My Aunt Gail

 

Today my father called me to let me know that my aunt, my mother’s sister and only relative from that side of the family that we had any remaining connection to, passed away.

My aunt Gail was the younger sister, and they grew up in what I believe to be relative poverty at the time. My mother and Gail would occasionally mention how little they had when they were kids; my mother told us that they used to make, deconstruct, and re-make their doll clothes because they couldn’t get newer ones. I guess when the level of resources hits a person in the doll clothes budget, then you could say that financially, things could be better.

When I was younger, though, I had no idea of any of this. She lived on the middle floor of a three story apartment building in Pawtucket, RI. Her cousin’s family lived above her, and her cousin’s parents lived below her. Oddly enough, my father’s aunt Lillian lived with her, and for a while, my grandmother on my mother’s side lived with them as well, until she passed. my mother’s father had died early of a heart attack — he was a truck driver and didn’t have the best of diets as a result; he died on Christmas Eve, at a diner, away from his family

We would visit the relatives in RI frequently when I was a kid, because my other grandparents lived down there as well. My brother and I would split where we’d stay, with one of us staying with our father’s family and the other staying with our mother and Gail. We liked staying with our father because his mother was a great cook, but we would spend most of the days at Gail’s during the summer because they had a pool there, and we would swim with our cousins Kara and Erin. We would spend all day outside, back before I hated the outside for its sun and bugs and fresh air.

When I was old enough to understand, I understood that Gail had worked for a company called Dutchmaid, which was a clothing manufacturer — a connection which I’d never made until right this very second — and wholesaler. She was a regional director or somesuch; she was important in the organization, and apparently made a good living. She had a timeshare condo in the 80’s, and pretty much all of the vacations I went on I went on because of her. We went to the White Mountains and Cape Cod, and the only time I went to Florida before I was financially self-sufficient was because we went with Aunt Gail.

She was a very personable person. She had no problems talking with others and maybe had a problem not being the center of attention. When she worked for Dutchmaid she would organize fashion shows for retailers and buyers, and on more than one occasion my brother and my cousins and I would walk the runway and model the children’s clothes. Yes, I was a male model. When she was older and moved into an assisted living facility, she always had her door open and her apartment became the de facto hub, and she the de facto problem-solver. People would come to her for help with their geriatric paperwork or just to talk about their situations.

Gail was also strong willed, which was often times a problem. She got into a feud with my father’s sister which resulted in them not speaking for years. At some point, she also got into a feud with her cousin, the one who had lived above her, and I don’t think they ever reconciled. My mother’s side of the family is apparently all like this.

Sadly, after my mother passed we didn’t go to visit Gail much. We did at first, because she sometimes needed us to move furniture or assemble something. When my daughter was born Gail loved to see her, so that was also an excuse. But over time we noticed weird things. Gail’s apartment was small, yet she never seemed to get rid of anything. Every visit centered around re-orienting her stuff so she could move around the place, which was already difficult for her because for as long as I had known her, Gail had always been morbidly obese. In her later years she was having a hard time getting around at all, which certainly didn’t help her situation.

We learned that at some point that Gail was broke. At first, we didn’t know how this was possible, but we quickly learned that she had fallen victim to a scammer who promised her a return on her cash investments, cars, and other wonderful things which never materialized. With her health deteriorating and her savings and investments tapped out, she was forced to move out of her apartment, and at that point…we lost track of her.

My father had been listed as her executor, but he abdicated the responsibility and put it onto a more distant relative who lived close to where we expected she ended up. I don’t think that my father and Gail ever completely saw eye to eye, and you know how the elderly can be about people that they like, sometimes. We got updates here and that Gail was in a new facility, and then a hospital, and then “missing”, and then at another hospital. We hadn’t seen her in years, and I suppose we’d consigned ourselves to the fact that we’d never get around to seeing her again.

We dropped the ball in the worst way, I feel. I had selfish concerns, with a family and responsibilities of my own. Like my father and my brother, I felt that I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I’d be “on the hook”, especially if there were financial obligations that could circuitously find their way to the doorstep of whoever accepted responsibility for her.

This was a case of out of sight, out of mind because although we received occasional updates and even asked my father about her status, we never factored into the equation that, based on the current trajectory, she would pass on and we’d have done nothing in the interim. We abandoned her to die alone. We suspect that in the past few years she was suffering from dementia, and it’s a pathetic excuse to think that she might not have known we were there or who we were anyway. That doesn’t make anything right.

We let Gail down, and I feel that we’ve let my mother down as well. Gail took excellent care of us and always shared what she had with us. We didn’t grow up as poor as she had, and whether or not her good fortune was a driver behind her personal success, I don’t know; I do know, however, that she didn’t want to selfishly keep it to herself, and her generosity helped me to have a pretty good childhood.

Introverts, Extroverts, and Everyone In Between

I keep forgetting this blog is here! A lot of topics I think about I never get around to publishing over on LC.com because as my main blog for my main hobby, see there are certain subjects which just don’t jive with the whole video game subject matter. I also don’t want to inject certain opinions over there because I’m trying to build traffic and a certain voice for that site that I fear would get muddied under “certain circumstances”.

That’s why I’m here, for sale talking to you about introverts, visit this extroverts, and everyone in between. This is a subject that would seem to be right at home on a blog about geek culture, right? Geeks are stereotypically socially awkward, and if you peer into the geek community via some of the more extroverted means (Twitter, Facebook, etc), you’ll find that a lot of geeks appear to be rather proud of their introverted status.

Why? I acknowledge that the written word rejects nuance, so there’s certainly a difference between someone admitting their self-reflective introversion, and someone who’s reveling in the fact that they don’t like to/find it difficult to interact much/often/at all with people they don’t know. So before I go any further, I want to say I am in no sense indicting anyone’s personality, inherent or adopted, as being inferior, wrong, or broken. I know that anxiety is a very real issue for people — myself included, to a degree — and that dealing with strangers is often hard if not physically impossible for a great many people. I wanted to say that because I know if I didn’t write it into a long paragraph, in bold, someone will read the rest of this and get angry. So, let’s move on.

When I was younger, I was learned to not trust a good many of my peers. You know how kids can be: bullying isn’t always about punching or pushing or even yelling. Often times it’s about getting people to believe that everything is allright until the point where it’s suddenly and dishearteningly not. Exploiting people’s innate desire to want friendship is a particularly cruel kind of bullying, because it’s so easy to pull off, so easy to want to believe, that when it’s proven to have been false at someone’s expense, it teaches people that maybe interacting with others isn’t worth the pain it could potentially cause. At some point, it’s just better to hold on to the friends you have that you know you can trust, and to immediately suspect anyone else as having ulterior motives.

This lead to a whole lot of fear of other people for me, and then to a whole lot of anger as my peer group moved into the age where our social personalities were being solidified. With that distrust of people still in effect, I was angry at others for having put me into this situation, and also myself for stubbornly refusing to try and break away from the thoughts and feelings that I had been harboring. Everyone I didn’t know was still a potential enemy before they were a potential friend, and looking back on it now I realize that yes, there were actual, honest, potential friends there that I let slip through my fingers.

Today, as an adult, I’ve had to confront introverted tendencies as a matter of course. I have to get my car fixed at the dealer. I need to talk to my daughter’s teachers. I need to ask someone where to find an item at the supermarket. But I’ve also started to learn the art of small-talk; it’s not something I enjoy, and it’s not something I’m good at. I’m still very comfortable just not acknowledging the presence of another person, even though others may find this behavior circumspect and unnerving. But I have an interest in moving away from introversion towards increasing levels of extroversion.

Once high school was done, I was a free agent. I had been accepted to a college, and was packing up and getting ready to go. As you might suspect, this was terrifying. For a person who had an inherent distrust of strangers, I was effectively leaving everyone I know behind to willingly place myself in an environment that was nothing but strangers. What could possibly go wrong?

In short: nothing. Just as I was among strangers, so was everyone else. We had all left our old lives behind, which is not insignificant. We spend 12 years of our lives (in the U.S.) traveling with the same cohort of people, having similar experiences, growing, and adapting alongside one another as we change physically, mentally, and chemically. We know each other, even if we don’t know each other, and eventually we start to categorize each other as yes or no, friendly or unfriendly, cool or uncool. Once we are defined in social shorthand, it’s difficult to re-write that label when all that history is known to our peers.

My college dorm was co-ed by room — two males next to two females next to two males, and so on. For someone who had particularly strong social issues with women, this was important. My roommate was someone that I did know from my brief time at a Catholic high school, although I didn’t know him all that well at the time. Being in the same situation, most everyone on the floor came together at the start of our college careers to start over in some way. The only requirement to fit in (or rather, to not be rejected) was to not be a dick. Everyone was OK with this, but it did require some mental juggling on my part.

I wasn’t happy with the person I was in high school because I was generally angry about the way people had treated me up to that point (although I was treated pretty well in high school). I disliked the guys because they were generally the most overt jerks, but I also disliked the girls because their bullying was particularly pointed at a time when kids were becoming more interested in members of the opposite sex than anything else. I was OK with not making any new male friends, but that fact that I didn’t have any female friends made me sad and angry.

Going away to college allowed me to reinvent myself. None of these people knew my history. All they knew was that I still had my long hair, I played the bass, and that initially I was kind of quiet. But that didn’t stop others from trying to get to know me. I then had a decision: shut them out as I had been learned to do for so long, or make the effort to open up and accept that these people could only want to get to know me, because they knew absolutely nothing about me; what else could they possibly want from me?. And I chose the later, and it was hands down the best decision I have ever made for myself.

In retrospect, I didn’t go anywhere as far as I could have. My old habits died hard, and for a while I was still extremely wary of people, and held certain preconceived notions that I really should have ditched earlier than I eventually did, but my psychological alterations paid off. Previously, all my friends were male; now, most of my friends were female. I got my first girlfriend. I many many friends and did many things that would have been both anathema and impossible back in high school partly because of my refusal to make an effort to get beyond myself and reach out to those who might have been honest in their desire to get to know me.

Of course, I’m now married and have a child. I have had jobs where I’ve had to interact with a whole lot of strangers. I’m not going to lie and say that I’m the life of the party; far from it. The introvert trope of having to find a quiet space to “recharge” is true. Being overly social quickly wears on me. What has changed, though, is my need to fit into society in ways that allow me to get to know people, and to be known by people. It’s become something very important to me: embracing the social animal side of human nature. Hell, I’m writing this personal post, talking about a difficult part of my life, which I would never have done 25 years ago. It’s never easy, though, and I still struggle sometimes. I have trouble calling businesses on the phone, or of talking to people when I suspect I might end up making myself look foolish or by revealing knowledge that might allow someone take advantage of me. But I’m far better than I was, and I feel I am far better for it than I thought I would be.

I feel that I have to say once again that this is not an indictment against those who consider themselves introverts, or who suffer from anxiety. It’s also not a blueprint or an exhortation for people to “get over it”. This is only one man’s journey from a state which made him unhappy to a place where his mood has improved significantly, and that’s shown him a way of living that pleases him more. I recognize that many people are very comfortable with who they are, even when they admit that they have difficulty with certain situations. None of that makes anyone a bad person; there is no right and no wrong in who we are.