display | more...
I'll still love you, even after you read this.

I. < >It's important to know who's writing.

I am the oldest child of four, two boys and two girls. I was born to a family that in modern economic times, and even those of the 60's, would be placed into the category "lower class". In the early days, family's sole income was what my father made as a shoe salesman in the Bronx, New York, and what he got from being in the army reserves. Over the 18 years of my development living with my family we moved upward through the categorizations to a spot somewhere between solidly "middle class" and "upper-middle class". I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in New Jersey. By the time I was married my father had become, for all intent and purposes, rich, having founded a successful company that IPO'ed on the NASDAQ in the early 90's.

That company did recycling, and was one of the first in New Jersey. Like Tony Soprano's claims, my father was in the waste management business. Only he was a Sicilian who said he was in waste management, and actually had mounds of trash to prove it.

But I wasn't living with him at the time the company went public and the money rolled in. And after the stock market crashes of 2000 and 2001, most of that money is gone. There's enough to keep my mom safe for the rest of her life now that my father has died of cancer. We couldn't ask for more from money, actually.

When it was time for me to go to college, I went to the school of my choice on a scholarship. I got a couple of degrees, graduated and got a job as an electrical engineer.

Economically, I started out where I was when I left my dad's house. Food and a house the size of a shoebox, but it was an actual house. And for a while, due to the fruit of 20 years of labor and the benefit of a booming stock market, I became decidedly rich. I was rich long enough to know what it's like. And then everything crashed and I became unrich again. But I'm back in the upper-middle class, according to the tax codes, which means I feel like I'm living on the edge of financial ruin, but most people would disagree.

Why do I want you to know this?

Because you should know, that at no time in my life have I ever felt poor. The ideas in this wu are those that come from a person who feels life has given him its wealth. The benefit of 44 years of hindsight gives me the data and the wisdom to assess the path I have taken, and it has wound its way through some very troubling times. There were times when my family had zero resources. I remember my mom arguing food stamps with my father (though she will claim it never happened). I remember my father worried he couldn't afford the rent, making plans to shuttle us kids off to live on the sly in the retirement village with my grandparents while he and my mom lived out of the Oldsmobile looking for work.

No matter, I always felt I was one of the richest people on earth. I have always been loved by someone. Though it almost never felt that way, luck has been on my side.

So this is a blessed person, saying these things.

II. < >Basic things I think

In my family, we argued a lot. It was a sport. We all derived a certain amount of pleasure out of the verbal competition. Perhaps it was my father's Sicilian upbringing, all that sanguine latinness.

We grew up believing in absolutes. There were ways things had to be done.

When I was 15 I taught myself the math to the special theory of relativity just to prove to my father I could learn something totally opaque. It turned out not to be so opaque. It just sounded that way to people easily intimidated by scientists. And it turned out that most things I would encounter in my young academic life were that way. Stuff seemed hard, mostly because people were afraid of the way they sounded. But when you looked into them, most everything I had to learn was pretty understandable. (And when riverrun asks me a computer question, I always tell him the truth--I don't know the answer, I'm just not afraid to start pushing every button in sight until the problem is solved or the missiles ending the world are launched.)

So for a while in my youth I thought that everything I didn't know was as easy as the special theory of relativity, and that eventually I'd learn everything necessary, and that people who said they didn't know things were simply too lazy to go get the book and figure it out like I did.

This is because I thought everyone was just like me, in case you were wondering.

When I got older, I learned there were subjects that were so outside my realm of experience new language had to be developed to simply explain their existence. And huge errors could be made by presuming the paltry words used to say something existed conveyed information about the topic itself. (Like group theory. Or tensor calculus. Or Sanskrit. Or macroeconomics. Or quantumchromodynamics.) I mean, you can say a quark has the property of being "charm" or "top" or "strange" or "up", but really, the people who picked those words had no idea what the qualities were they were naming. In fact, they were pretty sure those qualities had no analog in human experience. So nobody can really have the feel of something being more "charm" than "top" if they're not a physicist living with that stuff every day, and even then, their intuition is an artifice they had to build for themselves to keep things straight.

So it took me 25 years or so to realize that there would be universes of stuff that would evade my entire lifetime of study. Things other people would know that I could never know because I lacked the life experience to create the receptacle into which that knowledge could reside. Lacking the life experience, those subjects simply rolled off as if my head was made of Teflon.

The idea there were things I was incapable of learning scared the shit out of me. In fact, the particle of math I had absorbed taught me that the infinity of things inside the tiny light cone of my existence was actually huger than the infinity of things I could possibly experience, so that there would always be more I couldn't possibly understand than things I could understand, and the amount of stuff in my grasp was itself infinite, which meant that of the multiplicity of universes of things to be, and I could never learn an infinity of anything so I would know so little of the world there was no measurement small enough to explain it.

As smart as I could ever get, I would still be infinitely stupid.

And so what I think now is that because life must have meaning (I'm no longer an existentialist) and because there can be zero importance to knowing the infinitesimally small amount of stuff we know (because knowing zero can't be important), the measurement of that amount being closer to zero than anything Zeno himself could have imagined, that the importance to life is in the doing of things, and not the things themselves.

The world is simply a playground for doing. It will always be bigger than our brains.

It's important that you know I think this, because it may explain to you why I have the perceptions I do about life. And then you can say, "well, he thinks there are things I will never know--that doofus." Or, "He thinks the reason I'm angry about this subject is because I'm making a judgment that is invalid in that framework because I can't comprehend the framework but pretend I do."

Or maybe, "this guy is an asshole. Forget it." Remember that one. I'll make you repeat it, later.

Whatever.

I no longer believe in absolutes. I believe life is relative, and that reality is a consensus between each of us, so that what is real for you may not be so for me, as weird as that may sound.

I do believe in consistency, though. I believe we each espouse a philosophy, whether we like it or not. That no matter how weird someone sounds, each of us is behaving consistently with the philosophy we espouse at that moment. Even the lack of a perceived philosophy is a philosophy. There is no way to escape your belief system. In the reductionist view, that's what "you" are.

III. < >I am a heterosexual male

I had no choice in this. One day I woke up and I was born and had this body. Undoubtedly, my experience of the world is greatly filtered by my genetic makeup because people in this world are still reacting to genetics. Think about it. If you're a heterosexual male and I say Elle McPherson and Rosie O'Donnell in the same sentence, you know exactly what I mean. Gorgeous--not so gorgeous. Fun for sex. Not fun for sex. Etc. That's genetics, because I don't think anyone reading this will know both of those women beyond TV or magazine pictures. In fact, Rosie may be a super fun lay for all we know. We just presume.

Most of history's stupid mistakes have been made by people who know practically nothing about the universe but make presumptions anyway. Presumption--Attacking Poland is a good idea. Presumption--Killing all the (pick the race of your choice) is good for me.

Presumption -- if everyone thought exactly like me and voted for my candidates and went to my church and read the same books and saw the same movies I would be safe and everyone would be happy.

I would insert the word, "fucking" before the word "stupid", on those ones. In the name of propriety, you are mentally agreeing with me now even though we both know there are lots of people who vote who think that last one is exactly correct.

Let me repeat for those who are now getting angry at me: the amount you know about the universe is so small we don't have a word to describe its smallness and thinking that people should think like you may actually be fucking stupid. I didn't make this up. It's in the Bible. Every prophet and man of wisdom and woman of freedom and child of infinite love has professed this. I'm just repeating for clarity. My clarity.

I live in a town called Los Gatos in California. There's a footbridge over the big six-lane highway that goes to Santa Cruz, and someone decided it would be a great idea and real small-town-like to get kids to paint the bridge.

So the kids from a variety of the town schools each painted a "panel" on the bridge. Most of the panels are about diversity, which is interesting because my town is one of the most disproportionately homogeneous upper class white communities in thoroughly diverse silicon valley. But that makes it important, the city fathers thought.

One day I was walking across that bridge with my wife and dog and I noticed a panel that was just words. It said, "Diversity means accepting that not everybody looks like you."

And I thought that if it was my kid, I'd want them to have painted this on the bridge:

Diversity means accepting the right of people in your neighborhood to believe you are inherently evil for not accepting their version of God.

-- > Repeat after me: this guy is an asshole.

When I was young in the 60's, my mother definitely told me that "boys don't cry," and as a result, to this day, I'm very uncomfortable with feelings that make me want to cry. (Perhaps that's why I want to make other people cry with my writing...who knows.)

My mother had been brought up with the "we don't cry" attitude. In my life I have never seen my mother cry, even at my father's funeral and her mother's. Not at my wedding nor any of my sisters', nor any of the traditional places women are expected to blubber like the universe of onions is being peeled. She gets misty-eyed, but she does not cry.

Being emotionally strong was always very important to her, and crying was a sign of emotional weakness. She passed that down to her sons and daughters.

In fact, I have seen my father cry. My father had been a drill instructor in the army. He was a tough-as-nails sort of guy who would wrestle you for a parking spot in the mall.

But he'd leave tearjerker movies pretending to clean his glasses with his handkerchief when, in fact, he was living in the universe of peeling onions.

As a male, my father taught me the finer points of self-defense. How to sneak up on an opponent by surprise and bash his brains out with a two-by-four. How to hit someone in the nose to break it and possibly, drive the bone into his prefrontal lobe and kill him. How to hit someone in the ears to bust their eardrums and send them into shock. Etc.

My mother hated my father teaching me these things, and she hated it even worse when he taught them to my sisters, whom he felt needed the training more than his sons. Mom didn't like violence, and she felt that fighting back was just more fighting, which didn't make things better.

Though he kept it quiet for most of his life, my father was a staunch democrat. He voted straight down the democratic party lines (until Hillary Clinton kicked doyle off the panel investigating universal health care, and then he voted for Dole), and with the exception of certain environmental policies he felt were extreme, he thought the democratic platform was the best way to help the most people in the world. Republicans, according to Dad, were just plain selfish, mean people out for themselves.

Mom, of course, was and still is an ardent republican. Ardent. She thought the democrats were tree-hugging pussies (though she would never use those words) and felt the republicans represented realistic views in a sea of ineffectual idealism. She knew democrats got us into wars that republicans had to get us out of. And she didn't want her sons carted off to wars to be killed by foreigners.

I suppose if James Carville and Mary Matlin can sleep and fuck in the same bed, my parents could too, though they were Matlin and Carville when Matlin and Carville were still disassociated gametes.

We argued politics plenty in my house. And according to my parents, it was a pretty bottom-line kind of world. Things just were. Sometimes it was accident, sometimes it was stupidity, and sometimes it was the divine will of God, but things WERE. It was for us to interpret the being ness of things. Attempts at change by any one individual were like the attempts of a single sperm in twenty gazillion trying to fertilize an egg. Most of the time, you're just not going to be the lucky one.

Yet, as I would point out, here we all were. Each result of one, and only one, lucky sperm which beat enormous, improbable odds and won the biological equivalent of the sperm Grand Prize Lotto that day mom made dad come.

IV. Change sucks

"It's ridiculous," my father yelled. I remember the glasses bouncing on the kitchen table when he pounded his fist into it.

The Equal Rights Amendment had been proposed and was being voted on in congress. An actual amendment to the constitution of the United States of America that would totally, once and for all, guarantee totally equal treatment between males and female American citizens.

My dad was livid. Fuming. We didn't need to legislate the obvious. More law was bad (a democrat? can you believe it?)

Mom wasn't so happy, either, but mostly because Dad was making everyone upset.

"Show me the woman who can replace a thrown tread on a Sherman tank. Show me one."

My dad lived in a world where all women were Donna Reed or June Lockhart or Petula Clark or Twiggy. An entire platoon of Donna Reed was never going to get close enough to the dirt on a tank to fix one.

That was my Dad's brain.

But what was also in his brain was the ramifications of blanket generalizations, and the horrible dangers that lie therein. Not only were women and men biologically different, but they tended to think differently about the same things. Information processing was slightly different. You could hand a girl a Tonka truck as many times as you'd like and she'd still go for the Barbie doll you were hiding in the corner.

He knew this. It was his world. He had raised two daughters and two sons.

As far as the Equal Rights Amendment was concerned, it was the Federal Government saying, "HOUSE EQUALS TURNIP", and not only were house and turnips not equitable mathematically, but they very clearly weren't the same to anyone, in any language, who happened to be living. As far as my father was concerned the government was going way too far in trying to right the wrongs of racial segregation. The Kennedys had been killed. Martin King had been killed. All the truth sayers were being whacked and in their place we had a model of sanity that had arisen from the editors of MS magazine who thought it would be fun to draft a world of Raquel Welches and make my father have to train them for battle, which he knew he could not do.

Next they would be asking for equality between cats and dogs and they would try to enforce it with law. We were going to be forced to buy jockstraps for our girls and bras for our boys. Nobody was going to be happy until all bathrooms were unisex and the whole world was wearing a toga. Where would it end?

Mom, on the other hand, being a woman, didn't agree with a lot of what my father said but also couldn't tolerate sweeping generalizations. There was a huge problem with unequal pay for equal work. And women were going to have to work and give birth in the same time frame, so things would have to change to allow that to happen. It was only the inflexibility of business leaders that created the problem in the first place. If laws were necessary to get people to change, then so be it. Change everything at once, and nobody is at a disadvantage. (What a totally weird republican Mom is.)

My parents grew up in the world of the 40's and 50's. Men and women held clearly divided roles in society. Young men were drafted and killed in foreign countries while their unworking women were left with babies on their hips and no income. That was the way civilization had been living for the entire history of humanity. But now things were changing. The left-at-home women wanted good jobs making enough money to support themselves when all the men shot each other to hamburger rotting in the southeast Asian sun. News was coming from war zones so we could see what horrors we were inflicting on our young men. We had put men on the moon and had moving pictures of humans in the womb. Telephones and televisions were everywhere. We'd split atoms, relocated cultures, and blown entire pacific islands to sand.

The Mars company introduced red M&Ms and Post Oat flakes were taken off the market. It was getting so you couldn't count on anything being the same anymore.

Change was scaring the shit out of everybody. People were doing really weird things.

V. Discrimination is everywhere

All that constant change blasted into my world, so I was ok with it. I grew up expecting a new Jell-O flavor every year. When I was in college in the late 70's and early 80's, the work of the civil rights activists of the 60's was in full churn. We weren't sure what was right, but we sure as hell knew what was wrong. Discrimination was wrong. But what the hell was discrimination? It means telling things apart, right?

We discussed this with fervor at one party I held. My girlfriend was an au pair for a rich couple with kids, and because they trusted us, they gave us full run for the weekend of their palatial estate near Princeton, New Jersey. We invited all our friends from school to come over on Friday, leave Sunday, and in the middle, eat drink and be merry.

In those days in New Jersey the drinking age was 18, and all of us were. So we drank like fish, got tossed out of various restaurants for playing "thumper" too loudly, stayed up till daytime, almost twice in a row, and those of us who were lucky enough to have come in couples fucked till we couldn't remember when we'd started.

In the middle we argued hangovers and politics. The black kids confessed that yeah, they were still feeling it. All the infrastructure businesses in our chosen fields, communications, engineering, medicine, were run by old white guys. They could feel the climb was steeper for them. The Asian kids felt there was plenty of backlash from Vietnam, still. And the women felt they had to work harder than the men, because as far as any employer was concerned, they were eventually going to go AWOL by getting married and having kids, or worse, just having kids with no alternate income, leaving a net negative burden for the company.

As one of the few white males in the room I accepted the sins of my forefathers. Clearly, life was going to be a breeze for me compared to these poor kids.

Then why didn't I feel so damned lucky?

Aside Later in life, I had a job that required me to travel extensively throughout the world. My travel companion was a guy my age with the same degree in engineering, same organizational level in the company, who was, and still is, genetically 3/4 Cherokee and 1/4 African American. For me, who believed true negative racial discrimination was dead in the world, going through customs with my friend was like a bucket of cold water thrown into my face. I would routinely sail through all the checkpoints, in any country we visited. My friend would be stopped in every country, including his own US of A and be pulled into the customs and immigration office to be questioned. His bags would be searched, thoroughly. He and I were flying 2 international trips per month between the US and both Europe and Japan. It became our routine, that I would sail through customs and he would be stopped for at least 1/2 an hour, during which time I would secure for us a taxi for transport to either our homes if we were in the US, or our hotel if we were abroad, so that we'd be ready to bolt when customs was convinced they couldn't nail him on something. After many years, I learned it was his status as a Native American that raised flags at every border crossing, as if the US government is still fighting the Indian wars.

I couldn't feel it at that age. I wasn't walking in those kids' shoes. While some of it was their own mental conditioning--trained to expect poor treatment--there was still a lot of truth I didn't feel, and I couldn't understand. Though the world had come a long way from the Selma protests, we were a long way from complete acceptance. Our world preached diversity and wore the right T-shirts. We lived in integrated neighborhoods and worked in integrated environments. But in our hearts, people were still more comfortable with "their own kind". It was that silent, bedroom paranoia that was the root of the inequities. We could legislate equality, but changing people's hearts would take generations, and mine wasn't going to be the birth of the "golden people" who were truly blind to genetic differences.

My problem, as an individual, was that I didn't quite know who "my own kind" was. Perhaps, as my father told me before he died, that was the effect "they" were looking for.

Though when he'd said it to me, he meant it was a weakness.

VI. < >Are we different or the same?

I'm wondering what we're doing here in the new millennium. For the 44 years of my life I've been pounded with the notion we should not discriminate "against" people due to their background. Their genetic makeup. Their cultural heritage.

Yet I am forced to "discriminate" to be fair. As an employer, I read a resume and judge the candidate's applicability for the work. For instance, I am not going to hire a chemist to be a computer programmer.

Hmm. Well, okay. I did do that. 1985. Guy was incredible.

But I'm not going to hire someone with ZERO programming background to work in my programming group.

Ack. Got me again. She did a great job before she got bored and became a website developer.

Ok, so how do we discriminate between candidates we hire? How do we tell the difference between someone who's going to do a great job, and someone who I'm going to have to fire? Answer: exactly the way your mommy taught you not to think about people, and exactly the way most of the problems between people of different backgrounds are caused. Gut instinct

According to the radio I listen to, the Latino community needs my help in California. Though I have not seen a street sign directing me to where that community is, I know plenty of people who would say, "I'm a part of that."

Cruz Bustamante, our current Lt. Governor, is thought to have lost the governor's race to Arnold Schwarzenegger, in large part, because he alienated his "own" people by not paying attention to their needs as a community.

If my Dad were still alive, he'd be having a field day over a huge bowl of spaghetti arguing with me this. Consistency. Are we equal, or are we different? Which way are we going to split it?

When I was a teenager I answered a want ad in the newspaper for a guy who wanted an electronics tech. I was in my 2nd year of college and figured I was perfect.

It turned out the employers-to-be were in the mafia and didn't really want an electronics tech, just a guy to drive drugs from the Mexican border to New Jersey. The tip off wasn't when they told me I wouldn't need a soldering iron to do this job, just a driver's license: NO. The tip off was when they said, "So you live around here? There's an Italian SECTION around here? We didn't knowed that."

Italian section. I told them this was New Jersey. There wasn't any place on a map, as far as I knew, with a sign that said: "ITALIAN Section: Population 1234".

That's how I knew they were Mafioso, not because they were ready to peel of a couple hundred bucks from four inches of money to "get the ball rolling", but because they needed the isolation of immigrant culture to execute their business.

This experience, driven home by my grandfather who clocked me and nearly knocked me out because I'd told them my real name, drove home that isolating by cultures is bad. BAD. Not good. Not America melting pot give me your tired and poor we are not Italian anymore we're American and we bleed for THIS place now. Cuz my dad was a democrat before he died. Cuz my mom is republican. So when they say, "Asian community", and "Latino Community", and "Black Community," I think of the mafia, which was the only Italian community I was allowed to believe existed. I think of my grandfather who is still barely alive and still unable to make himself understood through his insane and intense Italian accent that we are Americans, not Italians, and not Italian-Americans, but he and my grandmother naturalized and renounced their prior heritage to be this one here right now. Which isn't to say that we didn't enjoy a nice lasagna and a bottle of Chianti every now and then--but don't blame Italy on us. Rather, blame Richard Nixon on us.

I remember him saying that. That he was responsible for Nixon, not Mussolini.

"Seemed like a good idea at the time," was what he said, munching a breadstick.

Maybe that will hold me back in my cultural development.

But I'm confused by what's happening today and I think lots of people are confused like me. If different treatment based on genetics is wrong, how is discrimination for other reasons right? If my father was still alive I'd say, "Hey Dad, I'm applying for an Italian-American scholarship for (my oldest daughter) for college, and she's never even heard anyone speak Italian in her life." My kid has Italian great-grandparents. So we're doing that.

And she has Irish great-grandparents, so we're applying for the Irish-American scholarship, too. And not one of us knows a word of Gaelic and I am the only one in my immediate family who has ever set foot on Irish or Italian soil. What sense does that make in a society that's supposed to be equal for all Americans?

Makes none, to me. But hell, if I can get money because 80 years ago some of my kids' relatives up north were being raped and abused by vicious landowners, and my southern relatives were being raped abused by vicious landowners, so be it. (In fact, my own DNA comes from a Sicilian farm girl who was raped by a wealthy landowner from northern Italy...but that's another story.)

And I suspect this is one reason why we're so two-faced as people about discrimination. We want to discriminate when it benefits us, and we don't want to discriminate when it benefits us. We do not want to define the evil. We want it to be situational evil. So it's ok if someone from my old neighborhood calls me a greasy wop bastard, but you'd better not or I'm getting YOU to pay for my kids college education. No matter that I'm only half Italian and I haven't even mentioned I'm also descended from Attila the Hun (for real), and where's the scholarship for THAT, motherfucker?

See, this is one place I agree with the Bible. I don't think I should pay for the sins of people who died long before I was born. Maybe that's because I sure as hell never benefited from anyone who did well before I was born, either. I'm happy with it both ways because it's logical.

The hobgoblin of simple minds is this consistency I seek, apparently. Who the hell says "hobgoblin" anymore except riverrun, anyway?

My Dad was Sicilian, and he was very much a man for racial equality. So he was used to bashing in the teeth of people who called him "Ginny" and "Wop" and "Grease ball". That was his version of equality. He'd trash anyone who discriminated against him with equal fervor. In fact, it was the subsequent hospitalization and necessary facial reconstruction of an officer of the US Army who had previously called my then master sergeant father a racial slur that earned him a discharge (honorable) from the Army, the fact of which he was quite proud. And my Dad would say that in those areas where being Sicilian was important to help (such as in translating for the corps), he would be a Sicilian. In areas where he was simply to be an American, that's what he was. He saw no inconsistency in that bipolar existence.

And I suspect the people issuing the Italian-American Scholarships don't either. Nor will they feel inconsistent in denying my American daughter the scholarship on the basis of fact she is not Italian, but rather of Sicilian (nearly African, to most real Italians) descent, a distinction lost on me and my kids, thank God, even though I do want their money.

VII. < >The difference between boys and girls

If anything I hope I've convinced you that I believe we in America suffer no lack of confused, frightened people who think things will be better for everyone if everyone simply got smart about real life. The getting "smart" part is what every single one of us is willing to have a long, heated discussion about. Because we simply don't agree. Instead of being happy not agreeing, we're scared of each other. We are smaller than quarks to God and we're afraid of each other because we can't agree which direction to face when we want to thank God for making us, even if we're only divine fart gas.

One thing I think most people who have nothing else to worry about are in denial about is the difference between boys and girls, and I don't mean just penises and vaginas, though only slightly.

I am a boy, and I have raised, and am in the process of raising three female human beings. I will say this in writing. Here it is:

From the MICROSECOND (that's one millionth of a second) they were born, each of my three girls was a completely different, unique, individual. I don't mean to anthropomorphize. This is not a proud father bragging about his unique little butterflies. La la de dah.

They were different. There were different beings behind those three sets of blue eyes. Their expressions were different. They reacted differently to the same stimuli. They cried at different things, and laughed at different things. They waved their limbs in different patterns. They liked different infant baby jokes (that I'm good at). If I had all three of them at once at exactly 4 hours old, completely swaddled in blankets and little stocking caps so their faces were invisible, I would be able to tell them apart the same way the parents of twins can tell their seemingly identical spawn from each other.

I have seen my girl babies interact with other babies. I have held other girl babies. They were different.

This is discrimination. I am DISCRIMINATING between things. Discrimination is an important skill sometimes. Sometimes you have to find your wife in a crowd so you don't accidentally bring home another woman and fuck her brains out. Sometimes you have to be able to tell the good grapefruit from the mushy moldy one. Sometimes you have to choose which of your two job opportunities is better, which school to send your kid to, which babysitter you should trust when they say: I won't go through your sock drawer when you're not home.

You should discriminate based on what you have learned in your life. The good advice you have been given. The bad advice you have eschewed. This is what my parents taught me. Learn to choose. Choose right. Be responsible for your choices.

When they get old enough I can tell boy babies from girl babies. I can tell them from the choices they make. I can tell them apart from what excites them. From how they decide what activity to do when given a set of choices. How they resolve disputes. How they impose their will upon their environment. How they impose themselves upon their parents and other children.

This is not a miracle. This is not blasphemy. This IS.

Any parent can tell these things and any parent who says they can't should be arrested for endangerment of minors by imposition of stupidity. I am not clairvoyant. I am not a psychologist. I am a parent. I have cleaned years of baby shit out of my suit coats. I can tell if a kid is sick by the consistency and smell of the vomit they spew onto me.

Ask any woman with children. 99% of them know what I mean, and 1% live in a dream world where logic is burned at the stake of fruitless self-flagellation.

Listen to me, because I have done this. I have seen this. No amount of denial on my part could make it go away. Little boys and little girls do things so differently that if you were to make them indistinguishable--perform plastic surgery on their bodies so they were identical physically--you'd still know which one had the y chromosomes by how they pummeled their playmates into the dirt.

It doesn't matter what race they are.

I don't know why it's this way. It just is. Ask a school teacher. Ask a day care worker. Ask anyone who does this every day.

Yes, there are kids that fall into "gray" areas. Yes, all kids go through phases where they don't act like the other kids. Yes yes yes.

Approximately 10% of the time. That leaves 90% of their lives to be completely different.

The fact they're different makes people wonder what's going on. Some people say, "Hey--it's because, look, we're putting kids in front of televisions and they see BOY advertising and GIRL advertising and it makes the girls think, I wanna play with doll instead of skateboarding, and it makes the boys think, I wanna blow up the dolls with pyrotechnics."

But I have seen baby boys who have no interest in television BLOWING things up (mentally) in sandboxes while not one single girl in the vicinity will give them their doll to blow up. I have seen little girls try in absolute futility to get a little boy to sit for a tea party, to the point where a fight breaks out and the girl clocks the boy across the jaw to get him to sit.

My three daughters would not play with the plethora of toy trucks I bought them. They would not play with the chemistry sets. They would not launch the rockets with me. They would not fly the gliders (kites, were ok). When their friends would come over, I could not get a single one to play with the radios, dig the holes, or shoot the Nerf ball gun.

Bake a goddamned cookie, and they were all over you like leeches on a struggling cow.

I did get ONE of my daughters to build the big Konnex Ferris wheel construction set. And she still loves it, but now, at eleven, she'd rather watch teen soap operas.

On the other hand, we have every piece of Barbie paraphernalia sold between 1988 and 1998. I hated buying every one. Despised it. It was dope for my girls. Listen to me. The toy people wouldn't sell that stuff if parents didn't buy it. Parents don't WANT to buy Barbie. They buy Barbie because little girls light up like roman candles the when they see Barbie. It's not advertising. Take an American kid from a family that doesn't own a TV and put her in the same room as Barbie. Within 20 seconds that kid will be devising a plan to get her mother to buy stock in Mattel.

"Don't you know what this does to a woman's self image?" I'd say to my wife. I am Joe-fucking-PC-left-brained-right-brainer. As the father of women and husband to one, let me say there is no greater advocate for women's rights you will find who has a dick and shaves his jaw. I will do and say ANYTHING to gain the upper hand for my spawn. Anything.

"Shut up you stupid fuck," my beloved would answer, "you've never known what girls want."

Obviously, I don't. Years of sensitivity training. EEOC training. Human Resources training. Personnel briefings. Sexual harassment seminars. Minorities in the workplace. Hiring practice training. Voting for women. Promoting women. Giving them raises. Sweeping the floors and making the birthday cupcakes. Reading how I'm a Martian who can't understand Venetians. Better techniques for oral pleasurement. How to thrill your spouse on her anniversary. How to raise children. How to assure your girl doesn't have self-esteem problems. Bring your daughters to work. Bring work to your daughters.

I give. I give up. I don't get it. I do not know what girls want. They tell me they are different. Because they seem to want exactly what they do, which is to play with Barbies and play stay-at-home-mom with baby dolls while the boys shoot each other with imaginary guns and pretend to die in wars they may actually die in someday.

VIII. < > Different but equal

I knew the world was completely bullshit when they reinstated draft registration. I was a senior in college when it happened. From 1973 till then, the country had become completely draft free. We'd killed so many of our sons and fathers and turned many times that into wards of the state with what became a strategic nightmare in Vietnam. Voting America lost its taste for war and that was that. No more draft lottery. No more begging for college exemptions. No more tearing young men from their homes and shipping them somewhere to either be killed or watch other young men be killed.

No more no more.

And then, in 1980, someone in government woke up and said, "Holy shit. We haven't drafted anyone in seven years and because national service has such a bad rep, nobody's volunteering, so if we were to be attacked by France we'd probably lose if we didn't blast them to atoms with our hydrogen bombs, which by the way, are all aimed at either Russia or China, so we'd better do something."

The government did two things at this stage in American history. One was to reinstate registration for all 18 year old males, and the other was to begin a savage advertising campaign to attract people to serve their country.

Around that time the movie "Stripes" came out, and Bill Murray made fun of the new army ads, which were so incongruous to most of us eligible males as to be incomprehensible. I laughed but was scared to death. The Deer Hunter came out around the same time, and I was sure I would be forced to play Russian roulette with Asian rebels in a leech infested river. Once, before I went to college I suggested to my dad I would sign up for the Air Force to work on airplanes and he said something like: "You'll have to go through me first," which was his way of saying, "I'd rather kill you myself than have you come home in a box," which was what he was sure would happen to me. (Remember, he had to abandon the army as a career for beating up an officer, so there was no love lost between him and his Uncle Sam. It was that or court-martial.) And Mom was right with him. No volunteering for the army. No becoming a cop. No trying for the FBI.

I drove to and from school with the clear goal in my mind that I would graduate and go work for Bell Labs building satellites when I heard on WCBS (all news radio, New York) that the draft had been reinstated and I had a month go to the post office and tell the government where I was so they could come get me on a whim and use my body to absorb machine gun bullets. Suddenly all the value I had as a human being was reduced to 19 seconds, which was the song at the time. That was the average life span of a new Vietnam-era soldier on a battlefield during his first firefight.

Everything I was trying to do would be reduced to that.

This, to me, was totally fucked.

I remember sitting in the cafeteria on Busch campus of Rutgers university talking to some of my female student friends. They weren't sure how to react to my dismay. At first they tossed around a few barbs about how much better it would be for them to land engineering jobs with all the men out of circulation. But as it turned out, in the early 80's with the EEOC laws firmly in place, a female engineer was as rare and valuable as a perfect blue diamond and certain to get a sweet engineering slot before any male of any race. (My mom was EEOC administrator for RCA in Somerville, NJ. That's how I knew.)

So they did what any normal human would do, and commiserated.

It was totally fucked, they agreed. But they mentioned how glad they were they didn't have to do it, and I was pissed and sure they were. Here was the federal government casting in concrete, once and for all--men and women are not the same in this country. We want the men for wars, and we take the women if they volunteer, but really, we want the men. It was simple practicality. Men are built differently. They're stronger at that age and society had been habituated to the heroic expenditure of their lives. I remember the debates on TV. Guests on Phil Donahue and Nightline suggested the American public would not stomach a war where the fragile flower of our youth was put up in front of live fire. Despite the fact countries like Israel had mandatory service for all citizens irrespective of genetic make up, the U.S. was different. The country that made "It's a Wonderful Life" would not stomach sending a platoon of Donna Reed to retread an M1 Abrams.

Twenty years later, life is different. The draft was never instated, though males have to register in order to be eligible for college and financial aid for college, while females don't, a fact that only comes to view when you start filling out college applications and plan for your future.

For my part, I have been able to skip all the boxes on my daughter's college forms about compliance with military service. My daughter does not have to comprehend that. She has considered military service as an option. She hasn't taken it further than some initial interest. Despite recent wars, the Army as an option has a different image to young people today than it did for us who were taught in school by Vietnam vets.

For instance, if my dad was alive and had heard about the female POWs we had recently in Iraq and you'd said to him, "Hey dad, look. Different but equal," he'd say, "You believe that bullshit?" He'd point out the huge rescue mission and the simple cruel fact that nobody in this country can stomach POWs as a result of wars, much less a female who will definitely be raped and otherwise personally destroyed if captured alive by the enemy.

And I pray that perhaps the new millennium preponderance of women in active military service might make people less likely to want to send troops to kill things and so be killed. But apparently that's not an issue for the new millennium society, either. Much different from the 80's when we started this mess. Given twenty years, America can talk itself into nearly anything.

In fact, I did hear my father say what I imagined above. He used to run a huge factory. Three thousand employees working for Kraft foods in Dolton, Illinois. It was the 70's. Women were experimenting with not wearing bras to work and men were loving it and willing to pay them extra to keep doing it.

My dad said (and he said a version of this to the Chicago Tribune reporter who interviewed him when we lived in Illinois) "There's no such thing as the equality they talk about in the press. It trivializes everything. It's lowest-common-denominator thinking. Expect nothing from people, get nothing. What would you pay a woman to play quarterback for the Bears? What would you pay a man to sing like Carole King? The issue is value. Do you value what a person can do? If you do, pay them. If not, fire them. It doesn't matter who it is. If you can get a dog to do a man's job, use a dog. They work cheap. Look, son, there's no such thing as different but equal. There's only different but different and you should never confuse the value of a person's work in a particular situation with the value of a human being. That's what's happening here. You follow?"

I follow, Dad. I think. We probably have confused the value of a person's contribution to a given situation with the perception of the value of human life. And our society is changing its mind about the way we treat each other. And we're probably confused ourselves as we hit this inflection point in our history--are we what we are alone standing in a field with a rake in our hands, or is it better to be defined as a member of a group we came from? Are we confusing what is better for us with what is real and what should be?

Someone told me recently that he thought we still hadn't gone far enough in explaining the effects of war on soldiers. That guns don't make neat holes, but fling pieces of human meat long distances from their prior owners. And that battlefields and environs are strewn with not only bodies, but unidentifiable chunks of steak that used to belong someone's son or brother or father, and now sisters and mothers, that rot in the sun and attract flies and smell sweet and pungent like any road kill on a Pennsylvania highway in mid summer.

When life is reduced to that, all the other parameters of existence become meaningless.

Ultimately, war is our greatest equalizer. That equality is the greatest horror we can summon upon ourselves.

Perhaps what I've learned from these geologically infinitesimal years I've been living is that there are situations where everyone is the same, and I want to stay out of those. All bridge collapse victims are the same. All the victims of 9-11 are the same. All the victims of epidemics, or avalanches, or tornadoes, or plane crashes, become the same thing.

The value of life is what you bring to the party. Any party. And there are plenty parties where the shape of one's gonads is completely irrelevant to the job at hand, and there are plenty where it's relevant. Pretending the differences don't exist is stupid and turns everything into an airline disaster. Smart people use each other's strengths to the benefit of everyone.

When my dad died he didn't leave much in the way of final solemn words, or wisdom, or guidance I was supposed to have taken that from his whole life, and mine up to that point with him. I think he would be happy to know I can summarize his and my mother's teaching to me in the following points. Here they are. It's a mixture of his and her thinking. I think anyone who wanted to adopt them would have a happier life. I only wish I could follow them all.

  • Use your brain. You are a smart person. Never let anyone talk you into subtracting your cerebral cortex from a situation. Only people wishing you ill would value your presence in the absence of your mind.

  • Use your instinct. There are invisible forces which you can perceive. Use these. When you know something is right do it irrespective of the rules. When it's wrong, don't. No one is so sad as a person who acted against his instinct and suffered the consequences.
  • Be loyal, and worthy of trust. There is no way to be more valuable to someone, and no one more valuable to you as a trustworthy friend.
  • Deal with it. Life is about dealing with your ego. No matter what you do, you will find some one who does it better. Make them your friend. Listen to people who are smarter than you. Presume everyone you meet is smarter unless they prove to be self-destructive. Then run.
  • Subjugate yourself to no one, for any reason.
  • Respect every single fucking human being, even ones you can't stand. Respect means respect, not being patronizing, not being subservient.
  • Make as many friends as you can. Anyone who declines your friendship is a fucking asshole unworthy of your scorn. Waste no time with them.
  • Bear no one ill will. Remain vigilant.
  • Respond to attack, physical, verbal, or mental, with methodical forethought, in kind with the full force of your being. Do not stop until the attack is repelled. When the attack is repelled, cease your retribution immediately and accept all apologies.
  • Strive to understand. Just because you comprehend someone's words doesn't mean you have been successful in consuming the meaning they sought to convey. Most people are poor communicators. Do not allow poor communication to interfere with your relationships.
  • Take control. Be responsible for everything you have control over. Never abdicate, but as a truly responsible individual, guide things toward an outcome for the common good.
  • I hope it's clear I have tried to explain myself in this paper--why I think what I do. What's fucked up about me and what makes sense. I no longer have my parents' guidance, and now I have to teach my own kids. They will learn these things from me. You have your own life. You owe it to yourself and everyone around you to develop your philosophy. To examine why you think the things you do, and to withstand the praise and scorn of the diverse communities around you that can neither accept you nor reject you. This is a diverse world. We should stop trying to make that go away by equalizing everything, and realize it's all different for a reason that makes as much sense as nature itself.

    And so it would seem logical the best way to proceed with life is to pretend you're blind and accept it all--where diversity means people who don't know you will hate you for what you say and who you are, or love you for what you say or who you are. That's the truth of it. Lead by example. Understand why that is--try. Maybe people who watch you trying to understand will get the disease and try to understand you back.

    That's what Martin King did. Gandhi. All the great leaders. Think they knew what the hell the were doing? I don't. I think they were as confused as the rest of us. They just tried as hard as hell to figure it out, realizing you don't kill something you're learning from.

    The world confuses me. I can't make sense of all of it but I can hold together some pieces and feel comfortable with the way they mesh. Once I was given a job performance review and they invented a new category just for me, in which I got a 5 out of 5 possible points (because I had done so poorly on the rest of it, they were afraid I'd think it was a lynching). The category was, "Deals well with ambiguity."

    I'm proud I deal well with ambiguous situations. To me, there is no greater praise. That makes me particularly suited for life as we know it, is my interpretation, and I have given every manager who works for me a rating for the same category because I love it so much. Because nothing in my life has ever been clear, and judging from newspapers and books and conversations in dim orange bar light, I think it's that way for a whole lot of us.

    You should know that I enjoy being here. Life is a good thing. I hope I get to stay.

    It's true: boys are not like girls.

    But girls are also not like girls, and boys are also not like boys. We are all born different, but school and parents and friends and advertisers want us all to conform to certain expectations ... and in the main, we do, whether we realize it or not. Even nonconformists have models for their rebellion. And so, almost immediately, we become less and less different and more and more alike because that's what we're taught.

    We are born, and one of the first things we learn is that we are a "girl" or a "boy" (and if you're not clearly one or the other, the nice doctor will very likely encourage your family to pick a defined gender forthwith, and start the first in a possibly long line of surgeries to make your body look "normal").

    We quickly learn that our sex is the most important thing about us -- it dictates what kinds of clothes we can wear and which restroom we're supposed to use. After all, what is the first or second question people ask about a newborn child? Is it a boy or a girl?

    But this boy and girl stuff is complicated. What does it mean to be a boy? Or a girl? The newborn doesn't know.

    Sure, he or she has a lot of built-in preferences: one hand seems more useful than the other, vanilla tastes good, bitter stuff like broccoli is bad, major-key music sounds nicer than minor key, and mama is better than anyone else in the whole wide world. But past that -- I hazard to say most of us are flexible once we get past satisfying basic needs. There's a whole lot to this world of ours, and a multitude of reasons to like, or dislike, any given thing, and our liking or disliking the color purple or Mozart or DOOM or When Harry Met Sally is all inextricably grounded in our own emotional landscape, which develops as we age and learn and grow.

    But the very young child hasn't got that complicated, mucked-up emotional landscape yet, and he or she is trying to figure it all out; ambiguity is more than most little heads can handle. Hell, ambiguity is more than many adults want to handle; life is a lot easier without gray areas. And almost every kid I've met goes through a period -- hopefully a brief one, though some will carry it to their graves -- where they try to sort the "boy" from the "girl" with crudely drawn gender roles copied from the behavior of their parents, their extended family, characters in TV shows, commercials, etc. And then they start mirroring the behaviors they've observed in their models.

    Girls become mommies, and wear dresses, a young child might tell you, while boys become daddies and smoke pipes and watch NASCAR. And during this phase a given little boy might get quite upset if you suggest boys might wear dresses, too, because he's trying very, very hard to put things in the right category and your information doesn't match. That same little boy might likewise be taken aback if you called his wrestling action figures "dolls", even if in a general sense that's what they really are.

    And thus begins the long process of self-definition and self-discovery in which we struggle with trying to express ourselves and our individuality and meet our needs while trying to conform to our expected social roles so that we don't get ostracized as a weirdo.

    Kids learn by copying what other people are doing. If they copy well, and get praise or attention for it, they keep it up. If the copying gets them ridicule from their peers, they usually try something else, unless the thing they're getting negative feedback on is so internally satisfying or compelling to them that they decide they don't give a damn what anyone else thinks and keep doing it.

    We humans are social animals. We all of us to some degree want to be liked and accepted, and the moment we get to school, our focus is on being liked and accepted by other kids, because there's no hell quite so complete as being branded a "freak" and being cast out of the social circles entirely. Children can be brutal in their teasing and bullying, so there can be incredible pressure on kids to conform to what the other kids like and do.

    It doesn't just take a hell of a lot of gumption to do things that are radically different from what everyone else is doing -- it takes more imagination and energy than most people have.

    So I do wonder if iceowl's daughters really refused to play with his toy trucks and go launch rockets with him because they inherently didn't want to do such things out of some inner girlishness.

    Might they have refused instead because they'd gotten old enough to know from their older sisters, friends, cartoons, TV ads, etc. that, as girls, they were not supposed to play with trucks and rockets? I suspect iceowl's gals are just as savvy as the old owl himself, and they knew (instinctively or consciously) that it wouldn't serve them well socially to play with uncool toys.

    I learned to love toy rockets and trucks at an early age. But I also spent my formative years in something of a vacuum. We didn't have TV until I was 5, and I didn't have much exposure to other children until I entered kindergarten. "Play dates" were a foreign concept to my parents, and so most of what I was exposed to in my early years was courtesy of my science-minded stay-at-home father.

    When I got to school -- boy, was I ever a freak. I knew how to talk to adults, because I'd spent my entire life thus far around them -- but other kids baffled me. I wanted to be liked and accepted, but my socialization (or lack thereof) was so far out of line that I was immediately rejected by the girls as being "weird" and so I mostly tried to play with the boys, since I knew the language of toy cars and space movies. But since I was never brought into the girly fold, I never developed a love of makeup and My Little Ponies. In fact, I developed a dislike of overtly girly toys because I associated them with their owners.

    And so, as an adult, I'm one of those gray-area ten-percenters iceowl speaks of in his writeup. I still love computers and science fiction and movies with lots of explosions. I'm the only female in a group of 12 guys in my workplace at a computer help desk. I seldom wear makeup or dresses. As far as I can tell I'm biologically normal when it comes to the girly parts.

    But I wonder, if I'd been around other girls before I was five, if I'd had older sisters or a girly mom to model off of, if my likes and dislikes might have turned out rather differently.

    Likewise, I identify myself as a writer. What if I'd been born into a culture that saw no value in teaching girls to read and write? What kind of a person would I be now?

    We are born the people we are, but every one of us is inevitably shaped in deep and fundamental ways by the culture we're exposed to from Day One. And it's culture that dictates that driving a truck is "masculine" and wearing lipstick is "feminine". It's culture that tells us that being able to accurately throw a football 100 yards is more praiseworthy than being able to accurately type 100 words per minute. It's culture that tells us that fixing 100 leaky toilets should earn you more money than teaching 100 six-year-olds how to read.

    I don't think gender issues are easily separated out from all that, and I think the people who insist that "boys do Y, and girls do X, and they are hardwired by genes and hormones to behave as they do" aren't taking early acculturation into account.


    If you are a parent, and disagree with what I've written, ask yourself how often you've used the phrases "Be a good girl", "Be a good boy", "That's not ladylike," "Boys don't cry", "Boys will be boys" etc. Ask yourself what expectations you have of your child, and how those expectations are tied to their gender. Ask yourself what the TV -- especially toy and cereal commercials -- might be teaching your child about sex and gender roles.

    Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.