One always got an education from my mother, in clever ways not all kids were privileged to.
As a kid, I collected those grubby little “Peanuts” paperbacks. I had quite the collection, and had packed them when off to college for the first time. It would have been easy for Mom to just tell me not to bring this geekish collection of books at all. However, Mom took a more delicate, and constructive, route, telling me to hold off until second semester. She said: “If you bring them right away, people will think you’re weird. But if you wait until you have friends, people will accept it as a weird thing their friend does.”
That turned out to be right on. She didn’t want me to be an outcast, but also didn’t want me to be afraid of being eccentric. Mom had been a bookish kid and knew that being different had its downsides — but just as many upsides that, in fact, made life worth living for we, the weird. She was always good at teaching me how to manage the same balancing act.
But I recall another episode in which Mom’s comfort with the quirky took a different turn. One afternoon when I was 13, we pulled into our driveway at 12:29 p.m. I was fascinated at the time by ancient TV shows (I still am), and an “I Love Lucy” rerun was on at 12:30. This was before VCRs, so you had to catch shows when they were on or never see them.
Mom was getting through the front door slowly, so I squeezed past her to catch the opening credits, which to me had some kind of mystique for reasons I forget. I turned the TV on and was standing there watching Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz being written in the little heart when Mom blew in and — snap! — turned the set off and pointed me into a chair.
“You know what’s going to happen to you if you don’t learn to be more patient?” she asked.
“What?” I said.
“You’re going to have premature ejaculations as a man! Do you know what that is?”
“You’ll be having sex with your wife and you’ll always finish too fast. People divorce over that, you know. Think about it!”
And she turned and left the room, only to come back a couple of beats later to say: “And you know what else? Your orgasms will be weak!”
Yes, that is exactly what she said, and as odd as that scene seems, in all of its eccentricity it was a rather brilliant way of getting across the virtues of patience. To present it as a matter of Goofus and Gallant principle would have been less effective, too abstract. Fear of future inabilities of a grisly nature, and a general sense that impatience could correlate with a general kind of sloppiness, or even an inability to smell the proverbial roses, made me mull over patience in a real way that day and later.
The lesson I took from the whole encounter, beyond inchoate visions of the relevant after-hours matter, was that you had to hand it to Mom for speaking what had been, in all of its oddity, on her mind. “Be patient” would have been ordinary. “Impatience might affect your bedroom performance as an adult” was not ordinary, but she said it and, really, the lesson had its uses.
It was that day that I said to myself that I was going to start going with my gut in terms of opinions. It seemed to me that if it worked for Mom it could work for me, and it looked a lot more satisfying than going around tamping yourself down. The result has been my reputation in some quarters as a contrarian. The idea seems to be that I deliberately devise opinions that I know will get people going, or that I for some reason relish people being angry with me.
That may be true of some contrarians out there, but for me, it is always a matter of simply expressing what I genuinely feel, 1) because it would dishonest not to, and 2) because as often as not, stating something many weren’t expecting has as many plusses as minuses.
So, I have written that in America, opera should be performed in English as much as possible, despite that Italian has pretty vowels. I have also written that Shakespeare’s plays, when performed, should have their vocabulary adjusted to modern equivalents when the old meaning is no longer available to anyone but scholars (e.g., to Shakespeare “generous” meant “noble”). Both opinions regularly elicit mail screaming that I have no business being a professor and so on, but I know that if Mom had felt as I do, none of that vitriol would have stopped her — and in the meantime, her view would have gotten some people thinking.
I also think that ending the war on drugs would largely heal America’s racial divide. The drug war destroys black neighborhoods and is central in driving the poisonous relationship between the police and black people. My sense is that most prefer to hear that black people need to start emphasizing family values, or that white people need to examine their privilege. I’m not sure either prospect is as useful as making it so that the police have much less reason to enter black neighborhoods, which is what ending the drug war would accomplish.
Many think I’m crazy on that, too, but Mom taught me to embrace my crazy. Within reason, of course. But in my mind, my supposedly contrarian essence, which gets me in trouble in my academic linguistics work as well, all traces to how I felt as my mother left that TV room for real that afternoon.
The reader probably has two questions.
As to one, my parents’ marriage, in fact, did not last. However, the reasons were not connected to any issues of what we might call hardiness.
As to the other question, I have my flaws, but I grew up to be a perfectly patient man.