Until the last in 2017, most of my dear uncle’s and my phone calls began the same way. I’d ask how he was, and he’d say, loudly, “I’m foy-in” and laugh. It was a fond tease that reminded him of me when I was small and learning manners. No matter what was going on, I was to respond to the inquiry, “How are you?” with the answer, “I’m fine,” ideally followed by, “Thank you. How are you?” Because I had fairly significant speech disorders, things often came out garbled. “Fine” became “foy-in” My uncle wasn’t teasing me about that though.
His fond remembrance grew from the first time he heard me say “I’m fine” when I was three or so. He had arrived for a visit. I don’t recollect what major or minor disaster had occurred, but as he told the story, when I answered the door, the dog was barking maniacally, my parents were yelling at each other upstairs, and I was red-faced and crying. I looked up at him and shouted, “I foy-in! Fakoo! Howoo?”
I loved my uncle more than anyone in my family, and I know he loved me too. I have, however, always felt conflicted that he remembered this story with fondness. That he did speaks to the delusion of normalcy, of fineness, my family–and eventually I–chose to believe. (Note: I doubt it can be classified as delusional; I think the sort of institutionalized nodding and denial of reality that was my family is actually quite common).
A few months ago a friend recommended I read Louise Penny. I had never heard of her despite my being an avid consumer of her style of mystery novels. Within a few score pages of the first, I knew I was in for a good binge. With the exception of a handful of Zoom calls, my screens went dark for nearly two months as Penny’s sixteen novels and some other ongoing reading, writing, and meditation engaged me enough to do the resting and recovery I needed after a bout of illness.
Penny’s village of Three Pines near Montreal, and the richly drawn characters who people it provide much pleasure; none more than Ruth Zardo, the ageless, brilliant, alcohol-sodden, duck-toting, ascerbic, award-winning poet. The novels are sprinkled with bits of “her” poetry (actually penned by a variety of well-known authors including Margaret Atwood). This little gem is a stanza from Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse:”
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
In one of the novels, Ruth Zardo has published a new collection of poetry called I’m FINE, and her villager friends have attended her reading and toted their personally signed copies home with them. Later, Gamache, the main character of the series, takes his chances with Zardo.
“I read your book,” said Gamache to Ruth as the two of them sat in front of the cheery fire while Peter puttered in the kitchen and Clara browsed her bookshelves for something to read.
Ruth looked as though she’d rather be sitting in scalding oil than next to a compliment. She decided to ignore him and took a long gulp of her Scotch.
“But my wife has a question.”
“You have a wife? Someone agreed to marry you?”
“She did and she was only a little drunk. She wants to know what FINE means in your title.”
“I’m not surprised your wife has no idea what fine means. Probably doesn’t know what happy or sane means either.”
“She’s a librarian and she was saying in her experience when people use capital letters it’s because the letters stand for something. Your title is I’m FINE with the FINE in capitals.”
“She has brains, your wife. She’s the first to notice that, or at least to ask. FINE stands for Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical. I’m FINE.”
“You certainly are,” agreed Gamache.
I still laugh every time I read this passage. I’ve shared the FINE acronym, repeatedly, with friends and my therapist. I suspect I find it funnier than any of them do; at least in my mind my voice rises a register and my laughter dances on the rim of hysteria. I’m aware of the irony of my life’s drama in it, like Eisenstein’s classic Odessa sequence when people watch the baby carriage careen down the long stairs. That scene comes to mind because I passed my graduate degree language requirement by translating a French analysis of why and how it inspired comedy, and I’ve always been fascinated by dramatic irony.
Aside from the humor of the whole exchange in the passage above, what I find particularly wonderful about it is the way Penny expertly captures how much depth and complexity–and often how much darkness and pain–the simple words, “I’m fine,” can hold.
My family was a dysfunctional, chaotic mess, and I grew up in a time when, and in a family in which it was verboten to speak of the personal outside the family. “We do not air our dirty laundry,” was one of a dozen or so commandments that the Old Testament apparently neglected to mention. I broke it on more than one occasion and paid the consequences. I slowly learned that the wording of this one really meant that I was not supposed to say much at all about my family to anyone; except I WAS, for some mystifying reason, supposed to let everyone know that my mother was a teacher, my uncle was a priest, and my grandfather was a judge.
To ask someone outside the family for help or support, even for a skinned knee, was always a high-stakes choice. So, the manners training to always say, “I’m fine,” was a loaded one. When I was in high school and had been hospitalized for ten days with a back injury, I was referred for a psychiatric evaluation (I shall spare you the details as to why). I sat petrified beside the psychiatrist’s desk. He asked in what I am sure must have been a kindly manner, “How is everything at home?”
“Fine,” I said. “Everything is fine.” I was terrified that he would invite my parents in to discuss his findings in the same way all the physicians had with the test results. I have no idea whether he believed me, but that was the last I saw of him.
My early training both saved and damaged me. I’m certainly not alone in this. From infancy onward, we we learn about ourselves, and we learn to interact with others by interacting with others. Our experiences teach us how to survive, navigate, and thrive in our families and beyond–for better and worse. My family was obsessed with ensuring I learned good manners, among other things. Their strict training served me well in my life, as did Sister Regina Concepta’s two-year reign of terror that masqueraded as instruction in English language skills. Thanks to them, I mostly haven’t needed to think consciously about what I do or say when it comes to reasonably appropriate social interaction, spewing out proper verb tenses, or whether it’s correct to say I or me in a sentence.
There was damage in the training too, though. Not only am I a tormented writer, I still cringe when I hear someone make a grammatical error, or I myself do. It’s not because I believe that correct language usage means someone is more intelligent. I cringe because I flash back to Sister Regina’s rubber-tipped wooden pointer slicing through the air in front of the face of a mistake-maker, the explosive crack of it on the desk making no bodily mark but a sharper kind of pain that lingers even now. It was not only I who suffered these effects. Kenny sat in front of me for two years. I witnessed his panic attacks daily though I didn’t know what they were called then. I watched as his neck turned red and sweaty and his hands shook so much he could no longer write the exercises in his copybook while Sister walked the aisles calling on students with her pointer to answer, “Part of speech?” We all learned how to put a decent sentence together. I spent a career teaching English, and Kenny graduated from the US Naval Academy. So there’s that.
Any sort of training, practiced enough, becomes reflexive. Manners are like this. Some of these lessons become so ingrained they’re difficult to undo or adapt to changing circumstances. As a child, for example, I had been taught to stand whenever an adult entered the room. When I got older, it all went haywire. In some elements of our culture, it was understood to be good manners among adults that men stand and women remain seated when a new person enters the room. When I was home on holidays from college, I could never seem to get it right when my parents were entertaining. It all depended upon what lens my mother was seeing through. If I was her child and I had not stood, then she’d pinch the back of my elbow and say, “It’s polite to stand when someone enters the room.” If she saw me as the young adult I was and I’d stood, she’d squeeze my shoulder and say, “No need to stand to greet our friends.” Either way I’d end up feeling deeply embarrassed, until I finally learned to avoid the whole situation. I’d time my entries to their soirees until after all the guests had arrived so they’d be the ones who’d sort out who would stand or sit and I’d just have to say, “Hello, I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”
An earlier more humiliating example of ingrained training happened in grammar school. I spent my first three years at a Roman Catholic school for girls that maintained an odd rule: Every time a teacher entered the classroom, we were required to stand, enact a full curtsy, and say, “Good morning/afternoon and God bless you Sister/Miss.” We did a lot of standing and curtsying and blessing on a daily basis. I felt excited to begin fourth grade at a new co-educational Roman Catholic school. On the morning of the first day, Miss Brady entered. I leapt from my seat, curtsied and said, “Good morning and God bless you, Miss.” The squat red-headed woman who would become my next teacher-nemesis stared at me, and a silent moment ensued before my new classmates’ taunting laughter began.
“I’m fine. Thank you.” I probably would have said, had anyone asked.
To an extent, that response in that situation would have been healthy enough. Collapsing in a pool of humiliated tears in front of this new set of people with whom I’d be spending the next five years would have been disastrous. As would have any doomed attempt to explain the bizarre culture of the school from which I’d come. Part of adaptive socialization is knowing how much of one’s personal experience to open up to another. Saying, “I’m fine,” is a polite way of maintaining a relationship or getting on with the business of daily living whilst keeping the door closed on whatever pain or chaos is happening inside oneself. Psychologists would call it “setting a boundary,” and it is an important skill to have for functioning in life.
The trick is setting that boundary temporarily, just until we can get to a safe enough place to feel the feelings. Had I been a different sort of kid with different sorts of friends living in a different sort of family, I might have gone home and responded to my mother’s question, “How was your first day of school?” differently. Instead, I said, “It was fine, thank you. How was your day?” Part of that response was my reflexive training. Part of it was protecting myself because my mother was not a safe person in whom I could confide my feelings. Part of it was that I knew that it would deeply upset her if I said anything critical about the school, if she sussed out any whiff that this new school might not be the quick fix she’d settled on to resolve her child’s mysterious discontent. So my boundary remained solid, my door closed.
Not only does a boundary protect our vulnerability, the politely shut door can be a way to protect others. People ask one another constantly, “How are you?” and generally the answer is “Fine,” or “Okay.” Although they attempt to hide it, most are taken aback when the answer is negative. I believe it’s not that most people don’t care but more that the script has suddenly veered off-course. When that happens, it’s scary. Not only does it take time out of people’s too rushed and over-scheduled lives, it also raises anxiety about having to do something they’re not prepared to do, or feel something they don’t want to feel. Most of us are by nature compassionate. When someone talks to us about their troubles, we resonate. If our boundaries are too squishy, we can feel compelled to fix other people’s problems, or other people’s troubles can trigger our own uncomfortable feelings. So we’re very wary. So sometimes we say we’re fine to spare our friends all this trouble.
Even at my ripe old age, I continue to waffle in my responses to the question, “How are you?” I’m learning to pause before I answer and decide whether and how much to open my door. I sometimes find pleasure in quoting my father-in-law who always responds, “Reasonably well, considering,” but now that I’ve been introduced to Louise Penny’s Ruth Zardo, I’m finding that “I’m FINE” hits the mark quite well (at least when spoken) and allows me time to decide whether I will open the door wide.
The vast majority of our problems arise, of course, when our “doors” stay closed for so long that the hinges rust and whatever it was we shielded from others or carefully guarded to prevent ourselves from being hurt lies dormant and festers. It happens when we work so hard at being fine that we begin to believe the lies we tell, and slowly we become FINE.
It happens to a lot of us, whether we grew up in troubled homes as I did or not. It happens because we we live in a culture and capitalist economy that pays only lip service to valuing emotional experience. We can generally only tolerate expressions of pain that are neatly packaged with clear etiology and repairable within a reasonably rapid timeframe for an affordable fee. Preferably with minimal impact on our current daily lives. We choose, mostly, to turn away from the messy and often grueling work of being fully feeling human beings who are able to live with ourselves and one another with integrity, patience, and compassion on a day-to-day basis. So we simply say, “I’m fine” and doggedly choose to believe it. As if saying it will make it true and make all the feelings we’ve closed behind the door magically evaporate because we’ve “moved on.”
We think this makes us virtuous or strong. Perhaps it’s because so many of us have pioneer and immigrant pride running in our blood and rebellious independence in our bones. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been raised on generations’ repetitive imperative to do what is literally impossible: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” The need to convince ourselves that all is well when often it is not is so ingrained that we have actually commercialized it. In 1939, The British government issued a motivational poster designed to prepare its citizenry for the coming trauma of WWII. It is now everywhere we look, from keychains and t-shirts to mugs and bumper stickers: Keep Calm and Carry On. It made sense then, but now?
Even controlling for the US’s obsession with the UK (and the mistaken belief that attributes this quote to the monarchy), the sales figures for products with this and spinoff logos cannot be attributed to simple Anglophilia. I suspect that, like so many other products reminding us to breathe, be calm, look on the bright side, and be grateful, it is one more capitalization on our desperation to keep whatever festers behind our closed doors right where it is. And we all know what happens when we do that, right? We become fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and egotistical. I’m FINE, thank you. How are you?