105 Ways to Give a Book

What You Ask For

Other than long black eyelashes, the best thing my father gave me was a model for asking for things. Certainly not a perfect model as he has no shame. (Really, he doesn't. Boundaries are in question here, in the nicest sort of way.) It's more of a yardstick along which to compare my own requests on a continuum of how awkward it is to make the request against what the reward will be, while also considering the imposition involved and the relationship itself.

Let me start small. Both of my teen girls are attending a four-week summer program in theatre, dance, and music. We submitted their class choices in May in priority order and when the schedules came two weeks ago both girls were disappointed. Teen didn't get the videography class that she hoped would help her develop a better understanding of what a film major might entail. Also-Teen, the show-stopping singer, didn't get a choral or vocal class. But the information sent with the program was clear that the only changes that would be made were for administrative errors or level placement.

Teen debated whether to say something before the first day of class, weighing the embarrassment of asking for a change that specifically seemed to be outside what would be considered. When it came down to it, we both agreed that five minutes of awkwardness was worth the possibility of four-weeks in the right class. It turned out to be painless, with the administrator making the change quickly and pleasantly. With that knowledge - along with realizing that Also-Teen was definitely in a dance class too advanced for her - the girls went back to change her schedule to get a chorus class. Which they did. Perfect.

In that case, the girls weren't asking for anything extra. The asking was simply going against the implied procedure and the old standby of "you get what you get and you don't get upset." It's harder when it involves a true favor that puts someone out for your benefit. I have this situation coming up where I'll be staying with my mom for a week in Baltimore for her treatment, and need some help getting the girls home from their summer program. Here I have to weigh the asking against the awkwardness of asking, but also along the relationships I've made and the imposition it would cause. I hate this kind of asking, but have made it easier for myself by generally being the person who says yes to other's requests or offers favors where I see I can help. (Usually in carpooling. It's all about carpooling.) But it's still difficult to ask for help.

Then there's the hardest request of all. The one that relies less on the imposition and more on the relationship itself. My example, coming up soon, is wanting a place to stay in New York City the first full week in August to attend Also-Teen's Broadway program. I wouldn't put someone out by hosting us, but I'd happily accept a week in someone's Manhattan apartment as they vacation or live elsewhere. I've been lucky enough that we've gotten by this way for two years as my cousin was staying in Los Angeles and my friend was staying in Amsterdam. It's a difficult thing to ask - for someone to let you use their home - being so personal, so reliant on trust and the relationship. But in my weighing against reward, it would save me two or three thousand dollars on getting a hotel that was safe, clean, and convenient with two teens. So ask away I will. (Like now. I'm kind of sort of even asking now. You know, if you happen to have a place to lend to a future Broadway star.)

When I think about it over the years - and I have - I've found that there are RULES and there are "rules," in anything from the written directions for a summer program to the social conventions of relationships. I've come to a conclusion that you generally won't get what you want by not asking for it. And yet, it's still hard in considering what you ask for.


Ami said...

Sometimes the misbehavior of some results in rules for all - and being one of those who behave well can get you an exception to those rules.

For example, because I had kids in the summer reading program walking down the aisles and writing down titles of books they literally had not touched, and then turning those lists in for prizes, I had to make a rule that books must be checked out overnight to count. I happily, however, make exceptions for the kids who come in with their daycare, the family who is new to town and can't get a library card yet, the child who reads mostly in German and who has already gone through our collection, etc. I just don't advertise that!

Sometimes the rule makers aren't happy about having to make the rules, either, and somebody politely asking if there is any wiggle room can really make our day and restore our faith in humanity:)

Anonymous said...

I wish I had an apartment in Manhattan to offer you. As it is, all I can offer is my heartfelt wishes you will get what you ask for! Don't forget to look/advertise on places like Craigslist. I've found a lot of good people that way.

Gail Gauthier said...

I've often felt that there is some secret knowledge that others have regarding what situations truly are "you get what you get and you don't get upset" and which are ones that can be addressed with a request or even ignored altogether. I, however, am always mystified.

MotherReader said...

Ami, I know exactly what you mean! Especially in the context of the library. There are also rules about signing up for programs, but often people who come anyway, asking nicely, prepared to take the answer that the program is full, can come in.

Yet... like Gail says, when does that secret knowledge apply? Because if everyone operated that way - didn't sign up, but just showed up hoping to get in the program - it would never work. So maybe the secret is in trying to follow the rules, but asking for exceptions nicely and occasionally. (?) I'm not even sure, which is why I thought it would be fun to hear from other people.

Gail, I think I've balanced it with asking myself a few questions. Other than the time for the question itself, is it an imposition on someone else? Is the only real issue that it's awkward, embarrassing, or socially unconventional to ask? How do I weigh that against what I'd get out of the request?

It's mildly awkward to ask for a copy of a book at ALA. A little awkward worth small reward. It's largely socially unconventional to ask to use someone's apartment. Large awkward worth huge reward.

Ilana, I appreciate your good thoughts and wishes! I adopted someone's older cat through Craiglist, in the hopes of being that helpful person so I know it's value.

Beanlet said...

I have such a hard time with this one, and would love to read more commentary on it! In the complete abstract, I agree people should ask. Well behaved women rarely make history and all. In reality, aggressive takers annoy the bejeezus out of me, pushy parents trying to get more than their kids fair share at my kids' expense, flakey playdate pick up parents who are far too late without asking.

I think the secret must lie in being able to accurately assess the amount of relationship capital you actually have in these situations. Because all of those examples above don't bother me at all if there is enough capital built up- if it's give and take for my kids sometimes too, if flakey too late parent sometimes brings my kids home from school- fine, great, this is community at its finest. But I have no idea how to accurately gauge my relationship capital, and can only go on my feelings about these things when other people do them. Which is not necessarily rational and has all my own baggage attached, so...

MotherReader said...

Beanlet, I don't think it's ever easy and it's not always clear cut either. Years ago I had to ask for a lot of little carpool favors to accommodate an erratic work schedule. When I wasn't working, I offered rides to kids other working parents. More of a pay it forward or pay it backward kind of thing. The best friendships I have are where we aren't keeping score knowing that it all comes out in the long run - maybe over years.

I've thought about this a lot, because I don't like pushy people or takers either. So maybe it's about not wanting and asking for everything. because then there does get to be a tone of entitlement. I'm also cautious about asking for something that you get that someone else won't. Like you are more entitled to it. Except for sometimes when maybe you are more entitled, because you worked harder or care more. Yeah, it is complicated.