On Being Advised To Not Take A ‘Girl’s Role’

Shortly after I began attending a boarding school in the ninth grade, I was approached by our ‘senior master’ and asked if: a) I could ‘act’ and b) if so, was I interested in trying out for the annual school play. I had done some acting in school and youth club plays in the sixth and seventh grades, so I answered in the affirmative to both questions. On  hearing this, the senior master asked me to attend a ‘reading’ that night where we would go over the play’s script. I agreed. When I told my classmates about this invitation, I received many congratulations. Acting in the school play was a prestigious business; being invited to act in it was an honor not accorded to many. I was suitably pleased, and resolved to write home to my mother as soon as I could that I had begun to rack up laurels here in my new school.

That night, I showed up at time in the school library for the reading. I was handed the play’s script, and the reading began. (If I remember correctly, that year’s play was Joseph Kesserling‘s Arsenic and Old Lace.) The senior master pointed at me and asked me to read–again, if I remember correctly–Elaine Harper’s part. (I do know it was a young woman’s role, and Elaine Harper is the young woman in Arsenic and Old Lace. My school was a boy’s boarding school, and we did not import actors or directors for the school play.) I did not mind being asked to play a woman; I vaguely remembered my father telling me that: a) in Shakespeare’s time, boys and men often played girl’s and women’s roles and b) that he himself, in college, had played a woman’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the college Shakespeare Society. If my father–a man who would go on to fly fighter jets and fight in two wars–could do it, so could I.

Our reading went on for two hours. By the time I returned to my dorm, it was after ‘lights out;’ everyone in my dorm was in bed, and seemingly fast asleep. I quietly changed, went over to my bed, and lay down. As I did so, my neighbor stirred and spoke.

“What role did they offer you?”

“I”m supposed to be a young woman.”

“Are you going to take it?”

“Yeah, it sounds interesting.”

“So, this is just something I want to tell you. Every year there is a school play, and every year, someone has to play the female parts. The boys who play those roles, they become the sissies in school. No one ever lets them forget it. They get teased and bullied all the time. They get called ‘girls’; people copy them walking and talking and putting on make-up. Last year, X did the girl’s role, and no one has stopped teasing him since. You’ve just joined this school; you still haven’t made that many friends. Some people don’t even like you because you’re from the Rector’s old school, and they think you’re his pet. I wouldn’t do it. This is just my friendly advice.”

[Or something like that.]

I lay there in bed, listening to that seemingly disembodied voice whispering at me in the dark. The vision it conjured up for me was equally gloomy; I knew exactly what he meant. I had already seen examples of how quick and efficient and cruel my school’s bullying and teasing was; many boys were permanent outcasts, shunned and sent off to the margins for faults imagined and real. I knew X was an outcast; now I knew why. I lay under a thick blanket, but I shivered nonetheless. I didn’t want to be a girl in a boy’s school.

The next day, I told the senior master I couldn’t do the role. It went to a boy a year younger than me. He was a wonderful actor and brought his role to life. For the next year and a half, every time my class mates and I walked past him on campus, someone would wiggle their hips, giggle, put on a falsetto, and call out his name. He never returned our gaze.

On Bad Memories And Moving On

A few weeks ago, while stumbling around on Facebook, I found an old ‘acquaintance’ of mine: a man who, over thirty years ago, went to the same boarding school as I did. I poked around further; his page was not guarded by his privacy settings from snoops like me. On it, I found a group photograph taken in my boarding school days: a dozen or so familiar faces stared back at me. I hadn’t seen them in thirty-five years. I poked a bit further, as I clicked on their tagged faces in the photographs, and visited their friends’ lists. On one of them, I found a Facebook profile of a ‘senior,’ someone who used to be a member of the class that had supplied the prefects for my last year in boarding school. (I left my boarding school after the tenth grade, after two short years there; this gentleman was the member of the graduating class that year.) On his page, I found photographs of a class reunion, conducted on the campus of my old boarding school. There they were, the members of that graduating class, the ‘Sixth Form,’ ex-prefects included, lounging about in suits and ties,  all of them grey-haired, some pot-bellied, reenacting their glory days by posing in front of various school locations, swapping tall tales about the good ‘ol days.

I stared and stared. Here they were, the officially sanctioned bullies of the senior class in school, the ones given license to enforce the school’s draconian disciplinary code in their own particular style: they could make you run punishment drills, the dreaded ‘PD’s, for a wide-ranging list of offenses; they could hit you with cricket bats or hockey sticks, or just slap you hard across the face if you were deemed insolent; they could tell you to go get your trouser pockets stitched up by the school tailor if you were caught walking around with both hands in your pockets; and on and on it went. They could, and they did. Power of the absolute varietal was granted them, and they exercised it; here, there was no shyness to be found. And it corrupted them, if their interactions with those below them, their subjects, the ones who dreamed of becoming abusers themselves when their turn came, was any indication.

I was tempted to write, as a lurker, in the comments space, “Did you guys reminiscence about the time when you were bullies and beat up those younger and weaker than you?” But I didn’t. They’d moved on; they had to. My memories remained; they had been stirred up by the photographs I had just viewed, and I’d already found other ways to integrate them into my life. (Including writing a book, in progress, about my boarding school days.) The academic philosopher in me also said that these were not the same persons I knew; they had changed, they wouldn’t know what to make of my gate-crashing remark.

I clicked out, and moved on. And wrote here instead.

The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.

Letting Your Childhood Make Your Parenting Easier

To be a good parent, think like a child. Well, that was deep. Let me see if I can unpack that. First, think like the child you were, or imagine and remember yourself as being; in any case, this is the best you can do. Now, think about what your perception of your  parents was like in that time of your life–again, as best as you can remember it. Take as long as you like. (Some of us might need extended therapy sessions to induce such self-knowledge.) Got that? Good. Now, open your eyes, and look around at your parenting world: are you now open to the possibility your child might be perceiving the world–and your place within it–the way you  used to? And if that is the case, do you have any reason to imagine your child needs the  parenting you think it does?

I make these suggestions to reduce some of the parental anxiety that comes from a peculiar sort of overburdening of the child: ascribing to him or her fears, anxieties, needs, beliefs, that exist largely within parental fancies and imaginings.  The best antidote to such anxieties is the thought experiment I describe above. (Standard caveats about neurotic responses to my suggestions apply; neuroses will construct parental memories as feverishly anxious as they need to be in order to sustain present parenting patterns.)

I am drawn to make such claims because–as might be imagined, I revisited an episode of parental anxiety, and was able to mitigate it somewhat by casting my mind back as I described above. When I’m alone at home with my daughter, I often fret about whether she is sufficiently occupied, whether she can be alone by herself while I attend to something else that needs my time. Because I often suffered from loneliness in my teen years (and sometimes even later), my usually melancholic disposition drew me to project these same feelings onto my daughter, causing me untold worry if I were to ever consider stepping away from her; I would imagine her lost and bewildered, wondering what to do, floundering about helplessly in her isolation. But when I thought back to what my reactions were as a toddler when left to my devices by my parents–as far as such memories can be trusted–I realized I had been rather comfortable in those circumstances: I had daydreamed, played with my limited collection of toys, browsed through picture books, or just investigated perfectly ordinary physical objects in my surroundings. Interestingly enough, those times had been rather enjoyable; I wasn’t constantly having instructions pertaining to ‘reality’ thrust in my face, and could just play with the elements of the various fantastic worlds I inhabited. When I see how my daughter occupies herself when she is ‘left alone,’ I sense some of these diversions–or activities like them–occupy considerable time and space for her as well.  If that’s the case, she’ll be perfectly fine while I step away; in fact, she might even welcome it. (As interestingly enough, she has reassured me on occasion when I check in her to find out if it’s OK for me to ‘do my thing.’)

There are many ways in which our childhood is a burden for our parenting; there are others by which it can relieve some of its cares.

The Endless Surprises Of Memory

Memory is a truly wondrous thing. A couple of weeks ago, I met an old friend’s younger brother for lunch in midtown Manhattan; we were meeting after over thirty years. We ordered food, grabbed our trays, and headed to a table, our conversation already picking up pace as we did so. We talked about our high school days (his brother and I had been in the same class; the ‘kid’ had been a year junior); I asked about his sister, whose home in Delaware I had visited a few times during my first years in the United States; we laughed uproariously, as all those who reunite seem to do, when recounting tales of days gone by, which now suddenly seem more peculiar, more distinctive, with their ever-increasing vintage; and of course, we talked about my friend, now physically absent, but who loomed larger than life as the reason which had brought our two lives together. In the course of our conversation, I made note of how I  used to walk over to my friends’ home in New Delhi; the section of town I lived in was about a mile or so away, and walking and biking roads offered an easy connection. As I offered up this little recollection, a thought went through my mind; my friend’s house, like all those in planned ‘residential colonies’ in New Delhi, had an alphanumeric address consisting of a ‘block’ letter and a number; it seemed to me I could remember it. (Mine was S-333; the three hundred and thirty-third residential ‘plot’ in ‘S’ Block. Quite obviously, I remembered this address; only a nihilist cannot remember his childhood home’s location.)

This fact, of my being able to remember my friend’s old address, caused me some astonishment; I sought confirmation of this remarkable feat. I asked my friend for some; he supplied it. I had remembered his childhood home’s address–I-1805–clearly and distinctly. I had not thought about this alphanumeric combination for over thirty years now; and yet, somehow, by dint of being placed into a context in which it was relevant, I had been able to summon up its details with little difficulty. Other details came flooding back too, unprompted and unbidden. I felt an older self within me stir; amnesia fell away.

I will freely admit–as an immigrant who lost his parents a very long time ago–to being obsessed with memory and nostalgia and recollection. (I am surprised that I did not do more academic work on memory, given my interests in the philosophy of mind and the conceptual foundations of artificial intelligence; I am unsurprised that I was deeply fascinated by the work my friend John Sutton did in the same field.)  Here again, was another instance of why this particular human capacity captivated me endlessly. And I could not but wonder yet again about the nature of my self, and of the interactions of memory with it: how much remained, ‘locked away,’ in the recesses of my cranial stories, merely awaiting for the right contextual cue to be reinvigorated; are there other discoveries and understandings of myself possible as a result?

On Being Able To Forge My Father’s Signature

A few years after my father passed away, I began to be able to forge his signature. One day, on a lark, I picked up a pen and tried to sign his name; much to my surprise, a reasonable facsimile stood forth. I stared at it for a few seconds, and then tried again. The resemblance of my production to the original grew; or so it seemed. There was no point to this exercise of mine; there were no documents to be forged, no school report to be faked. I’d just been curious to see if I could emulate my father in at least one dimension, one that had always seemed to capture, quite acutely, at least one aspect of the irrepressible flair I associated with him.  I called out to my mother and showed her my ‘work’: she agreed I had, indeed, made a good copy. There it was: the distinctive ‘P’ of his first name, which required an extravagant loop to close the ‘top’, and then, a quick, seemingly unintelligible sequence of lower-case letters, followed by the extravagant ‘C’ that began his last name, followed by yet another quick run of lower-case letters, and then, finally the closing flourish, a sharp, short line drawn underneath the first and last names, finished off with a pair of stylish dots. I had seen that signature hundreds of times: on report cards from school; on letters my father had written to his brothers, my grandfather, my mother; on official documents pertaining to his service in the Air Force; on various official documents that always seemed to be required by the ever-present state bureaucracy that pervaded our middle-class lives. I had seen my father draw it quickly and efficiently, mostly with a fountain pen. I’d always marvelled at how he closed the loop on the ‘P’; he seemed to throw his fingers and the pen upwards, and then drew them sharply down, so that the closed ‘P’ looked like a balloon floating above the stem below.

I know I carry around traces of my father in me; in the books I read; in the music I listen to; in the pleasures I find in the outdoors; in the ways I respond to the sights and sounds of aviation. I‘ve even tried to emulate his appearance; the crewcut I sport and the aviator sunglasses I wear suggest I haven’t given up on this endeavour. My father didn’t know it, but I paid him a lot of attention. That successful attempt at forging my father’s signature showed that somehow, through all those sessions of observation, I had internalized his actions; or perhaps there was some ‘machinery’ in me that made it possible for me to function in the same way.

I‘ve made note here of how I think my parents live on in me and my life. That successful attempt at forgery might have been another way to make my father alive in me again. As I enter a stage of life–the middle-aged years–that my father never got a chance to live through, I wonder how else his presence will manifest itself.

My First Phone Number

I grew up–till the age of eleven–without a telephone in my household. A phone line was a rarity–expensive, hard to obtain with a long waiting line–even for the Indian middle-class, and in any case my family lived for the most part on air force stations. But even when we lived in the city, we made do without a phone. If you wanted to talk to someone, you visited them. Without calling. Sometimes they were at home, sometimes they weren’t. It was an acceptable uncertainty of sorts. If you just had to make a phone call–on the occasion of an emergency for instance–you relied on a neighbor’s generosity to share their phone line with you.  A phone was a big deal; only the select few had one.

Shortly after my father retired from the air force and started a small business, he ‘applied’ for a phone line (these applications were processed by the governmental telecommunications authority, which ‘awarded’ lines on the basis of need); his application specified that the phone would be a necessary accessory to his business, thus hopefully placing it higher in the prioritized queue of potential owners. News of the success of this application–a few months later–was greeted with some incredulity at home; was it really going to be the case that we were going to have that magical instrument at home, one that would let us simply pick up the receiver, dial a few numbers, and talk to friends and family?

Apparently so. Soon enough, a technician showed up to install our phone; cables were run along walls, a phone jack mysteriously appeared, and then, incredibly enough, a phone set itself, complete with black handset–the kind I had seen people cradling up against their ears–and a rotary dial. The moment of truth was here. Our family, our household, would now have a new address, a new association: our phone number.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I still remember it: 61-69-42. I break it up that way because that’s how I remembered it: Six One, Six Nine, Four Two. My mother was the first user of the phone; she called her mother to let her know the news. My father went next, calling an old friend. My brother and I had no one to call; we had never bothered to ask anyone’s phone numbers at school. We didn’t call our friends; why did we need their numbers? Indeed, I did not even know who among my friends owned a phone.

But the next day at school, I came to know who did. I told my classmates I had a new phone number, proudly rattling off its magical digits–there had been no need for me to write them down, they were instantly memorable–even as I asked for theirs and encouraged them to call me. Some did; conversations on the phone–some of which ran over an hour–now suddenly emerged as a magical new form of interaction with folks I had previously only known in the flesh.

Some thirty-eight years later, I hardly ever talk on the phone. Email and text messages rule the roost; when I do talk on the phone, I’m a model of efficiency. A quick exchange of information, and I’m done. Just like the phone displaced older forms of communication, it has been impolitely shoved aside by newer ones. No one’s grieving; we’re too busy being socially networked.