Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

05 JUNE, 2013

Love Over Biology: Jennifer Finney Boylan on What It’s Like to Be a Transgender Parent

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Why there’s much more to the art of raising a human being than the science of chromosomal alignment.

Mother’s Day has come and gone, and along with it history’s finest letters of motherly advice as well as witty wisdom from women who have chosen not to have kids. But what, exactly, does it mean to be a mother? Surely, it can’t be the mere checklist of certain biological givens and processes — for, as Italo Calvino observed nearly forty years ago, “a human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.”

That — how much biology defines parenthood (hint: barely), how much that act of will and love does (hint: a great deal), and how much our experience of gender shapes it (hint: depends) — is precisely what Jennifer Finney Boylan, who used to be James Finney Boylan, explores in Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders (public library).

Boylan began transitioning at the age of 44, while her children were toddlers, and remains with her wife Deirdre — the two had been married for twelve years before James came out as Jennifer and recently celebrated their 25th anniversary — as the two raise their boys in a two-mom family. She writes with equal parts humor and humility:

I was a father for six years, a mother for ten, and for a time in between I was both, or neither, like some parental version of the schnoodle, or the cockapoo. Of course, as parents go, I was a rather feminine father; for that matter I suppose I’m a masculine mother. When I was their father I showed my boys how to make a good tomato sauce, how to fold a napkin, how to iron a dress shirt; as their mother I’ve shown them how to split wood with a maul. Whether this means I’ve had one parenting style or two, I am not entirely certain. I can assure you I am not a perfect parent and will be glad to review the long list of my mistakes. But in dealing with a parent who subverts a lot of expectations about gender, I hope my sons have learned to be more flexible and openhearted than many of their peers with traditionally gendered parents.

I would like to think that this has been a gift to them and not a curse. It is my hope that having a father who became a woman has made my two remarkable boys, in turn, into better men.

Jennifer Finney Boylan

In the anecdote of how her son learned to shave, Boylan finds a beautiful metaphor for her unique dual experience of manhood and womanhood:

Zach learned to shave when he was two years old, by watching me. He says that this is one of his primary memories of me as a man— the morning ritual of the razor and the hot steam from the basin. Zach stood upon a stool so that he could see his face in the bathroom mirror. I used to coat his young, pink cheeks with Gillette Foamy, and then give him a razor with the protective shield still on the blade. As I shaved my face, Zach would shave his. He’d mimic the contortions I’d make with my face in order to keep my skin taut. And he’d shave his own face in the same order I shaved mine — cheeks first, then the neck, then the chin, mustache last.

We stood there before the mirror, the two of us. I wiped the steam away from the top half of the mirror so I could see myself; Zach wiped a smaller hole away for himself at the bottom. Our expressions were so serious as we shaved, as men’s faces always are as they undertake this business, as if we are not shaving, but staring out across the bridge of our intergalactic star destroyers.

Afterward, we’d towel down our faces, removing the residual froth and smacking our smooth cheeks lightly with an air of manly satisfaction. “There,” he’d say. “I’m clean as a whistle!”

Where he got that phrase I can’t tell you.

He didn’t get it from me. That Christmas, Deedie bought Zach his own pretend shaving kit, complete with a plastic razor. When he opened this gift, though, he immediately burst into tears. “What?” said Deedie, discouraged that what had seemed like the perfect gift had gone so wrong.

“I don’t want a baby razor,” Zach wept, looking at me for backup. “I want a real one!”

Twelve years later, when Zach began to shave for real, he did it with an electric razor, one of those contraptions with the “floating heads.” I didn’t show him how to do it, although I tried. But he stopped me as he headed into the bathroom, and said, “Maddy. I got it from here.” A moment later, the door closed, and I sat down in the kitchen and listened to the faint buzzing sound coming through the wall.

I didn’t learn how to shave from my father either. Which turns out, I think, not to be so strange. One of the things about manhood I learned from my father is that it’s a solitary experience, a land of silences and understatements, a place where a lot of important things have to be learned alone. Whereas womanhood, a lot of the time, is a thing you get to share.

Recounting another anecdote, in which young Zach exhibits admirable character, Boylan reflects:

Looking down at my boy, I had a strange, nostalgic feeling — wishing that, when I’d been a guy, I’d had half the character now exhibited by my own near-grown son. It’s common enough, I guess, a thought such as this, demented though it may be. We look to our children as a kind of cosmic mulligan, our own best hope for a second chance. There were plenty of times I had looked at my son Zach as a better version of me, man-wise. He had the same goofy sense of humor, the same habit of wearing his heart right out there on his sleeve where anyone could crush it, the same buoyant hope that somehow love would prevail over all.

If I had failed as a man — and even those people who loved me most would have to admit this, what with the vagina and everything — then maybe Zach was a last chance to get it right. The man that I had once been clearly lived in him, although this time around we seemed to have been spared the melancholic lunacy.

Pair Stuck in the Middle with You, which comes a decade after Boylan’s critically acclaimed first memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, with Dan Savage on redefining marriage and Caitlin Moran on how to be a woman.

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04 JUNE, 2013

Advice for Travel and Life: Founding Father Benjamin Rush’s 14 Rules for His Young Son, 1796

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“Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you.”

Founding father and American Enlightenment leader Benjamin Rush (1745 — 1813) is among the most diversely influential figures in modern history — he signed the Declaration of Independence and championed many reforms; he opposed slavery and capital punishment at a time when it was fashionable to favor them; he pioneered the free American public school and helped found five institutions of higher learning; he proposed a new model of education for women that included sciences, history, and moral philosophy; he worked for the humane treatment of the mentally ill; he was the first American to hold the title of professor of chemistry (at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania) and published the first American chemistry textbook; and he served as the treasurer of the United States Mint for sixteen years.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, painted by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818

From Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the same wonderful anthology that gave us some of history’s greatest motherly advice and Sherwood Anderson’s counsel on the creative life — comes this letter Rush and his wife Julia sent to their twenty-one-year-old son John, the eldest of their thirteen children, after he finished a medical apprenticeship with his father and headed to India to practice his newly acquired skills. Despite the overwhelming religiosity of the letter — a reflection above all of the era’s monoculture — Rush’s advice on the four pillars of the good life includes timeless wisdom on the art of acquiring knowledge and reading books well, the benefits of keeping of diary, the importance of studying geography, and even primitive inklings of Michael Pollan’s modern food rules.

Directions and advice to Jno. Rush from his father and mother composed the evening before he sailed for Calcutta, May 18th, 1796

We shall divide these directions into four heads, as they relate to morals, knowledge, health, and business.

I. MORALS

1. Be punctual in committing your soul and body to the protection of your Creator every morning and evening. Implore at the same time his mercy in the name of his Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

2. Read in your Bible frequently, more especially on Sundays.

3. Avoid swearing and even an irreverent use of your Creator’s name. Flee youthful lusts.

4. Be courteous and gentle in your behavior to your fellow passengers, and respectful and obedient to the captain of the vessel.

5. Attend public worship regularly every Sunday when you arrive at Calcutta.

II. KNOWLEDGE

1. Begin by studying Guthrie’s Geography.

2. Read your other books through carefully, and converse daily upon the subjects of your reading.

3. Keep a diary of every day’s studies, conversations, and transactions at sea and on shore. Let it be composed in a fair, legible hand. Insert in it an account of the population, manners, climate, diseases, &c., of the places you visit.

4. Preserve an account of every person’s name and disease whom you attend.

III. HEALTH

1. Be temperate* in eating, more especially of animal food. Never taste distilled spirits of any kind, and drink fermented liquors very sparingly.

2. Avoid the night air in sickly situations. Let your dress be rather warmer than the weather would seem to require. Carefully avoid fatigue from all causes both of body and mind.

IV. BUSINESS

1. Take no step in laying out your money without the advice and consent of the captain or supercargo. Let no solicitations prevail with you to leave the captain and supercargo during your residence in Calcutta.

2. Keep an exact account of all your expenditures. Preserve as vouchers of them all your bills.

3. Take care of all your instruments, books, clothes, &c.

Be sober and vigilant. Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you. Recollect further that you are always under the eye of the Supreme Being. One more consideration shall close this parting testimony of our affection. Whenever you are tempted to do an improper thing, fancy that you see your father and mother kneeling before you and imploring you with tears in their eyes to refrain from yielding to the temptation, and assuring you at the same time that your yielding to it will be the means of hurrying them to a premature grave.

Benjn Rush
Julia Rush

* Rush was in fact a vehement proponent of temperance and designed “A Moral and Physical Thermometer” six years prior to penning the letter to his son:

Sadly, John was either ill-equipped to or chose not to follow his parents’ advice. John’s adult life was plagued by mental instability and, though he became a surgeon, his medical career was mediocre at most. Three years before his father’s death, John killed a friend in a duel and went insane. He was institutionalized at the Pennsylvania Hospital, his father’s place of work, where he remained for twenty-seven years until his last breath in 1837.

Posterity, however, is full of timeless epistolary wisdom from and to historical characters of decidedly more hopeful fates than John’s.

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04 JUNE, 2013

Max Out Your Humanity: Oprah’s Harvard Commencement Address on Failure & Finding Your Purpose

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“The key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.”

On the tail end of the year’s finest commencement addresses — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions, and Arianna Huffington on successOprah Winfrey took the stage at Harvard’s 362nd Commencement on May 30, 2013, and addressed the graduating class with a powerful message about failure, purpose, and the meaning of life, with a side of essential political awareness about gun control, immigration, and media ethics. Transcribed highlights below.

Winfrey, echoing Debbie Millman’s wisdom on failure and the creative life and Daniel Dennett’s recent case for the value of mistakes as a tool of improvement, reflects on the inevitability of failure and the necessary, if uncomfortable, growth it affords us if only we approach it with the right mindset:

It doesn’t matter how far you might rise — at some point, you are bound to stumble. Because if you’re constantly doing what we do — raising the bar — if you’re constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, the law of averages predicts that you will, at some point, fall. And when you do, I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.

Now, when you’re down there in the hole, it looks like failure. . . . And when you’re down in the hole, when that moment comes, it’s really okay to feel bad for a little while — give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost — but, then, here’s the key: Learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.

And then, figure out what is the next right move. The key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.

She goes on to emphasize the importance of finding fulfilling work that doesn’t feel like work and that, above all, reflects your sense of purpose and measures success accordingly — something Arianna Huffington argued for in her own recent commencement address — rather than according to the conventional material metrics of success:

The challenge of life, I have found, is to build a resume that doesn’t simply tell a story about what you want to be but it’s a story about who you want to be; it’s a resume that doesn’t just tell a story about what you want to accomplish, but why; a story that’s not just a collection of titles and positions, but a story that’s really about your purpose. Because when you inevitably stumble, and find yourself stuck in a hole, that is the story that will get you out.

[…]

No matter what challenges or setbacks or disappointments you may encounter along the way, you will find true success and happiness if you have only one goal — there really is only one, and that is this: To fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of yourself as a human being. You wanna max out your humanity by using your energy to lift yourself up, your family, and the people around you.

Underpinning Oprah’s message is an important reminder about the deep and universal desire driving most of our actions: the need to be seen for who we really are.

Your generation, I know, has developed a finely honed radar for B.S. — the spin and phoniness and artificial nastiness that saturates so much of our national debate. I know you all understand better than most that real progress requires an authentic way of being, honesty and, above all, empathy. … The single most important lesson I learned in twenty-five years talking every single day to people was that there’s a common denominator in our human experience … we want to be validated, we want to be understood.

Complement Winfrey’s advice with more timeless words of wisdom for graduates from such cultural icons as Bill Watterson, Debbie Millman, Neil Gaiman, Greil Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Jacqueline Novogratz, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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