Friday, January 12, 2007

Humans live to exclude. We all want to be a part of something that most others are not. As a part of our tireless pursuit of distinctiveness, we accept, contribute to, and live in artificial constructs. These constructs can be simple, elaborate, inventive, offensive, inward looking, or outwardly oppressive. Some are based on supposedly ‘genetic’ characteristics; some center on markers only achievable through great effort; others are connected to stages of natural process; and still others are learned, painstakingly passed down from generation to generation. Despite their differences, all are constructs and all are, at the same time, very real and often nearly permanent. All are also, to the extreme displeasure of their architects and believers, eminently graspable.
I am now a father, so I am a member of a not so exclusive, but still far from universal, group. Since I am a member of the educated elite, I am also eligible for membership in a much more exclusive club of socially approved parents who appreciate the importance of Baby Einstein and Haba, and can afford plenty of both. The socially constructed nature of the latter, and more exclusive group seems eminently clear, but simply being a parent is subject to just as much construction. To be a parent, in our society, is to be a self sacrificing saint who can smugly and incessantly say to non-child owning humans some variant of the following: “oh, you don’t have kids, so you can’t really understand.” A parent may have no life, but at least they have a way of putting down other people. Of course, others can understand. They can’t know, but an intelligent person can guess. Having a kid is pretty much like I expected it to be. I love her more than I might have thought, but changing a diaper is pretty much like I thought wiping shit off the ass of another would be. Not sleeping sucks, but it isn’t mysterious. As I could have guessed, and did, sports is not quite as important, but still more important than it probably should be. I will admit that I play the parent card. Why shouldn’t I? I do it, however, completely aware and comfortable with the fact that my grandmother was right that, as the color of my eyes testifies, I am full of shit right up to …
The one other problem I have not yet laid out on the table is the non-uniformity of these constructions. I am a father, but what it means to me to be a father is not the same as what it means to be a father to every other man who fucked a woman and eneded up with progeny. To start with, for me it means that I have a captive audience for poetry recitation. It also means that I have to sing in a falsetto more often in a day than anyone named Gibb ever did. It means that I have to be down on my knees more often than any heterosexual man usually is. It means that I have to be even goofier than normal, and those that know me know that that is really really really goofy. So, while everyone can understand what it means to be a father, they can’t know what it means for me to be a father. They can understand it, if they take the time to think about me as a person and about the circumstances within which I perform my fatherly duties.
I can understand what it means for someone to be gay, Black, or Muslim. All are situational constructs. In a very real way, no one can ever fully understand what it means to be Black in America, because it doesn’t mean any one thing. It would be easier to understand if it did. This is kind of ironic. If being Black was a real inherited thing, and not a societal construct that has varied tremendously over time and which right now in our society means a great deal very little if any of which is at all genetic, then it would actually be extremely easy to grasp. White people would have no trouble understanding exactly what it means to be Black. To be Black, is, however, to be a part of an exclusive group which distinguishes itself from others by the use of a construct that has been passed down from generation to generation, and edited in many different ways by each successive generation. The same can be said of homosexuality. I hope no one really thinks that certain women inherit buzz cuts, a need to ride motorcycles, and a compulsion to dress like a sloppy frat boy. When some women accuse others of not being real lesbians, they are simply policing and/or editing their construction.
These constructions are not transparent or flimsy, but they are discoverable and changeable. These, in fact, are their only common and enduring characteristics. Humans live to exclude, but they can’t help but be affected by each other and their environment. Humans live to exclude, but they have never done it with un-alterability or superb effectiveness.

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