9.03.2003

I’ve got a new roommate.

Don’t get me wrong, I was perfectly happy with the old one, but circumstances being what they are, I got an additional one. She doesn’t think she lives there, or claims she doesn’t live there, but I know I’m being deceived. But yet I let it happen.

What is it about me that keeps me coming back to the snake oil huckster, back to the wishing well? Why am I so quick to forgive people who use me and lie to me? I don’t know, really, but I suspect a lot of it has to do with my parents. I’m a Midwesterner, see, to the bone. I speak in a flat, unsophisticated accent. I eat things like hotdish and summer sausage sandwiches, and make chili with beans – a big no-no if you ask anyone from Texas. I drink coffee black, eat toast without a spread, and am bothered more by having nothing to do than having too much to do. My farmer ancestors baled endless hay and worked long hours driving horses and threshing in the fall. They were simple people who believed in the importance of hard work, the severity of the elements, and the joy of well-made food. Replace the farm with a corporate office, the plough with a computer, the horse with a car, and here I am, their heir.

I’ve never lived on a farm. That part of my family broke off with my father, when he abandoned farming and went into the business end of agriculture: farmer’s co-ops, creameries, grain elevators. Now you can say he works in agriculture, but it’s more accurate to say he works in sales. This means I don’t have knowledge of the farm culture. I don’t have access to it, except through my parents, who they are, and how they have affected who I am.

What that means is that I am largely a guileless person. I try to be straightforward, and appreciate others’ straightforwardness. I don’t like to talk about my feelings, because as straightforward and honest as Midwesterners are, we are also intensely private. I communicate most comfortably about neutral topics, from a distance of about five feet or more. The worst kind of people are those who create fake problems in their lives. Just like my farming ancestors had their entire lives on the line with the farm – if the corn or wheat crop failed, they lost everything – I have issues that threaten to destroy me if I slip up. So problems like missing a weekly television show, or not matching pants and shirt fail to resonate with me.

Yet you won’t catch me calling people on that, because it doesn’t really matter. To them, these problems create real suffering. In spite of it all, I try not to judge. What’s the point of being openly hostile to folks who can’t know why they deserve such treatment?

Similarly, I don’t really call people when they’re lying. Telling someone they are lying won’t change the fact that they believe they’re right, so why do it? If nothing else, it puts them on the defensive, makes them wary, and inspires further mistrust and further deceit. I put up with lying because it lets me evaluate a character, a person I’ll likely have to deal with anyway. Why not let the transgression be, and keep relations smooth?

The result of all this is that I get used a lot. Take one look at me, and you see it straightaway: the clown, the dupe, the sucker. Not only do I have an honest face, I’ve got a naïve one. It begs for advantage-taking. Sure, there are small ways I repay the favor: I’m not likely to go out of my way for someone like this. Say, if their car was parked in my parking lot illegally, I wouldn’t prevent it from being ticketed. If they needed a favor of me, I might be too busy to help out. Passive aggression is the hallmark of the Midwestern conflict, and I employ it frequently. It’s probably not the Christian thing to do, but I am certainly not a perfect man. My faults are my own, and I do not hide that I have them. I would ask that people forgive me for them.

But to get back to where I started for a moment: this new roommate. Racked with self-doubt, I’m not even sure how to define roommate anymore. In these loose cultural times, people associate freely with each other and spend odd hours in different places. Folks may live together their whole lives, have kids, and yet never marry. So this is the problem of definition. My question is this: someone who sleeps in my apartment, comes home from work to my apartment, uses the food in my apartment, and spends most of her time in my apartment, does that mean she lives there? If my lifestyle is inconvenienced by the fact that she is omnipresent – there when I get home from work, and there when I leave for work – does that mean, effectively, that she lives there?

I have been assured that, should she “move in,” she will pay rent. But if her clothes, computer, car, eating place, sleeping place, musicbox, etc. are all at my apartment, wouldn’t that imply that she has moved in? And wouldn’t that, in turn, imply that I am owed some compensation for this extra presence in my apartment?

I am unsure. Being Midwestern, I’m also a pretty uncertain person. My convictions erode in the face of grey areas, which does wonders for things like objectivity, but does nothing for things like sticking up for yourself.

Uncertainty is in my blood. My “uncle” Buster, my dad’s uncle actually, died not long after I was born, when he put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I never knew him, but from the photos I’ve seen, he looks like a lively fellow. I’m told he was a devil of an accordion player, that you could simply hum a tune to him and he could fill in the chords, harmonize, improvise, and generally make merry on that most confusing of instruments. He had the same smile I’m blessed with, the full, wide lips and bright teeth. A farmer, he had the severe crow’s feet behind the eyes and a rich, brown tan that contrasted nicely with his brilliant blonde hair. More than two decades later, people speak fondly of him, of how he could stir a party to life, of his manner of jest. Their stories paint a picture of a mostly happy man. Yet there you have the Midwestern character: a reticent man presenting the picture of a normal and happy person, deceiving the people around him. I can’t imagine what kind of bizarre despair must have been deadening his mind. Maybe something as flat and seemingly infinite as the Minnesota plains he lived on.

But we come back to deceit here. When I try to pretend I don’t care, that I don’t think I’m being used, I am being untruthful. I am being deceitful. This gives me no ground on which to stand. To accuse would be hypocritical. To make a fuss would be denying my own faults, taking on outward problems without addressing the inward ones. Of course, we all know this is silliness.

Not saying something, not doing anything about it because of one’s own peccadilloes is ridiculous. Last year, when I was in the same situation, spending much of my time at my girlfriend’s, I had to do double-duty. That was the price. In spite of the fact that I didn’t really “live” at my girlfriend’s apartment, I cleaned. I washed everyone’s dishes, whether I had used them or not. I cleaned up after myself. I kept my things orderly and was respectful to the other roommates. I did not avoid them, but made sure to allow them their own space. Then I’d go home to my apartment and clean that one too, in spite of the fact that I really did not live there. So it goes.

So what’s this all about? Where am I going with this?

I am tired. I want to tell people that. I’m tired. At night, when I get done working, I don’t want to have work extra to take care of extra people. I’ll do it, because that’s just where I come from. I’ll do it, because it’s where I live too, and I want it clean even if other people don’t. I’ll do it, and I won’t even bother pointing it out to other people, because I’m a reticent Midwesterner, and I’m uncertain that I’m even right on this. I’m tired, and I’ll keep the frustration to myself, because it’s my business, not anyone else’s. I’m tired, and I want to go to bed right now, but there’s a long way to go, six more hours until I go home, and then two hours or so working at the property, and then a couple hours making dinner, and then, maybe, just maybe, I’ll get the time to read a book I’ve been enjoying, before I get too tired to continue. And then I’ll hit the sack and dream about my ancestors, cold, silent farmers of plain language driving horses through the moonlight, into the wheat fields, where they can work, work, the only escape, the only rest they can ever know.

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