Friday, January 07, 2005

The Eye of the Beholder

Convention(ality) is there, too, not just beauty.

All of us adhere to conventions of one sort or another, and probably of several sorts. I remember a philosophy teacher speculating that one of the quintessentially human characteristics was pattern-matching behavior (and adhering to convention is that, among other things), and it has stuck with me for a long time, in part because I think he was on to something. Pattern-matching should be understood broadly: trying to find the right words to talk about an experience or a feeling, for example, is an exercise in pattern-matching, as is any social interaction. From what I can tell (from reading, rather than any personal experience whatsoever), part of what makes the autism-spectrum disorders so distressing is that people who have them don't recognize conventional social cues, which makes it damned hard to respond to such cues. Wittgenstein's discussions of the intertwined nature of language and practice are illuminated by a notion of pattern-matching, as well.

Conventional behavior, then, is, in part, discerning (and probably internalizing) what is acceptable according to one's peers, whomever they happen to be, and then shaping one's own behavior to agree, or, at least, to not disagree openly. Our notions of politeness rely on this, for example, as do our notions of cool or moral or geek or sexy or Our Kind. It is possible to disagree quite consciously with particular conventions--not shaving any of my body hair, for example, is a conscious choice rather than just a case of not getting around to it (it'd be hard to maintain that particular argument for 25+ years). We can make reasoned arguments on behalf of particular conventions, arguments that introduce notions of fairness, justice, morality, etc., and don't rely merely on efficacy. (That is, we can argue that torture, and torture-like behavior, is wrong. It may also be inefficient or ineffective, but that is not necessary for it to be wrong.)

What I haven't told you yet is what this has to do with my becoming a pastry chef, which is where it all started in my head. (Sorry if I caused whiplash there; see how circuitous my routes are when I'm not limited to a comments field?)

I finally told my mother about my plans regarding pastry-chefdom this weekend, a step I'd put off because I'd predicted--pretty accurately, it turns out--what her reaction would be. Let's just say that Benjamin Braddock's father's reaction (see the completely baked reference, below) was mild in comparison to my mom's. Let me also point out that not a single other person to whom I've mentioned these plans has raised an eyebrow or tried to talk me out of it. Yes, of course, my friends want to make sure I'm not doing anything rash, but, really, rash isn't my style--people realize that I'm going to work out the options, ask the hard questions, blah, blah, blah (and, in fact, I've been doing that). That is, those of you in Blogistan who don't know me well or personally needn't fear that I'm just running off half-cocked with another crazy scheme. Why, then, is mom so opposed to this? Especially since she doesn't even want to know the details?

Deep down, my mother, bless her heart, is extremely conventional in an assortment of ways. Yes, it's true that she had an ethnic name in the 1940s, when that wasn't the least bit fashionable, especially in a small, working-class town, and it's true that her father was an atheist and an anarchist (which was damned unusual in said town), and it's true that, although she likes things to be Just So, and she likes nice things, she's actually not terribly materialistic--she'd rather save her money (unless she can get a bargain) than spend it, any day, and she doesn't like having stuff for the sake of having it. Her politics have always been on the left (with that father, not a surprise). Compared to many of her peers, then and now, that and some other things all made her appear unconventional, and, really, to be fair, in many ways she is different.

My father is almost the inverse of her (they've been happily married for 48 years, so they're doing something right). His upbringing was completely conventional--his father was a deacon in the Presbyterian church; my dad started working when he was maybe 12, because the family was hard-hit by the Depression; he finished high school then went into the Army for two years. He came back, learned a trade, got a job, married my mom. Sounds completely Normal, right? Except Dad married into a family that was Italian (one of his sisters had been prevented from doing so), and atheist, and leftist, and so on. While in the Army, he served in Europe--Germany, mostly--rather than Korea, so he got to see a little bit of the world. When he got back from the Army, he'd drive to NYC on weekends (about two hours away) to hook up with two of his Army buddies and go listen to jazz in clubs. He reads voraciously, and is one of the most impressive autodidacts I've ever met. He came to his atheism on his own.

It's probably also worth pointing out that my parents both have a strong sense of right and wrong, which they managed to pass along to their children, and they raised us to be model citizens--or, at least, taught us that that was what we were supposed to be doing and here's how one did that. All that permissive child-rearing that was supposedly going on in the 60s? Not in our house, let me tell you. (Which is why I always get my knickers in a twist when people say or imply that one can only learn to be moral or a good citizen if a deity is involved in the teachings.)

So, really, for my mom, this whole notion of chucking it all and becoming a pastry chef is deeply unsettling. What about my doctorate (despite the fact that it's never been good for a damned thing)? What about being a Professional? What about making big wads of money and having a position she can brag to her friends about? Huh? What about those things? And what about the uncertainty involved in becoming something completely different at My Age? And that part about how I hate my job? "Ridiculous" was her response. I've been making my mother crazy for a long damned time--not necessarily on purpose, I should add--primarily by rejecting many conventions that she holds dear, and it seems that I'm continuing this tradition.


Blogger kStyle said...

I think that people never really outgrow craving their mother's support. I imagine it's frustrating that she reacted that way. But you know, she may come around when she sees you happy and financially OK as a pastry chef. :)

12:09 PM  
Blogger Emma Goldman said...

Approval-seeking is really a fruitless exercise--if it mattered all that much to me, I would probably modify my choices, or try to convince my mother that I'm making good choices, but neither of those is terribly likely, which probably makes her even crazier. I've long known the ways in which I make my mother crazy, and vice versa. Luckily, these are not very important parts of our relationship, which is what enables me to be more amused than anything else.

12:25 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Word up.

12:57 PM  
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