Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Culture Clash

I’m typing this inbound after three weeks of winter vacation in the Southwest, the last four days of which were with my family in Las Vegas. While that was mostly a good time, it ended awkwardly and I want to explore the hurt and confusion at the end. During the long Christmas weekend in Nevada there were 11 of us in the mix and I think it best to begin this narration with an introduction to the basic cast, so I can properly set the stage:

Dramatis Personae
o Laird (your 60-year-old narrator for this passion play)

o Ma’ikwe (my 39-year-old wife of 2+ years)

o Jibran (her 12-year-old son)

o Ceilee (my 28-year-old son)

o Tosca (his 29-year-old wife)

o Taivyn (their 20-month-old daughter)

o Jo (my 22-year-old daughter)

o Annie (Ceilee’s 59-year-old mother; my ex-partner)

o Laurie (Tosca’s 25-year-old sister)

o Bob (Tosca’s 75-year-old grandfather)

o Juanita (Tosca’s septuagenarian grandmother)

The Back Story
Bob & Juanita have a house, a nice house (roughly midway between a suburban home for a retired couple and a palatial entertainment estate) in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb on the southeast side. This house is affectionately referred to as the "Big House."

Ceilee & Tosca own a more conventionally-sized suburban house in the Mountains Edge development in the southwest corner of Las Vegas. With four house guests, the capacity of this residence was maxed out.

I live at Sandhill Farm, an income-sharing community in northeast Missouri. Annie helped me start that community 35 years ago, and both Ceilee and Jo were raised there. Annie currently lives a similar rustic lifestyle at Left Bank, a rural land trust community outside Floyd VA. Ma’ikwe lives a similar lifestyle at Dancing Rabbit, just a a two-mile crow flight northeast of Sandhilll.

Tosca grew up in De Soto MO, and was strongly influenced by Bob & Juanita, who have been highly successful in the tire business. She spent a fair amount of her childhood visiting her grandparents at their home in Las Vegas, and has always had a positive feeling about the place. Tosca and Laurie both enjoy the stimulation of urban life and the things and opportunities that money can buy. Having said that, all the adults in the cast have virtual calluses on their hands from regularly pulling an oar when there's work to be done. That is, everyone likes to help out.

All of the player’s have a caring personality and are unpretentious. Everyone enjoys spending time with Taivyn, who is thoroughly loved, has a sunny disposition, and is all the more precious for being the acknowledged start of the next generation of two family bloodlines.

Ceilee works in management for Cricket, an up-and-coming cell phone company. He works long hours and is the sole breadwinner in his family. Tosca manages the house and takes primary care of Taivyn. For the Christmas weekend, Ceilee only had to work a few hours Christmas Eve; otherwise he was able to enjoy a rare four-day weekend.

As new parents, Ceilee and Tosca seldom get a day off together without Taivyn.

Setting the Scene
Ma’ikwe is struggling with health issues. As the pattern of her symptoms has become clearer in recent months, it seems likely that she has some form of fibromyalgia, and possibly multiple sclerosis. She’s working with a number of health care practitioners to refine the diagnosis and to determine the best course of treatment. For now at least, she's trying to get on top of this without relying on any heavy-duty allopathic drugs, which course I support. At this early stage, she is mainly trying to be more careful about her diet (consuming minimal amounts of wheat, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, while making sure to eat some meat every day) and to get plenty of rest.

Jibran didn’t have anyone near his age in this setting. While he is mostly able to entertain himself, he likes to pay games and was given a complex and popular board game called Arkham Horror by Ceilee & Tosca for Christmas. Naturally enough, he immediately wanted to play the game (and had good prospects in that most of my family loves to play board games), but had not succeeded in getting an opportunity to more than start learning it under Jo’s tutelage (she has a version at home and is something of an expert), with Tosca and me learning at the same time. We had only completed one round with the four of us before we needed to suspend play Saturday afternoon in order to keep a dinner reservation, and everyone was too tied to resume when we made it home at 10 pm. This was frustrating for Jibran, yet he held out hopes of returning to the game Sunday, our last day in Vegas.

Laurie had just arrived in town Christmas Day (Friday) for the start of a visit through Jan 12. She had just moved to St Louis (from Columbia MO) after a difficult relationship break-up, and was looking forward to some healing and connecting time with family. She and Tosca are very close, and Laurie loves being a doting aunt to Taivyn (who calls her Aunt Yah-Yah; which everyone views as an inspired fit with her fireball personality). At the same time, as often happens with siblings close in age, too much time together can lead to strain between the sisters, and Tosca was trying to suss out how much time with Laurie was optimal.

Some of us like watching football (Ceilee, Bob, Tosca, myself, and to some extent Ma’ikwe); the others believe you can have a decent life and never watch football.

Some of us like to gamble (Ceilee and Tosca in particular; Bob, Jo, and myself to some extent); others have no interest.

While all of the adults drink alcohol, some do so sparingly and others with gusto. Navigating this range comfortably can be a challenge.

As all of us enjoy good food (whew), meals are often a highlight of our time together, and generally offer a reliable touchstone for social occasions. This particular configuration of characters first coalesced for Christmas dinner at the Big House, followed by a Saturday night dinner that Ceilee had arranged at Buca di Beppo, a boisterous national Italian restaurant chain where Ceilee regularly entertains clients. (Amazingly enough, we ate in the "Pope Room," which features what must be the epitome of Catholic kitsch—an upper half bust of Pope Benedict XVI, smiling benevolently from the center of a lazy susan which dominates the center of the table.)

Sunday's Drama
All along, Sunday had been earmarked for the bettors and football enthusiasts to spend a chunk of the day at a Sports Book, where we could place bets and watch NFL football games.

Despite this clear starting point, the day unfolded in confusion—which, as it turned out, was a theme we continued throughout the day. The night before, following the pasta extravaganza, Ceilee had hired a party van (something that’s a regular part of the landscape in Vegas, apparently) to drive us through a section of a nearby park where a passel of local companies, Cricket among them, had set up a fantastic Christmas light show.

It was 9 pm by the time we had reconvened in the parking lot of Buca di Beppo, and it took a while to sort out what would happen next. The contingent of Ceilee, Jo, and Laurie wound up heading for a nightcap at a bar, followed by a session in the hot tub at the Big House, where the three of them ultimately crashed for the night. While Bob & Juanita weren’t up for more partying, they were happy to take Taivyn home with them, making a total of six in Henderson. The remainder (Tosca, Annie, Ma’ikwe, Jibran, and I) headed back to Mountain’s Edge and an early bedtime.

While this plan gave Tosca a night off from parental care (a good thing), it complicated Sunday’s arrangements, which remained unsettled as everyone went to bed.

There were three wrinkles that prevented the fog from lifting early: a) not having all the players in the same house—despite the miracle of modern telephony, it’s still not as good as having everyone in the same room; b) Ceilee was hoping to go to Emeril Lagasse Stadium at the Palazzo (a major casino/hotel on the Strip), which is a celebrity chef’s Sports Book that opened just three months ago—synergisticly commingling football, gambling, and high-end snack food (imagine salmon tartare served up on rice cakes), but that was dependent on Bob being willing to use the pull of his AmEx black card to pry open a luxury suite at the last minute, and Ceilee hadn’t broached that idea with him yet; and c) Ceilee—one of Saturday night’s party hardy crew—was not quick out of the starting gate Sunday morning.

The Early Action
While most of us at the Mountains Edge house slept great, Tosca had had some disturbing dreams about misplacing her baby (pretty understandable when your child is sleeping in a different house) and arose worrying about logistics. She fielded a phone call from friends wanting to know which Sports Book we'd be rendezvousing at; when she put them on hold to check with Ceilee (out in Henderson) she learned he hadn't gotten out of bed yet. Frustrating!

After the long evening the night before she wasn't sure if she wanted to go with the boys to the Sports Book or not; maybe she'd have a better day staying home and playing games with Jibran and others (which was music to Jibran's ears). When Ceilee arose and called back, he reported that Bob was interested in the Lagasse Stadium idea, but they couldn't be certain of getting in. At this point, Tosca gladly handed off the baton of Sunday Coordinator to Ceilee.

While Tosca, Annie, and Ma'ikwe went to a 10:30 am yoga class (with Tosca still undecided about how she wanted to spend the rest of the day), Ceilee took our bets over the phone and raced out the door to place them at the nearest Sports Book before the 10 am kick-off PST. Jibran and I figured we had time to walk the dog, so we made a brisk 30-minute circuit around the neighborhood, taking us right up to the edge of the desert on the west and south. (It's such an mind boggling juxtaposition having raw rock in one direction, and then turning around to find typical suburban development in the near foreground, boundaried by total glitz on the horizon—there's no place like Vegas.)

While Jibran and I cooled our heels in front of Ceilee's TV set, Ceilee (working in concert with the AmEx concierge) was able to wangle a reservation at Lagasse Stadium for the second games, starting at 1 pm. Because they needed to show up right away to secure the spot, he asked me to meet him there, inside the Plazzo casino. I no sooner hung up than the women waltzed in the door post-yoga, and Tosca decided spontaneously that the opportunity to experience Lagasse Stadium was too enticing to pass up. Grabbing her purse, we jumped in the car and headed for the Strip. If you're keeping score at home, that left Annie, Ma'ikwe, and Jibran at Mountains Edge and Juanita, Laurie, and Taivyn in Henderson.

The Middle Action
Tosca & I were the last to arrive at Lagasse, settling into cushy banquette seating just as the first games were winding down. We just had time to get down a beer and a few final bets before the second games started and we were ushered into Luxury Box #3 (of a total of six). There, in addition to exclusive access to four large-screen digital TVs (showing each of the four games happening concurrently), we had a private waitress and our own pool table (in case the games were not sufficiently riveting or aerobic). It was, in short, a trip.

The food, as expected, was excellent. The football, while up an down, was also as expected. None of the bettors did particularly well, nor did any suffer horribly (I finished the four-day run having wagered $170 and netting $7.55 (which is a particularly modest gain in light having taken Ceilee for $10 in a couple games of 8-ball). As the football wound down, Tosca lost interest early, and after wandering outside the luxury suite, she settled into a session of video poker. She hadn't been there for more than 15 minutes when word came back that she'd won one pot for $134 and another for $80. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that put the taste in her mouth and thoughts of returning home to pick up the suspended game of Arkham Horror faded into the background.

The Late Action
When Philadelphia finally pulled it out with a late field goal against Denver and the last of the second games had ended, we quit our box at Lagasse Stadium. After Ceilee retrieved his car from valet parking, he gave it to Bob to drive back to Henderson. It was 5 pm and the rest of us had the evening in front of us. Walking back upstairs into the casino, people wanted to gamble. As I felt I'd had enough gambling on football, I was happy just to be with my kids and watch. Ceilee & Jo played blackjack side by side, while I stood behind them and coached Jo (in such fine pints as not taking a hit that risked her going bust if the dealer's up card was a 4, 5, or 6—as there are no longer many chances for me to teach my grown kids anything that they're interested in learning, I take my opportunities where I find them). While no winning streak went supernova, neither did the dealer become Darth Vader, and both of my kids finished slightly up.

Meanwhile, Tosca—she of the hot hand—opted for three-card poker, where she promptly hit a straight flush worth $600. When I walked over to congratulate her on her success, I watched her cash three 7s for an additional big payday, and the game was on. After taking a break to go to the bathroom, Tosca resumed her one-woman assault on the house by tackling roulette, where she won again.

By this point, we'd been gambling for about two hours and Laurie called, wondering what the plan was for the rest of the evening—she had dropped Taivyn off at Mountains Edge and wanted to meet up with the group on the Strip (though not particularly a gambler, she wanted to party). Simultaneously, Ma'ikwe also called to find out what was happening. Jibran was getting pretty frustrated about losing his chance to play Arkham Horror and Ma'ikwe couldn't understand people choosing to gamble over spending the last evening together as family. I could see it both ways and knew that there wasn't going to be an easy fit between what was wanted by the group on the Strip and the group at Mountains Edge.

On the one hand, it was easy to sympathize with Ma'ikwe wanting to be with family, and I knew that the casino wasn't going to do it. Jibran, as a minor, couldn't be there at all, and Ma'ikwe needed something more calming than casino action.

On the other hand, it was equally easy to sympathize with Ceilee, Jo, and Tosca wanting to stay on the Strip: it was a rare night out where they knew that Taivyn was being well taken care of; Ceilee & Jo were getting some rare adult sibling time together; and they had prospects of getting some time with Laurie where the young adults could frolic together.

It's hard when everyone's desires don't line up well, and it was a downer ending to an otherwise highly enjoyable visit. Tosca and Ceilee had gone out of their way to totally welcome Ma'ikwe, Jibran and me into their home for a holiday weekend, and completely included us in the Christmas ritual. The Sports Book gambling session Sunday was the exception to that, and yet that was the lingering aftertaste and I felt powerless to deflect her anger. Sometimes you just have to take it.

The Even Later Action
After listening to Ma'ikwe's lament it seemed the sensible thing for me to do was to take Tosca's car and return home. Though I had been drinking beer at Lagasse Stadium, I had quit when the football ended and I was in good shape to drive (unlike the gamblers, who had continued to imbibe as they flowed onto the casino floor). They knew they'd be taking a taxi home and were fine with my taking the car.

I got home without mishap a little after 8 pm, just as Annie, Ma'ikwe and Jibran had started watching the latest Star Trek movie on pay-per-view. Ma'ikwe was in a better space by the time I had returned (and was relieved that I didn't reek of alcohol). After the movie, we all went to bed, and I never heard the arrival of the late night revelers circa 3 am.

While I was somewhat wistful about not spending those extra hours with my kids when they were having fun together, I needed to drive to Albuquerque the next day and I was thoroughly grateful to have had a full night's sleep. Also, my returning home was the right thing to do in support of Ma'ikwe, who especially needs to be able to count on me as she weathers her current health challenges.
• • •
So what is the lesson? While I'm still sorting that out, I think there's something about acceptance, something about patience, and something about not expecting all the puzzle pieces to fit together just because that would be handy.

The lifestyles of the 11 people in this drama demonstrably do not fit together. We nevertheless make an attempt in the name of family, which is both admirable and understandable, yet undeniably a stretch. Looked at from this perspective, I don't think that the tensions that surfaced Sunday are anyone's fault per se. Rather, I think that some degree of awkwardness was inevitable. The question is how can we anticipate and prepare for it better?

Ma'ikwe and I have to sort of how much it makes sense to spend time with people and in settings that are more comfortable for one of us than the other. While we generally enjoy being together (and the opportunities to do so are precious given that we don't live together), that may not always be the right choice.

While I'm not going to give up seeing my kids, Ma'ikwe and I probably have to negotiate more carefully about how and/or whether it's going to work for her and/or Jibran to be with me and my kids at the same time. I don't want anyone to be unhappy, yet I also don't feel that the responsibility for everyone's happiness lies wholly with me. Sunday evening I was forced to choose between my kids and my wife, and I didn't like it one bit. As I digest what happened last weekend, I'm going to try hard to do what I can to avoid being caught in that same situation in the future.

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