I grew up in a talented family that holds the idea that talent runs in a family as a form of destiny.
My grandfather, Roger, was a cold person. He didn’t like children and as a mechanical engineer he wasn’t expected to be good with people. Here is a pretty typical photo of us. You can see he barely tolerates children.
My grandmother, his wife, adored me. And as a result Roger and I spent a great deal of time together vying for her attention.
I lived with Roger on my own for a time after my grandmother had passed away and I got to know him well. In fact, Roger is the silent partner on this website project. It was his interest in photography that provided me with such a trove of vintage treasures.
Roger met my grandmother during World War II when he was a pilot for the French Air Force. He had trained in the USA and adored flying. They immigrated to the USA so he could work for Smith Corona. He’s the rare story of someone who grew up dirt poor but was so bright he was able to lift himself out of his humble origins and grow into an American success story.
Military man. Engineer. A verifiable mechanical genius. Despite treating me badly because I have the double misfortune of being born a girl and a child–I learned at his knee about machines and mathematics. And due to my family’s sense of genetic destiny, I believed that those skills were my birthright. When he told me about building his own fully functional boxcar (with brakes) when he was only three years old, I knew that I could tackle any machine. Emerging technologies never scare me. A large part of my career was been built on the fact that I am good with machines. My kids know I am the one in the family that will fix anything and I’m the one who knows about cars. I could be a mechanical whiz because Roger was my grandfather.
Except he wasn’t. He married my grandmother when my mom was already three years old. [More on that story in my upcoming memoir.]
I learned in my 20s that Roger was my step-grandfather. This was an incredible shock to my own sense of identity. If I didn’t have his blood how come I was so good with machines?
Well, of course, I’m good with machines because genetic determinism taken literally is dangerous bullshit. Cultural expectation is a huge part of the equation. When you expect you’ll be good with machines you make the extra effort and you learn and then you become good with machines. This plays into my understand of racism as well. Internalized expectation is incredibly powerful.
I think of Roger often because one of my pet peeves is the daily refrain I hear among parents that “boys are like___” and “girls are like___”. Yes, of course testosterone and a bit of biology means that children who are born heteronormative will fall on one side of the gender spectrum. Little boys will be a bit more aggressive or physical or take longer to learn to speak, for example. A bit. But based on the biology alone the differences between boys and girls is mostly socially re-enforced. Plenty of research has borne this out.
Roger made a model of the internal combustion engine in his basement in an effort to patent a new system for recycling the emissions, creating a highly efficient, no-emission fossil-fuel-based closed system engine. He died before completing that project but he explained the entire system to me and as a result I understand cars better than most (women).
Every time I see someone express, “Oh, it’s exhausting, you know what boys are like!” I want to punch them in the face in a highly unladylike manner.
Every off-hand comment that tells girls and boys what they’re supposed to be is a box we’re putting around them, limiting their expectations of themselves. Roger himself had little respect for me but knowing I was related to him gave me the confidence I needed to ignore the derision of all the people who thought I’d be bad with machines. And since I’m a girl, that was most people. It’s ironic that living with a sexist and identifying with him gave me the tools for dealing with sexism.
I’m off to repair my kid’s stroller now. Keep an ear open for those “girls are like this and boys are like that” messages and you’ll see that it is everywhere.