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Wednesday, February 23, 2005


I hammered out a tentative truce with my mother after receiving a tearful phone call from her about two weeks ago.

"Why haven't you called? Is something the matter? What did I do to make you so angry?"

"Accused me, very publicly, of thinking I'm so goddamned smart and always rubbing it in everybody's face."

"Maybe I was a little upset because I was asking you questions, trying to have a conversation with you, and you were just giving me these short, snappy answers. You always answer me that way."

"I was reading a book. Besides, there is never any conversation required with you. You fire off a list of questions, usually the same old questions, all of which can be answered with a simple 'Yes" or 'No.' The answers to the questions are irrelevant, they have already been assumed. If a question is answered contrary to the presupposed answer, or even if I throw in the occasional non-sequitur expletive, you never notice. There is no reason to elaborate because in your mind you have already proceeded to the next question. You are too busy having your own conversation and I'm too busy to waste time."

"Are you saying I talk to myself? I do not have conversations in my own head!"

"...Or, you see any attempt at discussion as a personal attack and get all defensive."

"I do not!"

"...Or, you rattle off a shopping list of doctors' appointments, aches and pains, medications, and side effects. Not a very interesting topic and, again, no reply necessary."

"How can I make it better?"

"You could start by listening. Pay attention to the actual answers I give. I knew you weren't paying attention when I told you Mildred died..."

"What! When did Mildred die? You never told me that! Should I send a Mass card?"

"No, thank you, you'd only be sending it to [my husband] G, and quite frankly, he doesn't want one. Maybe you could read one of the books I've always got my nose stuck in and discuss it with me."

"Like what kind of books? Not that telephone book-sized one. [The Underground History of American Education, recommended once because she is a retired schoolteacher and I thought it might interest her.] I don't have time."

"But you have the time to read 40,000 spy novels. Take it with you when you're waiting at one of your many doctors' appointments. Try reading something once in a while that might teach you something."

"They're too hard."

"Okay, nevermind, gotta go."

"Wait! What's another book I could read?"

"Try, The Language Police."

"Where do I get it?"

"The library, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com..."

"What's it about?"

"How devoid of content school textbooks are thanks to the efforts of both the conservative right and liberal left."

"Who wrote it?"

"Diane Ravitch."

"Who is she? What makes her such an expert?"


No big surprise then to discover that no mind-expanding books had been read when she and my father arrived for a two-day stay last week. They came over on the pretext of dropping off a birthday present, one single birthday present, as had been previously discussed and approved. It also happened to be a convenient stop-over on their visit to other west coast friends. There was a 3-D slide projector (the approved gift), extra 3-D glasses (acceptable), book of conversational Latin phrases (tolerable for its educational value), and a paint-your-own wooden sandals kit, pair of pants, and not one, but two shirts, plus an assortment of gifts for both of the non-birthday girls.

Things were still tense the next night, my parents doing their walking-on-eggshells routine, designed to keep me, their perpetually angry daughter, from blowing up again, in response to my questions about dinner.

"Where would you all like to eat?"

"It doesn't mattter, anywhere!"

"No, I guarantee if I take you to a Thai restaurant it will matter. What do you feel like eating?"

"Oh, anything is fine."

"There's a really good steakhouse downtown..."

"Do they have fish?"

"Oh, yeah, it's Friday. Right."

Realizing they were only going to be happy eating giant plates of fried seafood, we headed straight for Fisherman's Village. Afterward I picked up some ice cream and we all settled in at home to watch Groundhog Day. My father asked about our television.

"What's so much better about a flat screen? It's smaller than your other one."

"I don't know. I guess it's easier to see from the sides than a regular one."

Later it dawned on me. He was wondering where the hell the big screen television went. The one he had given us as a Christmas present a few years back after babysitting for us and having to suffer through a Dolphins game on our miniscule old set.

It's still all about the stuff.

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