Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving Survival Tips

Is a Turkey Dinner really worth all that hassle?

It is that time of year again, when everyone decides to do the same things at the same time and then wonder why it wasn't all that great.   When everyone travels on the same day, eats the same meal, watches the same television programs, and then all goes shopping for the same toy at the same mall at the same time, well, it ain't gonna be a quality experience, let me tell you.   Following the herd is never a very smart move.

Compounding this is that a lot of folks have "family issues" and dread going back to see their parents.  I related before about a co-worker, well into her 30's who told me she dreaded the holidays as she had to go home to her parents.   Her Mother was an abusive drunk who would run down her choice of career, spouse, and whatnot (small world, my Mom was same way!).   And this would leave her weeping and depressed for days.

I said to her, "Well, why just not go?" and she looked at me like I was speaking Esperanto.

"Not go?" she replied, "You have to go home to your parents on the holidays!"

I gently explained to her that as a successful 30-something married attorney, she was free to do as she wished.  Why not fly down to a tropical island with the husband.   A light bulb lit up in her head.  They went, had a good time, and while her Mother was not happy about it, the next time they met, well, the power in the relationship had shifted.   Mom realized that the kids had found the key to the handcuffs and were no longer a captive audience.

If you have a dysfunctional family, just not going is one big option that many people overlook - well into their senior years.  If you have a family of your own (your own spouse, children, or even a dog) well, you have your own life.   My parents certainly didn't go trotting off to their parent's house for the holidays every year - I am not sure why our generation feels it has to.

By the way, how do you tell if your family is dysfunctional?  Well if the thought of going to visit them fills you with dread, or at the very least seems like the least interesting thing to do with vacation time, maybe you have a dysfunctional family - or just a boring one.

If the idea of going to visit your parents fills you with glee, congratulations, you are one of the 10% of America who lives in a "normal" family, which in and of itself makes you abnormal.  Enjoy your holiday - this posting isn't for you.

Our family didn't really communicate - as we had nothing in common.  This is not unusual.   Think about it, from the time you are first conscious and have memories (about age 5) until the time you leave for college, you have maybe 13 years of contact with your parents, maybe less with siblings, particularly if they are older.

You will spend far more of your life out on your own or married to someone else.   Mark and I have been together for 30 years now.  Which is a more important and significant relationship in my life at this point?  Not my childhood, that's for sure.

Yet, sadly, many folks make their childhood the centerpiece of their lives and spend (waste) the rest of their lives trying to "figure out" their childhood.   It is an utter waste of time and energy, particularly when the clock on your real life is ticking away.

But of course, there are some folks, who for one reason or another have little choice on how to spend the holidays.  If you are in prep school or college, well, there ain't much to do in the dorm over the break, if in fact they don't close it.   Many young adults feel they have no other place to go, or again are "obligated" to visit their parents.   Again, question this.

Presuming you are stuck going to one of these deals, here are some tips based on years of experience:

First, if you have to go (or think you do) at least limit the amount of time of the visit.  Yes, it is a four-day weekend, but you needn't spend all of it with hateful relatives.   Drop in for Thanksgiving dinner and then leave before the football comes on.   Use whatever excuse you need to - you have a big project due at work (or school) or whatnot.  Lie if you have to - like a rug.   You don't owe them anything.  And a short and sweet visit is far better than a prolonged dragged-out visit that turns into some drunken shouting nightmare (Oh Mom!  We do miss you!).

Second, have your own transportation.   Never let dysfunctional family members pick you up at the airport.   Riding in the back of Mom's minivan makes you the kid again (do they make you sit in the child safety seat still?  It feels that way).  It also eliminates your escape routes.   With your own car (rented or whatever) you can drive off on "errands" or to "see old friends" or whatever excuse you need to avoid a drunken tirade or the recitation of the laundry list of your personal failings and defects.   The less time spent there, the better, and an "escape pod" is essential.

Third, stay in a hotel instead of your old childhood bedroom.   You will spend less time in contact (familiarity breeds contempt) and also won't be in the position of being a "kid" sleeping in your Star Wars sheets.   My friend above was told that she and her husband had to sleep in separate beds when they came to visit - not that a wild sex orgy at Mom's house was on their agenda.   But parents, particularly the dysfunctional kind, play games like this  - "My house, my rules" which may make sense if you are 14, but not as a house guest which is what you are at this point.   No, better off to get a hotel or motel room or something.

Fourth, think about your financial independence.   If you read the first three items above and said, "I can't afford any of that!" then maybe it is time to think about building up your own estate so you can.  Whenever the holidays rolled around, my Dad would pay to fly my siblings home as they could not afford the air fare.  As a result, he booked them for the whole weekend, and they had to ride in the back of his car, and stay in their own rooms.  They were trapped.

One reason I gave up smoking pot was due to a horrific Thanksgiving weekend - it was in 1985.   My Mother "went off" after a few too many martinis and my siblings were all also drunk/stoned at the time.  My late sister chastised me for "setting Mom off!" by mentioning the country of Canada which was where Dad stashed his mistress.  It was my fault, you see, for acknowledging the fact that the United States doesn't have a third coast.

I sat down after that episode and did one of those "As God as my witness, I'll never be hungry again!" kind of deals, and realized that so long as I was stoned all the time and working and living in the margins (like my siblings) I would be beholden to my parents.   I needed to get my degree, get a good paying job and be totally financially independent from my parents.

Sadly, a lot of people never make this connection.  They are miserable throughout their whole lives because they are dependent on their parents for continual handouts (as my late Sister was) or were waiting to inherit from their parents (as many of my friends did).   They can't afford to piss off Mom and Dad, lest they be written out of the will!   And parents know this.

Being financially independent turned out to be a smart strategy, as my parents were strivers who spend every last penny they made trying to make themselves appear wealthy, without actually accumulating any real wealth. As a result, they did not leave any estate to their children. (Contrast this to Mark's parents who lived very simply and frugally and left behind an estate worth over a million dollars, divided, of course, by the number of siblings and relatives in the will).  And this happens more often than you think - a child "sucks up" to Mom and Dad for decades, only to find out later on that Mom and Dad were insolvent.   You have to feel pretty badly cheated if that is the case.

Fifth, plan some activities.   Like I said, if you have a car, you can "go visit old friends" or take in a movie or just go to the library, or go for a walk or whatever.   Sitting around the house with nothing to do other than eating and talking can rub on your nerves in short order.   In many families, people retreat behind a book, magazine, newspaper, or video game, to pretend it all isn't happening.   In my family, it was books and newspapers, which drove Mark nuts.  My family would sit around reading old copies of National Geographic and studiously ignoring each other.   Four days of that is a death sentence!   Find something to do outside of the house.   And hopefully, it isn't shopping.

Sixth, realize you are not entitled to a happy childhood.   Yes it may seem "unfair" that your parents are mean and psychotic.   But actually, a dysfunctional family, as I noted before, is more the norm than the exception.   Expecting to be "BFF" with your parents and siblings is just not very realistic, particularly when you share so little other than a few years living together.   You are different people and that's OK.   The Hallmark cards and heart-warming television specials sell this idea that you have some sort of psychic bond with your family.   It usually isn't the case.

It is not abnormal or weird or strange or bad to drift apart over time, as you have different experiences and different personalities.   And it is perfectly normal that your own family will become the centerpiece of your life - or at least it should.   Married adults who obsess about their childhood family are the abnormal ones - and often this is an unhealthy obsession that ends up breaking up their marriage and their own family.   If you want to marry your Mom, then do it.  Don't torture some young woman by marrying her but making her secondary in your life to your childhood family.

You are in charge of your own life and your own destiny, and you can choose how you want to spend it.

And you are not obligated to spend it doing things you don't like to do with people you don't like.

Seems like a simple proposition, but it eludes most.