When I was a young adult my much older brother physically attacked me at our parents’ house at Thanksgiving. The “reason” is flimsy and bizarre and not worth typing. The event devolved into a huge family fight involving my many siblings (and parents) that had very little, if anything to do with me. Christmas was on its way. My mother made a big point of saying ALL her children were welcome at her home. I knew I was supposed to fall in line as if the incident had never happened and I also knew my pecking order in the family was such that my welfare wasn’t of great concern but there was no way I was sitting down to Christmas dinner with my brother.
In his late twenties my older brother went on a solo journey across the country, an adventure trip that took place over the course of about a year. He met a woman and after they’d been together awhile, she agreed to leave her home and come back with him to live in our town. We were all quite curious about who this woman was, leaving her life and job behind to make such a drastic move for a man, and one she hadn’t known terribly long at that. In her car no less!
On the night they returned the family gathered to see him and meet his new lady. I don’t remember much about that evening except that my brother asked our mother rather grandiosely to “rustle up some grub” for his new girlfriend. Rustle up some grub??! Had my brother really said that?! The only place I’d heard the phrase before was on TV, on Westerns. Our suburban family didn’t talk like that. Also, why the hell couldn’t he get up and fix some food or order a pizza or something? As it was he didn’t have to; our mother did indeed go to the kitchen to “rustle up some grub” for my brother’s girlfriend.
The relationship didn’t last – she returned to her home after about a year – and if you ask me there was a major hint in how it would devolve in my brother’s words and attitude that first night. Perhaps he started demanding his girlfriend, a modern, independent woman with her own career to “rustle up some grub” and so on.
I have this thing I do where I assign myself tasks. Jobs. I talked it about it before when I wrote about my blog’s anniversary and how I am always mindful to not make the blog a JOB. I’ve been good about that so far as the blog, but I had to keep the thought in mind; otherwise I slip there too easily. My nature is: “I must,” “I should,” “I better.”
I expect a lot of people live like this, with a list of things in their minds that have to get done. That should get done. That they either are, or feel responsible for. When I was young, in my early twenties and on my own, someone once said to me that life, in his theory, was 25% maintenance. I was impressed. I’d never thought of it like that. Now I think the figure is too low. Because really, when you consider that most people work at jobs in service of maintaining the other aspects of their lives (exempting those people who truly love their jobs – all 18 of them), you’d be including the paid work in addition to all the other tasks one must do to maintain a life.
What I’m talking about, naturally, is maintaining a good life, because sure enough, lots of people don’t do all these maintaining type activities. They don’t work or they don’t take care of themselves, or they live in chaos and squalor. They let things go. It isn’t pretty. We have all seen it. Their homes are in disrepair. Their bodies are in disrepair. Their children are in disrepair. It’s a mess. And we/I think: Jeez-o-flip, I’m glad I don’t live like THAT. Things aren’t THAT bad. And I don’t EVER want to live like that.
People will say, some of them anyway, that these types of “jobs” or “maintenance” or “tasks” aren’t important. It’s just better to enjoy life and if things don’t get done, oh well. They say a happy family is better than a clean house. Or partying with your friends is more important than looking for a job. Stuff like that. I get that we all have different standards, different priorities, but I look sideways at people who live and say things like this; I don’t entirely believe them. Do they really feel okay with a life in disarray?
But back to me. I walk around looking for jobs to assign myself. Oh sure, that’s not a conscious thought. But when I’m honest I see that’s what I do. Out in the world and in my own quarters. Why is everything my job? I ask myself this. I don’t always have an answer. And what do I mean anyway? I mean that I see things that need to get done, or that I think need to get done. And tell myself to get on it. These aren’t necessarily BIG things (like getting a Master’s or traveling to Italy or running for office or starting a business) but it isn’t the size of them that I’m really referencing here but the perspective.
Earlier this year I put this note on my mirror (I since took it down):
Maybe some people look around and think “wow things are great”, or think nothing at all. I look around and notice things that should be done. I don’t want to say this is entirely a BAD trait. I’m conscientious, I follow through, I’m reliable. I’d say I’m “proactive” but that’s not true across the board so let’s forget that one.
I have considered whether I do things so that other people might think or say, “isn’t that nice, look what she’s doing”? And the honest answer is no, it isn’t for other people’s eyes. In fact, I do things despite other people watching, despite a certain degree of self consciousness at times (one that has lessened with age and experience). The standards I am shooting for are my own, they are internal.
To be fair, the standards in my head were no doubt shaped by my mother. My mother saw life as an endless series of jobs. It was all work to her. She (along with my father) went and had herself a big family but by the time I came, she took little pleasure in said family, if she ever had (up for debate), and saw it as a huge source of work. Everything was a job. She even complained about family vacations and trips because of “all the work” she had to do to facilitate them. (Oh yes, this made everything, including trips, FUN for her offspring >>>sarcasm.)
My mother suffered. Oh, she suffered. She made sure we all knew – or at least her later children after which she had become thoroughly embittered on the business of raising a big family – how much trouble we all were. And everything about running the household – which was her primary focus (she had paid jobs mainly when we were older, but not a career per se) – were jobs. Unpalatable tasks.
The thing was she disdained pleasure and had scathing words for those who partook of it or focused on it. So it wasn’t like she’d have been whooping it up but for the big family and the work it entailed. In her view, people who relaxed were LAZY. Children who played were lazy and spoiled. No, thankfully, she didn’t quote that saying about “idle hands” and the “devil’s workshop” but the point was clear enough.
My mother assigned herself jobs, some seemingly pointless and in fact, by the time I was a teen, I challenged her on it. God knows I’d heard her complain often enough about all the work she had to do, so I figured why shouldn’t she cut some corners? Especially insignificant ones.
One of the rare moments I ever influenced my mother stands out. We had a one floor house with a sort-of-finished basement and, eventually, a full bathroom on each floor (I remember a time when the downstairs bathroom had no shower and a curtain not a door). In the basement there was also a bedroom that was usually occupied by one or more of my brothers. But for the centipedes, crickets, and thousand-leggers who also occupied the basement, it was a pretty sweet set up. There was, in addition to the bathroom, a full size refrigerator (that always had beer in it), a TV room, a washer and dryer, and a “separate” entrance, i.e., a back door. AND it was about as far away from the fighting and chaos that was a regular household feature, as one could get and still be in the house. Not too shabby.
Anyway, my brothers didn’t use that washer and dryer, as it was my mother’s domain, and she washed the towels that were folded and stacked in the basement bathroom for my brothers’ use. She would bring said towels upstairs after washing and drying and carefully fold them on the dining room table. I’d watch this, knowing how she was, and finally said, why do you do that? It’s not necessary. To my shock, even now, after that she started just taking the bath towels out of the dryer and, skipping the hauling upstairs for careful folding routine, instead stuffing them onto the basement bathroom shelf. I couldn’t believe it, this token nod to rebellion and the easy life. It’s not like my brothers were going to care. They had clean towels that magically appeared. So what they weren’t nicely folded. (Trust me, she was never going to make them wash, dry and fold their own towels no matter how old they were.)
My mother did not teach me to look for “jobs”. No. It was obviously something I absorbed. But I took it further, out into the world with me, where she hadn’t. I think, in part, it’s because I developed a much stronger sense of self than my mother ever had, and a willingness to act if I thought it was called for.
The thing about a trait like this is that it’s been good in a lot of ways. I kind of feel like if I don’t assign myself jobs, I won’t do anything. And I get to reap (many of) the rewards of things I do. It’s when the tendency overwhelms me, when I “pile on” in my own mind that it becomes a negative force. I mean who wants to steal all the pleasure out of life? Isn’t the point of maintaining a good life so that you can step up and take the rewards too? I am surely not all-work-and-no-play. Please don’t think that. Far from it. But I am my mother’s daughter: in my unconscious mind, the rewards must be earned first. Chores come first. For me, the real task, the ongoing one, is teasing out which “jobs” really need to be done and which are manufactured in my own head. Everything is not my job.
My mother was always stingy with herself. She grew up in the Depression and came from a large family. Her mother was a reserved, religious person, who although I didn’t know well, I am certain was stingy with herself too. My grandmother was almost 80 years older than me and lived in a phenomenally different time. Our lives would likely be unrecognizable to each other. But I totally see the continuity being passed down.
My mother generally took the crappiest thing for herself even when it wasn’t necessary. She cut corners that didn’t need to be cut. We were a smart-mouth bunch, and there were wise cracks amongst us siblings about hair shirts and ashes. As I grew up I came to challenge how my mother treated herself. I was kind of outspoken about it once I was in my late teens and early twenties.
One time several members of the family were enjoying a cook-out at my grown sister’s house. We were grilling steaks (we did that then). Once they were cooked, a platter of meat was set out. When I saw what my mother serve herself I intervened. She didn’t have to take, as I proclaimed loudly, “the smallest, ugliest piece of meat.” It was a line that went down in family lore. And I made sure my mother got a better piece.
I think about that from time to time. My mother served herself the smallest, ugliest piece of meat BY ROTE when there was no need. I think about it because, of all her daughters, I believe I picked up this trait the most. My sisters self-indulged more than I did, at least in specific ways, if not across the board. Between my mother and the religion that was such a huge part of my childhood, I learned suffering and doing without – INDEPENDENT OF ANYTHING ELSE – was laudable and the way to go.
Even after childhood, and the sea changes I experienced in my teen years, I still had the vestiges of this trait. I accepted crap. From other people and in general. I retained this belief that you could have one nice thing (which you should never actually use) and the rest had to be crummy. I allowed other people to short-shrift me. I kept quiet. I was uncertain how to self-indulge and when I did felt uneasy about it anyway. What was okay? What did I deserve?
I want to make clear that I’m not talking about negative self-indulgence. A whole lot of what people do in the name of “treating themselves well” is actually counter-productive. It’s things that harm them, whether in the short run or the long run. A person can be self-generous by treating themselves to a box of donuts or a gambling spree or a big shopping trip or a fourth beer but these are all “empty calories” that have a price. (If I may, this is usually promoted as The American Version of “Treating Yourself.”)
For a long time I waited for somebody else to come along and treat me the way I (secretly) wanted to be treated. Someone to be generous with me. And some people were. I’m not talking here about spending money per se, but about having generosity of spirit. But that’s not enough. (And the people I’m referencing weren’t necessarily good for me on whole or for the long haul let’s say.) It can’t come from elsewhere and change how you see and treat yourself. (No different from when another person wants a loved one to lose weight or stop using drugs or quit drinking. It may have some effect but somebody else’s desire or intentions alone will not significantly change how a person sees themselves or their behavior long-terrm. To Wit: I may have influenced how my mother acted sometimes but I don’t believe for a minute I ever altered how she thought about herself.)
It’s really here in middle age that I’ve made strides in this area. It’s taken this f-ing long. Sigh. I am aware of a tendency to be stingy with myself and I talk myself through it often. I certainly don’t see value in suffering and doing without in and of themselves. I am well aware suffering and lousy times come to you – why create more of them for no purpose? I don’t solve world hunger if don’t eat well. Wars don’t end if I buy myself several pairs of shoes at a yardsale (my thriftiness is a source of pride not stinginess!). Terrible things don’t happen when I am nice to myself.
I get now, unlike how I was indoctrinated, that it’s not an either/or proposition. That is, I’ve needed to shake the false belief that if I am good to myself, that is somehow wrong and I am neglecting other people (or not acknowledging all those who do with less and without, if only by suffering alongside them). In fact, I truly believe now you can’t be generous with other people until you are generous first with yourself. Otherwise the well runs dry. It’s all connected. I’ll leave it at that.
I think sometimes when I’m around other people I eat like a squirrel or an inmate. If I’m at a gathering, a party or a wedding or a cook-out for instance, and there’s a buffet where guests can “fix themselves a plate” (isn’t that the best expression?), I have a inclination to take mine off to a corner alone, if at all possible. Especially when the food is really good. I see squirrels do this all the time; they grab food and run away a bit, behaving as if someone – perhaps even the kindly person who might have given them the food – is going to take it back. I don’t know that I think somebody is going to take back my plate if I don’t keep a close eye, so much that, in part, I want to be one with my meal. I really don’t like it if I have to balance food on my lap or worse, stand somewhere – that takes away from my enjoyment.
It’s not that I can’t dine with a group of others around a table – eating & talking with an interesting companion is one of my favorite things in life – it’s that I know oftentimes I’ll be distracted and not give the food its due. I’ll look down and my plate will be empty and I won’t know where the food went or have appreciated it the same way (as if I partook like the squirrel in the corner). Pretty much the opposite of mindful eating.
I also occasionally catch myself “guarding” my plate when dining, arms flanking either side protectively. What is that?? Am I going to stick my fork into the hand of someone who looks like they might try to take a morsel off my plate?! Maybe it goes back to inherited DNA from primitive ancestors, who really would stick somebody who tried to mess with their meal. Or maybe it’s just from growing up in a large family where it was necessary to make sure you got your fair share of the vittles. Still, I want to be a nice member of society, so when I notice I’m doing it, I try to make an effort to bring my arms away from my plate and act like a civilized person who wouldn’t knock silly any hapless person getting too close to her food.
I see blogs that go on for years with hardly any comments, likes, etcetera. I don’t get it. How is someone motivated to keep churning out posts with scant evidence of readers? I do consider that perhaps the blogger has an extensive email list of interested readers and if not extensive, just an email list. That is, they have readers but it’s just not obvious to a casual observer. Yes, you could argue that I am a reader if I’m there looking at their blog but in most cases I’m merely passing by.
Bloggers talk a lot about how to build their blogs, how to attract and keep readers. They share good advice and thoughts. Some people want hundreds and thousands of readers. Others will say they enjoy having a small but devoted following; that the interaction with readers is the important thing, and I concur. Having been blogging for just over a year, I’ve had time to give this thought.
Self-promotion has never been my strong suit. I was raised in another time and it was backward even for that time [insert unhappy face]. Good girls kept their yaps shut. They didn’t brag or show off or draw attention to themselves unless they were on a stage. At home, when one of us received attention, praise or accolades from outside the family, my mother would snidely remark, “How do you rate?” While it was an odd phrase and clearly more statement than question, its uncharitable message was clear.
Still, I DID in fact go on to draw attention to myself, primarily of the scholarly achievement type, but also for creative endeavors and although fewer, athletic ones. I wanted the goodies that were out there to be had: high grades, ribbons, cash prizes, and getting one’s name in the local paper. Those kinds of perks told me I had something to offer that could be desired and rewarded. (Side note: while still young, I would proudly return home with evidence of my success, only to mostly be treated to either family indifference or commentary intended to cut me down to size. I wised up. It’s kind of like that old saying about the travelers and the broken wagon, which I’ll paraphrase: Them that’s goin’ on ahead with us, get out and push. Them that ain’t, get out the way. Which is to say, if someone was going to be a hindrance to my forward progress, I’d rather they just got out of my way.)
By the time I decided to start this blog, I’d come quite a distance in my willingness and ability to self-promote. (If I can stretch the wagon metaphor a leeeeetle bit further: Them that’s not willing or able to self-promote in life, are going to get run over. Unless they’re brilliant and have a skill or talent people clamor for and need do nothing to promote it. Which sounds rare and unlikely.) The meek may inherit the earth but frankly, I’d like my share of the goodies, perks and prizes in the here and now, thanks ever so.
As something of a lone wolf, albeit an extroverted lone wolf – yes, I realize that sounds potentially contradictory but there you go – I didn’t have a wide “network” to draw upon for the blog. I personally told a good handful of people who I thought might be interested but was reluctant to use all of the channels I might have to self-promote. I know how I feel when another person jumps in somewhere they haven’t previously been very present solely to hawk their interests. I wouldn’t call it unethical so much as questionable; i.e., why should WE care what YOU want? What’s in it for us?
I’ve been in my community a long time and my name is known to a fair number of people. My writing has appeared in local papers and I’d been a regular commenter on a community Yahoo group, so I did, in the early months of the blog, post a couple links to humor or community-relevant posts. I picked up a few readers that way. I even spent a couple dollars to advertise the blog in the local paper but I think almost nothing came of that. I’d probably have to run the notice regularly for awhile to have it pick up steam and I really can’t see my way to spending money on a free blog.
Finally, I made hand notices to put on local bulletin boards. I stuck with it on the most popular board, managing to keep a notice up most of the year (every month the board is cleared so I need to make a new notice and trot it down there). I know I could do something fancier and more high-tech and I DO think about that, but just haven’t. I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble. Anyway, here’s the notice I had on the board during May.
I have no way of knowing if my hand-written notice brings in readers, or reader as it were. I hope so. I know that I would be curious about such a notice but then I love bulletin boards and am curious about things like that. You never know what you’ll find on a bulletin board! For all I know, many people have noticed my ad – I always put it in the same spot. My community is such that should I keep it up long enough – years – I’ll be known as the person who “always has an ad for their blog” on the bulletin board. Mind you, that doesn’t mean anybody will consequently go read the blog.
Somehow, I always trusted the right people would find me. Whether they were other bloggers or people from my community. And by right, I mean those my words would have resonance with, who would want to hear what I’ve got to say, without a lot of coaxing. I still believe that.
My oldest brother moved out of the house – after a history of increasing unpleasantness between him and our father – when I was a child in grade school. Our family was rather conservative, religious, and conventional. My brother, who was artistically inclined and never the rough-and-tumble son our bullish, alpha father would have theoretically wanted, was having a go at the hippy life much to my father’s disapproval. I’m sure my mother didn’t think much of his lifestyle either, but this was her favorite child and she saw it as her role to run interference between the two, albeit not very successfully, so he got a pass in quite a few things. Still, my father ruled the roost and rebellion was not well received, especially the counter-culture kind.
My brother left after one last ugly conflict, of the sort where I was awoken one night to hear my father and brother shouting at each other on the front lawn, coming to – or about to come to – blows (not for the first time), while my mother hollered at them to stop, saying “the neighbors would hear.” Laying awake in my trundle bed in the room I shared with my sister, I was so scared.
He moved into the city and lived in a group house with his girlfriend and roommates. After a little time had passed and enough smoke had cleared, our family, that is, my parents and their three youngest children of which I was one, went to visit. We put on our church clothes for this little foray. Father in suit, mother and girls in dresses, little brother combed and cleaned up, the whole bit. And drove to a sketchy neighborhood downtown where the big old rental house was located. My life was a sheltered affair; I found the whole thing shocking, from the fact of my brother leaving us to his new arrangements. Group house? What is that? When my brother pointed out his room that he shared with his girlfriend, I took note of the solitary mattress on the floor. Mattress on the floor? Just one?! What was this?? I didn’t know about sex, not at that point. I just knew something was up.
We sat, in our good Sunday clothes, in the dark, high-ceiling living room and made small talk with my brother. It was uncomfortable. There definitely wasn’t anything for children to do there. From the outside, we must have been quite the sight. I remember a long-haired roommate passing by and giving a nod. Otherwise, whoever was in the house at the time, steered clear. Who could blame them?
Other details are lost to me now, but I was most impressed with the Chore Wheel I saw tacked to the kitchen wall. It had all the housemates’ names written around the outer edge, and a smaller circle with various chores written on it, inside, and it manually turned so that once a week, a new chore would line up by someone’s name. How ingenious! This I could appreciate.
It was the only time we ever went there.