Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Great Christmas Autopsy

Hiya my readers,

First off, I wish you all a slightly belated happy holidays and a wonderful, healthy, happy New Year. I just got back two nights ago from Texas where I spent six days seeing family and friends, some of whom I hadn't seen for a long, long time. The trip was a mixed blessing -- it was great, as always, to spend time with my parents, who are what I most miss about living down there. They are both so wonderful, witty, and bright. I feel truly blessed to have them and wish I could see them more.

We spent a couple of days in Dallas where I saw many awesome friends from my growing-up period before heading on down to Houston to see grandparents, an aunt, an uncle, and cousins. Please don't take this personally, Houstonians, but I've never liked the city. I have yet to ever have that moment where I know where I am or where I'm headed, and it just seems to sprawl endlessly in all directions. The part of it I've seen the most, Memorial, where my grandparents live, I remember being woods and small-to-medium homes built on large lots with few fences and more trees (pine and cypress mostly). Now there are still a few pockets of the neighborhood that are like that, but more and more of the people who used to live there have moved away or gotten too old to hang onto their houses, so lots of trees are being chopped down to make space for enormous, gaudy McMansions that appear to be the new plague of the southwest. Now everyone is building ten times the house they really need, parking giant SUVs in parking-lot-sized driveways, and erecting 12-foot privacy fences as a way to reinforce that "this is mine; keep out of it" mentality I'd like so much to avoid. My mother has fond memories of the neighborhood from her childhood when kids and dogs would run around outside until sundown, chasing through yards, culverts, and woods with no real regard for whose yard they were in, knowing that if they misbehaved someone's mother could probably see them. She remembers when everyone knew everyone's kids, car, dogs, even horses. She remembers a sense of community where now there is only suspicion and strangeness.

As for the family itself, I'll leave out the details, but I feel a need to express how lonely I always feel at times like this. If these are the people I'm most closely related to in the world, why do we have so little in common? Why do they snap at my courtesy, undermine my life experience, and laugh at me for my "idiocy" in moving up north? They tell me to my face in hundreds of ways that the life I lead -- having four distinct seasons, taking public transportation, traveling with minimal baggage, car-sharing, working in complementary medicine and the arts -- seems to their eyes to be indolent, indulgent, and vaguely suspect. Every time I don't get "discovered," as many of the folks back home still insist on calling the invisible, unattainable ideal of success in the arts, it's like a confirmation to them that my way of life is ridiculous. One of my cousins and his father, my mother's brother, aggressively told my mother (a Spanish speaker and teacher) and I that they're proud not to speak other languages, that all the Spanish you ever need is to tell your garden guy where to mow and order cervezas (my mother corrected them, saying it's actually 'una cerveza mas,' not that it made an impression). I mentioned that being bilingual is a skill that gives you a new perspective on your own language, that even if you don't speak your second language all that often it makes you think more about language in general and makes you a more articulate person in whatever language you choose to express yourself, and my grandmother derided me for being a snob. It's interesting how the people who don't claim to be the center of the world are considered the snobs in this environment.

At one of the more colorful moments of the weekend, my uncle and cousins played what they call The Pantry Game. This game entails going into my grandparents' pantry and looking for expired food. Whoever finds the oldest article gets to take a victory lap around the house. My oldest cousin found a can of beans from 1987 (making the beans older than he is) and won the game. As we tossed our findings into boxes and bags to haul to the trash heap, my grandmother followed us around, shrieking that people are starving in Yugoslavia and that the food is perfectly good (including one I found with noticeable botulism). When we told her that Yugoslavia doesn't exist anymore I thought I'd give her an honorary award for finding an entire expired country in her pantry. At one point the most quotable line of the weekend became, "You can't go to jail for killing yourself."

All in all, this just makes me think about cultural derivations, the nature-vs.-nurture question, and where it is we truly come from. I read a study by Steven Levitt that asserted that, even given all the advantages to be had in other ways, adopted children typically test at roughly the level of their biological situation rather than their adoptive one. So what happens when apples fall so far from the tree that the tree feels threatening, so unfamiliar that going home becomes an uncharted experience causing anxiety, angst, or even fear?

None of what happened was really a surprise. And I need to disclaim, as I always do, that not all Texans are this way. Many of my Texan friends are cultured, bright, some of the wittiest and most thoughtful people I know. But I also can tell you that I've spent far too much of my life defending Texas and Texans to everyone I've met. Some of the most politically-correct people I've met since leaving home -- people terrified of offending anyone or making any generalization that will stamp them as intolerant -- have absolutely no qualms about gleefully announcing to rooms full of people that my home (I do still consider Dallas my hometown and probably always will) is full of nothing but cacti, bigots, and four-toothed ignorant lazy slobs. When I try to correct them they get offended, accusing me of having no sense of humor. I can tell you I may not be the most intelligent or beautiful person at any gathering, but my sense of humor fucking rules. I'd never dream of insulting the families or origins of anyone I meet, but it seems there's an exception in the book next to Texas saying that it's alright to discriminate where we're concerned because we're either too arrogant or ignorant to figure it out.

The overwhelming sense of outsider-hood I've gleaned this past week comes from both sides. I feel like a Yankee in Texas and a Texan in Chicago. I feel conventional around my more creative friends and wildly eccentric around the more straight-edged. I don't know if it is a conscious decision, but what I most hope for this year is to meet people with whom I can feel like myself, people to whom I am not my education, my place of origin, my family, or my career. The existence of my small and wonderful group of friends tell me these people are out there -- now to meet more of them, or solidify relationships with those I already have. There is a very solitary and independent side to me, but I need to cultivate the other side, the social side, the side that cherishes connection.

Happy New Year.


Blogger Princess Lolly said...

are you asking me out on a date, you know, to solidify our awesome friendship? i accept.

no matter where you go or how far flungly you travel, you'll always be kat. and kat transcends labels, trends and zip codes.


(ipastren is the word today!)

10:20 AM  
Anonymous Annie said...

(poluctut ! Love these words- can we use them in Scrabble?)

I also was hoping for the solidification factor this year. I concur with the awesome Princess Lolly on all accounts.

Let's find some quality individuals tomorrow night while getting wildly drunk at an irish bar. It's happened before...

12:02 PM  
Blogger RebeccaZ said...

Your holiday reminiscence smacks of experiences I've had with my own family in years past. Chris and I always have to brace for the Christmas experience ... this year was pretty easy going minus the moment when I told my sister to watch her mouth because she was speaking rudely to our grandmother who is in her 80's for no good reason. Which set my folks on me for snapping at my sister because I'm always considered the elitist, artisty, weirdo vegetarian, idiot girl ... strangely, the members of my family who are not immediate are much more accepting which I'm grateful for. I just always get to hear how I should dig into the turkey and take a spoonful of the "normal" stuffing ... every single family holiday meal goes the same way.

I've learned to nod and realize that this too shall pass and attempt to feel grateful that we all can be together, for good and for bad. It becomes an exercise in patience and tongue holding, but, when I can complete a visit without getting hot under the collar, I feel very good about myself.

Yeah, Houston ain't no good. As I mentioned in Scrabble, we've never had the best visit to that locale. My inlaws are very proud of Houston, but ... I just can't get that feeling. Nor do I want to, to be quite honest.

I'm going on ...

I agree and relate to your post, is what I really meant to say.



4:41 PM  

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