Monday, June 20, 2005

Childhood's Meme

Caltechgirl tells me I'm it in the childhood meme: what are five things I miss from childhood?

(1) Not having to work for a living. Food, clothing, shelter, and toys were simply provided. I didn't have to worry about bills, I didn't have to worry about what needs to be done tomorrow and next week. At worst I had to mow the lawn. You hear about people who win the state lottery, and they say they're going to keep working at their same old job. Ha! Look, much as I love my work, if I ever won the lottery, I would (a) buy a Hummer, and (b) retire.

(2) The summertime. Three months of hot weather— when I was young, I loved temperatures up in the 90s. Three months when I was free to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted; or do nothing at all, if I pleased. I remember during the summer I often had no idea what calendar date it was— it was just, "Oh, this is mid-June." Out to the fields west of town, on foot or by bike. Sitting at an old cast-iron manual typewriter, and painstakingly typing up science-fiction stories. Playing with other kids in the neighborhood. Going down to Rowan Crick.

(3) The life of a vanished Triassic era. People didn't lock the door at night. We got our groceries at Milo's neighborhood grocery store, where you could buy candy for a penny a piece. Color TV was just coming in, and like most people we knew, we still had a black and white TV. Gilligan's Island. The Beverly Hillbillies. Green Acres. Star Trek. Oh, and music: the Beatles were just invading our shores, and I remember watching them on The Ed Sullivan Show. I remember watching Neil Armstrong live from the surface of the Moon. I remember a culture which had not yet been torn asunder and polarized. I remember when comic books cost only 12¢: Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four...

(4) Discovering things for the first time. I learned the basic moves in chess at age three, and then at age nine I learned some of the odd points like castling, and capturing a pawn en passant: I remember vaguely assuming that there must be a large and almost endless collection of such odd exceptional rules in chess (there aren't, as I was rather disappointed to learn). I remember learning card games, pinochle and canasta and schafskopf and whatnot: again, learning them from a vast storehouse of games I'd never heard of before. Try finding me a game now that I haven't already heard of. I remember discovering Mark Twain, and reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and staying up most of the night reading Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki. I remember the glory and the joy of first learning algebra, and of sharing Plato's wonder at tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron.

(5) Things you know that just ain't so. When I was a kid, I simply knew that if you cut yourself on glass, you would go floating up to the ceiling. I supposedly knew of several such incidents. A thief had broken into a gas station nearby us, and cut himself on the plate glass window breaking in. When the owner arrived to open up the station in the morning, he found the thief floating on the ceiling. A friend of my Dad's, a pastor in Madison, had forgotten the keys to his church and had tried to break the glass by the door to get in. A parishioner arrived some time later, to find the pastor floating on the ceiling. I have no idea where I ever got this notion, but I had a number of such peculiar misconceptions when I was a kid.

There were also aspects of my childhood that I do not miss. I brought away from my grade school years a perfect white-hot hatred of school bullies, and of anyone big or small who walks, talks, and quacks like a school bully. To this day, only fear of God and the law prevents me from dealing with bullies as they so richly deserve— that is to say, bludgeoning them with a good stout length of steel pipe, until they are flattened out of all recognition, like roadkill.

I somehow succeeded, much moreso than most people, in carrying some features of childhood forward into my adult years. I spent most of my life up through age 35 as a perpetual student, and never really held a long-term job until I was past 40. There is a way to perpetually see all things as if for the first time, but since our left-brain Cartesian culture will give you no help on mysticism, you'll have to learn it on your own. And I would maintain to this day that our younger misconceptions may well be of epistemological import: see Walker Percy on metaphor as mistake.



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