Friday, November 27, 2009

Being with family

[The following discussion is completely academic and philosophical with no connection to anything real that has ever happened, anywhere.]

Given that the members of a family have the longest history together, know each other the best and have had the most time to build a stock of past transgressions and affronts,

Given that all of the triggers that set you off were installed by your family and they are most aware of just how to effect your behavior,

Given that human nature is to establish one's own comfort even at the risk of others' comfort,

Given that most people are trying for some ideal of a holiday celebration which adds real performance anxiety to the mix,

And given that once we leave our families of origin we lose the daily practice of getting along with them, so that on these major holidays we have to relearn old dynamics and strategies that often feel like putting a wet bathing suit back on (and worse analogies),

How can Thanksgiving and other major holiday gatherings NOT bring out the worst in ourselves?

Maybe more than that, I wonder why people do it. Why do we return, year after year, to our families that bring out the worst in us for celebrations that are mediocre at best? I'm not talking about the few people who have positive family gatherings of warmth and true affection. I'm not talking about gatherings without underlying tension and unspoken (or way too spoken) resentments. I'm sure there are those too, but they are in the minority. I'm talking about the tedious affairs with people who do not like each other. Why do those annual celebrations perpetuate?

I suppose it's a matter of things not being bad enough to cut them off. Someone who returns year after to year to outright hostility and physical violence is more likely to stop going than someone who returns to mild hostility and psychological violence. Also, if your family has taught you that emotional abuse is love, they can keep you enthralled longer than if you can clearly see that being screamed at over a turkey-laden dinner table is unacceptable.

I guess we return to these destructive rituals because we think this is how it's supposed to be. And lots of people probably think it's easier to struggle through such dinners than to face their family with the true reasons they will not be returning. As few people as there are who actually enjoy being with their extended families for the holidays, with no emotional price to pay for it, there are far fewer of us who have honestly told our families why we will not be back. I imagine that in order to avoid that level of honesty, many people will spend their entire lives returning to the scene of the crime.

But I still don't get it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Work and not-work

My husband, Bob, and I had lunch with a friend recently. I talked about Rotary International and what I do there. I mentioned that it's a rather low-status job, but I like the lighter workload and the people.

"And that's all right with you?" my husband's friend from work asked.

"The workload?" I asked.

"No, I mean that it's not a high-status job?"

"Oh, yeah. That's fine with me. I mean, sometimes I get tired of being a secretary AGAIN, but I totally don't mind having a low-pressure job where I never work overtime and I'm not in charge of anyone else. Yeah, that part's fine with me."

She said, "Really?"

I said, "Yeah, well I don't like for my job to take a lot of my energy and time because I put that energy into what I do outside of work. I have friends, we have dinner parties, I'm part of a creative writing group. Those are the things that are important to me."

Michelle seemed very surprised by this. She said, "I'm the opposite."

"What do you mean?"

"I was raised to go for it! In my family we take our jobs really seriously. I have just a few friends and that's really all I need."

"Oh. I thought you just said making friends was frustrating."

She then denied that the word "frustrating" had referred to her friend situation.

There were a few seconds of silence while I thought about this. Then I said, "Actually, my parents were very active outside of the their regular jobs. I mean, my dad was a government worker so you know he wasn't advancing or making lots of money. He pushed papers around a desk at the Veterans Administrative Hospital for 30 years, but outside of work my parents were very active in the Mexican American community. They worked to make sure Mexicans weren't being discriminated against in the schools or in housing or by the police. They wanted to make sure they were represented in local politics. And they did all of that outside of work. So, I guess I kind of am following in their footsteps in that way: in focusing on what I do outside of work rather than having the job be my main source of accomplishment."

"Yeah, you are," Bob nodded.

Michelle said, "Well, I've never met anyone like you before." But she didn't say it in an admiring way.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

You put THIS in the dryer?

So, in 2007 the spinster and the bachelor moved in together. I was 40, he was 44. I had spent 12 years living alone, he had spent even longer. Because I knew I'd need plenty of space (and patience) as I adapted to life in a couple, we deliberately melded our lives in a spacious two-bedroom apartment with a sunroom.

We divided the chores, which we've gradually adjusted and settled into over time. Bob logs our expenses and pays bills, cleans ours acres of hardwood floors and takes out the garbage. I do the grocery shopping, clean the bathroom and the kitchen and do most of the dishes, although Bob does a surprising amount of dishes. The task we've struggled with has been laundry.

When I do the laundry, Bob comments on the "weird" way I fold clothes, tie or ball socks together and tend to bring all the laundry up unsorted and let it lie around the living room until I feel like putting it away. This can take days. I also have a terrible time getting Bob's shirts right. The process he has established is to throw his shirts in the dryer for exactly 10 minutes, then take them out and let them dry on hangers while the rest of the laundry finishes the cycle. When I forget to take them out after 10 minutes, they dry in a big wrinkled bundle.

We used to both do laundry, depending on who had time to do it, but eventually Bob took over. This made sense, until the problems started for me. As much as I have tried to teach Bob the distinctions of what goes in the dryer and what must not go in the dryer, he does not grasp them. Several times I have wailed over a shrunken blouse that did just fine in the washer, but couldn't take the heat. In response, he started hanging all my shirts to dry. I tried to tell him that workout t-shirts can be dried in the dryer, but I guess to him this information contradicted my earlier wailing. He understands laundry categories such as "shirt" "underwear" and "pants." He does not understand laundry categories such as "can sustain the heat of the dryer without structural changes" and "cannot sustain the heat of the dryer without structural changes." When I noticed my ongoing anxiety about what might happen to any clothes I put in my hamper, I decided we had to make another change.

Two and a half years after we began inhabiting the same living space, Bob and I have come to a new division of labor: I do my laundry and Bob does his. Now I am calm in the knowledge that I will rescue my delicate tops from the heat of the dryer. I decide how long my jeans will tumble. I no longer fear for each item I put in my hamper (yes, separate hampers) and I do a lot less wincing as I put my clothes away.

And Bob now has less laundry to do. We are both very happy with this new system. Maybe some parts of our lives just aren't supposed to be "as one."