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Using a wingmom is probably a bad idea

November 30, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Do you want to go to REI?” my mother asks me.
“No, thank you,” I say. It’s raining, it’s cold, it’s Michigan, I’m hungry, and more importantly, I don’t need anything from REI.
“Are you sure?” she asks again. “It’s right there.”
“I know, but I don’t need anything from REI. And besides, I live in a studio apartment now and I’d have to take anything with me on the plane. I’m loaded enough as it is. Do you need anything from REI?”
“Well I don’t know, we haven’t looked yet. Are you sure you don’t want to go? They might have some clearances.”
I am now at a loss for words. I’ve said no twice and explained why I’m not going to buy anything today. Saying no a third time will just make her angry. I have no idea why she won’t take no for an answer on a trip to a camping supply store, nor how her need to shop there can be dependent on what they have in stock (don’t you know beforehand whether you need something or not?). But mom is a woman who knows what she wants, and more importantly, she knows what you want. And if she wants you to want to go to REI, the easiest thing is to simply say “sure” and tag along, rather than precipitate a discussion about how you are an ungrateful son who needs to change his attitude, and by the way, all this new attitude is very worrying and you should probably move back to Detroit, because it’s a much healthier environment.
Sidenote: Detroit is not a healthy environment. It is, quite possibly, the most depressing spot on the planet that is not actively experiencing a genocide, hurricane, or occupation by US forces. The murder rate is slightly higher than the greater Baghdad metropolitan area, but without the warm weather and sunshine. It’s transportation infrastructure is significantly worse than Belgrade, which was bombed by Allied forces only fifteen years ago. It’s unemployment rate is on par with the Palestinian Territories, and its population is routinely rated the most obese, unfit, and generally unhealthy in the country. Smoking is still legal in bars and restaurants, and highly popular. The former mayor and his wife are being indicted from everything including using police resources to cover up an extra-marital affair, corruption, embezzlement and murder of a stripper. On the plus side, it’s home to the Detroit Red Wings.
“You know, if you’re really serious about being a writer, you need to reduce your living expenses. You know what would be cheap? Moving back home.” True, but moving to Detroit is something akin to reducing your living expenses to the point where you are not, in fact, living, but watching a lot of DVDs at your mother’s house and drinking too much coffee.
The lack of public transportation means that one can either be mobile, or one can drink, but one cannot do both, since the city lacks reliable cabs, bus service, or subway system. It’s a difficult concept to explain, but writers and artists require a few basic necessities to work. The first, and most important, is alcohol. The second is inspiration. Michigan is, of course, the fourth least-inspiring state in the nation, ranking only slightly behind Delaware, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Writers and artists may be born in these states, but they all move away as soon as humanly possible.
“And if you want to make money as a writer,” mom continues. “Do you know what you need to do?” Clearly not, since it’s something I’ve never been able to accomplish. “You need to write a children’s Christmas book about the Three Wise Men. In Spanish.”
I exaggerate a lot of things in my writing. Dialogue is never as witty as I report, oftentimes people never in fact say the words I attribute to them, and stories always work better in the first person whether they happened to you or somebody else. But I swear to God I am not making this up.
I’m not sure why mom thinks a Spanish language book about the Three Wise Men is such a significantly untapped market that it requires dropping all my other writing projects and begin work on it immediately despite being A) not Christian B) never having written a children’s book C) completely uninterested in the subject and D) congenitally incapable of writing a story that does not feature foul language, heavy drinking, robots, kung-fu and/or full frontal nudity. Personally, I’m starting to think a story about my mom’s wacky career advice would be a best seller if marketed in the humor section, but I bite my smart-ass tongue instead.
“That sounds interesting,” I offer, as neutrally and diplomatically as I can. I don’t go through reasons A through D, or try to explain that writers generally can’t successfully write stories they don’t give a damn about (“Quick! A story about twin albino orphans adopted by a strong-willed, single, middle-aged black woman from South Carolina in the 1970s.”), but I encourage her to write the story herself.
“I don’t have your creative side,” she explains. “Tell you what, we can collaborate.” I’ve never been able to collaborate effectively on a story, since my attitude toward writing is: “I know how to tell this story, and you don’t, so kindly fuck off until I need a suggestion to pull me out of my writer’s block.” I’d also hate for my mother to see my writing regimen, which requires copious amounts of either alcohol, onanism, or preferably both.
“The real key to success with children’s books is the illustrations,” she informs me, and on this we are in perfect agreement. My former roommate used to work at a small children’s book publisher, so I feel somewhat familiar with the market requirements, and from what I remember, pretty pictures are high on the list. I would think this would be an obvious reason why a collaboration between the two of us on a children’s book would be destined to fail, since neither of us can draw, but instead of pointing this out I tell her I’ll start taking art lessons immediately. “Don’t be silly,” she tells me. “You can just hire someone to do that.” Of course you can.
I saw Neil Gaiman at a book signing once. He said people were forever coming up to him with ideas for stories they had. “I’ve got the idea, you just write the words, and we’ll split the profits,” they’d say to him.
“As if the words were the easy part,” he laughed. He was able to laugh it off, but I suspect that is at least in part because none of the crazy people who wanted to collaborate with him were his mother.
All the career attention I’m receiving at home is a bit new to me, but then, I don’t think I’ve ever visited home while I was unemployed. I do my best to politely ignore the recommendations, or the umpteenth gentle prodding of “have you thought about going back to grad school? Maybe somewhere close to home?” I’m starting to think I’ve done something horribly wrong to warrant this much attention, that I must have completely fucked up my life for my mom to be this concerned about me. But she pulls me aside after my brother returns to New York.
“I’m worried about him,” she whispers to me confidentially. “He was drinking a lot while he was here.” I can’t imagine why. “I don’t think New York is a good place for him. I think he’s stagnating there.” My brother has a steady job at a company that isn’t going to fire him anytime soon. That alone puts him in the top one percent of the population.
“I think he’s doing fine,” I try to tell her, immediately feeling better about my own situation.
One of the exciting aspects about having newly divorced parents I’m learning is that you run into two sets of parental interference, instead of just one. So when I go to meet my dad for dinner, he has his own set of concerns.
“Son,” he asks. “Are you getting laid?”
I cough and try to change the subject.
“What about your brother? I don’t think he’s getting laid either, is he?” I dodge the question and promise to keep an eye out for him. What I actually do is instant message footage of my brother dressed up as Mr. Rogers from when he was five to his friends, a move I’m sure doesn’t improve his chances. But then, I reflect, Thanksgiving is about family, and not just about receiving career advice and concern about your sex life. Thanksgiving is also about rediscovering incriminating footage of your family and sending it around their circle of friends.
My mother parks her car as far away from REI as possible, not because the freezing rain makes for such a nice walk, but because she’s concerned about getting the sides of her car dinged. It’s only two years old, after all. This usually means parking further away from the entrance of a store than any driver would dream of doing. On the plus side, it makes it easier to find your way back. Just keep walking forever.
Inside the store, I try to interest myself in the displays of camping backpacks (I already own two), and base layers (more than I can count) while mom checks out the clearance rack. I realize she doesn’t need anything from here anymore than I do. She’s just looking for activities we can do together, and shopping is her default leisure activity.
On another day, she gamely asks me if I want to go to the bar, my default leisure activity in New York. I’m not sure how to tell her that yes, I do very much want to go to the bar, play a round of pool, or cricket, get blitzed and hit on loose women, but that I don’t want to do any of these things with my mother. My brain starts to conjure up the image of mother-as-wingman and my visual cortex, in a vain attempt to protect the rest of my brain from itself, shuts down completely, causing me to temporarily go blind.
“You should have seen this guy at the office basketball game last year,” imaginary-mom-as-wingman says to imaginary-female-bar-patron. “We’re all running ourselves ragged trying to keep within ten points of the team from Equifax, then he comes in off the bench and starts schooling these guys like he’s LeBron. Heh, guess we should’ve told them he played ball with the Wolverines, right? You know he’s shipping out to Afghanistan next week? What? He didn’t tell you? Man…just like the guy: quiet and mysterious.” In this sick fantasy my mother wears an eyepatch and is knocking back a Boddington’s.
I don’t remember holidays at home ever being this awkward. But there had always been more family around, then. With a girlfriend in tow and my father still at the house, a brother, a sister and whichever boyfriend she was with at the time, sitting around playing Boggle while watching football felt a lot more natural than my mother and I staring at each other across the table. The truth is, without some semblance of a family around, there isn’t a whole lot a thirty-year-old man and a sixty-year-old woman have in common. I’m not going to enjoy a trip to the apple orchard and she won’t have any fun seeing a band play at The Ark.
It’s my sister who finally hits upon the perfect activity for those few remaining members of the family, a game called Werewolf, which seems to be based on a sort of McCarthyite witch-hunt requiring players to choose someone to “die” every round in an attempt to eliminate the lone werewolf in a group of villagers. It’s a game that requires deceit, denial, subterfuge, accusations, counter-accusations and fake outrage. Everyone is a complete natural. And as the finger-pointing, drinking, and internecine feuds take us deep into the night, we realize we have finally found an activity the whole family can enjoy.

Happy Holidays.

  1. J
    January 11, 2010 at 6:16 am

    My family continues to be unaccountably weird, though in a good way. I’m enjoying week 2 of 3 hanging with my parents, which is much preferable to being in Ithaca (which I must admit is partly Ithaca’s fault). I hope I don’t sound dickish — I realize I’m incredibly fortunate–blessed, I would say, if I was even spiritual at this point — and never know if saying “Oh, hanging with my parents is a great time” is a simple statement or smacks of bragging. Bragging which is particularly bad because it’s in an area that isn’t usually subject to “swordfighting”, with the combo of actually being quite immediate and personal yet not being manly enough to justify full on drunken one-upmanship.

    Anyway. My mom and I just watched “Doubt” and then discussed it for another hour, somehow hitting on how it ties to the relative goings-on in the Kennedy family versus our own.

    Also, my dad dressed in a pimp costume on Christmas evening.

    That is all.

    Hope you are well, man. Glad to see your writing — and I do mean the possessive — the blog is a great time, reading anything in your “voice” always makes me smile. It’s like (James Lipton claimed) Gene Wilder wanted his comedy described: “Laughter, followed by Chopin.” Of course, when Lipton told Wilder this, he asked to see the notecards Lipton had written it on, then promptly ripped them up and said “Yeah, I have no idea what I meant, this is bullshit.”

    Happy New Year.

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