Family Tradition

When I brought my father home from the hospital the last time, three and a half months after a fall, a missed diagnosis, and ignorant treatment left him a paraplegic, and left him only a week away from the infection caused by overuse of antibiotics to solve a non-existent problem, there was one thing he was clear that he wanted.

It was time to go through his technical writing again, to assemble another paper on special situations in jet engine dynamics, to be thrown up against the experts in the field who had long since decided he was a crackpot and no more from him would be allowed.

At 87 years old, long after most had given up the technical fight for golf or leisure,  my Aspergers father wanted to make sure he could work on his technical papers again.

By this point, I was the only one who was engaging him, editing, arguing, challenging, clarifying and just giving him the counter force he needed to keep thinking, thinking, thinking about the experiences of a rich and idiosyncratic life in design engineering.

This ferocity, his inability to take “yes” for an answer was one of his defining characteristics.   The other was his unconditional love, always coupled with an inability to understand emotion and nuance, that lead him to give and to serve, often without helping.

To his dying day, my father still wanted to be up against that coal face, smashing away at the wall of complacency that experts who never really tended a machine put up.   He wanted to fight the academics who believed in their simplified computer models, never understanding how exceptional and quirky real systems can be in operation.   One of his treasures was a copy of an 1854 article by Rankine on shaft vibration, an article misread by experts after his death, and then blamed for their own mistakes.   Such a battle.

Writing into the void, challenging texts that seek to get to a deeper understanding of the eccentricity of the real world, where forces cannot easily be simplified, even as experts dismiss your work as that of a kook, well, seeing that means I see myself as my father’s child.

I slog against the same kind of coal face, my computer just feet away of where he did his work, set up so I can peek past my monitor to see how he is doing, where he needs assistance.   The Avro Arrow soars when I look up as it never did in life, the engines he helped design burning only on paper.

The isolation and the persistence, the dogged work to explain, never giving up, well, it’s just a powerful family tradition, even if it is not one that was ever valued much outside this basement.

On Father’s Day 2000, 14 years ago, I gave him a website just to help him get his papers onto the internet.   I was there, all the time.   I’m not the first in my family to sit in this basement, railing away on the internet like a crackpot, but I suspect I will be the last.

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
— Calvin Coolidge

“Why God, why do you keep afflicting me?” I asked.

Her answer was simple.

“Do you have any idea how stubborn you are?”

I do know how stubborn my parents were, do know how they taught me the behaviours and choices of Aspergers, the best that they had to give.   I got unbounded curiosity from my mother, stubborn thought from my father.

I have known many people who cared for me who wanted to know when, when, I would stop being persistent and stubborn, would just move on rather than pounding at the same damn coal face all my life.

I am awfully proud of my father the crackpot.  He knew what he believed to be right and kept toiling away, trying to get that knowledge into the world.

That’s a family tradition that I valued.

Conventional Loss

It’s impossible to rethink every moment of your life.

Researchers will be happy to explain to you the limits of perception.   It’s amazing how much people miss when they think they are looking hard.  If you work really hard, you can expand what you experience, but in the end, the limits of the senses and brain focus really do create hard edges to what you can perceive.

It turns out that we need the narratives of others sharing what they perceive to build up a bigger view of the world, to have more context.   It is only by working to engage the experience of others that we can expand our own consciousness beyond our blind spots.

If we don’t have the power to even experience the world as it is, instead writing huge amounts of it off as noise, beyond our power to discriminate, how can we have the power to understand everything that is going on around us at all times?

Writers understand this challenge.   If we want to convey stories to you, we need a shorthand that symbolizes what you already know and understand in big, satisfying blocks.

These blocks are the conventions of storytelling, easy building blocks that can be arranged in different ways with a twist here or a new image there, the conventional and comfortable spiced with just enough novelty to keep your attention.

When they built Oscar Meyer Lunchables, they knew that shoppers would feel better with a product they already understood 80-90% of, and only had a small twist.   They bits of meat and cheese and cracker were all very conventional, very comfortable, while only the sectioned yellow tray was novel.

The marketer had seconds to get the idea across, so keeping the amount of thinking down for a busy, shopping mom was crucial.  She had plenty of other things to use her brain for.

As a transperson, I am limited by the conventions you already have in your brain.  The most I can ask is for a second or two of new understanding, not for a whole rethinking of all the deeply held conventions you hold about gender and separation.

ShamanGal was in a workshop at Esalen.  Two gals her age saw her as a transwoman right away, though they didn’t suggest that to SG until she came out to them.  They had enough experience with transpeople that they could understand her in context, not just “a tranny” but as an individual.

For the rest of the group, older women, when SG shared her trans view on the topics of biology, gender and stress, they were taken aback.   This wasn’t someone who fit their conventions of transpeople, defended and hurting souls who were just guys-in-dresses.

The young women who already a had a set of very broad and more nuanced conventions around what a transperson is got SG quick.    The older women, who had much more rigid and limited conventions around trans, didn’t really get SG at all, because they had no time, no incentive and no mindshare to do the very, very hard work of taking apart their old conventions and building new.

There is no room in our head for new conventions unless and until we are ready to remove the conventions that already fill that space.

Change in scientific thought often comes slowly because the people holding the old conventions have to die off, opening the path to power for those with newer conventions, who then go on to obstruct progress in their own way.

My own conventional understandings are always under examination.   I am ready to move beyond my old expectations to be present enough to see things in a new way, a new light, through new eyes.

This is what being present and vulnerable is about, the willingness to sweep away outdated conventions to see the world in a queer way, always looking for nuance and uniqueness.  It demands we come out from the fortress of convention to be exposed and open to what really is in the world.

A huge amount of business consulting is based around this simple premise: how do you see the world not as you expect it to be but as it really is?   How does engaging what is change your attitude, approaches and choices in the world?

The basic trick of trans narrative construction has always been simple.  How do I use the conventions you already hold, add a twist, and then get you to respond as I want?

Abjection and oppression of gender have always been at the heart of those stories, along with birth defects or hobbyist tropes.  We don’t try and form new conventions because we know that the limits of our stories are the limits of the comprehension of our audience, and those limits are the limits of the conventional thinking they already hold.

We live inside the conventions of our culture, and those conventions don’t allow transpeople much breathing room.

If SG had asked if transwomen would be welcome in the workshop, the odds are good that people would say no, because their conventional image of what a transperson is is defended and clunky, someone who might make other women feel uncomfortable.   In the name of Thirdhand Fear, they would have excluded an irritant, just for their own good, much as SG was not invited to a work friend’s bachelorette party.

But SG didn’t fit their conventions about transpeople, so even when she spoke from her trans experience, it just read as noise to many.

I know who I am.   I know how to express myself.   I don’t know, however, how to thrive within the limits of your conventional thinking.   I have seen too many faces glaze over while I tried to explain myself, knowing that “blah blah blah,” was all that they were perceiving.

Engaging stories, I see the conventions at work, shorthand for understanding, taking away the audience obligation to think by using easy shorthand.   It’s impossible to rethink every moment of your life, so creators learn to keep novelty to a minimum, using it only where absolutely required.   Even improv artists know that audiences love it when their conventional expectations are affirmed and not challenged.

People love their conventions, usually so much that whatever doesn’t fit into them is lost.  We often call that observer bias, the engaging of what fits our conventional expectations and the discarding of what challenges them.

I don’t know how to live inside of the conventions of people around me, including the convention many young people who are open have that I am crusty, oppressive and over-the-hill because I am not young and pretty, because I do not conform to the conventions of youth.

Conventional loss is taken for granted in human culture.  What doesn’t fit the convention falls through the cracks, left for the queers.

My loss.