A Selfish Skin

The Christmas holiday has passed, but it has left me in a contemplative mood.

I was fortunate this year to have several invitations. Since I live so far from my immediate family, I often spend the holidays with close friends in the area. These are always enjoyable affairs, and I don’t think I am alone in saying a Christmas spent with friends (rather than family) can often involve less emotional baggage and mental scarring. I do, however, recognize that there is an ancient power inherent in family bonds that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

"Pie Fight" by Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, 2011.

“Pie Fight” by Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, 2011.

This year, I spent Christmas Eve with a couple who are very dear friends of mine, and Christmas afternoon with a co-worker with whom I share a love for poetry, history, and off-beat relationship wisdom. Both events were wonderful and my hosts provided me with a delightful combination of sustenance and memories. However, I left both feeling somewhat sad and disappointed in myself. Although it may have been but a footnote in the program, I completely failed to bring a gift to any of my entertainers. They all opened their beautiful homes to me. They fed me and filled my brain with enlightening conversation, and all of them had set a side a present for me. The thought did cross my mind earlier in the week that these generous folk might get me something to open – being it’s Christmas and all – so perhaps I should be prepared with something to give them? Well, apparently in my old age, I discarded that thoughtful notion and when the moment came, I was receiving objects of their kindness – but had nothing to give in return.

None of my hosts seemed bothered by it, but I was bothered.

I was bothered very much.

“I didn’t use to be this way,” I said to myself on the drive home. I used to be that very intuitive person who could go out and find a gift that was perfectly reflective of its recipient. I used to have an excellent memory for details about my friends. I would inventory comments they made about music or fashion all year long and when the time came for a birthday or wedding, I would unleash the fruits of my intuition to an amazed friend. And more importantly, I felt great joy in those moments. What happened to that guy? I actually did a full-on dissection of my decision-making process. It was like a mechanic pulling apart an engine to find out why all the pistons aren’t working. Although it is no excuse, I think I found the explanation: More and more, I am becoming a selfish-thinker.

There is a certain side effect to being single for a very long time, at least in my case. I am used to only caring for myself. Getting groceries for myself. Doing everything in my life with me as the primary focus. I am sure there are lots of people who live alone who are still thoughtful people who think of others first, but apparently I am not one of them. The co-worker who hosted me lives alone and is in my same predicament as myself, but he had the fore-thought to make me a beautiful CD of Christmas music and put my picture on the cover. A gesture of kindness that crushed me when I had nothing to offer in return. Certainly many people expect nothing for their good deeds, but I am not always someone who (when conscious of it) accepts things greedily and does not reciprocate. Had my long spells of loneliness baked me into a crust? Have the scabs of my life-hardening experiences grown like a second skin over my intuition? Good lord, I hope not.

I once read in the Talmud of the concept called “bread of shame”. Mind you, I am not Jewish or a religious person by any stretch, but the text was quite profound to me. The “bread of shame” is basically accepting gratuity when you have not earned it. These friends of mine could very well say, “These are gifts. This is our generosity to you, and you do not owe us anything.” But I would still feel as though I did not earn any special gifts. Maybe I was Jewish in a former life? Who knows.

It’s possible I made this more of a deal than I should have. However, I fear growing such a selfish skin; a thick alligator hide that will eventually relegate me to the swamps of humanity.


In The Company of Donuts

This morning, I sought emotional solace in a complimentary, office donut.

For whatever reason, I had a mood swing last night about being single and nearing 40 faster than a bowling ball toward so many standing pins. The feeling lingered well into my morning commute. And as I now stood there in the break room, I stared at this maple-iced confection knowing it would never reject my surly advances. It would remain inert to my bad jokes. Yet if only it could engage me in a fierce political debate, make a wisecrack about vehicular decapitation, or critique science fiction movies with swift and ruthless judgment – I would have found “The One”.

But alas, it was just a donut.

And I destroyed it with my digestive juices like so many that had come before it.


A Better Definition of Having It Better

I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine who has children. She was telling me how her family had fallen on hard times and she was very upset about not being able to “give her kids the things she never had.” I’ve heard this statement a lot from many people over the years, and while I understand the sentiment and where it comes from, I can’t help but think it’s an ideal that warrants refinement. I say this not from a place of judgement but from one of observation.

For full disclosure, I have no kids of my own (nor am I ever likely to) so I do question my place to dispense any advice on the best way to raise human podlings. However, since I was once a child (and a totally bratty one at that) it’s my personal philosophy that a good parent is an anchor and the kid is the sailboat: An anchor is heavy, but not completely immobile. It keeps the sailboat from being swept away by whimsical currents that could lead it to destruction, but it also knows when to rise from the seabed and allow the craft to travel when an appropriate direction is selected. I always thought if I was a dad, I might be a little strict with my kids; the “Great Denier” who would withhold impulse purchases at the check-out or disavow frivolous procedures like throwing a new toy in the path of a crying toddler – the types of tactics so many parents use to quell their offspring.

Of course, I say that but the practical application would be more like the following mental negotiation with myself: “For just 5 minutes of peace and quiet, I don’t mind buying a $20 action figure or video game.” I am guessing this is how the thought process goes for most parents. girlwithbirds

Anyway, back to my original point for writing this piece: My friend seemed to convey a disappointment in herself that she wouldn’t have the quick means to manufacture a happy mood in her children by giving them a material thing. I can only assume this approach had worked as a preventative measure for a very long time. I told her, “You know, my parents weren’t dirt poor but we weren’t rich either and from my own experiences I think what most kids want is just some kind of social engagement. They want something that inspires their imagination. They want to interact with you. I don’t think you need to have the means to buy lots of new things to give them that.” She seemed to tacitly agree but was dwelling on the upcoming storm of expectation she had already constructed – and would now have to dismantle. She seemed to fall back on that old adage “I just want my kids to have it better than I did.”

And that’s when the shit got real. I told her, “When people say things like that, I really hope they mean they want their children to have a better education, a better work ethic, a healthier body and mind. Because as far as I am concerned, more toys, more designer clothes, and more time to play video games didn’t do a damn thing for me growing up. I can’t use any of it now.”

And with the silence I got from that kind of response, I remembered my place. I remembered that I don’t have kids.

So of course, I couldn’t possibly understand.