Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My Childhood In a Nutshell

No matter how hard we try, few of us are able to become very different from the people our childhoods moulded. I suspect it would be very much more illuminating if, instead of asking each other to name our 10 favourite albums, we instead enquired about the iconic experiences of our respective childhoods.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t clumsy and physically inept. One of my earliest memories is of being unable, at around four, to master the art of tying my own shoelaces. In a way, I was born into the wrong body — one that tends to stumble a lot, to lurch, to collide with immobile objects. As a boy, I wanted desperately to be strong and fast and agile, to be as athletic as my most admired of my classmates were. Being smart was no consolation whatever, especially because I wasn’t quite smart enough — as how many children are? — to recognise that I ought to have played to my strengths and left the sports that I adored, but played dreadfully, to others.
When I was around eight, my dad won me a new Schwinn bicycle in a supermarket-sponsored competition by being better at colouring than any of the children who’d entered. Another boy — A Real Boy — might have been elated, especially if able to accept the morality of his father’s having cheated on his behalf. (Dad was sure lots of fathers had done as he’d done.) I was the opposite of elated. What if, when the guy at Thriftimart presented my bike, he chuckled, “Well, don’t you want to take her out for a little spin?” That I couldn’t ride a two-wheeler  was one of the most shameful of a whole trunkful of secrets I lived in mortal fear of others discovering when I was a boy.  
Dad took me up to a sparsely populated, traffic-less side street in our little southern California beach town to teach me to ride, but it was hopeless. Sitting on the bike, I was probably half a foot taller than when standing, and, given my defective sense of balance, I had no doubt I’d fall off and hurt myself if I tried to ride. Not that being paralysed with fear was new to me. I’d been comparably paralysed four years earlier when Dad, who’d adored frolicking in the Atlantic in southern New Jersey during his own boyhood, tried to get me to go into the ocean with him. Mom had vividly communicated her fear of the water to me, and I wouldn’t finally learn to swim until around 14. Dad made no secret of his disappointment.
(Throughout my childhood, he’d tell me he was going to teach me to swim as he himself had learned. He’d take me to a public swimming pool and toss me in. I’d either figure out what to do or drown. Child abuse, without a finger being lifted.)
So here we are at last in the Signature Moment of My Childhood. My dad is taking a cigarette break from the frustration of trying to get his son to…man up a little bit, shaking his head in frustration and incredulity. I am sitting on the curb near my accursed bicycle, drowning in my own shame, hoping, as I have never hoped for anything else, that the world will end before he can finish his cigarette and sigh, “Let’s give it another try.”
The world doesn’t end, and I don’t find the necessary courage to mount the bike. Disgusted and defeated, Dad takes another tack. He’ll go home, and I can learn to ride the bike at my own pace. I can ride my bike home. 
After maybe half an hour of continuing to hope in vain that the world will end, I get up on the bike, push off from the curb, and almost immediately fall off, face first, knocking out my three front teeth. Some things just feel destined.
The good news. I was riding by the age of nine— just like A Real Boy! — and loving it. And 10 days ago, during the infernal heatwave, I swam back and forth across the Thames twice. (I finally learned at 14.)
The bad news. My largely excruciating childhood produced an adult that, as in my song FrenchFries for Breakfast, hated himself, but hated the world much more, and wasn’t stingy, when the world began viewing him (as though for some vicious prank) as gorgeous and bright and talented, with gratuitous cruelty, my many memories of which are nearly as painful as that of the morning on a quiet street in Playa del Rey that cost me my front teeth.