Friday, July 14, 2017
It's easy to compare - and easier to contrast - our childhoods to those of our children. On the surface it all seems so disparate.
There's the classic music argument, but, you know, I never really thought "my" music, whatever that might mean, was any better than my parents. Belafonte, Mel Torme, The Kingston Trio, Burl Ives and so many more, will forever hold up against Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones, John Denver and will always beat The BeeGees. The truth is, I like today's pop music enough - Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, The Lumineers, Train, Saint Motel - it's all quite listenable. Is it over-produced? Yes, but so were The Police. Do I hate auto-tune? Yes, with the same hatred I had for Disco, but, I've heard a lot of that, too, and it didn't hurt me.
Somewhere in the mid-seventies I got the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesus, I loved that LP. I played it all the time, wrote down the lyrics, starting and stopping the turntable - probably ruining the vinyl -and singing along like a rock star. If you were to go upstairs right now and ask the boys what they wanted to listen to, I guarantee they'd answer "Hamilton!" I gotta admit, when I first heard it I was offput, the rapping, the modernity, the f-bombs and salaciousness - it seemed too much for my tender "1776" ears. Now, after a dozen or more times listening through the whole show, well, I think it's about the best thing I've heard this century. We've even checked out the book about the musical from the library. Is it better than "Superstar"?
You know, that's where it gets tricky. The defiant teen that still sleeps in the basement of my psyche might scream, "Hell, no!" The rock-and-roll-ness of "Superstar" juxtaposed to the Christian subject matter really blew my mind back then. But, you know what? the historical story that "Hamilton" tells, set to rap and funk with real language and astonishing rhymes, yeah, pretty cool. too.
So, maybe it's not the music, it's what the music does for us, them, did me, then. That record, spinning on my portable turntable on an unmade bed, opened my mind up. Learning the words, singing along, imagining what part I might have, wondering how Mary could seem so hot, all of it sent my mind further down the road of understanding. For the boys, hearing it on the CD from the library, watching vids on YouTube that had the words, listening to the whole soundtrack on long rides because Marci bought it, rapping out the songs on the playground with their friends, well, I think the experience has shown them that same road - the "there's-so-much-more" road that surprises us all over and over in our lives.
(Also, it is so damned cute to see them singing those difficult lyrics, smirking at the cuss words, nailing the rhymes and keeping up with the difficult and foreign style.)
The other big discussion is, of course, technologies. I watched my share of television as a kid, but, it was hardly edifying. I'd've killed for even the worst of today's Disney programming back then. What I saw was weird kid's shows - I'm looking at you Uncle Al - and creepy puppet shows and bad B movies or good movies cut to shreds hosted by drunken dudes dressed as werewolves. I even thought Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Greenjeans were sort of, well, strange. I think the boys have it better. They'll watch whole seasons of old shows on Netflix, every Animaniacs, every Loony Tunes, old and new Bill Nye, documentaries on the brain and optical illusions - all, commercial free. Honestly, I think they have me beat there.
The boys don't play a lot of console games, we have a Wii but it hardly ever gets played anymore. They do play some "RPG" games on their computers or Kindles. They play one called "Grail" and another called "Wizard 101." They get really involved in them sometimes. They play for hours and have nonsensical conversations that would rival any Ionesco play. At times I get frustrated with them, I feel they are wasting time and money and brain cells on them. I'm wrong, of course, to judge them because of one simple truth: I'd have killed to have a game like that when I was their age. Fact. I spent a summer playing Cribbage and "Battling Tops," both of which are rather boring and monotonous. I can't imagine how much fun I would've found the games they spend hours on.
There are more things to come, smart-phones come to mind, texting, face-timing, game playing, study groups... and worse things I suspect. But, is texting your girl any different than stretching the ultra-long cord from the kitchen and sitting on the basement steps and talking with your girl? I doubt it. Is not turning in your homework because you forgot the assignment better than getting into a Google chat with your classmates and doing it all together and wise-cracking as you did? I doubt it. Back in the mid-seventies we had a blizzard that effectively isolated us in our country home for over a week. My brothers were away in college and I didn't have anything to do. I'd traipse on over to my friend JB's house and we'd sit in his sixty-something Ford Falcon and smoke cigarettes, but, as I recall, that was about the only peer connection I had the whole time, I'm pretty sure the phone lines were down. Would I have liked an opportunity to face-time and goof around with Dave and Bruce and Don or Lisa or Polly? You bet I would've.
What other examples are there of this disparity of childhoods? Here's one I've given some thought to: sports. Although I did play organized Pee-Wee football - Pop Warner, for the informed - the vast majority of the sports we played were backyard pick-up games. Baseball, some basketball, lots of football, a bit of volleyball - which as I recall segued into several months of badminton - an occasional game of soccer, for which we used a kickball, and some kickball, no doubt using a soccer ball, but I don't remember seeing a soccer ball until I got to college.
"Good for you," you may be saying. Yes, uhm, but... I think that's sort of a myth, "The Sandlot" and a few other movies, our own propensity to spin the details of youth into an often false utopia, that innate belief that all was right as a child, turn those games into movies themselves. The real truth is that they were chaotic, there was lots of yelling and taunting and saying cruel things about each other, there were fights and constant arguments about rules and in-bounds and "do-overs" and "interference." Playing football, tackle, believe it our not, we were reckless, bloodying our noses, cauliflowering our ears and blacking our eyes to the point where I'm surprised our parents were never questioned about our home life.
Baseball was a mess. We never had enough kids so we let the littlest run bases and stand in the outfield. Of course there was never an umpire unless someone's Dad sat on a Coleman cooler calling arbitrary strikes and balls, sipping a Miller Highlife - hence the cooler - and warning us that if one of us spilled his bottle he'd kick our asses. There were rarely more than two baseballs and, honestly, fewer bats. When we didn't have an ump or enough players, we'd have a designated pitcher, who called his own strikes, pitch to both teams. We had no idea how to hold the bat or catch a grounder, it's not like we had any guidance or supervision, we were too afraid to spill Mike's dad's beer to approach him. We'd call a fly into right an "automatic out" and we'd have the dreaded and confoundingly stupid "ghost runners" all over the damn field. This, as in football, resulted in arguments, shoving matches and someone taking their ball and going home.
It all seems like fun in retrospect, but, honestly, it wasn't always. Another thing that never seems to come up when grown folks wax poetic about their collective, superlative childhoods is "picking sides." Some of the scenes in "Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe" are less harrowing and dramatic than those that develop as thirteen or fifteen (always an uneven number) kids, almost always boys in my experience, chose sides. First someone has to be a "captain," the chooser, actually, two of them. In an ideal world, these are popular, cool dudes with fair and honest hearts. In reality, they were often the bullies, or the older guys, or the strongest, or whoever's ball or net or bat it was. Now, the captains choose from a line of boys, all hoping to not get on the dick's team. Friendships are betrayed. Chubby and runty kids are chosen last. "First-picks" go fast and "mid-picks" look eager and athletic and loyal. Last minute trades to even things out are discussed but never acted upon. One poor kid is left standing, sometimes me, wondering how things will work out. "Well, I guess I'll take little Billy Peebles," and I try not to be noticed as I walk towards my brother's team.
It all sounds silly looking back on it, I mean how hard could it have been? I know feelings were hurt, I can still see the disappointed faces on the boys I was choosing from when I finally stepped into the role of Captain. I know I betrayed a friend or two choosing a better athlete over my lifelong friend, JB, or picking someone I thought was "cool" but was, looking back, a dick. I know bodies were hurt, bruises, scrapes, a broken bone or two and probably uncountable concussions. I also know it was often tense. Was Wayne gonna punch somebody? Would the big guys come again and take over the field? Would darkness fall before the game was finished? Would I get hurt? Picked last? Lose? Get blood on my pants?
N & Z play "rec" ball - baseball, soccer and basketball. There are refs and umps, the teams are chosen by committee in an attempt at fairness. Qualified and dedicated coaches are on hand to show proper technique, offer support and act as role models. Fights don't break out, there are plenty of balls and, well, hearts don't get broken. I like to think I enjoyed the wildness of those backyard games, that I understand life's unfairness a bit more, that I learned about friendship and loyalty. Yeah, maybe so...
Honestly, I'd have rather played rec ball. It looks like fun.
Listen, I can only speak to my own childhood, as you can only speak to yours. I think these memories of it are intensely private. There are memoirists and novelists, songwriters and such who are brave enough to shine a light on theirs, but, my experience has been that people are reluctant to talk a lot about it, especially as it gets further and further away. And, as it drifts further from now, the edges soften, the details obscure and the lessons transform.
There is song title that flits around in my mind from an album by Jethro Tull released in the early seventies: "Life's a Long Song." The rest of the lyrics are, well, a bit uninspired, but that title - the refrain of the song - is worth remembering. Life is a long song. Childhood is long, careers are long, days are long, as are some years.
I recently heard a saying - I think I've mentioned it here before - "mine is not a failed attempt at yours." I wish more folks would try the remember that. I also think the inverse is true, just switch the mine and yours. Basically, my childhood and the boys' is the same childhood. I also don't think you can "call" your childhood - label it good or bad, fruitful, lazy, whatever - because, even as it seems fixed in time, the way you see it is practically lunar or tidal - ebbing, waxing, waning, sometimes there, bright and strong, other times so far out on the horizon it seems nearly gone. I don't think it is fair to tell someone how to fill their life, that's their hand to play. You can't manipulate memory or set a lesson in stone.
Time changes everything isn't the lesson in stone, perspective changes everything, might be.
There is a lot of time in a lifetime, I am always astounded at how many lives I seem to have had.
There is a lot of time in a childhood. Hours to be filled.
I filled mine my way... and, they're doing a perfect job filling theirs.
Filling theirs with cutting meat for home-made Big Macs.
Or fidget spinning in a class shirt you designed for "field day."
Or taking a selfie with your dad.
Or learning "Hedwig's Theme" on a flute
Or, playing in a sandpit on your "first-cousin-once-removed"'s farm - God I hate the nomenclature for close family, someone should work on that. (As an aside here, I grew up near sand and gravel pits so, seeing them jumping off and scrambling up one 800 hundred miles and forty-five years removed, was a bit odd - one of those moments when it all gets jumbled in my head.)
Or they might spend their time behind nice chain-link fences, throwing a few long balls...
...or walking to a dugout...
... or being the battery as a fastball flies between hand and glove on an unforgettable midwest midday.
Or maybe they'll fill a couple of hours pranking me while I'm getting new tires for the camper, cutting paper and drawing smiley-faces and taping them onto every single thing in the refrigerator and freezer - a story I will guess will be told for a long time:
Well, I suppose I've taken enough of your time. Thanks for stopping by, I know it's been a while since my porch-light's been lit. I appreciate you looking out for it.
As always, Peace.
I touch on this theme frequently around here, this "whose childhood is whose" thing. In "Esta La Luna" things get all jumbled around and in Closeted Memories I mention the gravel pits of my youth and how I filled some hours as a kid.
(Here's a link to that Tull tune, if your interested, it's actually a pretty good song.)