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Everlasting Gobstopper

Image courtesy of weheartit.com

Image courtesy of weheartit.com

Below, I have typed out a typical after-dinner conversation during what I am going to designate the I Didn’t Inhale Stage of early childhood development. I pause here for a nod to Bill Clinton, who attempted to set voters’ minds at ease during his first run for the presidency by explaining that while he had smoked marijuana, he hadn’t actually inhaled.

Did your kids go through this stage too? Though mine never went on to argue the situational definition of the word is (Sorry, Bill. Couldn’t resist!), I admit to being quite impressed at their dexterity. I thought you had to have an advanced degree to perpetrate these types of mental gymnastics.

One of my daughters was particularly adept. I have no doubts about her character development but let’s just say that if she ever decides to go into business, you’d all better hold on to your wallets.

Daughter: May I have some dessert?

Me: Sure. (giving her the dessert)

Daughter: (contented silence follows, after which daughter looks up with messy face) May I have more dessert?

Me: No. I think you’ve had enough for now.

Daughter: But I didn’t like it.

Me: Oh. I’m sorry you didn’t like it.

Daughter: (decisive) No, I didn’t like it. So I want some more.

Me: No, honey.

Daughter: (becoming agitated) But I didn’t like it! I didn’t like it!

Many other variants on this conversation took place. Imagine my dragging a tantrumming child out of Chuck-E-Cheese after an adrenaline-filled morning of gambling. Uh–playing, playing! I meant to say playing. For crying out loud! What is wrong with you people?

Me: Time go home for lunch and a rest.

Daughter: But I didn’t have fun! I didn’t have fun!

I have mixed feelings as I recall those days. I see our children’s tears of disillusionment and hear their protests. Their distress was very real and surprisingly pure. My daughters cried out to me to right what they perceived as injustice as surely as they would have sought me if a bully had yanked the lollipops from their mouths or the Pokémon cards from their sweaty little hands.

How could the dessert be gone if they were not sated? How could play time be over if they had not grown tired of playing? I was supposed to be their savior. But my NO could easily have cast me as persecutor. I was such a meanie.

It’s funny to think about now. But probably only because this was a battle they never had a chance of winning. Thank goodness. Envision the sort of adults they might have become had their coups succeeded! I can imagine any number of “rules” they might have extrapolated from their experience. Here are a few which come immediately to mind:

  1. Your job is to make me happy.
  2. It’s not over until I say it’s over.
  3. I get to have my cake and eat it too.
  4. Life is supposed to be fair—and I get to define fair.
  5. I am a victim.
  6. You owe me.
  7. It’s all about me.
  8. I shouldn’t feel pain.
  9. Rules are for other people.
  10. You are responsible for my feelings.

I hadn’t thought about this brief period for years. I might have forgotten this stage altogether if not for the surprising Summer of 2011.

Niko: I know we agreed that Hanna and I would only stay for four weeks…but not having the use of your computer made it impossible for us to do the activities and see the sights we had wanted to. I am certain that if we just stay a few more weeks, we can accomplish the things we want to do and still make this vacation a success.

SO.

We’ve decided to extend our visit by a few weeks.

Is that ok?

Me: I understand your frustration but that won’t work for us. Whether or not you extend is your choice but you will still have to leave our house on the agreed-upon date. I’m sorry, the answer is no.

Niko: But I didn’t have fun.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna, a true tale of love, friendship, betrayal, loss, and aging. Hanna was my best friend for over 30 years. Until the Terrible Summer of 2011 when things went terribly awry. For the prior installment click here. For the next installment, click here.

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Plan D

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

September, 2012

As Henry and I decided on some boundaries for our upcoming visit from Hanna and Niko, I made the decision to pilfer about 10 pounds of East Coast road maps and Guidebooks from our local AAA office. OK, OK. It actually involved my membership card and a lot of eye batting.

Niko enjoys researching but does not respond well to pressure, so I sent them to him in Germany months in advance. These would help him plan while Hanna was at work. They would also eliminate much of his need to use a computer during their extended stay. This was Plan A.

We blew through Plan A within a few hours of their arrival: Niko explained that he had felt too stressed to do any advance planning. He had not even looked at the materials. He needed my computer. Please.

Plan B was to ferry Niko to and from the public library each day. He would not consider it. He had had a humiliating experience while using a computer in an internet café, and the idea made him too anxious to contemplate. He needed my computer. Soon.

Plan C called upon the generosity of our youngest daughter, Claire. She had purchased a tiny netbook, and she offered it to Niko on loan. It was too slow and cranky to be of any real use. It was actually crap. He needed my computer. Now.

Do I sound like a good friend? Or do I sound like a patsy? Or maybe a martyr with whipped cream and a cherry on top? I was working hard to get Niko to a computer which was not mine, and part of my effort was motivated by cowardice. I dreaded turning Niko down, and all my planning was meant to minimize the fallout.

I could just have said, way back when, “We won’t have a computer for you to use, so please bring your laptop.” This never even occurred to me. This was probably due to reasons mentioned earlier.

I doubt this approach would have gone off as smoothly as one might hope. It would have tipped Niko off to the fact that the wind was shifting, and this would have precipitated the interrogation I was keen to avoid. But it would also have given him and Hanna time to set up proper accommodations–or conclude before plunking down thousands of dollars and boarding that plane that I was a sneaky, backbiting asshole who was encouraging their visit for the purpose of malice.

In any case, Niko declared he could not survive without a computer.

I declared I would not give him mine.

He was not satisfied with my no. Niko was determined that a compromised would be reached. And to be fair, why wouldn’t he? I had rarely, if ever, denied him any request reasonably within my power.

Niko pounded me with question after question about my work schedule, my home schedule, and my computer habits. He was certain he could get screen time without causing disruption to my routines. He worked tirelessly to open a loophole, and I worked tiredly to clamp them shut. I adhered robotically to my script: I need my computer for work. It is starting to fail. I can not afford to replace it.

My continued deflection, in the absence of reasons he deemed adequate, caused Niko to deduce that there must be More To The Story. The house vibrated with tension as our cat-and-mouse game escalated.

After a few days of relentless inquiry, I concluded that sticking to the script made me sound defensive and unfriendly. Niko’s illness lends itself to paranoia, and I did not want to feed it. We had always had an open give and take. I wondered if withholding the other reasons behind my refusal was tantamount to patronizing him, and that was never my intention. I concluded that our friendship deserved better. I didn’t want to come clean but…

I sought a private meeting.

Niko declined my request and then my appeals. He insisted I speak freely and that we have no secrets among us. I hoped that the intimacy and strength of our relationship over many years would suffice to remediate any damage my confession might cause.

This was not the case.

My concerns, however gentle, and my speculation, however tentative, were incredibly wounding. I spoke in German so that our children could not understand. However, they saw our faces and absorbed our emotion. Henry already knew what I was going to say, of course, and didn’t need to understand. I allowed that Niko’s behavior had taken place during prodromal and illness phases. I assured him that I was, in no way, making a statement about his goodness, character, or intentions. Niko accepted my words graciously at first. I suppose he experienced a kind of shock at these revelations. It didn’t last long.

I had not been able to protect his dignity, and we were no closer to solving the problem.

In our family, each child receives a laptop on her sixteenth birthday in anticipation of college. These are prized possessions. Two of our girls had already received theirs. As Niko’s disenchantment grew, he began to set his sights on their computers. He was a fox watching a hen house. Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I wasn’t sure what to do.

Did hospitality require that I “command” our daughters to hand over their nice computers when I would not loan my crummy one? Should I “allow” them to make the decision for themselves?

I had some idea of the conflict the girls must be feeling. They adored and wanted to please Uncle Niko but they had not forgotten the monopoly of 2006. They were older now, no longer wide-eyed and naive. They were starting to become disillusioned, and his behavior was starting to grate. Any generosity was more likely to be the result of capitulation than an act of heartfelt sharing.

I was buckling, and the visit had just begun. I was in danger of losing my cool with Niko but I was afraid of being unfair. I toggled back and forth. Was his behavior a manifestation of his illness? If so, I would manage compassion and fight for patience. I wasn’t eager to apply the labels “childish,” “demanding,” or worse.

I had forsworn my dysfunctional training in hospitality, and I had not yet developed another set of skills. I have replayed this scenario in my mind countless times since then, and I still find myself wondering how I should have responded. Nothing I came up with seemed right.

Since I couldn’t figure out what to do, I resorted to Plan D. D as in Deserter. Desperate. Defeated. Dumbshit.

Plan D was my escape plan. It called for me to abdicate my corner of the drama triangle. While this may have been an example of healthy boundary setting under other circumstances, the real-life result was not one I wish to repeat: I served up my children and beat a hasty retreat.

When Niko asked me if he could use the girls’ computers, I told him, “Ask them.” When my daughters asked me if they had to let him, I told them, “Do as you see fit.”

Under duress, Lindy, our oldest, refused; and she fell from grace.

Under duress, Bec, our middle child, complied. She was elevated to Confidante.

What strikes me, as I contemplate the aftermath of our weeks together, is that nobody ever even hinted that Henry give up his laptop, which was also used for work. Nobody blamed him for the way things unraveled. He was beyond reproach.

I see that the splitting had begun early on. Henry, Bec, and Claire were emerging as “good.” Lindy and I were rapidly becoming “bad.”

Hanna had begun to go M.I.A. More on that later…And Niko had begun to evaluate each of us in either-or terms: sympathetic or unfeeling, understanding or unfair, for him or against him. Hanna’s behavior, and later her words, made it clear that she and Niko were a package deal. Any “unkindness” towards Niko counted as an act against them both.

This is the twelfth installment of The Story of Hanna. The story, in sequence, can be found under the tab of the same name. Installment eleven can be found here.

Rule # 5: Being-Visited Behavior

2048px-Pocahontas_at_the_court_of_King_James copy

I think you would have enjoyed being a visitor to my childhood home. As a guest, you would have been constitutionally incapable of doing wrong. It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to proclaim, as in the old days of customer service, “The customer is always right!” Unlike the rest of us, you would not have been expected to be on-call
and maintenance-free.

When Dad was “on,” he was charming, thoughtful, and generous. In his gaiety, he would have spared no effort to make you comfortable in his court. I like that wording. Dad would have spared no effort of ours to make you comfortable.

While he piddled and we played, Mom shopped, cleaned and cooked in preparation. It must have been like shoveling against the tide. Our role in this performance came later when we were expected to portray Three Well-Bred Offspring and entertain you on demand by speaking German phrases, playing the piano, and sometimes–literally–performing a song and dance.

When I was small, I pretty much went with the program. What choice did I have? I delivered as well as I could, given my introverted temperament.

I may have been as old as 14 or 15 the last time my father instructed me to go downstairs and play the piano for our guests. I was to leave the door open so that everyone could enjoy my offerings as they wafted up into the living room.

My mind and body refused to comply. I am not even sure it was a matter of conscious choice. I felt sick. Piano lessons had been his idea. I wasn’t invested, and I hadn’t practiced in ages.

I smiled wanly, opened the door, walked calmly down the stairs, escaped out the back door, and took off running. I spent hours wandering the neighborhood, contemplating the punishment that awaited me once I returned. By some unprecedented stroke of luck, the guests had left, and my father had entirely forgotten my defiance by the time I dared to slink back home.

In another episode, my father became infuriated with me because of a septic backup. This was the summer my friend Hanna first came from Germany to visit.

Famously, our incompetent septic contractor had installed a small, tight bend in an inauspicious location, and this meant a fickle system prone to backups. We all knew about this delicate situation as we had been instructed by Dad ad nauseam on the maximum number of toilet paper squares permissible per job. The flushing of tampons was, of course, strictly verboten. I can’t speak for the rest of us but I wasn’t about to count squares. Still, I did realize that the bend was a formidable foe; and a stoppage meant snaking at best, digging and pipe cutting at worst.

This particular summer, the culprit was found to be a minuscule o.b. tampon lodged in said bend.

My Dad was fussing and fuming, and I was attempting to proclaim my innocence when I noticed Hanna growing more and more agitated. Finally, she burst:                      “I FLUSHED THE TAMPON!”

Silence. I loved her for saving me.

My Dad turned, gave her a beatific smile, and told her in a reassuring voice not to worry, it wasn’t her fault. He then turned back to me and continued to berate me in front of her for allowing my house guest to flush a tampon.

Ah, yes.

This post if part of Family Rules. For the prior post, click here. For the next post, click here.

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