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.

28 comments:

The Bug said...

It definitely is a delicate dance - and I'm not really aware enough to catch all the signals all the time.

I forgot to respond to your comment about my picture - I sure wish I'd thought of that explanation! I was just goofing off with my phone camera one day & that was the picture I liked best. But your version of the story is better & it's the one I will use from now on!

Miss OverThinker said...

It is a delicate dance which we learn by trial and error.. I have a hard time accepting help and I am not sure if people are just being polite when they offer help or are they genuinely offering help..you refuse too much and you risk hurting or offending the other person..but I like your "wait before being asked for the 3rd time" rule.. good one to keep in mind..

Kathryn said...

Yes, we try but sometimes still fail.

One of my favorite books on people is Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People. It is always a good reminder for me to re-read it. One of the biggest things that get in my way is myself. That book is a good reminder that it is not all about me & when i remember that relationships go better.

You are so good at that Alane, you could have written the book yourself. :)

Barry said...

I think that is a very good guess. We do need each other, but that doesn't mean getting along together will be easy, just well worth the effort.

Land of shimp said...

The Bug, I think everyone, even the most astute of people, misread signals from time to time. There's so much value in the people around us, and sometimes so much fragility that we don't really understand in both them, and us.

After all, it seems pretty clear that Mr. Smith's feelings about being offered compensation are pretty complicated, and I don't really understand them. I just know they exist, and encompass more than what I'm seeing. I guess sometimes we just have to say, "Okay, I don't get that. Not really, but I'm going to respect it." to ourselves. He's a very nice man, somewhere in there an issue of pride is wrapped up, and it's better to honor that than risk hurting a nice man.

Ha! That's marvelous, and it really does fit the picture. It looks like a picture taken from a Bug's Eye View :-) I think it's all the more wonderful because you weren't aware that you selected a thematic picture. I imagined a little ladybug, sporting a camera, snapping away.

That is such a challenge, isn't it, Miss Over Thinker? We grow up being taught that the strongest thing we can do and be is independent, self-reliant. Yet, weirdly, one of the strongest things we can do is understand when we need help. That no one can, or should, have to do everything on their own. That when people offer help, it's also tied into their own world view, and self. It's hard to figure out sometimes, what the kindest, or most gracious thing to do is. I think there's worth in trying from both sides :-)

Kathryn, thank you so much. I honestly don't know what to say, other than that, thank you. I don't really remember where this came from in my life, but I have found that I have an easier time resolving things when I try to figure out what the other person might be thinking. How things look from their perspective.

That has led to a couple of rather amusing situations. I guess it would have been a couple of years ago that a friend began telling me about an argument she had with her husband. Weirdly, it was one of those situations that had a fairly obvious solution (easy for me to say, looking at it from the outside, but things are obscured up close sometimes)...and I was rather confidently launching into, "Well, you might consider trying..." when she interrupted me. "STOP IT! I need you to be on MY side, okay? Right now I need you to be on my side. I don't want to be reasonable, or fix it. I want you to tell me he's a jerk!" So, easily done, right? I looked dead at her and said, "Holy crap, what a selfish bastard!" and for whatever reason, she started laughing until tears were rolling down her face, and she felt much better. Evidently not because I'd given her what she actually needed, but because I was patently bad at it! Hehe.

Barry, we really do. Particularly with people we love, and who love us, I think there's a belief that we love those around us despite their flaws, and are loved in part because of our own myriad ones. Sometimes though, are biggest points of connection are when we're tromping all over each others sacred ground, whatever it may be, and it all goes to pot for a while. Hurt feelings abound...and then we fix it, somehow, Find a way to reach over the fragile, sensitive bits, and put it all back together.

I think sometimes we need to encounter the ways in which others are breakable...because at that point we have something so much in common. If we can find empathy in those moments? I'm not saying this well, but really, sometimes when we screw up, we end up showing the best sides of ourselves in the aftermath.

Nancy said...

Hi, I'm stopping by because Jo, Majority of Two, thought I should check out your blog. So glad I did. I love your advice to your son. Sometimes people take great joy in giving and not receiving. I would say you son is very special to have people like him so much. Congratulations on raising a likable person. I'll be back to visit soon!

Land of shimp said...

Hi Nancy! Well that's just absolutely neat as can be. I'll have to thank Jo :-) She's a really neat human being, and an absolute delight, so it's doubly nice to have her recommend me to someone.

I recognize you from over on her blog, and I'll happily return the visit.

My son is a nice human being. He has such a sunny disposition, and he really was just born that way. I'd love to take credit for it, but really, that's just how he hit the face of the earth. I like him as much as I love him.

Thanks again for the visit, and I'll stop by your blog to say hello there too :-)

Hilary said...

What a great post. I think your wonderful son is very lucky to have such an insightful Mom. And a funny Dad... I read your comment over at Jo's about the Cognac and laughed out loud. I had to come visit and I'm glad I did. :)

Land of shimp said...

Hello Hilary! Thank you for the visit, I'll be happy to return it.

My husband is a wonderfully funny man, I think and when he said that, it made me laugh too :-) I'm glad it gave you a giggle also.

Thank you, my son is a nice young man. I feel really fortunate that at an age where a lot of teen guys don't talk to their mothers much, we still have conversations. I don't know if there was a magic recipe for that, but I'm so darned grateful to have that in my life.

Take care, thanks again for paying me a visit.

Jarrett said...

Hi,

Training is intense for professional dancers. Often dancers will practice dance five times a week for hours on end. The emphasis on appearance by some teachers has had dire effects on certain sensitive dancers.

Tabor said...

Came via Hillary. Glad I did!

lailani said...

A dance it is! And isn't it interesting trying to explain it to our kids? I guess we try, and just know, they are aware of the dance and then they learn that instinct themselves through their own encounters.

Maggie May said...

That post was so beautiful and you tried hard to get your son to do the right thing and I am sure that in the end taking the money WAS the right thing.
I can imagine how uncomfortable that can be though to always be on the receiving end.

I came over from Hilary's where you were mentioned in her POTW! I can see why.

Nuts in May

kcinnova said...

Here via Hilary as well...
Such situations are indeed a complicated dance. I think you gave your son an excellent answer. He is blessed with a mother who cares about his character and a friend's family who treat him as one of their own.

Fat, frumpy and fifty... said...

such are these life lessons, and he will learn them himself...wish we could implant our wisdom into them...
great post Congrats on POTW mention!!

~JarieLyn~ said...

What a delightful post. I landed here on Hilary's recommendation and I am so glad I did.

People are complicated and so are reading the signals of body language. It's an art, but it can be done. Great advice to your son.

I like your writing style.

addhumorandfaith said...

This "dance" is truly a minefield and you have described it perfectly.

blunoz said...

I came to your blog by way of Hilary's Smitten Image. Congrats on POTW!

I can see why you were in the POTW. You are a masterful story-teller. What beautiful analogies and narration! Great job!

smiles4u said...

You have described the dance so well. I think of the times I tried to teach my children these same lessons...all the correct steps to take, out of courtesy and respect for the other person. Teaching our children about feelings and that everyone comes from a different place in life. Such a fine line and yet something that we need to teach our children. Sadly, many times we can forget all these little things to teach our children, when really they end up being the big things, that we use through out our lives.

Often times, I too, will find, that as I do my blog reading will find my thoughts in my reading of various blogs. That is so cool don't you think?

I think you are so right, we do all do need each other.

I am really thankful I found my way here from Hillary's POTW post. Congratulations and thanks for sharing! Great post that I truly enjoyed! Lori

gaelikaa said...

Firstly, congrats on POTW mention. Second, it seems that your friends have trouble accepting. They have no trouble giving. With most people it's the opposite. That's a bit of a problem, but it's their problem.

Moannie said...

I am here from Hilary's POTW for which many congratulations. Since David left Blogland we rely on Hilary to find new friends for us and she has doen wonders.

What a thought provoking post. You handled it so well. Both your son and Mr. Smith sound like really good people.

Land of shimp said...

Oh my goodness, hello everyone :-) I'll have to go and thank Hilary properly, but thank you for stopping by.

It's funny, I had just deleted my first spam post up above, and was laughing over how surprising it was to see that post. "Oh look at that, enhancement of parts I don't have. Eek. Not that it would be better if it was enhancement of parts that I do. Double eek."

When I scrolled down and saw the jump in comments, I thought, "That's a lot of part enhancement!!! Egads." So what a delightful surprise to find people instead :-)

You know, it's really heartening to know that other people have tried to navigate these same waters, and have the same feeling of, "There is no truly right answer to be applied to all situations. You just have to base it on the feelings of the people to whom you are speaking."

Because as parents, it's one of the few things we do direct our children in. Children have to make their own mistakes in almost all situations. Jobs, school, life choices, it is part of how we learn. However, they do learn courtesy from us.

So I really do appreciate being told that perhaps I'm closer to right, than I am wrong in the Mr. Smith situation, and my son's handling of it.

Thank you, Tabor, lailani (what a pretty blog name), Maggie May, kcinnova, fat, frumpy, and fifty (Yay! I love it when people simply say, "Here I am, accept me or don't!) JariLyn, addhumorandfaith, blunoz, smiles4u, gaelikaa, and Moannie.

I'll get busy thanking Hilary also, and return the visits, I promise.

Also, thank you for not being spam. Truly :-)

Hilary said...

LOL.. I don't think anyone has ever thanked me for not being spam before. Gotta love that! :) However, is it really a surprise to you that you'll get "part enhancement" comments when the title of your blog is "Land of Shrimp?" ;)

Land of shimp said...

Haha! Nicely done, although technically it's Land of Shimp (no R), most people do read it as shrimp.

I don't think I've ever thanked anyone from not being spam before either! A day of firsts :-)

Hilary said...

Ack! So it is! I'm usually so careful that way and I've been downsizing you to a shrimp all along. I'm sorry! lol

Land of shimp said...

No need to be sorry, Hilary. Shrimp is an actual word, whereas shimp is just a nonsense nickname :-)

I always wonder how many people are kindly refraining from saying, "You misspelled shrimp, I thought you'd want to know! :-) "

Hilary said...

Thank you.. you're very gracious.. not at all.. umm shellfish. ;)

I made the correction on my post.. long after the fact but better late than never.

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