C is for Choose


1.pick out or select (someone or something) as being the best or most appropriate of two or more alternatives.

Imagine your life streamlined and fitted to a tri-fold pamphlet, now add charming pictures of your life with loved ones, friends and pets. Essentially a sales brochure of your life, tailored towards selling your values and obvious qualifications to be a parent. With the trouble I have filling in an application for a knitting group that asks for my “other interests”, I have to believe putting one of these things together is an incredibly stressful and bizarre experience.

many path road sign

As the person on the other end, my thoughts were along the line of,  “what is the REAL story, what are these happy shiny people hiding??”. I have a real hard time believing the hype. Like a first date, you put your best foot forward and avoid mentioning your gas problems, love of unicorn figurines or penchant for human flesh, sauteed. I came from both homes that looked like dumps on the outside but held hard working hearts of gold and lovely over-sized homes with well manicured lawns that held cold vicious custodians. There were plenty in between and I spent a lot of time devising a strategy to get beyond the glossy puff pieces. Horseback riding, sailing, family sing-a-longs, perfect fluffy puppies and traveling frequently around the world..I mean, really?? I hated all of them and obsessed over their fold-outs with sick fascination.

I decided to come up with a list of questions, and to ask any prospective parents, to both be on the line for my calls. I figured it was easier to hear hesitation and thwart collaboration if both of them were on the line, easier to hear who was in charge and who worked together, easier to know when they had differing answers. Every couple I looked at was looking for their first child and I knew that parenting was one of those things that people thought they were on the same about but found out later that wasn’t remotely true, opening up a whole new avenue of possible discontent. I further shrunk the pool by discarding anyone too close too or too far from me geographically. I knew I had it in me to stalk out my child on  playground and didn’t want to give myself that option, yet I needed to be able to easily get there to visit.  I narrowed my pool down to about 30 couples and notebook in hand, I started calling them.

“ Why do you want to adopt?, Why do you want a mixed race child? How did you get together, and how long have you been together? How did you end up in your current location? The father is black, and I am mixed race, do you know how to deal with kinky hair? If not, how will you deal with that?, What makes you angry?, How do each of you express your anger? What’s a fight like between you? What does your support system look like?, Do you have a plan in place for the eventuality of a break-up? What would happen to the kid? What are the legal avenues you have explored for protecting him or her?”

On and on the questions went. Some eventually got annoyed with me, and really, I understood. I was a 16 year old kid asking all kinds of prying personal questions about their lives, and even if you think you are prepared for a conversation with a potential mother, I doubt any of them were envisioning my long list of detailed inquiry. I was okay with their annoyance, it was better for me to see them with their ruffs up.  Some of my questions were things I wanted actual answers for, and some were questions I had no preconceived answer I preferred, I just wanted to see how they got to their answers. As a foster kid, I knew it was the small things, like unkempt hair that were the outward signs of neglect and I tried to get a feeling for how they thought, how they worked or didn’t work together. Every couple I looked at was mixed in it’s racial composition, so that was a common reason for wanting a mixed race child that reflected their own make-up. Well, every couple except one.

That exception was also the oldest couple in the whole bunch. From what I understood that made it harder to adopt, but as it turned out the conversations I had with them were the most natural and despite their whiteness and age, I pretty quickly added them to the top three left in the running.two paths woods

Of the top three, one couple was male and the other two female. After a week of deliberation and debate I asked about meeting up with the men and found out they had been picked by another birth mother, and then there were two. Two women in Long Island, which was a little close for me but pretty good and the other couple was located in Portland, Maine. I had a couple more conversations with them and decided to meet up with the white ladies from Maine first. I was really curious about them and I liked the way they bounced between each other with thoughtful answers, no annoyance and the kind of grace that comes from stability and love. Plus they asked me interesting questions and didn’t let me be the only interrogator. I appreciated that.


Morality (Radiolab)

Welcome to the first installment of my attempt at thoughtful exploration, or at least to think. I decided to try the Radiolab episode on Morality first, you know, start small.

This episode starts off with a two part thought experiment. You will have to make a choice at the end of each one.

Part One
You are near some train tracks, there are five workers on the track. They’ve got their backs turn to the trolley, which is coming in the distance. They do not see, hear or feel it coming. You can’t shout to them, and if you do nothing, they will all die.
You have two choices

  1. You can do nothing
  2. There is a lever next to you, which you can pull, causing the trolley to jump on to some side tracks where there is only one worker.

So, do you kill  1 man by pulling a lever or kill 5 by doing nothing?

My answer is pull the damn lever, and I am not alone. They claim 9 out of 10 people choose to pull the lever. What’s your answer?

Part Two
You are standing above some train tracks, on a foot bridge. There are five guys below, just as in the first question. The trolley is coming, again, they can not hear, see or feel its approach. You can not yell, signal or in anyway tell them of the impending doom. Next to you is a large man, and you realize if you pushed him, he would divert the train and the train would only kill the fat man, saving the five workers.
*For the sake of this experiment, let us assume you can not sacrifice yourself

  1. Do you do nothing, allowing all 5 to die
  2. Do you push the fat man and save the 4 workers?

There have been hundreds of people asked this question, and though most say “yes” to the first, the same amount say “NO” to the second part. Resoundingly so. When asked “why?”, most people can not explain why murder by lever is okay while murder by pushing is wrong.

They follow the path of science and look at how the brain reacts when deciding these questions of calculation and morality. Different parts of the brain light up with each question, on the first it’s a question of logic, while on the second it’s a more instinctual guttural reaction.  They ask the question, is morality part of our evolution or an aspect that sets us apart as creatures of reason?

For my two cents, I think I’d pull the lever and push the guy. Unless of course they were related to me, then fuck the bastards on the ground. Logic vs ingrained instinctual evolved reactions?

This episode goes in many directions and I don’t think I can cover it all here, but I wanted to focus on these questions and one or two other points. They bring into question how we think and why. Why we feel the way we do and how it informs our moral make-up.

I have one more layer to add. The M.A.S.H> question.

You are in a basement, in a war torn region, with all of your village; family and friends you have known everyday of your life. You are holding your baby, who has as stuffy nose. Enemy forces are scouring the village, and they will torture and kill anyone they find. Your baby has been coughing. If you cover the baby’s mouth they won’t hear, and your village will escape, but you will smother the baby and she/he will die. Do you sacrifice everyone’s life, including your own and the baby’s OR do you kill your own child, saving everyone else?

My wife said “I would risk it, I wouldn’t kill my child. That’s a cowards way out”, which I understand, but I have to ask a question. Couldn’t it also be perceived as the cowards way out to NOT kill the baby?. Perhaps not being able to make this sacrifice for the better of the many over the one is the ultimate cowardice? This goes against something so base within us, our children, the reason to continue on and be better. Even if you aren’t a parent, the whole argument of  “you have to think of the future” posed against any short sighted effort, whether it be pollution or choosing a job that helps others..it’s all for the future of what? The continuation of our species, right? Even the only mildly adjusted among us, don’t like to see children hurt, it just goes against how we’re made.

What would you do? Some days I would sacrifice my child. I would probably kill myself right after and follow them along that path, but I think I would do it. On other days when I hold my daughter, when she’s tired and her body is heavy and limp, trusting me to hold her? I realize I have walked away from logic and any life would be worth one more breath from her little body.  I’m not sure which path is stronger, weaker or morally bereft.This also calls in to question, the sanctity of life. My wife would argue that all life is sacred, hence the ban on swatting bugs in my house. I on the other hand, don’t see life that way.

When I was 13, my psychiatrist made an observation that has followed me my whole life. She said I displayed “sociopathic tendencies” , that I lacked a certain level of empathy, my sense of “guilt” was underdeveloped (or barely recognizable..whatever). The morality conversation, invariably smacks into the idea of empathy. Does it separate us from other creatures? Are we born with empathy in place? The Radiolab episode touches on children, exploring when empathy develops and how. Anecdotally, it seems like it’s both part of us as a species and something fine tuned by societal expectations. How then, does that effect those of us without the same societal expectations?

We teach our kids about hitting, fairness, being kind etc, many ideals we ourselves have bent and broken given the right circumstance (or person).  Yet what they are saying is that the core values, of right and wrong (“Do you kill your baby?”) strikes us in the reptile brain, a knee jerk denial taking hold. The finer points are harder to parse out.

Radiolab ponders if shame/guilt are the emotions that divide us from our primate cousins. I wonder about this a lot. I was never a guilty person, I felt and still do, that is a mostly wasteful emotion. It tears people apart, and I have rarely if ever seen any good come of it. I will add shame to this pile too. Regret, yes, I get that. Being aware you made a mistake, or hurt someone, and confronting that while trying to alter that behavior in the future, that I understand. Shame? Guilt? I would much rather have someones changed behavior over their heartfelt sorrow at a slight. Alternately, anxiety over guilt and shame from a past action seems to fell the strongest, brightest people I have known. Instead of these emotions being the things that makes us special, I wonder if they are the Achilles heel that foils the brightest among us?

Our daughter is testing and pushing, trying out things she knows will get a reaction. She will kill the bug her cousin wants to save, just to see what will happen. If she was at home, she would of saved the bug. She says hurtful things to her mommas like “I don’t like you, I want you to leave this family!”. She is aware of curse words but is not so interested in those, she is going after the ones she sees dividing adulthood from childhood, those that are not allowed to her, “stupid” being top on the banned list. My wife worries that she will become a “mean girl”, but I am fascinated by this emotional growth, this mental drawing of lines in the sand.

What is “good” and what is “bad”? How do we figure it out? What IS morality? She is making observations along the lines of empathy, trying them on, seeing if they fit her quickly growing sense of self. Watching her makes me realize that if any of us is still growing, still discovering our world (which I hope to be doing until my body ends), we are still doing this. I am still learning what is right and wrong, as I get older and the lines blur and reform. I have had high ideals over the years, things I believed to be absolute and almost all of them have been, if not broken, remade into different less black and white versions of themselves.

I am still defining morality for myself and trying to help my daughter figure her’s out as well, with differing levels of success. I would like to hear other stories and ideas on the subject, so please share them with me if you are so inclined.  One way conversations are rather boring, I hope you will join in.