"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

May 9, 2013

Switching Modes, or Changing Gears

Being unwell means having less to say. For me at least. Right now I feel better, and have even managed to complete a run long enough to help me run the skin right off the bottom of my left foot. I switched to "barefoot" sneakers last year, and they are harder to adjust to when run season picks up again. I'll have useful callouses in a couple of weeks, but right now, my feet are mostly sore and too-tender.

Being moral and political is like that. Somewhen around twelve years ago, a grew a conscience, pretty much out of nowhere. At the time, it was not an especially welcome development. I'd always had a capacity for empathy, but I didn't really feel the need to use it all that much, since life had prepared me for the ethical premise of "don't trust people, get away with what you can get away with, and for fuck's sake be smart about the shit people punish" and mostly it worked for me.

I think my kids entering into the verbal and then the moral stages of development forced a double bind that I couldn't really negotiate all that well, so I opted out, morally. This isn't sustainable for any period of time if you need an ethical system in order to justify distasteful choices or choices which others view as distasteful, and you therefore need to explain on the fly.

So, right about the time I was burning out as a member of the management caste, I was also having to teach my children about moral standards, without having much of a moral point of reference from which to work. I knew enough to know that my ethical premise wasn't going to work for them, because they didn't live within the same conditions that obligated me to form it.

I was raised by Carmelites, Xaverians and dissident Jesuits and I mean this in a not-metaphorical way. I spent more time in the company of people in Orders, than not. All of my adolescent and newly complex notions about correct behavior came from being influenced by nuns, brothers and priests who were (and I know this with the depressing bathos of hindsight) radicals. And then, from rejecting them. Which meant, in those halcyon days of the pre-internet and relatively well-stocked public libraries, books by Rand and Nietzsche, and the very commonplace and easy to afford rebellion of sex, drugs, "Satanism" and rock and roll - with an emphasis on the occult and drugs, because...really, I never managed to pass for handsome.

But, being ejected not only from my class and from my social milieu, but also from my foster family*, as well as being expelled from high school and losing scholarships along with a short track to officer training in the Marines, I fell as far (then) as possible without becoming a "unchaste" woman, gay or black. My view of human relations were never utopian, or anything but cynical. Now, I was positively misanthropic.

This works just fine, I've found, for people who are outcast, since social betrayal at that magnitude tends to remove any options for redress, or the seeking of alliances from people still within the bosom embrace of acceptable norms. Misanthropy makes sense, especially when you're an outsider who has no lower class social groups into which he can integrate.

Abused children have trust issues. Outcasts tend to belong to those groups already pre-identified as victims. I was a very good victim, because I had enough passion to fight back against the teasing, and bullying, and group cohesion reinforcement, but not enough wit to realize that the best defense isn't defense at all. So, I routinely fell into the trap of refreshing my own target status.

By the time I was homeless in Boston, I was broken. Not in a mechanical toy kind of way, where all the pieces are lying there on the table and it's kind of sad to see them in that state, but fuck it, there's another toy on the shelf at the store.  I mean, broken in the way bones are broken, and meat torn from them, and maybe things don't grow back the way they used to be.

And then several homeless Puerto Rican men saved me from being sold off for rape, because I thought was going with a guy to steal watches, but he was negotiating a price for my ass, and they put a hurting on him because he'd done it before. They took me in and when I could put sentences together again, and perform basic self-maintenance tasks, and with their encouragement, I went "home."

"Home" wasn't a house. It wasn't a family. It was small New England town that hated me. And I hated them back. I didn't deserve to be the scapegoat, the outsider who has to pay so that the group can define who is a winner and who is a loser. I didn't deserve it.

I couldn't get my head outside of that loop, the one based in merit and deserts. I self-medicated. I stole things. I fell in with the scumbags - or, to be accurate, the other scumbags. I got it into my head that, yeah, alright you fuckers, I will be your satan, then. And that's how I stopped caring if I deserved it or not. That's what being a scumbag does to you. It liberates. It's a purgative, if you can survive it. It gets the colony out of the head.

I survived. I clawed. A lot. I hurt people who got in the way of me not being held accountable for my choices, because I figured I'd already had all of my allotment of punishment, and then two or three other people's lots as well. In traditional parlance, I went bad. I've met a number of abused children who followed this course, as well. It's like we only get to understand ourselves as Survivor Saviors, or go bad. Being abused turn your life into an either/or, because that's what all punishment does.

Punishment is about forcing people to make an either/or distinction. Punishment doesn't correct. It has never reformed.  Punishment defines who is a loser and who is a victor. Punishment establishes civilizations. It's the four chambered blood pump of business, law, family, religion.

So, there's that. I knew it instinctively, which is say, without having to verbalize it back to myself and argue with strangers in my own head. I was beaten as a child. Locked in closets. Raped. Stabbed. Tied to a woodpile in the middle of winter. Imprisoned in the garage for days on end, surrounded by mouse traps to make sure I didn't move from a prone position. And beaten. Did I mention the beatings? I still get headaches. I still can't be hit without having to manage down a very strong fight/flight response that, unmanaged, results in people who have cause to regret striking me from that moment onward.

This does not make for a good starting point from which to parent children. I've discussed this with other people who were abused children. We have a lot in common, and one of the defining characteristics is a marrow level doubt of all discipline and punishment, but coupled with a strong desire to make sure your children never become victims, which ends up looking a whole lot like aversion training and iron discipline and a school for mistrust.

I didn't want to be me and have kids, so I jettisoned everything - and it was symbolically easy, because my whole life at that point was a crisis.

When events had settled back into a semblance of normalcy, I was a leftist. I took all that distrust and self-doubt, and worry over my own capacity for bad behavior and disproportionate self-protection, and I channeled it into fighting a Big Fight.

And that's been fine, as long as I have been parenting small to pre-adolescent children, especially as the home parent. I mean, I'm an adult parent, so I am also automatically a failure as human person, a hypocrite and a breaker of my own rules. And I hate the job, because I really like my kids. But, the leftism was morally consistent with my own attempts to teach my kids to be cunning in their self-protection and empathetic.

But, now my boys are almost adults.

And perhaps not incidentally or accidentally, I have fewer and fewer attachments to this leftism, this urgent need to fight a Big Fight. Perhaps, it's because my children are now facing the actual prospect of having to sell themselves, and I want to be the model for a way of life which is neither strife, nor self-annihilating revolution. Or maybe it's because I know from past modes of self and memory that it doesn't work, this leftist critique of society. Nobody is convinced. Nobody cares. It's time to cut losses and find a life boat.

I don't know. I know. I don't care. I want to care. I think these are the callouses, morally speaking.

But, I feel better. I feel almost healthy.

And I want my kids to thrive. More later, or not as it happens. We'll see...

* - for transgressing too far, which meant (at first) "spoiling" the purity of our high school headmaster's best friend's daughter, and by "spoiling," I don't mean actually having sex with her. I was lower middle class. Olive-tan skinned. Catholic. A good student, but with no access to the social groups which actually confer a chance of success, and who was already working at thirteen, so with no time to do the "volunteer" work that gets you into the NHS, and similar organizations. She was wealthy, her parents were church leaders, Protestant, very White. It's almost cliché, really...


Jim H. said...

How much do tell your kids about your own personal ordeal? This is a question I still wrestle with, and my kids sound like they're about the same age as yours.

On the one hand, you don't want to influence them. You want them to find their own ways. On the other, you don't want them to make the same choices and, if you will, mistakes. You want them to make, and learn from, their own mistakes—as along as they're not too serious. And, on yet another hand, you don't want them to think that 'oh, it's okay, daddy did it when he was my age and look how he turned out.'

Really courageous post. It's tough to look upon one's self with such an analytical eye.

I don't see how the political fits in with the personal here, though. But that's okay. It's not me, it's you. Or rather, it's me, not you.

Jack Crow said...


I've tried to be vulnerable with my children. I've told them most of it. Sometimes, that was precautionary (I let my mother start seeing them when my oldest was old enough to explain what signs he needed to look out for). Most of it is just that Baj and I opted for transparency on everything. She, because she spent most of her childhood as a caretaker for her sister with Down's and never got to express her discontent when it timely. Me, because of the above. My kids don't always like that transparency, because we have once weekly airing out sessions that can become lectures rather rapidly (when they aren't all picking on Dad's many quirks of speech, behavior and dialect), but for the most part we have a "no consequences" approach to saying what's on our minds. I've tried to tell most of the "I did that when I was your age" stories with an eye to using them as cautionary tales, but since they weren't raised with religion, politics, enforced social norms and much in the way of punishment* or discipline, I don't know if we're speaking words with the same meanings attached...yet.

* - We get mad. We yell, we make terrible parenting decisions in response to the stupid things children do, because they're children, we overreact, we dismiss their opinions when we're tired. But, we have no system of discipline or punishment for them, and our rules are mostly pragmatic (don't get caught, don't mistreat women, don't think lies don't have consequences, don't tell lies if you don't want to be treated as untrustworthy, taking people's shit usually results in people looking the other way when you get caught, etc). My oldest and I have thrown down a couple of times when he felt he could make his point with a naked play for status. I have not allowed him to win those dominance games, because I think that's a bad lesson in general, given how the real world functions, and who actually gets to get away with status victories.

Will Shetterly said...

You could write a memoir. You write well, and you've had a life that too many people have trouble understanding. I completely understand why you might not want to, though, so I changed my first sentence from "should" to "could".

As for the business of being an outsider when your class changes, Orwell, among others, observed it. Class is a form of tribe, I think, and while it's possible to change class, it's unlikely that any class-changer will ever fit into the new tribe perfectly. (But a good tribe will welcome the differences, or overlook them.)

Abonilox said...

I envy your feeling of healthiness.

The rage seems to have died down.

I share some of your story, but don't want to write about it on the blog. Better to stay in the aether, and keep wrestling in my mind, trying to justify my own existence with vain words.

Jim's question is a good one. My older one is almost 15. Not much younger than I was when I left home. And I have told her a lot of these stories without really thinking about it. It's only afterward that I realize it may not have been a good idea. But I don't have an agenda about it. It's just what happened. The truth is she's not that interested in my stories right now.

Save your energy and stay healthy. You never know when the really Big Fight is actually going to start.

Jim H. said...


Thanks for a thoughtful and what I perceive to be honest answer. I would echo Will's sentiment. I think there are perceptions, observations, experiences, judgments, etc. you bring to the table that nobody I know of does. Compelling reading, esp. when you open up.

Jim H.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Or maybe it's because I know from past modes of self and memory that it doesn't work, this leftist critique of society. Nobody is convinced. Nobody cares. It's time to cut losses and find a life boat.

Sad, and true.

The strong and powerful keep on stomping the week, and the common taters who cheer and enable the process (Tom Friedman and Fred Hiatt, for example) share in the rewards.

Lisa Simeone said...

Heartbreaking. I knew nothing about your background. Makes the mundane angst of the rest of us seem tepid and trivial by comparison.

But I do identify with your sense of outsider status. And with wanting to fight the Big Fight but also feeling powerless and wanting to give up. I don't know the answers.

Deborah Newell said...

Thank you for this, for the emotional honesty especially.

And if no-one else has said it yet, allow me to say Welcome to the Tribe, meaning the artists and writers. I've yet to meet another tribesman or woman who doesn't have deep experience with "outsiderness".

(My boys are also nearing adulthood. You've captured the Ethical Parent's quandaries with startling accuracy.)