Gary L. McDowell
Yesterday, you and your son took a magnifying glass1—a good one you bought at a hobby store—into the backyard to look at the leaves of romaine growing in your vegetable garden. You wanted to see the veins, the holographic chutes of chlorophyll, the way light splayed through the cuticles. Instead, you discovered a common garden slug, a big one2.
You peered closely, caught the light in the glass. The foot, the foot fringe, the mantle, the tail. The respiratory pore, or the pneumostome. Two kinds of tentacles: the ocular, or optical, depending on the guide you use, and the sensory: what an oxymoron! Isn't sight a sense already? Why name it thrice? Your mother-in-law: yes, it's a sense, but so are smelling and hearing. An exchange between a father and a son and a magnifying glass and a garden slug interrupted. She'd come out to the back porch to smoke. Again3.
Your mother-in-law lives with you and knows everything4.
What the neighbors had for dinner.
How to discipline your children.
Why to discipline your children.
Why Iraq will never be a democracy.
How Jeremy Wade will finally catch an epically sized arapaima in Guyana.
What best to eat to lose the last five pounds of subcutaneous belly fat.
How to best clean the grill grates.
And she'll tell you all of it, for free, by listening in on every conversation you have.
Is this a critique? A whine? A bitch? Yes. But it is also free. Are you perfect? Not even close. Are you? No, you aren't either.
Your mother-in-law is a meteorologist, an entomologist, an ichthyologist, a grandmother and a damn good one5.
The slug, with just your eyes, is slimy, slick, looks like it might be hard to hold in your hand. But go ahead, pick it up and rest it in your palm. It's actually tacky, a bit like damp silly-putty or modeling clay. In the magnifying glass, its skin is pearly, almost translucently patterned, milky, textured. Your son flips it over in your hand and you find: The mouth is located between and below the sensory tentacles, and is equipped with a radula, a tooth-covered rasp that the slug uses to grate plant tissue. The slug glides along a path of mucus that is secreted by the pedal gland, located just below the mouth. In this position, you can see the pneumostome pulse with breathe-in, breathe-out. What a wonder the world is when zoomed-in upon6.
You're following these observations back to yourself, back to where you started. There are so many things to consider looking away from, but this can't be one. But how do you, when sharing a roof, deal with conflict without upsetting balance, especially when that balance hinges on shared governance, on love, on other roof-sharers' well-beings? So you read, "15 Ways to Deal with a Difficult Mother-in-Law," and feel guilty the entire time—maybe she's not the difficult one. Maybe you are. You are entitled to a peaceful life, warns (says, writes, mentions) one article7.
The taxonomy of a thing or being. Its description and physiology and ecology and behavior: all add up to make a slug a slug, a mother a mother. There's always further reading and "How to Deal with an Obtrusive Mother-in-Law" and "Quick Fixes for Difficult In-Laws" and "Ten new complete mitochondrial genomes of pulmonates and their impact on phylogenetic relationships" in Evolutionary Biology. You have to distance yourself physically and remember that it's highly unlikely anyone will change. That seems like an invitation, an evocation, a hymnal sung by a man already defeated. You try to distance yourself physically and understand the common problems, but she is the common problem. So you detach yourself, emotionally, physically, try to share a roof but not a room. That works. For a time. But then you feel badly. She's not a bad mother; in fact, she's a great mother, an even better grandmother, but damn it, she knows everything8. She listens, intrudes, can't sit quietly by while you and your wife discuss your day, the news you heard about friends, gossip you learned about celebrities, talk about that movie you saw once—and from the other room: Wait, you mean the one with the guy that cures that disease?
How Sochi won the 2014 Olympics over other, more-qualified, cities.
Why Putin is a puritanical dickhead.
How many calories are in a large red delicious apple—okay, you concede this one as it's fairly common knowledge.
That Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis have been dating secretly for months9.
Why you have no right to criticize your wife for the money she spends haphazardly.
What breed the neighbor's dogs are.
How best to foster a caring, nurturing home-life for your kids.
She doesn't, however, listen fully. Just the other night, while in the kitchen washing dishes with your wife—a ritual you two use as a ruse to spend a few minutes alone: you wash, she dries—you told your wife how much you loved Hamlet's line, "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space." From the other room, your mother-in-law, above the din of the television, the barking of the dog, the hum of the refrigerator, chimes in: Wait, wasn't it Shakespeare who said that?
Back in the garden, the slug, in all its lack of speed, meanders across the flesh of your thumb pad. You learn that a slug's body is prone to desiccation, which explains finding it on the freshly watered romaine leaf. Generally they confine themselves to the moist retreat of second level soil during daylight—and at night, you find them, when you take the dog out before bed, scaling the humidity soaked vinyl siding10.
Slugs must generate the mucus you so generally associate with them in order to survive. It's foul-tasting and so thwarts predators. It's also sticky and helps them maintain grip on the substrate as they feed.
Your son: Can I hold it?
Before you can even answer, your mother-in-law: Sure, go ahead!11
You: Yes, son. Go ahead.
You want to watch him register the tactile sensation, watch his eyes widen or narrow, his lips grimace or smile, his hand remain still or jolt in slimy anticipation, but before you can witness any of his reactions, your mother-in-law: What's it feel like? Is it slimy? Do you want to put it down? You can put it down, you don't have to hold it. What's it feel like?12
One article suggests that If all else fails, relocate to another city. As if it's that easy. As if it's that big of a problem. Maybe you're lucky. Maybe her attention, her intrusive listening, talking, parenting-when-she-shouldn't is actually helpful? She is, after all, loving and attentive, generous and kind, anxious to please and willing to help13.
But she isn't your parent. You are on equal terms, and that's what makes it awkward. You can't criticize her precisely because you don't have the history with which to do so. Ten years does not make a lifetime, does not make a parental bond. And so you breathe deeply, distance yourself, remember the good far outweighs the bad, remember it's highly unlikely that she'll change (this one appears in every article), attempt to change yourself—because if it isn't her, it's you14.
"How to Avoid Escalating the Conflict," Rule #8: Think about your spouse and child. Don't say or do anything before taking a break and letting the tension diminish. Sometimes you simply must bite your tongue.
You call your best friend for advice. Fuck her. She's already making your life miserable. Tell her so. What do you have to lose?
You call your dad to ask for different advice. Remember, son, you will catch far more flies with honey15.
1 Eula Biss, in "It Is What It Is," writes, "Experimental once meant ‘based on experience as opposed to authority.'"
2 You're talking as a bat navigates. Not to hear yourself but to know where you are.
3 Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality: The passage of time depends on the particulars—trajectory followed and gravity experienced—of the measurer.
4 Sometimes you are the symptom and the cause. But you must prefer one over the other. Both point to the fact that you are, always, healing.
5 The folder where you keep your in-progress essays is a Mead FiveStar with conversion tables in one pocket insert and Useful Information lists in the other. A dekagram equals 10 grams. One gram equals 0.002 pounds. Table of Circular Measure. 60 seconds = 1 minute = 1 degree = 1 meridian = 69.16 miles of the earth's surface. Table of Avoirdupois Weight. Table of Surface Measure. An acre measures 208.7 feet on each side. Multiplication Table.
6 Has anyone ever written a catalog of gestures?
7 Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality:Quantum mechanics broke the mold of the previous framework, classical mechanics, by establishing that the predictions of science are necessarily probabilistic. We can predict the odds of attaining one outcome, we can predict the odds of another, but we generally can't predict which will actually happen.
9 You didn't realize there were so many kinds of theoretical physics: relativistic physics, quantum physics, cosmological physics, unified physics, computational physics. All of them lead scientists to believe that perhaps there is no universe but instead a multiverse.
10 Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality: ...think of two clocks, one on the ground, the other on top of the Empire State Building. Because the ground clock is closer to the earth's center, it experiences slightly stronger gravity than the clock that's high above Manhattan. General relativity shows that because of this, the rate at which time passes on each will be slightly different: the ground clock will run a tiny bit slow (billionths of a second per year) compared to the elevated clock....objects move toward regions where time elapses more slowly; in a sense, all objects "want" to age as slowly as possible. From an Einsteinian perspective, that explains why an object falls when you let go of it.
11 They say hypnosis only works if you believe in it, but a friend told you that slugs taste, once grilled over hickory wood by the dozens, like mussels.
12 You knew a guy in college who when he got nervous would repeat the beginning of compound words over and over again under his breath.
13 No experience is complete until you tell yourself about it later, once the facts and fictions become interchangeable. Science tells us that memories change over time as we tell, shape, retell, and reshape experience into narrative.
14 After a poetry reading where you read new work, work that revealed you, a listener told you, I really wish you'd put more of yourself in your poems.
15 Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality: In the far reaches of an infinite cosmos, there's a galaxy that looks just like the Milky Way, with a solar system that's the spitting image of ours, with a planet that's a dead ringer for earth, with a house that's indistinguishable from yours, inhabited by someone who looks just like you, who is right now reading this very book and imagining you, in a distant galaxy, just reaching the end of this sentence.
Lia Purpura. Joni Tevis. Brian Lennon. T Fleischmann. Karen Green.