Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chapter 11 (begun)



For what seemed like hours, Roger had them carrying things onto the ship and stowing them away.  She was bright and cheery, and had a curious approach of both treating them like they knew what they were doing and teaching them how to do it at the same time.  “We’ll make sailors of ye yet!” she’d say.  She gave the heavier crates to Johnny to lug onboard, and the smaller boxes and other small tasks went to Larissa.  Roger oversaw everything, but she worked hard as well.  Johnny didn’t know how she always knew when one of them was doing something incorrectly, or at a loss as to what to do next, but he suspected it had something to do with the weird parrot-monkey, which bounded and swooped around and called out stereotypical pirate phrases such as “Avast there!” and “Walk the plank!”  It seemed it couldn’t actually fly, but there was some loose skin under its arms with long, stiff feathers attached, and it would scurry, monkey-like, up to the tops of things and then leap off, gliding amazingly long distances, its legs tucked up under it and its feathered tail streaming out behind like a rudder.

At last, the last crate was stowed and Johnny sat down, exhausted.  He now knew how to tie three different types of knots and knew the proper terms for nearly everything on the boat.  And it seemed the ship was finally ready to set sail ... or perhaps ready to embark might be more accurate, for of course there were no sails.  “Jolly good, me buckos!” Roger called out, standing with her feet apart and her hands on her hips.  “Ready to weigh anchor?  How’re we lookin’, Bones?”

The red and blue streak shot up out of the hold and landed nimbly on a webbing of ropes on the side of the deckhouse.  “Red sky at dawn!” it screeched.

Johnny looked up, surprised.  “You actually have dawn here?” he asked.

Roger chuckled.  “It’s just an expression.  Means he thinks it may rain.”

Larissa spoke up.  “Why would you have a word for a phenomenon you never experience?”

Roger ignored this, looking out over the water behind the ship’s stern.  “Might rain, at that.  Shouldn’t be much to it though ... bit of a hig, I’d say.”

Johnny had no idea what a “hig” was, but he assumed it implied a light rain shower.

“Anyhow, we’ll need to get cleaned up afore we do too much else, so let’s get ‘er out in the deep.”

They followed Roger back to the wheelhouse (she called it that despite there not actually being a wheel, or a house, for that matter), where she grabbed a rubber handle attached to a cord and yanked it hard, just like starting an old lawnmower.  Immediately the fan roared to life and the ship began to sway gently back and forth.  Roger grabbed a large pole which stuck out horizontally.  “Here y’are Johnny.  Hold that there for me.”  Johnny obliged.  “Don’t let go, now, even if she bucks ye.”  Roger grinned at him, then strode off to the front of the boat.  Johnny heard a loud clanking, like huge chains being rattled, then there was a brief tug, and the back of the ship dropped precipitously, then the entire ship shot forward.  Johnny managed to hold on, but he was glad of the warning Roger had given him.

Roger reappeared and took hold of the pole, which she insisted on calling the “wheel” despite there being nothing wheel-like about it.  Johnny got close to her ear to be heard over the roar of the fan, and half-shouted “Why not just pull up the anchor, then start the fan?”

Roger kept her smile, but managed to convey the impression that this was a silly question.  “Not worth the risk!” she half-shouted back.

Johnny was fast coming to the conclusion that talking to Roger was somewhat like talking to Larissa.  That was okay; he was used to that by now.

“So,” he continued, changing tacks, “this thing run on gasoline?”

Roger gave him a quizzical look.

“Gasoline!” he said, louder.

She laughed.  “No petrol!” she called back.

Before Johnny could pursue this further, Roger flipped a switch and the roaring of the fan puttered out.  Johnny looked around.

They hadn’t come that far; he could still see the tall palm, perhaps a football field’s length away.  Perhaps they were in the middle of the lake, or river, or whatever this waterway was, but that was impossible to tell, because the water’s surface was still covered with floating plants, although there was a cleared out trail that marked their passage.  As Johnny looked, the trail started to disappear as the plants drifted back into the open space.

“Why’d we stop?” Johnny asked.

“Time to wash up,” Roger answered.  “Come along, me hearties.”

They followed her to the front of the deckhouse, where she pulled open a door and led them through a warren of rooms.  Finally they took three steps down into a windowless room which Johnny assumed must be in the very center of the structure.  It was lit only by a skylight.  The center of the floor consisted of a large square of wood which was somehow not part of the rest of the floor.  Roger strode over to a crank on the far wall and began to turn it; the middle of the floor slid smoothly back, like the sunroof of one of Johnny’s father’s cars, revealing the dark water beneath.

“Light ’em up, Bones,” Roger instructed.  Johnny noticed that, at each corner of what was now a large square hole in the floor, there was a short stand, with a round thing on top that looked vaguely like the decorative, glass-globed candles his mother used to buy.  And, indeed, Roger and Bones were lighting them as if they were just that, creating a spark by striking two objects together (Johnny supposed it must be a flint and steel).  The spark created was larger than any spark he’d ever seen before, and it flew unerringly to the blackened wicks, which started burning immediately.  Johnny didn’t think that making fire with a flint and steel was that easy in the real world, but it was a minor point considering he was traveling on a wooden airboat the size of a small yacht.  And it was about to get even more minor ...

Once all four globes were lit, Roger walked over to the wall where the crank was, and took down a small mallet.  She then went to the first stand and smacked the candle thing hard.  The fiery globe shot down, collapsing its wooden stand, passed through the floor of the boat and down into the depths of the water, leaving a trail behind it so that it formed a pillar of fire which stretched from the underside of the boat to the waterbed.  It didn’t really light up the water much, but there was enough glow that Johnny could see the shadows of fish, and maybe reptiles, scurrying away from the source of the underwater flames.  Roger repeated this three more times, until there was a sort of cage underneath the boat.  The water below the boat was still brown—the color of strong tea—but it was obviously clear of aquatic life.

“The brown color comes from the dissolved peat tannins,” Larissa said.

Roger was bent over, rooting around in a wooden box.  After a moment she gave a satisfied grunt and stood up, closing the box and placing a ceramic pot on top of it.  She brought three off-white, shapeless lumps over and handed one each to Johnny and Larissa.  “What’s this?” Johnny asked.

“Soap,” Roger replied, her tone stating that this should have been obvious.

Johnny nodded, staring at the hard lump in his hand.  “Sure, soap.  Of course.  Now what are we supposed to be ...”

He looked up and found that Roger was unbuttoning her shirt.  Quickly he looked away, back at Larissa.  The younger girl was watching Roger with her normal detachment, holding her own lump of soap in both hands.  From behind him, Johnny heard a briefly muffled “We are supposed to be sluicing off the sweat and grime we’ve worked up.  Now strip off and get in the tub, swabbies!”


Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Uncertainty of Literature

Last week, I posted some gibberish in which I suggested that art was a dialectic, a conversation between writer and reader (or, more generally, between artist and audience).  Well, most of it was gibberish, but that part was pretty decent.  If you are willing to accept that premise, we can extrapolate a few even more interesting bits of philosophical remains if we carry it through to some logical conclusions.

First allow me a couple of tangents.  In Stephen King’s novel It, there is a character named Bill Denbrough, who is, like King himself, a horror writer.  King is fond of putting writers in his stories, presumably as a concrete manifestation of the age-old writer’s dictum to “write what you know.” And, while of course these are fictional characters, it’s not unreasonable to assume that King takes advantage of them to insert some of his own views on writing.  I was particularly struck by one passage that describes an English class that Bill takes in college, and I’ve never forgotten it.

... he says, “I don’t understand this at all.  I don’t understand any of this.  Why does a story have to be socio-anything?  Politics ... culture ... history ... aren’t those natural ingredients in any story, if it’s told well?  I mean ...” He looks around, sees hostile eyes, and realizes dimly that they see this as some sort of attack.  Maybe it even is.  They are thinking, he realizes, that maybe there is a sexist death merchant in their midst.  “I mean ... can’t you guys just let a story be a story?”

No one replies.  Silence spins out.  He stands there looking from one cool set of eyes to the next.  The sallow girl chuffs out smoke and snubs her cigarette in an ashtray she has brought along in her backpack.

Finally the instructor says softly, as if to a child having an inexplicable tantrum, “Do you believe William Faulkner was just telling stories?  Do you believe Shakespeare was just interested in making a buck?  Come now, Bill.  Tell us what you think.”

“I think that’s pretty close to the truth,” Bill says after a long moment in which he honestly considers the question, and in their eyes he reads a kind of damnation.

“I suggest,” the instructor says, toying with his pen and smiling at Bill with half-lidded eyes, “that you have a great deal to learn.”

I can imagine this, or something strikingly similar to it, actually happening to King himself, especially given his long-standing attitude that he is “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” What he seems to be exploring, both in the passage and in the quote, is the dichotomy between literary-as-a-quality, and popularity: that is, the difference between what is truly superior writing and what’s just cool to read.  Indeed, Bill Denbrough’s response in the novel is to go out and write a pulp story which he promptly sells for $200, thus proving to himself that he doesn’t need the pretentious approval of soi-disant academics to validate his self-worth.  It seems, on some level, to be cheering on the popular over the literary.

But, as a baladocian, I reject this choice.  There’s no reason it can’t be both.  Let’s take Mr. Shakespeare as an excellent example.  The man was wildly popular in his time; there is every reason to believe that he really did work to maintain that.  That he may have been, if not just out to make a buck, at least telling stories for the sheer joy of it.  Now, does that invalidate the centuries of literary analysis that have been done on his plays?

But let’s make the question more concrete.  In any class on English literature in the country—most likely in the world—you’re bound to hear many statements that start thus: “In this instance, Shakespeare was trying to say ...” Indeed, much modern literary criticism is bound up in authorial intent: either desperate to determine it, or desperate to ignore it.  But my question is this: if you had a time machine, and you could go back and visit Shakespeare, and you could ask him: did you really intend this interpretation? were you actually trying to say thus and so?  And, if Shakespeare were to respond, “why, no, not at all” ... would that invalidate the interpretation?

I attended George Mason University, which is one of the few colleges (or at least it was at the time) to offer an English degree with a concentration in writing (most Bachelors of Arts in English concentrate on literature by default).  I took five courses in writing, above and beyond the two in composition that are required of all B.A. candidates.  In my very first one, I had the great fortune to be taught by Ellen Nunnally.  She was a fantastic teacher on the craft of writing, and one of the two people who probably most influenced my development as a writer (the other being Mark Farrington).  I learned many things in that first class.  Here’s the one I remember most clearly:

All my writing, throughout my life, has been influenced by what I think of as my literary pentagram of idols: Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman (in order of my discovery of them).  So naturally most of my short stories have fallen into the category of horror fiction, and that’s mostly what I wrote for this class.  Ellen didn’t care for it, but she always looked beyond that to comment on the writing itself.  Now, when I wrote a story back in those days (and not a whole lot has changed, to be honest), I just sort of wrote whatever came into my head: I got an idea which was hopefully a decent one, then I just ran with it, expanded on it, let it flow, wrestled it down, formulated it into a story.  There wasn’t a lot of thinking involved: just writing.  I turned in one such story and Ellen apparently liked it, and wanted to read it aloud to the class (she often did this with students’ work).  I can’t recall if she read it or I did, but I remember what she said afterward.

She pointed out to the class all the elements of my story: the rising action, the climax, the falling action, the denouement.  She pointed out how the main character changed (for the protagonist must always grow or change in some way).  She pointed out several other things about my story and its structure and its themes and what it had to say, and I had one simple reaction: Wow, who knew all that stuff was in there?  What a genius I must be!

This is when I realized what the passage from It really meant.  Because I knew that I had not intended all those things that Professor Nunnally found in my story.  Perhaps I put them in through some sort of instinct, or perhaps it really was just a bizarre fluke, but the important thing was that it didn’t matter.  Because, once she pointed them out, I could see them too.  They were there; they were valid.  I had never intended them, and yet there they were.

And ever since then I’ve been very careful not to assume that I know everything there is to know about what I write.

You see, the reader draws forth the interpretation from the work.  In a certain sense, when you read something, whatever you get out of it, no matter what it is, that’s valid ... for you.  Don’t come ask me if that’s what I meant to say, because it just doesn’t matter.  If you got it, it’s true, in some fundamental sense.  Of course, we have to take the bad with the good: taking this view means that when you have a situation like religious nutjobs lining up to boycott Harry Potter or somesuch, you can’t really tell them they’re wrong—no matter how badly you may want to.  Because it’s valid for them.  (Assuming they’re being sincere; oftentimes people participating in such protests have never even read the work in question, in which case nothing is valid for them, because their interpretations don’t even exist yet.)

And of course this isn’t limited to writing.  I have some friends who have a band, and I really like their music.  They’re hardly punk, or even what you might call hard rock, but they are quite energetic, and they have a few songs that are quite dandy to mosh to (such as ”Jump in the Water,” which, gosh darn it, has “jump” right there in the title).  Now, it has been brought to my attention that Todd (lead singer of the band and, as I say, a friend of mine) doesn’t really dig people moshing to his tunes.  I have been told that I am somehow being disrespectful of his wishes if I choose to express myself in this way.  But, to me, this is the same thing again: he may not have intended his song to instill in me a desire to pogo around and crash into other people, but that’s what I got out of it, and that’s valid for me (and obviously other folks as well, ’cause you can’t really mosh by yourself).

As the artist, you’re the parent, and your work is your child.  You try to mold it, and polish it up and make it presentable, and you hope it reflects well on you, but, at some point, it has to go off on its own and you just have to hope for the best.  The impression that other people get from your children does say something about you, of course, but you can neither take all the credit, nor all the blame.  In the end, each child is its own person.

Werner Heisenberg is the guy who formulated the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  If you’re not familiar with that, it says that certain pairs of measurements (say, position and momentum) of quantum particles can’t be simultaneously known.  Or, to put it another way, you can’t meausure both where a particle is and how fast it’s going, because the very act of measuring its speed impacts its location, and vice versa.  Or, to put it even more simply (and, yes, I’m aware that some pedantic types may find this formulation entirely too simple): when you measure something, it changes.

Now, all the Heisenberg uncertainty principle really talks about is quantum particles.  But it is often extrapolated to much larger contexts.  For instance, I’m a programmer, and sometimes my software has bugs in it (hey, I’m not perfect).  One way I can find a bug is to run my program through a “debugger,” which is a program that modifies my program to have all sorts of hooks and connections in it, so that, for each thing my program does, the debugger can show me exactly where in my source code I told it to do that.  Unfortunately, sometimes the modification that the debugger does to my program causes the bug to move, or disappear entirely, and, when that happens, we call it a “Heisenbug” (this also explains my well-known love/hate relationship with debuggers).  Other cultural references abound.

But note how primly the pedants try to disparage these.  “A lot of people get the Uncertainty Principle confused with the observer effect,” they tell us, but “the two are not actually related.” Why are they unrelated?  Well, it turns out that clever physicists don’t actually have to observe quantum particles in order to measure them.  So the observer effect tells us that we can’t measure things when we observe them, and the uncertainty principle tells us that we can’t measure them even when we don’t.  Nope, those aren’t related at all.

Someone told me once that Heisenberg himself was quite adamant about the uncertainty principle not being applied to anything other than quantum particles.  I don’t know if that’s true, but even if it is we’re back to the same issue: it doesn’t much matter what Heisenberg thought.  He was an artist, in his own way.  He created the uncertainty principle, and he tossed it out into the world for us to chew on, and we’ve run with it.  So, we’ve repurposed it to apply to not only to larger physical things, but to entirely non-physical things ... so, we’ve combined it with the observer effect to make one giant misguided scientific principle ... so what?  I sometimes think the pedagogues believe that by proving that such things don’t logically follow from the original, they are therefore proving those things wrong (which of course would be argumentum ad ignorantiam).  But it is precisely because such things contain a measure of truth that we don’t overly concern ourselves with exact derivations.  The Heisenberg uncertainty principle ceases to be a mathematical proof and just becomes a convenient frame of reference.

So, whether you attribute it to Heisenberg or not, we have this principle that tells us that measuring things changes them (regardless of whether it involves observation or not).  And, to me, this is very similar to what happens when you read a book, or watch a movie, or listen to a song: the act of experiencing the thing changes the thing.  The art is no longer what it once was ... it has become something new, something which only has meaning in the context of you, the audience.  That’s what it means for art to exist only as a dialectic between artist and patron: the artist as sender and the patron as receiver; the noise, the imperfect medium of word or image or melody; and the message constantly changing, constantly evolving as the reader/viewer/listener tries one mental picture, gains new information from the next chapter/scene/verse, then tries another.  The feedback is not in the form of comments made by the audience to the artist: such comments are rarely heard, because the audience is potentially infinite and the artist merely singular.  No, the feedback comes from the art itself, because even after you’ve exhausted the entirety of it, if it was truly inspiring or moving or thought provoking, you will go back and read it/watch it/listen to it again, and perhaps again and again, and each time it will say something new to you, and you will find something new in it, and your understanding will evolve a little more.

Thus literature—all art—is uncertain: we can never know exactly what it means, because it never means only one thing.  What the author intended it to mean is perhaps vaguely interesting, but in the end irrelevant.  What it means to me and what it means to you are always different—sometimes only slightly so, sometimes vastly so.  Even what it means to me today and what it means to me tomorrow are different.  The only thing that is certain is that it will mean something ... if it is truly art.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nothing to Say

I have nothing to say this week.

Of course, even on those weeks when I have something to say, I don’t have much to say, which is why I feel compelled to remind you that you really should not be reading this blog (I’m telling you, people: it’s exactly what it says on the tin).  But this week I have even less to say than usual.  If you manage to stick around after this week, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.  I mean, hell: I can’t even stand to listen to me half the time, and I am me.  What chance do you have?

Usually when I don’t make a post it’s because of lack of time.  I do have a life, you know.  Well, okay, sometimes.  But, this week, I have the time, I just don’t have anything to say.  I’ve been trying to think of something to say, but nothing has sprung to mind.  Or nothing that I really want to talk about, anyway.  I have a few topics that I could probably expound on, but my heart isn’t in it, so it would come out lame.  Lamer than usual, even.

I remember in Freshman Comp they told us what to do if we couldn’t think of what to write.  Brainstorming, and cubing, and free writing ... at no point did they tell us what you really ought to do if you can’t think of what to write, which is to shut the hell up.  It is far better to be silent than merely to increase the quantity of bad books.  Supposedly, Voltaire said that, although who knows ... anything that sounds cool and snarky is attributed to Voltaire, unless Mark Twain grabs it first.  But, you know, it can be true even without being famous.

So I’ve decided I just won’t write anything.  Nope, nothing at all.

You know, I did this once for English class.  I had to write a paper, and I couldn’t think of anything to write about, so I wrote a paper about not being able to write a paper.  It was called “Scaling the Blank Page” or somesuch twaddle, and it was pretentious crap.  I still run across it every now and again, generally when I unpack stuff after a move (or pack stuff in preparation for a move).  For some reason, I have every paper I wrote for that class, in a folder.  It’s vaguely amusing to break out stuff that you wrote 20 years ago and laugh at yourself.  If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?

So I shan’t increase the quantity of bad books—or bad blog posts—any further than I have already.  Which, looking back ... man, I have 44 posts.  We’re coming up on a year’s worth.  And, of course, some of them are like this one—i.e. utterly useless and very short—but most are around 1,500 words long.  Let’s see ... there’s actually 9 interstitials, which leaves 35 actual posts (and, yes, I did just pop to another window and have my computer do that math for me) and that makes, very roughly (popping to that other window again) ... over 52,000 words.  Such logorrhoea!  (You know, I threw in that link just because this is the web and you’re expected to do that sort of thing, but I bet you could tell what it meant just from the shape of the word, couldn’t you?  There ought to be a word for that: a word that means a word whose meaning is obvious from way the word sounds.  You know what I mean?  Or maybe there is and it’s just non-obvious.  But I digress.) So ... yeah.  Lotta words.  And, if you’ve read even a portion of that half-hundred-K, are you any better for it?  Probably not.  So there’s proof positive that I need to keep it to myself unless I have something worth saying.

Except I don’t, do I?  It’s a good thing I believe in paradox, because this entire blog sure is one.  On the one hand, I keep telling you how blogs suck, and on the other I keep posting to the blog.  I tell you not to read, but I pump out 50 thousands words for your perusal.  Man, am I confused or what?  I suppose I could tell you that I’m just writing for me, and it doesn’t matter whether or not anyone reads it.  But that’s not entirely true.  Writing is an art form, and art requires an audience.  A tree falling in a forest may or may not make a sound; it really depends on your definition of “sound.” But my definition of “art” absolutely requires an audience.  Art is a dialogue, a dialectic.  Without interpretation, art is lifeless.  The act of experiencing it allows it to speak; before that, it is sterile and silent.

So there’s a perfectly good excuse gone.  And I can’t think of any others.  I certainly will continue to write whether or not you continue to read, and I will perversely continue to insist that you do not continue to read, and I will stubbornly continue to insist on believeing that you do continue to read, else there would be no point.  Both are true; all are true.  And all are false.  It doesn’t matter, and it does.  I’m okay with that.  Hopefully you are as well.  Certainly it’s difficult to imagine that you could have made it this far if you weren’t.  Clearly you have either already found something worth your while, or you are hopelessly optimistic; either way, I welcome your continued participation even as I advise against it (because I could not in good conscience do otherwise).

So carry on with your regularly scheduled life.  Because, just for this one week, I have nothing to say.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Parental Myth #2

Children are people.

Perhaps you are non-plussed. This is an obvious statement, right? Not much to argue with. And where’s the myth? Everyone knows that children are people.

Except that they don’t. Many parents, in my experience, don’t actually treat children as people, and very few non-parents do. How do they treat them? Generally, as pets, projects, plants, or peeves.

Now, you may recall that I don’t even treat my pets like pets. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know how it works: you bring the thing home, you make sure it gets fed, you clean up after it, and, every now and again, you play with it. If it poops on the carpet, you smack its nose. If it jumps up on the guests, you scold it. Basic stuff. To many parents, this is how you should treat your pets. And small humans aren’t really that different from small dogs.

Alternatively, some parents take that cliché about achieving immortality through their children to new heights. They live vicariously through them, construct careful realities for them, attempt to mold them into exactly what they want them to be (or, occasionally, what they wish they themselves were). These are the parents who are constantly telling you how gifted their children are, and how much they will be achieving, and what wonderful schools they’ll be attending. When you hear such picture-perfect stories, you often wonder if there isn’t something seething below the surface. Often there is.

Now the main thing to remember about people who treat their children like pets or projects is that these are not bad parents. They’re still trying to do the best they can for their children. Of course, not all parents are good parents. Sometimes all a parent is prepared to do is feed and water—maybe they’ll talk to the things every now and again because some people claim that makes a difference. And there are, very occasionally, parents who are mainly just annoyed that they have to constantly deal with these needy little things, and that society frowns on putting them into a sack and tossing them into the river, ’cause, honestly, that would be much easier. Happily, that last one is rare.

Thus: pets, projects, plants, and peeves. But, rarely people. Think about it: Do you ignore other people? Lie to them? Pretend you’re listening just to get them to shut up? Demand that they do exactly as you say? Tell them that they may not speak unless spoken to? Limit their freedoms? Discount their opinions? Ignore their dreams and impose your own? Generally, you do not. And at least if you do, you know you’re being rude. But people do these things to children, every day, in vast quantities.

I wonder if in some cases people don’t deal with children because they don’t want to be reminded of their own childhoods. Maybe it was such a crappy time for them that they just don’t want to think about it. Although often I feel like most people treat childhood as some sort of bizarre fraternity hazing: I survived this awfulness, now it’s your turn!

Well, my goal was to take what I didn’t like about my own childhood and never do that to anyone else. Ever. My kids, other people’s kids, doesn’t matter. I don’t treat people in ways I wouldn’t want to be treated, and kids aren’t some sort of special exception to that rule.

Some people formulate this idea as “treat your children like adults.” Well, actually, most often you hear it expressed in the past tense: “my parents always treated me like an adult.” That makes it an interesting tidbit about the past, rather than a frightening precept for the future. Because anyone who has children, or deals with them on a regular basis, knows that you can’t actually treat children like adults: that way lies madness.

Except ... maybe the problem we have with that concept is only semantic. Do you treat all adults the same? Do you have some friends or co-workers who are absolutely brilliant, and others who are just a bit behind the curve? Do you treat those folks the same? Do you know anyone who’s developmentally disabled? Do you know anyone who has serious problems making good moral judgements? Do you know anyone who’s still struggling to learn your language and your culture? Do you treat all these myriad of people the same?

No, of course you don’t. Different people require different approaches: this is something you know instinctively. It’s not that you treat some people “specially”; it’s that everyone is special. Sure, some are “specialer” than others. But you modify your behavior for different people. How you talk to your mother, your drinking buddy, your priest, and your best friend from when you were six, are all going to be very different, regardless of whether they all happen to be “adults.” Whatever that word means.

So treating your children like people doesn’t mean treating them like adults: it means recognizing that they may have special needs, and sometimes they require special handling, but that they still deserve the same respect and recognition that all sentient beings deserve. You must give them moral guidance, but that doesn’t give you the right to beat it into them, either physically or verbally. You are required to keep them safe from physical harm, but that doesn’t mean controlling their every action in order to prevent them making a mistake. And you must teach them—the amount you must teach them is overwhelming, because they come to you knowing literally nothing—but that doesn’t make you superior to them. Your greater knowledge is not the same as having a greater intelligence. And, you know what? even if it were, you still wouldn’t get to treat them like they’re stupid. That’s just disrespectful.

Now, I chose to start my parental myths with the concept of treating your children as your friends. Probably I should have started here; if you can get your brain around being friends with your kids, you probably already got to the point of thinking of them as people. But if that earlier post went flying over your head, maybe this is an easier place to start. Just allow yourself to listen to your children, not just hear them. To think about what they’re saying instead of cursing the interruption to your day. To respond to them not as if they’re a cat who’s just scratched up your sofa, or a stubborn piece of clay which refuses to take the shape you’ve decided on, or a Boston fern with browning leaves that you’ll get around to watering tomorrow, or a frustration that causes you to count to 10 to avoid throwing things. And children are very good at invoking those responses in you, and you will not always be successful in avoiding those responses, and there’s no point being pissed off at yourself if you respond that way every once in a while. But never let that be your default response. Because that’s not how you treat people.

You know what might be the coolest part of treating your kids like people? My twelve-year-old is only about a month away from being twelve-and-a-half, and, as far as he’s concerned, that’s close enough to 13 that he can consider himself a teenager. He sleeps a lot these days, and he eats a lot these days, and he spends a buttload of time in his room with the door shut. But where he’s not a “typical” teenager (as if there could be such a thing) is in the sullen, emotionally withdrawn, acting out stereotype that we’ve come to associate with the teenage years. If anything, he’s actually more loving and easy to get along with than he was two or three years ago.

This morning he says to me, “You know, I think I already went through my rebellious phase.”

I responded: “Yeah, you did. I nearly killed you.” (But I smiled.)

He thought for a second and then said, “Well, I guess we won’t have to worry about that then.” Then he grinned and ran off back to his room. And shut his door.

Now, you can say all you like that different children are different, and that’s true. But I honestly believe that it’s made a huge difference, treating him like a person, letting him make mistakes, letting him have freedom, but at the same time teaching him that actions have consequences, and making him work out for himself how to control his own behavior so that everyone around him responds positively rather than negatively. He’s not a dumb kid (they so rarely are). He figured it out within the first ten years or so. So I honestly think it’s smooth sailing from here on out.

Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps I’ll receive a rude awakening in a few years. But I can tell that you right now, I feel excited to see what the future brings. And I’ve known many a parent with a preteen on the verge of leaping into the great teenage unknown who was a lot more scared than I feel today.

I’ll take that.