Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Oh, Right; I'm the Mommy now": Mini-Epiphanies (24 March 2013)

         I'm not writing here about those "Eureka!" moments, grand epiphanies or satoris. I've never had grand anything, but I have had the little epiphanies: "ah-hah" moments or "Oh, yeah" moments — or "Oh, shit!" moments on something not just immediate and personal.

         A colleague of mine — call her Katarina for future reference — described hers at a shopping mall one day watching some unattended kids misbehaving. "Harrumph!" she thought, or maybe something stronger. "One of the mothers should do something about that." And then it hit her, "Oh, right; I'm the mommy now" — and she strode over and, figuratively, kicked some tween and teen ass.

         That's an important moment: when we realize we're "the mommy now" or, in unisex formulation, "the adult in the room," or at least the closest responsible person in the mall.

         My experience was somewhat different; it was having confirmed how difficult it could be for me to to be accepted as an adult, and as an authority.

         I started teaching with one course in Rhetoric 101 (College Comp/"Freshman English") at the University of Illinois at Urbana. I was twenty-three- or twenty-four-years old and 5'2" tall (say 157 cm.) and still had my hair, a fair amount of it and still dark. Since I got my course the Friday before classes started, I was definitely "low man in seniority" and ended up teaching in the Armory in a classroom that lacked not only air-conditioning but also ventilation. I arrived early and wore my three-piece weddings, funerals, and interviews suit. I got talking with a nice young woman waiting with me outside the classroom. Eventually:

         "Well," I finally said; "I guess we'd better go in."

         "Nah," she said; "we've got time."

         "I have a lot to write on the blackboard," I said.

         At which point she stepped back, looked me over, kind of pointed, and said with mild amused/bemused disbelief, "You're the teacher?!"

         "Why the hell else would I be in a three-piece suit in this heat?!" I responded. And I walked in.
         That student and I got along, and the class went fine, all things considered. For one thing, they were very tolerant of my ignorance and inexperience, and, well, just good people. Last day of class I took them out for a kind of class party at a local dive. You have one guess who alone of the group got stopped at the bar and had to show two pieces of ID and still got hassled to buy a beer.

         It could have been worse. My ID were legitimate, and I was an adult.

         Part of my entry into adulthood came at age seventeen or eighteen when I took over as president of a charity group and had to deal with a group of guys who'd embezzled the profits of a dance their high school fraternity had run and took off to Florida for a very long weekend. My previous job with the charity was what would later be called "Media Relations," and I was well aware that we couldn't afford the bad publicity of having the guys arrested. So we covered it up; most centrally, I covered up a really reprehensible theft. However, this was not exactly a loss of innocence for me.

         Much later in life, when I was one of "the older guys" on Miami University's Student Affairs Council, another faculty member and I were talking with one of "the younger guys": an Ayn-Rand Libertarian mostly, but a young person who'd just compromised and cut his first political deal. My colleague kidded the guy with an allusion to loss of virginity, and I started to throw in, "Yeah, I remember—" when my colleague cut me off with, "Rich, I don't know anything about your sex life, and God knows I don't want to know anything about your sex life, but politically, you were never a virgin."

         That's an overstatement, but OK; politically, by seventeen or eighteen, by the time I took over as president of that charity — I was no innocent.

         What the theft taught me, what dealing indirectly with the thieves taught me, was the important insight, "Everybody feels justified."

         That was a kind of "Oh, shit" moment.

         As Steven Pinker notes somewhere in his monumental The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), it's a real problem that murderers and others who commit violent acts typically feel justified; indeed they are in their own minds moral people, doing justice upon their victims.

         Not everybody feels justified; some people feel guilt and remorse. But most of us, most of the time, do feel justified, even when we do bad things, even when, indirectly, we steal from crippled children.

         My second confirmation into adulthood came on 23 November 1963. I typed that correctly: 23 November, the day after President John F. Kennedy was murdered.

         I was saddened, and appalled by the murder of President Kennedy, but it didn't shake my vision in the universe or anything like that. Three American presidents had been assassinated before, President Lincoln quite famously; and I knew of the attempts to kill Franklin Roosevelt — and had been alive during the known attempt to kill President Truman. (I only learned of the attempt on his life by the Stern Gang in researching this paragraph.) Anyway, however much some of my fellow citizens believed "It can't happen here," in my universe, such shit happened, and "It" — any "it" that happened elsewhere or in earlier times — could indeed "happen here" in the United States.

         Nah, what shook me up a bit was a petty thing, and personal with me.

         When Kennedy died, I put a black ribbon across the seal of our fraternity at the entrance of the house. I was a house officer and had the permission of the chapter president to do so, and it was the custom if we mourned the death of someone in the chapter. I thought we should make some gesture, and the single black ribbon was decorously restrained (the seal was inside).

         One of my fraternity brothers tore off the ribbon, primarily, it got back to me, to get back at me for a gesture he thought stupid — and in part just to hurt me.

         He later apologized, after other Greek houses on campus lowered their flags to half-staff and such, but he threw in that, yeah, he did what he had done mostly just to hurt me.

         This was my introduction to malice: doing harm to another without profit to oneself.
         I ended up writing my master's essay on malice among some of Shakespeare's major villains, and the idea of malice is pretty central to my dissertation. "Everyone feels justified" — or many of us do, much of the time, even when we shouldn't — and "Some people are just no damn good," or, more exactly, many of us will act maliciously, hurting others while not helping ourselves. Or not helping ourselves except insofar as we feed our pride.

         And just how dangerous that occasional maliciousness can be was taught to me by a former student, after he'd graduated and had gone to law school and — before moving to the really big show of international law — served as a small-town Ohio attorney. A young man himself at the time, the attorney told me that his father had never hit him but that as a child and teenager he had feared his father. He had clients, though, who really lived the dumb-ass slogan "No Fear." When I wrote him and checked my memory of what he had said, he wrote back that some of his clients "had no fears or boundaries … they feared no person or adult figure … (one guy, Robert "Rip-Off" Jones was heard to say (moments before his death by gun), 'I'm not afraid of you or your gun.'" These guys "were largely socialized by the streets" and "having no fear was part of their problem, and definitely a problem for others."

         It's definitely a problem for others when "No Fear" and no limits are combined in a large human being with desires to lash out suddenly or (and ethically worse) act with a cold-blooded malice.
         It's probably a good thing none of these guys — or their little sisters — were in the group my colleague Katarina confronted at the mall. I'm not sure many guys with no limits would find themselves saying, "Oh, right; I'm the Daddy now" and start setting limits for others.

         That's a depressing thought, and I won't end on it.

         For another thing I've learned, in an "oh, yeah" moment while reading depressing books on human nastiness — another insight that comes through is, "Well, yeah, but most of us most of the time feel justified because we're doing OK." All of us, at one time or another, can do some really bad shit; but, again, most of us, most of the time, don't.

         I'm sure the first class I taught sensed my fear and noted that I looked sixteen — but they cut me some slack. Sometimes, most of us, can be downright kind.

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