On Being A Bully

In the long list of personal moral failures for which I will have to atone, participating in schoolyard and dormitory bullying–even if only briefly, and in attenuated fashion–must rank among the very worst. The only exculpation I can offer in my defense is that I was young, but all bullies in school are; I’m afraid there is little room for forgiveness here. More to the point, I’ve never forgotten the stricken look on the faces of my victims; they will haunt me as few other memories of mine do. I remember both their names; I hope they’ve forgotten mine.

In the fifth grade, my class included a young boy who seemed ‘different’ from us; he dressed a little oddly, spoke in a slightly different voice. He was, in short, a ‘painted bird.’ His minor dissimilarities, his tiny quirks and idiosyncrasies, were enough to produce an avalanche of ridicule directed at him. I watched all of this with a bemused air; I had suffered from some bullying myself earlier, and I knew I didn’t like it. I sympathized with him, but I did not intervene. Neither did I join in. And yet, watching his watching his trials and tribulations did not make me more sympathetic to him, more eager to come to his aid; instead, it seemed to produce a weakening of my moral fiber. One day, in the schoolyard, as we milled around in the break, the hazing grew worse; my classmates seemed to be taking turns in harassing the kid. And then, finally, I snapped; caught up in the madness, I laughed at him, pushed him around, I joined the gang for a little bit of fun. Fortunately, he ran away, off to a distant corner, seeking relief till the bell announcing the end of the break rang. His expression that day jolted me out of my brief exultation; I knew what I had seen, and I knew it was not a feeling I would ever want to be subjected to. I never harassed him again; at year’s end, I changed school and never saw him again either.

In the ninth grade, shortly after I had begun what would turn out to be a two-year stay at a boarding school, I found another ‘victim’; this time, a youngster who had become the target of choice for those in my dorm. He was a ‘freak,’ a ‘weirdo,’ his pinkie finger, thanks to an old injury, standing upright and provoking peals of hilarity; no one spoke to him, and the few interactions he had with others seemed to be dominated by mockery and ridicule. Again, less honorably, trying to fit in, trying to make new friends, trying to show I belonged here, I joined in; it was how I thought I would show I could hang with the rest. My joining the gang of his tormentors only produced a hurt look or two from this youngster; he had, after all, stayed out of the fray when I had been hazed on my arrival at the boarding school. I was a bully and an ingrate, a thought which soon brought an end to any participation in bullying on my part. I retreated, chastened, alarmed by my failure of kindness.

These transgressions were perhaps minor, but they still serve to induce shame; I was often bullied and assaulted in school; the thought that I could ever have done anything to create a similar atmosphere of terror for another youngster filled me with despondence then, and it still does. Now, as a parent, I await the higher grades for my daughter with some trepidation; she will face challenges considerably more onerous than mine. I can only hope she does not encounter too many folks like mine who lost their bearings along the way.

Middle-Aged Laments: Changing, Disappearing, Friendships

I feel old friendships changing, some diminishing in affection and interest, some fading in that crucial dimension of the interest we show in each others’ lives, and thus, threatening to vanish into insignificance. Some because of lack of attention, of the tender loving care that is needed to nurture relationships; some we have tried and tried and strained to keep alive, only to find them sputtering out, impervious to our ostensibly tender affections; some because, somehow, in some mysterious way, my friends and I have come to divine that we are changing, growing apart, irrevocably–and have withdrawn from each other, to set out on other paths, cutting our costs as we do so. We have been exposed to the–possibly clichéd–wisdom that friendships, like other relationships, take us from one station in life to another, and we sense the destination station is at hand. And then there are physical barriers of time and space; sometimes thousands of miles and multiple time-zones, sometimes even with the same city or country or state; I have lived in three countries, my reach extends, bringing me the joy of contact with the far flung, but also the melancholy of separation. I am growing older; I am a parent; at home, a human demands nurturing and rearing; an involvement that makes unprecedented demands on my commitments in time and energy. I willingly acquiesce. This sucks up the oxygen from other quarters; I do not seem to mind. There are new relationships now, ones demanding their own special species of nurturance.

This is a familiar, middle-aged lament. I’ve heard variants of it before; now, it’s my turn to join the chorus. This is not a wholly unfamiliar place to be; I’ve experienced variants of it before, at my life’s previous ‘stages.’ If there is a novelty to the precinct I have now entered, it is because my current melancholia–and I suspect that of others who make observations similar to mine–is infected with intimations of mortality. There might be no time for ‘reconciliation,’ for ‘rebuilding’; perhaps the changes we have observed in our relationships are irrevocable. It was a pleasant fantasy of years gone by that mistakes and catastrophes could always be put right somehow, that there was time and energy aplenty at hand. That illusion is no longer sustainable; our bodies have sent many intimations informing us of their lack of fidelity to our avowed goals; time has speeded up alarmingly; we now know that many of the farewells we will bid others will be final ones. (I suspect some of the notes I strike here might be a little overwrought; I am, after all, not confined to a retirement home or a hospice. Still.)

If there is a consolation in this state of affairs, it is the joy of new friendships; they do not replace the older ones, but fill my life in other ways. They address my changing person; they inform me of what I am becoming. And what I’m leaving behind.

A Familiar Sight, Both Pleasurable And Reassuring

My family and I have gone hiking on several occasions. While on them, a general pattern emerges–I normally walk ahead of my wife and daughter. When my daughter was a toddler, though she did walk for some short stints, at most times my wife carried her on her back in an Ergo carrier; now my daughter walks on by herself for the entire trail. In the ‘old days,’ my daughter often required some persuasion to continue; such persuasion was more charitably and kindly dispensed by my wife; as such, she became the primary caretaker during a hike. Moreover, because my daughter would not let me carry her, a straightforward manifestation of her preference of her mother’s caretaking, my wife also became the primary carrier and beast of burden. (Her child-carrying feats evoked many cries of admiration from fellow hikers who were battling the switchbacks in Jasper and Banff National Parks in Canada in the summer of 2015; my daughter was then three and a half years old, and weighed in at a hefty thirty-five pounds.)

And so, on the trail, we set off together, but a gap slowly emerges between the two ‘groups.’ As it grows, I stop to let my companions catch up; sometimes I cannot even hear their voices behind me, and though the silences and the calm of the woods and the slopes are especially calming and thought-provoking, I still hanker for the familiar pleasures of hearing my wife and my child talking to each other. Somewhere deep within me is buried the fear that we will lose each other; that my wife and daughter will wander off into some cul-de-sac; that the prudent thing for me to do is to continue to provide them close company. So I cease motion; I take off my backpack, and rest on a boulder or tree stump. I look back along the trail, waiting for them to hove into view. If the gap has grown, it may take a minute or two before I can hear them again; it certainly takes a while before I can spot them again. Sometimes they are obscured by the woods; sometimes by the curvature and the bends and twists and turns of the landscapes.

Then, finally, as I hear my daughter’s high-pitched voice grows louder, I see them emerge from the woods, make the turn around the bend, up the path, through the trees. They see me, and our expressions light up in unison; we are happy and, yes, relieved to see each other. Sometimes, having spotted them, I move on; sometimes, we all stop for a break. We swap stories of what we have seen and heard; we know we move through the same landscape but our experiences are quite different.

It never gets old; that complex feeling, when I see my wife and daughter reappear, of a quiet happiness tempered with a relief that has grown in response to the tiniest of terrors. Here, in the wilderness, we are happy to be with each other again–even if only momentarily separated. We realize, thanks to that particular and peculiar reminder that only the wilderness can provide, of just how much we mean to each other.

Kids Say The Darndest Things: Every Child A Prophet

Like many other proud parents,  I post my child’s latest ‘wise pronouncements’ as my Facebook statuses, trusting they will evoke favorable reactions–mainly guffaws, and some flattering assessments of her precocity–from my friends. Kids do, after all, say the darndest things; and if we can soak some up the reflected glory for being responsible for bringing such a delightful child to the attention of this ‘ol world, well then, we are all the better for it.

Why do children’s pronouncements strike us ‘the darndest things’?

Incongruity, of course–the heart and soul of all great humor–has a great deal to do with it. We associate some words and pronouncements with the much older among us; to see them deployed by humans-in-training cannot but fail to evoke some surprised reactions; we associate some kinds of claims and statements and judgments with very particular sorts of social states of affairs, mostly serious; to see them wrenched out of those and deployed elsewhere, perhaps in the midst of an episode of lighthearted playing and rumbling is to encounter the drastically out-of-place; we associate the speech of children with tiny voices, fractured verbs and tenses, and attention to the ‘trivial’; to see it deployed for an arsenal of portentous words and statements, speaking of matters cosmic and spiritual, is to be exposed to radical disjunctures with the ordinary. We realize that the child is–among many, many, other things–an adult in training, trying on words and concepts for size, testing them to see how they work in conversations and social settings. Sometimes those trials take place in unexpected venues with unexpected audiences. We cannot but be surprised and amused.

The child is, always, a new observer of our time and place, and so, it is able to bring a new perspective to bear on what it experiences. These encounters bear the potential to produce poetic responses; we are made to see the world anew by the child. (This claim is an exceedingly common one to be made by parents; non-parents do not have the same response to a child that is not theirs; the binding of the parental relationship with a child seems to make possible the receptivity to this new vision.) The aphorisms that our children produce for us are often original; they often sparkle with the glint of truth that is supposed to be the heart and soul of a great aphoristic claim. We are aware that the resultant poetic claim might be lacking the requisite intention–under some theory of art–to make it a genuinely creative and innovative work of art, but we brush past that pedantic worry and let ourselves succumb to its power in any case.

Most fundamentally, I think, there is hope in our reactions to the child’s nascent wisdom. We are aware of adult follies and wasted potential; we are infected by disillusionment; we sense the possible novelty that lurks in the child, that promises and threatens to make this world over again, to set it, finally, right. We cheer, in welcoming anticipation. Every child a prophet indeed.

An Unexpected Lesson On The Emotional Complexity Of Children

On Sunday, while watching David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon, my daughter turned to me during one of its late tear-jerking moments–as the titular dragon, apparently named Elliott, faces grave danger from the usual motley crew of busybodies, law enforcement types, and crass exploiters who would imprison him for all sorts of nefarious purposes–and said that ‘sometimes sad movies make you sad, they make you cry.’ (For ‘Elliott,’ substitute ‘ET‘ and you will get some idea of what was afoot in the movie.) As she said this, her lips quivered, she swallowed rapidly, and her voice quavered and broke. She might even have dropped an actual tear. A short while later, as poor Elliott was further mistreated, she burst into tears and burrowed face down into the couch, snuggling up against her mother.

I watched this behavior with some astonishment–before I ran to offer her some consolation to the effect that this being a Hollywood movie, I could predict with some confidence that Elliott was going to be just fine. Indeed he was.

But my surprise and astonishment remained. For some reason, even though tears and crying are an all too frequent occurrence in my four-year old’s life–as they are in those of most others like her–I had not considered that she could be moved to tears by a melodramatic or melancholy movie. Tears on being denied sundry goodies, yes; tears in response to physical injury, perceived or imaginary, yes; but tears in response to the misfortunes of others, tears that originated in sympathy or empathy, no. Perhaps I was learning yet another lesson about the emotional complexity of children; perhaps I had not been paying sufficient attention to my child’s responses on previous, similar, occasions (she has often, of course, been frightened or awed by the images she has seen during her ‘weekly movie treat’); in either case, I had been educated. And impressed.

It is not entirely clear to me why I did not think children as young as my daughter could have had the reaction she did to cinematic and cultural offerings. After all, as I noted above, they are extraordinarily sensitive; and lacking a full arsenal of linguistic and emotional resources for coping with injury, crying makes all too-frequent an appearance in their responses to external stimuli. In the case of my daughter, I was also taken aback by her announcement that she was feeling ‘sad,’ that she was going to cry. The reaction that followed this announcement, one that was also, I think, infected with a kind of sympathetic fear for Elliott’s fate, would have been far more comprehensible to me; it would have followed a pattern of spontaneous, highly emotional reactions visible elsewhere. But her–dare I say, articulate–preamble threw me off. It was evidence of a verbal and emotional maturity that I had not previously reckoned with.

This will not be the last time, obviously, that my daughter will say or do something that will surprise me. Some of these surprises will be more pleasant than others. May the tribe of those pleasures of parenting increase.

Talking Philosophy With Kids At The Brooklyn Public Library

This Sunday afternoon at 4PM, I will be participating in a Philosophy for Kids event at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (in the Info Commons Lab); the event is sponsored by the Cultural Services Office of the French Embassy. I’ll be functioning as a kind of Philosophical Advice Columnist taking on, and considering, the following question with an audience made up of six to twelve-year old youngsters):

A friend of mine has a three-year old daughter. Every piece of clothing he buys her is pink and floral. Every toy is a doll or makeup kit. He’s already started joking about how she won’t be allowed to have a boyfriend until she’s 30. This all makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I don’t know whether I’d be crossing a line if I said something. Can I let him know how I feel?

After I posted this announcement on my Facebook page, a friend asked the following question–in what seems a rather irate tone of voice:

The bigger question is why someone should think that they have a right to even think about how someone else is raising their children in the first place, let alone believe that have a right to interfere.

This is a very good question. The straightforward response to it is that because we live in a community, a society, our actions always carry the possibility of bearing on the welfare of others, no matter how self-directed or ‘personal’ they might seem; it is a libertarian and liberal fantasy to imagine that we are isolated islands in the social sea; we are caught up, inextricably, in the lives of others, and they in ours. A family bringing up their child in a sexist or racist environment is raising someone who might very well inculcate those pernicious doctrines and then act on them–to the detriment of someone else’s child. We form political communities directed toward the common good, even as we strive to maximize our individual welfare; the challenge of figuring out how individual freedoms and self-determination can be safeguarded and enhanced while ensuring the rights of others are not infringed on is a central challenge to political and moral philosophy.

To make this discussion a little more personal: I’m the father of a four-year old daughter, and I try my best to bring her up as well as I can to prepare her for the challenges that will undoubtedly confront her in a patriarchal society. My task would be made incomparably easier if the parents of male offspring brought up their children to be sensitive to such considerations as well; it undoubtedly takes a village to raise a child.

This afternoon, I will not pretend the question raised above has a straightforward answer, and will not attempt to provide one to my ‘discussion group’; instead, I will try to draw out some of the central issues involved, perhaps by engaging in some level of abstraction so that the general form of this particular query can be exposed, and the difficulties of answering it can be confronted directly. I’m looking forward to it.

Reading Charlie Brown Comics, Contd.

My post yesterday on my relationship with Charlie Brown comics sparked some interesting contestations by Chase Madar and David Auerbach–in the course of a discussion on Facebook. With their permission, I reproduce some of their comments below and follow-up with some brief annotations.

First Madar says:

I’ve had the exact opposite reaction since reading Peanuts from a young age, and still find Schultz’s stuff funny and v consoling in its candid recognition of the cruelties of life and its embrace of a loser as a central, stoic-heroic figure, something all-too-rare in this ultra-Calvinist society that idolizes success, winning and happiness. (Plainly there was a huge appetite for Schultz’s glorification of the noble loser as it was such an enormous hit.)

My initial response–which Madar found ‘terrifying’–was:

Perhaps I was too morose as a child to find consolation in it, too convinced by my own experiences that there was nothing noble about the loser. If I may say so, my darker view of the success of the comic strip is that many of its readers did not identify with Charlie Brown but with his tormentors instead.

And David Auerbach wrote, as he noted his daughter’s liking for Peanuts:

I think there is something to the unfiltered, unironic treatment of childhood angst that really does resonate. She identifies with Linus, as I did: the intellectual spectator who still has a handful of gaping vulnerabilities (emotional dependency on the security blanket, unwarranted cosmic faith in the order provided by the Great Pumpkin).

I think part of what made Charlie Brown bearable was my sense, even then, that the violence done to him by others wasn’t as much the cause of his problems as the mental violence he did to himself. Even his treatment by Lucy seemed to be somewhat unforced: Lucy wasn’t some mastermind architecting his doom, she was just a petty and human bully. On some level Charlie Brown just couldn’t let go of the idea that Lucy could be other than she was. The infamous and brilliant Mr. Sack sequence provided me with some vindication for this view: all it took was the psychological crutch of a paper bag to completely change Charlie Brown’s entire worldview and briefly turn him into an inspirational winner. It’s that sort of tragic character that made Peanuts more cathartic than cruel for me. I still love it.

I found Schulz’s immense sympathy for these characters (even Lucy!) to be tremendously comforting. It was a world where pain happened, where people could be trapped by themselves and by others, but it wasn’t an *evil* world (good things *do* happen, irregularly)…just an unfortunate one. And I think it boosted my determination to break some of my (many) bad cognitive habits and thought-loops…with partial success.

Madar then followed up with:

Snoopy of course is the anti-Charlie Brown, a dynamo of unfrustrated and virtually unrestricted action and becoming: Joe Cool, Sopwith Camel flying ace, man of letters, womanizer (lots of off-panel girlfriends mentioned, even if he does have his heartbreaks, cf the dog with soft paws he fleetingly connected with during a riot at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm), multi-sport athlete. He’s pampered, spoiled, demanding, egocentric, not particularly loyal, almost always nonchalant.

At which point I made note again of my affection for Snoopy, and wrote:

Unsurprisingly, as I noted, Snoopy was my favorite character/aspect in/of Peanuts. I think our relationship to fantasy is underwriting our responses to Peanuts.

Madar and Auerbach’s alternative readings of, and takeaways from, Peanuts reveal a great deal. We bring expectations and frameworks of expectation and readerly backgrounds to our encounters with books; mine generated my interpretation of Charlie Brown. As a child, I read for escape, and occasionally, for enlightenment; I read for diversion. I read Greek and Nordic and Indian mythology in text and animated form; I read war stories; I read tales of adventure and exploration and mystery. These took me away, they transported me from the here and now. I do not doubt that Madar and Auerbach also read for escapist reasons; but clearly that orientation toward reading did not prevent them from generating their own idiosyncratic perspectives on Peanuts; these backgrounds of ours are not totally determinative of our reading experiences; we find what we might be looking for, or are attuned to look for.

Snoopy worked for me; he flew, he soared, he was oblivious to the humans around him, as I often wished I could be to those around me. He could make things happen just by dreaming about them. (As Auerbach noted, “He’s just the most skilled at using fantasy to escape the harsh patterns around him. Of course this would make him clinically insane by real-world standards.”) Snoopy’s behavior seemed ‘childish’ in some normative sense–where the norms are drawn from our imagining what children are like in our fantasies. The descriptive was very different; there, children are very often monsters. To others, and to themselves.

So I wanted nothing to do with children’s encounters in my reading; I had had enough of them every day in my waking hours. (Had Charlie Brown been presented to me in text or non-cartoon form, I would not have read more than a few pages.) They were zones of bullying, of mockery, of ridicule, of schoolyard rumbles and squabbles; sure, there was playtime and escape from parental discipline as well, but all too soon, I found pecking orders and force here too. When I read what would now be called ‘young adult’ literature, I only enjoyed them when reading tales of derring-do; their delving into interpersonal interactions and the petty jealousies and insecurities that sometimes animated their characters left me cold. I had enough of that around me. When I read Charlie Brown and saw the mockery and teasing of the other children, it merely seemed to confirm to me that my worldview was correct;  even then, as I read the comics, I suspected the reason this mockery had found its way into comic books–a source of amusement supposedly–was that people found it funny, a fact I found ample confirmation in the glee children found in others’ misfortunes all the time. Painted birds weren’t brave losers; they were outcasts, shunned, and mocked. Perhaps this was an excessively gloomy view of the world, perhaps I was committing the ‘mental violence’ on myself that Auerbach saw Charlie Brown performing. Perhaps that’s what made Charlie Brown so frightening for me; I saw myself in him.