Friday, October 30, 2009
The Dance We Do
As often happens, I will awake with something on my mind, and as I tour the blogs I read regularly I will see an echo of that thought in various posts. Replying to one such post elsewhere, it brought to mind something that happened a couple of months ago, as I attempted to help my son find the right balancing act, the correct steps to a dance of courtesy.
Mr. Smith (very clearly not his real name) is the father of one of my son's friends. My son is nineteen, the same age as his friend, and the Smiths are very fond of my son. They invite him to family picnics, boating trips, dinners, and evenings out at the movies. As it happens my son didn't make friends with the Smith's son, Joe (oddly enough, his real name, so common as to not need changing) until they were both old enough to drive. Therefore, I've only had minimal contact with the Smiths. Usually my contact with them has involved polite wrangling sessions in which I try, and fail, to get them to accept reimbursement for the things they have taken my son to do. I'm covered in failure on that particular mission, I've never been able to get Mr. Smith to accept a dollar, and even making sure my son has money with him has failed, they won't take his money any sooner than they will take mine. We've asked Joe to accompany us on things as a way of balancing the scales, but frankly, the Smiths have become so fond of my son that they invite him along, even now that Joe is out of state, at college.
So it came to pass that Mr. Smith, whose son was in California, needed help with a landscaping project. He called my son, and asked for his help, offering to pay him. My son told me about this situation and I cautioned him, "Buddy, you can't take his money. I mean, you really can't take his money. It's not right after all they've taken you to do, you need to just help him out for free."
Did I mention that the Smiths are not a particularly well off family, and that one of the bones of contention for me is that they can't well afford to take my son with them on the things they do. At least, not by my estimation, and clearly, it's not really my business.
Off my son went to assist in the project, and when he returned I asked him if he'd refused the money, he answered, "Mom, I tried, I swear. I said I wanted to help, and he insisted on paying me. I said I'd really feel more comfortable doing something for him, for a change...and he launched into a ten minute speech on how they love me like I'm part of the family, and I'm a good influence on Joe, and I had no idea what to do, so I thanked him for the money."
"Actually, you did the right thing. It would have been rude as all get out to refuse the money after that. Don't worry about it, okay? You get to a certain point in this dance we all do when it comes to being courteous, and it's rude not to accept an extended kindness."
"How do you tell?" My son asked, obviously confused.
"Eh, it differs from person to person. Someone offers, the polite thing to do is refuse, they offer again, and the only answer is to say, 'Are you sure, you don't have to." they offer again, and you have to accept. At that point it's just ungracious, and unkind if you don't."
"Oh yeah, nothing complicated about that," my son said, rolling his eyes. "How did you figure all that out?"
My son knows enough about my childhood to assume that no one taught me these things. It's a long story, and there aren't any villains, that's just the way it turned out.
"I don't even know that I have figured it out, hon." I said. "I hope I have. It's hard to go wrong if you set out not to hurt the feelings of others but that's no guarantee. That's really what it's all about. You let Mr. Smith off the hook in terms of any obligation, but when he insisted, he's offering a kindness...and ...you know, just like what happened with you, you just get a sense for when you are supposed to push, and when you aren't. We still all mess up from time to time, and try again."
My son munched morosely on a strawberry as he contemplated this. I was in the middle of making shortcake at the time.
"Mom, who taught you how to cook?" he asked, changing the subject to thing closest to his thoughts at most points: food.
"Fannie Farmer and James Beard." I answered truthfully.
"Oh my God, you knew someone named Fannie? Did her parents hate her?"
"No," I laughed. "They're books. I taught myself to cook from cookbooks when I was a kid. Those were the two that were in the house. I did better with Fannie, than I did James, come to think of it."
"Too bad there aren't books on how to handle people." He said, the intended irony was clear. "People are complicated."
After asking when the shortcake would be done, my son went off to the basement where he doubtless plunged into a video game in which he saved the earth, or battled villains. The rules clearly outlined, the help menu just a click away. The steps of the dance much clearer.
I felt like telling my son that no matter what we do, there will be times when we feel like we are clog dancing through a minefield when it comes to other people, but I suspect he already knows that. Sometimes what we set out to do has to change dependent upon the person with whom we are dealing. Sometimes we accidentally blow things up in our wrong-footed ways.
What makes it worth it? Why do we try? My best guess is that we need each other.