My brother Ken and I are not at all competitive. He taught me many skills and talents as we grew up together that have served me well in my adulthood, and more than a few that I might have been better off without. He has never been shy about sharing his knowledge with me (even, and perhaps especially, when he didn’t have any), and some of my most memorable and formative experiences were due to either his active participation or his noteworthy absence.
Our family mythology holds that, being the youngest child by about six years, I raised myself. My mother and father were (thankfully) mostly focused on other things by the time Ken left home, but I was not left completely to my own devices. I had Ken’s example (both real and imagined) to fall back upon.
For the most part, his example served me well. Ken and I are similar in some ways, but we were “encouraged” by the needs of the family mythology to fill different roles. He was the rebellious, gifted athlete but poor student that everyone liked, and who could sell icebergs to Eskimos. I was the quiet, serious golden boy who preferred books to people, and who never met a standardized test I couldn’t ace.
Constant pressure changes both people and objects. In Imperial Chinese culture, small feet were a mark of female beauty, wealth, and status. For reasons not clear to me, a 4-inch foot was apparently the epitome of female beauty in 12th Century China. Now, I’m no expert, but there must be a reason that “the foot” received that name. If it was supposed to be 4 inches long, they would have called it something else, hmm? Some kinds of pressure won’t be denied, though, and so for a while, foot binding was all the rage. I won’t provide details (I don’t know them, and I refuse to be held responsible for anyone showing up on YouTube and claiming that I put them up to it), but essentially some Chinese women wrapped their feet tightly with cloth strips for years until they basically folded their feet in half. Painful? Undoubtedly. Beautiful? A matter of cultural perspective, but not to me. Amy’s size eights suit me fine.
Neither my brother nor I fit into the molds that were arbitrarily created for us within our family. Ken definitely is a gifted athlete, but is also one of the smartest people I know, and is both an excellent student and teacher. I’m agnostic on whether he can sell air conditioners in Alaska, but he was certainly able to convince me of some outlandish crap when we were growing up. He was rebellious and non-compliant as a teenager, but as I’ve grown older I can see that this was a survival response to the uniquely horrific experience of growing up in our family. And, I have heard rumors that not everyone likes him, although I’ve never seen objective evidence.
I, on the other hand, am every bit as brilliant as I am reputed to be (and modest to a fault), but I’m not quite as serious as we all always thought. I am an excellent test taker, and also outstanding at cheating and getting away with it. I am also very good at surrounding myself with talented, capable people, which is why my own children turned out so well. That is the single secret to life – marry well, and get out of the way.
Ken can make the most resoundingly unfunny story hilarious. I have tried to tell some of the stories he has told me to other people. The best outcome I’ve been able to achieve is confused silence; the worst is active hostility. It’s all in the delivery, he says; he leaves out the fact that he tells stories to amuse himself; if you’re amused too, that’s great but not really necessary.
I have many “Ken stories” that are useful for illustrating one point or another, but the Aesop’s Fable approach to growing up with Ken misses the entire “I can’t believe we lived through that” nature of the experience. I could tell you about the two separate occasions when my parents went on extended vacations and left Ken in my care (he complained about my cooking both times – I was not yet 13). I could tell you about the times he took me on dates with him when he was in high school, just because he liked me and he thought his friends would too (they did – a story for another time). I could tell you about the circumstances surrounding my first six beers (it involves Ken, a long weekend, and the phrase, “here, take this and leave my friends alone.”) I could even tell you about the night we ended up at a biker wedding reception and drank several hundred dollars worth of Kamikazes without actually being invited to do so (for some reason, we ended up in a taxi, I was carrying the leg of a broken bar stool, and Ken kept muttering, “I’ll be ok – I’ll just meet you at the pier.” Lightweight Navy puke.). I could tell you all these stories, and more, but I’d hate for you to get the right impression.
Ken taught me to hit, kick or catch every type of ball known to Americans. He taught me that the way people look on the outside has nothing to do with the way they feel on the inside. And though I doubt he knows it, he helped me survive the darkest times in my life so far, because I believed that he would survive, and if he could, I could too.
So tomorrow we head to the desert for a little brotherly bonding amid fire, smoke and hot metal. We’re not competitive, so I will refrain from pointing out that two 9-mm pistols does not equal an 18-mm pistol, that if it doesn’t begin with a “4” you might as well stay on the ship, and that plastic is not a fitting material for a firearm. I reminded him tonight that I have a brain implant; he reminded me that his knee implant is completely manual, and he doesn’t need batteries. I pointed out that I have a degenerative, incurable disease; he said, “Oh? Just the one?” I mentioned I would be bringing 210 pills and 24 syringes with me, and he said, “Well, at least you’ll have something to eat. I may need to fast all week.”
Nope – not competitive at all. I’ll keep you posted.