The whole nature versus nurture debate is pretty much over. As with all the big questions we had hoped for a simple answer. But truth is rarely black and white - it’s really more of a Jackson Pollack situation.
As our parents grind out their DNA, Nature swaggers. The loopy strands define the course for everything that lies ahead. It seems the bet is won already. But Nurture is the tortoise. Even in the womb it sways the way our genes develop; and once born, wholly reliant upon parental whim, Nurture catches up.
“So it’s not one or the other,“ I shrug to Satan. “It’s both - Nature and Nurture. Big Data sets should still be able to sort out the patterns of two factors, right…make reverse inferences…”
“No,” the devil interrupts me. He waggles a finger and snorts. “No way, Jose.”
“Why not?” I ask, frowning. “You mean bias? That can always be factored in the…”
“No,” he says, cutting me off again, “not bias.”
“What then? Confounding variables?” I ask with growing annoyance. I hate it when he makes me guess.
The devil smiles knowingly but doesn’t answer.
Really, sometimes I just want to slap him.
“I don’t know, D.” I shake my head. “Just tell me.”
“Un petit coup de chance,” he says dramatically sweeping a hand out to one side, “but of course.”
“Chance?” I say, chuckling. “You mean probability, right?”
“No kid,” he repeats, “I mean chance!”
I lift my bent arms with my palms upright like I’m balancing two dinner trays.
“I don’t understand,” I say, shaking my head.
The devil widens his eyes and pushes his brow way up. He shakes his head once slightly.
“As in a lucky break?”
I stare at him with a goofy grin.
“Well that isn’t very scientific,” I laugh, waiting for the rest of the joke.
The devil stares back, his face matter-of-fact. The silence stretches on until I realize, there is no punch line. He’s serious,
So the upshot, according to D., is that we can crack the genetic code and crunch out correlations until kingdom come; but how our personal endowments play out in life, with the varied situational twists, is just a throw of the dice.
Que Sera, Sera.
“Just grab the ball and run,” Joan calls back over her shoulder.
The softball is inert now, lying in a patch of sandy grass alongside the red Honda. I stretch my hand out across the top of the crater in the hood. I could easily fit my whole fist inside the line-drive dent that the ball made on the bounce to the ground. Joan can really swing a bat.
“Don’t you think we should leave a note or something?” I ask, studying the damage.
But, Joan is already at the far side of the parking lot and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down to discuss ethics. She glances back once more as she rounds the corner of the fence. Her lip curls into a half skunk grin. She sprints out of sight but her badass smirk lingers like a wonderland cat.
I took a lot of heat for deciding to tell about the dent in the car. I had to pay for the damages, which took the rest of the year, and I was grounded. Plus, Joan challenged me to a fight at least once a week until summer break. After-school specials had failed to prepare me for the true repercussions of being honest.
Satan tells me that my internal compass is all fucked up. He says the whole reason for having a conscience is to aid in basic survival. It’s a feedback mechanism - a way of acquiring data, nothing more. The information is neutral, he says. Any attribution of right or wrong is due to an overactive superego or the guilt of baby Jesus or whatever I want to call it and shouldering the blame is just being a dunce. He says that Joan had it right - suckers are only there for the licking.
So what about volition? If disposition is all luck, by way of genes and environment, then scapegoat or bully – do we really have a choice? Or have wheels been set in motion that cycle around, doubling back, forever retracing our steps?
“It’s fine,” Judith tells me tapping her fingertips rapidly on the desktop.
I look at the additions she’s made to the article we’ve been writing and breath out a long slow sigh.
“How many times did you have to rework the stats to get these results?” I ask, screwing up my face.
Judith spits out a laugh. She looks down at her desk and shakes her head. When she looks back up her smile is a half curved snarl.
“I’ve simply optimized our findings to enhance the article’s usefulness - you know, for publication.
I tilt my head to the side, like a dog that’s confused by a peculiar sound. I’ve heard her talk like this before. I’m not buying it.
I shift my feet uncomfortably and skim through the article again.
“Look, this is the way it’s done,” she says, pursing her lips distastefully, as if I’m the only person on the planet who would disagree with the strategy. “P-u-b-l-i-c-a-t-i-o-n,” she says slowly. “You remember what that is, right? It’s our end game.”
I set the sheaf of papers down on her desk and take a step back.
She rolls her eyes and slaps the flat of her hand across the top of the manuscript.
“You need to snap out of it,” she warns.
Neither of us will budge.
Causality begins its slow ripple into inevitability. As surely as I will stand by moral imperative, Judith will retaliate and take me down in the end.
It reminds me of an old joke where a lion and lamb are peacefully sharing a single cage at the zoo. When asked how he manages such an unlikely alliance the zoo-keeper replies, “Simple! Each morning I get a new lamb.”
“Kid, you’re hopeless,” the devil says throwing up his hands in mock despair. He looks me over as if considering the plight of Sisphus. His eyes narrow as he thinks. I can tell he’s trying to work out how he might give me an edge.
“Look,” he says, sidling up closer. “I think you’re kind of stuck with who you are, you know? The best I can do is to offer a little advice for how to handle things when they cycle around.”
He drapes a friendly arm around my shoulders.
“First of all,” the devil tells me, fanning his hand across the air in front of us in a grand arc, “dream big - and always believe in your purpose.”
He squeezes my arm affectionately.
“When good things come your way - feel proud! You are a child of the universe whose hard work is being rewarded. Raise up your glass and toast - ‘To Life – To Karma – To Me’.”
The devil turns to face me head on. He takes hold of both shoulders with a strong grip and regards me solemnly at arms-length. His eyes offer tender consolations.
“Then when things go terribly wrong,” he continues, “and they will,” his voice sounds scrapey and low like a dark secret. He gives my shoulders a small, emphatic shake. “When every vested pursuit is crushed into rubble - and your smallest clinging hope has turned to ash - as the dust chokes out your final breath…”
Satan gives my arm a playful punch.
“…raise up a defiant fist” he lifts his own clenched hand skyward, “and blame your parents.”
Adele and I entered puberty at precisely the same moment that our parent’s hit middle age. All at once the house felt too small. Hormones simmered like pathogens mushrooming in the warm agar of a Petri dish. Dormant strains of madness ripened.
Po hid in her room.
For a while we held it together. The familiar rhythms of school and work dulled our heat. But in the spring, the long evening stretches became insufferable. Each of us smoldered with our own secret cravings.
Adele and I filled out. We grew unrecognizable, exotically bulging and sprouting as if we were salamanders or newts. The effort of watching TV was ridiculous.
My parents were at a loss, dopey with their own confusion and stymied by laws that prohibited locking us in the basement until puberty subsided. Using the mathematics of fundamentalist logic, they divided by zero and sent us back to church.
HighRoads was held two evenings a week under the guidance of Youth Group Minister, Daniel Chilton. Reverend Chilton was a method actor for God. He’d taken on the role of evangelical rock star and was fully immersed. On arrival at HighRoads we’d find Reverend C. already set up with his bass in the great white sanctuary, lounging against the altar, plugged in and smoothly jamming with a loop pedal and drum machine. Creamy electric improvisational licks oozed from the Fender guitar slung low on his hips.
This is Christian Spinal Tap.
There were others like us at HighRoads, kids herded to church by skittish parents teetering around the brink. Most could be fit into one of two groups: the Casualties or the Boosters. You could peg the Casualties by their strung-out look, traumatized either by the weirdness of their home life or some other chance devastation. The Boosters, on the other hand, had lightening in their eyes. They were zealous and displayed an embarrassing amount of enthusiasm for testimonies and group prayer. Regardless, all fawned over Reverend Chilton like a celebrity. I kept my distance. Someone twenty years older with a soul patch and tight jeans looked a lot like a narc to me. Besides, even with his pump-of-adrenaline “Let’s Rally” come-on, what lingered at the end of each HighRoads meeting were the same draconian messages of atonement and guilt. Youth group was just sleight-of-hand - bible study and choir dressed up in paisley.
At least HighRoads got me out of the house; plus, there were snacks. But after a month of khakis and Jesus, I’d grown pretty restless.
Then, quite unexpectedly, there was Franny.
Franny Jackman was tall and cool with platform shoes and long ebony hair, like Cher. I took to her at once.
Franny’s parents had become embroiled in an ugly divorce. Her family was in shambles. But unlike the other HighRoads Casualties Franny Jackman did not fall apart. In fact, she thrived. Franny recognized chaos as a natural state. This gave her clarity. She was able to see that the lawlessness of chaos afforded her with fewer rules and lowered expectations. For Franny, HighRoads was a pipeline for freedom. She often skipped out as soon as her mom dropped her off; as long as she was back in time for the 8:30 service, no one really noticed. Franny’s high road was not the same as Reverend C’s. Her path was disruptive and curved around anarchy, a road along which she could always score pot.
The first time I smoked weed was at church with Franny Jackman. One Sunday night, while HighRoads trekked over to Fellowship Hall, Franny and I snuck away through the metal doors in the west corridor. We wound through the parking lot to the golf course that ran along the far side of the church property. The links were mostly empty by dusk, with only a few stragglers golfing way out on the last holes. With more than an hour to kick around before evening services, we headed across the green to the rain shelter on the fifth-hole fairway. The sun dipped low in the sky. Our shadows stretched out long and leggy across the lawn.
Franny and I slipped off our shoes and walked barefoot across the spongy turf. The pleasantness of digging our naked toes into the cool, Bermuda grass was its own sweet religion.
The rain shelter was a rustic three-sided enclosure made from rough-hewn timber and stone. A wooden ledge jutted out from the back wall to form a bench. We settled down and looked out across the landscaped course. Franny inched up the strap of a leather pouch that hung across her chest. From inside the bag she pulled a small metal box. The writing on the sides was too worn to read but the colors on the lid were vivid, depicting a black Scottie dog wearing a red plaid vest who was cradling a little yellow ball. She opened the box and inside was a small cellophane bag and a lighter. Franny kept her stash inside the little tin. She took out a joint, flicked a Zippo between her thumb and index finger and lit up. I tried to look casual like this happened every day.
Franny pulled in a long drag and handed the joint to me. I took it between two fingers, inhaled the smoke and held it, copycatting her technique. She laughed when I doubled over, coughing. We passed the joint back and forth between us, talking and laughing, about nothing in particular. What I recall now – what was significant - is just how good it felt to let go – to release all the judgments and the second-guessing that were required to navigate nearly every goddamn conversation that went on with my family.
After awhile we fell quiet, into an easy stillness - listening to the birdsong and communing with the hushed goodbyes to the day - welcoming the vespers. When only a few gold streaks remained in the gathering darkness Franny looked over and smiled, heavy-lidded.
“You know what I figure?” she asked in her lazy Southern drawl.
“What’s that?” I asked back, resting my head at an angle against a low beam so I could see her face. Franny straightened up a bit and leaned forward on the bench against her bent knees.
“I figure it’s a real good thing we’re Baptist.”
She stretched out the “real good” like Georgia moonlight and pushed one leg out long, tapping my thigh with her foot, like a drum.
“Oh yeah?” I laughed. Doubt huffed through my nose. Nothing about being Baptist struck me as particularly good. Nothing. To me it was all part of the same trick, where meaning got jumbled up with secondary and tertiary implications. It made me feel trapped like one those laboratory mice that go half mad trying to navigate through a rigged maze. All I could do at the end of most days was huddle over a stale piece of cheese and pray that tomorrow I’d figure out a way to escape.
“I can’t imagine what would make you think that,” I said, shaking my head stiffly and biting my lower lip. I frowned and shook my head again.
A slight tremble slipped through me. It was a tell. The cool manner I’d affected dissolved for a beat and revealed my pretense, a bluff to stifle that stupid screaming mouse.
Franny narrowed her eyes and looked me over. Her face softened like the petals of a blooming lotus. A breeze whispered between us. Our breathing pulling into sync.
Franny Jackman knew all about rats and mazes; and Franny had found her way out.
I was all in. I leaned forward, lightly cupping her foot with my hand.
“So?” I asked. “Tell me then. Tell me how being Baptist is a good thing.”
“Well, the way I see it,” Franny said, leaning back, “being Baptist means we’ve got ourselves a Get Out of Jail Free card.”
She folded her arms behind her head like a cushion and cradled her head in the nook of her elbow, looking off toward heaven. A devilish spike lit her eyes.
“Yes we do. In our weird tribe it has been written and so it shall be…” she placed one hand to her heart. “For us Baptists, it’s ‘Once saved - Always saved’ and that’s all there is to it.”
Her eyes flashed like puddles of mercury. She gave me a wink. “No matter what! It’s all your prerogative.”
Now by this point in my pubescent amble, my inner-mouse was perched on a very slippery edge beyond where all resistance becomes futile and the only option is to curl up and brace for the coming jolts. I had tried way too hard at just about everything, which meant of course that I didn’t stand a chance for all the want that poured out of me. The truth is that defeat and shame mix together after a time to form a chemical as bright as neon phosphorous and it paints a big, fat target on the back of token mice. I had been absorbing irradiated rat scat for as long back as I could remember, right up until this very second.
But, I suddenly flash, I have prerogative.
All at once sin became a lot more appealing - or at least what I’d been calling sin. Letting go. Taking chances. What song of praise is self-reproach? A different tune came to me:
“Tain’t no sin to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones” “Tain’t no sin to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones”
I leaned back as if from a kick and laughed.
“You are quite possibly an actual genius,” I said, delighted both with the insight and the brilliant marijuana.
“Oh yes,” she agreed, nodding heartily, “I truly am. And I’m fearless.”
Franny Jackman had just become my new hero, her obvious superpower being the ability to absorb dark energy and convert it into light as bright as the sun.
Franny stowed the remnant of the joint in the little tin box and returned it to her purse. We stood and stretched and made our way back across the golf course to join up with the youth group for evening services.
In the choir room I slipped a robe over my head and pulled a purple stole into place around my neck. Franny and I blended with the other HighRoad’s kids now, I noticed, glancing in the mirror on the back of the choir room door. We couldn’t help but look angelic. The robes were like magic cloaks, concealing the fact that we were stoned blind and stupid.
The choir filed through a side sanctuary door to tiered seating at the front of the church. I folded my hands together and stepped up the stairs to take my place with the sopranos in the third row. From behind, Franny gave my stole a playful tug. It snapped my head back slightly at the nape. I turned and made a face at Franny and, I stumbled. I reached a hand out to steady myself on the next chair but missed my aim and lost my balance. As I pitched forward I grabbed a section of Franny’s robe. We fell together, in slow motion - past the Casualties and the Boosters and Highland’s choir director - finally landing sprawled in front of the congregation and God, at the edge of Reverend C.’s amp. Our legs were tangled in a chair we’d brought down with us and our robes were ruched up just shy of a scandal. We were laughing like true idiots.
On the one hand, I was embarrassed, as awkward as I’d ever been; but, I felt no shame and without the guilt, that ridiculous moment was somehow quite lovely.
The mooring that the church provided didn’t last us much longer. There was a recession on and bankruptcy loomed. Insolvency eroded my parent’s faith. They had swallowed the American Dream like Jonestown Eucharist. Now doubt left them itchy, ravenous for their cut of the milk and honey. And more. Betrayal had gnawed the family tethers. Our nuclear unit blinked. We were strangers.
One morning I went to make breakfast and found an odd man standing in the kitchen. I studied him from the perimeter as if he were a feral squirrel who’d chewed through the screen door in the night.
“Can I help you?” I asked warily, inching my way to the refrigerator and opening the door like a shield.
“You can bring me the milk,” the man answered, barely looking up from scooping coffee into a filter.
“Dad?” I asked. Freon from the open icebox sent a chill across my skin.
I suppose the transformation had been gradual but tipping points can surprise you. My father was the one in the portrait that hung over the couch. What had become of him with his dark tie and starched white shirt? This doppelganger was wearing poly-blend and denim with a braided gold chain at the neckline. Gone was the slick Brylcreem, apparently traded for mousse and styling in a wind chamber.
“On your way to the disco,” I asked, passing the milk to my dad, “or just coming home?”
“What?” he asked.
He looked at me curiously then spoke very slowly as if trying to explain to a 5-year old.
“I’m going to work.”
He snapped the lid onto his travel mug and headed out the door, the heels of his platform shoes clomping down the driveway in time, I guessed, to a Bee Gees song in his head.
My mom was also unrecognizable but her fashion sense had gone a different way.
“Didn’t you wear that same pants suit yesterday?” I asked later in the day. My mother was sitting on a tufted stool at her dressing table. She used to apply her make-up here. She was meticulous about it, but now she was like an amputee attempting to put a boot on a phantom limb. The sleek cosmetics and bottles of scent were dusty. Her hand reached for tall vodka infused Fresca instead. She stared at a small TV set on the counter. Jeopardy was blaring a clue:
“George Bernard Shaw called this condition the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes”
“Did I?” she asked absently. “What is marriage,” she muttered to the television.
“Actually I think this is like the third or fourth day in a row,” I motioned to her reflection. She arched an eyebrow and sighed.
“I’m conserving water,” she said flatly. “It’s earth week.”
“Oh,” I said, mulling this over. “Isn’t that earth day?”
“I don’t think so,” she replied dully, returning her gaze to the tv. “Actually I’m thinking of celebrating all month…maybe the whole year. I’ve taken an interest in ecology.”
“I see,” I said, taking in the clutter around her. “That explains a lot. So listen…,” I regarded the receding level of her drink, “I’m getting a ride to HighRoads with Franny. Her mom is picking me up.”
“Oh good,” her eyes flickered relief. “Well enjoy yourself.”
Back in my room I sat on the edge of my bed and studied the carpet. I worried about my fate. What would become of me? Was there any way out of this mess or would I become like them, no matter what?
The sound of a car pulling into the drive snapped me out of it.
“Fuck it!” I thought, grabbing my purse and keys. I ran down the stairs and, at the bottom, inclined my head toward my mother’s room.
“I’m leaving now,” I called out, opening the front door.
Franny smiled from behind the wheel of her mom’s car.
“What the…?” I laughed out loud. “How did you get the car?”
“I got my license,” she said, leaning her head out the window, “well, my learner’s permit actually…I didn’t provide that detail to my mother. Anyway, whatever - we’re mobile!”
I hesitated only briefly, adding over my shoulder as I closed the door, “I’ll be back after church.”