Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A follow-up on Z and J's story

Gary took Scott, his buddy J, and J's dad backpacking on Sunday. It's raining today, which is the day they planned to come out. The timing could be worse, though my guess is Gary wouldn't have minded if it had held off one more day. It's a short-ish walk from their camp to the car...maybe they're lucky enough to be above the clouds.

Scott and Gary gone is not a break for me. J and Connor are gasoline and flame, so Connor stayed home with me. We've been painting the entire house. The garage addition needs to be painted and rather than try to match the house color, which we weren't too crazy about anyway, we decided to go for something completely different. Connor and I got quite a lot done during these past 3 days. The rain gives us a break from painting this morning. Gary has the camera with him, so I'll post pictures later.

J's mom called Sunday night so she could zero in a little more on where they are backpacking. That gave us an opportunity to talk a little bit about what had happened with Z and J. She and I hadn't talked since the long conversation when I told her about what I'd overheard.

She said she and her husband had had a long talk with J. She said they'd introduced it as casually as they could by saying "Scott's mom overheard that there was something Z had wanted you to do? And what was it again?" She said for a while he hesitated, saying they "don't want to hear it"; seemed quite ashamed and afraid. But they gently persisted and she said she could feel him relax when he finally let down and told them the story. She said it was very healing for all of them, and clearly a relief for J; an opportunity for them all to reaffirm their love for and connection with each other. She thanked me.

You know, there is something so beautiful about taking an experience from my childhood that was handled punitively and transforming it into this instrument of affirmation. It makes me tearful. I guess there is always, always, a door open for redemption.

She said that she'd told another friend about it, and this woman had highly recommended a counselor that specializes in issues such as this with children. J's mom took him, and said they're going to continue to see her for a while. It was very positive.

She told me about having spoken with Z's mom. She said that at first Z's mom believed that the children had been kidding, but as they conversed the potential significance seemed to penetrate more deeply.

Remembering my conversation with Z's mom I recall that she was not defensive, but I had sensed a little resistance. I'd felt uneasy about how far and how hard to push against the resistance and had decided my job was to report the conversation as I'd heard it. I worried then about whether I'd been too accommodating, but I think now that it had been a good choice to not go further. That was a conversation best left to the parents of the children involved. It sounds like it was a meaningful talk between them, and that Z's mom received J's mom's concerns about how this had arisen in Z, and took them seriously.

Regarding the question of children's sexuality, which I posed in my post earlier, I did some more reflection, and I posed the question to my counselor. My own primary encounters with sexual feeling as a child came in first or second grade through a friend, her older sister, and their mother. At 6 and 8 these children told me stories of children being raped, killed...whispered of "bad things" being done to their mother that meant she couldn't have children. They had been adopted, by a mother whose religion was darkly fundamentalist, and a father who seemed religiously indifferent. I had been an adult for many years before it occurred to me that these girls may have been sexually abused themselves, and so the prism through which their information was transmitted to me was quite disturbed. Reflecting upon this, I realized that this may be the "danger" of childhood sexuality...if their roots are in a poisoned pool they may be spreading a stunted version. The danger wasn't so much moral rot and decay, but the deformation of what should become a meaningful and joyful part of being alive. Sadly, my parents came from an era that treated sexual curiosity as a symptom of deep character flaws. They believed that harsh preemptive action was required to head this off.

Sharon, my counselor, put it this way: at such a young age an immature body hasn't begun to supply the hormones that awaken and support sexual maturing. A childish mind tends to misinterpret, as I suspect had happened with my friends; they'd already received a warped version of sexuality which was distorted further by their immature perspective. Sharon said that such premature exposure to sexuality tends to be overstimulating, and the growing nervous system can then become addicted to the intensity of this overstimulation.

Protection of a child's future experience of an aspect of humanity that is meant to bring them joy is a very different priority from that of protecting them from some sort of abstract ruin. It certainly shifts the emphasis in action taken.

I very much hope that Z's mother was able to find a way to affirm her love and connection with Z through the avenue of this overheard conversation as well. J and his family spread love, warmth, and light into the world with their opportunity...I'm so grateful to have been a part of it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

coastlines and perspectives


It is best not to argue,
But if you do at all,
Never do so with a fool.
A fool can defeat all.

He does not care for the facts.
He does not know debate.
He’s a stranger to reason.
Logic he can negate.

In the end the fool will win,
His logic is so strong!
Decides what he does not like
And then it must be wrong!

It’s better to keep quiet
When challenged by a fool.
Else, to prove his own wisdom,
He will make you a tool.

It is hence my policy
To not respond to those
Who ask questions not to learn
But to be bellicose.

• Written in abcb, 7-6-7-6 syllabic format.

M C Gupta
25 October 2008

A problem I always had: "Who's the fool?" (fearful subtext: "Is it me?")

Whose demand is unreasonable? Who is selfish--the one requesting, or the one refusing? When is a request a request, and when is it a demand? When is it reasonable to 'expect' something,and when is it not?

It's a peculiar Gestalt--flipping back and forth from seeing the Vase to seeing the Face. Who am I?

Julia wrote a very thought-provoking post at Glow In the Woods last week called "Duty". She had received some implied criticism from a friend. A mutual friend in their group had been making remarks that repeatedly were "hitting my open compound fracture"--the raw wound of the loss of her child. When Julia protested she was later admonished that she should take into consideration the feelings--of the person who'd been hurting her.

It's tempting to oversimplify the question into a 'who's right/who's wrong' frame.

My historical default has been to "I'm wrong". As I began inching toward the possibility that maybe the troubles in my life weren't all due to selfishness (mine)--and if I couldn't see my fault it was because I'd so skillfully rationalized it out of view--I asked Sharon, my counselor, about this. How can I honestly evaluate where entitlement lays? What can guide my choice as to what is reasonable, my own point of view, or someone else's?

Sharon said one guide was which point of view included more perspectives.

I've just begun to read a book called The Secret Teachings of Plants/The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I'm on page 25, and can't go further right now as I try to digest a rich concept. The chapter is called "The Nonlinearity of Nature."

In considering a coastline, we see where land emerges from the water. What is below is now manifest above. In mapping land masses, geographers measure this line formed at the intersection point. They calculate distance, and area from this measurement.

Where and what do they measure? As Buhner points out, "When you approach a coastline, what you encounter is a ragged edge, some portions of which protrude farther into thewater, some less. To measure this ragged line,Euclidean geometricians 'round off' the ragged-coastline in order to allow the complexity of a living coastline to fit into Euclidean space so that their model, their way of thinking, will be able to measure it. But always, it is important to remember, this is only an approximation. It is never real."

To get a more true approximation, one must shrink in size in order to enlarge perspective. If one measures a coastline from the road, then much of what's real is 'rounded off'. If one walks the coastline there is a limit to how close one can get, and how closely one can follow the twists and turns of where water and land meet. Buhner suggests taking the perspective of a mouse, in which case the curves and indentations can be more closely followed. Eventually, the mouse becomes too large to follow the real line closely enough, and perhaps an ant's perspective is still more accurate. Perhaps a microbe's. And so on.

For the convenience of measurement, the ragged edges are "smoothed off"--and those edges are important.

I remember reading a book on the theory of Chaos a few years ago. Though I mainly floundered through it, one understanding I took away was that minute differences in initial measurements translate to vast discrepancies the further downstream one moves from the initial starting point. I'm reminded of this in considering possible consequences in 'ignoring' the edges for the sake of convenience.

The 'coastline' of an ant is much longer than the coastline of a mouse, a human walking the shore, a car driving a coastal highway. What I can negotiate in one step may take an ant hours.

My cousin Sheri pulled a Tarot card for her Intuitive Tuesday series a couple weeks ago. In the discussion that followed she used Google Maps as a model: zoomed in (on our lives' moment-to-moments) or zoomed out (a larger context of a Life, our own). I thought of this as I was reading the coastline metaphor in "The Secret Teachings of Plants". I also saw that sometimes there is misunderstanding when two people at different scales meet. We may think we're talking about the same thing, but if I am "zoomed in", and I'm talking to someone who's "zoomed out", what I am referring to may be invisible to them. And what they're referring to may be non-existent to me. Yet we each try to find a frame of reference to fit what we're hearing from the other into the perspective we have in front of us.

Is my focus too narrow? I don't know. Does their perspective ignore too much? I don't know.

I'm thinking perhaps in Julia's case, of her friend's being offended that she, Julia was hurt and naming it, maybe the coastline analogy applies. Julia's coastline is far more ragged than that of her friends', and it's imperative that she walk each step of it; follow each convoluted turn. And, as Buhner says, when approached in this way, the 'length' of a coastline approaches infinity. This is a problem for a system of thought that seeks to impose order, to measure, and therefore arbitrarily chooses what to ignore. (And that choice reveals a bias). Julia's friends have needs too, and they have feelings that friends are invested in taking care for. When tragedy has mutilated the lives of one of our friends, we forget sometimes that while we all seem to be moving from point a to point b in our lives, that our babylost friend is traveling an infinite distance between point a and point b. We make the step without thinking about it. It's a tortured journey for our friend. Perhaps compassionate reason dictates the onus is on us to be generous. After all, if I am backpacking with a friend who is carrying 100 pounds, while I have 20, do I ask her to carry something of mine? It would certainly be cruel for me to 'smooth off' the fact that she is carrying a load 5 times greater than mine--and to expect her to act consistent with that smoothing-off--for my own convenience.

Like a coastline, I am completely intrigued by the implications of this insight. I may need to write some more about this.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


1) A man, his wife and two children pull up to the wife's parents' house on the fourth of July for a family gathering. They have been arguing intensely for the half hour it takes to drive over. He's asked her to turn the car around and take him home. She has refused, but sets things up so he can depart when they arrive: leaves the motor running, gets out and tells the kids to get their stuff and come on. He moves over to the driver's seat and drives off. A few days later he is subjected to a lecture by his sister-in-law telling him that his children were crying when they came to the door: "Dad left us! He's left us!" In the course of the lecture where he's told he should 'be there for his children' he realizes the sister-in-law believes they are getting a divorce and she is trying to talk him out of it.

2) Jon Stewart has a new segment to his show called, "So You Think You Can Douche"--a kind of variation on "The Week's Worst Person" award. He played a film montage from Sean Hannity's show on Fox; short clips of pieces of Obama's speeches (including, "We do not consider ourselves to be a Christian nation") and ending with "And there you have it...six months of hope and change". The soundtrack is choral, something very scary and apocalyptic. When the clip ends Stewart is sitting there with an odd look on his face, saying, "That didn't make any sense. but I still feel angry and afraid." He cited the soundtrack from "The Omen". I haven't been able to locate the exact piece, but it is very much of the ilk of "The Omen" theme. He countered by playing a clip from "Dora the Explorer" with the same soundtrack.

3) I'm a child on a playground approached by my mother and a neighbor who want to know if I've taken the neighbor's child's toy. I'm not sure what it is they're asking me. I had taken it, earlier that day, when the child showed it to me. I'd 'taken' it, but couldn't remember giving it back, and they hadn't asked me if I had given it back. So in my desire to tell the truth I told them I had taken it. Telling the truth, to 6 year old me, meant admitting to something, even if the consequences were unpleasant. It was something "brave" children did. The adults heard that I had "stolen" it and proceeded from there. I was too young to be able to tease apart the nuances for them, and so concluded that I had done something very bad. The misunderstanding just compounded from there until the next day when the neighbor came over and said that they had found the toy on her daughter's bed that very night. In the meantime there had been spankings and threats of jail.


We adults often carry a soundtrack inside of us that we're not even aware is there. When the children in the first example cried, "Our dad has left us!" the adults concerned assumed he'd Left them, his wife and kids. The children probably meant only 'left', like being 'left off' at a friends'. The family presumed, without knowing they were presuming, that the nature of this 'leaving' was much more permanent. They were angry with the father for 'leaving' and traumatizing his kids. It's a case of a big misunderstanding, where the adult interpretation of the situation, and the children's are very different, yet seem the same. Thus the children's fears were reinforced, by the adults, which made it worse for them. (Having not been there, I acknowledge I have my own presumptions about the scenario when the wife and children went through that front door. I am wondering if the wife did anything to dispel the notion that the husband was Leaving; if she comforted the kids by saying, 'Mom and Dad just need a little space from each other. He'll be back." If the sister-in-law felt a need to lecture later on, it makes me wonder.)

Similarly, the adults' picture of what it means for a child to "take" something was very different from mine. One misunderstanding fueled another.

When I blogged about J and Z I had not yet put the pieces of my head back together after it exploded in the car upon overhearing the boys' conversation. My particular soundtrack lent itself to a sinister scenario; a manipulative child with malicious intent. An innocent victim, so innocent he doesn't even know he's been victimized. I've seen the younger child, Z's drive to win, the strength of his will. It seemed very plausible that his intent was dominance and control, an eerily adult calculation. At first my only thought was about talking with J's parents. In the meantime a friend had called aLinknd I told her what I'd just heard--only then did it occur to me that Z's parents needed to be spoken to as well. I had forgotten the possibility that Z might be a victim.

I was in a paradigm where someone was a victim. And I didn't know I was in a paradigm; I accepted it as reality.

It's true that we can't hear "I'll give you x if you suck my penis" without a sexual overlay. Or at least I couldn't.

I called J's mom and got a voice mail. So I had a choice to ask this mother to "call me back" (I hate receiving those kinds of messages. There is some kind of portent in the attempted nonchalant tone, yet the hint that there is something that can't be left in a message. Those things scare me to death.) or to just leave the message. I took that fork in the road and reported what I'd heard. I told her my main purpose in letting her know, besides the fact that I'd want to know if it was information about Scott, was so that she and her husband could help guide the way that J might come to perceive this event. I told her I was available to call and would be very happy to give her any information I could. Then I instantly began to second-guess myself. Had I done the right thing? Had I screwed up in leaving something like that in a message, for God's sake?

There was still the other question that was nagging at the back of my mind. Thinking in terms of "leaving something like that in a message" implies a certain gravity about what I needed to tell her. Again, I would have no qualms, no sense of urgency, maybe no need to even tell her if Z had asked J to do 10, 20, 30 push-ups, or some chores for him. Where does this gravity come from? Does it come from the fact that sexual organs were involved? And why should that be so charged? The fact that I'm even bringing this information gives it a gravity I wasn't sure I was comfortable with; I suppose it was like a "soundtrack" I was uneasy with and couldn't quite shake.

Next I called Z's mother, and she was there. She sounded so happy to hear from me, which caused me discomfort--I felt very phony to be exchanging niceties with her ("How are the boys", etc) when I had this 'thing' to talk about. So I was off-balance and my timing was awkward when I told her what I'd heard in the car.

Any hint of defensiveness was dispelled very quickly. If there was any defensiveness it may not have even come from her; it may have been more me fearing it. It seemed easily that I could find her defending her son's 'innocence' and me becoming a 'accuser' of sorts. And not just accusing Z, but her: a single mother with an unconventional lifestyle. A sort of presumption that her kid would be exposed to people who might be the source of this story with J. I didn't even consider these overtones until I began to talk to her, and then heard the faint soundtrack playing in the background.

If she heard it she ignored it. At first I feared it might be happening when she said, "You know, Z is really much more innocent of that type of thing than J. The first time I even heard Z say the word "dick" was after a playdate with J." However, I realized she wasn't saying that to protest innocence; she was pointing out that the two boys did have a history of some sexual play between them: J spending the night with Z and her mother was the adult present. Her mother told her the next day that she'd heard them giggling in the bedroom, and Z saying, "Don't put your tongue in my mouth!"

She and I talked for a long time, and I appreciated her forthrightness. She didn't make any excuses for Z; she realizes he has a strong will which makes it challenging to temper in social situations. She has all along, even before this particular incident. She suggested that as a group of adults we talk with our children, about being careful about what we ask people to do, about being careful what we say about others. She anticipated that she'd be talking with J's parents and seemed completely at ease about that. I told her I'd email her after I talked with them that evening.

Later, J's dad called; said he and J's mom had received my message and would be calling a little later so we could talk longer. She did so and we had a long and thoughtful conversation. Her first concern was how to talk with her son about this in such a way that he wouldn't feel a burden of shame about it. (Yeah, really. If he doesn't feel victimized, it seems counter-productive to him to give him the impression that he was.) I told her that my concern was that the incident might be like a mine laying in a harbor, quiet until disturbed in just the right way. Unfortunately, some of the very strange energy surrounding sex in our culture could provide that disturbance as he got older and she might want the opportunity to inoculate him against that.

I'm glad that she said it worked well for me to have left the message, because she was able to just listen to it and not have to worry about talking while her younger children were there. She said the timing was also good because their daughter was going to be at a friend's house the next day when I took J home and so they would be able to talk freely with him. She said they would be talking with Z's mom too. It was a heartfelt and thoughtful conversation; I hope it enlarged her experience a little, because it did mine.

The next day after taking J home it was time to talk a bit with Scott. I have a feeling that given the way he takes in and processes information that I'll have to keep dropping seeds. Some of them having to do with there being different ways of people loving each other. Hopefully the lesson can become an awareness that "gay" isn't negative. I think those conversations will need to be staggered in the coming days, months, years. What I talked with him about yesterday used the "junk in mailbox" story as a starting point. I told him again that it took a very strong person to withstand being coerced into doing something that their heart said 'no' to, like putting trash in a mailbox. I said that the same was true for his body, including his private parts. I told him that sometimes other children might want to handle his private parts, and that he should listen to the feeling inside that either said, "no", or yes, and trust his feelings. I suggested that his body was something special that shouldn't be traded for something he might want, and that no friend should ask for such a trade. And, it is NEVER ok for an adult to ask to see or handle his private parts unless it is a doctor and his dad or I say it's ok. I left it at that. For now.

I suppose it's possible Z's mother is "in denial", or was minimizing the possibility that her son may have had some unwholesome exposure that's more troublesome than the notion of his picking up little bits here and there and synthesizing the idea that led to the whole story. But I have also seen in my own life, and in observing my children, that sometimes what's apparent can be misleading as to what's below. We were all in agreement about that. I certainly think the whole incident warrants heightened awareness of what may or may not be influencing our children's thinking, but care to not overlay our adult projections on top. That said, I'm inclined to believe that something happened. It was the off-hand way J told Scott what had happened, and it being incidental in the story to the broken promise. For him to have done that for effect seems s beyond this child's years. The lesson for that is the danger of complacency.

Having talked with the children's parents I felt that my role with them is done for now, and I can ponder some of the questions the whole thing raises. I decided to cast my question upon the internet, and googled search terms: "harmful children sexual play each other" or some such. I found some very interesting sites that discuss this. One site is devoted to the harm that some of the zero-tolerance policies may do to children. Apparently there are some states where children as young as 8 can be classified as sex offenders, even if their sexual activity is with children of the same age who are willing participants. There are unlicensed sexual rehabilitation programs for young children that in themselves are abusive. There are some voices questioning the notion that children be denied sexual exploration that's age-appropriate and mutual.

I'm planning on doing some research and possibly another post on this topic. In early 60's America I was shamed pretty harshly in this area, and so it is of some special interest to me.

It makes the request for a Playbo.y magazine seem relatively uncomplicated. The synchronicity of this is very interesting.

I had an epiphany. I was reflecting on the sexual shame and guilt I experienced as a young child, some of which was related to Pl.ayboy magazines. It occurs to me that Connor's request isn't so much about the magazine, or having it. It's a sort of declaration to me that he's a sexual being now, and perhaps even a request for my "blessing".

He has that blessing. But I'm still not going to buy him Playboy.