I grew up in a repressed household. When I asked my dad where babies come from, he looked uncomfortable and said, “I’ll give you a book.” (He never did.) When my mom wanted me to cut the lawn, she would stare out the window, and I was to infer that the grass needed cutting. (If I failed to infer, she gave me the silent treatment – which was followed by a deeper silent treatment if I failed to understand that her first silence meant she was mad at me.) If, as a thirteen year old, I stumbled home reeking of beer, dad and mom never raised their eyebrows, never sniffed the air, never said anything. When our neighbor called because my brother had passed out drunk on the lawn, dad and mom picked him up, carried him to bed, and said . . . nothing. The next morning when he came to the kitchen table, green faced and hung over, mom served him a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage. That was the punishment: a big greasy breakfast for an upset stomach.
In short, in our family we were expected to know better. And if we didn’t already know better, we were expected to learn it on our own. We received very little advice – cheap or otherwise. I do remember my mom telling me that if I cut my hair so it no longer fell to my shoulders, I would be able to “get away with more,” which was another way of saying, appearance counts, which turned out to be true. And I remember from when I was very young my dad telling me not to stand on the bathroom counter when brushing my teeth. But that’s about it.
As is the way with intergenerational pendulum swings, I offer my own kids way too much advice. I let them know what I’m thinking all the time. I’m happy to discuss parthenogenesis as well as more conventional sexual reproduction. I enumerate a clear list of repercussions if they don’t do their chores.
But when I write about family relations in my mysteries, I model the advice more upon my parents’ practices than my own. Joe Kozmarski’s mom encourages him always to carry a gun, which seems to me as useful as my dad telling me not to stand on the counter when brushing my teeth, and she sometimes practices the silent treatment to powerful effect. Joe himself encourages his nephew Jason, who lives with him, to treat others – and himself – with respect. But that’s about it. Joe is a pretty big screw-up and wants to avoid the hypocrisy of telling Jason to behave in ways that he himself fails to. So, he gives advice sparingly.
And maybe that’s enough. It’s more interesting – more fun and more painful – to learn lessons on one’s own. Hearing from one’s parents that it’s a bad idea to pass out, drunk, on the lawn makes less of an impression than a morning-after plate of sausage and eggs. But I still wish my dad would give me that book.
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Joe Kozmarski will be learning particularly hard lessons in A Bad Night’s Sleep, available now for pre-order.