(These ideas are explicated in this sloppy manifesto)
Friday, April 09, 2004
The Cameron chronicles...
The other day I mentioned that I write about my son, Cameron, all the time. I was contrasting my way of working with text by Sarah Fitz-Claridge about why she does not write about her own children. It struck me as a very different way of going at things, because--can't you guess?--I wrote about Cameron on the day he was born. He's been in my work since his mewling days, in essays and message traffic and stories and now in weblog entries. There is no reason to think this will stop soon--or ever.
It's actually become more interesting for me lately, because Cameron is finally getting old enough to read the things I've written about him. He loves the weblog entries and his reflected fame on improvedclinch.com and two--four.net. And he's dipped into some of the other things I've written about him, as I speculated he would a long time ago. Even so, I doubt the boy knows just how much of my work is devoted to him and to my daughter, Meredith. So much more Cameron than Meredith, alas, but there is nothing any of us can do about that by now.
If you read Sarah's text, it will provide a nice understanding of just how different my approach is from hers. I agree with her that making ostensive demonstrations with one's offspring proves precisely nothing, but it remains that my particular style of argument is intended to serve as a practical demonstration of its truth: I soar when I write because I love to soar, but I write about my love of soaring because I wish to infect the world with the love of soaring. This doesn't speak to Cameron, nor to my proficiencies as a parent, but there is a sense in which every family is a test laboratory for the parents' theories of child-rearing. Sarah's other demurrer concerns her children's privacy, and that one rings less true for me. I don't see a practical difference in me writing about Cameron than in me writing about Sarah, or she about me.
And, to be frank, the things I've written about my children, if not my children themselves, do stand as arguments for my philosophy of appropriate human upbringing. I'm working with a couple from Germany right now, although the husband was actually born and raised here in Phoenix. Twice he has used the phrase "launch your children on the right trajectory" and I think this is a beautiful metaphor. The recognition that human success is a product of time and a vector is one that unlucky adults discover too late, having wasted their youths in the Drunkard's Walk of inexperience, cursed by a 'natural' but incorrect understanding of the long-term consequences of error. Cathy and I work very hard to avoid this fate for Cameron, at least, and it runs all through my writing.
In any case, I thought I'd make a little catalog of the things I've written about my children, for my sake and for theirs, if for no one else's. This is everything, or everything I can think of, in something like a logical order:
Cameron's Legacy, an essay on being human, was written on the day the boy was born. Cameron's mother is mentioned in that, and the silly woman tried to use my praise of her as a weapon against me in her battle to take custody of Meredith (she won) and Cameron (I won). And I hate it that that stupid divorce is so much a part of my children's lives and mine, but it runs all through my work from that time. It seems very likely to me that I have Cameron because of Cameron's Legacy, because I could not simultaneously be the ogre my wife was paying her attorney to portray and the author of that essay. From that same time, there is Thumper, about Meredith. Cameron at four was written perhaps a month later. And Whoredom, boredom, love, lust and a great big tree, while it is more about me than about my children, encapsulates the whole raucous tragedy. The photo above is the two of them together at Thanksgiving of 1996, a year almost to the day after that essay was written. I ended up with a too-full understanding of divorce in America, which is explored in an essay called Cameron's song.
Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie was in this all the while, of course. The little boy in Superman is Cameron at his most beautiful. What might not be obvious is that Reunion is a fictionalized Cameron in a horrifying possible future. In Cinderella's memories of the zoo, the wicked step-children are based on Meredith and Cameron at their absolute worst. There are two important Meri stories, and no one would guess this to be the case for either: Xavier's destiny is about a little boy, on the surface, and Anastasia in the light and shadow is about a little girl who was much younger than Meredith was when I wrote it.
Not all tragedy, especially not lately. The story A girl and her bat go shopping was written about Cameron and his friend Jasmine, borrowing their middle names for the names of the children in the story. That's the two of them together, in the picture above, at about the time the story was written. The goofy dad in that story is me, of course, and you can see Cameron and me together in A future more vivid. Cathy gets to play, too, in A Costco family Christmas.
Cameron even got a cameo role as Hunter in my novel The Unfallen, but that book is so much not about child-rearing that the sweet little boy gets to do almost nothing.
Not in real life, though. Cameron is doing more and more, with every passing day. As I write this, Cathy is filling out the paperwork for Camerons's audition for the Phoenix Symphony Guild's Youth Orchestras. I'm not bragging on myself; the boy's accomplishments are his own. But I am very proud of him--and I have been since the day he was born...
Wednesday, April 07, 2004
Parenting is coercion...
I had mail from Virginia Warren of catallarchy.net about a comment I posted yesterday on no-treason.com. The particular comment isn't terribly interesting, but from it I link back to an article of mine that is, and Ms. Warren's remarks arise out of that. As a matter of disclosure, I do not know her, except that I have seen her in passing in comments at no-treason, and I know nothing at all about catallarchy.net.
Administrative details first:
Mr. Swann,I don't think there is rancor. I have been giving John a bad time about this issue for about a year, because it's a particularly glaring hole in his philosophy. But in this he is hardly unique: Virtually all libertarians are sweet Andy Taylors until they are injured--or imagine that they are--when they turn into raging Barney Fifes. But I give John enormous credit for continuing to think into adulthood, a very rare virtue. It seems plausible to me that he will work this out in due course.
Now to the meat of the matter:
Seeing your comment on "What Does Radley Balko Know?", I clicked through your link and read your post "We will not rid the world of cannibals by eating them..." and I found your thoughts very interesting. I found absolutely nothing to object to among these assertions:I have no idea if these are "gotcha" questions or not. I have enough and too much experience with that kind of pretend philosophy, where, if you can make believe you have tricked me into saying something inane, now, on the fly, you don't have to trouble yourself to think about what I've said and consider whether it might be true--despite its unfamiliarity or your having memorized a few "gotcha" tricks. I don't know if this is the case here, and I am inclined to give Ms. Warren the benefit of the doubt, and, in fact, I don't actually care. The fact is that I think about questions similar to hers all the time, and I think they are very important ideas to explore, and I am not hugely satisfied with my own conclusions. I think about everything, and I don't settle for easy or received answers.You do not have the right to hurt people.I am curious about a few things in light of this extraordinarily clear explication of principles. Do you punish Cameron? Does Cameron go to school because he chooses to or because you require him to? Do you require Cameron to attend church with you?
So, again, the fast way, literal answers:
Do you punish Cameron?Yes, sometimes. We don't strike him, but we do take away his privileges.
Does Cameron go to school because he chooses to or because you require him to?We encourage him to choose to, which is effective about half of the time right now. The other half the time he follows through to hang onto his privileges.
Do you require Cameron to attend church with you?Same answer, essentially. Cameron is a believing Catholic, where I am not. Sometimes he goes to Mass despite himself, and sometimes he goes without me, walking to church.
That's facile, though, from my point of view, because it doesn't deal with the underlying issue, the coercion of human beings, with the emphasis being critical.
Yet again, the more interesting way:
Do you punish Cameron?Do you house-train your dogs?
Does Cameron go to school because he chooses to or because you require him to?Do your dogs pee in the yard because they want to or because you make them?
Do you require Cameron to attend church with you?Do you compel you dogs to walk on a lead?
Now the "gotcha" answer to all these questions is, "I don't have dogs," and I have zero respect for that kind of evasion. But the more interesting question would be, "Greg Swann, why are you equating your son with dogs?"
The answer is simple: Because a post-natal genetic homo sapiens is not a human being. A human being is a man-made thing, an artifact, created by the human parenting of a normal post-natal genetic homo sapiens. Absent human parenting, a normal post-natal genetic homo sapiens will never become human. It will flail around as a hideous parody of an animal, never developing the rationality that is present in potential, but which must be developed to be realized.
The question I think Ms. Warren is not quite asking is this one: "Greg Swann, how can you reconcile your claim that you never have the right to coerce another human being with the obvious fact that you coerce your son, Cameron, every day?"
I never stop thinking about this--and not just with respect to Cameron. It bothers me that I imprison and compel and physically punish my dogs. Every one of our animals is neutered, and it plagues me no end--particularly the males, with whom I can more easily identify. I wrote about the domination of horses in Meet the Third Thing, and I will tell you that I have never resolved this question to my own satisfaction. Certainly from the point of view of the horse or dog, exclusive internal motivation is right and just, considered not as concepts but as attributes of behavior. From our own point of view, we would argue that Big-Mother-knows-best, but it is easy enough for me to take the animal's side in that debate.
But the point is this: What I am coercing in my son is not the nascent rational human being, but the vestigial irrational animal.
But that's not going far enough, because it is important to understand this:
All parenting is coercive.
Not just human parenting, mind, but animal parenting is a much less rigorous, less time-consuming pursuit. But when a human parent cajoles a normal post-natal genetic homo sapiens to smile or to make raspberries or to say, "Baba," that parent is coercing that child, willfully diverting it from the mental path of its own choosing and redirecting it to the path of the parent's choosing. It is no less an act of loving coercion than picking up the puppy and hustling him outdoors to pee, praising him to the skies all the while. Given a rational choice, which they cannot have and will not have for many years, no baby would choose to writhe in its own waste. But this does not make changing its diaper any less an act of physical force--expressed with a forearm gently pressed to the baby's chest if necessary.
So, again: "Greg Swann, why are you equating your son with dogs?" Because my son, when he was born, was more like a dog than he was like a human being. The fact is, he bore nothing in common with human beings except appearance, where his activity in the immediate post-natal period was extremely dog-like. But a dog at four weeks is an amazingly capable creature compared to a genetic homo sapiens at the same age. And I can have a puppy house trained at eight weeks--ecstatically so--where Cameron took a good deal longer than that to learn to use the toilet.
And yet again, the not-quite-asked question: "Greg Swann, how can you reconcile your claim that you never have the right to coerce another human being with the obvious fact that you coerce your son, Cameron, every day?" Because it's baked in the cake. The choice to become a parent, for human beings, is the choice to lead, plead, persuade, cajole, reward, punish--to coerce--a very poorly-adapted mammal into becoming a supremely well-adapted human being.
We believe in the 'Catch your kid doing something right' idea, incentives versus disincentives. Ultimately, to become a fully human human being, Cameron must learn to choose to do the right thing for the right reasons. But we are very much aware of his animal motivations, and we most definitely deploy them to his advantage. We want Cameron to play the violin well because the purpose of mastery is mastery. If Cameron chooses to play the violin well in order to out-do his fellow young violinists, we smile behind our hands, recognizing that animal motives are often venal motives, but they are not always harmful motives. But in the same way, when Cameron chooses to laze around like one of the dogs, we are all over him, leading, pleading, persuading, cajoling, rewarding, punishing--coercing--him to live up to his identity.
In the long run, we are waiting for what we call 'the miracle,' the point at which Cameron becomes so obsessed with his abstract goals that he leaves behind that dog-like love of leisure that is our awful legacy from our animal forebears. For me, it began when I got serious about photography, age 14 or so, but it didn't become my modus vivendi until I got to college. This Sunday just past, Cameron had a violin recital, just him and one other boy. At the end they were talking to each other with their violins, having a detailed conversation in music, each apprehending and responding to the other with bow upon strings. This we take as a fortuitous sign, even as we acknowledge that 'the miracle' might never happen, that for most genetic homo sapiens it never does happen, completely, and they never do become fully human human beings.
(As an aside, there would be no systemic tyranny anywhere if genetic homo sapiens actually understood the self and how to be interested in it.)
Ms. Warren also asks:
One more question: have you ever heard of TCS (Taking Children Seriously)?I am peripherally aware of it. I think The World of Sarah Fitz-Claridge, and I have been meaning to write something about one of her TCS essays, an article I can't lay my hand on right now about why she does not write about her children. It was interesting to me because, of course, I write about my son all the time. I write about my dogs all the time too, but Cameron really loves it, where the dogs seem indifferent.
Anyway, the point of all this is this: I do coerce my son, and I look forward to the day when I won't have to. If this provides fresh "gotcha" meat for the the pack of low-life light-weights at no-treason.com, let 'em have at it. Dogs have to have something to do when they're not snoozing or licking what's left of their balls. As for me--and for my son--there is a universe to be digested. And I do so love to devour it!