Play a Different Game

My mother and sister, Carla, fought frequently just before Carla moved away from home. Sister argued point by point at the beginning of hostilities but gave up frontal attack and defense maneuvers when Mom’s anger remained unyielding. Carla decided to play another game: she agreed with every insult my mother hurled at her.

“You’re so ungrateful!” said Mom.

“You’re absolutely right. I may be the most ungrateful daughter who’s ever lived,” replied Carla.

“You’ll come back the minute you run out of cash,” said Mom.

My apartment’s rent will be less than what I’m paying here, but you’re right. I’ll probably blow my paychecks and go broke. I’ll leave a packed bag by my front door just in case things go bad really fast,” said Carla.

“All you’re going to do is shack up with your boyfriend!” said Mom.

“I’m a whore,” replied Carla.

Mom eventually gave up and helped Carla move into her new apartment.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I get annoyed when I have a class that, in general, doesn’t want to learn how to draw. Some of these students resent learning skills even when they master them. Success brings them no pleasure. They say, “I can’t believe you made me draw one thing for the whole class,” after completing beautifully rendered drawings. Or they give me a dead-eyed stare after I help them improve a proportion or correct a mistake in perspective. I feel like a rowing master on a galley: the slaves don’t appreciate learning how to row faster.

I’ve decided to no longer take the ingratitude as an insult. I want to play a different game. I’ll keep a tally of the times Lorenzo sneaks out of class to take a call, of the scowls Maria gives me when I remind her to use the right materials for the assignment, of the bald-faced lies that Thai snarls at me in an outraged tone, of Brolin’s requests to “borrow” materials, of the times when a student ignores instructions and then requests a full review of the lesson, etc.

When I reach a total of ten or twenty misdemeanors, I’ll kick back for five or ten minutes. Or I’ll work on one of my drawings. For a short while, I’ll let them figure things out for themselves.

And if a student argues unrelentingly about perspective, measuring proportions, rendering tones, adding texture, handling paint or applying compressed charcoal, I’ll go FULL-CARLA and say, “You’re right. Your way of doing things is perfect, and you know much more about drawing than I do.”

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Hold Your Tongue

I know folks who say horrible things that catch victims at their most raw and tender moments. The assailants blurt and hurt but remain unapologetic. They feel they have the right to say their truth no matter the situation.

Sometimes I say too much, too little, not enough. Sometimes I say what’s lurking in the back of my mind before the front becomes aware and issues a warning. Sometimes I surprise myself and say the right thing at the right time. Things tend to go more smoothly when I say very little.

My grandfather said very little on most occasions. When faced with conflicts in the family, he didn’t engage. I used to think he should have stepped in when strife became flagrant and acute, but now I see Grandpa knew that interfering and smoothing things over would not improve the situation for the long run. Patterns repeat themselves, habits of thought spin on their well worn gears, and the engine of contention roars down the track. An attempt to redirect an argument onto a side spur might have derailed our dysfunctional family train.

He couldn’t drain fifty years of ill will between two members of his family. Attempts to soothe, calm, defend reason, and nurture love had failed long ago. Arguments and complaints from one to another had hardened into a family tradition.

Grandpa endured the pain of continuing strife and let the two act out their chosen roles in a pointless drama. In the end, he may have discovered that their years of contention had very little to do with him. He loved both and wished they would drop their animosity, but had no hope they ever would.

One of the contestants still lives on, and the argument continues in her mind. She shows no signs of letting the ill tempered, unforgiving side of our family history fade away, and her emotional distress cuts as sharply today as it did decades ago.

I no longer encourage her to let things go. I tried that on a few occasions, and she turned her focus to our points of contention…The practice of feuding develops a talent for finding targets of opportunity.

Now I bow to the inevitable and hold my tongue.


The Kindly Sinner: Great Aunt Mary

Wayne Avenue runs downhill from Belmont to downtown Dayton.  Great Aunt Mary lived in a building halfway down the slope in a neighborhood that had once been pleasant.  We three kids climbed vinyl treaded stairs to her second floor apartment, knocked gingerly and waited.  She opened the door with a big smile and invited us in.  She had snow white hair, laugh lines, and a hoarse, rasping voice.  She returned to a large oak table in her dining room, picked up a kitchen knife and cut dough into thin strips.  I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “Making egg noodles”.  She finished quickly, wiped the table and washed her hands.

Time for a tour.  I saw a painting hanging in her living room, a winter scene of a snowy lane, a haloed moon, and frost covered trees.  Beside it hung a still life of roses in a vase.  Aunt Mary saw me looking at them and said, “Those were painted by a nun who used to teach at St. Mary’s parochial school.  She came from Germany and spoke with a thick accent.”

Aunt Mary sat us down on a sofa and asked us questions:  how do you like school?  what do you like to watch on TV? what position do you play on your baseball team? She smiled and listened as we answered and never glanced sideways as if hoping we’d stop talking.  (My grandmother, Aunt Mary’s older sister, had limited patience for me and my brother.  We learned to keep our thoughts to ourselves in Grandma’s presence.)

Aunt Mary fed us supper, and we sat down in front of her black and white television after we finished.  She asked for suggestions and turned the dial to Channel 7.  The Sonny and Cher Show came on.  Aunt Mary seemed bewildered by the odd commotion of the program, but she beamed at us as we pointed at the screen and laughed.  She pretended to like it too.

We knew that Grandma carried a grudge against her sister, but no one explained how it started and why it was so one sided.  Aunt Mary shrugged off Grandma’s snubs and pointed remarks and never struck back.  I asked Aunt Mary one day if she felt hurt by that treatment.  I had been on the receiving end of my grandmother’s spite on a few occasions and feared doing anything that would make her wrath permanent.  But Aunt Mary said, “Oh, your grandmother doesn’t bother me.  She’s always been that way.”

Mom and Dad took us to our grandparents on Sunday nights to visit.  Talk inevitably turned to family history and gossip.  Aunt Mary became the main topic one night.  I heard that she had had an affair with a married man for years and years.  My great aunt and the man were Catholics, and the man refused to get a divorce even though his marriage had long grown cold.  Aunt Mary never made any demands.  She understood that she and “Bill” would get married if the estranged wife died.

Bill suffered a heart attack and exited this world well before his wife.  Aunt Mary never took up with another man, and years later remarked, “To hell with the Church.  I should have married him while I could.”