Treat your siblings like casual friends

Jessica Wildfire
Source: Roman Samborskyi

My brother never cleans his bathroom. A thick crust of toothpaste encases the sink. Whiskers from his razor sprinkle the faucet. An inch of standing water encircles the shower drain, and mold dots the tile grout. I’ve stopped bathing when I visit my family.

It’s the kind of bathroom where you flush the toilet with a pen.

And then you throw away the cap.

This year, I decided to forego my attempts to right my brother’s ship. Hardly anyone ever listens to their older brothers and sisters. I’ve learned that the hard way. In fact, giving them advice can make things worse. Siblings have a way of doing the opposite of what you want, and vice versa.

The less I try to intervene, the happier our visits have become. We exchange presents on holidays and birthdays now. We actually kind of like each other. He picks out great gifts, like booze. Also, he’s easy to buy for — games, books, art, the kind of stuff we both appreciate.

My brother will never see me as a role model. It’s just not his style. He doesn’t want role models. Every now and then someone I know talks about an older sibling as a positive influence. But they almost always follow their example. Not their advice. There’s a difference.

Older siblings like me make a huge mistake when we try to act like authority figures or mentors. Younger siblings hate it when big sis talks down to them. Even if they happen to be right. Study your friends who have older siblings. You may find that I’m onto something.

Mine’s never followed my example, or my advice. In fact, younger siblings like mine seem determined to do life the opposite way. If I took AP classes in high school and made a 4.1 GPA, then he took non-honors and tried hard for Fs. He skipped so many days that our principal forced him to attend summer school just to graduate.

While I went to college, my brother started a band. Because I moved out, he decided to spend the rest of his life in my old bedroom.

My trips home used to end in disaster. Throughout my 20s, I tried to give my brother life tips. Lectured him on the importance of college, determination, curiosity. It only pissed him off.

One Christmas he shouted at me, “You think you’re so fucking smart. Like you know everything? Your life sucks. Look at all your student debt. Guys dump you all the time. Seriously, fuck off. I’m sick of it.”

These fights always happened around the holidays. But last time, things went much better. Why? Because I stopped picking on his faults. After all it’s not my bathroom. As much as it irritates me, nobody can tell a grown man in his 20s to scrub his sink or plunge the shower drain.

You can buy a man a toilet brush. Good luck getting him to use it.

Nobody can teach a grown man how to find a job if he’s not willing to listen. So I’ve stopped badgering him about resumes and job interview protocols. There’s nothing I know that he can’t find on the Internet.

I’ll never teach him how to organize a refrigerator or a cupboard. Sure, it sucks when I open the door and an unopened, expired tub of cool whip falls out. I’m not sure why he keeps five jars of the same hot mustard. Or why a thin film of dried orange juice covers one of the shelves.

Blood relatives often feel entitled to berate and lecture each other. It’s primal instinct. I’ve tried to stop in person, but look at me now. Blogging about it. I’m so pathetic. But the indigence must go somewhere.

Without my blog, I’d probably explode in fireworks of indignation.

You have no idea how close I came to screaming at my brother on Christmas Eve. Something like, “For the love of God, don’t you recycle?! You’re killing the godamm planet.”

But I didn’t. Yes, I did start reorganizing the fridge and pantry. My brother came up behind me and started throwing glass and plastic containers straight into the trash. “Don’t,” I started. “I was going to wash those out.”

He kept on chucking half-empty, expired jars into the bin. “You’re so naive,” he said. “Recycling’s a myth.”

But I didn’t throw anything at him or shout. Someone give this bitch a cookie for good behavior.

Of course, I had trouble sleeping. My mind kept picturing literal tons of his garbage piled up in a landfill.

Finally I snuck downstairs around 1 am to organize the fridge and pantry. For example, I condensed the pop tart collection to one box. Put the cereal in a neat row. Finally, I pulled the containers and jars from the trash and washed them, stuffed them in my luggage. Nobody would never know.

Quietly, I crept back upstairs and fell into a blissful Christmas slumber.

But I left the dried orange juice. It took a great amount of restraint. Aren’t you proud of me?

My brother and I have one thing in common. We can’t stand unsolicited advice. I’ve offered less and less each year. On his own, he seems to be figuring things out. It’s going to take him a lot longer to find his happiness than it could. Sometimes I just wish he would follow some of my advice. Just one thing. Like maybe he could keep a list of good and bad decisions I’ve made above his desk. Cleaning your work area? Good. Instead, he wants to slash forward on his own, get lost, double back. Start again.

I’ve spent hours trying to convince him on the importance of lists, spreadsheets, little plastic tubs for your pencils, folders, cloud storage. He won’t have it. And then his computer crashes. Or he loses things.

Sometimes, I’ve tried to coach him on interview techniques. For example, when a gaming store manager asks why you want to work for them, you shouldn’t list off all the games you’ve beaten. But he rolled his eyes. “Nobody really cares what answers you give them,” he said. “They just want to see that you can speak English, and you’re not crazy.”

He didn’t get the job.

Despite all that, my brother has an intellect. He reads lots of books, and even more discussion forms. He knows a lot of miscellaneous information about current events and Internet trends. In that sense, I’ve learned over the past couple of years that he’s good at conversation. As long as I treat him more like a friend, less like a younger brother, we’re fine. That’s better than I ever hoped for — the fact that we can hang out sometimes.

Jessica Wildfire

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