Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Xmas in Bizarroland

Heaping helpings

I arrived at Mom & Dad's on Christmas Eve. They were holding their customary holiday open house, a casual business involving drop-in visits by family members and friends. Some of them were delivering gifts, while others were just saying hello. I missed my cousin and his wife, who left minutes before my arrival, but I was there when Dick hobbled in.

Dick had a fancy new cane with multiple feet and was walking under his own power. As he came slowly up the sidewalk, Dad shook his head and said, “Too much booze and too many cigarettes. That'll do it to you.” Dad was sympathetic about his old friend's condition, but still indulging his censorious tendencies. We had a nice visit with Dick, commiserating over his physical frailty and complimenting him on the successful physical therapy that had him back on his feet. Dick regaled us with tales of his travail and described the joys of using the new Rascal scooter that Medicare had purchased for him:

“The government paid for most of it, but I got a bill for $800. I don't think I'm going to have to pay it, though.”

Dick was also getting some of his prescriptions by mail order from Canada because Medicare Part D doesn't cover everything. Mom & Dad were delighted to hear about Dick's scooter, but indignant that its cost and the costs of his prescriptions were not fully covered. Wasn't it just like the federal government to create problems like this? (I bit my tongue and stayed quiet.)

As Dick's visit ended and he hobbled back toward the door, another of my cousins arrived to deliver gifts to my parents (who are her godparents). We all segued smoothly into a discussion of her woes and complaints. She had been getting phone calls from marketing companies and political campaigns that addressed her in Spanish because of confusion over her Portuguese last name (which is identical in spelling to a common Spanish name). “This is America! Speak English! I don't talk Mexican! No one helped me learn English when I was in school. I had to learn it myself!”

My cousin had hit a subject particularly dear to Dad's heart. He had been complaining earlier in the day over his discovery that local PBS stations had added a Spanish-language channel to their digital TV broadcasts. I had restrained myself from mentioning that his late mother would have been delighted, since she never learned English and could follow Spanish dialog quite comfortably. Over the years, I have heard quite a few of my fellow Portuguese speakers complain that Spanish speakers are coddled while we Luso-Americans were ignored. Dad is especially vociferous on the topic:

“That's all crap,” said Dad. “They shouldn't be spending our tax dollars on people who should be fending for themselves—like we did!”

The chair where Dick had been sitting was still warm from his visit, but Mom & Dad had done a full reverse and were now outraged about supposedly extravagant government services. Even though they had clucked their tongues and shaken their heads over Dick's dissipated ways, his use of Medicare programs was no more than his just due. My head was spinning.

Left to my own devices later in the day, I noticed a gleaming slime trail on the bookcase unit I had built in the family room back in my college years. As I suspected, it was oozing out of the latest book by Ann Coulter. My mother collects them assiduously and defiles my cabinetwork by thoughtlessly shelving them in my bookcase. She has apparently yet to notice that her copy of Godless is missing. I borrowed it several months ago because I wanted to peruse La Coulter's insane chapters on evolution without contributing a single penny to her royalty statements. Perhaps Mom does not refresh herself at the font of Ann's wisdom as often as one might expect. Does she even notice that her favorite author just rehashes the same insipid claims over and over again, pausing merely to sprinkle in a few new insults?

A new day—but not really

Christmas Day offered the distraction of about two dozen family members and guests. There was a lot of nattering about all of the twice-a-year Catholics who had shown up for the Christmas service. My family (except for me, of course) is dutiful and punctilious about their Sunday obligation—and proud of it. All those other people are bad Catholics. Heck, they're hardly Catholics at all!

One of my nieces is hugely pregnant and due to pop any day. She already has two children. Mom said, “She actually wants four.” Once again I was as good a boy as I could be. I did not say, “‘Wants’? What does ‘wants’ have to do with it? I was at the wedding. I heard the part about accepting children lovingly as God saw fit to provide them. What is a good Catholic wife doing talking about the number of children she wants? It's not her call, is it? At the rate she's going, she could crank out a dozen more before her system gives out!” Nope, I didn't say that.

The name of another of my innumerable cousins came up. He and his longtime companion have split up after a couple of decades together. My folks showed commendable hypocrisy in expressing their concern over the trouble in gay paradise. While they won't hesitate—especially not Dad—to express their disgust with those nasty gay people (and to glance nervously askance at their middle-aged bachelor son), of course none of that applies to their sweet nephew, whose situation they had long since grown accustomed to. Dad actually referred to the estranged partner: “He seemed like a nice guy.”

It's all grotesquely inconsistent with everything they purport to believe, but it gives one hope that they're not completely insane.

Another of my nieces brought a new boyfriend with her, a young man brave enough to face the mob that is my family. He acquitted himself well at Christmas dinner and during the after-dinner social hour. After he left, however, Dad turned to Mom and said, “Boy, he's really not much to look at, is he?” Having been so much of a good boy for the better part of two days, I let a remark slip: “Gee, Dad, you're right. He's kind of plain. Too bad your granddaughter didn't concentrate on getting a knockout piece of eye candy. She should have given a lot more priority to looks.” Mom raised her eyebrows and said nothing. Dad pretended not to hear me, so the opportunity for some wry banter slipped away.

Later we were assembled in the living room amidst a welter of gift-wrapping and discarded boxes. Some people had received DVDs as presents, which jogged Dad's memory about a promotion he had seen on the Discovery Channel for a school supplement (from the American Museum of Natural History) titled Understanding the Universe:

“I saw that and I lost my temper. What the hell do they mean, ‘understanding the universe’? You can't understand the universe! Only God can do that. It would have been okay if they called it Trying to Understand the Universe. That would have been all right.”

Yeah, that would be catchy. I'm sure that Trying Hopelessly to Understand the Universe Although You'll Fail Until and Unless You Die in a State of Grace and Jesus Himself Explains It to You in Heaven would be even better. (It's a wonder I didn't bite my tongue in two.) But Dad wasn't finished.

“That's the way scientists always are. They think they know everything! They say you can't get matter from nothing and then they come up with the Big Bang. What do they think that is? And they never talk about what came before the Big Bang, maybe because they're afraid if they look there they'll see God getting ready to create the universe! The scientists keep saying that there's no God when all you have to do is look around to see that there is!”

Ah, yes. Proof by credulous observation. Air-tight reasoning, that. Dad loves the word “always.” He is the master of the categorical statement and prefers to deal in absolutes. He kept whining how every space mission was billed as a quest for the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. (It's forty-two, Dad.) His cartoon image of science has its practitioners speaking a language that they never actually use: This is the answer. This is the ultimate solution. Sometimes he talks about how things have changed during his eighty years of life, but then he completely fails to recognize the progressive and incremental nature of scientific research and discovery.

It's like I've failed him in some crucial manner. He and I are so much alike in so many ways, but I absolutely cannot communicate with him about these things. Is it that I bite my tongue too much? That's actually more a symptom of exhaustion. I used to try much harder. He dismisses anything I say almost instantly. He retains none of my refutations of his faulty arguments and recycles his favorite fables word-for-word the next time he sees fit to dust them off. He doesn't rebut my arguments—he ignores them.

Christmas morning had been foggy, but it was bright and clear in the afternoon. Both of my parents were dismayed:

“That means it will be foggy in the morning,” Mom said. Dad chimed in with his agreement. Bright sun in the afternoon was an infallible harbinger of morning fog. They were concerned because I would be traveling the next morning. I tried to set their minds at ease:

“But what if it's just the first clear day of a sunny streak?”

They looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

Two days at Mom & Dad's is about all I can handle without going insane. They keep the house too hot and all the windows are festooned with closed drapes. I can try to open them to get some natural light, but they're whisked shut again within seconds. (Some of the windows have both drapes and blinds, just to be doubly safe from actinic radiation. Do we spring from vampire stock?) Dad's hearing is bad (which he sometimes exploits to ignore arguments he'd rather not hear even when he was following a conversation perfectly adequately a moment before), so the television is always blaring (and always on). And the nuggets of wisdom come from an inexhaustible lode:

“Becky's going to have a girl. This man who's never wrong about these things told her.”

“That's nice, Mom. He has a fifty-fifty chance of being right.”

“Oh, no, he's much better than that. He's predicted sixty-one babies correctly.”

“What? Out of one hundred and twenty? It's nonsense, Mom. I'm not going to swallow that kind of foolishness. You don't even know his name, do you?”

“Well, I don't, but he saw Becky and he could tell she's carrying a girl.”

“From outside the mother, all babies look alike. He's got a fifty-fifty chance. If you really want to know the sex of your baby, talk to your doctor.”

Mom got huffy: “Doctors don't know everything!”

“Yeah. But if they use a sonogram or amniocentesis, they can get right up there to ninety-plus accuracy.”

Mom subsided at that, because she knew I was right about what doctors could do, but she was still scowling in irritation at my refusal to believe so well-attested a seer as the stranger who had spoken to her granddaughter. Exasperated, I said, “I swear, Mom, sometimes you are just like your mother.”

I regretted it the moment I said it, true as it was. My late maternal grandmother was often the butt of family humor because of her total credulity, paranoia, and superstition. It was a palpable hit and my mother was wounded. I repented of my rebuke and quickly moved to more neutral territory.

Dad, fortunately, was not at a loss. He wanted to crow about the huge jump in holiday retail sales:

“The liberal media kept saying it would be a bad year because it's a bad economy. Shows you what all those so-called experts know! Holiday retail sales are up fifteen percent!”

My father does not smoke dope or use other hallucinogenic drugs (apart from listening to Rush Limbaugh too much), so I was puzzled how he had come up with a conclusion that was so clearly wrong. Even the Wall Street Journal agrees that this has not been a stellar holiday season for retailers. Sifting through the evidence turned up a clue: Internet sales are up. More people are buying more stuff on-line. Even that increase, however, was not as sharp as in past years. Dad's mental filters had successfully seized on the one sector of the retail market that showed significant gains and happily touted it as if it were representative of the whole. My father needs to get a better grip on synecdoche. (I'm still not sure where he picked up the “fifteen percent” claim.)

The tacked-on bittersweet feel-good ending

Late on Christmas night, my parents sound asleep in their room in accordance with their early-to-bed philosophy, I dug out my laptop and reached out to the world I know. I plugged it into their hinky old phone line and managed to get on-line via a dial-up connection. I've never managed to achieve 56 Kbps down on the farm. This time it was an anemic 24.6 Kbps. It didn't matter. I was back in touch again. I painfully waited for my e-mail to appear. Fortunately, I had not missed any deadlines for mail-order degrees or herbal supplements for sexual potency (nor had any of my friends written me). I even waited for the front page of Pharyngula to download, where I was treated to a message by PZ berating anyone for being on-line on Christmas (due, no doubt, to the holiness of the occasion). My thirst temporarily slaked, I logged off.

As I tiptoed through the darkened house to my bedroom, I was feeling somewhat better. Then it occurred to me how unusual everything was. How many people my age still have both parents and can visit them in the same home in which they grew up? Sure, it doesn't much feel like home to me anymore, but it surrounds me with reminders and images from my childhood. Mom & Dad are both quite healthy and still married to each other after more than fifty years. I'm going to miss it when it's gone. How much longer can it last?

I ended up making one small resolution, although I usually don't bother with such year-end nonsense. I'm going to count my blessings. And, although I often feel contempt for the views and contradictions that my parents dispense so readily, I will not feel contempt for them.

A holiday postscript

My niece Becky delivered her child after the first of the new year. It turned out to be a boy. So much for the man who is “never wrong” and his confident prediction of a girl. His failure pleases me more than it probably should.


Anonymous said...

And here's me thinking it was just my parents. They can be quite incorrigible at times, but we love them all the same.

Look at the bright side... atleast you didnt have to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the hindu caste system and the theme of The Golden Compass in the same argument this squidmas!! (My parents think Hinduism fits in quite nicely with Atheism)

Seasons greetings and hope we have a better New Year!

Nick Barrowman said...

When it comes to predicting the sex of a baby, the odds of getting it right by chance are about 50:50. So the probability of correctly predicting the sex of two babies in a row is 0.5*0.5 or 0.25. When you get up to 5 babies in a row, it's 0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5 or 0.0325. This is a bit less than 5%, which is the conventional cutoff statisticians use to rule out chance. That is to say, by chance you'd expect to correctly predict the sex of 5 consecutive babies about 3% of the time. Since this seems pretty unlikely (less than 5%), we conclude that if someone is able to get it right 5 times in a row, they have some real skill.

There are two ways people fudge this: first, by ignoring the in-a-row part (i.e. they omit incorrect predictions); second, by starting to count with the first successful prediction. (Of course you can factor these details in, but they are typically just brushed under the carpet.)

More commonly, people are just overly impressed by a few correct predictions of babies' sex. For example, being right 3 times in a row may sound impressive, but it happens by chance 12.5% of time.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Zeno, what a magnificent post. And so utterly familiar in so many ways, right down to the paterfamilias who takes his daily dose of Rush.

Standard Offer: Hey, next time you're in my neck of the woods give me a call and I'll buy ya a beer!...SH (559) 916-0777

Anonymous said...

And, although I often feel contempt for the views and contradictions that my parents dispense so readily, I will not feel contempt for them.

My mother died in '03 and my father in '06. I often felt contempt for my mother, whose views were not out of line with your parents'. After she died, I realized that the contempt was misplaced; she was limited by her (in)ability to learn and change, but was at the core a good, honest, loving woman. After her death, I saw my father in the same light, and our relationship was much improved.

I grieve not only my mother's death, but my attitude towards her. I grieve my father's death, because he became a good friend.