A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Deep Thought

“Mom, is there a…”
I was microwaving chili and hacking jagged hunks out of a pan of leftover cornbread in a hurried attempt to get a decent meal packed up. 
 …logical reason for…
We needed to dash out the door – like, NOW – if the twins were to be even vaguely on time for another evening performing in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the university.
Um, what?
 Is there a logical reason for LIFE?  Seriously, what the hell, Lizzy. 
This child, my child -- small, pigtailed, scruffy, and deceptively quiet -- sometimes brings to mind Shakespeare’s Cassius, who “has a lean and hungry look.  He thinks too much.  Such men are dangerous.”  Such little girls, likewise. 
Okay, no, I don’t really think that one of my nine-year-old daughters is hazardous -- or destined to stab Caesar, for that matter – but Lizzy’s ruminations often drop like flaming zeppelins from a cloudless sky. This is a child who, when stymied in her desire to cover all windowsills in the house with plant seedlings, chides, “Daddy, sometimes I think you are not very good at delaying gratification.”  This is a kid who glances around the living room and says, apropos nothing, “There would be so many right angles in the house, if you tried to count them all.” She is not merely making conversation; she is searching for logical patterns within the dizzying fractal landscape of existence.  Such observations might seem delightfully precocious -- until you are forced to attempt to address them in three minutes while simultaneously wrestling mini carrots into a Ziploc. 
About a year and a half ago, my children were subjected to a test to determine who would get to be part of the euphemistically labeled “Extended Learning Program.”  That afternoon, I asked the twins what they’d thought of the experience.  “Oh, it was pretty easy,” said Molly, with casual confidence.  “You just had to find the patterns.  The last few, though,” she continued, blithely, “didn’t have any pattern.” 
Ha!  I’d laughed indulgently at her childish conceit.  How funny to think that no patterns exist, just because you aren’t bright enough to find them!
Um, ha.   
Apophenia is the perception of meaningful patterns within random data – our Rorschach-elephant cloud-locomotive propensity to confabulate monsters under the bed and tin-foil hat conspiracies.  Confirmation bias is the equally human tendency to only look at evidence that supports what we want to believe -- because my political candidate farts rose-petal freshness.  A false negative or a Type II error is denial that a pattern exists, even when it does.  Even when it totally does, dammit, dammit, dam—uh, yeah.  Patterns.  Ha ha… 
Now, I struggled to gather my thoughts and my cornbread.  Could this Life-the-Universe-and-Everything- level introspection be symptomatic of too many “adult themes” in my kids’ lives?  Wallowing in Tennessee Williams’s dark and cerebral play about death, fear, lust, and denial is an unlikely after-school activity for fourth-graders.  Kids, welcome to the tsunami of deception that erodes our souls! 
Lizzy was being semi-patient with my density -- but insistent: “There’s the Big Bang, galaxies form, the Earth, and evolution… but is there a LOGICAL REASON for life?”
There are lots of great books out there on parenting.  I probably should have read some of them. Instead, when the kids were toddlers still struggling to master their fricatives and glottal stops, I decided that I would not be the parent who snaps, “Because I said so”, or “You’re too young to understand”, or “It was the stork”.  I wanted to let them find the patterns – the messy, confusing, terrible, real patterns.  Jay agreed with my strategy of dispensing Too Much Information, although he quickly granted himself an egress in the form of, “How about you ask Mommy?”
Brick: What makes you think Big Daddy has a lech for you, Maggie?
Margaret: Way he drops his eyes down my body when I’m talkin’ to him, drops his eyes to my boobs an’ licks his old chops!  Ha ha!
Brick: That kind of talk is disgusting.
Margaret: Did anyone ever tell you you’re an ass-aching Puritan, Brick?
[Cue four children to run across the stage, shrieking.]

The twins were cast as “no neck monsters” – two of the insufferable and over-abundant children of manipulative, abrasive parents in a dysfunctional, unfulfilled, greedy, Southern-polite but below-the-surface foul-hearted and foul-mouthed family.   After the first read-through, decorously held in a meeting-room at the campus library, the actor playing the family patriarch greeted me with anxious discomfort.  “It’s not exactly an appropriate script for children…”
A few days later, Molly chirped up at me, “Mommy, what does ‘poontang’ mean?”
Snigger.  “It’s a rude slang term for female genitalia,” I told my kid.  She nodded.  She’d guessed as much.  No harm, no foul.
Other questions are harder. 
A logical reason…
I took a deep breath.  I closed the fridge.  “Lizzy, pretty much every aspect of philosophy and religion, throughout all of human history, has been an attempt to answer that question.  Seriously.  It’s a great question.  People have come up with a ton of crazy possible answers.”  I mentioned a few topics the twins already vaguely comprehend – world religions, pantheons, legends, holy doctrines, passionately held beliefs.
“No, but I mean a LOGICAL reason.”
Yeah, kid.  Yeah, I know.
A few rehearsals into Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Molly was enjoying herself.  (Shout and run around?  Giggle backstage with friends?  Great!)  Lizzy was not.  She said she hated the play.  Why, she wanted to know, does everyone seem angry at everyone else?  Why is there so much yelling?  Why would anyone want to watch a play about such horrible people? 
I felt guilty.  My urge was to try to shelter the kids from the full force of the script.  Couldn’t the nine-year-olds just don their adorable costumes, zip out for their cues, and let the rest wash over them?  But no.  That wasn’t working for at least one nine-year-old.  So I did the opposite.  I encouraged the kids to examine, to understand, to dig deeper. 
Brick: You think so too?  You think me and Skipper did, did, did! – sodomy! – together?...
Big Daddy: … This disgust with mendacity is disgust with yourself.  You! – dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it – before you’d face truth with him.
Brick: His truth, not mine.
Big Daddy: His truth, okay!  But you wouldn’t face it with him!
Brick: Who can face truth?  Can you?

Yeah.  We talked this through.  We talked through… a lot.  
I asked the kids how the character Maggie, might feel, married to a man who could not love her.  I asked them how Brick might feel, trapped by a society that reviled his kind of love.  I asked them why Mae might be avaricious enough to use her kids as pawns, why Gooper might feel so bitter about his father, and why Big Mama might prefer a constant cocktail of lies to the truth in which she is drowning.  I also asked what might have been changed, to break these toxic patterns.
Slinging the bag full of chili and scripts over my shoulder and hustling my kids out the door, I told them, “Grownups don’t know the answer to this question.  Not a full answer.  Not a LOGICAL answer.  In fact, our inability to answer this question is so universal that a really funny author made a joke out of it.”  I summarized, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, the conundrum faced by the computer named Deep Thought -- and its comically unfulfilling answer.  Forty-two.
They got the joke.  I grinned.
As the theatrical experienced progressed through dress rehearsals, Lizzy seemed to find her groove and become more comfortable with the storming and raging.  By the time we reached the final performance, she was ready to wax philosophical about the nuances of each altercation, the failings of each individual, and the drawbacks of the social mores to which they adhered.  In her tiny A-line dress, waist-length blonde braids, ribbons, lacy white socks, and Mary Janes, she took to the stage with greater confidence.  “I hope I’m not getting type-cast as a cute little girl,” she observed, her brow wrinkled.   
Only, I thought, through apophenia and confirmation bias.  The frilliness of the socks does not fit into an easy pattern with the personalities of the wearers.  At the final curtain call, the no-neck monsters took their bows earnestly, alongside the Real Actors.
A week after the final performance of the show, my one-minute-older-twin was busy tending to the seedlings that her father had declared to be an unmitigated irritation.  She looked up at me with a perfectly-Lizzy abstracted gaze.  “In real life,” she announced, “there are no good guys and no bad guys.” 
I asked her to elaborate. 
“Like, if I told the story about Daddy and the plants, he might seem like the bad guy.  But from a different point of view, if I told the story about him taking me out to breakfast, he’d be the good guy.”  Lest I harbor any over-inflated sense of my own merits, she added,   “You, too.  There are downsides to a person -- and upsides.”
Gosh, thanks, kid.  But… yes.  You’re right. 
The patterns are not stark in black and white.  Sometimes – apophenia -- they are not there at all.  Sometimes – confirmation bias -- finding them will stretch your brain.  Sometimes, recognizing them will make your heart ache and twist and break with the pain of truth.  Sometimes, they will remain forever beyond your grasp.  Some answers, perhaps, are better left at “forty-two”.  But … search on.  Search on.