Looking Back

Annoying Encumbrances

March 24, 2015

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Annoying Encumbrances

Yesterday a young man asked me to recommend a must-read book, the one that meant the most to me. My answer to that question hasn’t changed since it was published in 1988: Solitude by Anthony Storr.

I’ve never before or since experienced the pleasantly uncanny sensation that a book had been written expressly for me, the only child of two only children. Solitude changed, not my life—my temperament and sensibility were firmly set, I see now, no later than age 4 — but my conception of myself.

Storr argued that for a minuscule number of humans, Work was more important than Love. And that wasn’t just ok, it could sometimes be laudable. But of course, he added, weirdos like me would always needs be in the minority; the world would indeed be a lesser place without its Kafkas or classical composers – but too many of them and there’d be no world at all.

Hence my reflexive recoil when confronted by Barna’s latest research.

On the topic of self-conception, the gargantuan research concern recently asked a thousand Americans to what extent a variety of factors – such as ethnic identity or hometown — influenced their personal identity.

“Because I can’t help but notice how many folks arrange their lives so as to spend as little time with their own relatives as possible.”

“My family” was the number one answer.

Ugh.

OK, I feel obligated to back up here and clarify that I do (did?) in fact have two half-sisters more than fifteen years my senior. But they both got pregnant (then married) in high school. I have no recollection of living with them. The rest of my family is either lost through attrition or conveniently and thoughtfully dead. None of us have the same last name. (My late mother churned through four.)

So I need to remind myself at times like this that my repugnance when confronted with that survey response isn’t the norm. 

And yet: Do (normal) people really mean it when they valorize family? Or, as is so often the case in surveys, do they give what they think is the “right” answer?

Because I can’t help but notice how many folks arrange their lives so as to spend as little time with their own relatives as possible. When forced to do so – on family vacations or holiday get togethers — all they seem to do is bitch, moan and roll their eyes, or else passive-aggressively stare at their gadgets, trying to virtually escape.

Few parents I observed growing up considered their children as anything more than annoying encumbrances.

How else to explain the evidently universal and lasting appeal of this perennial Staples “back to school” commercial, which has run in heavy rotation every August for close to 20 years?

If I hadn’t been an accident, I could easily be convinced that the only reason my parents had me was so that some day – back when it was still legal for kids to do such things — my stepfather could have someone to go to the store for cigarettes when he was too drunk to get off the couch.

But then I met Jews.

As the only gentiles on an overseas trip, my husband and I earned deeply confused and vaguely offended stares when we breezily suggested that our Jewish friends’ teenaged children must be thrilled that they had the house all to themselves for two weeks, free of old mom and dad.

(Whereas new non-Jews admitted to our circle are obliged to play an informal game of oneupmanship called, “That Time the Cops Came to the House When I Was a Kid.” The long-reigning winner is a former Montrealer whose downstairs tenant turned out to be one of the city’s ubiquitous bank robbers; it’s hard to top the SWAT team.)

 So I’m guessing there are lots of Jews on Barna’s call list.


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