Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lost Worlds

(Day 4 of Countdown)

For the first 8 years of my life, I lived in a little red brick house with white trim and a white picket fence (on which roses sometimes grew) in a neighborhood that was built shortly after World War II. I lived with married parents, a father who worked and a mother who didn’t and an older brother who was athletic enough to get his picture in our small-town newspaper playing every major sport. My brother and I each had separate bedrooms, and we had a good sized backyard with a swing set. In the front yard was a silver maple I used to climb to what seemed its very top branches, and I could look out through those limbs at an entire neighborhood of homes that looked just like my own.

My father worked downtown. Inside his office building, the ultimate monument to all this security stood way above my head, supported by marble walls that projected their own self-importance and the importance of those who clicked bold strides through their freshly buffed hallways. The monument was my early childhood’s Mount Rushmore, a series of four-times-larger-than-life black and white photographs that paneled the upper reaches of the front lobby.

The photographs were awe-inspiring and serious. One showed an early 20th Century oil well gushing the black gold that made Bartlesville, Oklahoma what it was. One showed a greasy-helmeted refinery worker (which always reminded me of my grandfather’s lifelong job in a co-op refinery) soberly tackling a mind-boggling array of pipes as wide as tree trunks and valves big enough to be semi steering wheels. One picture showed white lab-coated scientists, holding up beakers and peering seriously at the mysterious liquids they held. One, fuzzier in my memory because it mixes with images from my father’s workplace, showed white collar workers monitoring computer banks with a galaxy of blinking lights reaching as high as those walls that towered in front of me.

On those odd occasions when my father would take me with him to work, generally after hours, I gawked at these pictures, feeling the appropriate sense of disquiet. I would stare at these majestic icons as he spoke to a security guard at a large wooden desk higher than my head.

That workplace provided my home, the place I felt most secure in the world, which I suppose makes me an average, if not somewhat lucky, child.

I was insecure outside of that home. I dreaded school. I had a sullen teacher who rapped students on their hands with a ruler throughout the day.

I was a timid kid, sickly and shy. Tougher boys called each other by their last names and challenged each other to fights and feats of bravery like climbing the walls that separated our walkways from the playground. I certainly did my best to hang, and I was “Alexander” on that playground, and I remember the sting of gravel and goatheads in my hands from those falls and how my knees were permanently torn out of my jeans from my falls (more than once, an infected rash worked its way up and down my legs). But I was not a natural on the playground. I don’t know how many other kids hated leaving the house in the morning the way that I did.... I'd guess a lot really.

My first sacred stop upon coming home was in the kitchen. Some of my best memories of that house took place in that kitchen, carving pumpkins at Halloween; the living room TV turned so we could see it, watching Ed Sullivan or Red Skelton or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. while eating a frozen pizza with my brother and my grandmother. We had a brown glass cookie jar there that I learned to open without a sound.

One day in particular, I would guess I’d just swiped a handful more than I was supposed to out of that jar. My mother would have been doing housework in the back bedrooms somewhere while I sat eating from a plastic bowl at the kitchen table. For whatever reason, I was alone in the kitchen.

As I sat in that sunlit room, at that blond wood table looking at the yellow-flowered wallpaper that surrounded me, something big happened.

A drop of water appeared on the placemat beside me. As the afternoon sun shone through the window over the kitchen sink, I felt an odd shock. This wasn’t right.

Then another drop fell, and another. It was the beginning of a rain shower in the house.

I looked up to see a stream of water working its way down the copper light fixture over the kitchen table and starting to pour freely onto the table.

This part is like one of those dreams where you try to cry out for help, but there is no sound. A sunny kitchen now seemed sickly yellow. My stomach turned; my heart stuttered.

The water began to gush, and my mother cried out. She yanked me away from the table, and the horror of the moment set in. Sunny day, a flood in the house….water from a light bulb! This ranked up there with the stories my Southern grandmother told me of ball lightning and apparitions rocking on porch swings at sunset.

After I was whisked across the street to my friend Nancy’s, I learned that a water line broke, which apparently ran through our attic. It would seem like hours before I returned to my home that night. I know that I never felt as comfortable sitting at that table again.

I now see this memory, the horror of it, had everything to do with realizing how little I knew about the world around me, what an illusion it all was. After all, most of my early memories were those of constants, a sense that things had always been the way they were and that they would stay that way. I don’t believe in very many of those now, but children don’t even know they have a choice of what to believe, and my parents seemed certain of the world they navigated so casually and offered me with great confidence.

Of course, they even struggle to believe in that world today.

That water main break was just the first vivid tremor of a number of lessons in humility that made me realize how small my first world had been.

At 10, when my parents divorced, my mother struggled to go back to school, and my father and I lived in a little apartment in a more urban area of my hometown. My mother no longer lived in the same society she and my father shared, and I soon saw how fragile our first world really was.

When my mother began dating a black man, her best friend throughout my early childhood (my best friend’s mother) wrote her a letter saying that she no longer understood my mother and no longer knew how to be her friend. My mother was alone except for a small new group of friends, all people in transition.

Later, my father remarried and built a new house in a suburban neighborhood, and my movement between homes was a movement from air conditioning to floor fans, from a showroom living room to a house with little room for the half a dozen people who lived there at any given time.

In the 80s, with the downsizing and merging of oil companies, both my father and my father-in-law would be pushed out of their seemingly secure white collar jobs. When I began writing this book, after a divorce and many financial problems, I lived on just a few dollars a day in a little duplex in one of the poorer areas of my city.

Growing older has been one lesson after another in the fragile limits of my childhood, a world that looked like the American dream, and a world that was stripped from so many of us. For me, there is an upside to this commonplace story. I was born into a cocoon, and it took the next thirty years for me to break free of it.

Breaking free of that cocoon meant re-examining the world as I had received it. At each stage, I relearned that lesson from the flood at the kitchen table. The world around me was never as secure as it appeared to be, and it carried potential dangers if it was not understood. Over and over again, I've had to learn to question the web of illusions that define my reality.

Of course, the significance of that raining kitchen came to me long after the event itself, but what stuck with me about it was the way it made me feel that I could not trust my own eyes. Memories of my grandmother’s stories of ball lightning and ghostly apparitions flooded that moment, but the helplessness, the terror I felt had everything to do with the feeling that reality had just gone out the window, where the sun was still shining, taunting me.

In retrospect, I had other times that I wondered about my own sanity. Other times, particularly when I felt embarrassed and alone, the taunting voices of my subconscious seemed to ring out in my head like they might take over. Around the same time, I was diagnosed with asthma. I quickly picked up on the fact that most people assumed asthma was some kind of psychosomatic disease, the stereotype of the asthmatic kid in movies and on TV being that nervous kid who reached for his inhaler whenever he had a panic attack. I've never quit wondering about this stereotype--the grain of truth in it, the mortal danger of it and its relevance or irrelevance.

30 years later, I would develop a tingling sensation on the left side of my body that I assumed to be some kind of a neurological problem but which my doctor initially treated as a case of anxiety. Each time, I had the same gut level fear. If these things I was experiencing weren’t real, then I couldn’t tell the difference in what was real and what wasn’t, and that was the most terrifying possibility of all.

The solution in each case was, on some level, as simple as understanding the concept of a water main break. Even if the answers weren’t as readily available, simply knowing that mysteries were challenges to understand the world better helped me face my fears and cope with problems that came later.

In today’s world, an American society that has rags to riches myths to keep everyone motivated to strive for a better life, the fact that more and more of us find ourselves slipping down the economic ladder no matter what we do has driven members of my own family into all kinds of self-destructive behavior. What monsters, Marx and music have given me are the tools to face my fear of the unknown, explore it and begin to come to grips with the often maddening contradictions of reality. Through this process, I’m repeatedly heartened that our society as a whole can face these contradictions and build a much more sane and just future. But we have a lot of work to do—uncomfortable, unsettling and uncertain work.


Take 'Em As They Come's great friend David Cantwell has just wrapped up a week of essays in honor of Chuck Berry's 80th birthday (October 18th) at
It was the inspiration for this two week countdown to Halloween. Each day has been well worth reading, as Cantwell's website always is. Please check it out.


C.J. Janovy said...

Thank you for helping me understand the world around me. Today's last graph, especially, pretty much nails everything right now.

Danny Alexander said...

I can't tell you how great that is to hear. Thank you. One way or another, we're in this together.