Just Merveilleux

Life at № 42

Before the Time Before

Writing [for me] is an exercise. A necessary exercise. Unlike other children, both my ability and desire to communicate were thoroughly limited. This wasn’t always a problem. My earliest memories are of a very quiet place called Stillwater, Oklahoma. People are usually shocked by that. They expect me to say something like Paris, or New York, or Marbella- but no, Stillwater. When I was little my father got a place at a research program at the university there- so off we went. Stillwater, population 38,000.

Oklahoma, early 1980’s

Life was peaceful. We lived in the suburbs. The carpet was blue. The supermarket had a big red S. There was a Woolworth’s which had a toy section. I liked models of ships. I could only get a new one when I finished putting one I already had together. I went to a Presbyterian preschool. My mother saw a cross and expensive cars and decided those must be the Oklahoma Catholics. Being Spanish she doesn’t really believe there are categories of religion/people other than Catholic and Bad Catholic. She had English conversation classes Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and aerobics Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. I saw my father at night and on weekends. People left me alone, and I was happy to be left alone. I liked colouring books, but not for colouring. I separated pictures into sections and drew patterns within patterns. At that point I was an only child. This was immediately preceding The Time Before.

Arriving in Brazil and The Time Before was a shock. The noise was extraordinary. Smells were very strong. People talked to me for no reason at all. This was new. Communication with my parents had been utilitarian. At school as well. My French grandmother was very demanding. I was no longer allowed to answer anything by nodding yes or shaking my head for no. I had to speak. I was also expected to give elaborate answers to pointless questions. I discovered pointless interaction is exceedingly important to people. It’s called conversation. Mostly nothing is learnt or gained, but people do it anyway. It is, for the most part, an exercise in affirmation- either of ideas/opinions or of status within the group. It’s also often used to feed delusions.

Conformity was highly prised. This is when I first learnt that the more you can emulate the behaviour of others within a group, the less you’re questioned or reprimanded. This can be very tiresome. During my first week I did everything wrong. By the end of the second week my emulation skills were acceptable. You have to look at people when they speak to you. You have to smile when introduced to people. You have to react to what people say (in this case nodding or shaking the head is allowed)- agreement/confirmation is preferred. I realised I was different. Not a little bit different, nearly a different animal. In Oklahoma I laboured under the delusion everyone was like me. Life allowed for it. In Brazil this was not possible. Everything about me was different- from my colour, to my accent, to my clothes, to my interests, to my references, to my reactions- all different.

My “natural” role in that society was predetermined. Male and first born, son of another with those same characteristics, meant a good place in the hierarchy. I discovered perception and reality were not married. Rather, reality was determined by hierarchy. Once a policeman stopped my grandfather for speeding, my grandfather called the Chief of Police to tell him he had not been speeding, and he decided my grandfather must be telling the truth and the policeman was mistaken. This also applied in homes. The owners of a house were always presumed to be telling the truth, whereas what the staff said could always be put in doubt. This was very useful to a child such as myself.

I didn’t understand the concept of family, certainly not in the way they understood it. I felt no connection to any of the people. This made me feel guilty. Many of them seemed highly interested (and invested) in interacting with me. It was exhausting. I was often pressed to vocalise emotions I did not have. Demands to confirm affection and to affirm group values were constant. Not terribly difficult to do because this was a society designed around… let’s call them delusions and cliches. I know that’s the case of most societies, but it’s a matter of degree. This is a place where someone living in a slum with no running water and no access to healthcare can be heard saying they live in the best country in the world.

To be continued

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50 comments on “Before the Time Before

  1. Steve Ruis
    June 20, 2017

    Fascinating. I do not remember being five, or ten for that matter, and I can’t remember a time when I did! I suspect that my internal life was very simple (pursue pleasure, avoid pain) but I think I was a pleaser. someone who wanted to please. I have a private theory that girls remember better than boys, at least when it comes to personal interactions, because their safety/security depends on how well they can adapt to the forces around them. Boys, on the other hand, seemed to be auditioning to be a Master of the Universe, preparing to wield forces rather than to be subject to them. But then, you were first born, and I was last (being preceded by two sisters). My “theory” is, of course, half-baked, but you seem to fall somewhere between my two archetypes: another aspect of my fascination with your life.

    The irony is, of course, that we are communicating across whole continents at this point and your communication skills are very high, despite having lived in Stillwater OK!

    Liked by 4 people

    • How interesting. It must be wonderful to not remember things. I’d happily give up years of memory 🙂
      My communication skills are still not naturally good. Especially not in person. In writing I have time to organise ideas, and for personal interaction I rehearse scenarios in my mind to be prepared, that way I give the impression of normality. But I’m told I still seem extremely formal.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Steve Ruis
        June 21, 2017

        The less I like someone, the more formal I am with them. Manners, after all, were invented as a form of social lubricant, so as to not rub people the wrong way. If I like you, I tend to be quite casual, unless that would make you uncomfortable.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Clare Flourish
    June 20, 2017

    My niece, sometime around the age of three, had a phase of repeatedly saying to relatives, “I love you”, which perplexed me. Was she

    telling the truth
    ingratiating herself
    experimenting on our reactions?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’d go for the third option. It’s very interesting, which one do you think it is?

      Like

      • Clare Flourish
        June 20, 2017

        Knowing her now, I think she observed how much people liked it, and did it to please them. But then you read about pathways in the brain being reinforced by repetition, so perhaps it was habit, until she broke the habit.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Clare Flourish
    June 20, 2017

    Oh, and- I find cliched, expected responses reassuring. I know what to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ruth
    June 20, 2017

    You had an interesting childhood.

    Question: Did time spent on your own as a child result in contentment with time spent alone as an adult?

    I’m terribly uncomfortable with small talk. I despise talking on the phone. Conversation should have a point. The weather isn’t it.

    Liked by 4 people

    • The time spent on my own as a child was progressively reduced, which I found terribly difficult. I was permanently looking for things to do where I’d be on my own, like showjumping or running.
      I couldn’t agree more on the phone. I normally don’t answer. I let people leave a message and then if possible I answer by email 😀

      Like

    • john zande
      June 20, 2017

      How’s the weather up there today, Ruth?

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Sirius Bizinus
    June 20, 2017

    We were in Oklahoma at the same time (I was born about 150 miles away, in Fort Sill). I might have even left around the same time you did.

    It’s amazing how learning about conversation provides insight on human interaction. Expected responses are, I think, a way to reduce anxiety. People won’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing, and they can be reassured that others hold no ill will. All of this, despite it not really working.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting, then maybe it was something in the water that made us strange! 😀 We only left definitively in 85/86.

      I think you’re right on the reduced anxiety. It’s the not working aspect I don’t quite get. If something doesn’t work, repeatedly, at what point do people accept it’s not a reasonable option?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. makagutu
    June 20, 2017

    Brilliant.
    I think is should get the contact of chief of police 🙂
    I don’t recall much of my childhood but I think we were always quiet unless spoken to and some such nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. persedeplume
    June 20, 2017

    I’m not familiar with Stillwater, OK. It’s the good part of Oklahoma I’m assuming. They have musicals, cool summer breezes, ice cream socials, and everyone including the Barber knows your name. Everything’s just a short ride on a bicycle away….
    My experience of Oklahoma left me feeling like I’d just gone over Niagara in a barrel and sitting in the unrelenting sun left my head buzzing like it was full of Cicadas. I didn’t like it and I never went back. I’ve been told I overreact to things, so there’s that.
    I find that family “bond” [for me, anyway. I’m told others experience it differently] isn’t love or trust, it’s an obligation. You can tell by the way they say FAMilee while looking at you like Uncle Versey eyes the last piece of chicken.

    It’s a delightful story and I can’t wait to read more.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good part might be pushing it 😀 Although it is where James Marsden was born!
      In hindsight the type of life we had there suited me much better than what followed.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Linn
      June 21, 2017

      Hmm. So do you believe that families need obligations to keep them together in addition to love or do you think it’s impossible to love someone? Because I really do love my family. My mom is my best friend even. I talk to her every day by choice.
      And in my experience parental love is the strongest there is. The vast majority of parents I’ve met love their kids and don’t just keep them around because of obligations.
      I can see by the way my brother’s eyes light up whenever he holds his sons. He could have left his wife long ago if he wanted. He had no obligation to stay with her.
      My parents also had no obligation to stay together for as many decades as they have. So in my eyes, love is what keeps families together.
      The ones that don’t feel that drift apart and get a divorce (which is allowed these days so there’s nothing forcing families to stay together).
      I’m sorry if I completely misunderstood you, which tends to happen sometimes.

      To get back to the main topic: I also felt I was different, but the whole meaningless socialising thing seems to be a little easier here than in many other countries. We Norwegians have a reputation of being rude because we’re not as eager to ask pointless “polite” questions to strangers. And we also have a reputation of actually answering the question, “How are you?” truthfully (which many foreigners also consider rude)
      I’ve also lived in Poland and they’re the same way so I felt comfortable there.
      I prefer people that leave me alone.
      I also prefer to talk about deeper topics like the beginnings of the universe, religion and different political topics, which are considered rude things to talk about in most social settings.

      Liked by 1 person

      • But what do you think is the basis for parental/filial love? If you were to meet your immediate family for the first time at a dinner party, how do you think you’d feel about them?

        Like

      • john zande
        June 21, 2017

        Ha! That’s my take on the Golden Rule, and way i guage myself… “If I were to meet myself, would I like myself?”

        It’s a question more people should ask.

        Liked by 2 people

      • persedeplume
        June 21, 2017

        Hi Linn. My reader’s not showing your comment as a reply to me. If it is, I’ll clarify my remarks as best I can. 🙂
        I don’t think my personal experiences are typical of how society at large lives their lives. I also don’t think the majority of people prefer to be solitary rather than gregarious. I was referring to my life, being sympatico with how Pink’s attitude of grace in overcoming personal adversity triumphs in a well written memoir.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linn
        June 21, 2017

        Hmm. I did mean the comment as a reply to persedeplume (and thank you for the reply, I understand what you meant now).
        Sorry if that wasnt clear. I pressed reply below his post.

        To Mr.M:
        The basis for parental love is evolutionary driven mechanism leading to a change in brain chemistry giving us need to protect our genetic material of course.
        It’s still love. I’ve never understood religious people that accuse atheists of being incapable of love just because we’re able to accept that it has a physical explanation.
        The same goes for love of other family members. I’m conditioned to love them because doing so increases my own survival and survival as a species.
        Same with friends, lovers etc. It’s all still love. We feel it just as strongly, even though it has an explanation.

        Another reason for parental/family love often being so strong is becase you live with those people for a long time. My parents have seen me sick, angry, sad, happy, thoughtful, witty, boring, silent, chatty and so on. They have also seen each other in all those states of being for decades. That forges a stronger relationship than one you have with a friend you see once a month.

        It’s impossible to say what type of person I would have been without my family and therefore it’s impossible to say what I would have felt about them. If my personality had been completely different I might not like them of course. But since I grew up with them, my personality has been affected by them and therefore I like them.

        My mom and I would have gotten along great regardless. My father is more withdrawn and has some annoying opinions on things so I don’t know what I would have felt if I didn’t know him.
        My brother was funnier when he was younger and I would have liked him them, a little less now, but I would still see him as a good guy. One of my aunts is my moms twin sister and she’s great and we share interests just like I do with my mom. My other aunt is also nice. My uncle is funny. My grandfather and I would probably still have the same talks about the evils of religion and the consequences of time travel, even if we’d never met each other before.

        I don’t know if that answers your question Mr.M. Probably just gave you more information about me than you need. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • The evolutionary angle is fascinating to me. Protection of existing genetic material + optimisation of the material through mating. “Love” is the tool in both those things. And yes, I can see it’s real, but doesn’t knowing it’s a mechanism change anything for you? Or at least make you consider the process of optimisation itself?
        For example, when choosing a mate should we be guided by impulses or should we try to be as rational as possible because that’s what will lead to the best results?

        Like

      • Linn
        June 21, 2017

        Mr. M: It doesn’t really change much for me no. I have no interest in how I can most effectively pass on my genetic material (and clearly, neither do you).

        I don’t know what it really means to make a rational choice in such a regard because it all comes down to emotions anyway. Should it be considered more rational to pick someone that is better for breeding? Does that mean homosexuals are more irrational than heterosexuals? But then, are following ones instincts to breed rational?

        I’ve never quite understood what is meant by the word rational, since it’s used in so many different settings. It’s impossible for humans to make decisions without emotion, and someone with damage to centers of the brain responsible for some emotions (like the amygdala for instance) would exhibit behaviours that would be seen as irrational by others.

        When picking someone to be with (either as a friend or lover) it will always be a choice made through our own impulses/emotions.
        If I pick a lover partly based on his interest in traveling, then that is an emotional reason even though I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I picked him because he gets the same impulse to travel as I have.
        If he picks me because he sees the size of my hips makes me a good bearer of children, is that more or less rational than my reason for picking him?

        And, like I stated earlier, love also comes from the need to survive, both as an individual and as a social species. Why should the need to survive be considered any more rational than the love that springs from it?
        We can accept facts about our brains but I still don’t think it will ever lead to us feeling less or differently, because the reasons for those feelings are irrational to being with.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Fascinating. I guess I’m interested in to what degree people let emotion guide them (in an automatic sense.) I have the impression few people question their impulses or the likely outcomes of those impulses.

        Like

  8. Carmen
    June 20, 2017

    Mr. M. – I didn’t just ‘like’ persedeplume’s comment because I thought it was funny; I actually think it’s true. You have turned out well – uber-smart, funny, engaging – and it’s not my place as I’m not privy to your circumstances, but I cannot help but think (as mothers do) that I’d be pining away for you if I were your mum. (Keep in mind that I have a daughter the same age as you)

    Also you might want to know that I accompanied our 6-yr-old granddaughter’s class on a trip today and got many hugs from a little dark-haired, dark-eyed fellow whose name was called quite frequently. (As in, “Harry, butt in seat!”, “Harry, you need to slow down!”, and “HARRY – try not to run over people’s lunch bags!”)

    I do love those precocious urchins. . .

    Liked by 3 people

    • I was certainly a Harry 😀

      Where family’s concerned I didn’t see any scenario that could function. They’re too heavily invested in social constructs and conformity.

      Like

      • Carmen
        June 20, 2017

        I had a sneaking suspicion you’d identify with Harry. 🙂

        Another story about him. Margaret (our granddaughter) is a lovely, well-behaved little girl who gets along with everyone. She’s a rule keeper and very anxious to do all things well. She told us at the beginning of the year that the teacher had stars strung over the blackboard with the students’ names written on them. If she had to get after them for an infraction, she’d simply turn their stars over. For the first few weeks of school, she informed us that poor little Harry had his star turned over every single day. Later on in the year, I happened to ask her if Harry had received a turned-over star this particular day, which happened to be a half day (teacher In-Service in the p.m). “No!”, she said, “Mrs. T was so proud of him – it was the first time he didn’t !” I said I figured that was the secret – Harry should only be going half days! 🙂
        (Needless to say, Margaret has never had her star turned over – she’d be mortified if it happened)

        Liked by 2 people

      • Imagine all the pressure he has to deal with. As the system is set up, every day he’s told that because he doesn’t conform, he’s a failure. Because he doesn’t satisfy expectations, he’s not living up to what people would like him to be.

        Like

      • Carmen
        June 20, 2017

        Well, he’s very well-liked by his peers and he’s the son of a single Mum who is very encouraging and affirming; he’s well-loved! And then he’s got at least one old granny telling him he’s a gem. 🙂 But I know what you mean about the system. . . Sigh. . .

        Liked by 2 people

      • All that definitely helps. Things have improved dramatically in a social sense. Punishment at my school was being sent to a bench outside the office (outdoors) so everyone going in or out could know you were bad.

        Like

    • Linn
      June 21, 2017

      Your comment about the star system at school and poor Harry having his star turned over every day bothers me. I truly dislike those type of systems for ranking young kids. I don’t actually remember if we had any system like that in primary school when I was young, but it’s probably being used many places.
      Have any of you seen the chinese movie “Little red flowers?” That’s a story about the need to conform and the kids get handed out little red flowers (instead of stars) as a reward.
      Look it up if you haven’t. It’s heartbreaking.

      The majority of parents try to do their best for their kids, but the school system in general isn’t good enough in any country.
      There’s a lot of media attention now regarding the problem of teenagers destroying themselves in their desperate need to be successful. Every day consists of trying to balance school, homework, part time jobs, several sports, hobbies and friends. There’s only so many hours in one day.

      Unless someone is naturally gifted in all subjects, he/she will spend hours every day after school and in weekends trying to get a decent grade. And our (Norwegian) school system is by many considered to be far too lax with too little discipline. If our system is too lax, I dread thinking about other European countries.

      Like

  9. Helen Devries
    June 21, 2017

    I was extremely conformist as a child. That way the so and sos left me in peace to enjoy my own thoughts.
    Thus never punished at school…unless involved in a mass detention because `some girls have been observed not wearing their hats and gloves in the village`.
    Luckily I was allowed to read what I wanted (except when staying with father`s parents where only the Bible and Foxe`s Book of Martyrs were permitted on Sundays) and could go off on my own to ride or to walk so the conformity was not too onerous.
    The cloak of conformity has been so useful over the years…doing the blah blah while keeping the ears and eyes open for what is actually going on.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. acflory
    June 21, 2017

    I love your writing style, Pinky. It reminds me of the late Dirk Bogarde in A Postillion Struck by Lightning. I’m not a huge fan of memoirs, but the beauty of the writing in Postillion has stayed with me for years. I hope you have ‘plans’ for Before the Time Before.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Steve Ruis
    June 21, 2017

    There seems to be some dislike expressed here for small talk. I understand this … but there is a reason for it. Way back when (1000+ years or so), most people did not run into people they did not know. Now is is a daily or hourly occurrence. The purpose of small talk is to begin a bonding process that leads to a modicum of trust.

    In Christian communities all kinds of little signals are offered to establish one as a believer in God as this is a shortcut to being trusted. (Good Christians do not lie, so when somebody says “I believe in God” they are establishing trust with other Xians. Hey, it is their process, not mine.) Of course, if you just blurt it out, it comes across as being strange, so some subtlety is involved.

    So, the social bonding dance of “small talk” starts out with topics that are as far from controversy as possible (e.g. the weather, the cost of gasoline/petrol, etc.) because one wouldn’t want to step on a land mine by admitting you are a Democrat in Alabama, for example. So, no politics, no sex, no intimacy, those are for “later.” So, small talk does serve a purpose, as odious as it is to some of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Bela Johnson
    June 22, 2017

    This is well written and familiar enough. Being a Gemini, I ‘can’ talk – we’re ruled by Mercury, the planet of communication, of words whether written or spoken. So I can always find something to say, but the older I get, the more tiresome it becomes unless there’s something engaging to talk about.

    I know that child who sees what’s artificial and doesn’t understand the need to participate in banality. I feel his vexation in the face of conformity. I look forward to hearing more as it comes to you. 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

  13. kjennings952
    June 22, 2017

    I have so many things I want to respond to this post & its comments! But mostly–just look at what and how you communicated this story now and how people react to it. Pretty awesome. You were (are) just a precocious self-aware child who found social rules exhausting. My tribe!

    Liked by 2 people

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This entry was posted on June 20, 2017 by in writing.
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