Friday, August 31, 2007

Family Dissolution

About a month ago I went to a family reunion on my dad's side. Attendees were mostly my dad's cousins and their families. I was about to meet several of my second and third cousins for the first time.

I got there a little wide-eyed; I was curious and scared at the same time. What if one of my distant cousins was a girl I recognized from "the bar"? What if they were extremely odd or something? Meeting the full panoply of your DNA pool can be a discomfiting experience.

Turns out they were just plain rude. They had no interest in even shaking my hand, never mind talking to me - their flesh and blood. For the most part they just splintered off into little groups and watched the Red Sox while I counted the minutes until appropriate early departure.

They have the gathering every year - I'll never go back.

Devil's Advocate - If they have it every year, why was it your first appearance?

Well, this is my grandmother's family. Unfortunately, she became estranged from her four siblings decades ago. Consequently, my dad and his brother never really knew a swath of their aunts, uncles, and cousins - even though they all lived in the same city. It was a darned shame to say the least.

Now I grew up with six cousins very close by. We saw each other on an almost daily basis. I couldn't imagine how my father could grow up with "no cousins".

Maybe five years back, my father got invited to this annual cookout. One of his long lost cousins reached out to him and he has eagerly attended every year. There's more to this story but I need to move on.

After my early departure from the cookout, I was not only relieved to be out of there, but I had a really bad taste in my mouth. For one thing, I already have plenty of apathetic first cousins - so I need more sour third cousins like I need another hole in my head. For those of you that think it weird to have a relationship with third cousins (kids of your parents' cousins) - think again. I have two third cousins on my mom's side that I only met when I was 11 and we became relatively close despite vast geographical distance. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Now we are at the crux of my post - my first cousins.

We are all between the ages of 25 and 35. Most of us live relatively close. We all get along fine. The next fight will be the first, ever. Yet outside of weddings, we can never get together as a group. I have taken it upon myself to plan, organize, invite, and entertain but I am lucky if ANY of them say "I'm in".

Devil's Advocate - Maybe it's you? Maybe they don't like you?

Anything is possible on this overheated planet. But it's not like they shut me out and hang out with each other - I think.

As I said above, I find this incredible since we are all the same age, all live close, and all get along. If we can't get together, then pray tell what family can?

I have boiled to a point of frustration over this. For example, I sent out an invite for my daughter's first birthday and all my cousins said they couldn't come. Actually, they don't say they can't make it right away. They hold the invite in their pocket without committing, waiting to see if nothing better comes up that weekend. I generally get "Regrets" emails 24 hours before the event as usually, something better always rears its head. What these ignoramuses don't understand is that you have to PLAN a party; you have to shop and design a menu based on how many guests you are having. If I am having 15 people, steak is an option whereas for 30 guests, I incline towards Easy Cheese, Ritz crackers, and hot dogs.

My poor little one wanted to come to her first birthday party. Whatever, it happens. Maybe it was a fluke of a bad weekend. Who knows? So we rescheduled it. Yet again, all of my cousins played the same script - late or no responses, "too busy", etc. Yada yada yada.

That's a surefire way to get me riled up. Tell me that YOU are busy. I work thirteen hour days raising my two kids AND try to trade the financial markets at the same time. I run four websites and, occasionally, I need to eat, sh*t, shave, and shower. Don't tell ME you are busy - you shiftless sluggards.

I have thought long and hard about this. I have tried everything including guilting my extended family to occasionally meet up. It's been to no avail. Of course I can't force people to care about something that's apparently meaningless to them. Yeah, a bit of my angst is from the personal ingratitude I feel for doing the heavy lifting: the planning, the preparation, running the family website, etc. But they are not just blowing off me and my kids, they are blowing off everyone else who actually does come to these events, namely their dying grandparents, their aunts, their uncles. To top it off, they are blowing off each other. I stand alone in a crossfire of apathy.

So now I am done. I am writing off a lot of them and I am doing it they way I do EVERYTHING - with a clean conscience.

My whole life I was always puzzled to learn that some older guy I knew (e.g. a friend) hadn't spoken to his brother or sister in decades. Or about someone who never, ever, visited their grandparents or other specific relatives. Many times there was a bit of a feud or perhaps these relatives never got along in the first place. I simply could not relate to any of this. In my entire family, everyone got along swimmingly - we still do and it makes this incipient chasm so surprising.

What I have noticed is that in many families, there is a linchpin, an organizer, a buffer if you will that binds everyone else. One of my golf buddies had his mother pass away a while back. Since she died, he, his brother, and his father essentially severed all contact. Apparently she was the glue. This goes for social groups as well. Remember how Elaine and George couldn't hang out without Jerry? I wish I could remember what episode that was from.

All my irate contemplation has morphed into enlightenment. I needed my wife to point out the following to me - Family dissolution is a function of wealth. My mother's family came to Massachusetts almost 50 year ago from South Africa. Obviously they had no money and were "working poor" for quite a while. Hence they all lived close by. As they climbed the wealth ladder, people started moving further out to chase better opportunities. My siblings and I were particularly cruel to our parents. My sisters live in Phoenix and Michigan; my brother lives in Alexandria,Virgina; and I have only recently been back near my parents in Massachusetts - albeit through a quirk in Mrs. C-Nut's job.

The same goes for my wife's father. He was an Italian kid in Brooklyn. Eventually he made his way in the construction biz (no jokes, please) and moved out to Long Island - leaving his family there back in the borough.

It bothers me that my kids won't grow up as I did - living in a sea of their cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. As y'all know I am not one to blindly idealize my upbringing either (think homeschooling, deferred adulthood, etc.) but I am quite sure that young kids profit from getting yelled at by several different family voices. ALSO, young parents profit from having "free help" just down the road as well!

But really, what's to worry about? My father didn't get to raise me the same way he grew up either.

Jack Welch maintains that all good businessmen should lay off their worst 10% of employees - EVERY SINGLE YEAR. It's a philosophy that my wife swears by as well. Now if only the lawsuit-phobic company that she works for would allow her to shed 4 of her 40 employees each year...

Anyway I think Jack's creative-destruction creed should be applied to more than just your employees. I think one should probably throw out 10% of your belongings each year (ok, maybe 5% every two years); I think everyone should probably shed one out of every ten friends each year or so. Pretty much what I have discovered is how healthy purging is for all matter of things. Make new friends, start new hobbies, go different places. Because, before he knows it, someone surrounded by old things, old ideas, and old friends will fossilize ahead of his time.

Ta ta my rotten family members...I'm divorcing you!

Hey, if Jimbo can marry Peter in this loopy state, why can't I divorce flesh and blood?

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