Thursday, December 23, 2010

Storytelling [Thoughts]

I see my parents today for the first time in a couple months. My family and I are visiting for Christmas, a surprise visit. After the initial small-talk is over (How were the mountain passes? Oh, let’s not talk about my health. We’re so happy you’re here – how long are you staying?), Dad will inevitably launch into a story. This is normal fare. He is one of many in my family who collects stories, creates stories, shares stories. It can be small – his experience with the local utility company. It can be nostalgic – that favorite Christmas of his 25 years ago when almost the entire family came over for the last Christmas his mother was alive. It can be lengthy – a complete recollection of his time as an on-air radio announcer and deejay in the 50s and 60s. Many of them I have heard so often that I joke that they are numbered. “Oh, you’re going to tell me about that time you and your first wife drove Route 66? Isn’t that story #22?” Like family stories, even this tired joke gets a chuckle acknowledging its truth.

In his story-telling, Dad is not unique. Mother has her stories (her exchange with a taxi driver in France when she meant to tell him she was hot but instead told him she was aroused, the wonderful parties her father would have when he was flush with cash and power, and occasionally stories about her time as an orphan). I only tease her about numbering the happy stories – numbering the sad ones would depress her.

All of my many siblings have great stories: the time they dropped rocks down the drain at a then-new hotel in Arizona; when, as children, the family was so broke that they all shared a container of frozen strawberries for our dad’s birthday; or their memories of their home in Cave Creek where I lived until I was barely a month old but they lived their entire childhood. Before she passed some 25 years ago, my 98-year-old grandmother recorded on audio-cassette many of her stories of living through the Great Depression, her immigration to the United States, and the sights of terrible wars before mankind knew to number them.

I don’t really have any stories.

Oh, sure, I have vague memories but I’m not entirely sure they’re mine or if I borrowed them from an episode of a night-time serial my mother used to watch or perhaps a preteen magazine. There’s that time I was almost swept away at a San Diego beach…or was that my little sister? What about that time I was taken to the hospital to have something inappropriately swallowed removed from my stomach? No, that was Curious George. Well, how about when I was locked in the closet for hours by my brother? Er, but wasn’t that actually Edmund and Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Fine, then! Remember when I had that horrible fever and I had delusional dreams about flowers burning and time travel? Oh. No. That was Mrs. O’Keefe in A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

I try to remember experiences, try to shape them into some kind of framework that consists of a beginning, middle, and end. But they’re not there. I have impressions, snapshots of raw emotion that I know occurred tied to an event – some good, some sad, some hurtful, some life-changing. But no memories, no context, no stories.

Occasionally, I’ll ask my parents during a story re-telling: When was this? Was I born yet? What did you do with me at this time? From their answers, I can imagine a road-trip to Mississippi as a toddler when my sister ran away with a boy, an exciting trip to Mexico, or a visit to my grandfather’s prison cell near the end of his life. But most of their best stories occurred pre-me. I’m not even a starlet cameo in the movie of their lives.

None of this leaves me feeling unimportant or unloved. It does leave me feeling boring, though, without any tragedies or triumphs of note. I feel groundless, without ties, like dandelion spore released from its head after my sons have loosened it with their breath. (They believe each floating seed becomes a faerie.)

I also feel pressured into a decision, either to acquire more stories from others to pass onto my children or to set about creating our own. And maybe that is what gets to the heart of it: to share others’ stories is risk-free entertainment but to create one’s own involves effort and choices, perhaps even sacrifice. I’m not sure that’s me.

But that’s not a decision that needs to be made this week. We’re home for Christmas and it’s time to listen to my parents’ stories.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Communication Techniques [Random Thoughts]

Among the little ironies of life for which I'm thankful is that I have two children. This is really quite a fortunate happenstance since I hadn't planned on having any. After my first son was born, my father insisted we needed to have a second child. He claimed that, as an only child himself, being an only child was extremely lonely and kept one from building good social skills. "Okay, Dad, thanks for the input," thought I, "but your input isn't really enough for me to go through pregnancy, labor, and recuperation just on your say-so."

But, son of a gun if the old man isn't right. I had siblings, but the age difference was so great that the older ones were never really around much and I couldn't be troubled with the little ones. That's not to say I didn't pick up certain skills. According to my sibs, I dead-floated in the pool scaring them off swimming (true), negotiated the younger children out of their money (true), and punched one in the stomach (totally untrue). These are methods of managing conflict that still serve me today (avoidance, persuasion, and a different kind of persuasion).

When watching my two boys communicate, I realize they're benefiting in much the same way in learning boundaries and appropriateness, as well as how to work with each other.

When to Stop:Recently, Castor learned a lesson that you can only boss someone around so much before they fight back. He walked up to Pollux and, out of the blue and without any good reason, pushed Pollux's shoulder. Pollux, two years younger but considerably stockier, looked up from his cars, got a little glint in his eye, and pushed Castor back in the same manner. Back and forth they shoved until finally Castor said, "I'm older than you, Pollux!" [shove] Pollux's response? [super hard shove, Castor falls backwards, turns teary, and Pollux giggles]

Applying Logic:One of the unanticipated results of enrolling the children in private school is hearing certain fables quoted in daily conversation. Most recently they have used the golden rule and Jesus's claim in Matthew's Gospel that "the last shall be first and the first shall be last." Like fledgling philosophers, the children interpret (and re-interpret) these lessons for their own nefarious purposes. A typical exchange goes like this:

Pollux: [plays with a beloved toy of Castor's]
Castor: [walks behind Castor, shoves him, makes a grab for toy]
Pollux: [pushes Castor, protects toy]
Castor: [hits Pollux, takes toy back]
Me: "Boys! Do not hit each other!"
Castor: "But Mom! Pollux hit me first! And you're supposed to treat people the way they want to be treated so he must have wanted me to hit him!"
Me: "It doesn't matter. We don't hit. Also, Pollux give Castor back his toy - you know to not play with that one."
Pollux: "Fine! The last shall be first and the first shall be last so if I'm last to play with the toy that means I'll be first next time!"

Teamwork:My husband has an iTouch which is apparently the boys' white whale. The boys aren't technically allowed to play with it, although they've managed to spend enough time with it to navigate with acuity. Every night it is put away in a different location in a place difficult to find and reach. And every weekend morning, while we sleep in late, it manages to...disappear.

We always find it, located behind some large piece of furniture coddled protectively by four little hands, a cool screen glow making the boys' eyes shiny. Given the effort we spend in hiding it, we're always surprised they manage to find it - so one morning, we roused ourselves to awareness to figure it out.

It generally works like this: First, Pollux, the younger, cuddlier one runs into our room, crawls in between us and says, "cuddle me, Mommy and Daddy." Naturally we oblige. Within moments, Castor stealthily tip-toes in with a small step stool and some kind of long stick-like toy (lightsaber, hanger, paper towel roll, etc.). He sets up shop in the vicinity of the closet and goes hunting for the iTouch. Occasionally, he peeks out to make sure we're still slumbering and then he goes back to work iTouch foraging.

Once Castor finds the elusive electronic treasure, he normally mutters a breathy "Yes!", puts the iTouch in his pajamas pocket, and takes his tools of the trade out of the room with him. He then runs back, lightly climbs on the bed, taps on Pollux's shoulder who clambers out of the covers after Castor. They close the bedroom door and then count on us sleeping while they amuse themselves with their ill-gotten gains.

What have I learned from this? Yes, my dad was right. Also, they'll learn much from each other and sibling relationships are great preparation for interacting with others, with a few years of refinement, of course.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Seeking the Short Answer [Thoughts]

A friend and I chatted it up recently about answering questions: do people normally want the short answer or the long answer to any given question? We agreed that most (all?) want the short answer. Sometimes I do too. (Mentally, I ruthlessly redline my co-workers' e-mails to remove unnecessary verbiage or break down concepts into bullets.) Yet I am often incapable of forming a short answer myself.

For some, the short answer is no problem to give or accept. A question like, "why is the sky blue?" elicits an answer of "because it's a reflection of the ocean" and most are satisfied. But I'm not. This answer would lead me to other questions followed by a few online keyword searches and maybe a book purchase or two. Within a few weeks, I'll have amassed enough layman's trivia about the atmosphere, planetary physics, and light scattering to bore even the least socially inclined person at that next cocktail party. If you're lucky, I may even throw in a little analysis of the philosophical question, "what is 'sky'?" (And if you were wondering, I don't get invited to a lot of cocktail least not a second time.)

The fact is, I never grew out of my toddler stage. You know, the one every parent dreads: the stage of the endless "but why?" questions. It didn't help that my parents were often able to answer all of them, or at least try. Their careers include landlord, chicken farm owner, real estate sales, bartender, accounting, restaurateur, deejay, media sales, photographer, chemistry/forestry professor, parent, and more. Add to that life experience and the hobbies of home schooling, animal husbandry, gardening, meteorology, sewing, target shooting, military history, singing, and affiliations, by turns, with the Catholic, Mormon, Christian Science, Jewish faiths and you have parents who can pretty much answer any question a child can ask.

I'm doomed to not only normally wanting the long answer but expecting to receive it.

Some people make a living out of the long answer: Michael Pollan, Simon Winchester, Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, C.S. Lewis, Henry Petroski. These are people who probably got the short answer many times but kept on asking...and then wrote a book about it. They have written on the coevolution of humans and corn, the history of the OED, the evolution of the entryway and its etymology, the scientific dissection of the sensation of orgasm, the differences between the human and canine soul, and the design of the paperclip (respectively). If these authors are present in my library, do I even have a prayer of ever composing the short answer?

The short answer cheats us. Whatever gains in time we receive by accepting the short answer, we lose in richness of understanding. You mean you don't want to fully understand the differences between the frequently confused concepts of the virgin birth and immaculate conception as it relates to Jesus and Mary? Gah! Listening to the long answer would result in probably most Catholics realizing they're actually Protestants (if a Christian at all). You don't want to know why cheese or sugar often isn't vegetarian or how a specific virus both fueled and destroyed tulip mania and the Dutch economy in the 1600s and is occasionally considered the first speculative bubble by economists? Tsk tsk. However will you win at Trivial Pursuit?

This extends to a personal level, too. So often I have learned more about others because I just kept asking, "why?" or "tell me more." I cherish those experiences because they are the closest I've ever felt like I achieved a true human connection with another. It's exciting, it's intimate, and it's lasting.

So what's wrong with the short answer? Nothing. But let's say Don Williams is correct in saying that life is about the journey, not the destination. The short answer is a shortcut to easy fulfillment - it takes you immediately to your destination. But within the long answer is the journey of understanding and that's where one fineds all the true rewards.