Saturday, June 23, 2007

seven words and a question mark: Is this a good time to talk?

I feel a little bit funny about being annoyed at my mother for something that isn't her fault, or isn't in the most obvious terms annoying behavior. It does come down to her never asking whether it's a good time to call, which would be less annoying if a) she hadn't trained me to just answer the phone when I can, out of dread for the "where are you" message, and b) if she gave me a chance to say it wasn't a good time to talk, rather than launching into a monologue. As for the former, she left me one of those on Thursday night. I'm not sure exactly when she called, but as I returned home about 10:30pm, starting her message with, "I don't understand it! At this hour, you shouldn't be unable to take my call!" As for the latter, today's monologue was about how she found a "chicken of the woods" mushroom that was apparently great in risotto and what is risotto and how do you make it, morphing into the problems she's been having since she's switched to Verizon and why is Outlook the default when she tries to e-mail something from the internet and do I know her Google password and so on.

To her credit, she did ask me if something what was wrong with my voice and later said, "what, are you just in a bad mood today?" so she wasn't being completely obtuse, although writing this makes me realize that she sensed that I wasn't up for prolonged conversation, but continued to engage me in it.

The other thing is, it would be one thing if I could say, "no, now isn't really a great time to talk," without having to get into details but she would ask questions and I just wasn't interested in prolonging the conversation in the interest of getting out of the conversation. I did get testier as she continued asking me questions about her e-mails and passwords and I think she did eventually act on her sense that I wanted to get off the phone.

I'm not actually in a bad mood but I was toward the end of "A Mighty Heart," which is an excellent book and an emotional one. It's as inspiring as it is sad, but it's something I want to experience perhaps privately but certainly not mixed with details of internet connections and risotto recipes. More importantly I wanted to finish it.

By the way, I'm not going to see the movie. I wanted to read the book but didn't get around to it, and with the movie coming out I decided that now was the time. It is definitely worth reading.

I'm not criticizing my mother for failing to read my mind (although I could hold her to account for reading my tone but not acting on it), or for dwelling on the mundane (I'm known to revel in the mundane). I am annoyed that I don't feel free to not answer my phone when really I wanted to be in the mental realm of this enormously powerful book, and, as I mentioned, at not being given the chance to quickly return to that realm. As usual, I'm frustrated at the part of the iceberg that's underwater-- mom's underlying belief that no one's ever in the middle of anything, that I am at her beck and call. I'm frustrated that she never asks whether it's a good time to talk, to look at whatever she has on the computer, etc. And as I went back to the enormously powerful book, I reminded myself that she is that way, that I need to get over it, that it really doesn't matter.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Robin Stern has written a book about a category of manipulative people she calls gaslighters. They differ from your run-of-the-mill manipulators in a variety of ways. For example, they're in it for control as much as for a desired outcome (per Stern's apparent definition, regular manipulators use you to get something; gaslighters actively mess with your head). The key point, as far as I can tell from reviews and interviews (I learned about this in a one-page interview in Elle; I'll let you find your own sources), is that gaslighters will try to make you think you're crazy.

To be honest, while the thought that my mom may be a gaslighter crossed my mind, other people came to mind more immediately and clearly-- Bonnie (see an earlier blog), an ex-boyfriend, friends of friends, former friends, present and former colleauges. Sure my mom displays some gaslighting traits, but I didn't think she fit the description, until I saw this on the writer's own website:

See scenario 2

Fortunately, it takes two to gaslight, and I don't agree that a mature person should be able to accept insults and personal attacks graciously.


Another Robin, a psychologist, says-- with the caveat of not having read the book:

Gaslighting, supposing it gets part of its meaning from the movie, doesn't seem to fit your mother. She is not motivated by gaining control through rendering you unable to challenge, she just wants control and would be unhappy if your mental integrity decreased as a result. Whenever she gets you to adopt her idea she believes you have become smarter and more capable.

Actually, unless the concept is really extended, and hence weakened, I'm not sure it's any improvement over Machiavelli's analysis, Jewish version.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Pessimist Mystique

I really enjoyed "French Club" tonight. A friend of mine invited me to a group of friends and friends of friends that gets together bimonthly to speak French. We talked about things that would have been interesting anyway, and speaking French felt kind of surreal-- I kept thinking, "where's the catch? it can't be this easy. I neglect it, do nothing about it for ages, and it just comes back when I need it." And then I remember how much time and energy I spent acquiring French and don't feel so bad, but also think, the likelihood of my spending nearly as much time improving on any other language is minimal.

Anyway, back to "we talked about things that would have been interesting anyway." We talked about wine, travel, whether the attorney general would last, and what to make of what some are calling the new cold war. One person discussed an article she'd read that described Russian political cycles, which I will not describe in detail because I have to get up in less than six hours and I still have a few pages to finish in The Places in Between. Did I mention that Rory Stewart is my new celebrity crush? Sorry, I get even more ADD when I've had a few glasses, but more on ADD later (i.e. in another post).

Someone then said invoked the general consensus that Russians were a pessimistic people. I disagreed. I think Westerners get a certain satisfaction out of considering Russians pessimistic, there's a certain exotica around it, and the desire to believe it reinforces itself. I think there's a silly bias that no anthropologist would tolerate: not enough scrutiny is placed on indicators. Example? Russians don't generally smile-- we just don't. To us, Americans walking down the street with big, goofy grins look like morons. It's not our resting facial posture. Yet, I'm sure it's one of the signs that we're pessimistic.

On pessimism, I remember learning as an undergrad psych major that pessimists are actually right, but being right isn't the same as being healthy, and people tend to find ways of hoping against the data to get by and keep going. I mean, it's a f*ed up world, and statistically the average Russian is more likely to experience many aspects of that than the average American. I'm talking in averages; I'm not suggesting there aren't deviations. A study recently came out about how veterans are twice as likely to attempt suicide than other Americans, yet you don't see people writing that off as a function of military culture. I read in I want to say the April issue of Vogue (could have been May) an article about the new generation of runway models. A Russian model described the Eastern European dilemma: sure she could have gone to school, perhaps even gotten a medical degree, a law degree, etc.-- chances are she'd have ended up, even with that degree, driving cabs and selling fruit, and getting paid for that once every few months if that. I'm just saying, even if you didn't lose any or most of your family in a war, in political violence, in political purges, in a mining accident-- even if you're educated, what have you, your options are not what they could be. I just think that needs to be a factor in diagnosing perceptions of Russian pessimism.

I said all this. My friend, the host, somewhat agreed. Two of the others, Americans, were surprised. The fifth participant, a German woman, nodded in agreement, from the moment I said, "I think Americans like to think Russians are pessimists."

Sunday, June 10, 2007

F*ing Google

What targeted link showed up today at the top of my Gmail inbox?

About Today - Top 10 Slimming Swimsuits for Older Women

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Perceived needs

I often think about what exactly angers me about my mom's "requests," and it's only partly that they're more like demands. Yes, my mother does a lot for me, although when I ask her for a favor, I-- key word-- ask. But here's the thing-- I don't ask her to do things I'm too lazy to do (how do you think I got to be salad woman? my mom hates making salad, but she won't do without one, so I have to make it). I ask her for things I can't do myself, and those things actually need to be done or at least have a tangible benefit to them. I don't ask for her time and effort lightly. She, however, is under the impression that I have a lot of time on my hands. Consider the difference between a typical A.-requested favor vs. Mom-"requested" favor:

A.: When you get a chance, if it's not too much of a hassle, could you hem these pants for me?

Mom: I have a letter for you to write/I have something for you to take to Sascha (who lives 20 miles away), etc.

It's a subtle distinction, or two, but it matters.


Now that I think about it, this isn't the first time my mother's had issues with the post office. There have been little things that she's refused to send to me (although she must have really wanted to get rid of an ugly tablecloth, because she mailed it to me). That idea that the post office is a pain to get to doesn't transfer-- she once asked me, during finals no less, to send her a video I had so she could loan it to a friend. When I suggested that she get it from the library (which I knew to have it and which I knew to be a 10 minute drive from her house), she balked, as that would be a hassle for her. I didn't send it-- it would have been absurd.

She's refused to re-send letters that friends of mine sent to her address (in my more transient days when even I had trouble keeping track of where I was and would be). She would say, "oh, you got a letter from so-and-so, what do you want me to do with it??" If I asked her to send it to me, she would say, "oh I'm sure you can wait until your next visit to get it." I actually remember one time when she said, "you got a letter from Katie. Can I just throw it out?" I said no. She asked why not.

In one case her aversion to the post office collaborated with her selective memory to deprive me of mail at a time when it really mattered. When I was in Wales, I was often lonely and confused, and every letter from a friend lifted my spirits and reminded me of who I was. I was originally going to stay there for three months, but my contract was extended for another three at the last minute. A good friend sent a long letter to my parents' house and let me know about it by e-mail. I asked my parents about it-- my mother confirmed its arrival; I asked her to send it my way and she said she would. A few weeks later I asked about it, and my mother said, "I thought we agreed that you would just read it when you got here." I was livid, and my mother continued to insist that there was no reason to send the letter to me in Wales. My father did send the letter to me in Wales, and for that I'm thankful-- it was a good letter and it brought me a lot of joy to get it when I did.

Monday, June 4, 2007

It's not that I'm selfish, Bob

I was starting to feel really guilty about this blog (again), as my mother worked really hard to alter a suit that I'd bought online (I'm done with buying clothes online). Then, this afternoon, she did something that dissolved (most of) my guilt, and so continues the blog.

She had asked me, when I'd first arrived in Boston over a week ago, to bring back some snow boots and give them to a friend of hers in the area to take to Russia with him. Same friend from whom she'd bought the herbal remedy (see October or November blog). I agreed, and she put the boots where she thought I wouldn't forget them. I forgot them.

I'm not proud of having forgotten them, but I don't think it's the end of the world. If, however, you were a non-Russian-speaking fly in the backseat of the car on the way to the airport, you would have thought from mom's reaction that I'd, say, burned down the house. She also turned the situation into an opportunity to lecture me about how selfish I am. Besides, we were close enough to the house when she remembered that if it were really an issue, she could have easily turned around to get the boots, and I suggested as much. The conversation unfolded like this.

Mom: Unbelievable! World traveler and you didn't even bring a wheeled suitcase or other wheeled bag...
A.: I don't like wheeled bags-- whatever they put in them to make the wheels work usually adds to much weight to make it worth it.
Mom: You knew you'd take a lot of stuff back. Oh, did you remember the boots?
A.: Oh, no! I forgot!
Mom: YOU FORGOT? How could you DO such a thing?
Mom: I told you about them!
A.: You told me over a week ago. I did have other things going on throughout the week.
Mom: I even put them right by your duffle.
A.: Well I must have moved them. I forgot that I was supposed to take them. We haven't gone far, if you want to turn around.

[Let me point out again that my mother's house is not light on clutter, nor is the room in which I sleep when I visit. The presence of an object in that room is not necessarily a reminder that I need to take that object with me].

Mom: This is typical. You are so selfish. Of course you forgot, because this is something I needed. If it were something you needed, you would have remembered.
A.: This is really helpful. By screaming, accusing and tying this into a personality fault, you're solving the entire situation and making it better.
Mom: I can't believe you did this!
A.: I forgot, okay? You still have time to send them- it won't cost much.
Mom: Oh, but the time, to put it in a box, take it to the post office...
A.: That's actually much less than the time it would take me to drive them over to Sascha's.
Mom: Well it's time I don't have! Whenever you need something done, you remember it! I didn't even think to remind you to take them, it was so obvious.

[There's a post office within fifteen minutes' walking from her house. I was about to say something about the whole selfish thing, but then I realized she had a point-- selfish or not, the things I need for me are at the forefront of my mind, and things like those boots are just not. It's not that I wouldn't have delivered them-- I genuinely did forget. Clothes and shoes to people in Russia are a noble cause, whether or not I think the same of the endless complaint letters she requests, which I write anyway. I just FORGOT.]

Back and forth on this theme: how could I forget, I only remember to do the things that I need, I'm selfish, and I always save everything for the last minute (the logic there being, had I packed last night, I would have remembered the boots. I didn't pack this morning out of procrastination; rather, I opted to wait until I'd used and put on to wear everything that I'd need for the day). Eventually she got sick of the conversation herself, and we continued to the airport in silence.

Dad answered when I called to say I arrived home safely, and said, "did mom tell you you forgot the boots?" I felt like I was in Office Space (yes I understand the concept of TPS reports, I just forgot; no I don't need three more people to remind e). Later I called him back and asked him to pack up the boots because of mom's apparent reluctance to do so. He said it's not that it's hard for her, it's that she doesn't want to do it, but she'll get over it. I said well she screamed about it; he said she'd have screamed anyway, she screams over the slightest thing, and come visit more often to deflect it because otherwise it all comes my way.

Last night, she was up late working on the suit and I was up late so I could keep trying it on, so I took to flipping channels to keep myself busy. Watching TV with my parents is always fun. I caught the end of Ocean's Eleven, and my mother started asking questions.

"What's happening?"
"Who's that?"

I summarized the plot as best I could and asked her to stop asking about every action of every character.

"Why is he doing that?"
"Where's she going? Why does she look angry?"

It was my dad who said, "WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP?!"

Over the weekend my dad's second cousin, N., called from New York. My parents told her I'd recently returned from Australia and New Zealand; N said, "oh she's so independent, I remember when she came to New York and I was afraid to let her walk around on her own and I was afraid she'd get lost but she's the one who ended up showing me around."

I thought I was on crazy pills when I heard my mom say, "Yes! It's because we really raised her to be herself and didn't pressure her about anything that she turned out this way."

I wonder if that was as much passive aggression as delusion- my mom thinks N. pressured one of her sons too much, making him insecure. He has cerebral palsy (neck pinched with forceps at birth) and his parents do pressure him, and my mom's theory is that this leads him to trust anyone who treats him well, and people have taken advantage of this (identity theft, etc.). She's probably right.

His brother, on the other hand, gets away with murder. One or two memories stand out from that time I was there not two years ago, but many, many years ago between semesters of my first year in college. We were ordering out and they put me on the phone, since only my English was foreign-accentless. N. thought she knew what younger son (a year or two younger than me) wanted but wasn't sure so she asked him. He yelled at her for disturbing his 90210-watching. She suggested, even though everyone else was hungry, that we wait for it to finish. I was having none of it (and not because I was hungry). Eventually the food came, and he had a fit because he got ginger chicken rather than sesame chicken. His mother was about to fall at his feet to apologize; I told him he should have turned away from the tv and answered her question. The next day N. and I walked all over the city. She had prepared a meal for him and set it in the fridge for him to heat up when he was ready for it. She called him from a payphone to remind him, and he said, "no! I will not eat until you come home and heat up that meal for me!" She was about to return home. If I have made any positive contribution to my extended family, I told her to let it go and let him go hungry if he was too lazy to heat up his own food. She agreed and saw upon returning home that he survived.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Theory of Relativity

On Friday, Martha and her parents would swing by to pick me up at 5:30 for the rehearsal dinner. I got home from the actual wedding rehearsal at 4:30 and asked my mom if there was anything I could do to help; she said no. At 5:15, after I'd already changed, she asked me to make a salad (not a rip up some lettuce salad; a very involved salad). I made it on time and without spilled on my clothes, but didn't have time to wash my hands, so I went to the car smelling like garlic. The rehearsal dinner was a lot of fun- it was in an old, converted theatre, and had interesting acoustics. At one point, one table was having a serious discussion about China, and a faraway table overhearing them thought they were listening to NPR.


I take after my father in many ways (my mother often says I've picked up the worst of both of them). We both appreciate the perfect fried egg, and although we have different ideas about the form of that perfect egg, we both agree that it should be produced with the utmost concentration and consumed immediately before it has a chance to overcook or get cold.

After I finished my yoga I went into the kitchen where dad was getting breakfast ready. Mom was still gardening. I asked whether I or he were making my mom's egg, he said he would but that he'd wait, otherwise it would get cold and she would yell about it. I said she'd yell anyway (it was Saturday morning, after all) and probably not about that. She came in from the garden and gave the go ahead to make the egg, but my father protested because she still wanted to shower before consuming it, in which time it would get cold. She replied that she would shower quickly and that he should go ahead. To protest at this point would be to invite the, "of course I'm not ready! I've been working all morning. All I ever do is pick up after you people!" speech, which was sure to come anyway (and it did) but neither of us cared to cue it. It arrived when, instead of going upstairs to shower, my mother started preparing some flowers she had cut and my father called her on it. She responded with the speech, my dad got frustrated, turned off the skillet and went to deal with laundry. He told me to go ahead and make and eat my eggs, as I was farther along in the process and less able to pause. I did, and just as I had the second egg in mid-air, my mother demanded that I move the thorns and discarded leaves off the table. She has a knack for picking the moments in which she'd like me to drop everything.

We ate and I went upstairs to brush my teeth and start putting together what I'd take to the wedding. Wendy called and we were discussing last-minute wedding logistics for a few minutes when I heard mom screaming at me. I told her I was on the phone. The screaming continued and I continued to ignore it..

I came downstairs.

"I can't find My Favorites! What did you do to them?"
"Whenever I close the windows I'm working on, I always tell IE to open to the same windows. I always check that box."
"Well, you didn't close those windows- I did, and you didn't tell me to do that. And I don't see what that has to do with your Favorites."
"Never mind, I found them."
"Are we going for a walk?"
"I don't know- are we? You're the one who was on the phone all morning."
"I was on the phone for five minutes... with a friend who's wedding is today..."
"Five minutes? You have a very creative concept of time. Have you studied Newton... [she went off on this theme; I tuned her out].

We finally got out for a walk, but my mom, perhaps sensing my anxiety, opted for a walk farther from the house and insisted on stopping at the Russian food store. Why she couldn't make that trip while I was at the wedding was beyond me, but we had some time so I let it go. One of her shortcuts to the store goes through a parking lot, and we passed AJ Wright, which had purses on sale out front. My mom asked me if I wanted to purse-shop (I needed one for the wedding) while she went to the store; I said sure because I hate going to that store. I have so many purses at home (i.e. in Alexandria) that it pained me to buy one just for the wedding, and for better or for worse the more affordable (affordable enough to be disposable) purses were amazingly hideous.

They picked me up and we went for our walk. After we turned back, mom wanted to keep walking. I said I'd be more comfortable if we didn't. She said "just for a 15 more minutes." Eventually she caved. She got to the driveway and saw enough cars lined up across the street that it would be a slow, challenging parking experience, so I asked her to let me out so that I could start getting ready. Usually this isn't an issue- she lets me out, I open the back door for her from the inside, and she takes her sweet time getting to the door, stopping to note all the flowers on her way, even watering some. However, since she apparently didn't feel that I was entitled to my time anxiety, she balked and said, "well, you can also just get out when I've parked." I said I wanted to get out then and there and she finally consented.

Oh, on the way home she mentioned that she didn't like the dress/hated the fabric and that if I ever got married I should just send my bridesmaids to AJ Wright or Dot for their dresses. She added that she didn't really understand why a wedding was such a big deal, why it merited so much ceremony.

I got ready for the wedding (thankfully we would change on location, so I didn't have to endure more abuse related to the dress) and gave her a hug on my way out, which she took as an opportunity to comment on my back fat. Nothing new, just, "well, you really have gotten fatter."

The wedding was beautiful and a lot of fun. When I returned home, my dad asked about it. My mom pointed out that I must have eaten a lot because my stomach was protruding.

[Afterword: My mom did ask about the wedding this morning, although she quickly transitioned that conversation into political discourse, out of which I adeptly manoeuvred].

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Quote of the week

"I don't know anything about the theory of Intelligent Design, but judging from the name, I think it's right."

Yoga requires concentration

I'm doing yoga. You may know where this is going.

Tree pose, a balancing pose, requires quite a bit of concentration. From the kitchen, I hear my name.

"I'm busy."


"I'm busy."


Dad says "she said she's busy."

Not half an hour later comes crocodile pose, a semi-relaxation pose. I am assimilating the harmony of yoga, when I hear, from the front yard (through an open window to the room I'm in), my name.

I just say "hm?" and try to get back to my harmony.

Is she just checking on me? Wondering if I'm still there? What is so hard about not talking to me while I'm doing yoga?

Friday, June 1, 2007

Learning to walk slowly and look pleasant

The bridesmaid's dress has been successfully altered to account for manufacturer error and the bridesmaid's expanded girth. At the wedding rehearsal today I learned the following things:

-the bridesmaids will proceed in ascending order of height, so I'm first.
-we have to walk slowly.
-we have to smile and look pleasant.

Those last two (or three, depending on how you look at it), in particular, do not come naturally to me. I'll look at it as a challenge.