Born Young

She was irritated by something I’d said (or left unsaid) and demanded to know why I was being so difficult, so…different, so damned unknowable.

“Probably,” I replied, “because I was born young, and haven’t aged much since.”

She laughed, and said “What the hell does that mean? You see…that’s exactly what I’m talking about. You never give a direct, intelligible answer to anything.”

Of course she was right about my tendency to be obtuse and, by implication, indirect. But wrong about an implied evasiveness. I was born without guile, as are we all. And, in that regard, haven’t aged much since. Perhaps because a little old man “immunized” me one day when I was very young.

I was four going on five. Just up from a nap, my mother put me in a harness and tied me with a rope to one of the columns on our front porch. She did that because I’d lately begun independently exploring the world beyond our yard (i.e., the alley and backyards of our neighbors). But it wasn’t long before I’d untied the rope, slipped the harness, and was on my way down the sidewalk heading toward the mysterious, unexplored world of “the next block.”

I hadn’t gone far before I began to experience a kind of surreal quality about what I was seeing. On the surface everything–the houses, yards, trees, sidewalk and picket fences–was familiar and ordinary. But for some reason on this day I began to look at individual items more intently and started to notice a cascade of underlying anomalies.

First it was the sidewalk. Overall it was straight and level as far as the eye could see. But for some odd reason it was seriously cracked and buckled every few feet. I wondered why…then realized that beside each buckle there was a large tree. Ah ha…tree grows large, roots grow large…sidewalk tries to hold its ground, but is eventually pushed up and aside by the natural dynamic of growth.

Then it was the picket fences. They enclosed almost all the yards at that time. While the intention, like that of the sidewalk, was self-evident, that “intentionality” was also clearly in conflict with the real world. The fences all leaned, they sagged, the gates never closed right, and the posts were rotting at the base, as were the pickets anywhere they touched the ground. Also, the sidewalk, adjacent grass, flowers, shrubbery, etc., were always awash in flakes of peeling paint.

By then it seemed that everywhere I looked all I could see were examples of adult ideals in conflict with the “real” world. I didn’t think to question the motives behind the ideals…I intuitively understood, for example, that concrete sidewalks were preferable to muddy paths. But it was hard not to begin forming a dim opinion regarding the thought behind their pursuit. It was then that the concept of “childish” first stuck its nose under my tent.

Still, it wasn’t until I’d reached the corner that an event occurred which would serve as a catalyst for these increasingly troublesome observations. About a block away a car was coming toward me. Nothing peculiar about that, and I had plenty of time to cross the street and go on. But for some reason I couldn’t take my eye off that car. Slowly it occurred to me that I couldn’t see anyone driving it. The car was rolling up the street, swaying from side to side, making a thump-ditty-thump sound as the tires ran over each uniformly spaced crack in the concrete, but behind the windshield I could see no sign of life.

As it drew closer I also noticed a few other (more minor) distinctions: It was new, shiny black, was unusually large and bulbous, and the tires had a very wide white stripe around them. But most distinctive was that is was a Cadillac…which, at the time, was considered an extravagant symbol of wealth. In any case, it was hardly the kind of car seen in a neighborhood of foot-bound university students and bus-riding professors.

It wasn’t until the car entered the intersection that I was able to see the dim outline of a driver. Through the side windows as it rolled past I could make out a bald, tiny, frail old man clutching the large, ivory-colored steering wheel in an attempt to pull himself up and forward as far as he could…but still barely able to see over it.

What struck me most was what I saw in his eyes as he caught sight of me standing there on the curb. It was an almost even blend of determination and desperation. In that look I saw personified what I’d just been thinking in the abstract. In an eye blink I knew that it was he who was the child, not I. There he was, clinging to the wheel of an almost unmanageable illusion, manifested by this absurd behemoth of a toy…the purpose of which seemed less to transport his fragile little body from place to place than to project an image that would command attention.

Self Portrait - Dec 2011

In that regard, and in that moment, he was quite successful. For he left behind an indelible impression on this little boy, standing there on the curb at 13th & Patterson, watching his childish innocence vaporize down the street in a quiet whoosh of oily blue smoke.

I stood there for a moment, shoulders sagging with the thought that, like it or not, I was destined to be an outsider…was never going to be a leader or follower, only an observer…and only myself. If I’d had the words, I might have said that in that moment I’d become old. But at that time my eyes were new and vision clear. At least in that regard, I haven’t aged much since.

23 comments on “Born Young

  1. This is an interesting little story, and, as you deal with some of these as bagatelles, you seem to be emphasizing the illustration, and that works well here, and is very striking in a few of the others.

    I’ve thought of this story as from another point of view and third person, perhaps as a girl of this age discovering that she is growing up, with the parents in the background, discovering she is gone, worried about her safety, and looking for her. Then she might find a dime and perhaps spend it on a candy bar, giving them a clue that she had gone that way.

    But now I am changing it too much, and know that you like the discovery of the strange in the familiar in autobiographical terms, and the revelation this brings. But this is my comment.

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  2. “She was irritated by something I’d said (or left unsaid) and demanded to know why I was being so difficult, so…different, so damned unknowable.

    “Probably,” I replied, “because I was born young, and haven’t aged much since.”

    She laughed, and said “What the hell does that mean? You see…that’s exactly what I’m talking about. You never give a direct, intelligible answer to anything.”

    This could easily have been a random conversation between Rolf (my ex-fiance) and me. And although in 99.9% of cases I understood perfectly what he actually meant, I still wished to hear it put in a bluntly overt, simplistic manner. Call it female desire for security, or even more female desire for control (through language or not)- the point was I was attracted and repelled at the same time by this childishness/playfulness in disguise. I have never again come across it in any other man (until now). William, is there a difference between childishness and playfulness? As a woman you fall in love with a child, hoping to grow a man out of him. Whether you succeed or not you will end up frustrated. Is it possible that there should be some poison in femininity?…

    “I stood there for a moment, shoulders sagging with the thought that, like it or not, I was destined to be an outsider…was never going to be a leader or follower, only an observer…and only myself.”

    So this is your secret… and by extension also mine. I was never able to just observe, though I love doing it. The best way for me to relax is to have someone drive me around. Just pass by things without getting involved in anything. Leaving the moment you would feel the need to step out of the car.

    I’m off reading your second piece. You are a truly fascinating man.

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  3. “William, is there a difference between childishness and playfulness?”

    That’s a VERY complicated question! I would say the short answer is: “Yes…but only when the playfulness isn’t childish.” :)

    And the long answer? “Maybe.” (Followed by an endless list of ‘hair-splitting’ squabbles over definitions.)

    “So this is your secret…”

    Probably…but only ‘secret’ because it’s not very easily understood. Mainly because it’s a product of perspective. “The Stranger” by Camus is a classic example. If you grow up insulated from a culture, then you not only don’t become acculturated, you also can’t understand those who are. But if you grow up within a culture, yet somehow escape the acculturation process, then even though you don’t become ‘one of them,’ you nonetheless understand the why and how of their behavior.

    As described above, on that summer day, when I was not quite five years old, I was effectively disconnected from and immunized against any further acculturation. Also, what little I’d acquired before that event soon began fading away.

    Explaining what that means is nearly impossible; like trying to explain the difference between seeing a policeman, as compared to seeing a naked man wearing a police uniform. The acculturated mind is flooded with thoughts and feelings associated with a police uniform. The unacculturated mind simply makes an observation; i.e., in the field of view there’s a naked human playing the cultural role of a policeman. The emphasis on ‘naked’ is relevant only because it helps distinguish the two perspectives. Reality to an acculturated mind is a ‘construct’ composed of ‘culturally-informed’ perceptions, and becomes increasingly ‘virtual’ over time. In short, ‘appearances’ gradually displace ‘substance’ as the primary means of defining reality. The unacculturated mind sees a human being who’s incidentally wearing a uniform. The acculturated mind sees a uniform that’s incidentally worn by a human being. That distinction is easier to understand if you first imagine how a typical uniformed policeman behaves, and then imagine how his/her behavior might change if forced to work without clothes. The acculturated mind sees only the former (i.e., a culturally ‘virtualized’ reality), while the unacculturated mind sees the former, but equally ‘perceives’ the latter.

    So, yes…that’s the secret, but only to those who can’t see, nor understand the difference. “But isn’t that awfully complicated?” you might ask. No more than being fluent in two (or more) languages, as you clearly are. Does that complicate, or simplify your life…especially when living in a multi-cultural environment? And doesn’t the ability to see and understand a broader reality also provide a greater sense of balance (i.e., not so easily pushed around by ‘virtual’ conflicts and/or perceptually shallow motives)? :-)

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  4. Allah, policemen, and naked at that! That’s frightening! :-)))) I must admit I am somewhat prejudiced against them. In Romania they are the very epitome of corruption and inefficiency. Apart from that, most are dreadfully overweight and wear untrimmed moustaches. I pray to all my Gods I never see one running around naked. It would deal me the final blow.

    I actually speak six languages, though not all of them fluently. My mothertongue is Romanian, I went to an all German school, majored in German and English literature, and picked up some French, Italian and Spanish in the process. I can read Greek, but understand approximately 10% of it. My French is terribly rusty (at least the linguistic part ;-)) ), and I haven’t trained my Italian in ages. I understand 80% of what is said in Portuguese. And I am working on my Arabic now. Unfortunately my illegitimate Arab grandfather is long gone… nobody ever got to meet him (except my father’s mother… and even that was most probably a from one dusk to one dawn affair, judging by the unwillingness of my family to mention the issue). I am in love with English, German and Spanish. I have split feelings over Romanian. It sounds Slavonic to me. Which is not a bad thing in itself, it’s just that it conveys harshness in sounds, and I like caressing languages (there we go on the sensuality trip again).
    I am so very intrigued by you… so much mystery. I love it! I wonder what happened around your fifth birthday… what changed you the way it did? You are a walking encyclopedia, that’s for sure. i am aware that erudition does not equal culturalized persona…. but still… you seem to be very much here, while you’re also elsewhere at the same time… Fascinating. I’ll keep pondering on that. But now I’m off throwing my papers out the window. In the end, the worst thing that could happen is for a policeman to come up and fine me. But Romania being an extremely prude country, I am sure he won’t show up naked. Alhamdulilah.

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  5. This is great. I couldn’t hold myself back from reading every last word! I can empathise with you when you write about the buckled sidewalk and leaning, sagging fences. Both very powerful images. If only we were all as wise as a child. Noticing what no-one else notices. Well done.

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  6. Brilliant thoughts… In fact if one could practice to see the things around them in its simplicity, completely immersed in it, they would enjoy every moment of their life.

    I really enjoyed reading through. Indeed this article makes me think that the observer was in complete presence in that environment, in the Now, then.

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    • You are quite right. NOW, is amazing. And it is so easy to see…and fully appreciate…when looking out, instead of in. As is the case with your photography, which serves to open one’s eyes to a world beyond the lens.

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  7. Very interesting, sounds a bit like my husband, especially

    “I stood there for a moment, shoulders sagging with the thought that, like it or not, I was destined to be an outsider…was never going to be a leader or follower, only an observer…and only myself. If I’d had the words, I might have said that in that moment I’d become old. But at that time my eyes were new and vision clear. At least in that regard, I haven’t aged much since.”

    You have some amazing images on your blog. I don’t understand them all, but amazing nonetheless!

    Nicely done!

    Sheila

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    • Thank you for the compliment(s)! I genuinely enjoyed discovering your blog, your sense of humor, and the endearing quality of your writing. Also, because I lived in Ketchikan for a few years (many years ago), I can relate directly to that aspect of your writing as well. In short, I’m very much looking forward to reading more… ;-)

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  8. You have achieved your goal as a writer when you inspire me to tell my story

    It’s only a matter of time….
    My first run in with the law happened when I was about two years old. The police man was friendly and took me by the hand; I had walked the mile from my house on the outskirts of the medieval city to the moat that circled the old center and was trying to look into the water below over the edge of the bridge. The stone railing was difficult to climb and my little fingers scraped the rounded edge. I could see the dark water, with green patches of “kroos”, a tiny plant growing on the surface. I watched a duck slurp with delight and take a drink.
    “What is in that dark water”, I wondered.
    And then I heard his voice, deep and low, asking me what I was doing. I looked up and his eyes were dark like the water; he wore a dark uniform and had a dark cap on. The bill of his cap was shadowing his eyes making them darker and without reflection. I stared at those dark holes, and knew then that I could never know the depth of this darkness. And yet I could not take my gaze away: “What lives in that darkness?”
    I don’t know why I assumed then already that there would be something living in the darkness of his eyes, or in the darkness of the moat, but I did. I have never stopped looking for the living thing in the darkness of the unknown, the darkness of the night sky, the darkness of despair. The darkness was only a door to another side for me, another place to explore. The darkness of the police man did not scare me; he took me somewhere, probably the police station, where I got to sit on a desk and have a cookie, until he found out where I lived. I don’t know how the policeman got me back to my mother; there was no telephone and I was not wearing a nametag.
    After this event I was tied to a rope and staked in the back yard, where I had my adventures with the boy-cousin who lived with us. It took a boy-man and a rope to keep me from wandering. It took a man with dark eyes to start me wondering about the unknown depths of living.

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  9. Thank you so much for stopping by the site, I am glad you liked my story and hope you continue to enjoy my tales. I enjoyed this little slice of life and was inspired by your use of imagery and perhaps even symbolism with the conflict of man’s fancy vs nature’s will. I look forward to delving deeper into your site and exploring your work further. Thanks again for taking the time to read my compositions, I appreciate it.

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  10. because I was born young, and haven’t aged much since….nice..i like this.. i think it’s a sad thing when we grow up too much and in the process lose contact with ourselves…

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    • “we…lose contact with ourselves.” Somehow reminds me of a favorite quote: “If you can look in a mirror and smile with genuine warmth at the person you see, you will have made a friend for life!” ;-)

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  11. ‘…the purpose of which seemed less to transport his fragile little body from place to place than to project an image that would command attention.’

    William, I cannot begin to share how much I related to your write-up here. The first statement captures much of what I instinctively feel, when I pause and look around me. My body is static but mind astir. My thoughts, quite jumpy most times, yearn to break out of the cages of the brain and to see the real world. However, I rein them in, most times. Of course, they come out eventually, mostly in the written form.

    I was destined to be an outsider…was never going to be a leader or follower, only an observer…and only myself.

    I couldn’t have put this better. You know this state best, so even though we have never met, that statement reflects the ‘me’.

    Long lost brothers, perhaps? :)

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    • I recognized that ‘outsider’ quality–and the subsequent difference in perspective–when I first began reading your posts. When I was young I imagined that there might be others out there who had experienced a similar ‘allegory of the cave’ insight. But I also believed that they (like me) probably wouldn’t be very easy to find. Coincidentally, I began to imagine these ‘others’ as lost ‘Members of the Family.’ And in that regard I’ve often wondered if something might be done (or said) that could help foster that kind of ‘familial’ recognition…not to mention the potential for more widely (and constructively) sharing a very different perspective. Have you ever had those kind of thoughts?

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      • They (we) are difficult to find indeed. It isn’t even the feeling of ‘superiority’. It is a wavelength mismatch which makes conversation difficult to carry on, beyong the inane pleasantries.

        I have noticed that the kind of writers/personalities through history that I have gravitated to have all shared this ‘outsider’ personality, at some level.

        One of the primary motivations when I started my blog was to use it as an outlet for challenging conventional thinking, on controversial (and non-) topics alike. We humans exhibit a tremendous capacity to become slaves to our dogma. We also seem to have scant capacity for overturning ideas, trying to look at the world upside down as a bat would. I have also been a big fan of the physicist Richard Feynman’s ‘art of questioning’ approach to looking at the world, which is also something that I find generally lacking. Flexibility of the mind is a quality I value greatly.

        I hoped the blog would also give me an opporutnity to connect with a few like-minded people. That I managed to connect with you is fuel enough to keep going. I fully expected the process to be slow but patience is a virtue.

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  12. Pingback: Growing Up (Intro) | CiderPress

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