Sincerely Yours

One of the many things that marks an introvert is the tendency to live in one’s own head. I don’t know how conversations work for extroverts, but for me they work something like this:

Me: Hello! It’s nice to see you! Is that her real hair color? I wonder if she thinks my dye job is awful.

Her: How are you! I haven’t seen you in a while. What’s going on?

Me: Nothing. I mean, I’ve been really busy, but it’s just the same old stuff. I sound really lame, don’t I? Oh, crap. She’s looking at her watch. She thinks I’m boring.

Her: I’m going to lunch with George at 1. Have you met George? He worked with Marshall in purchasing before Marshall moved to Des Moines. I heard he’s doing really well there. Really happy. He and his wife bought a five-acre property with a 100-year-old farmhouse that they’re fixing up.

Me: Wow! That’s great. He’s working in Iowa, or remotely? She thinks my house sucks. I know she does. For crying out loud, I’m not the DIY type! Or does she think I’m not happy? Why did she say “really” happy? Like I’m faking it? 

Her: Oh, he’s working remotely. Well, I’ve got to run. Call me! Let’s get together for lunch next week!

Me: Absolutely! Does she really want me to call, or is she just trying to be nice. I’ll call her, but I won’t mention lunch. Just in case she didn’t really mean it.

That’s right. Every single exchange is questioned. And long after that one-minute exchange is over, I’ll still be playing it in my mind, continuing to question “Did she really mean that?” for the rest of the day. In practice, it’s exhausting. I never feel like I know the truth about how other people feel about me. Whether someone is laughing at my jokes because my jokes are really funny, or because they think I can do something for them. When someone expresses delight or admiration for the work I’m doing, I don’t know whether it’s the work, or whether they’re trying to impress me by being impressed by me. I’m as susceptible to flattery as the next person, but I would also like to know that when someone is nice to me, they’re nice to me because they actually like me.

And just so you know, if I’m nice to you, it’s because I like you.

Your Kid’s Marriage Is Already In Trouble

In the past few days, I’ve been catching up with an old friend – “Can This Marriage Be Saved?,” a standing feature in the Ladies’ Home Journal. I’ve loved that column since I was a kid for the same reasons that I slow down to check out accidents. Schadenfreude.

The format has been the same since I can remember: first the wife tells her side (this is, after all, a women’s magazine), the husband tells his side, then the counselor gets a turn. I read the feature uncritically when I was younger, but now I’ve started taking a harder look. The counselors tend to be Freudian in their approach to problems, meaning that they look for the root cause of each person’s issues in that person’s childhood. People who tuned out when their spouse expressed dissatisfaction had distant, cold parents. People who couldn’t let go of any wrongs done to them had suffered some defining trauma early in life that they couldn’t get past. People who assumed incorrectly that they shared goals and feelings with a spouse who was silently seething with pent-up resentment had parents who never talked openly, and the spouses had parents who either fought all the time or never fought at all, making the spouse need to avoid conflict at all costs. The fact that the sitcom format of problem and resolution that resolves itself in just a few column inches gives the illusion that if you can just learn to speak in “I” statements, count to 10 before responding to criticism and plan 2 dates nights a month with your spouse, no amount of lying, cheating or fighting will put your union asunder.

I spent yesterday at The Exploratorium in San Francisco. The place was packed to capacity with groups of parents and their children acting in the same ways that you see them act at Disneyland, the zoo, the supermarket, in restaurants, at the movies, etc. As adults, we may act differently in the office than we do at home or out with friends, but as parents with our children, our act never varies.

What fascinated me most were the kids that drive everyone else nuts. These kids were losing their shit. Screaming, throwing themselves on the floor, clamping themselves onto their parents legs while begging for whatever they felt they can’t live without. Every time I saw a kid melt down when Mommy had her hands full and was looking the other way for a millisecond, or kids who ran between tables terrorizing other patrons while their parents ignored not only their kids’ behavior, but the reaction it was getting from other adults, I thought “Your kid is going to grow up, get married, and end up on the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, and it’ll be your fault.”

The kicker came after the museum closed. The Pirate and I waited outside for the girls to finish up their tour of the Tactile Dome. A boy of about 12 tackled his grandmother, knocking the woman to the ground. The woman sat there, looking dazed and monitoring herself for possible injury for a few minutes while the kid stood over her, grinning. A man I presumed to be the kid’s father came up and scolded him, but the grin never left the kid’s face, he never apologized, and once granny got up and went away limping, the kid ran off to play with his siblings/friends. Even the adults said nothing about it among themselves, acting as though it was perfectly okay that this woman would certainly have bruises and scrapes (she had fallen hard on a concrete sidewalk) and could have more serious injuries (she fell right onto her tailbone – a sure recipe for back injury). Nobody walked the older lady to her car or looked in her direction as she shuffled away.

This kid is going to grow up with the sense that his actions have no consequences about which he need ever be concerned. He’s going to think that no matter what he does, it’s someone else’s problem. He will never feel that he has to monitor himself or take responsibility for any mess he makes. What kind of adult relationships can he look forward to?

I despair of a country that sees children as either decorative imbeciles too stupid to be given any responsibility or as bothersome pests, best ignored until they’re old enough to make entertaining party conversation. Neither does anything to prepare children for the life of a responsible, self-actualized adult. But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I should be more grateful that parents everywhere are grooming their children to entertain me by becoming the subject of columns with titles like “I’m a Hoarder and My Husband Hates It.” Your husband may hate it, but I can’t get enough of that stuff.

What Is Revealed/What Is Hidden

There are facts about my life that everyone knows. My parents divorced when I was very young. My mother was a single parent for most of my life. Only one of the four of us siblings didn’t finish college. My extended family is close emotionally, although not geographically. Those facts are generic, bland, and could be said of millions of other people. They don’t challenge anyone, they don’t embarrass anyone, they wouldn’t hurt anyone if they came out in public.

I’ve been talking to a few people about parts of my life that are not so well known. The things about my life that aren’t well known aren’t historical facts (sure, our family has its share of illegitimate babies, extramarital affairs and homosexuals, but everyone knows about them and nobody cares). Mostly, they’re about my own opinions of the things that happened to me as a kid.

From the time I was very small, my family has classified me as “dramatic,” their way of saying that I’ve always blown things out of proportion. My childhood was a really awful time that I was lucky to survive. I don’t recall it as being happy, and while I have a hard time remembering things like birthday parties or family outings, I recall in stark clarity childhood slights, fights and wounds. I contrast my view of my own childhood with my younger sister’s view of hers. She once claimed that she “raised herself,” but she may have amended that view now that she’s older. She was outgoing, popular, always the center of attention. When it was just my sister and me living with my father and stepmother, it was crystal clear that they liked her and had no idea what to do with me.

I’ve told people stories about my childhood, about things that I’ve been through, and they all say “You should write a book!” That’s true. I should write a book, but the book I should write is fictional and has nothing to do with the things that I’ve lived through. I can’t write those things, because I don’t have the courage to say thing things I know about my family to the rest of the world. Mostly, it’s because I know terrible things about the people I love, and yet I love them. Truly, deeply, in a give-my-life-for-them kind of way. I love my family in a way I feel as a physical sensation in my chest. It’s the stillness between heartbeats and the peak and trough of every breath. And yet, I know these awful things.

But there’s the flip side of this knowledge. A while back, I recounted something to my younger sister from our childhood, and she told me that she didn’t believe it had ever happened. I could have pulled rank on her and said “You’re three and a half years younger than me, you don’t remember,” but she’s the sort of self-confident person who wouldn’t believe me. I don’t think that the thing I recounted was anything of consequence. I could never tell her anything of consequence because of the fear that she would tell me it had never happened. I can’t stand the thought of having the defining moments of my life denied, because it would be too much like having my own pain denied.

Maybe if I put my family in a room, like they do at the end of television mysteries, and went around the room saying “YOU threw spoons at me when we were little,” and “YOU sided with your friends against me,” and “YOU told Mom and Dad that I’d done stuff that I hadn’t so I’d get into trouble,” pointing my finger in their faces as I paced around the room, the other hand held behind my back, maybe if I did that, we could all talk about it and what it meant to me. Maybe they would understand that the things they experienced as good-natured teasing hurt me deeply. That their labels for me – “lazy,” “weird” – defined in a negative way how I saw myself for most of my childhood.

So in the meantime, I write fiction. I don’t make my characters autobiographical, and I don’t base them on anyone in my family. If you want to dissect my fiction for clues into my early life, I will tell you not to bother. The truth you’re looking for is both more and less than you think it might be.

 

Living Out Loud

I’m nearly at the end of listening to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop TalkingIt’s a well-researched and nicely-structured discussion about how introverts differ from extroverts physically, psychologically and temperamentally, and how American society undervalues the contributions of introverts.

I’ve identified as an introvert for the last 10 years or so. Before that, I believed I had problems with depression (which was situational), that I was socially awkward (because I was measuring myself against extroverts), that I might be autistic (because I was so different from other people I knew that I felt like a different species). Having come to grips with my introversion, I’m comfortable understanding my own needs and have developed an array of coping mechanisms for the kinds of social situations I encounter frequently.

When I tell people I’m an introvert, they don’t believe me. Other introverts don’t believe me because I am loud. Really, really loud. Embarrassing loud. Extroverts don’t believe me because I’ve spent so much of my time growing up among them, working with and for them, and being married to them, that I fake extrovert well. I grew up in a large family of mostly extroverts where the way you got what you wanted, whether it was second helpings at dinner or getting your sister out of your bedroom, was to yell. If you wanted someone’s attention, you didn’t tap them on the shoulder or stand in front of them until they acknowledged you. You stood wherever you were in the house and yelled until they yelled back.

I live in a house with two other people. My husband is an introvert raised by two introvert parents. His parents trained him from childhood to walk soundlessly over hardwood floors and to speak only when the other person was in the same room. You can tell he doesn’t like to yell by the fact that he does it only when he’s angry. My daughter is highly sensitive. From the time she was an infant, she would startle at sudden noises, shy away  from strangers even with me present, refuse to speak up in groups. She cried easily and demanded that her clothes not touch her in certain ways. She hates yelling.

I’ve made it my mission this year to work on my loudness. We adopted my husband’s parents’ rule about not yelling between rooms, and that’s going well. I’m working on speaking at a reasonable volume. I’ve been making an effort to be more mindful of the volume of my voice, and have found that the results are wonderful! Peaceful, non-stressful dinner conversation. Discussions that don’t have the physical feel (to me) of arguments. Just turning down the volume has made a difference in the way we interact – we tend not to interrupt each other as much, and to say “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me” more often. If these little shows of civility are a result of turning down the volume at home, I think that my next mission will be to start speaking more quietly when in public.

If I were more quiet in public, I image that people would have to come closer to me to hear me. In coming closer, they would have to moderate their own voices. In such an intimate tête-à-tête setting, people would naturally become more conscious of whether they’re talking over each other, using kind language, saying inappropriate things. They would be better able to discern the effect their words had on their listeners. Widespread civility might result! I see the experiment now as necessary, and I’ll let you know how it goes. But you’ll have to lean in close to hear.

Love’s Aftermath

Last night, the Pirate and I went to the San Jose opera to see the opening performance of La voix humaine and Pagliacci. The playbill describes La voix humaine like this:

La voix humaine, Poulenc’s French monodrama, follows a young woman’s emotional phone conversation with an unseen former lover. His is discarding her to marry another woman, and she is desperately trying to win back his love. Set in 1940s Paris, this one-act opera paints an emotional portait of an abandoned woman teetering on the edge during an affecting and engaging monologue.

The action took place over three or four phone calls. Apparently, the phone service in 1940s Paris was horrible, as every few minutes the two parties were either cut off in mid-phone call or just thought they were. First, the man calls the woman. Strange, for a man who has apparently thrown this woman over, but I am willing to suspend disbelief. In the first phone call, her essential message is “I’m okay. I’ve been out having a good time. I’m much stronger than I thought I was. No, really, I’m okay.” They’re cut off, and after she fixes herself a drink and lights a cigarette, he calls back, whereupon her message changes. Now it’s “I’m not really that okay. I’ve been struggling. I really miss you. I still love you. You’re always right, I’m always wrong. ” They’re cut off again and she tries to call him back at home, only to find out that he’s not at home. Whoops. He calls back, and the message changes to “I’ve lied. I’m horrible, I’m not coping at all. My friend has had to come and sit with me for days because I wanted to die. If you were to, say, lie to me about not being at home, not that I’m saying you lied, mind you, but if you were to lie, it would just make me love you more because I’d know you were trying to spare my feelings.” And then, after he hangs up, she throws herself out the window. My disbelief jumps out after her, its tenuous link to my enjoyment of the evening having snapped.

Eleven years ago, I myself had a rather rough breakup with my third husband. I was the breaker, rather than the breakee, and I understand the person on the phone’s desire to let the other person down lightly. After every breakup I’ve ever had, I’ve always felt guilty for leaving, no matter how badly things went in the relationship. Thinking about it now, I realize how incredibly egotistical that is. Who do I think I am that merely denying my presence to someone would be enough to plunge them into despair? And yet, I was always worried about “letting them down easy.”

The problem with acting like I’m the guilty party is that the guys I have broken up with are more than happy to go along with my act. Yes, they say. I was in the wrong. I should never have left them. They’re exemplary specimens, and I’ll be sorry one day, and everything is my fault. This wouldn’t be a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that I have children with a couple of these guys. For the past couple of months, I’ve been in a sticky custody situation with one of them, and it’s really been getting on my nerves. After every email, phone call or face-to-face meeting, I invariably end up wishing that things had gone differently. There’s something a bit unfair about the way that, after you break up with someone, they continue to attempt thinking for themselves in a way that leads them to entirely different conclusions about the problems that face the both of you.

It was only after considering this for a while that I realized the truth about La voix humaine. The man, after magnanimously telephoning his ex-girlfriend to make sure she’s okay, after gently breaking it to her that he’s sending his servant around to pick up some things he left behind, hangs up to go back to his “other woman,” and his discarded girlfriend does the only decent thing she can do – throws herself to her death. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fantasy that most of us have about the end of our relationships. The world would be a better place if, once we have discarded someone, they would have the decency to vanish from the face of the earth, right? Right?

Well, I’m sure that’s what my ex-husband is wishing for, right about now.