Relative Thinking


I was born in the fall, so as the weather grows cooler and the leaves start to turn; as everyone begins to think of who they’d like to be come Halloween and children, freshly back in school, begin to wonder if there really is an end to classes; as stores anticipate three big holidays all at once and radio stations trot out “Santa, Baby” and other old chestnuts; at that time of year I typically reflect on how to be less of a schmuck.

As explained by Robert Anton Wilson, in a book I lost long ago in college, every now and then you should take a moment to think about what a schmuck you’ve been. The thought appeals to me, especially since I’m fully aware that I don’t always function according to societal specifications. I mull over events every week, but once a year I take the time to make a deeper examination.

This isn’t a birthday-related activity, at least not in the traditional “oh crap, I’m aging” manner. I’m not afraid of aging any more than of any other inevitability. I’m in no particular hurry to shake off my youth, mind you. I’m just too busy worrying about everything involved with daily life; I’d need another lifetime to fret over the big issues. No, I hold my yearly mental audit in the fall because it’s a good time for putting things in order.

For years Wendi and her mom have commented on how I’ve been taking lessons from Ken, my father-in-law. This is meant as a joke about how I’ve picked up some of his more playful traits: feigning ignorance, playing with the wait staff, etc. But it’s truer than that, and more intentional.

I never had a very good father figure from whom to learn. He met his obligations, and I’ll credit him with doing the best that he probably good, but his personal skills were that of a rabid weasel. What I learned from my dad was to belittle people, to treat others as malfunctioning objects when they didn’t serve my needs, to resent any aspect of life that did not cater to my desires — in short, to be a colossal schmuck.

My father had a good life right under his nose and rejected it for not matching his dreams. A good job, a big house, a successful wife, kids that did well in school and largely avoided trouble — he dwelled instead on what he didn’t have, which largely resembled a late-night sex comedy on Cinemax. With bagpipes.

Imagine my confusion as I got to know my father-in-law. Ken stayed at a job he didn’t like, a job that hastened his hearing loss and furthered the destruction of his back, because he wanted to support his family. Sure, he wanted other things — who doesn’t? — but the people around him were important enough to put dreams on hold or even give them up. He never acted resentful for it or suggested to anybody that they owed him anything. I saw him grumpy a few times, but his normal disposition was one of good cheer.

I hope this seems perfectly normal to you; it stunned me. That’s not how people behaved, in my experience. Once I processed that he was for real, I realized that I finally had a model for acceptable behavior. This whole “caring about others” approach intrigued me.

So this year with my normal season of reflection approaching, and my frustrations at work growing, I’ve been thinking of Ken. There’s a lot that I get from my job: a good salary, fantastic benefits, and access to a huge collection of reference materials, to name a few. Wendi and I are in easy shot of paying off our bad debts, and we’ve finally started to fix up our house.

Is it really that bad if I don’t get the project I want at work? No. It’s just disappointing. If my car needs a new transmission is it a catastrophe? No. It’s an unfortunate inconvenience. Are Tom Hanks’s Oscar wins a sign of the End Times? Probably. I’m still consulting the ancient texts about that.

The point is that I need to remember to step back from the immediacy of events and put them into a larger context before reacting, because my initial reactions tend to be hyperbolic and aggressive.

In late September I got a head cold. My brain was fogged, and I was tired, so I had difficulty maintaining a civil attitude. I found myself snapping at people and getting angry over minor upsets. Finally I stayed home for a few days, mostly out of fear that I might start screaming at people.

At about the same time, Ken had a hip replacement and a double bypass in rapid succession. His chief complaint appeared to be that his butt hurt from all the lying around, and he joked with the nurses during his recovery.

Perspective. I need some in order to be less of a schmuck.

7 thoughts on “Relative Thinking

    • Thanks, Jenn. This was a hard one to write, because once I got going it was so cathartic that I kept pouring more into it. Lots of trimming and rewrites to maintain the focus.

  1. It’s funny, I was just thinking about this. I approach students and the classes I teach with them in it as enemies and a burden, respectively, rather than an opportunity, and I always focus on the complaints I get, and the sass mouth, rather than the students who come up afterwards and ask questions, or tell me that I helped them get an A, or point me out when they give tours and say “Go to that guy-he’s the one who knows his stuff. You want some help? He’s your man.” I think my fall resolution should be to listen to complaints, legitimate complaints, and do what I can to help resolve them, but to really take to hear the good stuff.

    Or maybe find a new library job that doesn’t involve teaching. In any case, thanks for getting me thinking.

  2. Ken is my Uncle in Law. So very glad he is part of your life and has given you such a good role model. He is an awesome guy. He gives so much to so many.

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