Sibling Rivalry

Here’s how you get good old fashioned sibling rivalry. You have far too many kids, you spread them out into essentially two teams, so that both teams can resent not only each other but also the other team, and then you mix into the kids some medical and emotional problems and you top it off by raising these kids with aggressive detachment.

Now, I’ve made my peace with both my parents, if I hadn’t I wouldn’t be able to talk shit about them. They both read this thing, on and off, and over the years I’ve had it out with both of them. But the really unfortunate thing is that I haven’t ever had it out with my siblings.

We have reached a sort of peace over the years, the five of us. In the last five years, we have all gotten closer and closer to what we will be for the rest of our lives. All of our hulls were covered in barnacles years ago, and those barnacles are all that’s holding the ships together anymore, I don’t see any of us changing any time soon. But there is something about proximity that breeds contempt, and it concerns me.

Over the years, we have supported each other publicly while all the while mocking and celebrating one another’s failures within the family. Despite the fact that all the shit everyone has ever talked about me gets back to me, it took me years to realize that all my shit-talking was getting repeated. It’s a viscious circle, and it’s destructive.

But for years, the only way we could get attention paid to our problems was by stepping on the sibling closest to us. And it is a problem for parents. When one kid is in physical pain almost all the time, and the other kid is not doing well in school, it’s really hard to take the second kid’s problems all that seriously. It didn’t help matters that my mother has one of the most staggering and pronounced cases of ADD I’ve ever seen and my father was trying to negotiate the political waters of being an Important Man About Town. But in movies when the parents disappear and the kids rally around each other, that’s just crap. When there is five minutes total of possible attention, you just want your siblings to be dead.

And we’ve trained ourselves to be that way in our adult lives. When I think about my closest rivals, Ian and Michelle, all three of us have expansive personal and professional lives that receive plenty of attention. And yet, when we are locked in together over a long weekend or, y’know, for an entire dinner, at some point the old rivalries come out.

And here’s what is so wrong about that. Some years ago, during my first marriage, I used a term that I made up called “emotional ammunition”. My wife and I fought constantly, but my family also hated her desperately. I couldn’t talk to any of them about my unhappiness because there was a sense that my unhappiness was something they all wanted. It isn’t true, but it *is* true when you consider how much we have always torn each other down. I had no emotional ammunition to deal with either side. I not only lied to them about how happy I was, I lied to myself.

Which sounds like I’m blaming my family, but beleive me, I am firmly to blame for any and all mistakes I have made.

But there is a dynamic. Can Ian talk to me about fights he has with his wife? I hope he can, I would hope we both could. But how does he know that I’m not secretly revelling in the smallest problem he might have? We were joking about one time twenty five years ago when he was sitting on my chest punching me in the face, but we didn’t mention that he was doing that because I came home with a really good report card. It was spontaneous, the fight, and how can we know we’ve gotten past that?

My sister came to live with me for a few months, and I had really tried to set it up so that she could be happy, but I made her miserable. There were a hundred little things, long commutes, disagreements about her job, crap, really, but what it boiled down to was some sort of smothering feeling of being overwhelmed. There was a spontaneity to our fights, a source we couldn’t, either of us, figure out. She moved out, it got better, she moved to California and now we miss each other like crazy.

I think about these things because, right now, there is a crazy confluence of situations. Michelle just had a write up in the paper about her successes in turning around Napa Valley’s artistic community, and she has obviously come into her own in a way where she will finally be celebrated for the enormous talent that she is. She has finally succeeded on her own terms, she is not introduced as anyone’s sister, she is one of the most important people in a community full of wealthy important people. AND, Ian is about to become a father for the first time. His wife is set to pop any day now.

So, when I thin about Michelle running the artistic community in Napa, I picture her as she is now, but there is still the picture of the frustrated angry anal girl she was twenty years ago, furiously controlling every single aspect of her life. That picture, that little girl, that’s GONE. We’ve all grown, we’ve all matured and deepened and softened. Michelle has all the skills of that anal controlling girl, but she also has all the charm and beauty that has been the cornerstone of her personality for the last ten years. I’m talking to a woman who is 32, who is in charge of her life, who is admired and respected, and, in my pettiest moments, I still see the girl who, at 21, refused to go sledding because she had to finish her term paper a week early.

All I can do is start by promising that I won’t be that desperate child any more. I won’t be the foolish older brother, chain smoking and dirt bagging my way through life, mocking Michelle for not doing the same. Those are two different people. I feel my heart swell to 95% capacity when I think of Michelle, and that horrible child I was is stopping the other 5%. So, I kill off that terrible infant, and I can be free.

When I think about Ian becoming a father, I picture him now, but there is still that glimpse of him as the self absorbed slacker, the guy who is always trying to get something for nothing, desperately avoiding responsibility and maturity. But that guy is DEAD, he doesn’t exist anymore. All Ian has been for years now is a tender, responsible man, using those same skills he used to employ to make himself happy in order to make everyone else happy. This is a guy who has found a way to parlay his skills as social co-ordinator for the underclasses of UNC from ’85 to ’99, and to focus them instead on fostering an artistic community and leading a group of almost retarded actors to rally around the completion of a feature film.

I still picture that infantile jerk who hated rehearsal but loved performing, who loved road trips but never had any money, who wanted people to party at his house, but hid the expensive liquor. But he hasn’t been that guy in years and years. We still see each other the way we were in our early twenties, when our parents had divorced, when we were alone and broke and miserable.

The truth is, Ian will be a great father. Ian may be better equipped to be a father than most anyone else I know, because he will be *obsessed* with his daughter. She won’t ever want for attention, she won’t ever wonder if anyone’s listening, Ian will chronicle every second, every single second. And if she wants to learn how to build a snowmobile when she’s six, Ian will build it with her. If she wants to learn metalurgy at age ten, Ian will sit and learn it with her. It’s the younger brother in me, that lingering 5% of horrible child, that sees him in the bad light, as if suddenly a 17 year old Ian will be raising this girl instead of the twenty years of learning he has done since then.

As coincidence would have it, it turns out I’m buying a house. Tomorrow. Yeah. And this house needs a lot of work, most of it is work I’ve never done. But I’ve managed a property with 12 units now for almost a year, I’ve shepherded the space through a squi
rrel invasion and two bathroom face-lifts and plus, I’m a guy, now, who loves to work really really hard. I love to study and then apply what I’ve learned.

But that’s not who I’ve been. At age 8, I got a paper route and then quit it the first day. My dad said, “I knew you were going to quit it, Sean. You would never have been able to do it.” That’s not who I am now. If Michelle and Ian saw me as a self-obsessed drama queen, who was always claiming moral high-ground and suffering at 96 decibels, all the while doing exactly what I want whenever I want to and having a relatively easy path of it, I couldn’t argue. That’s who I was.

I have to start by being emotional ammunition for them. I have to start by saying what I believe, that buying a house is sort of a big deal but nowhere near as impressive as the changes Ian and Michelle are making to their fundamental being. That child, the 5% that lingers, he isn’t really here any more, but his memory is strong.

I am sort of proud of being able to buy a house. I am, not proud really, but really happy that I’m in a good marriage now. But I am just swolled up to the heavens with Ian and Tessa and Michelle. Ian and Tessa are bringing in a new life to our family, and Michelle is being the woman she has always been, and in a situation where she can finally be celebrated for it. I’m about ready to pop with pride for all of them. I don’t know why I’m unabashed, why that competitive angry child isn’t rearing his head, but when I think of them, I am humbled, I am amazed, I am excited, and I feeling nothing but celebration and celebration and celebration.

Of course, if Fleet Week becomes a hit, then they won’t have done *shit* compared to me.