This was an especially difficult holiday season, because my parents are quite elderly and my dad has Alzheimer’s and is largely a shuffling zombie who on a good day can manage one or two sentences with up to five words, while my mom is deeply stressed and alternates between being pathetically grateful, simply pathetic, and her more previously typical evil self.
My parents are a study in contradictions. They are kind to animals, staunch (if deeply centrist) Democrats, who are strongly pro-union, but also people who treat service personnel like crap – being rude and demanding, making unreasonable requests and then getting angry and offended when these requests were not instantly granted. Today, my mom only tips well because I spent the entire 1990s leaving extra money when the shorted people on tips, which eventually shamed both my parents into doing better (at least when I’m around, I have no clue about other times). This is one of the various reasons I have little respect or love for either of them (although my mom has always been the worst for these sorts of tactics). The rest of this post is going to be me discussing what my parents are like, why I find it deeply problematic, and how this plays into what things are like now.
Watching my parents when we were on vacation together 11 years ago finally allowed me to understand the origin of my phobias about asking for anything out of the ordinary from any sort of service personnel, both by phone and in person. Watching my parents at their worse caused me to realized that I witnessed enough of that sort of vileness growing up, that I unconsciously decided that I never wanted to be like that
I was also taught that family honor was very important, but that it was largely defined as what other people thought of you. This is much of why my parents considered the idea of being considered "weird" or not "normal" such a bad thing, but it went far beyond that, and had to do with being known as someone who was honest and who did not commit crimes or otherwise perform actions that caused people to think badly of you. This sort of thing was a major part of my growing up and was frequently trotted out whenever I did anything my parents didn't approve of.
However, there was another half of this, which was spoken of less often, and never in the same context, which was all about success and "getting ahead". A lack of concern for others, or at least others who were not family or very close friends was regarded as a positive aspect of being successful, and any such concerns were considered "soft". Moreover, if someone made a mistake that benefited you, which could range from a clerk giving you too much change, a bank error in your favor, or a corporate report that credited you with some positive action that you did not do, doing anything other than accepting this as a pleasant windfall was considered incredibly foolish and self-destructive. The basic mode of thought is that everyone is out solely for themselves and that life was a completely zero sum game - someone gain is always your loss, at least for people of a similar social and economic class in your environment.
The basic idea seemed to be that if you helped others in any way other than offering charity to people much poorer and less well off than you, the people you helped would use this aid to "get ahead" of you, which would result in you losing out due to the help you offered. I was taught this both by example and on the few occasions that I faced such a dilemma and mentioned it to my parents. This general attitude is clearly at least somewhat related to how consistently rude by parents are in certain situations, but also extends to many other areas of life.
In any case, result of the mixture of the focus on honor and the emphasis on "getting ahead" and the result was very clear – doing anything that did not physically injure someone else was largely acceptable if it allowed one to improve their social or (especially) financial position, but getting caught doing something illegal, immoral, or even something that most people would disapprove of was considered to be exceedingly shameful. Thus, what you had was a situation where various nasty behaviors were perfectly fine – as long as you didn't get caught. Getting caught was exceptionally shameful and was considered so because of some combination of being someone who performed dubious actions, being someone who was insufficiently clever to avoid getting caught, and letting people see the dirty underside of their world. Thus, actions like writing a bad check was always considered wrong since getting caught was fairly inevitable.
However, actions where one was unlikely to get caught and where you got away with what you did were considered some mixture of perfectly fine and worthy of acclaim. An unspoken, but exceedingly obvious consequence of all this was that it was clearly easier and safer to take advantage of people who were poorer and had fewer opportunities for recourse than people with wealth and power. Honestly, if they’d done the reverse and been generally good to minorities and people less well off than they are, and only tried to fleece the rich, I’d had admired them, but that’s very far from how they were - social climbing was very important to them, and stepping on others who were less well-off was clearly perfectly fine for them.
Shortly after the start of the Great Recession, I read an article about the predatory behavior of the corporate scumbags who took advantage of people during both the Enron scandal of 2001 and the economy crash, and the quotes from these people matched similar comments I’ve heard from my parents horrifyingly well, which makes sense – I come from the same upper middle class east coast background and the bankers, stock brokers, and other individuals who used suck tactics.
In any case, I regard them both as horrible people, and my mom is viciously mean whenever she is too stressed or if I do anything she regards as “improper” (according to the definitions above). Naturally, being poly, pagan, and being handfasted to each of my partners in a magical pagan ceremony all counts as deeply “weird”, so much of the version of my life that I told to my parents and now tell to my mom is a vast and elaborate tapestry of lies. I was amused that almost 20 years ago, my parents stopped asking my partner teaotter
questions about our life or me, because teaotter
was inclined to tell the truth, and it was clear that my mom preferred lies (and I very much prefer avoiding vicious tirades about what a pathetic, worthless, ungrateful son I am).
I vividly remember one time 16 years ago, when teaotter
’s mom was visiting, and I forgot to call my dad for father’s day. My mom left a horribly vicious rant on my answering machine, and teaotter
’s mom heard it, warned me about it, and mentioned she thought it was appalling and completely out of line. I mentioned this to my mom when I called back, and she initially yelled at me more for letting teaotter
’s mom hear her message, and while she never apologized, she was somewhat embarrassed when she found out that teaotter
’s mom had merely heard it on her own.
However, ever since my dad hit his head after being knocked down by a car in 2006, he’s had memory problems, and (as is not uncommon with head injuries, especially when already elderly) he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 4 years ago and has been going down rapidly since then. Their few local friends are all dead (they were antique dealers doing antique shows all up and down the upper East Coast for 20 years, and most people they know were both at least as old as them, and from elsewhere, and were never that social). So, my mom is profoundly alone, and I feel sorry for her – until she goes off on one of her tirades.
In any case, being around someone with advanced Alzheimer’s is also exceptionally creepy – my dad wants to continually be in my mom’s presence and while barely mobile, gets up and shuffles along looking for her whenever she goes into another room for more than (at most) 10 minutes, he’s barely and only intermittently verbal, but the two times he’s looked at me (I think he still knows who I am, but it’s difficult to tell) and said “help me” and has first been unable to elaborate and then has forgotten what he said is definitely the creepiest. Also, the degree to which mobile advanced Alzheimer’s patients resemble classic slow zombies is rather disturbing.
I’m guessing he won’t be around much longer, and I have no idea what my mom will be like after he’s gone – although I presume she’ll be more vicious, both because of grief and more importantly because she won’t be exceptionally sleep deprived and exhausted from looking after him, and thus will revert from mostly pathetic to mostly vile. I’m exceedingly glad I live across the US from them, and only have to see them 2-3 times a year (which I continue doing because they are fairly wealthy and quite generous if I do what they want). teaotter
and I head home tomorrow, and I’m even more grateful to be doing so than usual.