08 December 2009

Sickness and Health

I'm home sick in bed. Well, under normal circumstances I'd be home, but I wouldn't be sick and in bed. This development is very annoying, because I was supposed to start writing today, and although I'm not running a fever or rendered incompetent, I'm just sick enough that I have no attention span, and thus can't produce. Grr.

Also, my sickness is interfering with...my date! That's right: I have a date. I know it's a date, because I made it -- and I made it in date-y language, so unless the other person is mentally deficient, they must recognise that it's a date. So if it turns out not to be a date as far as they're concerned, that's no fault of mine. Unfortunately, my sickness means I've had to postpone: my date was for tomorrow, but even though I'm on the sickness mend, I won't be mended by tomorrow. So I've had to put it off, hopefully only until Thursday. Reader, I will keep you, as it were, updated. Hahahahahaha.

But neither sickness nor dates is what I wanted to write about today.

My parents, I often think to myself these days, did a remarkably good job of raising me. They gave me a reasonable set of moral standards, and a hell of a lot of good sense: I recognise that I'm likely to be happiest with an age-appropriate mate; I accept that there are different stages of life and different experiences and behaviours appropriate to them; I think carefully about my decisions. And when I think about how my parents managed to shape and influence me in lasting ways, what immediately springs to mind is things they've said to me. Of course, a lot of the influence parents and other role models have is silent and subtle, absorbed by unconscious observation, but in my case - perhaps because I'm so word-oriented - a good deal of the way my parents continue to influence me is via actual verbal advice and observations they've given. Especially my mother. She's a difficult woman, my mother, but she's certainly had some very wise things to say. So I thought I'd use this post to ruminate on the best pieces of advice I've received, from my parents and elsewhere.

"When you're married to someone, you have to see them every way. You see them healthy; you see them sick. You see them happy; you see them irritated. You see them good; you see them bad." My mother told this to me years ago, just as part of a discussion we were having (weirdly, I remember exactly where we were: she was wiping a kitchen counter, and I was getting something off the back stairs). I remember it not just because it sometimes seems to me a useful way to evaluate a partner (would I want to stick with this person when they're being crabby?), but also because it reminds me, and has reminded me when I've been in relationships, that you're in it for the long haul, and that you can't just quit because the person turns out not to be quite as nice as you'd like.

"Always wear a bra, or else your breasts will sag." My mother told me this when I was about 19 or 20 and succeeded, frankly, in scaring the crap out of me. Years later she revealed to me that her breasts had always sagged, so the advice was based on no experience and thus was largely worthless, but it was too late! The damage had been done. And now when I get up in the morning the second thing I do (after turning on the computer: before e-mail, it was the first thing I did) is put on my bra. I have been mammarily traumatised. Thanks, Mom. Still, as she and a number of other people pointed out to me, it can't hurt, and to be honest it probably has helped me in the breast department.

"The first time, you don't have to get it right; you just have to get it down." My father said this to me when I started writing my dissertation and was finding it so hard to get onto paper what I wanted to say. I remember this observation (or warning) not because I've come to accept it as true, but because I still get upset when I can't say what I mean in my first draft: every time that happens, I reassure myself by saying this.

"I had a very difficult relationship with your aunt. But now it's worked out, and although it's still problematic it's a very valuable relationship to me." This is another one I remember because it forces me to question myself. When I think about my own lack of relationship with my sister, I think of my mother saying this, and I wonder if someday it might still all work out. I wonder if I should hold on, just in case it one day turns into something valuable.

"I don't think cross-cultural relationships can work." This is a strange one. When my mother first said it to me, my blood ran cold (I've only ever fancied people from other cultures!), while at the same time I was aware of its strangeness (my mother is an immigrant from a family of cultured upper-class German Jews; my father is a member of a working-class Protestant family: when he told his mother my mother was Jewish, she said, "Don't say such a thing!"). As it happens, I don't agree with this statement, but I do think it has a truth in it, in that I don't believe a relationship can work if the two people have nothing in common (studies have shown that opposites do not attract), and in particular if they don't have language in common. Which is to say, I think both partners in a relationship must share fluency in a language. I also think that it's incredibly important for the partners at least to try to know each other's native tongues - maybe things didn't work out with Dr. Higher, but they wouldn't have worked out a lot sooner if I hadn't had some sense of German. That helped me to understand him a little better.

"Remember, it is a job." Not from a parent, but from my advisor. This definitely counts as one of the top most useful pieces of advice I've ever got, although it's also almost totally opaque. In fact, it work so well precisely because it is almost totally opaque. You know how you often wish that things came wrapped in drama or an announcement of their own importance? Well, this actually did. When my advisor took me out for tea after I passed my defence, she said to me, "This is the last thing I'm going to say to you as your advisor: Remember, it is a job." Dun dun DAH. At the time it was so rhetorically effective that I didn't ask for clarification, but I think that's just as well, because it's meant that I have been able to give it many meanings. I think of it at the end of every semester, and now every term, when you have to do all the little draggy stuff like recording grades or marking late papers: these are the parts of my job that are a job, and I have to accept that they're part of it. I think of it when I have colleagues I don't like: they're not my family; it's a job (actually, my advisor told me this is what she meant). I think of it when I have to do committee work, or check my Works Cited for typos, or when I don't get my way about something, or when I'm writing all those boring recommendation letters. Remember, it is a job.

"Either you're in or you're out, but if you're in, you're in." Yeah, can you believe it, my sister said this to me. She said it about someone else, but I nonetheless often hear it ringing in my ears. This is another one that comes up when I have to check the Works Cited for typos, but also when I'm having trouble writing and decide to "give myself a break" by checking e-mail every five minutes. It's actually quite useful.

"They always star Bruno Ganz." You have to say this to yourself in a worldweary voice, which is how my mother first said it to me,
although the tone was for no particular reason. I'm afraid this one offers no larger life lesson; it's just something I remember. I was telling my mother the plot of Knife in the Head, a quite good but also quite odd German film, and in introducing it I said, "It stars Bruno Ganz." This was her reply. What I think she meant was that for a long period it seems as if every German film had Bruno Ganz in it - although what she may have meant was that a certain kind of German film - thoughtful, slow, Important - always seems to star Bruno Ganz (both are true). In any case, even now Bruno Ganz shows up in a surprisingly large number of German films, and whenever I see him I think of this line.

"If a man doesn't know what he wants after three weeks, he knows but he's too scared to tell you." This came from MCLSJB, less than a year ago, but it's proven very handy. It's not just that when I've taken this as a rule of thumb about men it's turned out to be true, but also that it's a good way of separating the sheep from the goats: when I look back I discover that male wafflers I have known have also proven to be less-than-brave or less-than-frank in more important ways, too. But it's also turned out to be a useful tool about myself. Before I would waffle potentially endlessly about difficult decisions, but now I remember this utterance, and after whatever constitutes three weeks in the given circumstances (30 seconds, if I'm deciding on lunch; 3 weeks, if I'm deciding to go home for Christmas), I just ask myself what I really want, then go with the immediate answer. Well done, MCLSJB!

And now I find myself fading away with illness. I need a nap...

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