“You know everyone!” I once gushed to my aunt after she exchanged hellos with a familiar face at a Tom Thumb grocery store in Dallas. She shrugged in response. “Well, I’ve lived here a long time.”
That hardly happened where we lived. Los Angeles during the 1980s was easier to navigate, since less traffic compared to today meant the city felt open for exploring. Beach every weekend? Sure! But our lives were a series of anti-local, community-defying tradeoffs. None of my school friends lived nearby. We’d drive miles to go grocery shopping at a higher quality market where we were just as likely to spot Mr. T filling up his cart than someone we actually knew in real life.
Now as an L.A. native, I see people I know around town, and I love it. (We also have great food shopping options in our own neighborhood, thankfully.) Meanwhile, as possibly a bizarre twist of karmic balance, it drives my two boys crazy when I see a friend and stop whatever we’re doing to enjoy a little conversation. “When I was your age, I WISHED that would happen,” I try to explain, this unwarranted commentary falling on deaf ears, naturally.
After I made a passing joke about a certain “Curb Your Enthusiasm” bit, my older son became quick to tell me, “NO MORE STOP AND CHATS!”
But there’s another explanation for his resistance. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, so his social experience of the world is radically different than mine.
He likes people. He likes many a lot, in fact. He just wants to deal with them on his own terms, when he feels like it, and in very specific ways. Much like Larry often finds his West L.A. milieu oppressive and constantly finds himself in hot water after misreading social cues (and also for just being a schmuck), my son usually wants to move on to whatever activity he’s set his sights on. He doesn’t care if an awkwardly abrupt farewell violates unspoken decorum that doesn’t make much sense to him to begin with.
For me, master of the Jewish goodbye, those tendencies and behavior are, frankly, kind of a bummer. Sometimes he’ll find something to occupy his attention or a buddy to pal around with. Other times, he nearly attempts to pull my arm out of its socket since I’m unable to give myself the cane. Regardless, I’m always running a calculus in my mind of how I can squeeze in some chitchat and make sure he’s not getting overwhelmed or too frustrated.
On the one hand, I want to be one of those nonchalant moms. Me, one of those over-indulgent types? No way! (Yeah, right.) Matching my son’s rigidity with inflexibility doesn’t work either, and sometimes I catch myself more concerned with the type of parenting image I’m projecting to my peers than what my son needs in that moment and in the long term.
After I got yanked away by my younger, generally more patient son when talking to a friend we saw at the local grocery store recently, I shot off an apologetic text along the lines of, “Sorry my son was being a dick.” Again, another attempt at I’m-not-one-of-those-neurotic-parents irreverence. I’m willing to criticize my kids! Or is this attitude more about my ego and self-image elbowing their way up front? It might be good to resist reflexive aspects of our child-centric culture, and yet if my son asks to leave, I should put my money where my mouth is and do “good listening.”
Unlike the skewed sense I had of my aunt’s local celebrity status, I’ll keep cultivating a small town feel in our big metropolis. Learning to wrap up the small talk and deepening my understanding of my son’s particular needs, while also encouraging my boys to curb their inner Larry Davids, will be an ongoing balancing act. It’s all part of a complicated parenting package that includes other challenges, such as figuring out when it’s OK to schedule the kids’ birthday parties.