Monday, August 15, 2005

Challenge to Myself

My in-laws flew back home this morning, following their five-day visit. Five days seemed like an excessively long time for us all to hang out and, indeed, my father-in-law started to make me a little crazy at times. In particular, I didn't appreciate his decision on Saturday night to rant about blogs. Bloggers, it turns out, are "losers" who "crave attention" and "waste people's time by spreading the poison of their unhappiness." The worst "navel-gazers," of course, are the women bloggers. Which is why my father-in-law took special delight in informing me that most of them never get any comments on their silly entries.

I sat there quietly seething. I had talked to this man about blogging two years ago, when I'd confided to him how helpful reading other people's blogs had been to me. I told him how warmed I felt by the chance to read about other people's experiences (especially fellow academics'), and how fond I had become of the personalities out there. I also mentioned how surprisingly meaningful the process of writing my own blog had become. My father-in-law had scoffed at the time, and told me that blogging seemed "desperate." He also told me that I was "too old" for blogging. If I wanted true comfort, he said, I should join a church. Then he demanded my blog address, and seemed genuinely surprised when I declined to give it to him.

I don't know if my father-in-law remembers that conversation. It did happen on the cusp of a period of upheaval for him, in both his marriage and his professional life. So it's very possible that it has slipped his memory. A lot of his bile toward bloggers comes from the fact that he and his church tried, in 2003, to "reach out" to various bloggers, by "assigning specially trained church members to target [target!] a lonely blogger [!!] and welcome that person into the church." Although my father-in-law did not say so, I suspect this effort met with violent rebuff.

I tried to remain calm. I responded with what I intended as tactful questions about how much my father-in-law actually knew about blogging. Why the scorn toward people whose blogs he didn't have to read? Why the certainty that his church's "outreach" efforts were all that different from the "fake-blogger marketers" he also decries? And why worry so much about a format that he believes is a "useless morass of swear words and pathetic people's anger"? Was it possible that the reason he finds blogging so worthless (and so stigmatized) is because he couldn't coax the bloggers to serve his own ends?

There was no reason to take my father-in-law's opinions personally, I reasoned. But his son felt differently. After a few moments of listening to my delicate attempts at persuasion, Adam leapt to bloggers' (and my own) defense like an animal defending its young. A. sharply recommended that his father re-examine hierarchical values conventionally assigned to subjective vs. objective writing and the difficulty of drawing boundaries between them. His father shot back that he knew what good writing was, and that unless something was traditionally published, it wasn't worth jack. Tempers flared and voices rose. Fellow restaurant diners began shooting uncomfortable glances in the direction of our table. The father-son confrontation veered from diary-keeping to Proust's memoirs to the Bible's book of Genesis before I finally managed to observe that others were waiting for our table and that we really should depart.

The conversation didn't come up again until late that evening, when Adam and I whispered about it on the air mattress before bed. And then I felt sick when I heard a creak in the hallway... and realized that my father-in-law had been eavesdropping on our conversation. I'm not sure what he might have heard. All I know is that we had an awfully stilted conversation about keys and plans for Sunday morning.

Sunday morning came. And there was no more talk of blogs.

I hadn't meant to get worked up again about a conversation of little importance. This was supposed to be a blog entry about a challenge to myself. A challenge to finish my conference paper in the next two days. A challenge to write a hard-to-compose email and finish another, shorter article this afternoon. These are the things I need, need, need to do. And yet I seem to have forgotten how to concentrate.

Maybe another challenge to myself is to resist the urge to fight with my father-in-law. He used to really like me and I him. It's not worth getting into full-out arguments with him because that only wounds his already shaky self-esteem and causes him to act out. Better just to grant him the attention he craves so his sweeter side can emerge.

Does this sound like weakness? Believe me, it's not. Some gritting of teeth is better for all of us. And I can always take solace in my mother-in-law, whom I genuinely adore.


At 9:38 PM, Blogger PPB said... uncomfortable. sorry!

At 9:39 AM, Blogger Benedict said...

If it touched a nerve, you must be doing something right. And 'the worst are women bloggers?' what insanity is that?

I think I feel most sorry for your mother-in-law.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger What Now? said...

Oh dear, I'm so sorry. What a tense and uncomfortable weekend. How did/does your mother-in-law handle these arguments?

I hope that you can reclaim a sense of calm and peace after all the fireworks and tension.

At 2:48 PM, Blogger aqua said...

Your in-laws sound just like my parents. Long suffering wife and argumentative, eavesdropping (which, to me, indicates paranoia) husband. I think your father-in-law lashes out at an entire group of people because putting down others makes him feel better about himself – I know this is exactly what my father does. You must be absolutely right about his shaky self-esteem.
I hope you will be able to concentrate on your paper!

At 4:54 PM, Blogger YelloCello said...

I think my mother-in-law has become skillful in the art of placing her mind elsewhere. She used to argue with father-in-law... but I think it became clear that that only made things worse. He's not a violent guy, just prone to get defensive and then more maddening in his logic.

Meanwhile, Aqua, you are spot on with the paranoia observation.

Despite my complaining here, the visit overall wasn't bad. Just that Saturday and its aftermath were tense. I really do have the sweetest mother-in-law there could be. (And I really do wish she didn't have to put up with her husband in the way she does.)

At 10:36 PM, Blogger George said...


Well, as weird as this may sound, the fact that you all feel these feelings so intensely says to me that you care about each other, even as you find it hard to express yourselves without getting upset.

I say this because I feel like I've grown emotionally distant from my family such that I don't really care that much about our disagreements.


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