There are some things I'd like to pass on to my children and grandchildren...cultural things.
When my daughters were little, I used to imagine that they could be anything they wanted to be. And so I'd tell them, "you can be as weird as you want to be, as long as you promise to always be a Methodist, a Democrat, and a Cub fan. As far as I was concerned, they were free to live their lives anyway they wanted, conditioned that they fried fasnachts on Fat Tuesday, watched fireworks on the Fourth of July, and followed the Boy Scout law. (see footnote)
After all, I wanted them to have the same good life I've had. And since so much of the good life I've had is due to my cultural experiences, I have worked and weaseled over the years to enculturate them. In recent years I've been disheartened enough by some of my old cultures that I've loosened up, like with the Methodists and the Democrats. But it would still break my heart if one of my daughters told me she's secretly been in the closet all these years rooting for the Cardinals. But I'm sure that would ever happen in our family.
As I think about the good life for my descendants...and what to pass on to them, I've realized that I'm a member of several cultures...so many, in fact, that I needed to make a list of them. At the moment there's Cub-Nation, First United Methodist Church in Mattoon, my family, America, the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, my writer's group, the Democratic Party, the Holy Wisdom Monastery...
And I have another list of cultures I used to be a member of: my Tuesday night tennis group, the Haworth family (mother's side), Smith family (father's side), Wesley Seminary, the Boy Scouts...
I loved being in the Boy Scouts and participating in the rich culture it offered. It was a culture I embraced all the way through Junior and Senior High. The Boy Scouts had all the elements expected of any culture: special places and times, taboos, defined membership, valued artifacts, insider language, and its own cultural "bible". We went to the annual
Grant Pilgrimage, summer Boy Scout Camp, and winter jamborees. We heard about Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico...and Robert Baden-Powell. We had uniforms and pocket knives and badges. We collected merit badges and advanced through the ranks from Tenderfoot to First Class to Eagle Scout. It was taboo to leave your garbage in a camping site. And the Boy Scout Handbook was our bible. We could actually recite sections of it by memory.
My Tuesday night tennis group was a simpler culture. I played with them for over a decade when I lived in Urbana. You could be a member if you were a guy of a certain age (50+) and not too good...but not too bad. Younger guys...and women could join us from time to time, when we needed substitutes, but they were never considered "full" members. (I never managed to get the gender restriction changed. In every culture there is always some needed reform still on the horizon.) Our "bible" was unwritten, but well known to us all, including all the rules and the process to be followed. The sacred time was Tuesdays at 9 p.m., the sacred place located at the university tennis courts. Eight players partnered off and played doubles on adjacent courts. The first team on each court to win four games won the set. Then winners played winners and losers played losers. After an hour we quit, chatted a bit about unimportant topics, and walked to our cars. You were allowed to curse during a game, but it was taboo to take your anger home with you. Our cultural artifacts included our tennis rackets and cans of relatively new balls.
My Friday writers' group is one of my current treasured cultures. We all aspire to write something that has never been put on paper before. The sacred time is Friday afternoons, from 1:30 until 4. We have four sacred places: the Ollie building on Neil (in Champaign), the Champaign Library, Guido's Bar and Grill, and El Toro. We move back and forth between the library and the Ollie building for our critique sessions. And for drinks afterward, we go to either Guido's or El Toro, whichever is closer. Our "bible" is a collection of dictionaries, Wikipedia articles, books on writing, things we have been told over the years about good writing, and published books that model good writing. We have very few artifacts, but we do treasure sharing paper handouts of our current work. And we all bring a pen to class to write critiques on each other. It is taboo to bother each other during the week...or to get defensive when someone criticizes what you have written. We sort of like it when new people join the group...but they always make us nervous until they prove that they have been properly enculturated and become one of us.
Cubs-Nation is another one of my cultures. Our unwritten "bible" consists of hero stories (Ernie Banks, Joe Maddon, Anthony Rizzo, etc.) and horror stories about the times we almost made it to the World Series. It also includes advice for new Cub fans ("whenever the season tanks, just say, 'wait till next year.'") Anyone can be a Cub fan, but there is a hierarchy: did you start rooting for them during the years they were losers...or did you just come aboard the year they won the World Series? If you are a member of Cub-Nation, Cardinal fans are likely to irritate you. White Sox fans just befuddle you. I have a few artifacts around the house: an Ernie Banks signed baseball, a few Cub hats, etc. If you are a Cub fan, it is taboo to say "Wait until next year" during spring training. Wait at least until June 15.
I'm having fun analyzing my life in terms of cultural influences. But some of my biggest heartaches are due to the decline of cultures that are important to me. Hence my sadness when it comes to churches, family, and country.
Unfortunately, cultures fail because they can't compete with new cultures...and they can't self-correct when things are unhealthy within. And so it is that I find myself writing about this topic these past months...egged on by an unfortunate episode in my own conference when a cross-cultural seminar went off the rails. Click here if you didn't read about that episode.)
In order to understand me, you not only need to delve into the psychology and biology of who I am, you also need to know my cultural attachments...and cultural rebellions. And if I want to really understand you, I need to follow my curiosity about the same stuff. And if I want to understand why certain cultural institutions (like the church) ebb and flow over time, I need to look at them through the lens of culture and analyze their interior cultures as well as their adeptness in relating cross-culturally to people.
I probably won't spend any more of my Sunday letters on this topic, (this is my fourth one) but I plan to pursue thinking and writing about it in the future...in other formats.
Footnote: The Boy Scout Law consists of 12 points:
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. I think these are universally valid, whether you are a boy or not. But if all the boys and men in the world followed them...think how life would improve for everyone!