Paypal gay picnic threat: a symbolic masterpiece in disguise

When I first saw this image on Paypal’s front page I just assumed it was a homophobic depiction of a small child fleeing in terror from a gay couple out for a picnic in the park.

gay picnic

Nice one Paypal, I thought, That’ll set the cause of sexual diversity back a couple of decades.

But then I took a closer look, and suddenly it struck me that the two men were uncannily similar in appearance. So similar, in fact, that they could be the same person.

ghost of parenting

That’s when I realised the true depth of meaning behind this otherwise totally innocuous image.

Imagine there’s only one man, the man in the beige shorts, and what do you have? Just a father happily taking his daughter out for a picnic lunch in the park. He’s nicely and colourfully dressed. He has a fond and amiable expression on his face. He’s hoisting a picnic basket, a mat and other picnic paraphenalia in somewhat jaunty fashion, with another bag slung over his left shoulder but hidden from view.

What about the daughter? In one sense she’s the perfect image of a happy child playing on her obviously new and expensive scooter with a kind of stock photo abandon. Yet her eyes are fixed, uncaring, straight ahead, belying her otherwise excited expression. There’s a callous tone to her excitement. She’s happy to be riding, but in truth she’s riding away from her father. She knows he can’t keep up, and this points to a deeper tension in the entire scene, a tension embodied in the man in the red shorts.

Red-shorts-man is clearly an older version of the father. Like the ghost of picnics-future his hair is grayed and his whole appearance is faded and wan. Even his shoes have been drained of their colour.

His face is weary, pale, and full of apprehension. He watches his daughter through heavily-lidded eyes, his mouth open on the verge of an exhausted cry, his head tipped back as if he can hardly find the strength to keep it upright.

What is he? Is he a ghost? A photographic negative? Or is he an image of the subconscious mind, the hidden depths of the father’s soul in which lie all manner of anxieties and stress, in which the burden of keeping up the appearance of a picture-perfect picnicking parent is just too much to bear? To fully understand we must look to the symbols that attend the man in red shorts.

On his left hand he wears a watch, symbolising awareness of time and heightening our sense of urgency. Yet the watch dial is hidden from view, pressed against his shoulder by the burden he carries. Yes, time is a burden and the burdens we bear warp our perception of time. How long have they travelled? How soon must they return? These thoughts are both brought into being and simultaneously crushed by the increasing distance between father and daughter and his secret apprehension of what lies in wait further down the path.

Red-shorts-man is on the father’s left side, representing the introspective, introverted aspect of our psyche. While the father’s right hand (extroverted, conscious mind) is preoccupied with the picnic-materials, his ghostly companion clings desperately to the left. He expands the father’s hidden burden – the bag on the left shoulder. At the same time the father shrugs his shoulder against the ghostly presence, as if to deny its existence.

Red-shorts-man is in the midst of a powerful stride. He marches ahead, pulling the father forward, urging haste.  And yet at the same time he is somehow insubstantial. Like a balloon about to take flight he threatens to hover, incorporeal, as fears and anxieties draw us away too from our enjoyment of the present moment.

Red-shorts-man’s shoulders are equally weighted with baggage, he is fully laden not only with life’s present burdens but with the accumulated cares and concerns of the past. Is he truly older? No, his age, like his faded appearance represent the toll these cares and worries take on us all.

Why then the red shorts?

Red is a primal colour, a colour of fear and of blood, the two elements that bind father and daughter. Blood is family, heredity, relation. The fear, the terror of separation and loss echo through the father’s subconscious mind. But why shorts? Shorts are metaphorically at “the bottom”. They tie into a deep history of biological allusions not only to reproduction (the father as father) but also to our rich vocabulary of intestinal profanities: Crap! S***! Bugger!

They also point to the upper legs, the thighs, the powerful quadriceps muscles and the fight-or-flight response that has him set to run, to take off in pursuit of the daughter at the first sign of danger.

And what is this danger?

In a word: nature. Mother nature, human nature, the world beneath and beyond the limits of human civilisation.

The father, the man in red shorts, are safely on the path. The bold clear lines of concrete cut a swathe through the terrifying darkness of the wild. But it is into this wild that the daughter now careers headlong.

To the left of the image nature dominates. It is the unknown territory Paypal would have us ‘unleash’ and ‘explore’.

And yet…just where the trees should be at their thickest we see the edge of another path and even a glimmer of a fence or railing, more vestiges of civilisation.

In the end Paypal leaves us with a puzzle. It tells us “New Money takes you on new adventures” and extols a “sense of wonder”. But the world it offers us to explore is already bounded and fenced-in. It is safe. The only danger is an appearance of danger, the only fear is failing to have enough New Money to be happy.

At this final point the entire project is cast into doubt. What is there to fear if everything is mapped out, paved, and fenced-in?

The tantalising answer suggests itself: this very incongruity, the call to adventure in the midst of a fully bounded and stagnant landscape, is itself the instigator of an existential dread.

Yes, this is the true nature of the father’s subconscious fear. It is not fear for his daughter’s safety, but fear of the future she represents. The bulk of the red-shorts-man’s burdens are not on his right (extroversion, the real world), but on his left (introversion, the inner world). His anxiety is not for real-world incidents but an anxiety of meaning and purpose.

Westerners read from left to right and our interpretation of compositions is coloured by this influence. Yet the people in this composition are traversing from right to left across the screen. They are moving back into the past, to a place where the father at least has already been, where there is no adventure, no uncertainty, no possibilities. The daughter represents the future, but even she is returning to the past, and the circularity of the path suggests an endless loop of generations and of experience.

There is nothing new under the sun, Paypal cries, echoing Ecclesiastes. The father’s fond amiability, the daughter’s naive excitement, they spin together in a fixed orbit while red-shorts-man goes along, the only clue to something awry in this happy spectacle of endless and repetitive consumption. “Trip of a lifetime!” the caption mocks, as if to shock us from our complacence, its irony a stinging rebuke to the public perception of online shopping as the sine qua non of a brighter tomorrow.

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Brooding on breeding

Dtcwee has had an article published on ABC Open. Check it out:

Much of the difficulty, I think, comes from the notion that children are a choice. There is even more baggage in the modern world surrounding self-determination.

Ironically, this baggage is involuntary. The truth is that circumstances play a huge part. Just as many are not childless by choice, many pregnancies are unintended; about 40 percent worldwide. Of those, quite a proportion are brought to term.

https://open.abc.net.au/explore/97611

Childhood 2.0 is a little buggy

My latest piece on MercatorNet is a reflection on recent experiences beta-testing virtual parenthood, grappling with the influence of new technologies on our way of life and the raising of our child:

Yet we couldn’t fault him, because as a mere toddler he only wishes to emulate his parents, to enjoy what they enjoy and do what they do. His excessive devotion to the computer and the smartphone is not his problem – it’s his parents’ problem. His crying and screaming are a rebuke to the idiot parents who expect their son to do what they do and enjoy what they enjoy only when it suits them; parents who want their child to live a happy and balanced life despite their own imbalanced habits.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/childhood_2.0_is_a_little_buggy

DadFit

 

I know a few people involved in CrossFit competitions, and having seen what they’re capable of, I have to admit I’m impressed.

The CrossFit principle of “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad modal and time domains” supposedly avoids the pitfalls of specialisation in more traditional forms of fitness and sport.  For example, no matter how good I am at kung fu, I might not be so good at doing chin-ups, rowing a boat, or running a moderate distance.  Fitness is very narrow, as your body quickly and efficiently adjusts to whatever specific activity you are doing.

Which is why I think we need a new discipline for parents, which I’ll call ‘DadFit’.  DadFit recognises that parenting requires a unique subset of physical fitness, a blend of endurance and strength rarely seen in more traditional forms of exercise.

Like CrossFit, DadFit will involve “constantly varied functional movements”, albeit of a very specific variety; functional movements such as:

– Carrying a 12kg toddler in both ‘squirming’ and ‘dead weight’ modes at randomly varying intervals over a distance categorised as ‘further than I realised’.

– Getting in and out of a car with 12kg toddler, nappy bag, toddler’s shoes, a ball, and three bags of groceries.

– Gently lowering a semi-somnolent toddler onto his bed without waking the child or crippling one’s back.

– Removing a screaming toddler in full tantrum from a public place while maintaining a vestige of dignity.

What truly sets DadFit apart from other exercise regimes is that DadFit is trained under very particular conditions.

Firstly, DadFit must be performed within the haze of debilitating long-term sleep deprivation.  Secondly, while DadFit exercises are timed, it is important that competitors feel they might go on forever.  Thirdly, while other exercise regimes are typically performed according to strict standards with impartial oversight, DadFit exercises take place in a condition of complete existential doubt. At no time should DadFit competitors have any confidence that they are performing the exercise correctly.

There is of course a corresponding ‘MumFit’, but it’s not for the faint of heart. I hear the warm-up alone takes a good nine months.

 

 

 

The Dao of Parenting

A fence in a Japanese Buddhist temple. Nothing Daoist about it!

Raising a child is admittedly very frustrating, and I worry that I am not doing it right, that I am not a good influence on my child, that he might turn out like a more deficient version of me.

For example, our son loves the computer and wants to play with it constantly.  I worry that this is not a healthy pastime, that it may be inculcating an excessive reliance on the high artifice of technology, maybe even harming his neurological development.

But its not simply that computers and smartphones are attractive to him – he also sees that his parents spend an inordinate amount of time working, communicating, and playing on them.

So immediately we encounter the parental double-standard: I want him to “do as I say, not as I do”; I want him to behave contrary to the model I am providing.  If it’s unhealthy for him, isn’t it unhealthy for me? Or if it’s okay for me, shouldn’t it be okay for him as well?

I think this example reflects a deeper awareness that our lives are not as they should be.  We do not live in a paradisiacal state, yet this is what my idealism pushes me towards.  So when my son starts to throw a tantrum because I won’t let him play with the computer while I try to work on my PhD, I cannot shake the sense that something is going wrong.

Ideally he would not be throwing tantrums, but I’m not sure that the problem lies in him. He is, after all, an innocent child, and the real cause of the tantrum is that he’s presented with an enticing object (the computer) to which his parents are clearly devoted, yet he is not allowed to join in the very interesting activities of hitting buttons and moving the mouse and making the screen do interesting things.

As a parent, I wouldn’t show my child enticing food if I didn’t intend to feed it to him. Yet showing him the computer but not letting him play is akin to showing him food and not letting him eat it.  His behaviour is quite natural; is mine?

The Daoist approach – indeed much of Chinese thought in general – is preoccupied with the idea of the natural.  Natural is generally superior to the artificial, since it is in our nature as human beings that we find our virtue, our power.

From the Daoist point of view an innocent child exemplifies nature.  He is uncontrived, he does not plot and plan, he does not act according to elaborate schemes. He eats when he is hungry and (largely) sleeps when he is tired.  He doesn’t harm himself by pursuing strange and inordinate desires contrary to his nature. The child is reminiscent of the sage.

Or at least he is until he starts throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way; and in this we find an example in miniature of the broader Daoist perspective on human life.

Our instinctive response to a child throwing a tantrum is to make him stop, raise our voices, tell him off, or distract him.  We would institute rules and discipline to teach the child not to play with the computer.  We would erect artificial boundaries to stop the child from doing what comes naturally: emulating his parents.

A more ‘natural’ response might be to examine the causes of his behaviour, but this would require an uncomfortable degree of self-scrutiny, since the primary cause of his behaviour is my behaviour. As the ancient Chinese text The Classic of Change puts it:

If someone is not as he should be,
He has misfortune,
And it does not further him
To undertake anything.

– Yi Jing, 25: Innocence

It is I, rather than my son, who “is not as he should be”, and all my undertakings – my efforts to impose discipline and better behaviour in him – will not improve the situation.  After all, if I am not addressing the root of the problem, I can only add to the dysfunction.  He is already responding naturally to an unnatural situation; my attempts to change his behaviour directly can only result in him responding unnaturally to an unnatural situation.

I think the better solution is to be open to rethinking our way of life right to the core.  Giving up employment has been a good first step, but our lives are still unbalanced and far from what they should be.  The Daoist ideal is to put things right, which means putting things back in accord with our underlying nature, removing the obstacles and impediments, the desires and schemes which constitute our departure from the way.

This is, however, a long and difficult process, and the raising of a child cannot be put on hold until things are perfect.  What are we to do in the meantime? How are we to act, when all our actions might betray some unwitting error or insufficiency in ourselves? Again the Yi Jing provides an answer:

The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.

– Yi Jing, 54: The Marrying Maiden

As the commentary explains:

Every relationship between individuals bears within it the danger that wrong turns may be taken, leading to endless misunderstandings and disagreements. Therefore it is necessary constantly to remain mindful of the end.If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine. If on the other hand a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.

What this signifies is that our interactions as parents with our children must be coloured and shaped by ‘the end’, which in this instance can be none other than the development of a strong and secure bond of affection.  If we lose sight of this end, we will be lost amidst worries and concerns, doubts and uncertainties.  But if instead we are always mindful of the end, though we may not know how things will ultimately turn out, we can at least be sure of the affection we have nurtured and developed.

I think this has to be the way forward: I will surely make mistakes, but so long as I am mindful of the ideal – a loving, enduring relationship with my son – I will have done at least one thing right.

Stoic Papa

 

 
If thou art pained by any external
thing, it is not this thing that disturbs
thee, but thy own judgement about it.
And it is in thy power to wipe out this
judgement now. But if anything in thy own
disposition gives thee pain, who hinders
thee from correcting thy opinion?

The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

 

 
Being a parent can be incredibly difficult, and I’m in awe of those who make it look easy.

For the rest of us it’s important never to forget that we are doing something wonderful and difficult. Forget that it’s difficult, and we’ll be crushed under the burden of our own expectations. Forget that it’s wonderful, and all the talk of difficulties will scare people away from the genuine goodness and fulfillment of raising a child.

It doesn’t always feel wonderful, especially in those moments when fatigued parent meets manic child and the two do not mix. Did I say moments? It’s typically hours, and in those hours the most important thing (after your child’s safety) is your own mental health.

When your 18 month old son has decided that the best thing in the whole world is to climb onto the arm of the couch and launch himself backwards, landing flat on his back on the cushioned seat like he’s auditioning for a circus, there’s not a lot you can do.

I don’t want him to do this. He shouldn’t be doing this. It’s dangerous, he might fall! Why can’t he just sit quietly and read a book? I’m so tired…

Eventually my Stoic influence kicks in, and I realise à la Marcus Aurelius that the problem is not so much what he’s doing, but what I’m doing. I have in my head an ideal of how my son should behave, and though my fatigue is real it is made a hundred times worse by feeling frustrated as well. I’m frustrated that he is doing something potentially dangerous. I’m frustrated that he won’t listen to me and behave himself. And I’m frustrated that I can’t think of a way to make the environment ‘safe’ without putting a childproof fence around everything. In other words, I’m frustrated at my lack of control.

To be completely honest, this is my problem not my son’s. He’s quite happy, in fact he’s ludicrously happy, and if I were a child again I would be doing exactly the same things and making my parents equally frustrated. After all, what is the use of having some ideal of how my child should behave if that ideal does not include him being ludicrously happy? Would it really be better for him to sit and play with my smartphone instead of exploring and enjoying his environment out of his own initiative?

In practical terms, all that really matters is that he is safe. And with that in mind all I really have to do is sit close by and catch him if he falls or pull him back if he tries to do something truly stupid. I might still be fatigued, but at least I’m no longer frustrated, and I’ve reduced the burden of my expectations down to simply being there.

Just being there doesn’t feel like enough. It feels like I’m neglecting him. But I’m beginning to think it’s much more valuable than trying to coerce, control, intervene constantly, and even interact constantly, as though he will turn out wrong if I don’t feed him with a steady stream of encouragement and chatter. Simply being there to keep him out of serious danger may be the least I can do; but sometimes the least is all we can reasonably manage, all we need to do, and therefore the right thing to do.

Critiquing masculinity

A friend sent me an article on male violence from a feminist perspective, and I’ll return to the issue of male violence soon; but in the meantime, this got me thinking:

Recently my younger son, a huge Frozen fan, asked to go to a school fancy dress disco dressed as Queen Elsa of Arendelle. We’d spotted an outfit in Sainsbury’s – a long, sparkly blue dress, complete with a silver wig. Despite the well-intentioned warnings of grandparents, I let him wear it. A dress is a dress. So he arrived and there was a lot of fascination – and some mockery – of this “boy dressed like a girl”. He didn’t care and went and got his nails painted blue to match his dress. I felt proud of him. His disregard for social norms makes him strong, not weak. And yet there was a part of me that still feared the consequences of this “like a girl/not like a boy” definition imposed upon him by his peers.

http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/10/male-violence-greater-threat-our-sons-so-why-are-we-so-over-protective-daughters

While I agree that it would take strength for a boy to wear a dress to a school function, I’m skeptical of the claim that this indicates his disregard for social norms.

Adopting the social norms of the opposite sex is not the same as disregarding social norms. If her son made the choice naively, he still did so in the context of a family with particular values, and a particular attitude to social norms. There is no ‘view from nowhere’, whether we blindly follow the crowd or try to stand apart from it.

A mother who writes “a feminist take on parenting and politics” and who feels proud of her son for wearing a dress is not a value-neutral background for childhood development. Family is the beginning of society, not a hermetically sealed environment or laboratory in which human minds are formed free of external influences.

Feminists (in general) have their own ideological aims, and it makes sense that the columnist would feel proud of her son for making a choice that affirms her political theory.

But ultimately the “disregard for social norms” is better expressed as an affirmation of one set of norms against another more predominant set. True disregard for social norms would be indicative of psychopathy. In fact, the columnist’s broader and more interesting point is that the gender-gap cannot be overcome by giving women increased access to male domains, or by “celebrating femininity“, but must instead come about through a more thorough critique and deconstruction of masculinity. Plenty of women wear pants, but hardly any men wear dresses.

I have to admit I have some sympathy with this idea. As a part-time stay-at-home dad who has always done more the majority of the cooking and cleaning, I’ve come to realise that it’s not enough to get women into the workforce: getting men into childcare is the other half of the equation. The first day of looking after my 18 month old son convinced me that a generation of stay-at-home dads would utterly destroy the foolish notion that caring for children doesn’t constitute real work.

At the same time, I’m not inclined to wear a skirt or dress for a number of reasons beginning with what I thought would have been a fairly obvious point: skirts and dresses are not made for male bodies. But beyond that, it’s also somewhat inappropriate for a woman to be spearheading a critique of masculinity, as evidenced by the discussion of violence, with a false dichotomy of ‘kill or be killed’. Nonetheless, it’s great to have these issues raised because there is so much dysfunction in the culture of masculinity. I’ll never encourage my son to wear women’s clothing, but I will do my best to instil in him virtues and ideals that give noble expression to masculinity.