The shifting tectonic plates, part one

Two days after my birthday, the tectonic plates of my life started shifting. While I am not a believer in fortune-telling, one has to wonder if the stars and planets were aligned just so, to produce so much upheaval in such a short time! This chapter covers the first of the changes, involving my father-in-law.

For the more than 18 years that Tawn and I have been together, my father-in-law has wanted no interaction with me. Not atypical for a Thai-Chinese father, he wanted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Tawn’s relationship with me. In fact, the only time we spent together was some 15 years ago when Tawn’s parents came to visit him in San Francisco. That was limited to a visit to Mission Dolores and then dinner at a French restaurant.

In the 13 years since I moved to Bangkok, we have had only one very brief interaction until two months ago. Two months ago, while Tawn was taking his parents to the hospital for a check-up, he mentioned that I was going to be there, too, for an appointment. His father waited to see me, but that interaction lasted less than two minutes.

Then, two days after my birthday, Tawn had a severe allergic reaction to some medicine and I had to rush him to the emergency room. (He is fine now.) He called his parents and they joined, resulting in us spending the day together and having to confer on decisions about the best course of treatment.

At the end of the day as the staff was preparing Tawn for release, Tawn’s father suggested that if I had to work the following day, I should drop Tawn off at their house and they would look after him.

The following morning, after taking some conference calls from home, I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house – about a ten-minute drive from ours. Tawn’s father came out and greeted me and suggested that after work, I come back to fetch Tawn and he would open a bottle of wine for us.

That evening, I stopped by after dark, not sure what to expect. What do you discuss with a father-in law with whom you have had no real interaction? Tawn’s father greeted me, invited me in and for the next two hours, served wine, engaged in a conversation about many things (including wanting to understand more about what I do for work) and we had dinner.

The evening ended with a “will see you again soon” that seemed to indicate that a new era has opened. In speaking with Tawn, we suspect that this medical emergency was sort of a catalyst. Perhaps Tawn’s father had already softened some time ago, but had not had an opportunity to break down the walls. The medical emergency provided the opportunity.

That was about five weeks ago and I haven’t seen Tawn’s father since, so we’re easing into this brave new world. But we have a holiday meal planned for the next week and I suspect that it will change the landscape of our world considerably.

For my own reflection, I realize that while I had accepted from the start that Tawn’s father’s openness and acceptance was not something I should expect or hope for, deep inside I think there was a lot of insecurity festering.

We don’t have the legal protections in Thailand that a married couple in the United States or some other countries have. Knowing that, if something happened to Tawn, my rights to his portion of our property could be challenged by his father, created underlying tension. As the relationship with his father has improved, it lets me relax my guard a bit and worry a little less about the future.

 

Visiting my Thai Relatives

One of the biggest highlights of our vacation was spending time with Tawn’s relatives.  Some time ago, I wrote about the complicated relationship I have with Tawn’s father.  While he has acknowledged that I exist and we met on two occasions before I moved to Thailand, he doesn’t want to confront that aspect of who Tawn is.  This is, broadly speaking, a typical “Asian father” sort of mindset. 

Because of that, we have had no interaction in the nearly six years that I’ve lived here.  Tawn’s mother is very welcoming but around here, the man rules the roost, so I only rarely manage to see Tawn’s mother or any other relative.  This has left me feeling a sense of disconnection from Tawn’s side of the family, a stark contrast to the very close relationship Tawn has with my family.

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Tawn’s cousin and his family, me and Tawn, and my sister and her family.  When considered as a whole, I would call it “my family”.

One big exception to the gulf that keeps me away from my in-laws is Tawn’s aunt and uncle in Los Angeles.  Tawn’s aunt is his father’s older sister.  She and her husband moved to LA more than four decades ago and raised a family there, three boys who are around our ages, and now five grandchildren.  Since first visiting them almost a decade back, they have been very accepting, supporting us, welcoming us into their family, and advocating on our behalf.

Two of their three sons still live in Los Angeles.  I hadn’t seen them since that first visit but we stay in touch regularly through Facebook.  This vacation presented the perfect opportunity not only to see them and meet their children, but also to introduce their family to my family and bridge that disconnect I feel.

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We were able to meet with one cousin, Pete, and his wife and two girls Saturday afternoon at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.  (A mighty fine aquarium, I’ll add.)  The girls are roughly the same ages as my nieces (although Emily is a head taller than Jessie), so it provided them some new friends to meet and made it easier to break the ice.

Both Jessie and Sydney are very cute and outgoing.  After about a half-hour of walking through exhibits, Sydey tugged on my pants leg and asked if she could hold my hand.  Later on, Jessie stopped me and said, “Can I tell you something?  You’re really nice.”  I’m not sure what she expected, but am glad I made a good impression.

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Lots of interactive exhibits kept Sydney, Jessie, Ava, and Emily entertained and engaged.

After spending several hours together, we met up for dinner with the other cousin, Don, his wife and three children, and Tawn’s aunt and uncle.  Spread across a very large table – we ended up being 17 people! – I got to know Tawn’s cousins better, seemed to be the center of attention for their children, and for a few hours felt less disconnected to Tawn’s side of the family.

Unfortunately we didn’t take a picture as I’d love to show you that lovely group.  But picture or no, it was still a wonderful opportunity to get together and, for me, helped a bit to bridge the gap that I feel.  I know many married couples don’t have close relationships with their in-laws.  Ultimately, though, I’d like to have as close a relationship with Tawn’s family as he has with mine.

 

Ruining Our Lives for an Ideal

Certified Copy A few days ago, I finally caught the film Certified Copy at the local art cinema.  Directed and written by Iranian Abbas Kiarostami and starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, the movie is an afternoon-long discussion by a man and a woman as they visit a Tuscan town.  Their conversation covers a lot of ground and it is never clear whether they are or are not a married couple.

As the story opens, we see that he is an author in town on a Saturday afternoon for a speaking engagement about his new book, in which he argues that copies of masterpieces are as valuable as the originals themselves, in that the copies can bring us to the originals and a greater appreciation of them.  She is in the audience but has to leave early, giving her number to the organizer of the event.  

The following morning, he shows up at her shop and she drives him to a nearby town to see a famous painting there that was, after hundreds of years being assumed to be an original work, determined eventually to be a copy.  It is on that journey that their conversation happens.

I won’t talk about the film as a whole, although it is worth watching.  What struck me, so much so that I grabbed a notepad from my bag and scribbled it down, was a phrase uttered by a secondary character. 

The man and woman stop for a coffee at a small shop.  The man steps outside to take a phone call and the old lady running the shop speaks with the woman.  She assumes that the man and woman are married, an assumption the woman does nothing to dispel.  In fact, the woman complains about her husband’s long absences for work, propensity to shave only every other day, and his other faults.

The old woman running the shop observes that it is a Sunday morning and the man has taken his wife out for some coffee, whereas most men would instead choose to sleep in.  “It would be stupid of us to ruin our lives for an ideal,” she admonishes the woman.

It would be stupid of us to ruin our lives for an ideal.

That line seems a very apt piece of advice, both about relationships (certainly!) as well as our lives in general.  It also seems to balance nicely the entry I recently wrote about being the best possible version of ourselves.  While perfection cannot be achieved and we should certainly strive to be our best, what is the value of striving if the cost is the ruination of our lives?

 

Visualizing Relationships

People relate to data in different ways.  I’m very much a visual learner and putting data in charts, graphs, or other sorts of illustrations help me understand, absorb, and put the information into context.  I’ve also found it useful to track data that is important to me.  Many people use tools like this – think of exercise logs to keep track of your progress towards fitness goals.  Several companies now provide software solutions that make it easier for people to tabulate whatever it is they want to tabulate, then turn it into graphs and charts.

Recently, I tried out an application from TouchGraph, a New York-based company that specializes in visualization tools and they created this Facebook application as an experiment to demonstrate the capabilities of their technology.  Other companies that provide other visual relationship applications include LinkedIn and Daytum.com.  After entering your username and password – TouchGraph accesses your information only with your permission – they application generates a variety of charts to map the relationships of your Facebook friends. 

TouchGraph 100 TouchGraph 200 TouchGraph 300 TouchGraph 500 TouchGraph All

Here are thumbnails of increasing numbers of my Facebook friends, from my 100 “top friends” on the left (no explanation on what constitutes a “top friend” in TouchGraph’s scheme of things) to all of my more than 600 Facebook friends on the right.  I’m fascinated to watch how the groupings make small shifts as more people, and thus more relationships, are factored into the graphic.

TouchGraph 300 - Annotated

I also found it interesting just to observe how these relationships are mapped out.  Using the 300 friends setting, I found nine primary identifiable groups from which my relationships arise.  AMC Theatres was my first real job after being a newspaper delivery boy and I continued working with the company through university and even for several years after.  Needless to say, a lot of my connections were made there. 

One area that is missing is a significant number of friends from post-secondary school.  I changed schools twice en route to my degree, and only lived on campus for six months total, so my number of university friends is less than a dozen.

What’s also interesting to me is the California-centric nature of my contacts!  No surprise, I suppose, given that I grew up in the Bay Area and lived in Southern California several times.  But everyone to the left and above the dashed line is pretty much in California or else that’s where I originally knew them.

Anyhow, that’s more than you probably wanted to know about my life.  I found it interesting, though. 

 

How Does Your Partner View Your Virtual Friends?

Virtual friends: How do they stack up in the pecking order of friendships?  Are they real?  This is a topic that has probably been discussed a thousand times on Xanga but I don’t know if we’ve ever discussed what our partners, spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends think about it.  This comes to mind because I recently had a conversation with another Xangan and this person’s significant other is very uncomfortable with the idea of this person having these virtual friends with whom details of his or her life is shared.

I’ll be the first to admit, back in 1997 I dated a guy who liked to spend time on ICQ, the first internet-wide instant messaging service, and I was perplexed and somewhat dismissive of the “friends” he claimed to have made online.  When he moved to Los Angeles I had the opportunity to meet one of them, and he and his partner did seem to be genuinely nice people.  Still, I was suspicious of how well you could really know someone with whom you only interacted in a chat environment.  This, of course, was before blogs really started.

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When I started blogging five years ago, I did it just to keep family and friends informed of my experiences moving to Thailand.  The idea of making new friends through the blog never crossed my mind.  Over time, though, I did start making online friends and eventually had the opportunity to meet several people in person.  Initially, they were friends of people I already knew in real life.  Then, they were people who were traveling in Bangkok so we would meet for coffee or a meal or I would be visiting somewhere and would make the time to meet them. 

I even traveled a few hundred miles out of my way two summers ago to visit the famous Dr. Zakiah and her family.  When I was flying on the prop plane from St. Louis up to Quincy, the thought crossed my mind, “Her family must think she’s nuts, inviting some guy flying all the way from Bangkok to stay in her house!”  But if they did think those thoughts, they kept them well hidden and were so wonderfully welcoming.

Over the years, Tawn has met many of these Xanga friends and he has found that they usually turn out to be warm, thoughtful, stable individuals.  Nobody longing to break up our marriage and tempt me away.  Nobody frightening.  Nobody trying too hard to insinuate themselves into our lives in an overly-familiar way.  So I’ve come to take for granted that he has no worries about my virtual friends and in fact has come to enjoy the company of many of them.

What about you and your partner, spouse, etc?  How does he or she view your virtual friendships?

 

Additional reading: entry on The Change Blog about building positive virtual friendships.

 

Danny and Annie

StoryCorps is an oral history project in the US, an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of their lives.  Credit goes to Jacquie for posting this on her site yesterday.  It is the heartfelt story of Danny and Annie Perasa – a combination of an interview of them talking about their first date and then a subsequent interview made just a few days before Danny died of cancer.  I want to share it with you.  Grab some tissues before you watch, though.

(Interestingly, StoryCorps has set at least two of their featured stories to animation, which is an interesting twist.  You can follow their YouTube channel here.  For more StoryCorps stories, please visit their website.)

The thing I’m reminded of when listening to this story, is that a large portion of the success and joy in our relationships with others is based on how we approach those relationships.  Writing a note to that person every day, regularly telling them how much we love them, and appreciating all the good things about the relationship instead of focusing on the obstacles and frustrations – that’s how we make those relationships meaningful!

 

Being Judgmental

“Don’t judge me” seems to be a common defense used by those who don’t like what they are hearing.  But what draws the line between being judgmental and showing constructive concern?  Recently I’ve encountered two people who both feel like they are being judged but I’m not sure that they really are.

The first person is an internet friend whom I recently met in person for the first time.  We have several mutual friends and had corresponded from time to time on Facebook and through other channels.  When we first met face-to-face, within minutes he was sharing a very high level of personal detail about his sex life.  Suffice it to say, he enjoys collecting a wide range of sexual partners and he documents those experiences in detail.

Now, I’m a man of the world.  I’ve heard it all and seen quite a bit, too.  So there was nothing he shared that shocked or offended me.  Certainly, I can think of things I would rather discuss than how much fun he had in a threesome with a pair of Nordic men the night before, but it is his life and body and I am not going to judge his actions “right” or “wrong”.

Along the course of the conversation he shared two things.  The first was that, if I understand him correctly, he is really curious why he hasn’t found a long-term relationship.  The second is that he is frustrated with some of our mutual friends because he feels they judge him.

He didn’t say what they’ve done or said that counts as judgment.  But based on my own observation, I can only imagine that they’ve seen his behavior and listened to him profess a desire for a stable relationship and perhaps they’ve mentioned to him that one is not very helpful in begetting the other.  Does that count as judgment?  I don’t think it does.  It is a matter of people pointing out what behavior is helpful and what behavior is not helpful in terms of reaching the goals and desires we set for ourselves.

Another case: Another friend, one whom I’ve known for a bit longer, is very desirous of a long-term relationship as well.  The people to whom he is attracted are, on a number of levels, not very conducive to the things he wants.  He wants a stable relationship with someone who doesn’t just love him for his comparative wealth, someone who loves him for who he is as a person, and someone with whom he can talk about his varied interests.

The challenge is, the people he chooses to date are usually about half his age, come from a significantly lower socioeconomic status, don’t speak English very well, and are neither familiar with nor particularly interested in discussing global economics, politics and other things that are of interest to him.  Recently, he has expressed that he is feeling judged by his friends here in Bangkok – me included – about his choice of people to date. 

If we hold up a mirror and suggest that he might find the stable relationship he’s looking for if he fishes in a pool that has the right kind of fish, is that being judgmental?  I personally haven’t told him that what he is doing is right or wrong, good or bad.  I don’t care who he dates.  I don’t care how old or young they are, where they are from, what their financial position in the world is, etc.  But as a friend, if he says (and shows) that he wants to be in a relationship and is depressed when yet another guy turns out to be not the right one, isn’t it reasonable that I’ll try to help him see how he could improve his chances?

Sometimes I think that people let themselves feel like they are being judged as an excuse to avoid really looking critically at their own decisions and behaviors and the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of both.