This week, I am coming to you from Pittsburgh, where I have spent the week with my husband, parent-sitting his parents while his sister is out of town. His parents are 92 and 95, and it is showing in their cognitive decline. My MIL starting misplacing her marbles first but – as is often the case with caregivers – her husband has caught up with her and surpassed her now.

They have reached the point where they are most secure remembering things from long ago, and cannot remember that we told them 3 minutes ago that his sister will be back tonight at 8:30, or that we told them that 3 minutes before that or 20 minutes before that. And so, every night, after we eat dinner, we sit and chat around the kitchen table for 2 hours. 2 very long hours, where my husband and I try to ask questions to prompt conversation that entertains them.

The first night, we let them choose the topic of conversation and my FIL spoke about how his father (who died when he was a child, before WWII) was so proud of his singing, that he often entered him in local singing contests, which he quickly got gonged out of (gonged as in gong show) – and yet his father kept entering him. (This isn’t a lesson in persistence – he kept getting gonged out until his father stopped entering him.) After his father died, he worked hard in school and at the restaurant that his mother had started in their home to support them. He worked hard, he says, because he knew that he had to live up to the expectations that his father had for him. Eventually he went to the university, where he was tapped to work on local government (on, not in; he was an administrator not a politician), he met his future wife. After they got married, he moved to the U.S. where he worked for the U.N. From the late 60s through the early 80s, he traveled to many 3rd world countries, helping them set up local governments. His neighbors often joked about an emerging pattern: soon after he flew home from a country, a coup would break out. Ha ha. I suspect that was par for the course if you worked in countries needing local governments set up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It wasn’t like he was visiting Canada, for crying out loud.

Anyhow, that’s a standard monologue for him. We tried cutting in, from time to time, to ask what visiting these countries was like – but he remembered almost nothing from the countries themselves. He took no time for sightseeing or getting to know the locals. (Although he did say that after his second narrow miss at witnessing a coup, he didn’t stay long and often didn’t leave the hotel.) When in Africa, he didn’t go on safari; when in South America, he didn’t go see pyramids, at least as far as he remembers. All he remembers is working.

The next night, we tried using a box of Table Topics cards that I had discovered. But he struggled with questions like, “If you could choose to do anything in the world, what would you choose to do?” or “If you could play any sport in the Olympics, what sport would you choose?” He couldn’t imagine himself living a life other than the life he had lived. He couldn’t imagine not working. He couldn’t imagine playing a sport. He couldn’t imagine winning $1million and choosing a dream vacation. He has no imagination left. The evening was very frustrating for my husband (who is dismayed by his father’s deterioration) and for my FIL (who just couldn’t figure out what we were asking and kept trying to drag the conversation back to the topic of work).

Work work work work work.

We abandoned the Table Topic cards and steered the conversation in other directions. But he always brought it back to work.

I have heard that people in other countries are appalled by how work-obsessed Americans (U.S.) are. This week, I listened to a podcast where a woman who had written a book about making friends as an adult, quoted research that said that you can convert a stranger to a casual friend in as little as 30 hours. But then, if you want to convert a casual friendship to a good friendship, you have to spend 200 hours together within an 8-week period. That, she said, explains why it is so hard to make friends after you leave school: basically, to spend that much time together, you have to be at school together, or living together (at camp, in an apartment, etc.). Or, I imagine, you have to be obsessed by something (video games, religion, right-wing militia, etc.) and spend many hours per night and all weekend together.

Or you have to work together.

And so, her solution is that you become friends with the people that you work with.

Yeah, that’s great. Until you leave the company where you have all these “friends” and they stop returning your calls.

Which burns.

I have been reflecting a lot on this lately, wanting to expand my friendship circle and also wanting to stop relying on work for a social life. (Which is pretty much dead anyway, since the Pandemic drove many people out of NY, and sends the people who commute home early every day, instead of lingering around in contagious bars.)

One of my goals this year is to learn to drum, another is to learn to draw, and another is to develop a life that doesn’t revolve around work. It’s March and I’ve made no progress on any of these things.

Instead, this week, knowing that I would be trapped in my SIL’s McMansion in a non-walkable neighborhood in suburban Pbrgh, I said to myself, I need a break: I’m not going to work remotely (as my husband chose to do).

So instead, I signed up for a 3-day online professional certification. Unfortunately, it was run by someone older who chose to ignore the chat stream. Sometimes when you are learning with others, a whole nother conversation thrives in the chat, and you make connections with people. But that didn’t happen here. And, although we had breakouts, most of them were very task-focused, and there wasn’t much discussion. Since this was a certification course, the certifying body seemed to take the approach that they were the experts and that we should just focus on learning their way of doing things. Instead of encouraging people to share their experiences; so there wasn’t much getting to know others or building connections.

So, here I am, trying to make friends outside of work – and I chose to try to make them in professional circles.


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