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February 27, 2006

The Alec Rawls Trap

The second pledge week post is a request from Rob Loftis of HelpyChalk (a blog about raising children and doing philosophy).

Rob asks: "What's it like growing up the child of an academic philosopher? As an academic philosopher with children, I am especially hoping for any anecdotes that say that the children of academics all grow up to be happy and well adjusted, despite what you might think."

Actually, I'm the niece of an academic philosopher and the daughter of a physiological psychologist. I come from an eccentric academic background. My paternal grandfather was, at various times, a right wing populist crusading against money and banks in the dirty thirties, an MP, a delegate to the UN, a traveling magician, and a chiropractor. My maternal grandfather graduated from medical school before he was 21. He went on to become a professor of ear nose and throat surgery, treat Joe DiMaggio, and scientifically document the effects of rock music on hearing.

My parents met in Berkeley in the 1960s while my dad was doing his PhD. Being raised by academic hippies is like being raised by wolves--with intensive socialization you can rejoin human society, but you can never integrate seamlessly.

In my family, even pets and infants are addressed in complete sentences. There are no taboo subjects, except when the conservative relatives visit from the interior. Then we can't talk about religion.

I remember the day in kindergarden when one little boy announced that he had a baby brother. How did that happen, someone asked. The kid said something about God. Other kids were floating theories about angel-storks. I felt I had to set the record straight.

Many children cried. My mom was called in for a parent-teacher conference. The teacher was very upset.

"Did she tell the truth?" Mom asked.
"Oh, yes," the teacher said, "In great detail."
"I don't think we have a problem, then," Mom said.

My uncle, the philosopher, used to be a heavy smoker. One day when I was about six, I said, no doubt irritatingly,

"If I were you, I wouldn't smoke."

He answered, "If you were me, you'd smoke. I smoke."

I thought about that for a long time.

Another early philosophical memory is from a long car trip. My mom sent my dad to the library to get some books on tape to amuse me (10), and my brother (7). He came back with "The Death of Socrates" and "On The Road." By the time we reached southern Washington my brother and I were sobbing inconsolably and mom looked about ready to kill dad. The mood brightened after we popped in "On the Road" and mocked the dated sex scenes as a family.

Day-to-day life in my parents' house was very interesting. We had a lot of company. The best houseguests were the magicians. My father and my uncle are involved in the skeptics movement. Once we hosted an Indian magician called Premanand who collaborating with my uncle on an expose of the fraudulent Indian mystic, Sai Baba. One of Premanand's tricks is fire-eating. Basically, you light a brick of camphor and pop it into your mouth where it immediately smothers. I volunteered to eat some fire. I became such an enthusiastic fire eater that I got to eat flaming camphor on local TV when Premanand made an appearance on CBC television.

I hope all this is reassuring to Rob. I have a wonderful family. I still look forward to coming home for the holidays. Amanda and I were chatting about families while we were in Amsterdam and she said, "I think you like your family so much because you know them as well as you know your friends." I think that's exactly it.

I'll let readers decide whether I escaped the Alec Rawls trap.

Keep those post requests coming, and thanks for supporting Pledge Week at Majikthise.


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At Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein posts the following anecdote from her childhood: My uncle, the philosopher, used to be a heavy smoker. One day when... [Read More]

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Very reassuring. Thanks.

Sometimes I *wish* I was the product of academic hippies as opposed to just hippies. All the cons, non of the pros, I think.

I remember when I was around 9 or so, asking my parents why it didn't feel like we were moving while in a moving car. In retrospect, I'm quite proud of this little question, however, I don't think it had much impact on my life.

The answer I got was 'Wind Resistence'.

Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | February 27, 2006 at 12:11 PM

don't worry about kids. Basic safety around electricity, machine and chemicals, basic meta thinking, plenty of weird skills particularly rare sports and music ...

and off your kid go rewiring the house and hacking every lock in the house after getting a second hand manual. :D

Isn't everybody doing that?

How did your uncle and Premanand do with nailing Sai Baba?

I have always been interested at the differences, within the progressive community, between people like Lindsay, whose current ideological and cultural position maintains a good deal of continuity with her parents', and people who came to the prog side of the aisle as a break from family continuity - in other words, Legacy Liberals and Non-Legacy Liberals. I often have a lot of trouble communicating or identifying with Legacy Liberals, and I wish I knew a better way to bridge the gap.

Posted by: Eli | February 27, 2006 at 01:45 PM

How so? extract core ideology, list the most common idioms, yer there. It doesn't matter if it's legacy or not.

most people is in a cloud of 'habitual' thinking, attached to whatever kernel/way of thinking gained from growing up.

There aren't that many people who can think coherently beyond that, carrying multiple system of thinking and adapting correct conclusion to reality on the ground. Otherwise, the world would run so much smoother.

Non-legacy liberal, here.

[Although, to be fair, my family's Canadian, so we're talking Socred/PC/Reform/Alliance/Conservative conservatism, not quite US wingnut conservatism.]

I remember asking my father how televisions work. He explained about cathode rays, deflection with electric fields, phosphoressence, electromagnetic waves, carrier waves etc. I asked him why our television DIDN'T work. "Because it's broken." was the reply.

I have lived my life by this philosophy.

I developed my liberalism, such as it is, with innate rationality and some help from high school friends. My mother is mainstream GOP material, my father is a Rush Limbaugh fan. Mercifully, politics rarely registered as a topic of discussion when I was growing up. I didn't become very politically conscious till the hypocrisy of the Clinton impeachment really pissed me off, though.

"I'll let readers decide whether I escaped the Alec Rawls trap or not."

So far, so good. But have you seen the plan for the Katrina Victims Memorial?

Dear Lindsay,

What an endearing and beautiful description of your childhood! I'd pay big bucks to read the full-length memoir, which you must begin work on immediately. I already knew that your parents must be wonderful to have produced someone like you, and am glad to see it confirmed. Rock on!

I was so charmed by this vignette that I tried to send you some money, but PayPal has been on strike all day. Will try again tomorrow.

That's pure awesomeness, the skeptic thing. Sweeeeeet. I love it when frauds get exposed.

I really can't say what my parents' politics were. My Father was in the service and wouldn't discuss the pro or con of any given government. My Mother was trying to emulate Queen Victoria so she probably thought elections were a triviality to be endured between other amusements.

I was actually quite conservative (relatively speaking) when I was younger. I guess a change occured after recurring missions to some of the most impoverished places in the world. So, in truth, I'm actually a convert.

Oh yes, Paypal keeps giving me error 5302. In my book of MS Errors For Dummies it says the goat needs to be milked. I'll try again later on.

You can eat fire too? Awesome!

Your grandpa was Social Credit? BC has the weirdest extremism, especially being mild-mannered too. Not to mention the Doukhobors.

Where did the phrases "raised by wolves" come from. I heard it first re: Paris Hilton and second re: my own son, spoken by himself. He says he has trouble relating to people who were NOT raised by wolves.

I'm pretty sure it predates Paris Hilton, John. Have you ever been to Rome?

I didn't know "raised by wolves" was a catchphrase. I always thought it came from the story of Romulus and Remus or the wild boy of something-something who fascinated Rousseau.

My BC buddy the The Great Beast has some great Doukhobor stories. Tim, if you're reading this, maybe you'd like to share?

Thanks for all the support, everyone! I really appreciate it.

"The Death of Socrates" came out as an audiobook until 2001. Is that really the book you were listening too?

I think you like your family so much because you know them as well as you know your friends.

That's an exceptionally odd thing to say. I would think you know your family *much* better than you know your friends. She could have meant that you like them because you know them *only* as well as you know your friends, but that seems inconsistent with what you wrote.

"The Death of Socrates" came out as an audiobook until 2001. Is that really the book you were listening too?

I just remember that it was the story of the death of Socrates that my dad borrowed from the Burnaby Public Library in B.C. the summer my uncle Chuck got married.

Anybody know what version that could have been?

Was it a history, or a philosophical dialogue? Was it a CD, or a tape? A lot of books that have only come our recently on CD have been out on tape for some time.

I looked at the Burnaby Library's catalogue, and had no luck with any audio for Socrates. Did your dad ever return it?

Here's the catalogue:

I don't remember whether it was the dialogue or some fictionalization.

Judging by the dates and the Burnaby Library provenance, it was probably this one:>The final days of Socrates [sound recording] / by Plato. (1989).

I emailed my parents. My mom's going to check the cassette library.

Or it could have been>this set:

Plato on the Death of Socrates: Introduction with Readings from "The Apology" and "The Phaedo". Read in Greek and English by Professor Moses Hadas (1956). (SFR #F-9979, $10.95 ok 12/01). Also available on Cassette.

Although, I kind of doubt it because the Burnaby library doesn't have it.

Lindsay, I'm sure I don't have to tell you how lucky you are. In hindsight, I think even being raised by wolves would be better, on balance, than raising yourself, which was my childhood experience. In my twenties I was in a relationship with a woman who came from a very similar family to yours, and I have to admit I was in awe of the whole thing. I remember thinking "People like this actually exist! Who knew?"

I can say, with some pride, that I have breathed some political sensibility into my entire family over the last ten years. I find my father repeating my arguments back to me during subsequent visits, which is hilarious, since he still thinks he's a Conservative, but talks from the libertarian left now. My mother and sister used to be ardent political fatalists, but I have them both voting now. NDP of course. And, I am radicalizing my niece. So, there is at least one benefit to being the family intellectual bootstrapper: you can set the political agenda. :)

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