When we attended my grandmother’s memorial service, my children sat in the front pew. They flanked my mother and mostly succeeded in sitting quietly, despite having just ridden for two hours in the car. We were proud.
The service was held inside the Presbyterian church where my grandmother worked for twenty-five years. Large stained glass windows poured colorful light into the room. The walls were adorned with Christmas decorations.
“It’s so beautiful,” said our five-year-old.
The minister was wearing a white robe with gold trim. Before he began to describe my grandmother’s complicated hair and meticulous proofreading, he told stories about Jesus. “We must welcome the Lord into our heart,” he said from the pulpit.
“Myrtle has joined Him there,” he said.
Our younger child – three-and-a-half – turned and asked, quite loudly and clear as a bell, “Which sky ghost do these people believe in?”
Driving home from the ceremony, the song “Heaven’s Only Wishful” by MorMor came on the radio.
“Heaven is the name of the sky ghost kingdom in Christianity. That religion isn’t always kind toward women – there were thirteen apostles, but one was a woman and the people who wrote the Bible left her out – so there isn’t a queen in the stories about Heaven. There’s a prince, the kid, Jesus, and there’s a king, the father, usually just called God, or Yahweh, and there’s a grandfather figure, the Holy Ghost.”
“And maybe you’ve seen in books … like in Mr. Putter and Tabby, whenever Mr. Putter really likes something he says it’s ‘heavenly.’ Which means the cake or whatever is so good that you could serve it in the sky ghost kingdom. Even Jesus would think it was delicious.”
“His grandfather is a ghost?” exclaimed our youngest.
“When your father said ‘grandfather figure,’ maybe he misspoke,” my spouse said. “When people feel moved, when they see or hear something really beautiful, sometimes they say they’ve been visited by the Holy Ghost.”
I clarified. “But that’s how people think about their grandparents – and great-grandparents, and great-greats – in a lot of religions that include ancestor worship. Do you remember in Moana when her grandmother comes to visit her?”
Of course they remembered. Our kids love Moana. When they’re sick, they listen to the Moana soundtrack. Twice a year – to celebrate special events like the winter solstice or the end of school – they watch the movie on my tiny laptop computer screen.
“Her grandmother came and sang to her. But her grandmother had died. She wasn’t reallythere. They drew it that way because they wanted to show you how it felt. It was as though her grandmother had come to her, and that gave her the courage to do a really hard thing, to take back the heart all by herself.”
“Take it to Te Kā, the lava monster!”
“Yes, the lava monster. But the difference is that in cultures like Moana’s – and Daoism in China, some Native American religions here – the ghost or spirit who visits is your ancestor. Someone personal. Family. The story in Christianity is that everyone shares the same dead grandfather figure, the Holy Ghost.”
“I would want you to visit me, Mama,” said our older kid. Which I believe was meant sweetly, like I want you instead of the Holy Ghost, and not I want you instead of my pedantic parent.
“Yeah,” agreed our younger. “I’d want Mama. And Te Kā!”
Ah, yes. From lava monsters do we draw our strength. I’ve clearly taught my children well.
this poem. There’s a undercurrent of
darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of
blood.” But he is undeterred. “And there, the bowerbird. Watch as he manicures his lawn.”
bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue. Bower birds incorporate all manner of found
objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as
they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.
A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where,
and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.
bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner.. Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show
her a good time. And her pleasure will
be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds
of intercourse can transpire.
mother-to-be typically visit several bowers before choosing her favorite. During each inspection, the male will hop and
flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.
closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, /
how the female finds him, / lacking.
All that blue for nothing.”
especially love the wry irony of that final sentence. We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d
feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with
a flush of desire for the author.
is rare. No piece of writing will appeal
to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any. The same holds true for painting, music, and
bowers. A bowerbird hopes that his
magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of
copulation. But his life will miserable
if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation.
tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want. Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned
down. And because each intimate
encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an
area. The other males, having assembled
less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.
And so a
bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.
To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him. Even if no one looks. He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles
those beautiful hues. Every visiting
female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.
the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough
that my opinion doesn’t matter.
reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about
birds. At first, we did talk about
bowerbirds. Most of the guys had no idea
that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one
guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such
a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it. “They really do,” he said. “I’ve seen it. And they showed the people nearby, somebody
who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew
right over and took it. Later they found
bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”
this man started talking about crows.
gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting. One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his
ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended
after the first knuckle. I wouldn’t have
felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories
involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he
Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries. When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since. He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name. Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.” He was twenty-something when it happened.
time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t,
that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table. He had a rounded stump where most people’s
foot would be. I didn’t quite see the
connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever
force people to read. We have a lot of
guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little
more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.
working in a saw mill,” he said. “Planer
caught me and, zzooomp. Didn’t even feel
anything, at first.”
He got a
legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind
of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was
gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.
right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds. “Real smart animals,” he said. “Especially crows.”
went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing
me. Cause there’d always be all this trash
on the ground. They’d say, ‘look, we
know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit
everywhere.’ And they’d make me clean it
up. I’d do it, but then a day or two
later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again. I thought it must be some homeless guys or
something that was doing it.”
turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before
about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds. I only found out because I actually woke up
one morning to piss. And I looked up and
these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up
into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat. And that’s how all that trash was getting
everywhere. I’d thought it was homeless
guys, and it was crows!”
bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical
forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat. Crows, though, need ingenuity to
survive. Sometimes they pick apart the
leavings of hairless apes below.
crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males
contribute more than just DNA. While a
mother roosts, the father will gather food.
And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his
gathering prowess. He won’t build,
paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and
shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.
As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance. When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs. These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.
luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping.
birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do. If we measure success based solely upon the
rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak. In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird
mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone
can be at the top.
matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process
of what we’re doing.
it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the
world. But I did enjoy typing this
essay. And I will try to enjoy
the irritating parts of parenting today.
Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.
beginning of Genesis, God said, Let there be light: and there was
In her magisterial new novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie continues with this simple premise: a god is an entity whose words are true.
might say, “The sky is green.” Well,
personally I remember it being blue, but I am not a god. Within the world of The Raven Tower,
after the god announces that the sky is green, the sky will become
green. If the god is sufficiently
powerful, that is. If the god is too
weak, then the sky will stay blue, which means the statement is not true, which
means that the thing who said “The sky is green” is not a god. It was a god, sure, but now it’s dead.
And so the deities learn to be very cautious with their language, enumerating cases and provisions with the precision of a contemporary lawyer drafting contractual agreements (like the many “individual arbitration” agreements that you’ve no doubt assented to, which allow corporations to strip away your legal rights as a citizen of this country. But, hey, I’m not trying to judge – I have signed those lousy documents, too. It’s difficult to navigate the modern world without stumbling across them).
careless sentence could doom a god.
But if a god were sufficiently powerful, it could say anything, trusting that its words would reshape the fabric of the universe. And so the gods yearn to become stronger — for their own safety in addition to all the other reasons that people seek power.
In The Raven Tower, the only way for gods to gain strength is through human faith. When a human prays or conducts a ritual sacrifice, a deity grows stronger. But human attention is finite (which is true in our own world, too, as demonstrated so painfully by our attention-sapping telephones and our attention-monopolizing president).
And so, like pre-monopoly corporations vying for market share, the gods battle. By conquering vast kingdoms, a dominant god could receive the prayers of more people, allowing it to grow even stronger … and so be able to speak more freely, inured from the risk that it will not have enough power to make its statements true.
haven’t yet read The Raven Tower, you should. The theological underpinnings are brilliant,
the characters compelling, and the plot so craftily constructed that both my
spouse and I stayed awake much, much too late while reading it.
Raven Tower, only human faith feeds gods.
The rest of the natural world is both treated with reverence – after all,
that bird, or rock, or snake might be a god – and yet also objectified. There is little difference between a bird and
a rock, either of which might provide a fitting receptacle for a god but
neither of which can consciously pray to empower a god.
our own world hosts several species that communicate in ways that resemble
human language, in The Raven Tower the boundary between human and
non-human is absolute. Within The
Raven Tower, this distinction feels totally sensible – after all, that
entire world was conjured through Ann Leckie’s assiduous use of human language.
people mistakenly believe that they are living in that fantasy world.
In the recent philosophical treatise Thinking and Being, for example, Irad Kimhi attempts to describe what is special about thought, particularly thoughts expressed in a metaphorical language like English, German, or Greek. (Kimhi neglects mathematical languages, which is at times unfortunate. I’ve written previously about how hard it is to translate certain concepts from mathematics into metaphorical languages like we speak with, and Kimhi fills many pages attempting to precisely the concept of “compliments” from set theory, which you could probably understand within moments by glancing at a Wikipedia page.)
does use English assiduously, but I’m dubious that a metaphorical language was
the optimal tool for the task he set himself.
And his approach was further undermined by flawed assumptions. Kimhi begins with a “Law of Contradiction,”
in which he asserts, following Aristotle, that it is impossible for a thing
simultaneously to be and not to be, and that no one can simultaneously
believe a thing to be and not to be.
these assumptions seemed reasonable during the time of Aristotle, but we now
know that they are false.
research findings in quantum mechanics have shown that it is possible
for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be.
An electron can have both up spin and down spin at the same moment, even
though these two spin states are mutually exclusive (the states are “absolute
compliments” in the terminology of set theory).
This seemingly contradictory state of both being and not being is what
allows quantum computing to solve certain types of problems much faster than
a rebuttal for the psychological formulation, we have the case of free
will. Our brains, which generate
consciousness, are composed of ordinary matter.
Ordinary matter evolves through time according to a set of known,
predictable rules. If the matter
composing your brain was non-destructively scanned at sufficient resolution,
your future behavior could be predicted.
Accurate prediction would demonstrate that you do not have free will.
it feels impossible not to believe in the existence of free will. After all, we make decisions. I perceive myself to be choosing the words
that I type.
sincerely, simultaneously believe that humans both do and do not
have free will. And I assume that most
other scientists who have pondered this question hold the same pair of
seemingly contradictory beliefs.
of Contradiction” is not a great assumption to begin with. Kimhi also objectifies nearly all conscious
life upon our planet:
consciousness of one’s thinking must involve the identification of its
syncategorematic difference, and hence is essentially tied up with the use of
thinker is also a determinable being.
This book presents us with the task of trying to understand our being,
the being of human beings, as that of determinable thinkers.
Raven Tower is a fantasy novel. Within that world, it was reasonable that
there would be a sharp border separating humans from all other animals. There are also warring gods, magical spells,
and sacred objects like a spear that never misses or an amulet that makes
Kimhi purports to be writing about our world.
In Mama’s Last Hug, biologist Frans de Waal discusses many more instances of human thinkers brazenly touting their uniqueness. If I jabbed a sharp piece of metal through your cheek, it would hurt. But many humans claimed that this wouldn’t hurt a fish.
will bleed. And writhe. Its body will produce stress hormones. But humans claimed that the fish was not
actually in pain.
They were wrong.
consensus view is now that fish do feel pain.
may well ask why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion, but a parallel
case is even more baffling. For the
longest time, science felt the same about human babies. Infants were considered sub-human organisms
that produced “random sounds,” smiles simply as a result of “gas,” and couldn’t
scientists conducted torturous experiments on human infants with needle pricks,
hot and cold water, and head restraints, to make the point that they feel
nothing. The babies’ reactions were
considered emotion-free reflexes. As a
result, doctors routinely hurt infants (such as during circumcision or invasive
surgery) without the benefit of pain-killing anesthesia. They only gave them curare, a muscle
relaxant, which conveniently kept the infants from resisting what was being
done to them.
the 1980s did medical procedures change, when it was revealed that babies have
a full-blown pain response with grimacing and crying. Today we read about these experiments with
disbelief. One wonders if their pain
response couldn’t have been noticed earlier!
skepticism about pain applies not just to animals, therefore, but to any
organism that fails to talk. It is as if
science pays attention to feelings only if they come with an explicit verbal
statement, such as “I felt a sharp pain when you did that!” The importance we attach to language is just
ridiculous. It has given us more than a
century of agnosticism with regard to wordless pain and consciousness.
From this lecture, I also
learned that I was probably circumcised without anesthesia as a newborn. Luckily, I don’t remember this procedure, but
some people do. Chamberlain describes
several such patients, and, with my own kids, I too have been surprised by how
commonly they’ve remembered and asked about things that happened before they
had learned to talk.
didn’t subject them to any elective surgical procedures, anesthesia or no.
world, even creatures that don’t speak with metaphorical language have
Leckie does include a bridge between the world of The Raven Tower and
our own. Although language does not
re-shape reality, words can create empathy.
We validate other lives as meaningful when we listen to their stories.
narrator of The Raven Tower chooses to speak in the second person to a
character in the book, a man who was born with a body that did not match his
mind. Although human thinkers have not
always recognized this truth, he too has a story worth sharing.
The womb-suckers are trying to eat your children. Poke a soda straw into the future and sluuurp, away they go. Hopes and dreams, metabolized today into so many dollar bills.
I spend a fair bit of time with drug dealers. Most are ethical people – they wanted to ingest drugs, and they knew some other people who wanted to ingest drugs, so they started selling.
But there’s an unethical way to push – some dealers focus on getting new users hooked. That way they’ll have a steady income stream. Most of the guys in my poetry class, if somebody talks about getting clean, congratulate and encourage the dude. But some dealers would see rehab as a threat to their own livelihoods.
The future-eaters are like the second type of dealer. They’re trying to kill babies – including babies who haven’t even been conceived yet – while proffering incredibly cynical rationalizations.
Here’s the deal: regions of the Earth’s crust that lie beneath territories claimed by the United States contain rich deposits of hydrocarbons. These could be dug up and combusted to power our factories, our automobiles, our giant arrays of computer servers that enable the internet. The average person’s lifestyle in the U.S.gobbles energy, and deep below our lands is solar energy that photosynthesizing plants captured millions of years ago.
But we now know that there is only a limited amount of ancient stored sunlight beneath us. The world’s oil reserves will eventually be depleted. And so a smart investor, even if that investor believed that all the hydrocarbons beneath us should be combusted, bringing our planet closer to the hellhole that runaway climate change allowed Venus to become, would decide to wait. Right now, the price of oil is low. The total supply of oil is decreasing. The population is rising. If oil really is the best energy source, then the price will obviously rise.
I believe this relationship, lower supply = higher price, is taught within the first two lectures of any undergraduate economics course.
Since we’re rich enough to do it, we would make more money by buying oil now from those foolish countries who need cash right away and are currently selling their buried wealth, then extracting our own oil later when the total supply is lower and each barrel is worth more money.
The womb-suckers love money. So why isn’t this their plan?
After all, we as a nation are wealthy enough to invest. Throughout the ages, that’s what people blessed with current prosperity have done. By socking away money now – maybe by lending it to a neighbor and charging interest – you gain a constant source of income for the future.
The usual stereotype is that it’s foolish poor people who eat the future. When you’re starving, you might eat seeds from the granary. That’ll help you survive another winter, but next year the famine will hit even worse. Methamphetamines let you trade away future health to do more today. So do cigarettes.
But there is a framework in which their urgency to eat the future is rational. If people will notice what’s happening and stop them later, they need to get it done now. The window for personal gain is closing: slash and burn while you can.
And there is, of course, the comparison to an unethical drug dealer. You have to keep selling even when the heat is closing in because otherwise your customers could get clean and then you can’t make money off your product anymore.
We’ve reached a point where many people have realized that the future is in peril –most people who get their news from any source other than the state-endorsed propaganda network – but, let’s face it, people are lazy. I’m lazy too. Even though I know that disposable diapers are wasteful to manufacture and then ship off to landfills, my family resorts to them during weeks when we’re too overwhelmed to wash another load of excrement-encrusted rags.
Similarly, everyone knows that a vegan diet is better for the planet. But most people still eat meat. The Republican party’s big-government subsidies make hamburgers cheap … and those burgers are already cooked, waiting at the drive through, chock full of delicious fat, salt, and MSG. Being vegan takes more effort.
But we’re well-meaning, most of us. And lazy, well-meaning people just need a little nudge to start doing the right thing.
The womb-suckers are justifiably worried that a small hiccup in the rate of extraction now might be the final nudge necessary to get the world to change. Switch to renewable energy. Recycle and re-use more of what we’ve already dug from the ground.
The womb-suckers need to flood the market, get what money they can before the rest of us sober up. It’s the best thing for a murderous hedonist to do; with enough money, they can soar the skies in gold-plated airplanes. With enough money, even boorish, ugly men have a shot at having sex with pornographic film stars.
The future eaters see no contradiction, calling themselves “pro-life” while they frantically strive to make billions of unborn children die.
I’m reasonably well-versed with small stuff. I’ve studied quantum mechanics, spent two years researching electronic structure, that sort of thing. I imagine that I’m about as comfortable as I’ll ever be with the incomprehensible probabilistic weirdness that underlies reality.
But although I helped teach introductory calculus-based physics, I’ve never learned about big things. I took no geometry in college, and most big physics, I assume, is about transferring equations into spaces that aren’t flat. The basic principle seems straightforward – you substitute variables, like if you’re trying to estimate prices in another country and keep plugging in the exchange rate – but I’ve never sat down and worked through the equations myself.
Still, some excellent pop-science books on gravity have been published recently. My favorite of these was On Gravity by A. Zee – it’s quite short, and has everything I assume you’d want from a book like this: bad humor, lucid prose, excellent pacing. Zee has clearly had a lot of practice teaching this material to beginners, and his expertise shines through.
Near the end of the book, Zee introduces black holes – gravity at its weirdest. Gravity becomes stronger as the distance between objects decreases – it follows an “inverse square law.”
If our moon was closer to Earth, the tides would be more extreme. To give yourself a sense of the behavior of inverse square laws, you can play with some magnets. When two magnets are far apart, it seems as though neither cares about the existence of the other, but slide them together and suddenly the force gets so strong that they’ll leap through the air to clank together.
But because each magnet takes up space, there’s a limit to how close they can get. Once you hear them clank, the attractive magnetic force is being opposed by a repulsive electrostatic force – this same repulsion gives us the illusion that our world is composed of solid objects and keeps you from falling through your chair.
Gravity is much weaker than magnetism, though. A bar magnet can have a strong magnetic field but will have an imperceptible amount of gravity. It’s too small.
A big object like our sun is different. Gravity pulls everything together toward the center. At the same time, a constant flurry of nuclear explosions pushes everything apart. These forces are balanced, so our sun has a constant size, pouring life-enabling radiation into the great void of space (of which our planet intercepts a teensy tiny bit).
But if a big object had much more mass than our sun, it might tug itself together so ardently that not even nuclear explosions could counterbalance its collapse. It would become … well, nobody knows. The ultra-dense soup of mass at the center of a black hole might be stranger than we’ve guessed. All we know for certain is that there is a boundary line inside of which the force of gravity becomes so strong that not even light could possibly escape.
Satellites work because they fall toward Earth with the same curvature as the ground below – if they were going faster, they’d spiral outward and away, and if they were going slower, they’d spiral inward and crash. The “event horizon” of a black hole is where gravity becomes so strong that even light will be tugged so hard that it’ll spiral inward. So there’s almost certainly nothing there, right at the “edge” of the black hole as we perceive it. Just the point of no return.
If your friends encounter a black hole, they’re gone. Not even Morse-code messages could escape.
(Sure, sure, there’s “Hawking radiation,” quantum weirdness that causes a black hole to shrink, but this is caused by new blips in the fabric of reality and so can’t carry information away.)
The plot of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, revolves around a Romeo & Juliet-esque romance in the middle of intergalactic war, but most of the comic is about parenting. K read the entire series in two days, bawling several times, and then ran from the bedroom frantic to demand the next volume (unfortunately for her, Vaughan & Staples haven’t yet finished the series).
Saga is masterfully well-done, and there are many lovely metaphors for a child’s development.
For instance, the loss of a child’s beloved caretaker – babysitters, daycare workers, and teachers do great quantities of oft under-appreciated work. In Saga, the child and her first babysitter are linked through the spirit, and when the caretaker moves on, the child feels physical pain from the separation.
A hairless beast named “Lying Cat” can understand human language and denounces every untruth spoken in its present – allowing for a lovely corrective to a child’s perception that she is to blame for the traumas inflicted upon her.
Perhaps my favorite metaphor in Saga depicts the risk of falling into a black hole. Like all intergalactic travelers, they have to be careful – in Saga, a black hole is called a “timesuck” and it’s depicted as a developing baby.
My favorite scene in the film Interstellar depicts the nightmarish weirdness of relativistic time. A massive planet seems perfectly habitable, but its huge gravitational field meant that the years’ worth of “Everything’s okay!” signals had all been sent within minutes of a scout’s arrival. The planet was actually so dangerous that the scout couldn’t survive a full day, but decades would have passed on Earth before anyone understood the risk.
Gravity eats time.
So do babies. A child is born and the new parents might disappear from the world. They used to volunteer, socialize, have interests and hobbies … then, nothing.
In jail recently, we read Bruce Weigl’s “A Romance.” I gave a brief introduction:
“A lot of Bruce Weigl’s poems are about trauma – we’ve read something about his childhood, and he wrote about serving in the Vietnam War. What is was like to return home, trying to deal with everything he’d seen. In this poem, he’s been drinking. Others are about trying to suppress the memories that keep coming back.”
Describing a hollow night out, Weigl writes:
I can’t sleep anyway so I go to bars …
A bearded dude near the back shook his head.
“I been there,” he said. “Can’t never fall asleep. Did two tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they just kicked me out of veteran’s court. Said I was too violent. But all those other guys, the ones they’re letting stay, who’re getting helped because they served? None of them saw combat! I was the only one who’d fought! But they said veteran’s court’s not for me.”
“And it’s hard,” I said, “because people use drugs to try to deaden some of the horrible stuff that keeps whelming up, and the drug we say is okay to use, alcohol, is one of the worst. Researchers tried to rank drugs in terms of which are most dangerous, you know, for the people who use it and for everybody around them. I think alcohol was at the top of the list, then maybe heroin, and …”
“But what about pot?” Somebody always asks. In this case, it was somebody who says he’s in for marijuana, although he once let slip that it was domestic violence.
“I dunno … pretty far down. I mean, you can’t OD or anything, but you shouldn’t drive stoned.”
“I’d rather drive stoned than after eight days of meth!”
Well, sure. But that seems like a false dichotomy – shouldn’t the comparison be between driving stoned or sober?
“But what do you think,” the first guy said, “about them saying pot is, like, a gateway drug?”
“I believe that,” said an older guy. “I used pot for years before I ever had a drink.”
“Me too – my pops was an alcoholic, I didn’t want to touch that stuff.”
“I started smoking when I was thirteen … you had to know somebody to get a beer, but anybody could buy pot.”
“I mean, pot’s gotta be the first drug most people try.”
“No way. My kids, they’re one and four years old right now … and I can tell you for sure, the first drug anybody tries, it’s spinning. Around and around in circles till they’re staggering. Drunk, dizzy, falling down and giggling. Humans have always wanted to experiment with altered consciousness. Like, how would the world look if … every culture uses drugs. A lot of other animals will use them too. And we start young. Little duders love to spin.”
The guys thought this sounded reasonable enough, but I’ve reconsidered. Maybe marijuana is a gateway drug … but only because it’s illegal. I don’t think that smoking pot would compel someone to use other drugs, but our laws imply that heroin is no more dangerous than marijuana – both are Schedule I – and that Schedule II drugs like Vicodin are less dangerous.
Whereas most sensible people now know that alcohol is more dangerous than MDMA – it’s easier to overdose on alcohol, and easier to hurt other people while under the influence. But veterans with PTSD turn to drink because booze is legal. Not even licensed therapists are allowed to purchase the drug with a proven record for treating trauma.
(Note: pure MDMA is relatively safe, but a wide variety of chemicals are sold as “molly” or “ecstasy,” and some of those are dangerous.)
It doesn’t take kids long to realize how many well-respected, fully functional people have used drugs. Our previous two presidents both consumed many more illegal drugs than I did, and our current president probably did also – I assume cocaine seems less taboo to most people than paying young women for sex. Many cultures used psychedelic drugs as religious sacrament for centuries, if not millennia.
“When I was twelve years old,” one of the guys said, “my parents, first they burned all my records, then had our preacher take me to a mental hospital. But I didn’t know it was a hospital at the time. I just saw these people, you know, drooling, babbling, whatever. And they told me, ‘See these people? They’re like this because they used drugs.’ And it was years before I realized what they’d done.”
One day at nap time, my two-year-old daughter riveted awake and said: “I’m worried about ghosts.”
I know, I know. The fact that she wouldn’t sleep is normal. Hundreds of children books have been written about children refusing their naps or failing to settle down at night and go the ____ to sleep. But I felt that this worry was fixable.
The day before, I’d read a book to her that had a ghost. I thought she was old enough! And I made silly noises! She laughed and seemed unperturbed!
But then she worried. That dark, dark chest had a ghost inside? Where else might ghosts be lurking?
“There was a ghost in that story,” I said, “but it was only a story. Ghosts are only ever in stories. They’re not real.”
She eyed me warily, but, still, she lay down and slept.
Two hours later, she lurched awake and announced that she’d made a song.
“Do you want to hear it, Father?”
“Of course I want to hear it!”
“Ghosts are pretend,” she intoned, over and over to no discernable tune. I smiled, and she hopped off the mattress and began to march around the house, still singing. I heard that song many times over the next few months.
Because she seemed to understand ghosts so well, I used that same language the next year when she asked me about Christmas.
“Some people tell stories about big sky ghosts above the clouds, watching us. There’s a story about one of the sky ghosts, a sky ghost named Yahweh, who had a human kid. So Christmas is a festival when people celebrate the sky ghost kid. Like your birthday, kind of.”
“Ohhh,” she said, nodding. She likes birthdays.
In my first explanation of Christmas, I didn’t include anything about penance. She was only three years old, after all. That’s a little young for the canonical version – Jesus, the sky ghost kid, has to suffer as a human in order for the rest of us humans to be forgiven.
And it’s certainly too young for John-Michael Bloomquist’s beautiful (and far more logical) re-imagining, in which Jesus, a human incarnation of God, has to suffer in this form in order for us humans to forgive God. In “The Prodigal’s Lament” Bloomquist writes that:
I think Christ died for us
to forgive his father, who until he became a man
and dwelt among us had no way of knowing
what it was like to be Job …
Now my daughter is four. And she’s still interested in religion. One day after dinner recently, she asked, “Can you tell me more sky ghost stories?”
“Sure … which one do you want?”
“All of them!”
“Naw, dude, I can’t tell you all of them. There are so many that … even though I don’t know them all … even though I only know a small, small bit of all the stories … I’d be talking for days!”
“Then tell me the sky ghost story about the snake again.”
I’d previously told her about Siddhartha meditating beneath the bodhi tree, sheltered by Mucalinda. She heard that story just before bedtime, and promptly wrapped herself with a blanket like a cobra hood and scampered around the house chanting, “I’m Buddha! I’m Buddha!”
“How about this, I’ll tell you four short sky ghost stories about snakes. Does that sound fair?”
“So, this first one is from Sumeria. It’s hot there, a desert now. And in their sky ghost story, a prince named Gilgamesh … “
Yes, I know, Gilgamesh would be more accurately described as a king. But countless Disney films have trained American children to think that princes and princesses are the ones who romp off for adventure. Even though our daughter has only seen Moana, she knows all the other characters from talking to her friends.
“… had a best friend named Enkidu. But then Enkidu died. They couldn’t play together anymore, so Gilgamesh felt sad. He wanted to find a way for people to never die, so he went on a long journey and found a potion, a special drink that would make people live forever. But then he took a nap, and a snake drank the potion.”
“A snake did??”
“It’s just a story potion, it’s not real, but people told that story because they saw snakes shed their skins and thought that meant they lived forever. But really it’s because snakes, when they’re growing, shed their skins all at once. Humans shed our skin bit by bit all the time.”
She glanced down at her arm. It didn’t look like it was shedding.
“And the next story you know, about Buddha. Because there was a prince named Siddhartha Gotama living in a fancy palace, and things were pretty nice inside the palace. But one day Siddhartha took a walk outside and saw that other people weren’t happy, they were sick or hungry or sad. So instead of going back inside the palace, Siddhartha wanted to think about ways for people to be less sad. He sat for a long time under a tree, just thinking. He sat so long that a real person would need to stop to eat, or sleep, or drink water, or use the bathroom …”
She is learning that even when you’re doing something really important, you still have to take breaks to use the bathroom. Otherwise you wind up needing new pants. Every week we have so many loads of laundry to put away.
“… and some other sky ghosts saw him sitting there, thinking. And they realized that he was going to learn their special sky ghost secrets. These sky ghosts weren’t very friendly. They thought that if they shared their things with other people, they’d have less.”
“The sky ghosts decided to make a big storm so that Siddhartha would have to stop thinking. He’d get all wet, or need an umbrella, or have to go inside. But a snake, a naga sky ghost, Mucalinda, saw the storm coming and decided to help. The snake wrapped his big, big hood around Siddhartha to make a bubble, like a tent, so that he could still sit and think as though the storm wasn’t even there.”
“And in the next story, from the Hebrews, a sky ghost named Yahweh made a human out of dirt, and then …”
I stopped for a moment. No, I decided, it’s not worth telling my daughter a story in which boys get made from mud and girls get made from boys.
“ … or, no, better the version from the Quran, where Yahweh made two people out of dirt, a mother and a father, and let them live in a garden where there were so many fruit trees, fruits with such a perfect mix of amino acids that humans wouldn’t need to eat anything else. And there were two super special trees, one that would let anybody who ate it have knowledge and one that would make people live forever. Yahweh thought that those two were the best trees, but he was a jealous ghost, he didn’t want to share. So he told the humans not to eat any fruits from those special trees.”
We have plenty of rules in our house, but I’ve promised my daughter that if she asks why there’s a certain rule, I have to explain it to her as soon as there’s a safe chance to do so. And I’d be remiss in my parenting duties if I told her that in the day that thou eatest Oreos before dinner thou shalt surely die.
“Then a snake came and explained to the humans that Yahweh was being mean and making up a story, that if they ate the fruit from those special trees they wouldn’t actually get sick. So the humans ate fruit from the knowledge tree, but then Yahweh saw them and locked them out of his special garden before they could share his live forever tree.”
She frowned. Two of her grandparents have died; even though we tried to make passing seem normal, she probably understands why so many of the sky ghost stories are about wanting to live forever.
“And then your last sky ghost story for tonight … this one is from a place that’s often really cold, up north where nights are long in wintertime. In that story there’s a sky ghost named Loki, a trickster ghost like Maui from Moana, and he was always making mean jokes.”
“But why was Loki mean?”
“Well, sometimes people told stories to show what not to do. Loki made mean jokes and in the end bad things happened to him, to help teach kids not to make mean jokes anymore.”
“But one time, early in the story, before he’d done too many mean things, Loki had some kids. But the Loki kids weren’t humans, one was a skeleton and one was a big wolf and one was a big, big, big snake. And, well, you know that our planet is like a ball, right, but back then they didn’t know for sure, and they thought it might look more like a swimming pool. So they thought something had to be around the edges, and they figured it was a big, big snake who circled around the world and held in all the water.”
“And then what did the snake do?”
Um … I didn’t want to answer that one. The Midgard Serpent doesn’t actually do much. Thor mistakenly tries to pick him up during a bet in a giant’s castle once, and then tries to pick him up again when he’s out fishing, and then finally bops him on the head during Ragnarok … and that time gets poisoned and dies.
“We’ll borrow some more sky ghost books from the library and find out,” I told her. “But now it’s bath time!”
In her fourth year of graduate school, an acquaintance of mine realized that 1.) her project was going nowhere, 2.) she was uninterested in the particular field of developmental biology she’d been assigned, and 3.) she wanted to devote her life to anything but research. She began dragging herself to work later and later each morning, checking out earlier and earlier in the afternoon. In a department where most people worked from ten a.m. till eight p.m., she arrived near noon and left by four.
Her advisor — who at one of our departmental retreats gave a fifteen minute presentation describing the need for a slightly better animal model of the developmental process they were studying, then clicked forward to a slide showing a rare primate cuter than anything I even realized existed and announced his hope that his students would soon be dissecting them — was flush with grant money. He was managing a huge team of students and post-docs. It took months before he noticed her slothful behavior.
Eventually, though, he did. At which point he called her into his office, closed the door, and told her sternly, “_____, I don’t even leave that early, and I have a family.”
I’d like to imagine that he meant to say he had school-aged kids.
A few months later, our department hosted a special event for women in science. Invitations were sent to a dozen female post-docs around the country, rising stars who were interviewing for faculty positions. They were wined & dined. There were, as ever, several seminars. The women met privately with various professors to discuss grant writing, laboratory management, that sort of thing.
At a luncheon for these professors-to-be hosted by the two female professors from my department, one of the guests asked, “How many female professors at Stanford have families?”
It’s a pertinent question.
The tenured professor sitting at the head of the table leaned forward and said, chidingly, “________, we all have families.”
The woman who had asked felt too embarrassed to clarify that she’d meant children and so never (officially) received an answer. Personally, I don’t remember the percentage for the university as a whole. Not high.
I do know that neither of the female professors in my department had children. As it happens, this absence was something that the woman who’d leaned forward to answer the question had complained about frequently to her students. And yet she also declined to hire a promising post-doctoral candidate when she learned that the woman had a child (and sternly lectured her students, who had chatted with the woman, that they should’ve reported this bit of espionage back to her sooner so that she wouldn’t have wasted so much time considering a mother), and demoted a hard-working post-doc to effectively “research assistant” status after the woman gave birth. That post-doc, deeply aggrieved, soon switched laboratories and went on to considerable success. Despite her “strange” priorities.
The concept of family can shift and squirm, becoming whatever those in power want it to be.
I found myself thinking about this while reading a recent New York Times article titled (on paper) “Violence in St. Louis traced to cheap Mexican heroin.” The article is bleak, as you might expect. The current culture of the United States values instant gratification and devalues suffering, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s been a boom in painkiller prescriptions. But painkillers are addictive. And painkillers are expensive. After people acquire a taste for opiates, many switch to heroin — compared to vitamin V, it’s a bargain!
Heroin is cheaper for consumers than most pharmaceuticals, but it still yields hefty profits for the dudes at the top of the supply chain. Hawkers on the street eke out sub-minimum wage, but they can see the big money at the top and dream the dream. And those hefty profits have lured bad men with guns to the trade. Feel free to read my recent post on Ioan Grillo’s Gangster Warlords here.
So, there’s a lot of money involved. And the product is illegal, which means there are no state-sanctioned protections for that money. Inevitably, this leads to violence. That’s what the Times article was about. Nothing you wouldn’t expect.
What struck me was this line:
“These heroin addicts are daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or, in my case, a brother,” Mr. Slay [the mayor of St. Louis, whose brother was arrested for possession] told reporters last month.
It’s nice that Mr. Slay is able to distinguish these addicts from the addicts of the past, who were all robots, test-tube babies, science experiments gone wrong, and other socially-isolated monstrosities. Or, wait. No. Those heroin addicts were minorities, as opposed to daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or brothers. Which was why they deserved incarceration, as opposed to the treatment options that have been vociferously proposed recently.
And even that was never true. The popular misconception was that most heroin users were black people. But, even when our brutal imprisonment of drug addicts was at its peak, it’s unlikely that more than about 15% of heroin users were black. All the statistics are vaguely suspect — it’s not easy to study criminal behavior — but most data suggest roughly equal rates of heroin abuse across ethnicities.
Black users were over-represented in prisons, but that’s because our criminal justice system (from police officers to district attorneys to judges) views black people’s drug use as scarier than drug use by “these heroin addicts.” The mothers and sons and brothers.
(It’s perhaps worth noting that, although heroin use does not seem to enrich for any particular ethnicity, it is inversely correlated with wealth. People with money can afford prescription painkillers.)
I’m not upset that politicians are finally willing to acknowledge that drug users have families. Or that drug users deserve our compassion and mercy. It’s true. They do.
And there was a question & answer section, too. Unsurprisingly, my biggest question about their work was not addressed. I wouldn’t have chosen it, either, given that there was time for only ten or so questions from an audience of thousands.
Still, it was very strange to me that Congressman John Lewis devoted something like a quarter of his allotted time to speaking about chickens, regaling us about how he’d raised them as a boy, recognized them as unique individuals, and preached to them. The graphic novel, also, devotes something like a quarter of its total page count to chickens. The art is grimly violent, showing a bird alarmed and fleeing, a gleaming blade raised into the air, ax-wielding human with flat eyes that mirror those of the brutal white anti-rights aggressors depicted later in the book, then the dead bird seeming anthropomorphically sad & resigned. The accompanying text spills forth languorous and bleak:
“Worse, though, was watching my mother or father kill one of the chickens for a special Sunday dinner. // They would either break its neck with their hands, // spinning it around until the bone snapped // or simply chop the head off. // They would then drain the blood from its body and dip it in boiling water, scalding it to loosen its feathers for plucking. // I was nowhere to be seen at those family meals.”
Then, eleven pages later, he writes that he had no qualms about eating a chicken raised and killed by someone else.
Which seems like a strange arc to include in a book about the civil rights movement. Especially because, in the case of brutality against human out-groups, history has repeatedly shown that we are less able to treat our opposition as mere things to be beaten or excluded after we get to know even one representative personally. This seems to be one reason why the gay rights movement has made such rapid strides recently: as homosexuality became less stigmatized, people were more likely to know that a friend or family member was gay, which made it more difficult to maintain hate. Similarly, I volunteer with a farmed animal sanctuary that lets people interact with members of species that are treated abysmally in human agriculture, with the hope that direct experience will disrupt the cognitive disconnect between living creatures and the slab of flesh cellophaned in a grocery store refrigerated display.
Congressman Lewis would not eat a bird he knew. But when one he didn’t know was served to him, he “had no problem cleaning [his] plate.” With chickens he didn’t know, he “wasn’t even bothered by [their] fate.”
It’s especially strange given how forcefully he stressed (in both his book and his lecture) the importance of Nonviolence (“Nonviolence with a capital N”) in all aspects of our lives. The nonviolent civil rights protests were patterned on Gandhi’s methods, but the Sanskrit that Gandhi used is “satyagraha,” which would be translated into English as something like “truth force.” The idea being that you behave correctly with such firm insistence that others will eventually realize the error in their own ways. A nice idea, but it depends on a shared worldview between you and your aggressors — passive rightfulness could easily lead to death and defeat by aggressors who do not accept that their actions are wrong. (See the previous post in this series that considers our country’s history of nonviolent protest here).
In the case of the civil rights movement, even, you could argue that nonviolence in the South would have failed were it not backed by the threat of violent federal reprisal from the North.
The Sanskrit word that best mirrors the English “nonviolence,” though, is not “satyagraha.” It’s “ahimsa.” The latter emblazons the skin and t-shirts of many vegetarians throughout the United States. And that parallel makes the chicken story arc in March seem even stranger to me. The book makes clear how awful the behavior of Southern whites was, but with the chicken story arc, Congressman Lewis announces that he has a similar cognitive disconnect.
I can see why that level of honesty is commendable, but why did he devote so much space in a book about nonviolent civil rights protests to a story about violence against chickens?
Indeed, this has relevance to a question he did answer. One of the chosen questions was from an elementary school class that attended the lecture as a group: “What can we, as eight year olds, do for equality?”
(Quick aside: can you see why I was so happy to be there? What a lovely evening, to be at an event where this sort of question was both posed & answered earnestly.)
Congressman Lewis answered that young people should study the history of the civil rights movement, and that if they see something that isn’t right, if they see someone doing or saying something wrong, they should stand up to that person and let them know.
Which is nice. And Congressman Lewis’s achievements make clear that he has the authority to give that advice credibly.
Still, I can’t help but think that his advice was only half the answer. Personally, I think we can fight injustice both externally, trying to correct the bad behavior of others, and internally, trying to ameliorate our own contributions to injustice.
For a second-grader, pushing back against external injustice is difficult. There’s a question of access, for one thing — an eight year old might not directly observe major injustices or be able to attend protests. Even if a eight year old does see a police officer frisk someone inappropriately, I’m not sure the officer would listen to a child saying “That’s not right.”
If that’s the only recommendation children are given, I’d worry that they might feel ineffectual, lose help and stop trying.
But a second-grader, through internal change, is fully capable of pushing back against the major driver of injustice in the world today. Global climate destabilization is causing huge amounts of suffering to the world’s poor, and this will only increase as temperatures rise, hurricanes become more extreme, and weather patterns become more unpredictable.
Which sounds bleak, sure. But climate change is driven by the behavior of consumers. Most people, as individuals, don’t pump much poison into the atmosphere — I assume few first graders are burning garbage in their backyards or slipping out for long, unnecessary nocturnal drives in overweight vehicles. But corporations don’t act in a vacuum — corporate behavior is motivated by the demands of consumers. Second-graders, as consumers, can make choices that will contribute less toward climate destabilization.
Our world has other problems, sure — there’s been a lot of hateful language bandied about in the United States recently (see, for instance, the primary, or the “all lives matter” counterprotests), and other parts of the world are even more vicious — but those other problems, xenophobia, exclusion, etc., are exacerbated by economic scarcity. In times of bounty, it’s easier for people to agree that everyone deserves a fair share… each person’s fair share will be plenty. But if five people are stuck on a lifeboat with only enough food for three, it’s easier to invent mean-spirited justifications for pushing two people overboard.
Climate destabilization will lead to further economic scarcity. It’s not unreasonable to expect that it will directly cause people to become more hateful & exclusionary.
But second-graders can turn off lights that aren’t in use. They can decrease their meat consumption. They can play with used toys, and request as much for Christmas and birthday presents. (I’m a wee bit older than six or seven, but here’s a video by Greg ‘Kingkong’ Eismin of some friends “shopping” for presents on my birthday.)
Those behavioral changes are all within reach of eight year olds and would be a huge effort toward fighting inequality — those changes will make it less likely that their fellow humans will starve in food crises, drown during forced migrations, die battered & bruised in hurricanes.
Personally, I count Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree as a parenting guide. I was very nervous about the prospect of having a kid. I worried that I’d be a rubbish parent. I worried that I’d have an unmanageable kid. Then I read Far from the Tree, and I stopped worrying. K & I decided to forgo prenatal genetic testing; Solomon had convinced me that we could love whomever we received. And he taught me the one essential lesson I needed to set me on my journey to becoming at least a tolerable (I hope!) parent: relax.
I’d recommend that any parent-to-be (or parent, or person, honestly … it’s a lovely book) read Far from the Tree. But for the moment, here’s my favorite passage from the book, one that both stresses the importance of accepting what happens and accepting people, including your own children, for who they are:
People of higher socioeconomic status tend toward perfectionism and have a harder time living with perceived defects. One French study said baldly, “The lower classes show a higher tolerance for severely handicapped children.” An American study bears out that conclusion, inasmuch as higher-income families are “more apt to stress independence and self-development,” while lower-income families emphasize “interdependence among family members.” Better-educated more-affluent families are more likely to seek placement for their children, and white families do so more often than minority families, though disturbingly high numbers of minority parents lose children to foster care. I did back-to-back interviews with a white woman who had a low-functioning autistic son, and an impoverished African-American woman whose autistic son had many of the same symptoms. The more privileged woman had spent years futilely trying to make her son better. The less advantaged woman never thought she could make her son better because she’d never been able to make her own life better, and she was not afflicted with feelings of failure. The first woman found it extremely difficult to deal with her son. “He breaks everything,” she said unhappily. The other woman had a relatively happy life with her son. “Whatever could be broken got broken a long time ago,” she said. Fixing is the illness model; acceptance is the identity model; which way any family goes reflects their assumptions and resources.
A child may interpret even well-intentioned efforts to fix him as sinister. Jim Sinclair, an intersex autistic person, wrote “When parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.’ Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”
Once I had Solomon’s advice in hand (& re-typed & ready to share with you, dear reader!), why would I bother reading another parenting guide? Any time I come to a situation that Solomon didn’t address, I simply close my eyes and imagine what a cave person attempting to raise a daughter to participate in our technologically-magical information-based economy would do. Most of the time that imagined cave person (me, in fact) would simply feel perplexed (you’re telling me that your telephone is also a camera??), but sometimes cave dad would probably coo & pat his daughter’s belly, or else read her another book.
I love learning, though. If I had access to a good book on parenting, I’d read it! I simply assumed that I wouldn’t like most of the ones I could find at the bookstore.
That’s why I was so excited when I read Michael Erand’s New York Times article earlier this year, titled “The Only Baby Book You’ll Ever Need.” Here, let me quote a few lines from the introduction:
Professor Lancy, who teaches at Utah State University, has pored over the anthropology literature to collect insights from a range of culture types, along with primate studies, history and his own fieldwork in seven countries. He’s not explicitly writing for parents. Yet through factoids and analysis, he demonstrates something that American parents desperately need to hear: Children are raised in all sorts of ways, and they all turn out just fine.
That sounds exactly like what I’d enjoy reading! A book about parenting that’s descriptive, not proscriptive. And I’ve loved reading pop anthropology books ever since paying a quarter for a lovely hardcover edition of Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape at a library book sale in Evanston, Illinois.
I have to assume that the first edition of the recommended book, David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings, was very different from the current second edition, which was published in February of this year. Because the book I read was intensely proscriptive. Yes, Lancy documents a wide variety of parenting strategies. But he also makes abundantly clear his opinion that those parenting strategies would not be appropriate in our culture.
I didn’t mind. Lancy’s book is quite good, and his ideas about what makes good parenting align closely with my own. But someone who’d read the Times article might expect the book to be very different from what it is.
As with Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (would you count a work of feminist philosophy as a parenting guide? If so, perhaps I’d read one after all. My previous post about Dinnerstein’s book and parenting is here), Lancy’s foremost prescription is equality — most conspicuously, since not all cultures have multiple races, castes, or tiers of wealth, he’s referring to gender equality:
There is a world in which children almost always feel “wanted” and where “there is no cultural preference for babies of either sex.” Infants are suckled on demand by their mothers and by other women in her absence. They are indulged and cosseted by their fathers, grandparents, and siblings. Children wean themselves over a long period and are given nutritious foods. They are subject to little or no restraint or coercion. Infants and toddlers are carried on long journeys and comforted when distressed. If they die in infancy, they may be mourned. They are rarely or never physically punished or even scolded. They are not expected to make a significant contribution to the household economy and are free to play until the mid to late teens. Their experience of adolescence is relatively stress free. This paradise exists among a globally dispersed group of isolated societies — all of which depend heavily on foraging for their subsistence. They are also characterized by relatively egalitarian and close social relations, including relative parity between men and women.**
** Thinking of Malinowki’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders, I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.
And shortly thereafter, Lancy makes explicit that many of the parenting practices he’s documenting are horrible. For instance, misogyny is rampant throughout the world, to such an extent that a significant fraction of female children are never even born. This is rotten, & if enough parents choose to do this they’re even dooming their own (male, presumed heterosexual) children. There parallels between this behavior and choosing not to vaccinate a child with a healthy immune system — in both cases, children are doomed if all parents make the same selfish choice, either because there won’t be enough women for the next generation to form families, or because the herd immunity relied upon to protect freeloaders will be lost.
Both China & India, where sex-selection of unborn children is rampant, are attempting legislative correctives. In China, they’ve outlawed the practice, and in India they’ve instituted monetary incentives for female progeny… although that is conceptually problematic as well. Here’s Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen from their book An Uncertain Glory:
To illustrate, consider the recent introduction, in many Indian states, of schemes of cash incentives to curb sex-selective abortion. The schemes typically involve cash rewards for the registered birth of a girl child, and further rewards if the girl is vaccinated, sent to school, and so on, as she gets older. These schemes can undoubtedly tilt economic incentives in favour of girl children. But a cash reward for the birth of a girl could also reinforce people’s tendency to think about family planning in economic terms, and also their perception, in the economic calculus of family planning, that girls are a burden (for which cash rewards are supposed to compensate). Further, cash rewards are likely to affect people’s non-economic motives. For instance, they could reduce the social stigma attached to sex-selective abortion, by making it look like some sort of ‘fair deal’ — no girl, no cash. The fact that the cash incentives are typically lower for a second girl child, and nil for higher-order births, also sends confusing signals. In short, it is not quite clear what sort of message these cash incentives are supposed to convey about the status and value of the girl child, and how they are supposed to affect social attitudes towards sex-selective abortion. As mentioned earlier, the workings of social norms is critically important in this kind of area of values and actions, and it is important to think about the possible effects of cash transfers on social norms and their role, and not just about economic self-interest.
Paying parents for their misfortune of raising a girl still perpetuates misogyny. And setting minimum standards on her care (you receive money if she’s vaccinated, if she attends school) likely results in that bare minimum being given.
And now, let me get back to Lancy’s horror:
More commonly, we find that the infant’s sex is highly salient in determining its fate. Some years ago, I came across a United Nations report, on the cover of which was a picture of a mother holding on her lap a boy and a girl of about the same age, possibly twins. The girl was skeletal, obviously in an advanced state of malnutrition, the boy robust and healthy. He sat erect, eyes intent on the camera; she sprawled, like a rag doll, her eyes staring into space. That picture and what it represented has haunted me ever since.
That’s not a value-less scientific description. Which is fine. I’m happy that Lancy’s book (the current edition, at least) is proscriptive. Because Erand’s article, which included lines such as, “The book does not render judgments, like other parenting books we know,” also mentioned tidbits like, “In Gapun, an isolated village in Papua New Guinea, children are encouraged to hit dogs and chickens, and to raise knives at siblings.”
Really? David Lancy doesn’t judge parents who give their children unsupervised access to knives?
Oh, wait. He does. He thinks that letting kids play with knives is bad. From The Anthropology of Childhood:
On Vanatinai Island in the South Pacific, “children … manipulate firebrands and sharp knives without remonstrance … one four year old girl had accidentally amputated parts of several fingers on her right hand by playing with a bush knife.”
And, later, Lancy is even more explicit. Yes, different cultures use different parenting strategies. To prepare a child for relatively simple life in an agrarian village — especially if you give birth to eight children and will be happy if only four of them survive — it’s fine to ignore them and expect them to learn what they need to know by watching their elders. But attempting equivalent parenting strategies in our culture would, in Lancy’s opinion, invite disaster:
At the outset of this chapter, I set up a juxtaposition. One view holds that, to succeed in life, children require the near-full-time attention of a mother who treats childrearing as a vocation and prepares herself assiduously. A contrary view is that this is a task best shared among a variety of individuals, a village. What can we conclude? I would argue that, to prepare a child for life in the village, it is neither necessary nor an efficient use of scarce resources to put the burden on any one individual. However, to prepare a child for the modern world, spreading the responsibility among a variety of individuals — none of whom is in charge — invites disaster. Hillary Clinton, in It Takes a Village, tries to apply the village model to the modern situation. She argues for improvements in schools and social service agencies, an increase in library and playground facilities, and after-school programs — among other things. All these proposals are helpful, but all these agents — teachers, librarians, playground supervisors, Boys & Girls Club volunteers — cannot, collectively, substitute for a dedicated, resourceful parent. They are not related to the child and, in our society, the village is not responsible. The parent is. At best, these agents can only assist the parent in fulfilling their plan for the child.
Having said that much, I want immediately to disavow any claim that this task requires the full-time ministrations of the child’s biological mother. There is overwhelming evidence — not reviewed here — that fathers, adoptive parents, lesbian partners of the biological mothers, and grandparents can all do a fine job. Any of them, or the child’s mother, can and usually do avail themselves of an array of supplementary caretakers. A working mother, in particular, may well bring home cultural, intellectual, and, certainly, economic resources that a non-working mother cannot provide.
So parenting in contemporary society is at least somewhat like physics, as it is tough to insure the child’s future success and a close, lasting filial relationship. But, ultimately, we come full circle in that, as long as a reasonably competent and caring individual is in charge, the more loving, intelligent, and dedicated helpers surrounding the nest, the better off the twenty-first-century child will be.
Lancy writes that those village children’s lives are often bad, and that imported practices from Western nations have made them even worse:
Numerous studies have shown the deleterious effects on children’s health in the agriculturalist’s pursuit of the “production” strategy. However, as the land is brought fully into cultivation, population-limiting mechanisms (such as the post-partum sex taboo) should develop to curtail further growth. And this seems to have happened in many, many cases. However, Western influence in the past hundred years seems to have dismantled these mechanisms, including, especially, abortion and infanticide. Improved nutrition and healthcare for mothers has no doubt brought benefits. But missionary efforts to stamp out “pagan” practices like polygyny also undermined the post-partum taboo on intercourse, even while they simultaneously blocked the introduction of modern contraceptives. Additionally, “fashion” and commercial interests pushing infant “formula” have drastically reduced the number of infants being breastfed [breastfeeding is often an effective contraceptive. Also, my computer marks “breastfed” and “breastfeeding” as spelling errors. Yeah paternalistic misogyny!]. The result has been, in many parts of the world, population growth outstripping opportunities for either employment or improved food production.
Lancy even ends The Anthropology of Childhood with a powerful statement about economic & medical ethics. Indeed, it’s difficult to read this as being anything but proscriptive:
Even though we recoil from discussions of children as chattel, our current policies, in fact, turn children into commodities with a precise dollar value. Effectively, we embrace the notions that anyone can have a child, everyone can have as many children as they want, infertility can be circumvented, and the fetus is human and deserves whatever measures are available to keep it alive, regardless of any handicaps or defects it may harbor. The net result of our mindset is that the marketplace decides the fate of children. In poor countries, food shortages mean many potentially sound children will suffer malnutrition and neglect. Wealth in the “North” that might be sent “South” to vaccinate, educate, and feed these children is, instead, spent at home on expensive technologies and caretakers to keep alive children whose quality of life is non-existent. While sick, premature babies born to the well-off will survive through “miracles” of modern medicine, the poor will lose their otherwise healthy children to preventable diseases.
To me, this is a sensible proscription to make — it is similar to my own reasoning for abandoning a career in biomedical research. Medical spending will continue to spiral out of control if we focus on preserving life at all costs with no concern for quality of life, and by wasting that money we perpetuate egregious harm through economic hardship.
So, I was thrilled to read David Lancy’s book. I assume you’d like it too, given that you still seem to be reading my post about it.
Just, don’t go into it expecting a descriptive work devoid of value claims. Because that’s not what you’re getting, at least not if you read the current edition.
And I’m still trying to figure out why Erand had such a different impression. Because, sure, it’s possible that the first edition was extremely different. But I think the confusion is more likely related to a point I made at the beginning of this essay: when I imagine myself as a cave person trying to raise his daughter, I have to imagine that cave dad raising his daughter for our world. Not his world.
It’s a common mistake when people discuss human evolution. Like, paleo diets? Seems like a reasonable idea, trying to eat what humans evolved to eat. But humans also evolved for constant motion & early death. If that’s the way you’re planning to live, then, sure, you’ve got a valid argument for eating that way. If not, the argument seems much less compelling.
In the ‘pick when ripe’ culture, babies and toddlers are largely ignored by adults, and may not be named until they’re weaned. They undergo what he calls a ‘village curriculum’: running errands, delivering messages and doing small-scale versions of adult tasks. Only later are they ‘picked,’ or fully recognized as individuals. In contrast, in ‘pick when green’ cultures, including our own, it’s never too early to socialize babies or recognize their personhood.
But, Lancy makes clear why “pick when ripe” cultures made the choices they did. As in, huge infant mortality meant that high-investment parenting would probably be wasted: why should that parent care that a kid was on track for greatness if the kid then dies at three? And the potential “greatness” that was perceived to be within reach was pretty meager anyway — even a neglected child could eventually catch up and learn to farm well enough.
Whereas a parent who expects his or her children to survive, and who will only attempt to raise one to three (instead of seven to ten, with 60% of them dying young), should invest a lot of time. Especially if you’re hoping for some complex, modern version of “success,” something involving happiness, for instance, and money.
And, yes, Lancy also thinks you should teach your children to do chores.