Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Thanks Daddy

Trey's Days No. 1


If you have survived long enough to have elderly parents you may relate with a conversation I had with my sister the other day. Our dad is 75. He is pretty incapacitated by orthopedic problems. He is in a lot of pain most of the time. He has decided that the barometric pressure in Mississippi where he lives is such a significant factor in his condition that he needs to move to the Smokey Mountains, or somewhere with some altitude. Problem is he can't do it, his wife isn't moving, and my sister and I are at a loss as to how to help him, knowing that moving is probably not an option.

All this reflection on my dad's condition and the responsibility of being a grown child got me thinking about how we become who we are, different from our parents yet owing to them much of our identity. As a gay man, I have had my differences with the prevailing social paradigm of the deep south where my parents both grew up. As our parents age and we find them needing our care, it is a good time to look at who we have become and how we have become our own people, benefiting from the gifts of parents but able to shake off the constraints under which a previous generation were doomed to live. At the end of the day my father's greatest gift is freedom and a mind to become who I am. He may not have even known that is what he was giving me, (but I suspect he did). It is received loud and clear. Thanks Daddy!

When Alice Babbette Toklas and Gertrude Stein created their life together, they dared to create the life of each for themselves. They would have the life they wanted for themselves, the world who did not understand be damned. When Gertrude wrote, she wrote what she wrote and if people understood it and published it, great. If they didn't she wondered why, but she fought to keep from changing her writing. She was a revolutionary. She did not want to become what other people were expecting. She was the Gertrude for Gertrude. And she found Alice. Alice was the Alice for Alice. They found each other and were able to be the Gertrude for Gertrude and the Alice for Alice for each other. They did not need to change for the other or to change the other. Alice understood the Gertrude for Gertrude and Gertrude understood the Alice for Alice. Now in the Paris of the early twentieth century to which they fled, and in their living room on Saturday nights there was this whole little society who were being themselves for themselves. Sometimes the world got it and sometimes not; mostly not. But they would not change for the world but kept being themselves for themselves.

There is the issue of means. It seems that the ones who were best able to keep on being themselves for themselves the world be damned, were the ones who had the means to run off to Paris, or Mallorca or where ever, and somehow when they arrived there was a letter of introduction from somebody famous and a check to pay the bills for a few months. So off they went, to collect Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, and to write in the way of the Cubists: “to cut our hair and not want blue eyes and to be reasonable and obedient. To obey and not split hairs. This is our duty and our pleasure...Every day we get up and say we are awake today. By this we mean that we are up early and we are up late. We eat our breakfast and smoke a cigar.”* . They made haute cuisine just for a few friends, lived with museum pieces, wore what they made out of their imagination, and created a world for themselves in one apartment in Paris when no one else understood and they didn't care.

But Gertrude and Alice were unusual. It appears to me from listening to some very accomplished professionals that many reach a point at which they have acted out the pattern of the existing paradigm for so long it is no longer who they are. (warning: cleric alert) I hear that at some point in their lives there was a fork in the road. This is that fork which represents a paradigm shift in terms of how one is in the world, or who one is in the world. One can either take the turn that means being something completely different, seeing the world as if through a different lens, or one can do what is expected, stay on the straight path, and become a false representation of what one has become, in order to be what the world of the old prevailing paradigm has expected, and continues to expect.

This is exactly what Gertrude and Alice refused to do. They refused to continue to be what the society around them in the United States expected of them. In the early twentieth century, part of that expectation was that a woman would marry a man and have children. Instead, Gertrude and Alice married each other and had Basket, their white standard poodle, who was succeeded by Basket II. It required moving to France, and never living in the US again, which is sad, but they insisted on making a world for themselves that was both true to themselves and against the prevailing paradigm and social order.

Now, some will call this “self indulgent” as if to say that “self indulgent” is an indictment which is self explanatory and obviously bad. It is not obvious that living true to oneself and against the prevailing old paradigm is either self indulgent or bad. I have heard that those who partner and have children have an evolutionary advantage over those who are single. I've also seen studies that show folk who are religious live longer than those who are not. It is assumed that there is something about partnering and having a family within the prevailing paradigm which is more adaptive, healthier than not. It has been thought by religious people that there is something inherent to religion which is responsible for the good lifethey enjoy.

But might it be that we have had it backwards? Could it be that living out the prevailing and preferred paradigm, in this case partnering and having a family, or being religious, wins favor with the society, resulting in greater cooperation from the community? So in various ways the community reinforces the lives of those who partner and have children and belong to a religious community and withholds that same reinforcement from those who do not. It could well be that it is this withholding of reinforcement from the community which results in an advantage for those who go along with the prevailing paradigm and not anything in particular about the paradigm itself.

It can be anticipated that many will say there are advantages to having a partner, kids, a religious life, etc. It may be said that the prevailing paradigm becomes the prevailing paradigm by being good. Marrying a person of the opposite sex is adaptive and good. Having children is adaptive and good. Being religious is good for us and so gets adopted as the prevailing paradigm. But are we sure?

Is is not equally likely that there is not anything particularly good about living out the prevailing paradigm; that people like Gertrude and Alice who went against the heterosexual norm, against the procreation paradigm and lived lives for themselves which were revolutionary, show that good lives can be had outside the paradigm. Perhaps lives which are even better can be had outside the paradigm. Perhaps our salvation lies outside the paradigm.

So here's a hope note. The internet and instant digital communication are making it possible for the Gertrudes and Alices of the world to find each other. They are finding each other and creating world wide communities which go against the old prevailing paradigm, whether that be the heterosexual couple with kids, going to church, belonging to the social majority, fill in the blank. That thirst for freedom that required Gertrude and Alice to move to France now is quenched by a virtual community on the internet which is accessible at home, at school, at the library, in a coffee shop, at the airport, nearly everywhere we go. Right this very minute I bet there's a young single lesbian sitting at a west coast airport having a real time conversation with someone in Beijing in whose bed she will be sleeping by tomorrow. And there's a scientist in Little Rock trying to figure out how to cure a babies brain cancer consulting with a doctor in Sweden and another one in the UK. A leather queen in the Mission of San Francisco is hooking up with a not so young lad in Ireland who wants to see America. A childless couple in the Ozarks are chatting with a single school teacher in New Jersey about their Persian cats. And so it goes.

The new prevailing paradigm is that there is no prevailing paradigm except that we connect with those who share enough of our world view to be affirming and affirmed. So thank you Daddy for teaching me the freedom of the mind. Thank you Gertrude and Alice for breaking the mold and showing us the way to find each other and create a world. And thank you computer geeks everywhere for giving us a universe in which we no longer have to move to France to do it.

* Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice. Hammersmith, London.: Pandora Press, 1991.


  1. This is a very thought provoking post. It could be discussed from varying angles, I imagine. But it makes me think of a couple of things in particular:

    *Health is always a tricky way to define what is meant by "good" (in spite of what Sam Harris says). There are facts of the matter about how our habits effect our bodies and minds, but we have to declare those states good in the first place in order to invest moral meaning in those causal relationships/correlations. Meaning, we don't see these connections and discover something that we find good at the point of discovery; we already decided what was good in the first place, then found out what caused it.

    More to the point of the post, what's adaptive is clearly not always what's good. What was most adaptive in World War II Germany were ways of behaving we find morally wrong. Steven Pinker has even speculated that there were times in human history when rape could have served the function of reproduction. This means that it's plausible/possible that rape was a non-marginal factor in the level of human reproduction. You may doubt that, but even if it's potentially true, these examples show that "adaptive" is not strictly synonymous with "good."

    People try to win moral arguments in all sorts of illegitimate ways. One of those ways is to use terms (like adaptive) that sound like something close to a moral term. But these terms can't win the argument by themselves. What's most adaptive is sometimes soul-killing (I'm not trying to reduce morality to a mere linguistic game, but when we're persuading one another in moral terms, the first thing to do is use the terms faithfully). Few moral terms, even when used faithfully, win the arguments by themselves, because we balance varying moral concerns in everyday life. So what invoking concerns like "community" should do, when seen properly, is to create a prima facie moral concern, not an overriding one, which leads me to my next point...

  2. Very helpful, brother. There's much to digest here, more than one nourishing morsel. Thanks for reading and posting.

  3. Thanks Trey. I'm just getting used to this google blogger. Tryin' to post the second thing that struck me, etc. I'll post manage to post it before too long, I imagine. Either way, thanks for the thoughts.