today i learned a new label for myself that partially applies

It was interesting to read Children of Psychiatrists and Other Psychotherapists and think about how my dad’s social worker job affected me. The thing about having an atypical upbringing is that you don’t know it was atypical until you go out and can’t relate to people, or someone tells you something was weird. One of the patterns in the book I hadn’t considered was a tendency towards “non-directive” parenting, letting kids make decisions they’re too young to be making.

I can think of some examples. When I was 4 or 5, before starting kindergarten, my parents decided it would be good to put me in day care so I’d get used to other children. I’m told I really liked to line Matchbox cars up in a row and inch them forward one-by-one, not letting anyone else touch the cars. Seems like a sensible idea.

I was brought to two different places, and it was up to me which one I’d attend. There was one place I think might’ve even been a Montessori school, and it had other kids my age. The other place was mostly toddlers, and even the people working there thought I was sort of too old, but its playground had a big boat in it. I liked the boat, and that was that, so I have a few vague memories of the place. My mom pointed out at the time that it was absurd to put a 4-year old in charge of his interpersonal development.

My entire life, my impression has been (and still mostly is) that CBT is sort of obvious and patronizing. It’s only now that I can look back and see how it was applied to me in childhood. Of course I think things I did at age 8 are obvious. For example, around that age, my mom decided that I should know how to swim, as a general life skill. I was enrolled in swimming lessons at the local pool. Several times. I kept failing the final test because I was too afraid of something or another. I didn’t want to be there. I think my dad was sympathetic because he was afraid of the water and couldn’t swim, either. Anyway, he sat me down in the living room with a sheet of paper and had me enumerate and rank-order my interests. Skateboarding and BMX came before swimming, and I was free of swimming lessons forever (I learned to swim on my own in 5th grade when I was lame for not going in the deep end with everyone else. My mom was surprised).

So I’d make these decisions and my dad would defer to them and my parents would fight about it and my mom would resent me and tell me I’m manipulative. It’s hard to blame her too much for this. There was the time my dad called CPS when she changed her mind about picking up some fast food for me (“not feeding the boy”), and he made a big show of threatening to move out…Yes, really. The CPS person on the phone correctly determined that this was insane. On the other hand, I do blame my mom for being a Jehovah’s Witness.

She regularly deferred to my dad against her own best judgment, because of the religion’s emphasis on “wifely subjection“. Here’s some spiritual food from 2007 (!):

The reason that a woman in particular should give attention to whom she marries is the Bible’s caution: “A married woman is bound by law to her husband.” Only if he dies or commits immorality and the couple is divorced because of it is she “free from his law.” (Romans 7:2, 3) The love-at-first-sight feeling may be enough for a pleasurable romance, but it is not an adequate basis for a happy marriage. A single woman, therefore, needs to ask herself, ‘Am I willing to enter into an arrangement in which I will come under the law of this man?’ The time to consider this question is before getting married, not afterward.

When encouraging Christians to be submissive even to harsh, unjust authorities of this world, Peter explained: “In fact, to this course you were called, because even Christ suffered for you, leaving you a model for you to follow his steps closely.” (1 Peter 2:21) After describing how much Jesus suffered and how he submissively endured, Peter encouraged wives of unbelieving husbands: “In like manner, you wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, in order that, if any are not obedient to the word, they may be won without a word through the conduct of their wives, because of having been eyewitnesses of your chaste conduct together with deep respect.”—1 Peter 3:1, 2.

So there was an unholy interaction between my mom’s religion and my dad’s job. My parents met in the first place because my dad was in the Army, and he was in the civil service working for the Navy by the time I was born. I was born in California and moved to Germany from ages 2-5. After that it was back to Washington State until the middle of 4th grade. Then I lived in Sicily until early in 8th grade, when I returned to Washington and my dad retired.

That obviously had life-determining effects on me, but I never knew there was a research literature on military brats and “third culture kids“. Ok…that explains a lot. I just ordered the DVD of this, and I can tell it’s going to be one of my favorite movies:

I guess it’s “normal” that I should grow up unable to identify with anything, and that I should have a “prolonged adolescence“:

Only one out of every 10 of our nearly 700 adult TCKs [“Third Culture Kids”], who range in age from 25 to 80, say that they feel completely attuned to everyday life in the U.S. The other 90 percent say they are more or less “out of synch” with their age group throughout their lifetimes.

Being out of step with those around them is especially noticeable (and painful) in the late teens and twenties when choice of mate, occupation, and life style are being worked out. Some young adult TCKs strike their close peers, parents, and counselors as being self-centered adolescents, as having champagne tastes on beer incomes (or no incomes), as not being able to make up their minds about what they want to do with their lives, where they want to live, and whether or not they want to “settle down, get married, and have children.” They have what some call “prolonged adolescence.”

Others do what those around them are doing. They marry at the appropriate time, get a “good” job, have a child or children, take on a mortgage, and then throw it all over at 40 in order to take a job overseas. Some resign from high-paying positions and return to college to be retrained for a low-paying teaching job. Still others withdraw from all social contact because of extreme depression and others withdraw because they have come into an inheritance and are quite happy doing nothing but writing French poetry or traveling to all the places they’ve never been. That is what some have called delayed adolescence.

In a few instances, persons have labeled these actions as character defects in need of psychological counseling or as immoral behavior which should be repented. Usually, however, their behavior goes unremarked by persons beyond their immediate families

On the surface, most adult TCKs conform to what is going on around them in such a way that attention is not drawn to them. As they meet new people and situations, they are slow to commit themselves until they have observed what is expected behavior. If what is expected is unacceptable or incomprehensible they will quietly withdraw rather than make fools of themselves or hurt the feelings of others.

…they are actively creating provisional answers to some of the major and minor problems which daily face human beings in this complex world. Their prolonged/delayed adolescent behavior is usually a marker that adult TCKs are trying to bring order out of the chaotic nature of their lives.

I think it’s funny that the Wikipedia article lists avoidant personality disorder in particular as a thing that can happen to military children:

Because military brats are constantly making new friends to replace the ones that they have lost, they are often more outgoing and independent. On the other hand, the experience of being a constant stranger can lead them to feel estranged everywhere, even if later in life they settle down in one place. According to the largest study conducted on nearly 700 TCKs, eighty percent claim that they can relate to anyone, regardless of differences such as race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality.

A typical military school can experience up to 50% turnover every year (25% graduate while a third of the remaining 75% of students move); social groups that existed one year cease to exist as new groups emerge. The brat learns to adapt quickly to fit into this ever-changing environment. Highly mobile children are more likely to reach out to a new student, because they know what it is like to be the new student.

Recent studies show that, although brats move on average every 3 years, they do not grow accustomed to moving. The constantly changing environment and openness to others has a price. Rather than develop problem-solving skills, there is a temptation to simply leave a problem without resolving it. If a person does not like somebody or gets into a fight, they know that in a few years somebody will move and the problem will disappear. On the other hand, when brats marry it is generally for life; over two thirds of brats over 40 are married to their first spouse. Studies show that many brats become very adaptable as a result of the mobile lifestyle, but there is also a higher than average incidence, among a minority of military brats, of Avoidant Personality Disorder and Separation Anxiety Disorder.

Just like Wikipedia says, it’s difficult being surrounded by geographically clueless people. My existence itself is a product of American foreign policy, because my dad met one of the locals near a base in Germany. It’s hard to ignore the American empire when you grew up in its far-flung outposts. I know what an “ugly American” is, I remember the Okinawa rape case, and I’ve seen how many Americans live in foreign countries for YEARS and never bother learning the local language (I barely learned Italian). For most of my childhood, we drove a 1984 Mercedes we could afford because the exchange rate was 3 DMs to the dollar. On the other hand, I made friends with the kids in my German grandmother’s neighborhood, including Amir from Turkey and Hussein from Lebanon. Amir’s house is the first place I saw Doom, and Hussein had a lot of Jackie Chan movies. Consequently, I haven’t been able to think of soldiers as noble demi-gods or Middle Eastern people as subhuman monsters. I just can’t get with the program, due to actual experience of both.

Another unholy interaction between my mom’s religion and my dad’s job:  can you think of a less sympathetic environment not to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance every morning?  Additionally, everyone was supposed to stop what they were doing immediately and place their hands over the heart at 5 PM, no exceptions, wherever you were on base. Sort of like a call to prayer.  Never having said the Pledge is one of the things about the religious upbringing that I appreciate in adulthood.  If only everyone raised their children to take moral stands in the face of peer pressure…

Elaborating on the point about “champagne tastes on beer income,” growing up overseas on a base is also weird in terms of class. In the US, the people in the military generally aren’t rich people who can afford to go sightseeing in Rome. I did a LOT of sightseeing when we lived overseas. Taormina was an hour away, and sometimes we’d go there just to eat at a nice restaurant and do tourist stuff. I still have a caricature of myself drawn by a street artist there. In 2013, I was like “No way!” when I saw Taormina in the New York Times travel section:

Situated about 30 miles north of Catania on the eastern coast of Sicily, Taormina is a gorgeous seaside town perched on a hilltop. It has everything a traveler in search of a storybook Mediterranean escape could hope for: a medieval layout; ancient ruins; belle époque villas; and sweeping views of the Ionian Sea, the Sicilian coastline and, on clear days, the smoky crest of Mount Etna (about 20 miles away as the crow flies). The town has long attracted literary titans, including D. H. Lawrence and Goethe, who once compared Taormina to paradise, and generations of glamorous celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren.

I’ve walked around on Mt. Etna, driven through a 10-mile tunnel in the Alps, seen the Sistine Chapel, took cheesy photos at Pisa and went to a nearby Chinese restaurant, and climbed to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. It was totally a skate spot, too, although I never had my board with me there.  In general, skateboarding absolutely gave me a way to have things in common with people despite a language barrier.

Back to class, it was much later that I realized how much that kind of thing is usually limited to rich people. For me, MWR had tours you could sign up with all the time, and they’d just drive you to Greco-Roman ruins or a church covered in gold or something (MWR is just one of many acronyms from childhood). As an adult, I hate airports and think air travel is environmentally destructive. I love this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, and at one point I put it in my OkCupid profile as an explanation for why I don’t like to travel:

It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

It’s very easy for me to say, though, isn’t it? I can stick to abstract ethical principles and not miss out. People who fly to climate change conferences are the worst, though.  At the same time, it’s true.  “The only thing all your problems have in common is you.”

Just having dollars made you rich, though, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. I understood how you could gain or lose money by betting on how the exchange rate would change (lol forex). How often do non-wealthy people think about exchange rates? I was a total loser at the American school, but being an American automatically increased my coolness when I visited my mom’s side of the family in Germany.

Debate and graduate school were similar experiences of getting to do things normally limited to rich people.

Not really rich or poor or white or black or American or German or…I have no identity. Maybe Americans don’t. Baudrillard said we may have no identity, but we do have wonderful teeth:

And that smile everyone gives you as they pass, that friendly contraction of the jaws triggered by human warmth. It is the eternal smile of communication, the smile through which the child becomes aware of the presence of others, or struggles desperately with the problem of their presence. It is the equivalent of the primal scream of man alone in the world.

Whether I am right in all this or not, they certainly do smile at you here, though neither from courtesy, nor from an effort of charm. This smile signifies only the need to smile. It is a bit like the cheshire cat’s grin: it continues to float on faces long after all emotion has disappeared. A smile available at any moment, but half-scared to exist, to give itself away. No ulterior motive lurks behind it, but it keeps you at a distance. It is part of the general cryogenization of emotions.

It is, indeed, the smile the dead man will wear in his funeral home, as he clings to a hope of maintaining contact even in the next world. The smile of immunity, the smile of advertising: “This country is good. I am good. We are the best.” It is also Reagan’s smile–the culmination of the self-satisfaction of the entire American nation–which is on the way to becoming the sole principle of government.

An autoprophetic smile, like all signs in advertising. Smile and others will smile back. Smile to show how transparent, how candid you are. Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others. Let this emptiness, this profound indifference shine out spontaneously in your smile. Give your emptiness and indifference to others, light up your face with the zero degree of joy and pleasure, smile, smile, smile…Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.

It’s actually profound that the children of the most American people, as a group, with an upbringing dictated by the military, have issues with authority, go into service professions, and don’t relate to America’s cultural isolation. I love that Wikipedia’s “third culture kids” article calls this “painful awareness of reality.” Simply seeing more of the world and more of the military has that effect on people, even as children. The children can’t help but see what most of society doesn’t want to see.