Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"It's not about you" -- it's about the family? You pay your dues, and life still isn't fair. But that's the only way to be free

A lesser known writer gets a reader’s attention with a good story, and a “story” often begins with some sort of new situation, where there is great anticipation. Something is found with significance that keeps expanding, like a universe.

I can pick up on a humid Saturday in early August 2005, as I drove to King of Prussia Mall near Philadelphia, with a song from “Hustle & Flow” in my head, to meet actors Gregory Smith and Chris Pratt from Everwood. I gave my elevator speech about COPA, EFF, and “don’t ask don’t tell”, but what matters here is a driving idea in Everwood. That is, a piano prodigy Ephram (played by Smith) loses out on a chance to go to Julliard over a dispute with his father, over the consequences of something that happens as Ephram comes of age and tries to “live a life” rather than be “right” and become “just” a successful artist.

I had my own nine years of piano, and did not make it my life’s work; to some extend my relationship with my own father was a factor, but also was a factor that was somewhat the converse of Ephram’s problem.

One could say that part of my problem, as I have outlined before, was that I didn’t “pay my dues” (even though did "pay my bills"). That’s the way I experienced it, but I think there is something deeper.

My parents and my upbringing culture of that world was trying to compel me to become a social creature before I was an individual with something to say or communicate – even through originally composed music, where one can hide behind abstraction. I experienced parcels of that, identifying with and “suffering” with the Washington Senators baseball team as they lost – where the city, the team was more important than me. But of course, it’s the family that is to be more important.

One of the paradoxes of Christianity is that one must lose oneself to find oneself. When you are part of “something” (call it “the natural family” [and its manifesto!], the Kingdom, whatever) you get a set of keys, or you get plugged in to the power grid. No one can run forever on their own batteries. Yet, you then have a legitimate shot to go out into the world and become yourself. But you have to understand the world is not always “fair” and you may have demands of affection placed on you that don’t fall onto others.

There are some important wrinkles in this kind of thinking, that used to be unwritten law or "hidden curriculum" back in the 1950s. One is that part of the moral requirement on "you" to be attentive to people depends on their needs within the family or social unit context, not on the choices you made.   You can still be responsible for people without having intercourse and making a baby. (Think about the movies made about people expected to raise their siblings' children.)  You are required to learn the interpersonal and labor-intensive skills to be able to form and maintain (and actually live within rather than without) a social unit before you enter "public life" on your own.  Another is that you accept the idea that your public reputation can affect others in the family.  The idea that one can broadcast knowledge that proves one is "right" (the "Everwood" problem for "Ephram") without a real life or real relationships with others disturbs some people (that's the "privilege of being listened to" problem).  But maybe the most important idea is that when one is other-centered or at least family-centered, "sacrfice" is no longer just that. So some moral theorists are saying now that everyone should learn to deal with family intimacies, being a role model, caregiving, and raising children, regardless of whether they have their own. Intergenerational responsibility becomes an important component of "sustainability", especially locally. But even that statement invokes individual "rules" rather than community-centeredness.

Now, of course, this kind of system is easily abused, into tribalism or a patriarchal society that, while stable, puts people in their places so that people don’t have to feel about others who have “broken the rules”. And we all know that Christianity isn’t supposed to work that way (but sometimes it does; look at some of the religious right).  It's easy to come up with examples of abuse, ranging from the Taliban to organized crime.

Once you’re out on your own (pun indeed), you run into the “pay your dues” problem, because you come to see how much of what you have can depend on the unseen and often involuntary sacrifices of others. (Remember the Vietnam era draft, and how we rationalized student deferments?) Call it karma. Pretty soon you find yourself working on new rules of engagement, looking for deeper levels of fairness, for “equality” as a dynamic rather than static political and social concept.

Yet, you want to matter. You want the world around you to make moral sense. In my case, something inverted but totally logical happened: I was made to believe I was gender-noncompetitive as a teen, so I had a reason for “upward affiliation”, to believe I could become “sensitive” to the best people, but also to identity those who “were there” but who “shouldn’t be” (sometimes by rather arbitrary and superficial visually-driven criteria). Later in life, in recent years, some time after my books came out and somewhat in response to my “free entry” and “self-promoting” web activity, I found people pushing me toward allowing others to see me as a role model, and, based on what happened earlier in life, I found myself quite repelled.

I could go on a screed about “morality” here: when you take liberties with things, someone else some day will have a responsibility dumped in his life that he didn’t pick and that undermines his own purposes or sense of value. But remember, if life is to be “free” it can’t be completely fair. Morality shouldn’t be about avoiding unwanted emotion and never venturing outside the zone of consent. Sometimes you have to jump in the pool and get wet. Sometimes you have to give the help in the locker room, even with 60-year-old gams. If you're free to communicate your own notions of moral perfection, you could be nudging others back towward fascism, Maoism, or some other "ism".

Now, where does my movie go? That is, where does the story go? Well, one place is the self-broadcast issue, which loops back to another theme: your music lives forever, even if you don’t. But a community-based morality says, your music means nothing until YOU mean something, to other people. The claim is on You, not your works. (OK, that takes me to the rogue screenplay – and it’s embedded “story” -- discussed on my July 27, 2007 posting.)

The other obvious “ESPN zone” is gay rights. There’s a parallel between the moral debate over “personal autonomy” and the debate over (roughly speaking) LGBT equality. They are like Venn diagrams: there is a lot of common territory, but they aren’t quite the same things. Then the story goes back to the Cold War days and my debacle at William and Mary (and a later stint at NIH, trying to shelter me from the Cuban Missile Crisis). The story jumps to 1993 because of the obvious link to the arguments that led to “don’t ask don’t tell” for gays in the military, but it also swallows the natural family: as an only child, it seems others though I had imposed the death penalty on my own lineage. Pundits from the religious right love to make a lot of masculinity as an "achievement" (as in Nicolosi's book, on my Books blog Jan. 21, 2009), but you wonder if their real purpose (in making this point) is social cohesion and familial love, or to find an excuse to put people away, or at least "in their place".  When I did come out (a second time), I would have to focus enormous energy on my own psychic needs, apart from those of others.

P.S.: To do honor to Warner Brothers, owners of the "Everwood" series, enjoy their musical logo YouTube here.  Notice: it's in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

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