In The Run-Up

My son came off school last Thursday and since then we’ve been having a fairly permanent pajama party. Years ago, when he was little, one of his favourite stories that he’d ask for over and over concerned a boy whose birthday party was cancelled because he’d had the measles. As an illness that requires quarantine, it wasn’t going to be possible for him to have the celebration he’d been looking forward to. And then his mother realized that several of his friends had also been ill and so she organized a dressing gown party, where all the children who were convalescent could come and eat a cake decorated with spots for the occasion. My son adored this story and has always been keen to create the same ambiance. We’ve had dressing gown New Year’s Eve parties before now, and this year he’s simply come off school and not got dressed unless it’s entirely necessary. Then on Friday, my husband came down with a nasty flu-ey cold. Determinedly he trudged into work and was, naturally, much worse on Saturday when he joined in the dressing gown party, although his unshaven look robbed it of some of its innocence. I tend to be cat-like in illness and hide away in dark corners, but my husband is sociable with his germs and sat in the main thoroughfare, wrapped up in blankets and exuding a miasma of virus like a noxious form of Eeyore’s thundercloud. This meant that by Sunday, I had joined the dressing gown party, too. My husband by now had a full-blown cold going on, with a racking gravelly cough and a 20-tissues a day habit. My old Spanish teacher used to claim that snot was one of the great untapped resources of the planet, and if only we could find out how to make energy from it, all our worries would be at an end. Ever since I’ve had chronic fatigue, however, I’ve stopped getting noisy, visible colds, and only go in for the silent symptoms – sore throats, headaches, feeling generally rubbish. It’s hugely unsatisfactory as no one ever believes that I’m ill.

I can understand my son’s lure towards the pajama party because it feels so comfortable and laid back. There’s something about socializing that makes me uptight, and there’s nothing like the festive season for obliging me to be sociable. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, we collected legendary tales of weird things the academics did, and one of our favourites was the tale of the English don who left a party because he couldn’t formulate to his satisfaction a request for where the bathroom was. I promised myself when I became an academic that I would remain normal, but it’s Christmas that forces me to revise my opinion. Saturday night there was a party down the road at our neighbour’s. I knew my husband must be really poorly because he said he’d stay home – an unprecedented move as he is generally first to arrive and last to leave, given the opportunity. I wandered down on my own, thinking it wouldn’t be too bad, but I’d only been there a few moments when I realized there was hardly anybody I knew. But I did see a small gaggle of our neighbours and I sidled into it and did my best. I talked for what seemed like absolutely hours about people’s foreign holidays and their plans for Christmas and who had caught the ‘flu this year. Then I nipped upstairs to see what the boys (including my son) were doing. I’ll not get away with that much longer. They appeared to be playing poker but paused to give me a cheery wave. When I came back downstairs, I couldn’t find one of my hosts, the other was deep in conversation with a group of people I didn’t know, and there, right before me, beckoning in such an enticing fashion, was the door. There wasn’t anybody in the hallway, and before I knew what I was doing, I was outside and briskly walking home. That was bad of me, wasn’t it? I returned home to wait up for my son, wondering how it had come to this, when only yesterday it seemed I was waiting up to give him a last feed in the hope of a few hours’ sleep. I did write a thank you note in my host’s Christmas card, but it was like I’d used up my social tolerance. I was gasping for the kind of oxygen that can only be found in peacefulness. Perhaps these things are better if you drink.

It’s really not that I don’t like people, more that I feel compelled to look after them to a reasonably high standard. I have this theory that to be sociable, you have to be able to ignore people quite well, and I find I notice every tiny little thing they do. We were also supposed to have a festive visit from my friend, her husband and their two-year-old daughter. This was scheduled for a day early this week when we were all only just over the worst of our colds. So, I rang up to tell them that we might still be a bit germy. When my son was small I really wanted to know where the germs were; for his sake, of course, but also for mine. When you have chronic fatigue and catch everything going, it’s almost impossible to be cavalier about contagion. As it turned out, my friend was just about to take her daughter to the doctor, and so we said we’d speak again once she had the verdict. It turned out that she had a stomach bug and so my friend said she’d stay home with her. I monitored her voice, as I do in each and every phone call, and was concerned that she wasn’t happy with this decision and might rather have come anyway. But I didn’t want to read too much into any conversation with a mother who’s been up most of the night and has a sick child on her hands.

When her husband walked through the door, his first words to me were: ‘You don’t look like there’s anything wrong with you.’ This is always a tricky one. I had a stab at explaining about the invisibility of my colds but he looked very skeptical; it’s not surprising, most people do. Inevitably, I monitored the husband’s conversation with us, which was mostly addressed to my husband anyway (just between you and me, I’ve never thought he liked me much anyhow) but when it concerned his daughter it was to tell us what a cheerful tot she was in illness, so good you’d not know that there was anything wrong with her. Of course, it could have been my guilty conscience casting a pall; I was relieved not to have to contend with a two-year-old who had a stomach bug. But if you asked me to say what I frankly thought his first words would be about us when he got home, I’d say ‘They were perfectly fine and she was making a fuss about nothing.’ I didn’t think the situation had pleased them at all, and I was afraid that it was viewed as my fault. Not, you understand, that I had told them not to come; I’d only rung to say we were not in complete health, but I am so conscious of all the possible unsaid implications in social exchanges. I don’t always know what people are thinking, but if they are close enough in proximity I can feel what they feel, in all its contradictoriness and confusion. The problem is that I can sense feelings in people that they aren’t necessarily fully aware of themselves, or perhaps wouldn’t wish to admit to. It would be fantastic if I didn’t do this as I often come to the wrong conclusion subsequently or just give myself unnecessary worry. But there’s no plug you can pull for perception; it comes in regardless and it’s quite sort of tiring. I don’t make resolutions any more, but the one thing I will try to do next year is accept that I am not a sociable being and that it’s okay to be reclusive; I am that weird academic. The one place I’m readily available is the virtual world, which is wonderful because people are not here in flesh and blood, overwhelming me with how they feel, and even better, they are usually upfront and straightforward about what they want to say. I find that immensely restful. So, blogging friends who celebrate Christmas, here’s to a wonderful, peaceful festive season. May it be full of the purest feelings of goodwill and happiness in all those around you!

32 thoughts on “In The Run-Up

  1. Sociability is hard, isn’t it? I’m like you – only I tend to become irritated with people very easily and then feel guilty about being irritated and then feel silly about being guilty because, really, heavy feelings like guilt should be saved for those (hopefully few)times when you truly deserve to crouch in the ashes for a while. So I like parties, but they leave me exhausted.

    A dressing-gown party sounds nice, though. So English!

  2. Ms Boxofbooks – so very grateful to find someone even a bit like me! I do so recognise that chain of emotions – I feel guilty for feeling guilty, and bad about feeling bad about other people feeling bad when it may or may not have anything to do with me. I like what you say about reserving guilt for special occasions. Hmmm. Very wise thought. Oh but do try the dressing gown party; it’s really most relaxed!

  3. Well litlove I feel better that someone else is ill this holiday. I went to the emergency room on Sunday night. It turns out I have some sort of infection. So I’m on antibiotics.

    I just got back from work and have now joined the pajama party. Don’t mind if I crash do you?

  4. Sounds like your empathic powers are a boon and a burden.

    Personally, I think warning about a potential bio-hazard is the hallmark of a good host. You followed the do-as-you-would-be-done-by rule with good intentions, so nothing to reproach yourself for – not that you’ll let that stop you, of course!

    May you have precisely the Christmas you desire.

  5. I’ve spent many a holiday at the “pajama party” you mentioned. So far this year, I’m healthy as a horse (knock wood).

    But I do completely sympathize with your feelings about social life. I tend to overthink my responses to people, and their subsequent reactions. I do fairly well during the party, but then come home and second-guess myself for hours and days to come. Much easier to stay home on the sofa with books.

    So I hope your family recovers, and you’re all able to spend time doing the things you enjoy most.

    Peace and joy to you 🙂

  6. My kids also love hanging out in their pyjamas in the holidays – my only rule is that, unless they’re sick, they must be dressed by lunch-time. Seeing everyone in my house is or has been ill, there is a lot of gown-wearing going on, so I guess we’re partying with you.

    I would have done the same at that neighbourhood party, and I understand completely how that door twinkled at you. I think there’s no point hanging about once there’s really nothing left to say. Much better to be home – possibly in a dressing-gown – with a book.

    As for the friends with the two-year-old, you did the right thing. It is only fair to elucidate the germ count, and then let people decide if they want to risk it or not.

    Happy Christmas!

  7. I sometimes think the only way to get through some of these social occasions is indeed to drink! I’m not particularly good at them either and am ready to leave after say, half an hour. And it’s awful to not feel well and to not show visible signs (I always feel guilty–like I’m lying when I really do feel bad). Sorry to hear you’ve not been well–I hope you’re over the worst of it. I hope you have a wonderful Holiday–all the best to you and your family–whether you are celebrating the day in pajamas or not! 🙂

  8. I so recognise that party and would have done exactly what you did — if, that is, I even got there in the first place. Hope everybody is well enough to enjoy Christmas — have a great one, all of you — from one wierd academic to another.

  9. Oh Litlove-that’s one of the things I hate most about fibro-I don’t really look sick, so I completely sympathise with you. I was telling my mom just the other day that I wish I turned purple or something. And it’s difficult because right now my fibro’s only letting me be up for about 12 hours a day, and the last four of those I’m already really tired, and my little niece, who I don’t get to see nearly enough anymore, keeps wanting me to play and I have to tell her that I’m tired. 😦

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to go all complain-y in this comment. I hope your private family holiday is wonderful, even if friends and neighbours sometimes make the holiday season more difficult! 🙂

  10. I hope you are feeling better. I would not have wanted a sick child at my house even if I were feeling well. I’m inclined to say it is inconsiderate of those who think it ok to spread the germs around. I am not a sociable person either and I can’t even fall back on weird academic! If I know almost everyone at the party then I’m good for perhaps an hour before the headache starts and I get tired and grumpy. The fewer people I know at the party, the quicker the headache, tiredness and grumpiness come on.

    Merry Christmas to the Litlove household. I hope Santa was good to all of you this year 🙂

  11. Many sympathies on the social awkwardness. I also have that problem along with a very social spouse and so cope by being “The Watcher in the Corner”. Now there is a great title for a book.

    I hope you get to a germ-free state by New Year as there is nothing worse than trying to wassail with a head cold. So, Season’s Greetings and a big thank you for all your wonderful posts throughout the year. Here is a small gift for you given in the only way we virtual people can give. A link and perhaps a smile.

  12. “I am so conscious of all the possible unsaid implications in social exchanges. I don’t always know what people are thinking, but if they are close enough in proximity I can feel what they feel, in all its contradictoriness and confusion. The problem is that I can sense feelings in people that they aren’t necessarily fully aware of themselves, or perhaps wouldn’t wish to admit to. ”

    This is Z and it is me. I struggle mightily to help him deal with the confusion of it in the narcissistic age he is just now. All those emotions seem to be about him.

  13. Oh, poor you, although I love the idea of the pyjama party. I have friends who stay in their PJs all day on Christmas Day, which I would adopt for myself if only we lived in a warmer house.
    As far as I can see, if your friend’s husband was suspicious of you, it is entirely his problem. You were right to warn them that there were germs circulating (in America, I believe you can probably be arrested if you do not forewarn possible guests of all recent illnesses) and then it is down to them to take the chance.
    And I entirely sympathise with you slipping away from the party, since I am impressed that you got yourself there in the first place!

  14. I’m with Lokesh in wishing you the precise Christmas you wish to have. Your post makes me want to sit down and really think hard about which social occasions are good ones and why — and which can and should be avoided. Mostly, I think it is important not to give more than is good for you — and to remember that you do this because you have worthwhile and important things to do when you aren’t doing all that giving. In a way, I think opting out of draining social events is a way of giving properly and well by conserving yourself for the work you do that is helpful and good. I know that’s a little incoherent, but mostly I just want to say that I’m very inspired by your embrace of the pajama. I hope the rest of your holiday is truly lovely and relaxing. xoxox to all, Lily

  15. The fellow who visited and may have taken away some contrary opinion about the state of things in your home
    at all.

    Be as you are; eff the rest.

    “–Merry Christmas, he threatened.” – from _The Recognitions_

  16. I used to be a party animal when younger but now I cannot hack it at all. When standing in a social crowd, clutching glass of wine and trying to be bright and cheerful and chatty, the feeling of ‘what a total waste of time this is’ comes over me and all I want to do is run. I find I am getting more and more unsociable as I get older, I will find any reason to refuse an invitation and when I cannot really get out of it, I simply dread the effort of getting ready and going out. When I am going to the theatre, concert or opera with a friend or friends, I do not have this feeling of dread, but attending a social gathering just feels me with gloom and doom.

    Dreadful I know, but that is just the way it is. Over Christmas I hve had my elder daughter with me and then she went to her father so the last two days I have been totally on my own. BLISS.

    I fear I am turning into a recluse…

  17. Just dropped in, Litlove, as I decided I’d neglected you for far too long and I wanted to wish you a Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year. I can definitely identify with the sneaking away to see the son bit – and the not being able to do that for much longer bit too!!!
    Will drop in again soon.


  18. I’m so with you on this (especially when it comes to online socializing, which I find much easier and far less taxing, even relaxing, as you say, than real-life socializing). I say, “Bah, humbug!” to all the socializing. And I’m very sorry to hear you were having to do so while sick. We’re getting ready to escape to snowy Maine (all alone) for New Year’s (and to recover from all the Christmas gatherings when we have to pretend to be cheery, even when we’re not). The idea of making it a week of permanent pajama parties sounds quite tempting (although I don’t quite see how I could get away with hiking and snowshoeing in pajamas).

  19. Having just got back from a few days with my family, your description of why it’s so tiring to be around people really resonates. I had a good time with my family, but there’s so much going on, so many people, so many emotions, so much that’s complicated, that I’m immediately tired and am so grateful to find the crossword puzzle and sit in the corner and stare at it for hours (reading is too tiring at that point). Being sensitive about people is really exhausting — interesting point about sociability requiring one to ignore people. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

  20. Pingback: Home again, home again « Of Books and Bicycles

  21. Not to sound like Scrooge, but sometimes the holiday season is so trying! I’m sociable on my terms, but rarely on others’. I really have to be in the mood for a holiday party, and rarely am! I much prefer smaller groups. I can also relate to your difficulties with your friend’s visit. First of all, I hate when people bring sick children to my house. Secondly, I often have sick children myself, and I’m always having to beg off to keep them home. So I also understand that feeling of wondering whether you’ve hurt someone’s feelings after warning them about the illness. In general, I spend so much time and energy trying to make sure that I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings that it’s exhausting! We all got a nasty cold the week before Christmas, so we holed up in our pajamas, too. My eldest didn’t catch it, but he never changed out of his pajamas, either–sounds like he’d get along with your son! He spent many an hour playing WoW, dressed in tartan flannel. Anyway, hope the rest of your holiday season is peaceful and relaxing.

  22. Just popped in as well after being away and wanted to wish you a very happy christmas and new year. I can identify with the social anxieties. It feels terrible to leave like that but sometimes it’s the best thing to do in the moment. Here’s to happy blogging in 2009.

  23. Why do we let other people torment us so, Litlove? Don’t you wish, just once, you could be the sort of guest who comes in like a member of the family, slaps a few backs and tells the hostess, “I hope you’ve got some Scotch because I’m ready for a party!” I don’t agree that the sociable necessarily ignore other people; I’ve known hosts and guests who are quite attentive and perceptive; their trick appears to be that they don’t expect to please everyone and forgive themselves instantly when someone else is unhappy, if they ever blame themselves at all. Like you, I never enter a party without knowing where all the exits are, and would never think to tell a hostess what she should serve, but I admire those who can be comfortable at a gathering of strangers. They’re not better people than the rest of us, and they don’t care who knows it.

    Oh, I have missed being here. You set a lovely table, Litlove, and your guests are all delightful! I hope you have some ice-cold lager. I’m ready for a party.

  24. My social tolerance is pretty low too, so it’s with great releif I read your post and all these comments. So sorry you weren’t well before Christmas and hope you had a lovely and peaceful Christmas Day.

  25. Blogging friends, thank you so much for the wonderful, comforting comments you’ve been leaving. I’ve loved reading them. I want to answer you all individually, but have only the time to post today. I’ll be back again tomorrow and will write properly to you then. In the meantime, big hugs all round. I am so glad to know I’m not alone in finding sociability taxing, and you are all very welcome to come and be admired and appreciated for being just yourselves here in the reading room at any time of day or night.

  26. Lokesh – thank you and a very merry Christmas (belated) and happy New Year to you. It’s funny you should say that, as do as you would be done by is such a rule of mine. We had a very nice Christmas this year, still got New Year’s celebrations to go, and then I’m hoping for a peaceful, work-filled start to 2009. Becca – thank you so much for those kind wishes. Overthinking is exactly the right word, and I empathise entirely with doing it outside the situation. I seem to have a video recorder in my head that allows me to play back the past on continuous loop – not really very useful, and a wonderful way to read too much into things! So glad to hear you are healthy, as everyone in the UK is doomed to a virus one way or another, it seems. May you have an equally healthy, contented and productive New Year. Charlotte – I always love your comments so! I do hope that the pajama party has eased a bit – we are beginning to look healthier here at last – but we were very glad to have you along with us. I’m also reassured if you think it’s right to give a germ forecast – you are in the thick of that ‘small children who catch everything’ phase, so I rely on your judgement. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas, dressing gowns and all and a lovely, happy 2009 to you all. Danielle – lol! Half an hour is about right, I’d say! And that’s just it – I feel like a fraud when I don’t have visible symptoms, no matter how I feel on the inside. Do hope your Christmas was extremely enjoyable (and that it provided books!) and wishing you a contented, healthy and prosperous New Year. Here’s to lengthening each other’s TBR lists! 🙂 Harriet – your comment gave me such a chuckle! We academics have to stick together because lord alone knows no one else will know what it’s like! We were just about over the borderline between sick and well by Christmas, thank you, and once New Year is passed I can look forward to some quiet work (I do hope). Hope you’ve been having an enjoyable festive season and warmest wishes for a lovely, serene 2009. Eva – oh poor you! Of all the people it’s hardest to explain to, small children are the hardest of all, and the most exhausting (for all that they are utterly lovable). I do, do hope you are feeling a bit better now. I loathe it when the CFS rears its head again, it’s so depressing. Much better to have a moan to others in the same boat – it’s comforting all round! I laughed at the thought of turning purple – I wouldn’t say no! Here’s to a healthy, peaceful and productive year ahead. Stefanie – how very reassuring to hear you say that! I feel so comforted to think of my dear blogging friends being equally anti-party, and equally anti-germ! Santa was very generous with the books, and I might post a photo (if I can). I very much liked the look of your festive selection from Half Price Books! A very happy 2009 to you and the Bookman, Stefanie.

  27. Qugrainne – merry Christmas (belatedly) to you too, and a very happy, peaceful 2009. We were well enough to enjoy it, thank you! Anne – thank you for the kind wishes! We are much recovered now, thankfully. Wishing you and Lord H a very happy, productive and successful 2009! Big hugs 🙂 Archie – thank you for the link – it did indeed give me a laugh! I like the idea of The Watcher in the Corner, and if I can find a dark, quiet enough corner, that’s a great place to be. We are more or less germ-free now, although I’m not convinced by my capacity to wassail – but I’ll give it a go 😉 Sending festive virtual hugs to you and warmest wishes for a sparkly bright, fun-filled 2009. Emily – your comment actually gave me a lot to think about. I need to encourage a part of me to leave behind its allegiance to being four years old. For a while I got very good at recognising that most people pay very little attention to others and there is very little for which we are directly responsible. Thank you for giving me a new thought! Becky – I’m wishing for some better insulation for you in 2009! I can thoroughly recommend pyjama parties, and they are nicest of all when you are healthy. I did laugh at your comment about germs in the US. Here there is a climate of stoicism and ‘they’re going to catch them anyway’, which doesn’t thrill me with joy. And you are most kind about my party attendance – thank you! Here’s wishing you a wonderful, fun-filled 2009. Bloglily – I do love the way you always see beyond a situation, or maybe to the bottom of it. I know just what you mean. There’s no point in trying to do things that aren’t that rewarding and just use up energy that could actually be turned into something useful. That’s a very good principle to hang on to, and I will incorporate that into my New Year’s package of helpful mantras. May you and the rest of the bloglillettes have a happy, healthy and wonderfully successful 2009! JB – just a big virtual hug for that comment, I think. And of course you are right. Elaine – I find your comment most reassuring as I feel exactly the same! I am becoming a recluse without a shadow of a doubt, but it’s a way of getting more reading done, and I can’t see a downside to that! 🙂 Hope you have a lovely, peaceful and contented 2009. Tricia – it’s so nice to see you! Thanks for dropping by and good to know you also have that ‘I’ll just see what they are doing….’ reflex! Here’s to a productive and successful 2009 for you!

  28. Emily – I am hoping you are having a lovely, lovely time in Maine at the moment, in or out of pajamas! (I don’t recommend them for many outdoor activities). It sounds like such a good idea to get away for a week and start the new year properly refreshed. Oh and I am all for virtual socialising. It happens when I want it to, for as long as I want it to, and no one interrupts me or bores me. Just fantastic. Wishing you a very contented and fun-filled 2009. Dorothy – my goodness me, we are clearly very alike. All that social processing is utterly exhausting, and yes, the need for a quiet corner and a crossword or a book or whatever is paramount. I love hearing stories from other people as I find family interactions most intriguing, but I don’t like being in the thick of big gatherings for any length of time. I laughed at your comment about a blogging party – and wonder whether we wouldn’t all have the same kind of sensibility that made it perfectly okay to slink off after an hour or so for some reading time! It’s certainly one party I’d be willing to try. 🙂 Gentle Reader – wouldn’t our sons get along just perfectly? I think they must be related to one another in ways we haven’t figured out! And I could not empathise more with what you say about spending so much time worrying about other’s potentially hurt feelings – that’s exactly what I do. Do hope you are all recovered from your colds now – we are certainly getting there, and I wish you and your family a healthy, contented and peaceful 2009! Pete – and a very happy, serene and joyful 2009 to you, too. I’m always reassured when therapists tell me that leaving parties is a sensible move! 🙂 David – I do agree with you that the nicest people leave comments on my site and their company is the best virtual party you could hope for. It’s a real knack to being comfortable in big social situations, isn’t it? I don’t have the gene, but I admire it a lot in people who do, and I’ve got a special respect for people who’ve figured out how to make the most of socialising when it isn’t their talent. I’m sure not taking on too much responsibility must be the key to it. Do hope all is well with you and yours, and warmest wishes for a successful and joyful 2009. Booksplease – it’s been a great relief to me to read all these comments and know I am not alone! Thank you for your kind wishes and I do hope you have a lovely, serene and pleasurable 2009.

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