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" Eviction | 2008 | Slouching Towards Atlantis "

10.05.08 5:20 p.m.

When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way, sooner or later you will discover that simple, childlike, and mysterious secret known to those of the Uncarved Block: Life is Fun.  

-Benjamin Hoff



As I carry furniture into her house from the front lawn, my mother regales Melanie, seated on a plastic foot rest and knitting, about the one time I had friends over for New Years Eve.

"We were used to [my brother] Dan's friends. They drank, played loud music, smoked. Thommy's friends read poetry and reenacted scenes. Then they all cuddled together on a bed at midnight." She says this with contempt, as she would much have preferred I kept the company that held raves in the backyard and caused the police to drive up and down our street three times an hour. Their motivations were plain, even if they were technically illegal. There was an honor among them that my mother could appreciate. They might break windows and steal vodka, but they were upfront about it.

I return to bring in some chairs. "You've got to remember, Mom. Dan was friends with the stoners. I was friends with the drama kids." This is a bit pat - there was certainly a fair bit of overlap in our social spheres in high school - but it is accurate enough for her.

"No, it is that you and your friends are arrogant," she says, then turns to Melanie, still knitting a scarf. "Even you, my dear, are arrogant." She isn't being nasty, but she is stating exactly what she means.

She doesn't think all my friends are arrogant, however. She loves Melissa and considers her something of a daughter because - no matter what Hell Melissa went through, no matter if she'd been selling crushed up aspirin to middle schoolers to support a drug habit or dressing like a gothic bag lady - Melissa was consistent and straightforward. She seemed unflappable, even when calling my house to inform me that she exploded owing to hotboxing her car with Glade.

The topic of my arrogance is not a new argument between us. Emily, especially arrogant to my mother, once hypothesized that by "arrogant" my mother meant "noticeably intelligent" in a pejorative way, since she also affixed this label to the kids I used to teach at Vassar who are classified as gifted. "Arrogant" used in the same way some use "elitist". I think my mother would disagree with this estimation and I do believe there is more to it than that. I don't think she distains intelligence, as everyone in our family has their own flavor of intellect, but I think it might make her irritated if she perceives someone is putting on airs. In this vein, my mother has expressed a distaste for Hannah, claiming she has no right to be arrogant given that she hails from West Virginia. This might backup Emily's assertion, since Southerners, especially those from Virginia's stupid sister, can't possibly have anything worthwhile behind their accents, all slow and sweet like molasses.

"Hannah did go to Bard," Melanie says. "We Bard kids are an arrogant lot."

"No, it's because you are arrogant that you went to Bard," my mother argues.

She even goes so far as to praise my younger brother in comparison. "I used to think Bryan was arrogant like you. He talks a lot of crap, but when it comes to medicine, he mostly knows what he is talking about." I do know what I am talking about when it comes to writing, grammar, and teaching, but I think these are too far from hands-on to be acceptable. Plus, my mother is herself a teacher of preschoolers and my temporarily abandoning that path (because it abandoned me first) grates on her. To her, it is better than I be poor, homeless, and abused as a substitute teacher than scraping by on a proofreader's salary. Teaching is an honest day's work. Questioning commas and verb tenses, in front of a computer eight hours a day, is no job for one of her sons.

When she first leveled this charge of arrogance at me years ago, it stung (more so when my father readily agreed with her). Was I arrogant? What did that even mean? To me, arrogance suggested a public haughtiness I would want to avoid just for the sake of tact. I want to be appreciated and liked too much to be arrogant, I thought. I kept this barb in mind and examined my behavior. I found that I did think I was better than some people, even if I took pains not to show it. I actually will go out of my way to be nice to anyone who is serving me food or helping me in the course of their job. I constantly remind myself as a kind of mantra that I can't possibly know what people are going through and should give them the benefit of the doubt if I can manage it.

Last summer, I more actively reminded myself that people living in different ways did not mean their way was at all wrong. My way isn't exactly guaranteeing my success and happiness, but it is my way and I embrace it. For example, my older brother didn't graduate from college and has four children, neither condition what I would want. He also has a paycheck that dwarfs mine, a house, a wife, and professional respect that continues to be the brass ring in my own life. He is not paying obscene student loans. While I cannot imagine living as he does (and I think he likely reciprocates), I wouldn't remotely suggest my life his better than his. There are obviously parts of it that I envy.

I think that my mother cannot believe living and acting as I do to be anything more than a show being put on for the benefit of onlookers, who are supposed to then realize how erudite I am. Given that I wish to spend the time I am not reading or writing playing in mud and watching awful movies, I think I am far from sophistication. I am public with what I don't know, but am keen to learn even that with which I struggle. The world needs all modalities, often much more so than it needs a twenty-something giggling over a punchline featuring the phrase "past pluperfect subjunctive".

I think, to a degree, my supposed arrogance is a product of my dissatisfaction with my "station" in life. I am aware that I am reasonably intelligent and talented, as well as willing to work hard toward my goals. Somewhat, I feel that her statement it is a dichotomy between the parental urge to have their progeny aspire to something greater and annoyance that they keep trying to achieve it and go beyond. I know both my parents are intelligent, but not always in the way I am. My father and older brother can do things with microcontrollers that shock me, but which I understand no more than my friends' experimental music. My younger brother is apparently distinguishing himself in the medical field, despite some missteps, while I like to keep my appreciation of the human body more cerebral and intimate than tactile and mortal. My mother has levels of interpersonal intelligence that border on the psychic.

Another part of this may be that I live my life so publicly, publishing my thoughts and evolution in a place anyone can read them. Many people my mother encounters daily may have horrible thoughts, but they don't have the gumption to explain them in detailed writing so they can be held accountable. She can't hear the confessions others make to priests and spouses, but she can quote mine as long as she has an internet connection.

On the other hand, maybe I am just arrogant. It is the easiest explanation, but that isn't something I want to be.

Soon in Xenology: Memories. Atlantis. Believing.

last watched: Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist
reading: Mother Tongue
listening: They Might Be Giants

" Eviction | 2008 | Slouching Towards Atlantis "

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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