yet relaxing. I enjoyed exploring this part of me that I had just discovered. I felt like I’d found a new super power, because seriously, before I took voice class, I almost NEVER sang in front of other people, not even in church.  My parents had no idea I could sing.

I grew to really like Ms. Brown as a person, too.  She became more than a teacher.  She was a friend.  While I was her student, I got to go with a bunch of music majors to Richmond, Virginia, to see Cosi Fan Tutte.  After the show, we visited Ms. Brown at her home and looked at her college yearbooks.  She had attended Westminster Choir College at the same time Dr. Trott had and it was fun to see them when they were college aged.  With Ms. Brown’s help, that semester Dr. Trott welcomed me into Cameratas when I demonstrated my uncanny tonal memory, which also makes for a fun party trick.

Besides teaching me the basics of singing and showing me that opera can be beautiful, Ms. Brown introduced me to the wonderful music of Kathleen Battle.  She gave me a copy of Battle’s CD, Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart.  I became a big fan of Kathleen Battle’s crystalline voice, even though she has a reputation for being a bit of a prima donna.  I now own many of her albums, but before I met Ms. Brown, I had never heard of her.  Because I listened to Kathleen Battle, I started listening to other singers and developed quite an appreciation for classical music.

My exploration of classical music enhanced my study of literature, which made me a better writer and a more cultured person.  I can’t even count the number of poems and literary works I became familiar with because I first encountered them set to music.  The very first Robert Burns poem I ever heard was set to a lovely melody in four part harmony.  When I went to Scotland years later and enjoyed my first taste of haggis, I appreciated Burns’ gift of language even more than I might have, for I associated him with music.  It made his “Address to A Haggis” much easier to swallow.

I took lessons from Ms. Brown for three semesters.  Unfortunately, after the third semester, the college decided to lay her off.  It turned out another professor, one who was tenured and had been working in the Office of Continuing Education, had decided to come back to the music department.  There was no longer room for Ms. Brown and her very special style of instruction.  I was very sad when I got the news, especially since I had already signed up for lessons the next semester.  The next professor didn’t make as good an impression on me at first, though I eventually grew to like her.  But let’s just say, the initial transition was very rough.

A year later, Ms. Brown was asked to come back to my school.  Rumor had it she declined, because as an adjunct professor, there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t be laid off again.  Another very competent adjunct professor was hired.  I wanted to take his class, but by then the tenured professor had claimed me as her student and changed my schedule back to her class.  At the time, I lacked the assertiveness to raise hell about that… in the long run, it probably wasn’t a big deal anyway.  I eventually grew comfortable with Ms. Brown’s successor and learned from her, too.  The last time I saw Ms. Brown, she was on a stage in Richmond, performing the starring role in The Medium.  She was outstanding, of course!   

Adjunct professors can and do make a huge difference in the lives of their students.  I think it’s shameful that so many of them are struggling to survive.  If it weren’t for Ms. Brown, I might not be a singer today.  I might not be writing about music.  I might not be as fierce a competitor as I am on SongPop because I know more about opera and art songs than I might have.  She truly did change my life and enhanced my college experience in the most amazing way.  If I had never taken her voice class almost 24 years ago (now 30), I couldn’t have made this video.

Video production is another skill I’ve learned, in part, because I sing.  I’ve most recently been teaching myself how to do sound production and have even been improving my photography skills.  It’s all a work in progress, obviously… In this video, I’m singing with my YouTube friend, George, who lives in Scotland.

Ms. Brown was the first of many teachers I’ve had who have helped me develop a part of me that, until I went to college, was completely undiscovered and undeveloped.  I may not be a professional singer, but being able to sing has improved my life exponentially.  I have an adjunct professor to thank for that.  Yes, she really did change my life for the better.  I sure hope she’s not sleeping in a car these days.

Now– back to 2020… Thanks to the coronavirus, I’ve been thinking about ordering a guitar and picking up a few chords. I can’t go anywhere, and my piano is in storage in Texas. I can’t play piano particularly well, but I have zero guitar skills. But guitars are more portable than pianos are, and lots of musicians are generously offering video tutorials. And hell, I’ve got nothing else to do. I have always regretted not sticking with music lessons when I was growing up, but horses gave me a lot of joy, even if I wasn’t the most talented. There’s probably a reason things turned out the way they did.

I’m so glad Ms. Brown was there to help me discover a part of myself that went hidden for 18 years. Learning to sing and becoming willing to do it in front of others has changed my life on many levels. It’s a skill I’ve been able to use worldwide and helps me connect to people even when I don’t speak their language. Just last week, the memorial video I made for our dog, Zane, helped me convince locals how much I treasure our canine family members. Yes, the pictures helped, but I think the emotional music was also useful in conveying how I felt about Zane.

As I’ve been making more music lately, I’ve thought about my very first teacher, and how if it weren’t for her, I probably would have just taken that one voice class and left it at that. She truly cared about her students and took an interest in developing their skills. I will always remember her, and feel much gratitude for what she did for me.