through a mirror lightly


My family – brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, making up about 15 of us – have a very healthy email listserv that runs the gamut from “whose shirt is this? see attached” to Things You Did in 1979 That Scarred Me Forever. This week we were discussing the behavior of one of our extended relatives living far away, and I was again hit with that old sparring partner, SHAME.

Occasionally I can think of a summer, or a vacation, and replay the events in my mind, and almost always I come away from the experience thinking “why the FUCK didn’t somebody slug me and teach me how to be PROPERLY SOCIALIZED?”

You think just because you have self-awareness now, that you’ve always had it. You assume because you’re infinitely aware of every last uptick in speech, every angle you can be seen, that you have always had such clairvoyance. In fact, your ability to sense when others loathe what you’re doing is hard-won and gradual.

But we all get socialized at a different pace, and I feel like mine took goddamn forever. Using broad generalizations, I suppose it can be broken down like this:

Normal person: begins life not knowing anything, gradually picks up social cues on how to behave, generally has a good idea what he/she seems like to everyone else by age 26.

Person with Asperger’s syndrome: begins life not knowing anything (like everyone else), doesn’t pick up on social cues the way everyone else does, has sensory integration issues, has to learn what other people are feeling, but it always remains something of a foreign language.

Me: began life pretty sure I knew what was going on, spent each year gradually realizing I didn’t, had sensory integration issues, finally picked up on social cues in my early 20s but continued to make unfathomable mistakes until my early 30s.

Perhaps I just wish someone had taken me at 18, or 20, or 24, pinned me to the wall and said, “Don’t you fucking know what you look like when you do the things you do?!?” Or perhaps they did do that, but I was in angry denial. Or perhaps I’m overreacting; usually whenever I apologize to someone for a past transgression, they have a completely different memory.

And here we are raising a child, at that peculiar age before she is really ready to meet the world on her terms, and I wonder: is there a way to teach self-awareness without it becoming crippling? Can anyone teach anyone not to be a dick? Or is it just instinct, genetics and luck?


barely figuring it out, with Kendall and Tracy, April 1989


8 thoughts on “through a mirror lightly

  1. Mark Chilton

    “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”
    -Robert Burns
    Seeing ourselves as others see us can be useful when it comes to self-regulation, but it can also be a curse. In many ways self-awareness crushes our uniqueness, our creativity and our sense of humor.
    It’s important to teach your daughter the kind of self-awareness that makes her wonder, “How would I like to be treated if the shoe were on the other foot here?” But somehow not let that kind of self-awareness turn into the kind of self-consciousness that says “only boys are supposed to do that” or that makes her unwilling to dance or speak in public or whatever.
    It’s true you have some rough edges sometimes, Ian, but more often than not your rough edges are what make you the hilariously creative writer that you are. And those are the parts I like best.

  2. CM

    Mark is exactly right in his thoughts about child-rearing. Too many kids are raised to think that they are “special” without the balance of knowing that every other child is also “special” with feelings and gifts that are also just as important as their own and should be considered.
    I wonder if years from now I will see my current self as less aware (evolved, open-minded, kind-hearted, generous, etc) than I should be. I kind of hope so because it will mean that I am growing and that is an amazing thing!

  3. chm

    I’d argue that the entire parenting project is a grand effort to teach children not to be dicks. But as you say, people take this lesson when they do. Our hedge against shitty behavior is lightly repressive, pathologically restrained old-skool WASPishness.
    Not. Working.

  4. sebs

    My 7 year old son is very particular – especially about where he sits. Always the same spot: at the kitchen table (by the window, facing into the heart of the kitchen), on the couch (forward view to the tv, securely wedged in corner), in the car (1st seat he gets to when passenger door is opened). This escalates when it involves the heat vents on cold mornings before school.
    This morning I saw a glimmer of hope. No, he didn’t move from “his” vent, but he did bring his sister the good blanket as she was curled up on the inferior vent in the front hall. With three kids, we uber-share in this household. I give no preference to boy over girl, but this hierarchical chair business cannot be overcome at this point in time. Yes, he is being a jerk but the chair thing resonates to his core. Does he know he is being unreasonable? Probably. Does he care? No. And I have to admit appreciating his bravado on this matter and encouraging my girls in their own bravados when appropriate.
    P.S. Hi Ian! I am a long time lurker and friend of a friend (Hey, Joanna!). Your post on 1/17 was the kick-in-the-pants I needed to join in the deliciousness that is Thank you for this community.

  5. Joanna

    Too funny, sebs! I was just about to comment that you were not alone in having a challenging 7 y.o., when I reached the end of your comment and realized you KNOW my challenging 7 year old!

  6. Alan

    We have had to deal with some persistent issues related to not pulling one’s weight or being too down/excited about certain things and as early teens arrived instituted a plainness policy about how the time had come to realize that it’s no longer the judgement in the home that is the primary concern. Key phrases from previous generations of Scots Presbyterians like “find something actually useful to do” or “do that when you are 20 and you may end up with a broken nose care of a stranger” have been met with startled surprise by the next generation. The soon to be six year old is being assigned first chores.
    The ability to recognize context that comes with utility directly translates to social skill as it is, in fact, a skill and a skill that not all acquire. Failure to provide these sorts of lessons and leaving an impression of “special” is setting the poor kids up for a hammering. But taking on the challenge needs to be rewarded, too, to show it is not just a minimum standard but a worthwhile accomplishment.

  7. The other CM

    In a way, you are making the case for bullying. Well, I know you’re not in favor of bullying, but that’s what bullying does some of the time…alerts us when we do things that are strange or unappealing to the majority. It taught me to shut my mouth, lest I say something socially awkward that would get me picked on. Is that good? Bad? Was there any nice, polite way to teach a kid not to be so weird?
    By the way…I see this blog has become so popular that there is now another CM!! Or maybe she/he was here before me and I just didn’t notice.


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