Notes on a Conversation, Paris, June 5, 2015

The leader this time was someone I would want to call the Social Democrat, although I have no idea whom she votes for or whether that is an accurate designation for someone who believes possible the evolution of men, and I do not mean Man. For the second time, she showed that among her passions the rights of women came near the top of the list.

But next came the welfare of the family, more precisely, of children. She wanted to know who in our different cultures served as the head of household. That was a good question: we came from Mexico/USA (me), Iran, Viet Nam, Tibet, Bangladesh and Argentina. She broadened the discussion. Don’t both parents have duties in raising children? I think we all agreed that that responsibility should be divided between both parents. There was a lot left out. Like there is no typical family anymore. You know, a man and a woman, and one or two children. I don’t think she was including same-sex parents, grandparents, same-sex grandparents, single parents—as in a single woman or man raising children. And what about older siblings having to take care of younger ones?

In any case, the parental authorities were obliged to answer for, support, maintain the children: subvenir was the verb she used. Was she still reading Rousseau? I’m just guessing there. They were also to constater, confirm, that they children were on the right path. The obligation of parents, in the ideal world, would be to model moral behavior. So the children would have de l’identité, identity. Parents were to supply food, roof, clothing, and moral principles. The earnest, blond, stylishly dressed Argentine woman to my right gave all good, right answers. When the leader got to me, I suggested de l’assurance and la confiance en soi—confidence in oneself. But then she or someone else began talking before I could mention that only my sons could constater whether they had gotten any of that from me, or from somewhere else.

I also said it was important to instill values. That my father believed in helping people. What I had in mind were the values, valeurs, I adopted from my parents, like honesty—while at the same time “opposing” them in virtually everything.

According our leader, they, my parents, seemed to have put me on le bon chemin, the right road. I nodded in a kind of curtsy. In reality, one’s own past, not to mention one’s present, can be a murky thing.

The leader shifted and gave us a mini-lecture on the importance of teaching our children l’autonomie, so they did not remain stuck in l’adolescence. So they could be strong in their statements, men francs and women franches.

The young Bangladeshi to my left said he thought a sense of humor was important, as well as non-violence. Rigoler, laugh, have fun. He bubbled with what he thought was funny, which included nearly everything. He ran out of words quickly.

Then it was the turn of the young woman from Tibet. She talked too softly about the similarity between the Tibetan language and the young Bangladeshi’s language. At this point, that same enthusiastic Bangladeshi, maybe thirty or thirty-five, perhaps still thinking about the word franc, interrupted the Tibetan woman, turned to me, and asked me whether he could ask me a personal question. I said yes. He beamed, “How old are you?” The leader objected, saying it was important to observe de la discrétion.

Of course, this posed an interesting moment for me. I can say I’m Pete, in order to change my identity, but I can’t change my age, public knowledge of which may affect how I am seen, as opposed to who I am, according to my imagined behavior, personality, identity etc. So it felt a little like an ageist blindsiding. Nevertheless, I nobly (and dishonestly) said something like, it wasn’t a problem in my culture and he could freely ask me. I confessed to being soixante-dix-sept. Seventy-seven. I didn’t add that I’d be soixante-dix-huit in exactly one month. He then said, breathlessly, to the leader, how wonderful it was that I was there learning a language at my âge.

There are many things you can excuse in youth. Perhaps even innocent condescension, though one could still argue that youthful patronizing may count as misstep more reprehensible than dishonesty in advanced age. Only now, days later, I realized, as in an esprit d’escalier, thinking of the perfect retort as you’re going down the stairs, leaving the room and the conversation where you did not hold your own, I should have answered I was just turning thirty-five.

It is possible that in the previous twenty minutes I had failed to model moral behavior for him, but I was too busy right then, looking up the word for condescension to be able to follow the thread. Traiter avec condescendence. But I wasn’t going to lay that on him. Re-embracing my private identity seemed like a more important task. As in, off to the gym, and shoulders back and down. I like the metaphor I’ve invented for myself. Aging is like being a highly skilled tightrope walker. To maintain your balance, it’s important not to look down.

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