Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Best Advice

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.

* * *

Joe Kozmarski will be learning particularly hard lessons in A Bad Night’s Sleep, available now for pre-order.


Jen Forbus said...

What? You mean you can't write that book yourself now, Michael? ;-) Fun post!

Michael Wiley said...

Oh, I can write a book or two on the subject -- fiction, pure fiction, of course. But can there ever be enough books on it?

Thanks, Jen.

Graham Brown said...

Love how little advice given as a kid turns into lots of adivice for your own kids - isnt that always the way?
My Parents would have let me jump off the rrof if I wanted to. If I ever have kids they'r egoing in bubble wrap.

Great Post.

Graham Brown said...

Tha would be "roof" - I'm not sure if they would let me jump off the "rrof" since I don't know what that actually is.

Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Michael! My parents were pretty lax with me, so my son has lots of rules. I know all the things I got away with as a kid I guess, and I don't want him to get into that kind of trouble.

Michael Wiley said...

I remember jumping off a friend's roof, Graham -- two stories into a snowdrift after a Chicago blizzard. It was pretty tooth-jarring, but not enough to keep me from doing it again. And where were my friend's parents while he and I were jumping? His dad was standing in the backyard cheering us on. Must have been that we broke less easily when we were kids -- that or the roofs were lower. I'm not sure what jumping off a "rrof" would be like, but as a kid I'm pretty sure that I would have been willing to give it a try.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Meredith. I suppose this means that our kids, responding against all our rules, will let their own children run wild.

Joshua Corin said...

Ah yes, the old "Physician, heal thyself" method of instruction. I utilize it often in the classroom:

"Professor Corin, what do you mean by 'negative capability'?"

"That's a great question, Lampshade. If you really want to know the answer, I recommend you find it out."


"OK, class, time for a pop quiz!"

Reece said...

Nice post, Michael. Since I come from a long line of taciturn, repressed Midwestners, I recognize the parenting style. And I think Joe's mom may have been onto something when she encouraged him to carry a gun.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I'm with Jen, Michael, I want to see YOUR book on the subject. Garbage disposal and vibrator and all.

Josh: You are one tough prof!

Graham: I didn't jump off the roof, but I did jump out of the second story of the barn into hay (actually, my cousin tossed me). This was back when it cost like $100 to set an arm though.

Michael Wiley said...

Yes, "heal thyself" was often the message (and I guess there are worse messages than this). Still, a lot of the time I'm too thin skinned to let my own kids hurt themselves to begin with.

Michael Wiley said...

Now, see, I already HAVE a book with the vibrator, garbage disposal, and all -- And each new book offers variations on the theme. It's all sex and death. (Or is it the other way around?)

At the time, jumping -- or being tossed -- from great heights didn't seem like such a big deal. Now, though, I imagine patio furniture buried in the snow drifts and pitchforks hiding in the haystacks.

I'm glad you survived, Rebecca.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Reece. Yes, there's a deep taciturnity about the place. But my brother -- the one who ended up on the lawn -- just called me and told me that I should hear the stories he tells about ME. So, maybe our generation is less taciturn.

Kelli Stanley said...

Ye Gods, Michael, it's damn tough to learn in silence, at least for me. My family (small though it is) was always full of advice ... my parents are in their early 70s, maybe it's a different generation.

I do admit, though, that when I came home--very, very late--from a high school party that was miles away (held outside on the river, with a lot of beer and, er, other stuff)--and I expected them to be up waiting for me, arms folded ... I was a bit disappointed to find that they'd gone to sleep, fully confident that I'd find my way home safely and not get into any serious trouble.

I wasn't prepared for such parental confidence when I was sixteen! ;)

Michael Wiley said...

I figure that parental confidence always must be at least partly a fiction. When my kids climb thirty feet into a tree and inch out onto branches, I call out once (or twice), "Be careful" . . . and then I look away, knowing that I also climbed thirty feet into trees and am probably a better person for the experience -- but even as I look away I imagine the branches (which have withstood much stronger forces than the weights of my kids) spontaneously cracking . . . .

I'll have a hard time sleeping when my kids stay out late.