Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Angry Family

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - When I woke up early Sunday morning in my hotel room in Bangor, the last thing I expected was to end the day with a big heated family argument. But guess what? That's the way Sunday ended, and that is essentially the sour way our weekend in Maine ended (we arrived home about three hours ago).

So for those of you expecting a humdrum positive conclusion to this vacation: well, welcome to the Fujishima family, I guess.

There was absolutely nothing pointing the way toward such a calamitous conclusion to our vacation. Sure, my father and mother got impatient with each other in the car as they both tried to get us to Maine---but then, they always tend to get impatient with each other when it comes to directions. Otherwise, we all seemed to be having fun, enjoying the beautiful sights of Acadia National Park, taking pics and videos, enjoying the infectious panting of our enthusiastic dog Dusty. It was pretty much all pleasantness, as far as I was concerned.

What in the world happened? I dunno if I could tell you how exactly things transpired yesterday, because at the time my parents were arguing with each other about plans made and plans not made for the day as we drove back to Bangor from a boat ride around Five Islands, my brothers and I were too busy watching Millennium episodes on our little TV in the car. So I only caught snatches of their angry discussion, but those snatches were enough to alert me to some serious unrest going on, especially when we found ourselves back early at Howard Johnson Inn instead of at the Bangor Folk Festival, as we had originally planned.

From the best of my knowledge (I haven't really bothered to confirm details with either my father or my mother), tempers started flaring up when Dad realized that, after our boat trip, we'd only have about an hour or less before the folk festival's last day of festivities concluded. Apparently he had really wanted to see what was going on at this festival. Mom, however, most likely expressed a clear lack of interest in it---and whenever Mom doesn't like something, she assumes no one else will like it. As usual with any major argument between these two, though, that was only a springboard for other issues: money issues, issues of who's in charge around the house. When the argument continued after we had returned to the hotel for the night, Mom even had the audacity to bring up, at the most inappropriate moment, the issue of my father's admittedly problematic smoking habit (Dad: "I'm getting out of here"; Mom: "Go! Go puff your cigarette!")

One of my younger brothers, Masao, left my parents' room while the two were still bickering, but Michow and I sat there listening to them stand off against each other. It was gutwrenching, but I couldn't leave, I guess because I have kind of a personal stake in these kinds of arguments (mostly against Mom, to be honest). Eventually, my mother, disgusted, ordered my dad to just take the kids out to eat and leave her alone; he did, and we followed, although I was pretty somber most of the time we were eating out (we went to a Japanese restaurant, Ichiban). I really wanted to say something to my dad---to comfort him---but somehow I just could never work up the will to say anything, I guess fearing that whatever I'd say would be inadequate.

The worst was yet to come though. Later, after we had all returned from our trip out to eat, my mother (and my grandmother, who didn't say much except telling my mom to leave it alone) came to our room and tried to explain her side of things. (Convenient that Dad isn't around to explain his side of things so we could perhaps decide for ourselves who held the upper hand in this matter.) Usually I would probably let her ramble on and on and not say anything, but that night I felt like I had to try to offer something constructive, to try to be helpful and sincere.

Maybe I should have rethought that strategy. I said to Mom that it seemed to me that these kinds of problems---problems of scheduling and problems of who actually wants to do what---would have been avoided if, instead of only my father and mother were planning this trip, we had all taken part in the planning process. I suggested that we should have made a lot of decisions on this trip as a family unit. I regretted it instantly: her immediate (and, in hindsight, should have been predictable) response was to implicitly accuse me of hypocrisy in that statement by pointing out how uninvolved in family matters in general she felt I was. As usual, she laced her biting criticisms of me---heck, of all three of us---with condescension, and this time, instead of simply sitting there and taking it, I felt like I had to fight back.

So all the old issues came right back into that hotel room, but with a twist that I wasn't expecting. I think she revealed her true colors last night when she basically stated out loud that, because she was the one making pretty much all the money around the house, she deserved to have the final say in most matters, whether it be which restaurants we go to (which is none, since she believes in the goodness of the cheap buffet), which places we'll go to see, etc. Power of the purse. On Saturday evening, in looking for a place to eat for dinner, we were all headed toward the front door of a diner restaurant before Mom suddenly decided that we should all go to eat a fried chicken buffet at a nearby KFC, mostly because it was cheaper and, as she said, "served salad" (like the diner place wouldn't have served a salad at all? Call me naive, but I find that hard to believe). What gives her the right to make that decision for all of us? Just because she "makes all the money around the house"?

Her gall in making such an outrageous (at least to me) claim stunned me into two realizations. First: this is the mother I've been struggling so mightily to try to win over as far as garnering her support for my still-controversial (around here) career path? Frankly, that kind of attitude verges on the dictatorial; why should the fact that she makes most of the money around the house entitle her to have final say in most of the decisions? Just because, as she believes, she's the one paying for everything? Whatever happened to family? (Well, I guess we ungrateful sons pissed that away when we decided not to take a great interest in the affairs of the family, eh?) In the past, I've always tried to see things her way, try to balance my anger at her with an understanding of her position; but with that statement, I think she pretty much forfeited any sympathy she might have had with me. Honestly. Even when she was trying to run my life (well, that's the way it felt to me), I always had to give her grudging credit for having her heart in the right place. But I dunno if I can take her seriously now, knowing that, to me, she has finally laid bare her manipulative heart.

Second: there's only one way that I can get out of her overbearing clutches, and that is to more or less cut all financial ties from her. She thinks she has control over me just because she pays, say, my credit card bills? She thinks, because she's paying for my college education, she should have a say in determining how I spend my four years of college? Eventually I'm going to have to handle my own finances on my own; might as well start doing some of it now.

I would try to detail some of the other points that came up, but frankly, I feel like I'd get too exhausted and demoralized from the effort. The important thing to take away from it, I guess, is that she decided, "No more vacations, if this is the aggravation I'm going to get out of it!"

Alas, that wasn't the end of it. The next morning, she woke us up at 6:30 a.m. and suggested that, if I so wanted to take more of an active involvement in our trip, I should sit in the passenger seat in the front row of our car and direct my father home. When my dad found out about this, he responded, "That's not the point!" This led to more yelling in the car as we headed out of the hotel after handing in our keycards; even Masao couldn't resist telling Mom to "shut up" as she continued yelling at Dad and I. I lost it myself, saying "You think you rule everything around here?" She misheard me and thought I was accusing her of ruining everything (although I think she did, for the most part), and she got loud and defensive yet again.

The rest of the 12-hour-long car ride was, for the most part, quiet. In the end, she did try to help in directing us home a little bit, and I let her, even though I remained in the front seat throughout. If I was charitable, I would interpret that as a sign of goodwill, of trying to "make up." Today, however, she briefly brought up the whole row again when she added a new voice to the mix: my grandmother's. According to my mother, my grandmother---the one from Taiwan who's still here and who I can speak to too deeply because of the language barrier---offered this pearl of wisdom: if I were Kenji and my mother was paying for a trip to Maine, I wouldn't complain.

"Makes sense, doesn't it?" Mom said.


All in all, I can't say that this trip was a total disaster---for two-thirds of it, it was genuinely relaxing, and I for one was having fun. But, far from what my mother claims to have intended for this trip---"Who cares about the folk festival? When you remember this trip ten years from now, you'll remember Acadia"---I think I'm going to remember the bitter yelling as much as I do the pretty sights and sounds of nature in Acadia. Somehow, the yelling hits so much closer to home; it's probably part of the reason why I've felt strangely depressed so far today.

Look: I'm not going to claim that I'm a perfect son or anything. I'm not one to dispense with the "I love you's" and the "I appreciate you's," especially if I don't mean it. And, in spite of the great effort my mom has admittedly made over the years in order to help us out, put food on our table, etc., I've never felt it. So I've never really said it all that often; none of the Fujishima men have, really. And if one needed more evidence how bitter my mother really felt about it, her outburst Sunday night and Monday morning was it.

Am I coldhearted? I really wish I had the heart to apologize for years of what she probably feels is a lack of appreciation of her efforts. Maybe I'm just pathetically justifying being a total asshole to her, but there's just something else that bothers me about that disgusting sense of entitlement she exudes: she seems to assume that, just because we don't say anything, we must not appreciate her. Now look, I understand that perhaps all mothers need to feel that their sons and husband appreciate her. I'm not blind to my failure to come through in that regard.

But, in my heart, I feel as if all the bad things she's done to me has outweighed the good, to the point that now, I can safely say that I really can't stand being around her anymore (and she's off from work this entire fucking week!). She's the one that has almost succeeded in giving me feelings of nausea whenever I even think about watching a movie in her presence, knowing that she thinks so little of my ambition to become a film journalist. She had a huge hand in allowing my acne to flare up again because she felt she was soooo much smarter than my previous dermatologist, figuring that he was really wasting my time and her money by asking to see me every month even after my acne was calming down. (I've restarted a different skin care regimen with a different dermatologist; it looks like it's working a little bit.) In short, I blame her (at least in part) for a lot of things: the fact that I feel so inadequate about facing real-world challenges; the fact that I have such low self-esteem regarding my career ambition; and more.

Hearing her explicitly admit to all of us that her opinion mattered more than anyone else's because of how much she was doing for this family---paying the bills, mostly---was perhaps the last straw. Forget about trying to get on her good side; forget about trying so hard to see things from her point of view. Mom, believe me, deep down I still appreciate all you've done for me---for all of us---in helping us stay afloat. Really, we owe you our lives up to this point. But anyone who's willing to flaunt her power in the family in such a ruthless way---well, I think such a person deserves only conditional respect at best.

Yeah, as you can tell, I'm pretty angry about this. But what does it matter? As with all family arguments, everything is left floating in air until the next outburst. Nothing gets resolved at all. (In that respect, the late sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond got family life absolutely, harshly right.) The best thing to do is just get out of harm's way. I should have realized this long ago.

In the interest of fairness, however, anyone who's willing to disagree with anything I've said---say I'm being too rash, say I'm making her too much of a one-dimensional enemy, or even go so far as to say that my mom might actually have a point in what she said (and I've tried the hardest I can to say it in her terms, without exaggeration)---by all means, feel free to do so. At least that's way more than my mother would grant to anyone holding a point of view different from hers.


By the way, congratulations to Robert Cochran, Joel Surnow, Kiefer Sutherland, and the rest of the marvelous cast and crew of 24 for their Best Drama Emmy victory on Sunday night. It was about time this show got some recognition for the gripping and groundbreaking work that it is---even if, for my money, the show really deserved the award three years ago, for its still-unequalled second season, when its geopolitical commentary and high-octane thrills were still relatively fresh. Still, this was probably one of those "make-up" awards: to make up for past neglect. Better late than never, though, right?


Anonymous said...

I am so sorry that your trip was spoiled by family arguments and hostility. That's a shame because as you said, that is the part of the trip that you are going to remember most, rather than the beauty of the Park. You are a good writer so I take what you say at face value. I trust your descriptions. Your mother is quite controlling and she is ANGRY. She seems to take her anger out on the mostly male household; she is angry at your father and you ( the oldest son, right?) take the brunt of it also. She really needs to be seeing a female therapist where she can rant and vent instead of creating a miserable environment in the home. Family Therapy would not be a bad idea either---if everyone was in agreement to attend. Your mom has issues and they are affecting how she relates to everyone in the home---and its negative and hurtful in your case, and maybe for your brothers as well. It should not rule your life at this point, but it almost seems to.

If mom and the family do not get help from a third party, your mom (and consequently your family life) is not going to change. You will never be able to change her yourself. I think I have said this before. "The best thing to do is get out of harm's way." Well said--you need to make your future plans, move on and limit your exposure to mom---your misery will decrease in proportion. Sorry to be so blunt, but I think you need to just be away from her and "do your own thing."

kenjfuj said...

Anonymous: I guess I'll respond to specific points in your comment.

She seems to take her anger out on the mostly male household; she is angry at your father and you ( the oldest son, right?) take the brunt of it also.

Yes, I am the oldest son, and yes, our household is pretty much all male except for her.

She really needs to be seeing a female therapist where she can rant and vent instead of creating a miserable environment in the home.

I guess the thing I wonder about, and worry about, is whether we've contributed to her buried resentment by not being more affectionate to her around the house: not giving her verbal appreciation and love. The thing is, I keep telling myself that she needs such things, but somehow I just can't bring myself to change that part of me, simply because I can't help remembering all the negative things she's done to me. That's not to excuse my behavior (or lack of it, in this case), but it's the way I feel.

Maybe I'm just too stubborn myself to change. And my mother certainly holds the belief that people can change, as long as people are willing to change. Maybe I'm just unwilling to change. Is that a good thing or a bad thing in this case? Sometimes I struggle with that.

Speaking of not changing: when I tried to suggest the whole idea of coming up with trip plans as a family unit, I complained that, in assuming our lack of interest in helping out in the planning, my mom had never asked us to help out. "Why do I have to ask you to help out?" she kept repeating. "Why can't you approach me about helping out instead of sitting in front of your computer all day?" She accused me of never showing much of an interest in the affairs of the family in the past. Okay, I'll admit, she's not wrong (although, at the risk of sounding impossibly self-absorbed, I don't really care all that much; I've got my own future to worry about); what irritates the hell out of me is that she always waits 'til these big yellfests to bring up all these issues she has with us. She can't bring them up privately and constructively; it almost always has to be at the least appropriate moments and in the most confrontational manner possible (or, at least, confrontational to my admittedly sensitive sensibility).

Family Therapy would not be a bad idea either---if everyone was in agreement to attend. Your mom has issues and they are affecting how she relates to everyone in the home---and its negative and hurtful in your case, and maybe for your brothers as well.

You're right. Certainly, I wouldn't mind; in fact, I'd relish the opportunity (at least, I guess, if it gets Mom to see the error of some of her ways). I'm afraid to approach her with the idea though, because in the back of my mind, I'm fairly certain she'd dismiss the thought immediately. In spite of her occasional halfhearted stabs at self-deprecation, she pretty much believes she's not the one with the problem; we're the ones with the problem, the ones who need to change (if we want to).

It should not rule your life at this point, but it almost seems to.

It's just that I can't help but feel depressed every time she opens her mouth and says something critical to me. I can't just shrug it off. Sometimes it's because she suggests something that touches a self-critical nerve in me; other times it's just a feeling I have. But maybe it'll be a little easier now (although I kinda doubt it)...

Sorry to be so blunt, but I think you need to just be away from her and "do your own thing."

Blunt? On the contrary; you're one of the few voices of reason in my little self-contained world right now. For that I thank you.

Anonymous said...

Kenji, Your mother is the creator of the family dynamics, not you. You should not feel guilty about any part that you perceive you play in how she acts and reacts. From your description of the Bangor incident, it surely seems as if she has issues of her own to work out. They may involve your dad, but the key thing here is that they are HER issues and not yours.She is the parent. I believe in change also, but no matter how much you change,in your family dynamics it probably will not make much difference. It also is hard for you to change because of the years of negative messages you have been given. It is not a good thing or a bad thing---its just the way it is. It appears as if your mom is the dominant force here and she needs to look at her own behavior and how it contributes to the problem. You are not the problem, she is. While she may need appreciation and love, you need these things too---and are you getting them from her? You keep beating yourself up, but it is not in your control and you have more important things to concentrate on at this point in your life. AND I know its easy for me to say all this and its far more complicated and emotionally charged for you, and I can tell how deeply it affects you. I wish I could say it will get easier in the future, but........

kenjfuj said...

I guess the major problem raging inside me is that I wish I didn't see her as such an enemy, that I could think of her as a human beings, with needs and wants, with good characteristics and bad. But I can't help it; sometimes when I'm around her, I hate her guts, even when she isn't necessarily doing anything wrong. Perhaps that's why I beat myself up a lot, why I've tried to look at things her way in the past.

Anonymous said...

Kenji, You hold tremendous anger inside you; anger that has roots in the past and the things you hold your mother responsible for. You said it yoursef: "...in my heart, I feel as if all the bad things she's done to me has outweighed the good..." You need, somehow, to let go of that anger over the past---its making you uncomfortable. Nothing can be done about the past, nothing can change it. Your mother has issues; maybe her parenting style is not the most productive. Maybe she is unhappy with her life? Her issues are not your doing. The reality is, she is NOT your enemy and you really do not hate her---you hate what she has done but not her as a person (and as a mother). You need to separate out your ambivalent feelings and try to put the past aside and move forward. I know that is difficult because you are consumed by your feelings and emotions but until you find a way of logically dealing with this, you will have continual discomfort in your mother's presence and it will be a problem for you as it will drain your psychic energy which could be put to better use.

Anonymous said...

Hope I am giving you some food for thought and being helpful and supportive, at least a little.