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None of the books have time

June 14, 2011

For the past eleven days, I have had houseguests. And not just any houseguests—these houseguests were my aged parents, here for their oldest granddaughter’s high school graduation. Ron and I have been sleeping on the fold-out couch in our living room and we have all been dancing attendance on them in myriad ways. These are people who used to be clever at card games and now sometimes get a little confused. These are the people who taught me how to whisper snide comments during events like student voice recitals and who are now so hard of hearing their comments carry a tiny bit too far. These are some of the people I love best in the world, but who can push my buttons like no one else can.

In short, it was eleven days in which I tried my hardest to be a good hostess, a good mother to the graduating senior and the younger kid (who had a chess victory and a voice recital during his sister’s big event) and an understanding wife and reassuring cat owner (cats hate household upheaval, especially when they are shut out of “their” bedroom).

I feel like I have tried very hard, and as usual, only Larkin can come closest to describing how it feels:

None of the books have time
To say how being selfless feels,
They make it sound a superior way
Of getting what you want. It isn’t at all.

Selflessness is like waiting in a hospital
In a badly-fitting suit on a cold wet morning.
Selfishness is like listening to good jazz
With drinks for further orders and a huge fire.

Having my parents here was part selflessness and part selfishness, kind of a bewildering mix. I’d get up early in the morning, dash off to buy orange juice so my mother would have some when she woke up, and then sit down to our favorite card game, called Rage, to see who would get so worked up they’d explode. And then we’d have lunch and rhubarb pie, my father’s favorite. The kids and I would clean up the kitchen and maybe put something on for supper and do some laundry, and then it would be time for another game or party or scheduled pleasure.

Sometimes the pleasure of a “huge fire” is intensified by the “cold wet morning” you have to go through to get there. But after days of “waiting in a hospital” you’re glad to be able to stop, even if the pleasures of the “good jazz” and “drinks” have stopped, too.

My father used to like to say in answer to a party host’s polite “we enjoyed having you” that he “enjoyed being had.” That about sums it up.

I did not even pick up the book I’ve been reading for the past eleven days.  None of my time had books…which is almost unprecedented for me.  How about you?  What keeps you from reading?

35 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2011 9:33 am

    The thing that most keeps me from reading is the restless sense of a need to be elsewhere, even if there’s no real elsewhere you need to be. At least, that’s today’s excuse. I didn’t even bring a book with me on this trip. A crossword puzzle was all the concentration I could muster. Sometimes I need more action to distract me.

    • June 15, 2011 8:34 am

      I get like that during chess tournaments. There’s a point where I can’t do anything but pace.

  2. June 14, 2011 9:33 am

    Well honestly driving keeps me from reading. I read far more when I travel for work than when I’m off the road.

    Sounds all in all like a good visit. No one died, everyone is still talking to each other, right?

    • June 15, 2011 8:38 am

      Yes–no one even got sick, and there were no serious disagreements that I know of. Driving for me almost always means audiobooks, except that lately my daughter wants to share the music on her ipod more than she wants to listen to an audiobook. I recently discovered I like a really creepy song from the musical Next to Normal called “I’m Alive.”

  3. June 14, 2011 10:15 am

    I agree with edj3 — Sounds like a good visit if everyone is still friends at the end 🙂 I get distracted from reading by things I make up for myself… television shows, chores, whatever. And now that it’s summer, trying to find time outside.

    • June 15, 2011 8:39 am

      I have some good chairs for reading outside. Unfortunately, they’re all sanded and waiting for me to repaint them!

  4. June 14, 2011 10:16 am

    Eleven days? You should have just rented the whole house to your guests, and used the money to stay in a hotel for two weeks.

    Everything keeps me from reading (by which I assume you mean reading fiction). Especially what I’m doing right now, typing a string of characters into a black box with a pixellated screen attached.

    • June 15, 2011 8:41 am

      Ah, but my guests needed continuous service, which is why I didn’t pick up a book. I did visit the internets a few times when maybe I could have been reading. I think that’s conditioning from years of comments about how I wasn’t paying attention because I had my “nose in a book.” (This from academic parents.)

  5. June 14, 2011 10:20 am

    Grading papers.

    • June 15, 2011 8:42 am

      Geez, I do everything else in the house before I get down to grading papers! Guess it’s lucky I don’t have any to grade anymore.

  6. Rohan permalink
    June 14, 2011 11:12 am

    This is a very touching post, Jeanne–maybe it hits home particularly because my own Aged Parents (they hate that!) are arriving this week for a visit, though they are staying at a nearby bed and breakfast, which gives us all a bit more space and a graceful way out if the button-pushing starts.

    I am rarely kept from reading altogether. If there’s too much going on to *really* read, I pick up something familiar like an old Dick Francis mystery, just for the comfort of having a book to hand.

    • June 15, 2011 8:48 am

      I’m rarely kept from reading altogether, either. I guess I wasn’t counting a bit of rereading before sleep, although my favorite rereading books were in the bedroom, so I had to make do with whatever was left out in the living room.

  7. June 14, 2011 12:02 pm

    I saw your pictures on facebook. I have to tell you, they make me miss Wisconsin something fierce.

    I’m not sure at this point in my life I could handle houseguests for that long, honestly.

    • June 15, 2011 8:49 am

      I kept telling myself it was the last time they’d ever come to visit me, and that helped me stretch my patience.

  8. June 14, 2011 12:04 pm

    Wow, sounds tiring but also like fun. Being a guest or having guests are both rather tiring it is true. I was out home visiting my parents for the past few days and also got very little reading time in, but it was fun.

    • June 15, 2011 8:50 am

      My parents taught me that houseguests should stay for no more than three days!

  9. June 14, 2011 1:10 pm

    That poem is PERFECT. I have been being selfless, and it feels exactly like that. I’m ready for some jazz and drinks.

  10. June 14, 2011 1:25 pm

    When you mentioned Larkin and parents in the same sentence, I immediately thought of another of his poems. ; ).

    • June 15, 2011 8:51 am

      Oh yeah. But I’d already put that one on the blog, way back when (I assume you mean “They fuck you up, your mum and dad…”)

  11. June 14, 2011 2:15 pm

    I’m with Hugh–eleven days is A LOT. I just had one stepdad for one weekend and I am a wreck.

    The phrase “scheduled pleasures” says a lot.

    One of the great things about that poem is how it’s just as long as it needs to be.

    • June 15, 2011 8:52 am

      Yes. I’m into the charm of brevity right now. Even more than usual.

  12. June 14, 2011 8:16 pm

    Oh, sympathy. I am a terrible hostess because I get exhausted if I haven’t had any time to myself. I get all persnickety and unfriendly and awful. :p

    • June 15, 2011 8:53 am

      I do, too. Of course, my family knows this. Ron is even worse than I am about that, so he kept retreating outside or downstairs.

  13. June 14, 2011 8:45 pm

    I think you (and Larkin) captured this feeling so very well. Our families are always the ones who we love the best and who also make us the craziest. 11 days is a long time … for cats and for people. Good for you for sitting through the cold morning at the hospital to get to the warm fire.

    • June 15, 2011 8:53 am

      I woke up this morning with four cats on the bed. We were all very happy to have it back.

  14. freshhell permalink
    June 14, 2011 9:37 pm

    Eleven days!?!? I would be dead. I can barely have my mother in my house eleven minutes. But that’s another story. I read almost an entire book on the train to NY today: The Explosive Child. Wonderful, wonderful book that I hope will help me help Red. I should probably get in bed and finish it tonight. I’ve got a Harry Crews book for the return trip. And two audiobooks to choose from.

    • June 15, 2011 8:54 am

      The Explosive Child, huh? You’ll have to bring Red to me when she’s old enough to learn Rage.

      • freshhell permalink
        June 15, 2011 10:06 pm

        The title’s a little exaggerated, I think. But it had some really good information about how to deal with kids who get frustrated, have poor impulse control, and need help working out their frustrations in a mutually satisfying way.

  15. June 15, 2011 12:15 am

    That poem is just about perfect. And 11 days — wow. It’s funny. I can stay at my mother’s house for weeks, even — I think it’s because she’s kept occupied with her own life, and I’m perfectly happy to escape mine for a while. But having her here is excrutiating. Also, I think, because of her tendency to do things like clean my refrigerator, which I cannot help taking as a criticism, even if it isn’t. I wonder, though, if I could bear to stay there so long anymore. It was different when the kids were young. Ho hum. And it is the need to do something else, like garden, or laundry, or walking, that can keep me from reading.

    • June 15, 2011 8:56 am

      I would take a guest cleaning something as a criticism, too! Luckily, my parents take pains to be good guests and good in-laws. They don’t always succeed, but it helps to know they’re really trying.

  16. June 15, 2011 8:22 pm

    What keeps me from reading: two small children who are not yet able to entertain themselves without injury and/or distress. Who also like to attack my beloved books with scissors and masking tape.(But, someday, I have visions that they will learn to read, then become my book-toting library-using minions and we will be able to sit around reading peacefully together after dinner…) And oh, goodness, I hear you on the houseguests; when we have company I suspend everything I usually do, especially the things I do to take care of my own mental health.

    • June 16, 2011 9:13 am

      My kids do sit around reading with me sometimes. Of course, there are days when they get to sit around reading while I have to work, and then they want me to jump into what I call my “captain of a cruise ship” persona and organize fun for all of us, because they’ve had time to read already.

  17. June 20, 2011 8:38 pm

    My husband and I moved away from out of our home state over 20 years ago, and have lived away ever since then. Because of that, family visits are infrequent but long; I suppose to get the “money’s worth” out of travel expenses. I definitely get less reading done (if at all) during these visits. Oh and because we’ve moved to three different states since our home state, we often have to play tourist guide, LOL. For example when we moved to Michigan, we visited Niagara Falls (several hours drive to the Falls’ Canadian side) four times in one year because others wanted to see it too. and so on and so on. I think those lines are a good choice to accompany your post.

    • June 20, 2011 8:56 pm

      I can see why you’d really feel that poem! We lived for years in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and played tour guide for every friend and family member who came to the east coast. We saw the Impressionist room of the National Gallery more times than I care to remember, and saw the IMAX movie “To Fly” (at Air and Space) enough to still have it memorized.

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