Saturday, February 25, 2012

When you're talking to yourself, who are you talking to?

I want to talk about my father.  Not for any particular reason, I suppose, just who he is.

My father was born in Washington State, of New England stock, the fourth--and last--child of Richard and Marjorie Plaisted, who are individually their own stories.  From his mother, my father inherited abounding generosity, or at least I imagine it was from his mother because that is mostly what I remember about her.  From her he inherited a love of mystery, a love of movies, a love of reading, a love of cooking.  From his father I imagine he inherited a stoic and admirable work ethic which dictates that his family always comes first.  I remember little of my grandfather, but this I imagine to be true above all else.

I think I am more like my father than I am my mother, which it took a long time for me to figure out.  I think perhaps I have more of him in me.  Not necessarily his good qualities, though if I can live up to those some day, I most certainly will, but a lot of his interests, a lot of his tendencies, a lot of his ideas.  My father got me hooked on hauntings, on mysteries that can never be solved--I always imagine his favorite is Stonehenge.  Because of my father I sit through the credits of every movie.  I love cities.  I love art and museums.  I don't like camping.  I write.  And I don't think these are things I necessarily chose.  In some ways I think they were born into me.  Because I never thought, "I want to be like him, so I will do A. B. and C."  I never thought that at all.  I'm just becoming who I am, and that happens to be a whole lot like him.

My mother would probably disagree with me, but I can't recall either of my parents ever telling me I was beautiful.  My father doesn't say things like this.  My mother said once, "How did I get three such beautiful girls?" I nearly cried for thinking that maybe she really did think I was beautiful.  But on two occasions my father has said to me in public and in private that he thinks I look like his mother.  I have never heard him say that he thinks his mother was beautiful, but it's in his voice that he thinks she was one of the best women that ever existed.  I think he knows I think that too.  So when someone said to my father in public, "Your daughters all look like your wife," which was most certainly meant as a compliment because my mother is beautiful, he said, "Well, I think Jennifer looks more like my mother."  And though I do think my mother and I looked quite similar at certain points in our lives, this comment wasn't just observational, but meant something more, it meant he thought I was beautiful.  Funnily enough, I think if he'd said, "Yes, I think my daughters do look like Paula," I would have interpreted it the same way--that he thought we were beautiful.  It was the comment he made on my looks at all that made me think--maybe he really does think this about me.

I want to tell you something else about my father.  He learned French when he was in grade school, which he attended in New England.  He also, I believe, took French classes in High School.  He never spoke french, except for every once and a while we'd ask him to recite some french literature he'd memorized as a kid, which he did gladly.  When I decided I'd be taking French, he started saying things to me like 'Allons-y' when he wanted us to leave the church building after church.  Or 'Je ne sais pas' (said: J'une say pah) when he didn't have an answer to things.  When I'd try to say things in a french accent, he'd correct me.  He'd say words over and over and over again until I heard the difference between the way I was saying it and the way it was mean to be pronounced.  The word 'beouf' (beef) comes to mind.  When I came back from my first few semester of taking french, my father started buying French films.  Oh, dozens of them!  When he'd never owned a french film before.  He spoke to me in french when I came back for breaks, and he watched french films with me in the evenings when everyone else was out of the house.  He'd done this before, when I started listening to Frank Sinatra, he suddenly bought a hundred Sinatra albums he didn't own before, which he still buys and listens to, and gives to me when I come home so I can load them onto my computer.  No one else in my family has ever done that for me and I don't ask it of them, but he did it on his own, and that's something that still impresses me.

Now, why is beauty so important?  Why is sharing collective interests so important?  Or why is what we say and how we say it so important?  I feel something I've been fighting against in this class is this idea that other cultures are so different from ours.  And I keep screaming from the rooftops, "Ours isn't so easy to figure out either!" and I just need someone to say, "Yes, you're right."  I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not sure if I believe in hegemony.  Because I think about my family and how many different types of people I've had to learn how to communicate with--people who consider themselves American through-and-through, who have put me through the wringer!  I mean, how often have you tried conversing with a New Englander?  It's freaking hard!  But I grew up around that, and there are ways my father communicates that remind me of Hemingway's iceberg (so I call it--where he discusses in his writing that only the bare essentials need to be said to get across a larger meaning) and I find more comfort in one word from my father than I do in twenty sentences from a friend across the hall.  Because I understand what he means, and who he is, and what he's saying.

My mother's communication is not so easy for me to navigate, and yet I've been living with her for just as long, and have been communicating with her effectively for longer.  But as I change, and as my culture changes, she and I have a harder time understanding one another.  Well what does that mean?  For me, it means culture changes.  It means that we can't go in to another culture thinking that "These people are French so they will act this way, this way and that way."  No.  Because if someone said, "Oh, Jennifer is American, which means she think this, this and that," chances are they'd be dead wrong about me.  Because they're communicating with someone who has created their own culture, who comes from two cultures that are worlds apart even if both American.

But, something I find great interest in is the ideas of values.  I think you can make more general blanket statements about cultural values.  As an American, I am bound to value certain things.  It doesn't mean that other cultures don't value those same things, but that there are some I can pick out for certain.  If the French value eloquence, and grandeur, and family then I can safely say that as an American I value independence, individuality and simple pragmatism.  The interesting thing about values is that one need not embody the values they hold dear.  Not every American is pragmatic, just like not ever Frenchman is eloquent, however we sometimes value things we do not embody ourselves.  And this is an extremely interesting idea to me.

My father is not a particularly mysterious man.  But he values the unexplained and the uncertainties of life and of other people.  Furthermore if we talk about politics in the house, he's rarely in favor of propositions that will make him pay more in taxes--he believes in independence, he believes in sustainability--and I think he believes others should be able to support themselves.  And yet I know no one more generous than my father.  Without me perhaps my father would have never bought those french films, and we'd be 24 french films poorer in the Playstead household, but my father seems to value shared experiences.  And though my father values the time he spends on his own, no one else in the family thinks of as many things as he does for things we can do together.  Watching movies, going to plays, driving up the coast for the weekend, seeing museum exhibits.  The rest of us would sit in separate rooms of the house if he didn't pull us together to sortir.  Where do these values come from?  They could be American, they could be values of the Pacific Coast, or of Los Angeles, or of New England.  But more likely--as any good American would believe--they're the values of an individual, who is all of those things, and is also himself.

That's culture.

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