October 06, 2014

Hard Work Builds Character: Tomatoes, Narcissism and Family Values

I've been busy.

Two weeks ago we traveled to my father's garden to pick vegetables. He's a retired farmer at eighty-eight, still growing a hundred tomato plants as tall as a hired hand's shoulders. If you can't imagine three-hundred pounds of vegetables lying about the kitchen, this picture'll give you a good idea. Except for the cow and the man in the background. We didn't steal Dad's cow because he doesn't have one and no bearded man's been hovering in the shadows of my kitchen for over a decade thank God pass the tomatoes on the china platter we use for every day.

Not that I don't like men because I do. I may like them too much which is why it's rectifying learning to live without one. When you grow up in a patriarchal religion, existing without a man is deemed peculiar if not blasphemous and neighbors want to know why you're single. Unless you're ugly. Then they figure you didn't have a choice about spinsterhood and say stuff like, "Oh, that CZ. She'd be such a great wife for an old man if it weren't for...her...face." Some people prefer believing men have rejected me rather than knowing I made the decision to stay single based on reasoned principles and predictable outcomes, having nothing to do with divorce bitterness or male disdain. I carry no torch for my ex, you can rest assured on that account; but I do carry matches in the event he shows up in a gas truck. That was a smart alec thing to say, wasn't it? The truth is: violence is not my thing. Which is why remaining single allows me to live by my principles. Jest kiddin'. Not all men are violent. Just the ones I pick.

My family is much better off if I'm picking vegetables, not husbands.

My sister who lives with me hates preserving food. She won't do it. She's such a lousy picker of men that everyone agrees she's better off in an executive suite than an apron. She compares the price of case-goods to home canning and if she calculates her time based on whatever-ungodly-sum-per-hour she earns in the workplace, she can't justify indentured kitchen servitude. In 2014 it makes no sense does it, if the value of a thing like canning is measured in dollars and cents. Even if my labor smacks of gender oppression and yesteryear quaintness, there's satisfaction in knowing my foremothers were similarly obliged. Canning lets me walk in their shoes, linking arms with my ancestors as we chop, simmer and sterilize our way to spiritual harmony. Canning gives placement to my life, affirming my connection to the past and participation in the future. We are here because we eat and my kids will survive because I fed them and this is an inarguable fact. What could be more honorable than sustaining life? I think about these things while ladling garlic-infused sauce in glass jars, enough for a year of Friday night pizzas.

The question to ponder during a sweaty-browed week was why canning would be ultimately satisfying. Why bottle tomatoes when a jarful costs less than a dollar? I DON'T KNOW. Maybe because it makes me happy which is obvious to everyone in the house since I break into song unexpectedly. Usually hymns. This confuses the hell out of my family. No worries, they're used to cognitive dissonance. They also know after living with me that I believe hard work results in long-lasting satisfaction and eternal rewards. "When we immerse ourselves in domestic work," I tell them, "we lose ourselves in something greater than ourselves." Canning is not a repetition compulsion.

Values tell you what your heart believes is important

We preserve food in my family because it's the right thing to do. "Hard Work Builds Character," my grandmother would pronounce, lacking tolerance for complaints; she was a hardy woman. At this stage of my life I know she's right but would ask if she were here, "What kind of character, grandmother? Joyful and satisfied; or resentful and ornery?"

I married a narcissistic husband for whom the ordinary tasks of marriage and family carried little meaning or value, although he performed them as dutifully as a good man should. "It's time for you," he said one day after I'd painted the second-story rain gutters, "to get off my gravy train!" And so I did and discovered true joy when people knew in their hearts that I didn't can tomatoes because I had to; I did it because I loved them.

I did not know satisfaction and joy weren't guaranteed outcomes of hard work and by hard I mean taken for granted. I've learned through my narcissistic relationships of which there have been more than one, that there is no life-sustaining work that cannot be sufficiently criticized and marginalized to the point of worthlessness and invisibility. Yes, my ex worked hard at his career and yes, he worked hard maintaining our home, but he didn't see how hard I was working, too. Maybe because I was singing.

People who find no joy in quotidian work, may still complete the tasks their culture expects of them. They excel at performing their family values. Fueled by stoicism, they move around the kitchen like automatons, grumbling when they trip on the gel mat, cramming jars instead of cradling them, scrubbing tomatoes instead of bathing them, counting their hours to coerce gratitude. When canning week ends, they deftly check the box on their task list: Done. The family breathes a sigh of relief.

Narcissistic characters don't do the task for the sake of doing it. It's a job. They did it. Their earned their right to live another day. They measure the value of their existence by keeping score with the competition. "You put up one hundred jars of Mexican Salsa?" your cousin exclaims. "That's fantastic! You're amazing! I put up one hundred and fifty!"
Tip: If your relative is narcissistic and you want to stay on good relations with her, always ask how many jars of tomatoes she canned first. Make sure your number count is fewer. White lies are permissible for the sake of family unity. And if you want to show off your beautifully canned peaches turned ever-so-perfectly in the jar, expect to be told how much time you wasted doing something nobody in their right mind would ever do. And then expect to see her perfectly turned peaches next year that didn't take her nearly as long as it took you---would you like a few tips 'cuz she's willing to share.
The grueling and often-invisible work of raising a family and supporting a husband led to a contented midlife without regrets. I had fully invested myself in the "greater good of family" without immediate reward. There were no promotions to be seduced by, no public acclaim to distract me. Doing for others and contributing my time, cultivated a deep attachment to family, along with personal satisfaction, something I'd learned as the eldest child. My ex, on the other hand, insisted he'd worked his whole goddamn life dammit and deserved to retire with someone he liked a lot more than his family. Why had my hard work created contentment, not resentment? Why didn't I view family as a burden or hate them for being ingrates? This occupied my mind while boiling jalapeno peppers on Jelly Day, nearly choking to death on the toxic fumes but oh, is jalapeno jelly good at Christmastime!

Narcissistic characters work hard doing everything they're supposed to do in order to be good people. Then midlife arrives and they feel insignificant and unappreciated, cheated of the happiness a check list promised. Hell, we are all insignificant and unappreciated. Hard work, the kind that taxes stamina and commitment, is supposed to make a person feel insignificant and unappreciated. Allowing ourselves to feel unimportant forces ego to give sway, connecting us to our spiritual self, the self that isn't motivated by self-interest and self-promotion.

Our ultimate satisfaction merging work with passion sustains the body and nourishes spirit, too. I never complain (not for long anyway) about the hours spent, bruised feet, burn blisters, the fruit flies and scorched pot bottoms because the canning process makes me happy. Carrying forth the family tradition makes sense of my life, gives meaning to my life, and secures my place in history. I really think I could find meaning in a haystack; be happy living in a shoe. The thought of canning tomatoes in a shoe tickled me on Bruschetta Day. Blessed be the woman finding happiness in her pantry.

On Spaghetti Sauce Day, the FedEx man rang my doorbell. I wiped my hands on my apron (good cooks are a mess to look at, a joy to share the table with) and answered the door. He sniffed the air and smiled, "Spaghetti sauce?"

"Yup," I said. "I'm canning tomatoes this week."

His eyes softened and he smiled, "My mom canned tomatoes! She passed away last year and I miss her so much." I listened to a few stories about his mother and went back to my kitchen. My daughter wandered up the stairs and hugged me. "Do you know how happy it makes me when you're canning, Mom? I love you so much."

I carefully fill the jars just so, making them aesthetically pleasing and not because they're headed for the State Fair, but because it satisfies me when ordinary things are done excellently. That I imagine my great-great-grandmothers nodding their approval might not be something to share with just anyone, though.

Love to all,


  1. What a beautiful post, and such lovely writing. Friday night pizzas, with homegrown tomatoes and homemade sauce. Thoughts like these are warm bunkers for encroaching winter. The love and care put into tasks that feed and provide warmth. What's more important than that? nothing. And is the person doing it important? Only as important as the value she puts on the work itself and the people she loves. I love this post because your relation to labor here is the opposite of what CEOs and finance people feel and think. Those who create nothing but abstract numerical "wealth" on spread sheets, and take home profits that those who actually make things never see. The way the pleasure and nature in Homo Faber has been destroyed by a mode of capitalism that even Adam Smith would've been horrified by. For a narcissist, the work is never about the work. It's always about the "accolades" (my NF's favorite word, well, co-favorite along with "comfortable"). When I've tried to explain the joy of what happens in the classroom, he always goes to "power" terms, saying things like (well, actually, not 'like,' he always says the same thing): "it must be gratifying to mold young minds." I'm not "molding" anything. I'm working with people. We are doing labors of thinking about things that they can store. I'm going to think about this post, CZ, especially later in the term when i start feeling overtaxed by demands. That the teaching is like canning and preserving. Ingredients for living, worth the labor for the sustenance it provides for others. Period. In this respect and this alone, we matter. You are a remarkable human being, I am so happy you are here. love CS

    1. Thanks, CS. I love your support so much.

      "Molding young minds", eh? What a narcissistic thing to say! So your narcissistic father values the power you have to control/manage your students. His comment is typical of our times, reflective of masculine hegemony. Molding, controlling, colonizing, appropriating, exploiting---a whole string of power words signifying status and authority 'over' students. I'm sure there are plenty of professors in our world who adhere to that philosophy. I oughta write about this one particular science teacher who deserves an online analysis of his pathological NPD. Maybe that'll be the next post.

      You wrote: "Those who create nothing but abstract numerical "wealth" on spread sheets, and take home profits that those who actually make things never see. "

      Numerical wealth on spread sheets, the investment of time based on profitability, the shelf life of a wife...just a normal day for 21st century capitalists! I appreciate that you understood my post wasn't merely about preserving food or competent housewifery. It's about the essential connection between work and "heart" that leads to contentment, the ultimate satisfaction with one's life no matter what we may do with our time.

      When people can't find this connection, they are "unhappy" people---always looking for something they seem to be missing. Measuring, quantifying, calculating, and proving via acquisition, that their lives have value. Not to mention the constant comparison to other people, reducing self-worth to competition. Do they do anything just 'cuz it's the right thing to do? Or do they create a list of pros and cons to figure out what benefits them most?

      Just one thing more to say about the loss of meaning in one's life (or the elusive search for meaning that is never satisfied): some narcissists may be happy-enough if they achieve notoriety and influence. They are happy-enough if they accumulate wealth and financial success. Like your father's business acumen. But the majority of narcissists are not so talented, intelligent and/or lucky and their lives are miserable because of it. The narcissistic pathology becomes obvious when their expectations of achievement defy competence (reality). The happy narcissist or the depressed narcissist may simply be a matter of luck.

      I ran into some rather bad luck (ha!) but what couldn't be destroyed was my love for life and family.


  2. What a lovely post to read over my morning coffee - thank you! My sister and I have been talking about this lately and you've provided more grist for the mill!

    1. Hi Pearl!

      It was a rather strange post for a narcissism blog so I'm pleased that reading was worth your time. I hope to always provide "grist for the mill", applying the things we know about narcissistic personalities to everyday experience. Since I am a storyteller, I appreciate so very very very much, my readers. Everyone's validation has restored my self-confidence and helped me climb out of a dreary dark place. A woman can easily get lost in there.


  3. Hi CZ,
    A great post, I enjoyed reading it! From this post as with your other ones, I take away a deeper understanding about myself and what is happening in my environment. Sometimes, I am not aware that it has happened and your words help to clarify it up for me.

    About the same time I discovered narcissism, I had started to teach myself cooking (using YouTube to learn how to zest a lemon). I bought a cook book and started from there. I slowly learned the terms and measurements and made a lot of mistakes. And even through some of the awful meals DH and I ate (DH being so polite when clearly the meal was not good) I still continued to try new recipes and adjust new favourites to our taste buds. I still continue to cook almost everyday (five years going). It is one thing I haven't stopped doing or giving up on because I mess up from time to time. I am still surprised by it because it was one task my mother coveted and clearly did not want to share with me as everyone gave her accolades over it.

    As I was surprised over my new enjoyment, I occasionally let my joy slip out to my in-laws. Talking about buying a new cook book or a new recipe or the fact that we too have Friday pizza night (how funny). I remember, long before I realized how unhealthy my sister-in-law is, I revealed my success with making risotto. To only be interrupted with how she found a great frozen risotto that takes 40 minutes to warm up. And little did she know that homemade risotto takes that long as well ;). What I didn't understand and tie together is that while I am (slowly) learning to build joy into life through meaningful tasks is that even this seems to be met with competition or devaluing attempts.

    Happy Canning! I love jalopeno jelly, yum!

    1. I was hoping you'd chime in, TR! I just knew you'd understand the pure joy of simple things being undermined by people who not only don't feel the same passion, they try to destroy it in others. Or at minimum, demean the activity until it's pointless. We just can't let that happen to us, now can we?

      This is most curious thing before we understand narcissism, leaving us with cognitive dissonance at best---a broken spirit at worst. To be honest, after my years of homemaking were equated to a "minimum wage" job, I let that cruelty sink in...and it has taken a while for me to restore the activities giving meaning to my life. In our narcissistic culture, there's already a certain "disdain" for ordinary tasks that don't make lots of money so we're not only facing a cultural stigma, we're dealing with the narcissistic attitudes of family members. If you love something, they'll say it's worthless.

      Like your risotto---the sheer joy of perfecting a complex task. Cooking IS complicated and should not be compared to MacDonald's. You'll die on that stuff---you'll thrive on homemade risotto. I think there's a little sexism to think about when we talk about "cooking", a traditionally female task that is speciously minimized as "low-skill." Narcissism turns reality backwards so of course cooking (life-sustaining) would be demeaned. Like completely missing the point of someone's interest in and perfection of risotto by saying she knew a frozen brand that only took 40 minutes to warm up. Maybe she couldn't relate to the JOY you're experiencing in a lowly task like cooking and maybe she's just thick-headed.

      I love your comment so much! "Bon appetit!'

      p.s. I must confess that I've never made risotto and wouldn't even consider eating the frozen stuff much less tell someone about it. ha!


    2. That was well said: "In our narcissistic culture, there's already a certain "disdain" for ordinary tasks that don't make lots of money so we're not only facing a cultural stigma, we're dealing with the narcissistic attitudes of family members. If you love something, they'll say it's worthless."

      That is really an important element, the cultural influence, the stigma of ordinary tasks. There is comfort in the ordinary. Experiencing joy from it, even better! Bon appetit!

  4. Oh!~ I love canning, too, but I'm not the perfectionist you are. My cans of fruit would be ejected from the State Fair in any state! The fruit is squished, misshapen and since I have some cans that are I swear 10 years old on my canning shelf....(I know the age because they were from long gone pear and plum trees) I'm actually afraid to eat my own canning. Or to feed it to anyone I like or love. LOL!

    I have found out that over the years, these 'simple' (ain't so simple cooking with pressure cookers....Sputnik was the first pressure canner I am sure...) tasks of homemaking are the most pleasant around....cooking, gardening first, making preserves....( I can do that....) and just relaxing into the mysteries of certain home economic things...well, they are very fulfilling to me. My mother never did such a thing...as canning.....so I have had to teach myself these things. The rest of my family (my father's family) think I am an alien, but they are Yankees and don't seem to do these things...at least my generation of cousins. They think it's 'quaint'.

    I think it reclaims something important for me and for my character: I feel empowered with these things where perhaps a new book only lasts for a short duration. But a shelf full of purple, green and lavender (that's the Kudzu jelly which is a cross between strawberry and grape tasting delicate jelly....)that has the light shining through the glass and lighting up the window like stained glass...well, it feels 'holy'. It feels like a real accomplishment where your time and energy (and yes, canning in the late summer without ac...) feels 'right'.

    This stuff grounds me. I remember during Y2K when I did a lot of collecting (hording) of food stuffs and a year's supply of toilet paper, and I remember how 'grounded' I felt. I could feed them for over a year and they could wipe their behinds because of my efforts.

    My dear therapist Liz and I were talking about this very thing a few years ago: She thinks there is a conspiracy to turn women away from these 'womanly' tasks with clothes shopping, microwaves, dishwashers, etc. LOL~ She might be right.

    If women are stripped from these pleasurable tasks that can be very creative and artistic in their own right, we are stripped from something we can enjoy to turn our energies and attention to something else that might not be so enduring for us.

    You break out your hymns. I listen to A. Morrisette really loud. Have you ever canned to "What if God were One Of Us? Makes a lot of sense.

    Love, Jane

    1. 10-year old peaches, eh? Now you know what to give your mom on Mother's Day.

      Sorry it's taken a few days to get downstairs to my office. I've been dealing with the flu...my nephew got it first and as usual, the old lady's next-in-line. Achoo!

      I don't know if Liz is correct about a conspiracy but her idea is intriguing. Never thought of it that way before---more of a natural process as modernity makes sewing and canning a luxury now that food and clothes are relatively cheap. And also, our free time at home is divided between other personal interests like the iPad which takes you down a three-day rabbit hole learning about something you'd never thought of before and by the time you've exhausted links, your tomatoes have spoiled. ha! It's not easy unplugging from "entertainment" devices and dedicating ourselves to a task that's so time consuming. The problem we might face at some point is that our distractions aren't "meaningful" or "fulfilling." I say that from a personal experience (no data or footnotes).

      Speaking of toilet paper---how funny you'd mention storing extra reserves. Maybe toilet paper is one of the first things women think about when stocking a year's supplies. We know that if necessary, we'd share spoiled peaches with our best friend IF she had a case of toilet paper.All kidding aside, there's something very grounding, you are right, knowing you have enough food and supplies to care for your family and yourself---in the event there's a zombie apocalypse and some folks believe this a possibility.

      You've mentioned your famous prune breakfast treats, posted pictures of your floral displays and Christmas wreaths and written about your garden and fish pond. It's such a pleasure when people find beauty and joy in the simple tasks of life---an antidote to the creeping crud of narcissism. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jane!



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