What this contrast really confronted me with, now as I look back on it all, is something normal for most adolescents. I was growing up, establishing my own identity, developing my own convictions; or, to put it another way, breaking away from my family. Recent events may have hastened the process some. But it was inevitable.
So I entered that time of limbo in human development. Childhood was over. Visions of the New Era of Adulthood, that Promised Land of freedom and (like it or not) responsibility, tantalized. Here in the meantime was purgation, a. k. a. high school.
For me, part of figuring out who I was as an individual person, independent of my family, meant distancing myself. I didn’t need anyone else’s help, counsel, feedback, authority. Lame, I know, but that’s where my teenage mind led. Anything I could do on my own with my own identifying signature attached to it was of interest to me; and the bolder the signature the better.
So team sports were out, for instance. Well, they were out except for AYSO soccer. High school soccer wasn’t for me, since it was attached to that institution where I was sentenced to spend most of my limbo incarceration. But the AYSO soccer league allowed a distraction I guess, time with friends who shared similar feelings about high school as a place of limbo and as a way to stay in shape, or to get in better shape for the approaching winter. Yes, winter, because in southern California winter was no excuse for staying indoors, and, more importantly, it brought snow to the local mountains, which inevitably meant snow skiing.
Now this was a sport that resonated. I could purchase my lift ticket and be gone, all day if I wanted, enjoying speed, cold wind in my face, more speed, adrenaline rushes, airtime, and a catalog of glory-laden and emboldened signature stories at the end of the day, sitting in a hot tub or in front of a fire. Heck, I thought, this is so great I might just have to move to Mammoth Mountain after high graduation. Who needs college?
I also grew to love motorcycling, hiking, and bicycling; and toyed with surfing, but it never really took, though it beat team sports any day of the week.
Homework was another area I put as much of my own signature on as I could. Dad was a brilliant engineer, as has already been mentioned. So I had this great resource at my disposal for any class math- or science-related. But do you think I used this resource? I should have, yeah; but fool that I was I did not, unless the gig was up, usually about report card time, choosing instead to take a C on an exam rather than the A I could have earned with a little tutorial help. Well did Mark Twain say, “When I was fourteen I was surprised at how little my dad actually knew; when I was twenty-one I was amazed at how much he had learned in seven years.” But I could say they were my grades.
My inherent creativity continued into adolescence. It just started manifesting itself in ways that were more personal to me. I wasn’t taking piano lessons anymore. On my own, without a teacher, I was drawn both to Mozart and Chopin: Mozart appealed to the sanguine side of me; Chopin to the melancholy. Sanguine and melancholy in the same personality? A good case study for any psychologist!
A story comes to mind to illustrate this curious personality cocktail. One Saturday afternoon during this limbo period of life I sat in a living room with my brother and a couple neighbor boys. Halloween was approaching. We all felt too old to put on costumes and trick-or-treat; but we all felt too young to stay home and open the door for little ones. What to do?
My sanguine-melancholy self took charge. “What if,” I suggested, “we all dressed up as thugs? We can put on ski masks and grab baseball bats. Then, let’s make a dummy and go down to the beginning of the street.” (We lived in a rural setting and the beginning of the street, where it branched off from the more traveled East Loop, promised more traffic.) “And whenever we see the glare of headlights nearing, we start beating the dummy until we’re sure we’re seen. Then we run off in every direction and hide.”
They loved it. And so I, a little brother and nearly the youngest of the group, found myself in uncharacteristic charge of a peer activity–which would bear my signature.
Trouble is, I discovered (as I have seen many times since) that no one really wanted to volunteer their time, talents, or stuff to the cause. In this case it meant that I made the dummy, using a pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of pantyhose I pilfered from my stepmom’s stash for the head; and stuffing it all with nearly every spare piece of clothing I had. Shorts, socks, t-shirts, underwear–except for a few changes of clothes, everything went in.
So the night came: Halloween. Dark set in. The first trick-or-treaters appeared. The time had come to execute our plan. I grabbed my dummy, so lovingly put together, and my ski mask and baseball bat. Outside my brother and three friends greeted me. We giggled in anticipation.
Fifteen minutes later we were there, at the corner of East Loop and our street, with the anticipated glare of headlights drawing near. We threw the dummy down in the middle of the street, straddling the double yellow, and started beating it. I laughed so hard with each blow that my stomach hurt. Then the headlights caught us full in the face. And like a perfectly rehearsed play, we ran off in five different directions, into the avocado orchards and shrubbery of five different neighbors, leaving the dummy in the middle of the road.
That, by the way, was my mistake. Not that it didn’t work! Cars would screech to a halt, the driver would get out, poke and prod the dummy, then usually laugh or shake a head before getting back in the car and driving off. Believe it or not, even a cop did this! But long about the time our fun was winding down and we were talking about packing up and heading home, wouldn’t you know it, one last car came along. We threw the dummy down and beat it until the headlights caught us then ran off, each to his own. But this car’s driver, instead of giving the predictable head shake, kidnapped the dummy and drove off.
I never saw my clothes again.
And being so independent now, I never explained what happened to my parents. Instead, until Christmas I lived with those three pairs of clothes (and surmise, though I can’t prove it, that thereby I started the grunge style).
I had relished the opportunity to be in charge, showing my sanguine colors to my impressed older brother and his and my friends. But I moped around for two months–till Christmas when seemingly all my relatives gave me new clothes as gifts–languishing in a melancholy slump over my lost clothes.
So my adolescent angst was fairly typical. But, on the other hand, I was asking questions none of my friends were. So many of my friends would gaze at themselves overly long in the mirror, admiring their own growing muscles or gauging the emergence of facial hair, wondering how often to shave or how to catch a girl’s attention. Or some of my jock friends would preoccupy their time with workouts and football strategies, contemplating and practicing ways to become that much better, faster, or more agile than the next guy. But I wrestled with questions ontological, epistemological, and metaphysical. What was the meaning of my existence? How did I know whether I was awake or in a dream, whether the life I knew each day was actually the dream and my dreams were reality? Was God real, and if so, how did an immanent God factor into my small world?
It was here, by the way, that the thought first occurred to me that I might be seeing the world too simply. It was one way or the other to my adolescent mind, without much room for middle ground. In my mind something was either right or wrong, good or bad, worthwhile or not. Like snow skiing and high school. Recognizing this tendency, then, I asked myself if I might perceive the good things I remembered from my childhood as better than they actually were. I asked too whether the bad things might not be nearly as bad as I recalled.
The contrast I mentioned in my last post then, the one that confronted me abruptly? Like Hermes, the messenger of the gods, it brought this most excellent question to me for the first time.
Anyway, my adolescent friends thought my questions were far out. Too far out, in fact. So I stopped asking them–out loud at least.