A Life of Thoughtful Choices

My partner Sally the other day, after reading one of my blog posts, commented that an overarching theme of most of my writing is having the opportunity, the wisdom, and the courage to lead a thoughtful life, which involves making thoughtful choices, in as many areas of life as possible. Though I had never framed it quite that way, I think she is right on. Under that umbrella of choices are ideas of liberty, agency, partnership (rather than hierarchy), and what seems to still be a radical idea that these things can be applicable to both youth and adults.

My mom, Jane Roberts, made the unorthodox choice in the 1940s of following the man who would later be her husband and my dad, Eric Zale, from their upstate New York hometown to Ann Arbor Michigan in the Midwest. At the time he was neither her husband, her fiancé, nor even her boyfriend. All he was offering her was the opportunity, after a year of residence, of applying to enroll in the university there. In the meantime she would be on her own to find a job and a place to live, which she did. This seems remarkable to me that such a partnership was forged between a man and a woman, not within the traditional context of marriage or the supervision or control of her parents.

I think that part of the appeal to both of them, of this move to another region of the country, was to escape parents and a family life that did not honor them as emerging souls with their own agency and their own goals. In Ann Arbor they did find at least some of that agency, finally becoming a couple, marrying, planning and having two kids. And they made a pact with each other that they would choose to raise those two kids completely differently than they were raised, and based on their own native intelligence and intuition, rather than the conventional parenting wisdom of the culture.

My younger brother Peter and I were born and raised with the benefit of this courageous, conscious choice of our parents, to raise us on the principle that, as my mom often said, “Kids will tell you what they need.” The intuitive leap in this statement was to break from the patriarchal practice of control and direction of children’s lives and to instead provide an environment of love and liberty within an enriched environment, maybe inspired by what they believed to be an insufficient amount of it in their own upbringing.

The Ann Arbor of the 1950s and 60s was perhaps an excellent environment for this unorthodox approach to parenting, being a fairly homogeneous and friendly Midwestern town yet infused with the progressive ideas and broad worldview of a major university, to counter any native parochialism that might have otherwise been present. There was a scale to the place that was to a youth’s (and their parents’) liking, you could get from anywhere to just about anywhere with less than an hour’s walk or a twenty-minute bike ride. Once I had reasonably demonstrated to my parents at around age ten that I was responsible and would consistently return home when the street lights came on, they pretty much let me go where I wanted.

It was not a place and not yet a time when parents would become concerned about child molesters and all the other youth-unfriendly aspects of a larger community, and the resulting emergence of “helicopter” parents, who stage managed nearly every aspect of their kids’ lives.

Though I grew up with a fairly conventional school environment, it was not yet the age when standardized curriculum and high-stakes testing had focused schools on a one-size-fits-all set of course offerings and educational trajectory. I also had a de facto understanding from my mom during my middle and high school years (my parents had already divorced and my dad moved out of the house), that if I did not feel like going to school (usually expressed as minor health issues), I did not have to. A shy kid with tenuous self-esteem, I used these furloughs to de-stress from all the social pressures of being jammed together with hundreds of other kids my own age, heightening the opportunity to feel inferior to somebody in every aspect of my being.

The period of my older youth and young adulthood was full of tribulations, including ongoing family issues stemming from my parents’ divorce and my own feelings of low self-esteem, inadequacy and romantic longings I was too timid to act on. But it was also full of opportunities for me to make many choices about the content and direction of my life. I plunged into the theater, used a summer job to finance a backpacking trip through Europe, experimented with marijuana, and explored and embraced the ideology of feminism. I also made the conscious choice to stop rebelling against, and start doing all that I could to help, my mom get through her depression and back on her feet. Finally I left my hometown in a half-baked scheme to go to Los Angeles and make it in the film and TV business.

Some of my choices were more successful than others, better thought out than others, but they all stemmed from a conscious assessment of what seemed like the best course based on who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I was not following anyone else’s program or script.

Part of my heritage from my parents was not to accept conventional wisdom and not to shy away from the unorthodox if, after thoughtful consideration, it was the best path forward. So in Los Angeles when I was getting nowhere in the entertainment business, I volunteered and eventually became a paid organizer for the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, a male person with a prominent roll in the campaigning for women’s rights in the early 1980s.

Then meeting my future partner Sally and our discussion of many weeks finally leading to a decision to get married and have a family. Planning and having two kids, the older one himself bent on following an unorthodox course and testing our commitment to, as my mom said, let kids “tell you what they need”, instead of accepting the conventional parenting wisdom and path of least resistance.

All these choices, all the processing of the consequences of these choices, have been the stuff I am writing about. The success of this approach and the positive developmental impact on my life has shifted my philosophical underpinning subtly from the maybe paternalistic liberal progressivism of the university town of my birth towards feminism and more of what I now call a left-libertarianism. We honor each other by being in community and being of assistance to each other, but we do so by, as our feminist mentor Toni Carabillo said, “Holding close with open arms”. We give each other, adult and youth, the space to find and be ourselves, and then freely give (or not) our found gifts to that larger community.

I still feel very much embroiled in developmental transition, and having crossed the age of 50 accept the conventional metaphor of being “over the hill”, except of course with my own twist of reframing. Now that I am “over the hill” I will continue to move forward, now at even a stronger and more confident pace, because I am going downhill and no longer fighting against gravity.

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