When I was a little girl, we had “extras.” An Extra was something that was kind of a bonus, that didn’t count, but that someone wanted to give to you anyway. It could have been an extra birthday present but one that they were not quite sure of for some reason; perhaps it was something they had found, rather than bought, or something that they knew might not be exactly right but the impulse to give it was stronger than its potential to displease. They are little splurges that you could not help getting, but they are not the main attraction. Yet they might end up being the most memorable gift of the day.
I kept the tradition going, not even consciously, when I gave Max the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue for his birthday, along with several other wrapped presents (tee shirts, books, and I-Tunes gift cards). The Swimsuit Issue was a joke; Max had been asked to write an essay about sports, and he hates sports. This was to inspire him, to show him that even sports has a positive side. (He took the magazine with bright red cheeks and a huge grin and I never saw it since; and believe me, Ned has asked to see it many, many times.)
I also gave Ben an Extra on his birthday, a tiny Maggie Simpson doll, because I know Ben thinks Maggie is really cute. Anything that brings out the soft side in Benj is something to be pursued, so I handed him the figurine loosely wrapped and called it an “extra,” so that he would not be insulted about being given a doll for his birthday.
Lately I have found that extras are not only found on the top of a pile of birthday presents. It is quite possible that there are people in ones life who are also Extras. In fact, maybe all people one loves are Extras, in that we kind of stumble upon them and may or may not be swept away by what they offer. But as we love them longer, they become more like Givens. But even they are not Given, when you think about it. Parents of some sort are a Given, but parents may run off, parents disconnect from you, and of course, they eventually die. But in general, in my mind, family is kind of the Given, the central gift (mom, dad, siblings; then, when you are older, spouse and children) and friends are the Extras.
Or is it the other way around? I was raised to think the former, but as I get older, I want friends who are Givens. And for my spouse to be Extra. But Ned feels to me like the all-time Given, but I also understand the very real fact that husbands and wives fall out of love and leave each other. And, frankly, things are far more exciting when I suddenly view Ned as an Other/Extra, in relief, lifted out of the daily routine surroundings. I find when he talks about work, when he really gets into describing something he is thinking about, I feel myself move back and see him clearly as a man in the world. I see him how others see him (and it is a huge turn-on). It is then that he is like an Extra, rather than a Given.
Children move in an out of Extra status. When they are first born, they are Extras. They are a wonder to behold, something you can’t quite believe you actuallly have. Then, as you get used to them, they are (or seem) more Given. You feel you can take them for granted. When we first brought Nat home from the hospital, we drove at a speed of 20 miles per hour. Ned said, “I can’t imagine ever going fast again.” Nat was that much of a precious bundle.
Now, of course, we speed and drive crappy like everyone else, with our kids in the car. It is not because we love them less. But they become more Givens, more just a part of life, a part of us. But every now and then, when I focus on one of them, I really connect with them and feel how special they are. As my boys grow up and become more “real people,” strangers, even, I see them as Extras more frequently, these people in my life whom I don’t always know that well.
I am plagued by this model. There are very few friends who for me are Givens. I can’t help but see some people as more tenuous, more special, less predictable, than my family. Is that the best way to approach friendship? Shouldn’t we be able to take friends for granted a little bit, too, like family? Shouldn’t family members be viewed as Extras more often? Do I have this all backwards? The Libra in me would like a better balance: to be able to lift my family into Extra status more often, and for friends to feel more like Givens. I have one friend in particular, who feels more and more like an Extra, even though he tells me he is a Given. I don’t understand my discomfort in this situation, and I would like to.
But maybe that is the nature of things. Maybe that is what friends really are; they are little extra gifts that you get, that you sometimes don’t even recognize as such at first. You can’t really predict how great they are going to turn out when you first come upon them, and you don’t know how long they are going to work for you (or you for them). It is a source of excitement but also of anxiety.
As I write this, I find I would like a new model.
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