Monday, July 28, 2014

Victoria III

Victoria and her grandfather have just departed for England. I may not hear much about Victoria in the future, so I'll attempt to sum up my thoughts about her now. I think that at heart Victoria is a relatively normal 17-year-old girl and that all of her aberrant behavior can be attributed to environmental factors. Her shyness, which is a common characteristic among English people, especially when compared to Americans, makes her weak points stand out more than they might otherwise, but it does not in itself signify any sort of pathology or disability.

According to the standards of educated people in developed countries, Victoria has been poorly raised. Within her household, there are no family discussions, people eat in separate groups, and most of the time spent at home is spent privately by each family member. Apparently the family never socializes in the sense of having visitors whom the family greets collectively or social occasions during which the family visits as a group. As far as I am able to determine, the only family activities, other than occasional visits to close relatives, are family vacations, which are planned by Victoria's mother without any discussion. This seems to explain why Victoria is unable to engage in the kind of sustained social conversation that most of the people I know consider obligatory. People who don't engage in it are rude, dysfunctional or ignorant, and the latter seems to be the case with Victoria.

What we noticed about Victoria is that if someone persists in pursuing her on various topics, she will simply ignore anything that doesn't interest her but become slightly responsive when something does interest her. Thus it takes a great deal of trial-and-error to connect with her at all. Then, after an initial connection is made, she has almost none of the follow-through that might put people at ease in the sense of acknowledging that some minimal level of communication has in fact been reached.

It is second nature to me, and I think to many people, to have a story line about yourself and your interests when engaging socially. It is also de rigueur to display some inquisitiveness about others, particularly when they are your hosts. Victoria was a complete blank in these two important aspects of social life. To say that she had no story line would be an understatement. We still don't know why she visited after spending hours trying to extract information from her. All of the activities that we planned for her were based on speculation about what we thought she might like, not on what she said she would like. During the visit, she did not express any curiosity about any aspect of the U.S. or any of the people whom she met here. Her cousin, Christian, was the most energetic in entertaining her and at least got her to participate in some outdoor activities. Otherwise she would probably have stayed inside all day without even looking out of a window.

Another part of the puzzle, which I alluded to earlier, is the world of electronic communication. On the surface, people of Victoria's age have simply found new ways to remain in touch with their friends on a more continuous basis than was possible in the past. However, I believe that an unintended consequence of this new technology is to draw people inward, not in a spiritual sense, but in an environmental sense. Their consciousnesses are less attuned to their physical surroundings than was the case for people of previous generations, and their sense of reality has been permanently altered. The danger here is that developing minds that are not looking beyond the soothing confirmations of a like-minded, immature peer group will be inhibited from gaining the broader experience that has historically been obtained through direct contact with the unmediated world.

At this stage in Victoria's development, on first glance it seems probable that she will follow a trajectory similar to that of her sister, Elizabeth. Her critical thinking skills may have been inhibited by her upbringing and her narrow social network. Based on her current demeanor, she would have little chance of success at anything that required an interview, from college admissions to jobs. Nevertheless, although it is hard for anyone to escape their background, there is hope for Victoria. She seems to have been a favorite in her family, which may have given her some self-confidence. She is also the third of three children, which means that she may eventually become more rebellious and less conventional than her siblings (read Born to Rebel, by Frank Sulloway). And one can still hope that by the time she has absorbed her experiences from this trip her horizons will have broadened a little.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Victoria II

Having spent a few more days with Victoria, this time in the presence of her cousins, I now have a somewhat better sense of her nature. She has behaved more normally with her cousin, Christian, with whom she had corresponded previously, and with whom she seems to have developed a slight rapport. I am tentatively ruling out a genetic connection related to the Asperger's-like symptoms, which are obvious in her cousins, as an explanation of her behavior. However, with Victoria's food preferences, Asperger's can't be eliminated entirely. All three of them are highly successful academically, but her cousins are more technically oriented, concentrating on computer science and mathematics. Victoria is competent in all areas and is currently interested in art, but that could change. I won't go into detail here, but Victoria strikes me as conventionally heterosexual, whereas her cousins are not.

The picture I have now is that Victoria has been isolated by living in a slightly disconnected part of England in a family with poorly educated parents and financial constraints. She has been further isolated by the texting technology that allows her to communicate constantly with her two close friends in England as if she were still at home. In a way, her texting world may be more real to her than the physical world or the broader social world that lies beyond her experience. On top of this lies an inherent shyness that inhibits exploration.

Victoria is the baby of the family and has probably been treated differently from her brother and sister since birth. She seems defensive of her mother, who clearly has significant psychiatric issues, whereas her sister was less so when she visited. I don't detect any of the anger that her sister displayed.

One thing that makes this difficult to think about is that Victoria is very young and isn't fully formed; her identity seems to be taking shape in real time. If I look back to when I was 17, although I was ostensibly the same person, my knowledge and outlook were completely different. I was vulnerable in the same way that Victoria is now, and then proceeded to make a series of mistakes, if you want to call them that, that shaped me as a person and contributed significantly to my current worldview.

We are concerned that Victoria will make mistakes in her academic and career choices. The English system is oddly barbaric in the sense that students are required to make irreversible choices well before they are likely to have sufficient judgment to make them. My partner ended up in law after someone told her that archaeology was out of the question. She became a lawyer without ever caring for the profession. Elizabeth, Victoria's sister, liked to write as a child and chose English, and she now has a temporary position as a schoolteacher. To say the least, these are not optimal outcomes for Cambridge graduates. Although Victoria is good in all subjects, she was told at school to "do what you love" and chose art. Now, although she is still in high school, the possibility of changing to a science is severely restricted. We would hate to see her bumble along based on misinformation when she has so many opportunities. Academic options in American universities are comparatively flexible, and we have mentioned this to her.

I am reminded again of the random elements that dominate lives. To a very large extent, they have the greatest impact on people of Victoria's age. Especially in the U.S., how you prepare for college and where you attend college set the tone for the rest of your life. This may influence what career you have, who you meet and marry, where you live, and your socioeconomic status during the remainder of your life. There is a small window during which the choices seem overwhelming. Yet it can be argued that the model student with the model life is often, broadly speaking, no better off than many others whose lives were less well planned. Lots of helicopter parents may be hovering over their children to no avail.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Victoria I

This is the first installment in what may become a minor inquiry. It relates to the topics of shyness, intergenerational changes, adolescent females, isolated subcultures, mental illness and inadequate parenting. Victoria is 17 and the daughter of my partner's brother, Martin. Like my partner, Victoria is growing up in Hoyland, South Yorkshire. I have been intrigued for several years by the apparent otherness of Hoyland, because my partner, who was born in 1954, has often seemed culturally like someone who was born closer to 1940. Except for some late exposure to contemporary culture while she was an undergraduate, my partner somehow managed to miss the 1960's and early 1970's entirely. As a child she hardly knew anything about the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and was never aware who Bob Dylan was or that he performed in nearby Sheffield in 1965 and 1966. She probably did not hear about him until the 1970's. I was attracted to my partner in part because, not only was she completely unlike educated American women of my age group, who often seem to possess a narcissistic sense of entitlement, but because she represented a kind of puzzle to me.

For someone who is about to apply to universities, apparently with excellent credentials, there are some things about Victoria that are quite odd. It is difficult to pry out any opinions from her, and her food requirements seem bizarre. From what I can gather, her mother is obsessive-compulsive, cleans constantly, and prepares an unimaginably narrow menu for her family. Victoria has never eaten the skin of a potato. The only green vegetable that she will eat is peas. She will eat unflavored chicken but dislikes turkey, meat and fish. For someone who has led an isolated life, this is not necessarily unusual, but I am struck by her almost complete unwillingness to experiment. By 17 one would expect the beginnings of individuation and a desire to diverge from the habits of one's parents. Her elder sister, Elizabeth, who visited us a few years ago at about the same age, at least recognized that there were limitations to the quality of her upbringing. Elizabeth's favorite poem then was This Be The Verse, by Philip Larkin:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Victoria is one of the most passive people I've ever met and only reacts when something that she dislikes is proposed. If asked a question, she typically replies "I don't know." When pressed, she will offer only the most basic information and not elaborate. My partner, my sister, my brother-in-law and I have all tried to help her, but she doesn't seem to know that she needs help or that we might be able to help her. This weighs heavily on my partner, who above all is a helper.

One of the most surprising things to me about Victoria is that she has no questions about anything. Apparently she was confused about the air conditioner in her room in Connecticut but never brought it up at the time. I only found this out later when I asked her whether she had been hot. She did not provide any input into the itinerary that I proposed, and she had no questions and made almost no comments about any of the places that we visited.

Usually when we arrive at a house, Victoria will go to her room without saying anything and remain there until someone gets her. Some of that time may be spent texting her friends in England, but, if so, I have no idea what she writes about. I initiated all of the conversations with her in the car and was not once satisfied by her response. On the way back I gave up and there was complete silence. Victoria is now spending some time with her cousins here, but overall her behavior is not noticeably different.

I am hoping to come across new information about Victoria that will allow me to put to rest some of the ideas that are whirling around in my head. Does Victoria represent a rare case of shyness of a magnitude that I've never witnessed before? Is living in Hoyland like being brought up on a Neolithic island? Is Victoria an abuse victim? Have Victoria's parents' worldviews made her completely unadapted to modern life? Is Victoria mentally ill? Will Victoria suddenly grow up and radically change her behavior? There is so much uncertainty here that I am bothered and will continue to work on it. I'll keep you posted on any news, new theories or conclusions.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Next week I'll be away in Connecticut and New York showing around my partner's niece, who is visiting from England. We'll be taking the train from Westport to Grand Central Station on three days. Her niece, Victoria, is 17 and has never been to the U.S. before.

I'm not sure how well the trip will go, because Victoria is not exactly the bold and adventurous type. She exemplifies the kind of English timidity and insularity that I have come to find tiresome over the years, primarily as a result of exposure to my partner's father, with whom I spend several weeks every year. In addition, she seems to be afflicted with the gadget addiction that young people have these days. My impression is that they are unable to see and appreciate the world around them because their consciousnesses have been channeled into alternate cyber-realities. In general, they find the natural world unfamiliar and scary. Victoria also displays a food-pickiness that did not exist in my generation but seems common in hers. She will eat a banana sandwich but balks at anything green or unfamiliar. She is young and naive, so I'm cutting her some slack. My partner's family is very brainy academically, and I'm hoping that that will kick in at some point.

Manhattan is one of my favorite destinations. From a cultural standpoint it is easily the best place in the U.S. Growing up nearby, I became interested in science at the American Museum of Natural History and art at the Metropolitan Museum. As a teenager I loved walking along Fifth Avenue between Central Park and Washington Square. During two summers, in 1968 and 1969, I had a job on Wall Street, and my family moved to East 58th Street from 1969 to 1971. However, since then I've only been back twice, in 1986 and 2003.

If one were a billionaire with multiple dwellings, keeping an apartment in Manhattan might be an attractive option. On a permanent basis I prefer to live here in the country.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Although I have always been somewhat athletic and played soccer in high school, by the time I was 18 I had completely lost interest in all sports. Practice and exercise were boring, athletes tended to be uninteresting, and I had a low need for affiliation or popularity. Nevertheless, I am still susceptible to some of the hysteria associated with sports. I happened to be living in Terre Haute when Larry Bird, "The Hick from French Lick," led Indiana State to the final game of the NCAA basketball playoffs. I lived in Bloomington, Indiana when coach Bobby Knight won and in Louisville, Kentucky when they won. It's all quite stupid, really, but one can't escape being human.

As it happens, I've been watching parts of the World Cup this year, and have comparisons to make between American football and soccer, which, while perhaps obvious, don't seem to get much attention. The first thing that I notice about international soccer players is that they are extremely fit, agile, skilled and attractive to the eye. In comparison, American football players seem oversized, slow, muscular, dull and visually unappealing. Each soccer player needs a variety of skills, whereas football players tend to be more specialized, and in many cases their main attributes are physical bulk and the ability to move it in the right direction at the right time.

Beyond these superficial differences, soccer and football reflect broad cultural divergences. World Cup soccer highlights the strengths of individual players who combine their talents in order to represent their countries. Football, in contrast, is not an international sport, and it is permeated by the corporate mentality that dominates American thinking. Individual football players have less noticeable personas for multiple reasons. You can't see them well under their uniforms, they each have limited functions, and their behavior often seems predictable and scripted. The coach and quarterback resemble corporate managers who issue instructions, allowing little opportunity for the players to improvise. Soccer coaches have comparatively less influence over the game while it is in progress, and each player must be hyper-alert at all times in order to respond instantly to moment-by-moment developments.

There are several ways in which football seems more corporate than soccer. While in both games scoring goals and preventing the opponent's goals are the objectives, football is structured more like a planned campaign to systematically move the ball down the field, relying on consultations and specialists at each stage, and the process for scoring tends to be slow and mechanical, with fewer surprises than in soccer, in which the ball can crisscross the field several times before a goal is suddenly scored. Moreover, football has numerous time-outs and pauses that permit advertisements. Advertising plays a less obtrusive role in soccer. I might add that football is specifically designed to minimize delayed gratification for its viewers compared to soccer, because goals occur with greater frequency.

Our interest in team sports represents a primitive drive to belong to a group that succeeds against competing groups. As a species, we have already out-competed several other Homo species, which are now extinct. Group competition seems deeply ingrained in our nature. For the purposes of this post, I am interested in how American sports culture differs somewhat from that of other countries. On the face of it, soccer is a more inclusive game than football, because one need not be unusually large or tall to play it well. The basic equipment needed is inexpensive, thus almost anyone can afford it. Football, on the other hand, requires special equipment reminiscent of armor used in military campaigns. If you take football as a metaphor for American culture, it is telling that Americans prefer it to soccer. One might say that Americans are gratified by organizing into technologically superior groups that systematically obliterate opponents, and they are unappreciative of the spontaneity and individual talent that one might encounter in soccer. Stretching the metaphor to its limits, Americans understand conformity, militarism and brute force better than they understand spontaneity, individuality and artistry.