An Homage to Mahj

An Homage to Mahj

By Francie Arenson Dickman

ARLINGTON, VA - JUNE 12:  Mah-jongg tiles are seen on a table of a sixth grade classroom during lunch break at Thomas Jefferson Middle School June 12, 2006 in Arlington, Virginia. A group of sixth grade students have been falling in love with playing mah-jongg, which originated from China that requires strategy; calculation, memorization and luck, since their teacher Sandy Tevelin introduced to them as a hobby at the beginning of the school year. Tevelin, a Jewish-American whose grandmother and mother played the game is now a member of a mah-jongg group, said the game has served as a good ice-breaker for her student who didn?t talk to each other to become good friends later.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Here it is, my mid-life crisis. I’ve been expecting it since I came home from school one day when I was about fifteen to my mother crying in the kitchen. She’d quit a job as an office assistant after only three hours which she’d spent running between the front and back ends of a mammoth copier feeding and stapling, until her blouse had sweat stains and she couldn’t breathe. “I’m too old for this,” she told my father.

A week earlier, she’d said the same thing about a stint in a gallery where she’d had to balance the books in a closet that she claimed doubled as a smoking section. My mother’s lost years—she’d eventually find herself at a mahjong table in California—coincided with my teenage ones, so her identity crisis was secondary to my own. Still, her struggle to move on as my brother and I grew up stuck with me, and as I sucked down Susan Faludi’s Backlash in my Women’s Studies classes and slugged through law school, I vowed that in this regard (and in this regard only, Mom), I would not be like my mother. My days would never be without definition. There would be no mahjong for me.

Yet here I am, thirty years later, with teenage daughters and unfilled hours if not at my feet than on the horizon. The writing is on the wall as much as it is on my daughter’s English paper that she had me read the other day, a story about a girl who gets sick at school. Her mother, when the school nurse calls, is playing mahjong.

“I don’t play mahjong,” I declared without finishing it.

“It’s a made up Mother,” she told me.

“Well you obviously got the idea from somewhere. There’s no such thing as fiction, really.” I told her she needed to change what the mother is doing at the time of the nurse’s call. “Maybe she could be finishing up surgery or her TED Talk.”

She grabbed the paper back. “Why do you care?”

Where do I begin? For starters, I would have hoped, after the years I’ve spent role-modeling what I like to think of as a feminist, can-do anything but math spirit, that she could have done better than mahj. “Have the words to Parents are People fallen on deaf ears?”

She says, “No, I just like mahjong.”

I’m sure she does. Over winter break, I gave in to my mother’s request to teach us and within rounds, my daughters were ruching like the best of them. My game, however, lagged behind due to an inability to commit to a hand.

The same inability to commit that’s driving my reaction to my daughter’s story. I care about what her fictional mother is doing because I don’t know what her real one wants to do as she and her sister move up and out. And my psychological clock is ticking.

“Don’t worry, you still have plenty of time,” my husband tells me. “Our kids are only 13.”

To which I tell him, like Sally told Harry after she found out her ex-boyfriend Joe was getting married, “But it’s there. It’s just sitting there. Like some big dead end.”

I’m not sure what, if anything, I can do about it. Hence, the mid-life crisis. If only it was the type that could be solved with a sports car. Or even a job. Most of my friends already have jobs. They counsel patients, they sell real estate, they run marketing campaigns, or like me, they sit at their computers and write. They are jobs that fill bank accounts and feed minds but for me, as for many of my friends, the shape of the day is defined by family. When the nests empty, I wonder, will our jobs have enough meaning to fill the void in a fulfilling way?

As I was writing this piece, one of those inspirational messages that I generally ignore crossed my screen and caught my eye. “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.” Therein, it seems, is the rub, the reason I question. After having had the privilege of working hard to raise kids, maybe most other jobs are just jobs. My mother should have applied for a passion instead.

But let’s face it, “finding one’s passion,” though all the rage these days, is a lot easier said than done. Especially if you want one that pays. And, even passions can pale in comparison to parenting. I am lucky enough to write every day. On a good day, I may even say I love it, but I love it between the hours of 8 and 3, when my kids come home, and then I love them more. So perhaps my problem isn’t that I don’t know what I want but that I don’t want to let go of what I already have, less of an identity crisis than a bad case of sour grapes.

With a touch of an ache to make more money, which leads back to my mother and my daughter’s ultimate question: “What’s so bad about mahj?” After I ranted to her that most women need to work for a living, she pointed out that my mother makes a killing at the table, which is true. Her winnings have been known to bankroll my kid’s wardrobes. In lieu of a higher purpose, it’s not a bad gig.

Ironically, however, due to my inability to commit, mahj may not be an option. So the pressure to re-purpose is really on. I suppose I could go back to school or to practicing law like Alicia Florrick of the “Good Wife” who left my hometown of Highland Park to restart her law career in the city and just last week was elected State’s Attorney. Although, as my friends and I discuss, unless you’re hired by the handsome Will Gardner, after eighteen years running your own show, having a boss may be hard.

So it’s tough. A Catch-22, a conundrum I wrestle with until the kids come home and then I put it off for another day, or maybe for the month if it’s May (heavy dance recital season) and then I might decide to enjoy the summer because I deserve a break—the whole family deserves a break—I’ll take it up later. In the meantime, I’ll drive the carpools, I’ll write my copy, I’ll try classes, I’ll try jobs, I’ll take up tennis or maybe mahj. And if I’m lucky, if I get a good hand (and I commit), one day I may find my place at the table—however I decide to define it.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images