Back into the funhouse we go.

The other night I explored the rabbit hole of online diagnosis of personality disorders. Now, before you accuse me of lay quackery in pursuit of advantage in a family spat, allow me to ask: what say you of Drs. McGraw and Pinsky? I aver that I’m one of the less smarmy, mercenary and demagogic pop psychology enthusiasts. I don’t have shit on Phil or Drew. Perhaps scrambling through lists of diagnostic criteria in order to see what fits one’s relatives isn’t honorable, but neither are my relatives.

Besides, even if I make light of this mess, it’s no joke at all to say that the behavior of the two I’m trying to diagnose looks pathological. I’ve dealt with a lot of nuts and assholes, but there’s something that just seems different about Farmer Uncle and Stoner Aunt. They seem to be, to quote some endlessly annoying but perceptive chroniclers of British narcissism at the dawn of the Thatcher era, “special, so special.”

The Pretenders hit that nail on the head. Actually, I was quite surprised when I fact-checked the authorship of that hideous song on Wikipedia to discover that the Pretenders did not get up until well after the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, so late, in fact, that it was almost morning in America. Chrissie Hynde is, however, a boomer (born, like Alien Aunt, in 1951), and her rubbish about specialness captures the boomer zeitgeist of self-absorption in a way that few other bands have done. The most perceptive of these bands has probably been Stoner Aunt’s favorite, the Eagles, whose bailiwicks include whiny pedantry, self-important earnestness, desert cultists, and straight-up manipulative bitches who slander their entire sex by their existence: all stuff of the sixties, I say. Those fuckers may be annoying, but they know their shit. Besides, they have to be annoying to convey what was wrong with their generation.

Here’s where things get really interesting. There’s run-of-the-mill countercultural musheadedness, and then there are the special (so special) versions with which Farmer and Stoner bless the rest of us. If one’s view of human nature must be rosy and willfully ignorant unto stupidity, or if one must be intractably addled by New Age junk science, or if one must refrain from bathing regularly for no good reason despite really digging hot tubs, there are ways to do these things without being a nuisance to normal people. One of these is for the non-bathing spouse to be the nearly reclusive homebody, which is sadly the opposite of what Farmer and Stoner have done. (Caretaker Uncle: “I don’t think he bathes very often.” Yup.) Another is to steward one’s family business with something resembling a good-faith effort to discharge one’s fiduciary responsibilities to employees and investors, but I’ll leave further discussion of this matter for pretty much all my other posts.

The way to not be a malignant hippie that I find most fascinating at the moment, however, is the one that can be generalized as giving a shit about other people. There are more specific and loquacious ways to describe this approach, and we’ll discuss some of them (or, more accurately, some of their inverses) below, but giving a shit is a good umbrella concept. The rat’s ass that one gives is the horse’s ass that one does not become.

If that sounds pat or annoyingly witty, you should hear the moralistic gibberish that Stoner Aunt spews forth. My sweet lord.

What I have in mind here isn’t compulsive deference to everyone else’s whims. The point isn’t to turn people into hypersolicitous wet noodles or engineer an overbearingly conformist and communally oriented nightmare like Japan or Singapore.  We needn’t be a bunch of weenies or a beehive of soulless, repressed borgs. We just need manners and scruples. Fred Rogers, for example, had them. That’s why he could wax eloquent about blame foolishness like self-esteem just the way you are without turning himself into a peddler of corrosive mind-rot. He set a powerful example in his demeanor and his interactions with others that more or less counteracted the goofiness of anything that he said. He also had more decorum than some of his successors in the business, such as Barney the Dinosaur. And he certainly encouraged his audience to respect other people’s opinions and feelings; that is, to again have recourse to an Anglo-Saxonism that Mr. Rogers was too classy to use in public, to give a shit. He was all about intelligence for your life, a sort of amphetamine-free John Tesh for children. (It’s only capitalized if America’s premier brony says it, or if Mr. McFeely took some extra feel-good pills that morning and is ready to deliver the mail big-band style.)

Come to think of it, John Tesh wants you and me to be anodyne beyond what Fred Rogers ever suggested. He’s kind of a conformist twit, but damn, what a Legend and true son of the Guyland.

To get our trolley back on track, there are ranges of acceptable behavior (#TeshTip: maybe not such wide ranges after all), and the important thing is to fall somewhere within these ranges. If you go too far off the reservation, you may reach a point at which, say, the Mayo Clinic will tend to confirm your disgruntled relatives’ suspicions that you’re, oh, a Cluster B headcase.

And don’tcha know, our friends in Minnesota have been kind enough to offer us specific tutorials on three forms of Cluster B goodness, including Madonna’s favorite. But if you feel like you’re going to lose your mind in a fashion as pedestrian and milquetoast as that, you should check out what the Mayo Clinic has to say about those who keep on pushing my love over the breaking point (and definitely pushing my parents’ buttons, too) by being ostentatiously butthurt grandiosities or reckless, belligerent assholes with pretensions of alcoholism.

First, let’s consider some Opposing Viewpoints on family law: “Lawyers: I consulted with one the other day because your husband, who was also my de facto employer until last weekend, has been behaving really erratically around me for months and deliberately committed a crime against me last fall” vs. “Lawyers: Your son caused me severe anal trauma by writing me that he had talked to one who thinks that my husband may be senile, and just FYI, I should also mention that your son sometimes has weird ways of not establishing eye contact.”

I’m not kidding. That kooky bitch responded to an e-mail in which I asked her and her husband to leave me alone for the time being, indicated that I considered the circumstances dire enough to warrant a formal attorney’s consultation, and apprised her of serious, specific objections to their behavior, including malicious criminal activity directed at me on her husband’s part, by surreptitiously complaining to my dad that I had hurt her feelings and that I had previously kind of disturbed her with an odd mannerism that she hadn’t thought important enough to bring to his attention in the preceding several years but now found relevant. Responding to a pro se cease-and-desist letter by making a nearly ad hominem attack on the prospective litigant to one of his parents is the kind of crackpot idiocy that gets people sued. Stoner Aunt was either completely off her goddamn rocker or, more likely, too arrogant and contemptuous to take me at all seriously. Or maybe a bit of both: “Well, would you fucking look at that insolent little peon, presuming that I’m answerable to the law courts!” 

That ain’t normal. I’m just sayin’. As a matter of shortsighted expediency it made sense to stir up my dad against me, but anyone with an inkling of how American courts work would recognize that stirring up family trouble with a prospective legal adversary who has already made his preliminary legal position a matter of electronic record is all kinds of crazy. It’s even worse in Stoner’s case because one of my complaints in the e-mail had been about my impatience with her and Farmer’s “evasions, half-truths, red herrings and outright fabrications.” Three out of four isn’t bad for the plaintiff. For defense counsel, it’s an occasion for much facepalmage. Come on, your nephew e-mails you a pro se complaint that you’ve been evasive, and you respond not only by being evasive but also by badmouthing him to his father? The fuck? 

Keep in mind that attorneys usually have horrible things to say about pro se litigants. If I have a fool for a client, I’ll have the village idiot for an adversary.

Stoner is clearly trying to assert the queen’s prerogative here. Bizarrely, she seems to think that this is a sane thing to do when I’ve advised her that I’m in touch with an attorney because her husband has gotten out of control and expect her to tone down her own behavior if she’s to have any real relationship with me going forward. But royals aren’t weird in the head merely on account of inbreeding. Stoner Aunt has been lucky enough to marry into a family that is too fucking mellow and conflict-averse to give her shit for being a self-righteous asshat. My mom’s side of the family would probably have been less hospitable, being recently descended from a tightly corseted fourteen-stone Ulster Scotch battle ax who successfully sued the NYPD for false arrest in 1936 and a rather Asiatic Jew who told her son, “You look like a Chink, you Chink.”

Instead, what we have now is my parents routinely tripping over themselves to make excuses for her, one of their favorites being, “She’s always been that way.” That can certainly be said of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the missing Rockefeller, whose childhood acquaintances describe him as having been a hideously mendacious social climber. I reckon it might be said of Jerry Sandusky, too. You know, kiddy-diddling has always been his scene.

Perv be with you. Let us offer one another the sign of perv.

The salient thing here is that Stoner Aunt’s bizarre disregard for others goes back decades, probably to childhood. She probably got a decent share of it from her mother, who my dad, not normally one to paint others with a broad brush, has called “a weird woman.” Her mother is in the habit of sending hard right-wing chain e-mails stuffed with stupid partisan jokes and imagery of Barack Obama as a Hindu god to a mailing list that includes Stoner and other avowed leftists. I’ve long had the strong sense that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

They’re both well weird. Last year, Lord Lochforrest asked me whether Stoner was a narcissist: “Does she do things like see you eat a candy bar and totally flip out at you?” At the time, I thought that he was using an overbroad definition of narcissism, but now I’m not so sure. So let’s compare her behavior to the Mayo Clinic quick-and-dirty checklist for NPD:

  • Believing that you’re better than others: BINGO
  • Fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness
  • Exaggerating your achievements or talents: YUP
  • Expecting constant praise and admiration: YUP
  • Believing that you’re special and acting accordingly: BINGO
  • Failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings: BINGO
  • Expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans: BINGO
  • Taking advantage of others: BINGO
  • Expressing disdain for those you feel are inferior: BINGO
  • Being jealous of others
  • Believing that others are jealous of you
  • Trouble keeping healthy relationships: YUP
  • Setting unrealistic goals
  • Being easily hurt and rejected: BINGO 
  • Having a fragile self-esteem: BINGO
  • Appearing as tough-minded or unemotional

Partial hit on eleven out of sixteen, square hit on eight. Damn. When I call these square hits, I mean that these attitudes and behaviors are egregious, easily in the 95th percentile or higher for weirdness and pathology among everyone I’ve ever known to any significant extent.

Now, let’s rate Farmer Uncle:

  • Believing that you’re better than others: BINGO 
  • Fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness
  • Exaggerating your achievements or talents: BINGO 
  • Expecting constant praise and admiration: YUP
  • Believing that you’re special and acting accordingly: BINGO 
  • Failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings: BINGO 
  • Expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans: YUP
  • Taking advantage of others: BINGO
  • Expressing disdain for those you feel are inferior: BINGO 
  • Being jealous of others: YUP 
  • Believing that others are jealous of you
  • Trouble keeping healthy relationships: BINGO 
  • Setting unrealistic goals: YUP 
  • Being easily hurt and rejected: YUP
  • Having a fragile self-esteem: BINGO 
  • Appearing as tough-minded or unemotional

Partial hit on thirteen out of sixteen, square hit on eight. Caveat: I consider Farmer Uncle’s slightly higher score misleading because his behavior and attitudes are merely egregious by comparison to normal people, i.e., people other than his wife. He fails in an absolute sense, but in a relative sense compared to Stoner’s living absurdity, he wins.

Now for Farmer’s real test. Let’s see what our Minnesotans have to say about symptoms of antisocial personality disorder:

  • Disregard for right and wrong: BINGO 
  • Persistent lying or deceit to exploit others: BINGO 
  • Using charm or wit to manipulate others for personal gain or for sheer personal pleasure: YUP
  • Intense egocentrism, sense of superiority and exhibitionism: BINGO
  • Recurring difficulties with the law: NEXT THING TO IT
  • Repeatedly violating the rights of others by the use of intimidation, dishonesty and misrepresentation: BINGO 
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Hostility, significant irritability, agitation, impulsiveness, aggression or violence: BINGO 
  • Lack of empathy for others and lack of remorse about harming others: BINGO
  • Unnecessary risk-taking or dangerous behaviors: BINGO 
  • Poor or abusive relationships: BINGO 
  • Irresponsible work behavior: MINOR, BUT WORSENING
  • Failure to learn from the negative consequences of behavior: YUP 

Shit. Partial hits on twelve out of thirteen, square hits on eight. He and Stoner have never had children, so that could explain why his batting average isn’t a perfect 1.000, but he has damn well neglected my welfare as his adult nephew and employee, as well as that of other farm tenants and employees.

The only aspects of Farmer Uncle’s antisocial behavior that argue against giving him an APD diagnosis are the time of onset and the pattern of progression. The diagnostic criteria indicate early onset and attenuation over time: “[‘S]ymptoms may begin in childhood and are fully evident for most people during their 20s and 30s….Although considered a lifelong disorder, some symptoms — particularly destructive and criminal behavior and the use of alcohol or drugs — may decrease over time, but it’s not clear whether this decrease is a result of aging or an increased awareness of the consequences of antisocial behavior.” In Farmer’s case, the earliest credible onset, as far as I can tell, was at the age of 62, with a noticeable worsening at the age of 65.

A cynical observer might regard it as one of those retirement things: an asshole to his wife upon becoming a pensioner, an asshole to others as well upon becoming a beneficiary of socialist old people medicine. What actually happened, as best I can tell, is that he and Stoner both became unhinged as their business enterprises began exsanguinating in the current depression. By the way, Great Recession my ass: it’s a fucking Fourth-Turning orgy of ahistorical economic idiocy. Farmer and Stoner took a massive ass-reaming that corresponded almost precisely (i.e., plus or minus a quarter or two) to the national aggregate collapse. An awful lot of the damage that they sustained was completely out of  their control. The real problem for the rest of us (and for their marriage) wasn’t that they got hammered, but that they responded by going batty. Regularly having yelling matches on an hourly basis about why the trash hasn’t been taken out or what’s for dinner is straight-up wiggity-wack. I don’t recall many of these fights having the least pertinence to their solvency. The only exception that really stands out is the one in which Stoner Aunt complained, “I’m sick of doing all my baking in this fucking wood stove.” Farmer Uncle’s response was to denigrate her for not having the right combination of skill, attention and interest to manage the fuel supply and damper settings at a time when she was also trying to measure and mix ingredients, a stance that to my amateur eyes looked assholishly cuckoo.

Nor was fighting their only avenue of disruption. They also alternated abruptly between the real world, in which they openly freaked out about their dire finances, and a King Friday-grade Land of Make-Believe, in which they smugly asserted that all was well in their kingdom. The problem wasn’t just that they were making patently ridiculous and self-serving statements about their finances and then getting pissed off if I even gently challenged them. Their thin-skinned efforts to visualize something other than parlous finances and rank squalor and disorganization into existence were unpredictable. They would surface into the real world without warning, and they would descend back into the quagmire of bullshit without warning. It was a bipolar sort of delusion, sometimes wildly so, and they apparently had no qualms at all about using intimidation and emotional manipulation to force those around them (mainly me) to express agreement with whatever version of reality they were promoting at the moment. They were all over the place, and everyone else had to be exactly where they were at all times or else risk a tantrum. It was an absurd, crazymaking sort of caprice.

By the way, I can deal with a lot of cuckoo if it isn’t projectile and malicious. I can deal with people who are consistently off the wall in their thinking, or who live in unpredictable, baffling emotional states, as long as they have manners about it. The fundamental problem with Farmer and Stoner is that the default settings to which they regress in times of adversity are, respectively, heavily affected redneck assholery and lukewarm, passive-aggressive, narcissistic trolling.

These approaches are both vile, but on their own they aren’t particularly strong evidence of personality disorders. In Stoner Aunt’s case, however, less egregious but still serious examples of the same sort of behavior apparently date back at least to her late twenties, when Farmer Uncle first introduced her to my dad’s extended family. Mind you, my main sources on this subject are my parents, and as I mentioned above, Stoner’s mother is mildly disturbed in a narcissistic way. Incidentally, Captain Bones’ father, a man who drives Captain Bones up the wall and whom my dad has long made out to be the most powerful narcissist he knows, plasters his own Facebook wall with the same kind of right-wing brain rot that Stoner’s mom disseminates in round-robin e-mails to those she loves. Stoner’s politics are at the opposite extreme, but only marginally more thoughtful, civil and dignified. As a matter of course, whenever she opens her mouth about politics she provides an object lesson in why everyone my age wants the boomer leadership to just shut the fuck up. She’s far from the only boomer whose style of discourse on controversial matters verges on the feral, but her self-importance goes a lot deeper and wider than that. My guess is that the assholiness that my parents detected in her as long ago as 1973 in fact dates to her childhood.

Again, this is not just run-of-the-mill abrasiveness, high-hattery or hypersensitivity. Rather, it is an exceptionally unique sort of smug, contemptuous, tautological self-righteousness, reinforced with a finely tuned, strongly amplified, ostentatious sense of grievance. It isn’t something that was deliberately cultivated in her by “society” asshats or their cunt-punting understudies in the sororities as a prerequisite for acceptance as a lady of good breeding rather than a vulgar woman of the slums. Stoner is the oldest of four siblings raised by a twice-divorced nobody of a mother in a couple of pedestrian Bay Area neighborhoods, one of which is still rather workaday. Look at it this way: the Palo Alto that my parents and I left in 1992 might as well have been picked up by an Erickson air crane and dropped into Buena Park. Seriously, the entire nonacademic Mittelstand that one encountered on California Avenue or in Midtown in 1990 can be found at Paul’s Place between about 11:30 and 2:30 weekdays in 2013. (Get the Ortega burger meal. Just do it. Dayyum, is it good eatin’ for cheap.) Now consider that Palo Alto had already become a much more gentrified place when my parents and I moved away for pragmatic reasons having to do with family and work than it had been when Farmer Uncle and Stoner Aunt fled fifteenish years earlier because they were CCR-style country bumpkins from the Peninsula and the traffic was making Stoner le mad. The techies had started moving in, and housing prices had increased by a factor of eight of ten in that time. “Mid-Peninsula” was not fraught with the hideous sociological baggage that weighs it down today. It was a normal place. In demographic terms, Menlo Park was a bayside version of Visalia. The pigs hadn’t yet been let into the clover field.

Yet Stoner apparently emerged not only from this middlebrow, upstanding, more or less well-mannered environment, but also from Da-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-vis, already possessed of her royal prerogative. Several decades in Ashland didn’t help things in the slightest (self-sorting of the wing nuts into their geographically segregated echo chambers never does), but even before she moved to Ashland she had that off-putting, contemptuous pretension about her. My reference some paragraphs above to the erstwhile Clark Rockefeller was all too apt: they were both just too much for their circumstances. In an odd sense, Stoner Aunt didn’t go far enough in her pretension; had she feigned blue blood like our boy Clark did, she, too, might have been able to take the money and run a time or two.

Where she may have gone too far, in retrospect, was in divorcing Lord Antonov, an engineer, before vesting Social Security surviving spouse benefits, and in subsequently getting remarried to a college dropout who had been slumming it with a bunch of roommates and working as a line cook. Had Lord Antonov been sadistic, or generally deranged, or just weird in the way that his colleagues often are (the gents especially, it seems; that’s one sausage fest that women in the profession tend to find disappointing, if not insufferable), Stoner Aunt might have had good reason to throw in the towel, but to the small extent that she talks about Lord Antonov, her main complaint is that he was “boring.”

Shit. What a downwardly mobile White Whine. What’s disturbing, though, is the possibility that she took up with Farmer Uncle because she recognized some kind of latent nastiness in him. For one thing, he’s always been the most uncouth member of his sibship. Maybe he spent too much time around Grandpa, who tended to gamble away the family’s scarce money and, according to Caretaker Aunt, late in his life turned into something of a wifebeating shit. Farmer was Grandpa’s favorite, but I’m still skeptical that that’s enough to explain why he’s such an outlier compared to the other four. Grandma had a huge influence on all five of them, and a lot of the stuff that he did around me he wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in her presence. As far as I can tell, Grandma was fine with Farmer going downmarket (shit, she was fine with Alien Uncle cluttering her driveway and garage with old clunkers and spare parts), but she would have been anguished had she believed that he had turned into a high-functioning dirtbag.

That said, if he was one when he took up with Stoner, it must have been subtle. The thing that really got Grandma tied in knots was that they were “living in sin.” (This is one of the most dumbed-down, Orwellian Christian euphemisms ever devised; we all live in sin, even if Ashlanders like to ignore this truth because it’s a total bummer, man.) Just as the aspersions that Grandma cast on Stoner Aunt for being a divorcee were inadvertently slanderous of all other divorcees, her prayers that she and Farmer stop “living in sin,” and her forthrightness about this aspect of her prayer life, ultimately helped get Farmer and Stoner stuck in a permanent roommate arrangement from hell. Stoner Aunt wasn’t exactly good news for Farmer or for the rest of the family, but Grandma used the wrong moral framework to critique her. Fornication was one of the most pedestrian sins of the Summer of Love. Shunning prospective sex partners who strove to live lives of dignity and taste in favor of the defiantly uncouth was an Aquarius classic. It’s not as if the fifties and early sixties hadn’t been saturated with pop culture models of sexual self-determination on the part of people who made an effort to bathe, dress halfway decently and groom themselves in some fashion, instead of donning rags, then doffing the same rags and openly fucking in mud pits under the influence of hard drugs. Even the amphetamine culture, which enjoyed one of its heydays during the Eisenhower Administration, was geared more towards housewives taking their duly prescribed upper snacks at home and then getting shit done than it was towards late-stage tweakers scurrying around in low-rider pajamas at the 7-Eleven.

The Lord Antonov-to-Farmer Uncle fiasco gives me this sinking feeling that Stoner Aunt is an object lesson in that revolting Chateau Heartiste maxim, alpha fucks and beta bucks. Get bored wif da engineer, get bored by da dropout: dat is how we roll. LOLZLOZLZOLOZO. I guess there’s some equity in the reciprocal awfulness of their decision, and in the fact that Lord Antonov got released from bondage to a narcissistic, henpecking freak who intimidates her in-laws. But even if Farmer and Stoner deserve each other, the rest of us don’t deserve their folie-a-deux intimidation of anyone who treats them like commoners when they’d rather be treated like feudal lords. We shouldn’t be suffering collateral damage from their bad judgment in shacking up. For crying out loud, they shouldn’t be repaying my parents’ beta bucks and my thousand-odd hours of farm labor with such aggressively fraudulent simulacra of independence. If I can live with enough humility not to brag that I totally have my shit together when I’m financially dependent on my parents, why the fuck can’t those two disingenuous mooches do so?

That’s right. My troubles are a mishmash of Cluster C symptoms. Meek loserdom, you might say, but at least I don’t have a goddamn chip on my shoulder. It goes with the territory, to the extent that I’m in that territory, and in any event, Stoner Aunt has gotten lost much deeper in her own. So has Farmer Uncle; clinically or not, he’s kinda not right in the head. They both like to go into the bush Livingstone-style, and they’re good enough at it that they get me blamed for pointing in their direction and saying, no seriously, they’re exploring the heart of darkness. These are, like the most racist title of the least racist book I’ve ever read, Dark Subjects.

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