Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Complaint Department

One of my favorite episodes of the television show Seinfeld includes a subplot about George’s father, Frank Costanza, creating an alternative holiday to Christmas that he dubs “Festivus” after becoming disenchanted with the holiday season. Once he has family and friends gathered around the table, he launches into the following explanation about the first ritual of this unconventional celebration: “The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re gonna hear about it!” Since Alex doesn’t really follow television shows with plot, as he prefers to watch game shows and sports, I doubt that he has seen that particular episode. Nonetheless, he has been honoring that tradition of Festivus lately, launching into complaint sessions at times and letting us know about things that displease him. Like a volcano, we have some forewarning that he is about to erupt into a verbal tirade because he sets his chin in a determined manner, narrows his eyes, and begins muttering before he’s ready to tell us what currently displeases him.

The other day, I was treated to one of Alex’s gripe sessions, which began with his complaint about not having a driver’s license, even though he’s now nineteen years old. Understandably, he has a right as a teenage boy to be unhappy that he can’t drive. However, his lack of motor planning skills makes him a danger behind the wheel, not to mention that his strong political opinions might lead him to be distracted, should he see a bumper sticker for a candidate whose opinions differ from his own. To address his complaint, I simply told Alex that until he can tie his own shoes, we weren’t going to discuss learning how to drive. That quieted him immediately, and he didn’t argue the point any further. Unfortunately, he had some other things on his mind that he wanted to let me know. Apparently, in 2008, I earned 2490 phone call points in his phone call game [which I described in an earlier blog entitled “Phone”], and that makes him upset. In addition, he thinks that an anti-aging medicine won’t be created until 2100, which concerns him. While he was on his soapbox, he also grumbled that he had only watched eight episodes of Jeopardy when Ken Jennings, who is one of Alex’s idols because he holds the record for winning the most days on Jeopardy, was on the game show. Even though I know for certain that Alex watched every single episode during Ken Jennings’ seventy-four day streak—and even watched some episodes twice by watching it on a different channel later in the day—I knew better than to argue with him when he was in this pugnacious mood. From there, he launched into more aggravation about phone call points, giving specific dates, length of calls, and phone call points earned, naming about thirty different occasions when I annoyed him by talking on the phone longer than he thought I should, going as far back to incidents in 2005. Although Alex has an excellent memory, I strongly suspect that he was making up most of the data because he seemed somewhat annoyed if I asked him whether a date, time, or phone call point tally was exact or approximate. In fact, I even caught him giving some contradictory information at one point. As author Mark Twain once said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Nonetheless, I pretended to believe him, which helped ease his irritation with me over his perception that I have spent too much time on the phone over the years.

These complaint sessions actually reveal progress in Alex for various reasons. First, he appears to have learned to control his temper. Even when he seems angry or indignant, he can control himself by limiting his outbursts to verbal griping instead of physically letting me know he’s upset by grabbing or hitting me to get my attention. I suspect this is a maturation issue but also a sign that he feels more comfortable using expressive language to tell his thoughts and feelings. Rather than keeping his concerns to himself, he feels the need to share them with someone else, which is a social skill. Even though I don’t always understand why certain things bother him, at least he can tell me about them. I have learned that the best way to handle him when he needs to complain is to encourage him to talk about all the things that make him unhappy. As he verbally unloads his various pet peeves, I often write down the details, which he likes because he feels that I’m taking him seriously since he writes down things that are important to him. In addition, I will ask him questions about what he has said so that he knows I’m paying attention to his concerns. Finally, as he reels off his various complaints, I keep asking him, “Is there anything else?” to give him the opportunity to get everything off his chest. When he finally reaches the end of the list, he’ll sigh and tell me he’s done. The process of the airing of grievances seems to be cathartic for him, and when he finishes, I’m relieved that Alex feels better and that we have come through another Festivus celebration of our own without incident.

“I will climb up to my watchtower and stand at my guardpost. There I will wait to see what the Lord says and how He will answer my complaint.” Habakkuk 2:1


Mom said...

Today's entry made me recall Maslow's theory of the Hierachy of Needs we learned in Psych. 101, which is depicted as a pyramid. The bottom tiers of the pyramid, the basic needs for survival and comfort have been met; therefore, by "airing his grievances," Alex is apparently moving up the pyramid to fulfill his need for "self-actualization"---Maslow's highest level of need on the pyramid (if I remember correctly). I'd say, as annoying as it may be, Alex is demonstrating definite personal growth as a maturing human being that we should all celebrate. One of my few concerns about Heaven is that I won't have either the capacity or the need to gripe. What would be fun about that?

Pam Byrne said...

Hi Mom,
Since you got an A+ in college psychology, I think your analysis is correct. :) Perhaps the need to gripe is a basic human need, too. I do know that unloading complaints always makes me feel better, and I appreciate that you are my willing sounding board, just as I am that for Alex. So long as he doesn't slug me, I really don't mind. ;)