Volume 79, Number 6 | July 15 - 21, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Notebook

I did it my way: Delayed gratification is so sweet

By Kate Walter

Don’t hate me, but during this recession that’s depressing everyone, I’m rocking and rolling. Then again, I’ve been out of sync all my life. I was slated to be born in December but I arrived two weeks late in January. In high school and college, I dated boys although I had crushes on the female cheerleaders. I tried unsuccessfully to fit into the prescribed boy-girl roles, and did not decipher my sexual orientation until after college graduation.

When I came out in the spring of 1975, during the heyday of lesbian separatism, I refused to drop my gay male friends. I was politically incorrect from the start. While living in the East Village during the Tent City encampment of Tompkins Square Park, I published an opinionated essay stating the homeless should not be allowed to take over public spaces. My liberal neighbors considered this viewpoint heresy and tagged my building with graffitti. And while the local anarchists deemed me a neo-con, my New Jersey family thought I was a radical dyke.

Growing up, I fought with my parents because I felt cramped and repressed by religion. Even the priests viewed us as “the model Catholic family.” My rebellious nature made me the odd girl out, the weirdo middle child. My older sister was the star; my younger brother was the little prince. As an adult, I was a hippie, a freelancer and lesbian feminist with a Jewish partner who deemed me “quirky.” Fortunately, years of good therapy helped me cope.

My two siblings were married, homeowners with children, living in suburbia. I was a child-free renter residing in the Village. My sister and brother barely strayed from the family fold. Today, they are both ready to retire from the same school system where my father had been an administrator. To my father’s dismay, I left a secure job there and he worried about my future. I regret that he didn’t live to see me thrive financially.

During the ’80s, when everyone was making tons of money, I struggled to pay my bills from freelancing and part-time teaching. I knew how to be poor and savor cheap thrills. I lived in a tenement, shopped at flea markets, enjoyed the $2 breakfast at Dojo, and vacationed in nearby Ocean Grove. I cared about writing and celebrated with colleagues when I sold a piece for 50 bucks. We had beer, wine, bread and cheese, nothing fancy.

In the ’90s, when many lesbians discovered casual sex, I was involved in a committed relationship. In today’s climate, with gay and lesbian marriage in the news every day, I’m single.

Luckily, I’ve realized that marching to my own drummer gave me skills that helped me reconstruct my life after my longtime partner ditched me. I was sad and lost my equilibrium in the aftermath, but I figured out ways to regain my balance. Feeling off-kilter was nothing odd to me. So I’ve used this solo period as an opportunity to explore parts of myself I’d repressed or put on hold, like enhancing my spiritual development. This area got neglected while I was involved in a demanding relationship. Now I was nurturing myself and it felt like I was catching up to where I belonged in my life.

I had recently secured a coveted full-time college teaching job, my income increasing dramatically. No more living from paycheck to paycheck. While most people have their peak earning years in their 40s, I hit my stride this year as I turned 60. Crazy as it sounds,this recession period was becoming my best time. As stock owners watched the market plunge, I never had any stocks in the first place. I didn’t miss the irony in these career twists, but since I’d been out of sync since I was in utero, this didn’t throw me off.

As contemporaries started fretting about aging and health problems, I walked to work, even in the rain, and did yoga three times a week. I was energetic and healthy and rarely took prescriptions. I’d lost weight and everyone said I looked much younger. Teaching college students kept me youthful. When they came into my office seeking career advice, they’d ask me to listen to the tunes on their iPods. “Professor, you have to hear Nas. He’s got great lyrics, really deep.”

So here I was sitting in my river-view office listening to rap music while friends who had higher salaries worried about getting laid off. I may have spent my early years in New York broke and depressed about my stormy relationship with my parents, but now I felt grateful and optimistic. I believe my current success came from the fact my life always revolved around reading, writing, teaching, personal relationships. I pursued bylines, not the bottom lines. Yet I still wanted peace with my parents.

My father was dead 10 years, but one night as I was writing in my journal about my childhood, I could hear him saying, “I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.” I realized my father was a product of his times. He sacrificed for us and always did what he thought was best for our family.

My mother had become more open since he died and we got closer after my breakup.

I love hanging out with my married nieces and their kids. The niece who really gets me is also vegetarian, into holistic stuff, and runs the local soccer league. My other niece is an environmental activist who turned her kids’ preschool green. I admire who they have become as adults, and I’m better at being a great aunt than when my nieces were young.

I’m now working on creating my first book. So what if it’s published when I’m eligible to collect Social Security? That offbeat timing would be typical of me. I’m a classic Capricorn — a hard worker and late bloomer, which could explain my delayed arrival. Rather than becoming bitter and stuck after my painful breakup and various work rejections, I reinvented myself. Being out of line for so long made me resourceful and resilient.

It has taken decades but it feels like I’m finally being rewarded for being me. Plus, now with the financial obsession of people’s lives going down the drain, this underscores how my non-material outlook has proved to be enduring. Or maybe I was ahead of my time?

I certainly did not know how any of this would turn out. But as I tell my students, stick to your core beliefs, be true to yourself, and good things will happen. Hopefully, it won’t take them as long as it took me, but late success feels sweeter. 

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