Draft: Family Dynamics and Social Withdrawal

Family Dynamics

I wish I could say more about what my younger sisters and brother were doing, the whole time I was growing up.

I didn’t pay close attention mostly due to the age difference. I was the oldest, my next two siblings were girls, the youngest, Kevin, was 9 years younger than me. When you’re a kid, boys and girls don’t usually play together. And Kevin and I were too far apart to share interests.

It was while we lived in Illinois that I let go of one activity I shared to some extent with my father – scouting – and more fully developed my own interests. Stamp collecting for a short while (at the encouragement of my Great Aunt, Maude); discovering authors I liked like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke and reading all their books I could find; then becoming somewhat obsessed with Star Trek when the original series went into syndicated reruns five times week. By the time we returned to California, and I was doing well in school, I think my parents figured they could leave me alone and I’d be all right; they could pay more attention to the other three kids. Susan was problematic in a few ways. She was the opposite of me in temperament and intellect. She hung out with the wrong kids. At home she sat in her bedroom playing teeny-bop pop music of the era, always too loudly, on her records player. The Monkees, David Cassidy, the Jackson Five.

By the time I graduated from high school, not quite 18 years old, Kevin was 9 and ready for scouting. My father turned his attention to Kevin and became more involved in active adult supervision in his Pack and later Troop than he’d been when I was a scout.

The most unfortunate circumstance in my life, I think, is that I didn’t go away to college. I commuted from home, and so four years at UCLA was like an extension of high school. Coming home every day to noisy little kids and Sue’s loud music and my parents’ cigarette smoke and the TV that was on continuously from mid-morning to 10pm or so when my parents retired. I went into my bedroom and closed the door and did my homework and read my books and wrote my journal.

So no, alas, I did not pay much attention to what my siblings were doing in the years I was at home.

Social Withdrawal

So then, a key theme of my life, one I wasn’t aware of as I grew up and only realized years later in retrospect. Here are the two factors that led to this result.

Factor One

My parents both grew up in small towns, in Illinois.

In Apple Valley, the route to the elementary school was by school bus. On the street where we lived, the area was sparsely populated, the nearest houses in any direction being typically 1000 feet away. There were no neighbor kids to play with. I grew up alone. I didn’t mind; it didn’t occur to me such a childhood was in any way unusual. Perhaps I was inherently solitary in nature, or perhaps the circumstances forced me to become self-sufficient. (Which is cause, which effect?) In those very early days in Apple Valley, I don’t remember what I did. There were no books in the house. We probably had a small TV but I don’t remember any shows from that era. I do recall I was fond of toy plastic cars. I think I had a basic model train set. I had coloring books. (–Now there’s a curious memory. Yes, I had a coloring book. Remember that I was four or five years old, and my entire experience consisting of living in this barren desert landscape. But this coloring book was full of outlined drawings of things like… lakes with sailboats. Big puffy clouds in the sky. Things that were utterly alien to me. It would be nearly a decade later, with the move to Illinois, before I saw sailboats and cumulus clouds in person.)

When we moved to Santa Monica, we were suddenly in a big city, but my school and the local library were only a few blocks away, that I could walk to. The area was populated mostly by seniors, like the nice lady next door to us who once gave me stuffed monkey. There was one kid a few doors down that I played with. In some incident, trying to build a pit that would trick his little sister, his hammer hit my forehead, causing a fount of blood, and his mother carried me up the street to my own mother.

In Reseda, the walk to school was a bit longer. I had two or three friends at school – Milton Lewis, Nader Omana, Gary Wein – but they all lived in other directions from my own home. The point is: I never hung out with friends outside of school. I had no friends outside of school. My mother’s priorities were that I should walk directly home from school. In retrospect, I think it was my parents’, or at least my mother’s, anxiety about living in a large city, compared to her small-town background. Of course I never questioned it at the time.

When we moved to Illinois for three years, the schools were farther away and I took busses. Again, I have couple good friends there in high school – Richard Pointer and Peter Serafin – but they lived in other directions, off other bus lines, and it never occurred to me that we could be friends outside school. I would come home and read my books or work my stamp collection or compile trivia from Star Trek episodes.

And even back in LA, when we moved to Sepulveda. The high school was two long or four short blocks away. I walked to school, walked back home. I developed one good friend there, Philip Klutch, whom I later car-commuted with to UCLA for most of four years, but whom my mother dismissed as a Jew. He, too, lived in another direction. Again, through all these years, I was self-sufficient at home, with my books, my diary, my TV.

And even more extremely: I attended UCLA for four years, commuting from home. I’d applied to MIT and CalTech, at my high school counselor’s suggestion, but only got onto MIT’s waiting list. UCLA was my backup, and it was close enough to home that I didn’t have to move away, to a dorm. I lived at home and drove the family’s second car, a 1964 Buick Skylark with peeling paint on the hood, on the days my car-pooling partner Philip Klutch didn’t drive himself.

UCLA was thus like an extension of high school. I came home every afternoon to the same family situation, with younger sisters and a brother squabbling and noisy, and my parents smoking constantly and watching TV throughout the day. (Apple Valley was my refuge, as I’ll describe on another post.)

Factor Two

This is hard to recover or think about clearly; memories are uncertain, being recalled and reinterpreted over and over, throughout one’s life. But I’m certain there was a transitional period in my mid-childhood where circumstances and influences, mostly due to my father, shut me down. As an early child, I think that I was relatively voluble and sociable. But then there were a few key episodes. One was, in 5th or 6th grade, learning fractions, I had discovered some clever scheme to simplify the computing of fractions, and asked my teacher to show it to the class. (I’m pretty sure she was a substitute teacher, which might almost excuse her reaction.) I got to the front of the class, chalked my idea onto the chalkboard. And the teacher replied, that’s a cute gimmick. Gimmick?? I was mortified. She didn’t appreciate that I had some true insight into mathematics, at least for my age.

One other classroom demonstration went a bit better. I had a small, educational-toy computer called a Digi-Comp (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digi-Comp_I; my blog in 2006: http://www.markrkelly.com/Views/?p=291), and I took it to school one day, likely in the 6th grade, for a show-and-tell. I described the basic mechanics of it, the plastic parts, the rubber bands, and showed how “programming” it with those plastic pegs let you do simple calculations. I thought I was done, but the teacher said, can you explain more about how it works? Um, OK, well–and I went into a tedious explanation of how the upright metal wires either did or did not move depending on those pegs, and so on. The teacher was satisfied, but I thought this extraneous detail was beside the point. It was about the concept of being able to program, not how the program mechanically played out. Again I was taken aback, that much less eager to pass along things I found interesting.

More important were my father’s reactions to several incidents. He was extremely sensitive to shows of vanity; he disregarded expertise, and thought everyone on the nightly news a crook or a fraud. (My sister Sue has inherited some of this attitude, and even Kevin a bit.) A key incident must have been in the sixth or maybe seventh grade. I’d become interested in astronomy and had gotten a small refractor telescope for my sixth grade graduation (called a “culmination”). To encourage me, perhaps, somehow or another my father contacted a friend of a friend who was part of a high-end amateur astronomy group that owned and ran Stoney Ridge Observatory (http://stony-ridge.org/), in the mountains off Angeles Crest Highway (and just a few miles northeast of the famous Mount Wilson Observatory). So one evening my parents and I drove up to meet this friend to get a tour and actually look through the telescope. As we arrived it was near full dark and the constellations were clearly visible. We met this friend and I pointed out some of the constellations I knew – Orion, Canis Major, whatever. (More likely it was summer, so they would have been Hercules, Scorpio, whatever.) The friend went off to unlock the observatory, and my father took me aside and told me not to show off. Show off? I didn’t think I was; I was just establishing my bona fides, so to speak, as someone who knew something about astronomy. The astronomy friend had nodded along; he hadn’t rolled his eyes as if I were a twerp. But my father thought I was being too big for my britches; he was embarrassed. As the evening passed, we did actually look through the scope (which entailed sitting atop a high ladder to reach the eyepiece), and at one point this astronomy friend trusted me to change the eyepiece, even at the risk of an 11-year-old boy dropping the eyepiece onto the concrete floor below. (See the scope at this page: http://stony-ridge.org/76cm-f6.htm)

There were other incidents like this. On another occasion my father in effect blamed me for Susan’s relatively dismal academic performance. I was showing her up, and she knew she couldn’t measure up, so she didn’t try, he figured. I was thus obliged to stay quiet, not talk about anything that interested me, keep all my pursuits private.

Result

So there were those things, parental disapproval, and then we moved, and then we moved again a few months later, each time to a new school. And a year after that was yet another new school (from junior high to high school). And two years after that, moving back to California to yet another new school. Any friends I had at school lived in other directions. It became not worth the trouble to develop new friendships, except incidentally. I actively suppressed myself at school; I became acutely self-conscious and afraid of embarrassing myself. I attended classes, got good grades, but I never spoke up in class. I did the homework and took the tests and got good grades, but never participated in classroom discussion. I remained this way all the way through college, and was occasionally called out for it. I couldn’t explain.

Over the succeeding decades I relaxed somewhat in workplace situations. But in public settings among crowds – e.g. at science fiction conventions, or professional software conferences, where speakers would invite audience questions – I would never ever speak up in such situations.

Somewhere in here, either a consequence or another contributor, is my lifelong preference for working alone. I like big projects (e.g. my awards database) that I can manage and implement and maintain all by myself, for years, for decades; and in contrast bristle at having to attend meetings and have to compromise with fellow workers who have other ideas. (It was because I declined to attend weekly meetings at the Locus offices, not realizing it was a deal-breaker, that Liza took over the website in 2017.)