Felix’s last stand

4

Felix was having none of it. His parents had chased him around the house for an hour, trying to snatch him up. This was the day to get his hair cut for the first time.

They had braced him for it for a week – dropping hints as to what to expect, offering promises of treats if he behaved. He knew full well what they were planning to do to him. He knew that of all the things they had done to him in the name of his ‘best interest’, this was the last straw. He had to finally draw the line.

He was sick of being directed, ordered, bossed around. Nobody ever asked him what he wanted to wear. Nobody even cared to know what he wanted to eat. Every day of his three years of being alive was a battle of wills.

Every now and then they got it right and they gave him something that wasn’t tasteless to eat or scratchy to wear. Those days were rare, and on every other dull, grueling day, he felt that his very being was being washed away bit by bit until the rock that he was had worn away to nothingness.

Little Maxie was his only friend, the only one who understood. They’d gotten her when Felix was six months old after a particularly difficult trip to the doctor for booster shots. They hoped she would be a calming influence on him. It turned out that the two had developed a stronger bond than his parents could ever imagine. They both felt the same way.

Both were ordered around. Both were ignored, neglected, relegated to the ‘passive’ pile in their parent’s minds. Felix and Maxie developed a common bond out of their silent mutual suffering.

They forged a method of communication that worked perfectly for them, which his parents were oblivious to. Why wouldn’t they be? They never even thought to speak with either one of them – always at, or to, but never with.

It was funny in a not-so-funny kind of way. Both of his parents were all about communication, but they never thought to apply their skills at home. Mom spent her weekdays teaching dolphins how to communicate, getting them to mimic human speech or to point at symbol boards with their noses or flippers. All day she taught them how to tell her what they were feeling. She constantly modified her techniques to better understand their needs and wishes and thoughts. Never once did she think to learn their language.

These ‘animals’, these beings she and every other scientist thought were lesser than, purely by virtue of the fact they weren’t human, were expected to learn human language rather than the other way around. Who was less intelligent?

Felix’s Dad was equally culpable. He too had no excuse. They both knew better and they both didn’t act upon their knowledge. Ignorance was indeed bliss, but they didn’t have that luxury.

His Dad worked as a counselor with people who had learning disabilities. It had been his passion for a dozen years, far longer than his marriage, a third of his life. He’d even gotten professional recognition for his techniques to reach patients who were considered unreachable by conventional methods.

Neither of the parents thought to take their work home with them. Felix was a child, and that was that. It was unthinkable to them that he should be asked his opinion. Dolphins and profoundly autistic children were paid more heed than him, purely because he was theirs. The idea of trying to communicate with their child was something they never would have considered. Why would they ask him his opinion? They knew that their job as parents was to tell him what to think – not to ask.

Felix and Maxie had refused to budge from the settee. That stiff sofa was the ultimate symbol of all they were fighting against. It had been moved into Felix’s room last winter when the parents had bought a plush leather sofa for themselves. They had decided unequivocally that dogs and children were not allowed on it, out of fear of stains and rips. They were relegated to the board-stiff contraption of cloth and wood that had been in the family longer than anybody could remember. It had stains but no stuffing. In their minds it was perfect for a boy and his dog – they couldn’t wreck it any more than it was.

The boy and his dog thought otherwise. Here they were going to make their final stand. Here was going to be the epicenter of their future, the point where they were going to make their captors listen to them for the first time.

In unison they both peed on the couch.

Horrified, Felix’s parents and Maxie’s owner (or was it the other way around?) stared at them both as the warm pungent liquid seeped into the threadbare cloth. As a communication technique, it wasn’t the best. It got them to be noticed for sure, but not taken as seriously as they had hoped.

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Musings on friendship

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher approached me with an unusual request. She asked me to befriend a girl who was a little odd. I’ll call her Susan.

She and I both liked to read, specifically science fiction. She wrote a little then too. We both thought Steve Martin was very funny.

Her father was dead, but worse, her father had been abusive. Her mother had to work a lot to support them, so spent a lot of time alone. This was unusual at the time – most families stayed together. Single mothers were unheard of. They lived in a tiny house that was just behind the school. At the time, that size house would have been considered poverty level. These days, the micro-house people would think it was immense.

She had wild hair – too curly to be manageable. She was a bit overweight, and smelled like cat. Perhaps she had Asperger’s. Perhaps she just didn’t know how to fit in.

Did this hamper my social life because I was seen with the weirdo? I wasn’t much of a social butterfly anyway. I would have been just as happy being alone. I never understood all the fuss people (girls) made over boys and makeup and pop stars. Perhaps the teacher thought I needed a friend, rather than the other way around.

Did this help her? She got to socialize with another person. But it was an artificial relationship. Like an arranged marriage. It definitely stopped her from becoming worse.

I didn’t think of it in this way at the time. More than thirty years has colored my feelings. In a way I feel cheated – I made very few other friends while in elementary school. She stuck with me. Out of habit? Desperation? Did this keep others away?

I was far from normal – but I had a stable home. At the time I felt it was a big honor to be asked – this meant I had extra to give. This meant I had a kind heart.

This has softened me to the plight of the “other” the weirdo, the loner. Folks say “he was quiet, and he kept to himself” – yes – so introduce yourself. Talk with him. Become a friend. It is hard to be a friend to the friendless, but it is important. It may save a life (or hundreds), the life of the person, or the people they might harm.

Back in my day, unhappy loners just killed themselves. These days they kill innocent strangers.

However, this hampered my ability to make friends in a different way – it became the pattern for my friendships. I fixed problems. I was the one who listened. I was the one who understood. But when I had a problem or needed to be listened to, nobody could help.

She showed up, unannounced, at my workplace one day years after school was over and asked if we were still friends. I’d not called, she’d not called. We were adults now. This was after my parents had died – -and she had been nowhere during that very traumatic time.

What is friendship? A name in a phone book? A connection on Facebook? If only one person is making the effort, then it really isn’t a friendship.

Conversations that aren’t mutual aren’t OK.

I was going out into the stacks to get the paging slips the other day. I passed by a patron who likes to talk at me. It isn’t really with me, because it isn’t really a two-way conversation. He has some interesting things to say, but I have a job to do. I’m not going to get it done by talking (or listening) to everybody who comes in.

When I’m at the front desk I’m kind of trapped. When I’m in the stacks I can walk away, and I do. I’ll listen for a bit, and then I have to go.

This patron said “How come you weren’t there to greet me when I came in this morning?” He’s old, but he’s not an old regular. He’s been coming in for about half a year. We talk sometimes, but he’s not my friend.

This happens a lot.

He’s said things like this before, and I think he thinks he is being funny, but there is some entitlement going on here. He thinks he is special, and that he deserves special treatment. Note that he didn’t say “I’m sorry I missed you when I came in this morning.” The emphasis is on him getting greeted by me, not on us seeing each other. It isn’t an equal relationship. He is higher, in his mind.

I said I was at the chiropractor and then the dentist. I didn’t have to tell him any of that, but I don’t mind. It isn’t private. It wasn’t like I was at the gynecologist.

So he says that chiropractors just treat the symptoms. I say “Not this one”. I used to think chiropractors were quacks, but this one has changed my mind. These realignments are healing me.

Mental problems can cause physical problems. Most people say that you can fix the physical problem by addressing the mental (emotional) problem that caused it. I’m starting to think it works both ways – that the mental (emotional) problem can be addressed by fixing the physical problem. I’m working on the mental (emotional) problem too. I’m thinking of it like I’m digging a tunnel through a mountain, but I’m working at it from both ends. I’ll get it completed in half the time this way.

But I didn’t want to get into any of this. I didn’t have time or the desire to have a deep conversation with this guy. He never changes his mind anyway. He’s one of those people who thinks he’s right, because he’s older.

So I walked away after he disagreed with me, while pushing my cart. I obviously have something I’m doing. He crooks his finger at me, and waves me back. I came back a step closer, but that was it. He continued with “Chiropractors just fix the symptoms” and I repeated “Not this one” and I realized that this was going nowhere.

I turned and walked away.

He might be mad, but he has to understand that I’m not there to be his audience or his student. I have not entered into a contract with him that says I’ll hang on his every word. Plus, I don’t like unequal relationships. If the opinions and feelings of both people are not equal, leave me out of it.

I didn’t ask for that conversation. So I felt no need to continue it. Years ago, I would have stayed, out of a sense of politeness or duty. I would have stayed, and felt trapped. I would have hated it too.

What’s in a name?

At what point do you start calling someone by their first name? How do you feel if someone calls you by your first name and they don’t know you very well? Have you ever insisted that someone call you by your last name? What is in a name? What does all this mean? What is going on behind the names?

There is definitely a difference when you go from being addressed by your first name to being addressed by your last name. After my parents died, I started calling our next-door neighbor by her first name. Before that she was always known as Mrs. Miles. There was something about all that I had been through before and after my parents died that made me realize that I was an adult now and I started calling her Margaret. No one told me to do this. I just knew it was time. She didn’t stop me. Even though she was 50 years older than me I was now equal to her.

Really that is what the difference is. When you call someone by their first name, you are establishing a hierarchy. If you both refer to each other by your first name, you are equals. But if one is referred to by the last name and the other is by the first name, there is a hierarchy. One is higher than the other.

Notice that teachers are addressed as Mrs. (last name) while the children are addressed by their first names. Doctors are the same way. Even if he has given you permission to call him by his first name (“Call me Don”), you will likely still give him a title – Dr. Don. He is above you in skill, so how you address him reflects that.

If someone is referred to by their last name they are considered to be higher than the other person. There is a lady that I know who works at the pharmacy I go to. Her mother-in-law is one of my coworkers. I know this pharmacy tech by her first name and she knows my first name as well. But I was a bit taken aback when she referred to me by my last name. I was suddenly an authority figure and not an equal. I felt that she had said that there was a space between us, and that she was making herself lesser than me. Perhaps her boss would think it would be over-familiar to address customers by their first names, though.

There is a gentleman who comes to the library who is 30 years older than me and I referred to him by his last name. It is Mr. Vanderlip. At one point he said “No, call me Hank.” and that felt really wrong. I expressed to him that I really like calling him Mr. Vanderlip because it is such a cool name. But really the issue is that I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to call him by his last name because he is my elder.

Now, being an elder has something to do with the person’s age but it also has something to do with respect. Someone can be older than you but not an elder. So there is something in there about experience and authority and wisdom. An elder would be referred to by her or his last name, unless s/he gives you permission otherwise.

Just say “I don’t”

There are times when I have a couple signing up for library cards together and one introduces the other as the fiancé. Sometimes one will do all the talking, or fill out the forms for both of them. Or worse, will talk down to or belittle the other. I want to say to them to not get married to each other, that this is a train wreck waiting to happen.

I don’t, in part because of the unwritten rules of customer service. I don’t, because it is up to each person to live their own lives. I don’t, because people never listen anyway.

People don’t listen when their friends tell them not to marry someone. Why would they listen to a stranger?

Sometimes I’ll say “be nice” if someone is being rude to their partner. If nothing else, it tells the other person that what just happened to them isn’t normal.

Now, it isn’t just engaged couples that do this. Married couples will be hateful or condescending in front of me sometimes too. But they are already married. My hope with the engaged couple is that they still have a chance to back out.

It is a really bad sign if one member of a couple is talking down to or trying to embarrass their partner in front of a stranger. It means that it happens all the time when they are alone.

But, for me to say something is to get involved in a codependent kind of way. It is up to the hurt party to stand up and set boundaries. It is up to that person to say “You can’t talk to me like that.”

It is still hard to see. I feel kind of helpless when it happens.