Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More Childhood Memories From the 1970s: the mysteries of human character

My dad in 1977!

I have been thinking about the word moderate and moderation, in reference to the title of my blog. I have also been thinking about writing down some more events from my childhood and adolescence.

It has been far too long - I believe a couple of years in fact - since I wrote in prose form concerning personal matters. There is so much from my childhood and adolescence to pick and, if possible, explore that there is always the question of what my "sensory system" (as one of the ways in which I describe my peculiar temperament) will recall out of the steaming flux.

One of my fondest memories of being with my father is the opportunity to ride around the city of Tampa in a wide bodied red Thunderbird convertible, with sort of bucket seats, a little shag on the floor and a white vinyl top. My favorite part of the convertible was the 8 TRACK and I would create my own mix tapes with music that obsessed me and which I tried in earnest to study and absorb. As one example of a mix tape, one would open with a Bach Bradenburg Concerto, continue with Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder, then a selection of Billy Cobham's Stratus album and finish with some solo piano of Bud Powell. The selections and order reflected my musical interests. And then there were the commercially preset releases of EARTH WIND AND FIRE, Chuck Mangione, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and Randy Newman.

 I even loved how the songs would be interrupted abruptly with that violating, screeching sound, because of some technological limitation that couldn't accommodate  pieces of music over a certain duration. Rather than being frustrated with this clearly awful design for music production or distribution, I would laugh about it for its very absurdity, though others around me would not laugh and usually just complain about it ruining the proper flow of the music. I think it is very possible that these ruinous interruptions, disrespectful of the musical artists, to say the least, had an unconscious influence on my own collage styled sense of nonlinear historical and musical time in my own compositions. I think I knew I had an odd sense of humor at this early stage of life.

These were some  unsurpassed happy moments from my childhood.

But there were things far less happy in my childhood and they do somehow connect with the T-BIRD. Another notable thing about the car was the curious man who sold it to my father.  This man was initially a colorful, or "flashy" character to me. He was a used car salesman and the price for this Thunderbird was as low as was possible in those days.

But when he was not working he would come over to the family house, sometimes unannounced and in a state of visible intoxication, swearing graphically and asking rude questions about political or religious matters. My mother always had a very kind way of setting him on his way, usually by calling his wife and asking for her to come get him, yet again.

Mr. Anderson was sort of a figure out of a Michael Ritchie movie. I am thinking of Bruce Dern's Big Bob Freelander character in SMILE. He even wore similar powder blue leisure styled dacron suits, but with wild Quiana prints all over the elephant collared shirts underneath the suits, and the gold chains. Unlike the Big Bob Freelander character, Anderson could be mean, perhaps even sinister.

The last thing I heard about this salesman Mr. Anderson was that he was so incensed and offended by a particular episode of the Phil Donahue Show that he took a semi-automatic rifle and shot out the t.v. set. Immediately after he called the local affiliate and complained that Phil Donahue was an unAmerican communist and that he considered an act of treason for any television station to bring such a host in to the rooms of ordinary and decent Americans.

Shortly after this incident his wife filed for divorce and both people left Tampa, leaving nothing but a For Sale Sign hanging over his used car lot. I really liked Mr. Anderson until I heard about him shooting up that t.v. set. From my point of view he was that flashy salesman who sold my father a really cool car, or something to that effect. It was in the light of new information that I had to reconsider who or what this man really was. This revisionist information was a kind of external sensation - involving destroyed televisions, abused wives, screaming and yelling and the like.

There was something simply wild about Anderson. His form of right-wing excess was and is so common in this country. It was around me all of the time and I grew so completely used to it. It was the most shocking thing in the world to come back East and meet people who were not rabid like that in their passions.  I had no idea there was this moderation because I saw so little of it. People who seemed urbane and laid back. It was not their Liberalism, if that is the correct formulation, that made them different. It was the fact that they did not make a federal case out of everything, or if if they did, it seemed under some kind of rational control. I craved that in my life, as a stay against the instability and volatility I encountered so often in Florida. Today when I read news about this or that extremist conservative movement or politician I am often reminded about these days. Perhaps I was seeing the birth of today's world.

A lot of understanding people really comes from aesthetic signs from the outside. This is what Oscar Wilde really meant when he said that it is only the superficial people who do not judge by appearances. Appearances might include modes of dress, eye movements. body language, speech of course, and patterns of outward behavior over a period of time.

It takes an enormous amount of volatility in feeling, reaction, however you choose to label it and with whatever psychological jargon of the moment, to take a gun and shoot at your t.v. set. Lest you think this was the sole province of a macho male like Mr. Anderson, the girls and women I met in Tampa had a similar volatility, usually about different things and expressed in different styles. If you got any of the religious ones started on a subject dear to their heart: the evils of Abortion for example, (being a common one), you would get screamed at about the issue as if your very own survival depended on whether you believed whatever the party line was.

I remember in particular one woman ranting for an entire hour about the evils of a man who dared to be bare chested in public on the side of a road, and how this man was a symptom of all that was rotten and evil in America. This was during some kind of field trip in the de rigueur wide bodied Buick station wagon with that damned wood panelling on the side. Now the car moved so fast that I don't remember seeing the man at all but I had to hear about him and what he symbolized for the hour. And the woman doing the ranting was the Liberal person in town: she was the head of a high school drama department!

And as I have written about in these personal series before, the behavior of children in some of my Floridian milieu was simply anti-scocial. Or maybe simply a-social. I really couldn't say. One kid threw me overboard in a canoe, causing me to come near death from drowning, only to be rescued by one of the counselors.

Another kid would grab and grope at the intimate anatomy of any girl who happened to be in the vicinity, sometimes in the most vile and aggressive of fashions. He would cause pain and then laugh about it, exposing a mouth with a couple of missing teeth and the worst case of acne you'd ever see and then grab at the crotch of his LEVIS Toughskins. My one attempt to correct him - by essentially beating him up so that he would cease his predations, the only time I ever hit anybody - got me suspended!  Amazingly the school took his side. I did hurt the kid and he had to be taken home that day and well, it practically went to Juvenile Court, or so that was the threat.

I saw kids physically attack their own parents and teachers, throw tantrums of all kinds. Indecent exposure was common, and in a most public fashion, particular with a couple of kids who were severely mentally disturbed. (One myth or cultural assumption of the"free schools" at that time was that you should just throw all sorts of kids in one room together to teach them, under some notion of radical egalitarianism).

One time a man beat his own son in front of me and some neighborhood kids in his trailer park home and we would all sort of watch, only too happy that we were not his children and outside the scope of his wrath. Oddly we never thought to report it or intervene. There was talk that he was taken away by the city and locked up for a very long time and that trailer was vacated.

Coming home, the home of my own mother and father, was always a kind of shelter from the outside world, since my home seemed relatively calm and supportive by contrast. For these I am eternally grateful to my parents, yet I did realize  much later that my own parents had little in common and lived for thirty years in conditions of undiscussed and silent unhappiness in their marriage. And regularly the outside world would intrude and it was never pretty, from religiously fundamentalist relatives, people peddling miracle cures and snake oil of all kinds and many other things that I couldn't begin to five a coherent description but involved lots of matching jumpsuits or jogging suits and sales of dubious motivational self-help books for one cause or another, whether religious or secular.

From the earliest age I had no idea of or illusion about natural, human innocence or any notion of the kind. Human evil and untrustworthiness seemed as much integral to the human animal as any highly touted and advertised kindness.

And the fare at the movie theaters worked in harmony with how life appeared in "reality":

As a result, to this very day, I look askance at human emotion. I recognize that it is often more valuable than thinking, and it sets human souls and spirits upward unto the heights of joy. I could not be a musician or at least the kind that I am without my feelings. Yet emotion just as often sends people crashing downward in a manner that brings everybody in the surrounding environment down with them. I think that many people have the deepest need to impose their beliefs, in essence how they alone experience the world, unto others, utterly blind to the profound differences between us as if by the act of such imposition they will feel less alone or convert others to their system. Having unusual and nonconformist feelings I learned long ago to never hope for such things. Oh I will talk your ear off about my interests, passions, etc. but I don't ever really mean to impose or convert. If there is agreement or harmony I take that as a pleasant surprise or happy accident, in the fashionable formulation of the moment. I am reminded of the George Ramsay quote about which I learned from psychologist Steven Reiss:

"The same difference of feeling and dullness of imagination explain what has often been observed: that one half of mankind pass their lives in wondering at the pursuit of others. Not being able to feel or to fancy the pleasure derived from sources other than their own, they consider the rest of the world as little better than fools, who follow empty baubles. They hug themselves as the only wise, while in truth they are only narrow-minded."

It seems that if people remembered this more than they do the world would vastly improve overnight. It is all part of this myth of consensus, and "getting to yes" and all of that earnest cheerleading that infects everything from TED talks, to current science, to, hell, how we even understand works of art. But that takes us a little further afield for my current purposes and will have to wait for a more appropriate time and place.

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