How Do You Solve A Problem Like A Family?

A game of logic for the ages

by Ruth Curry

Getting my family together under normal circumstances is like the setup of an especially vexing LSAT logic problem, e.g:

An event is planned including individuals A, B, C, D, E, F, G, days Weds, Thurs, Fri, Sat, and potential locations 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each individual must attend the event for no less than two and no more than four days.

Assume the following conditions:

  • Individuals C and D cannot attend location 1
  • Individuals A and B must attend the same consecutive days
  • Individuals F and G must attend the same consecutive days
  • Individual D can only attend for two days
  • Individuals A and B cannot attend location 4
  • Individuals F and G cannot attend locations 3 or 4
  • The entire set of individuals must be present at the location for two identical consecutive days

Please provide one complete and accurate scenario of the dates, attendees, and locations of the event.

Planning holidays with my immediate family has always been a throbbing nightmare headache—there are seven of us, in four locations, all of which are at least five and up to twelve hours apart. There’s a renegade aunt who may or may not attend and leaves us all hanging until the last minute. My little brother is my mom’s favorite, so his schedule gets unspoken priority and the rest of us have to wait until he makes plans to make our own, and he is a world-class procrastinator.  (I’m just kidding about the “favorite” part.  Kind of.)

But now here comes the part in the exam where you’ve drawn your grid and mapped out the variables and the test writers throw another set of conditions into the mix. This condition is knowns as “q” or “Election 2016.” 

  • Individuals C and E cannot discuss topic q with individual A without crying
  • Individual H has decided to attend the gathering at the last minute, and *only* wants to discuss topic q
  • Individual F lives in location 2 and is rumored to have voted for Gary Johnson
  • Individual D did not vote
  • Of the eight individuals, three supported the loser of the popular vote

How many configurations of the gathering are now possible?

This Thanksgiving I will be sharing a small Airbnb in Columbus, OH (location 2) with individuals A, B, D, E, and H. I love them all. I love that individual A calls Airbnbs “Flying Breakfasts.” I love that individuals D, E, and F are the only people in the whole world that understand the idiosyncrasies of individuals A and B and what it was like to grow up in their house. I love that individual H self-describes her fashion sense as “flashy-trashy.”  I love that individuals A, B, C, D, E, F, and H cannot communicate without interrupting or speaking with their mouths full, and regularly bicker over topics as important as cooked goose (“had once, did not like” - individual B), trash can liners, who gets the “nice” bedroom, and the best time to look up Google Maps driving directions, and then memorialize the outcome in an Excel spreadsheet. I love that individual G evaluated this situation and decided yes, she could take it, for better or for worse.

I rarely write about my family, although I write about myself constantly.  Part of me wants to protect them, part of me fears not being able to get them right, to show them in the way I know they are.  I look in the mirror and see my mother’s mouth and chin, like she is standing there with me.  “Same model, different year,” my best friend said when she met my sister, looking back and forth between the two of us.   If I’m in a strange place, I leave my keys in my shoes, to make sure I don’t lose them.  This comes so naturally to me it was only a few years ago, watching my dad come home from work and divest himself of his jacket, wallet, cell phone, etc. that I realized where my habit had come from. I know my parents are good people, the way I know my own phone number.  But just like I can’t explain how my phone works, I cannot explain the way they are, what they believe, without stumbling through suppositions I can’t prove, concepts I don’t understand.  A lot of us are now in the position of grappling with the “good people” in our lives.  Why do we say “good” when we mean “deeply flawed?”

Or, put another way: Is it possible to convincingly explain institutional racism to white people over the age of 60? 

My father and I stopped talking about politics years ago, but this election was a bridge too far. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t one of “those” voters, the ones with whom I disagree fundamentally, whose support for their candidate is not in spite of the candidate's rhetoric but because of it. Arguably (and this is what I would argue), outright support for this rhetoric, and implicit tolerance of it, are the same.  But start where you are, right?

The thing about arguing with your dad is that no matter how well-informed you are, how logical your arguments, how strong your evidence, you are still arguing with your father. He has the Dad Card. The Dad Card is a wild card that makes you feel wrong all the time.  It’s the suicide king that wins the table. Playing the Dad Card is also known as “Casting the Patriarchy.” There is no counterspell powerful enough to defeat “Casting the Patriarchy.” At least, not yet.

We are told now there are two Americas, one red, one blue. One rural/exurban, one made of cities. The coastal elite vs. the Heartland. Our Americas are so different we can’t even agree on the facts of our reality. “One nation under God,” and “Two (or more) nations under ¯\_(ツ)_/¯?” It only took one round of back and forth with my father for one of us to conclude (and it doesn’t matter who) they thought their points were self-evident and attempting an item-by-item rebuttal, futile.

It is crazy to me that I grew up in someone’s house, came from their body, and now live in a different America than they do. Maybe I still carry them both with me, red and blue, in my broken heart. I know I’m not alone.  The travel patterns we’ll see on the airport monitors at LaGuardia, at JFK and Logan, at LAX and Reagan and SeaTac, prove that I’m not alone, that there are many of us “coastal elite” making our way to the heartland to attempt empathy, and, I hope, receive it as well. For my part, we’ll all be living together, red, blue, and purple, city dwellers, small business owners, and farmer’s daughters, in a tiny Airbnb in Columbus, OH. It’s almost like a reality TV show.  But I guess we’re living in one of those already.