One day back in 1700, when we were classmates at Cautionary Epistle school, my chum Samuel Richardson and I took a break from hunching over our Remonstrance Homework long enough to survey a coterie of our cohorts kicking a rotten cabbage around the schoolyard. Abruptly, their play was interrupted by a crotchety crone who limped into the game and snatched up the cabbage, chiding, “This be no toy, you unlicked cubs! It’s belly timber, and it wants handling by a cook such as I. Don’t be muckworms; I must needs rustle it to my shanty and pop it into my stew.”
Hearing the groans of disappointment from the pack of youths–and not completely able to resist the lure of a good time herself–the crone conceded, “All right then, the rout of you. Let’s play cabbage ball. Score starts one-nil, though, and I’m captain of the Plaguers.” With that, she tossed the battered head of leaves to the ground, hoisted her skirts, and gave a kick that landed the ball in a still-warm pile of horse apples. “GOOOOOOOAAAAAAL!” she screeched, elbowing her teammates ebulliently. “Who’s got home, hearth, and spinning on the wheel? Who needs to sup when there’s such gladdening diversion to be had? Not I!” she cried.
Ensconced on the sidelines, having cataloged the vignette of the crone and stored it away for future use, Samuel turned to me and, scratching under his wig with a quill, noted dryly,
“All our pursuits, from childhood to manhood, are only trifles of different sorts and sizes, proportioned to our years and views.”
Then, dropping the quill to a point significantly lower on his body, he turned his hand to a less absent-minded scratching and asked me, as his eyes glazed over, “May I call you Pamela? Or, if you prefer, Clarissa?”
With a long-suffering sigh, I thunked his forehead, admonishing, “Get the quill out of your pants, Sammy, and no, you can’t call me Pamela. Or Clarissa. I’m Jocelyn, and it will take more than a feather in your trousers to get a name change out of me. Now: back to the subject at hand. You were saying…?”
While my sigh had been long suffering, his was exasperated. “I was saying, Jocelyn, that everything we do is ultimately fluff, but the kind of fluff with which we amuse ourselves and how we perceive and process that fluff vary according to age and experience. I would also posit, moreover, that some versions of fluff actually get more agreeable as life ripens, and when the fluffy larks of youth intrude into the later years of life, older folk enjoy them deeply and feelingly–in ways that are beyond the capacity of a child.”
Ever curious, I queried, “Does a quill down the pants constitute ‘fluff,’ Sammy? If so, do you hope to enjoy that increasingly ‘feelingly’ as you age?”
“Call it what you like, fair Pamela–oops! Jocelyn. But indubitably, if a quill down the pants results in such gratification during the early years of grammar school, one can fairly anticipate the myriad and complex pleasures ‘A Quill Down the Pants’ will afford as one gains in years. Beyond the quill in my pants, ma chère Clarissa, er, Jocelyn, I presume you take my point?”
“Yea, you’d like me to take your point, wouldn’t you?” I snorted. “Your general lasciviousness aside, yes, I take your point: babies play with their toes and call it fun; school boys kick around a cabbage and call it a game; adolescents mope about the injustice of their cushy lives and call that a day; adults cook, read, clean, drink, make laws, make love, kill things, pay bills, marry, divorce, reflect and call it a life. Such are our generational pursuits. What intrigues me most, however, is the notion of cross-generational ‘trifles.’ Certainly, I’m well acquainted with youngsters wanting to act like adults–some time in the future, a nine-year-old named Willow Smith will don thigh-high boots and, in her accompanying leopard-print coat, prove this point stunningly. While I wince when kids perversely toss away their childhoods, I thrill to the idea of adults acting like kids. I refer not, in this context, to people like future celebrity Alec Baldwin and his penchant for fit throwing when he’s asked to put his games away. Rather, I am beguiled when adults rediscover the pastimes of youth and apprehend, the second time around, nuances and nooks of delectation to which they were incommensurate during their callow years. Some centuries hence, during the era of Queen Willow and King Alex, the masses will rely upon a cliché to express this sentiment: ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ So, yes, Sammy, although my skirts aren’t up around my ears, I have fully absorbed your point.”
“You are deft with summary and expansion of my comments, Shouty Jocelyn, and I daresay that, were this Willow a bit older, I’d rather like to meet her at the baths and make her hair whip back and forth.”
Suddenly extremely tired of Samuel’s seedy predilections, I tossed my homework his direction with a determined, “Hand that to the schoolmaster, if you will, and assure him I’ve learned everything I need to with regards to leveling moral judgement and harnessing the impulse to chastise. And thank you for the inspirational chat, Dear Fellow; you’ve given me plenty of food–forcemeat balls, anyone?–for thought. But one small caution before I hop into my Thaumaturgical Time Machine to head into a more convenient and vaccination-filled future: when you grow up and become a quill-wielding husband, try to rein in your habit of naming your sons after yourself. It’s like a curse, that name of yours. How about slapping ‘Channing’ or ‘Justin’ on those babies instead and giving them a chance at life?”
With that, I stomped over to my Temporal Transit Toboggan™, slipped on a pair of protective goggles, genuflected, and whispered, “Sweet God of Topologically Nontrivial Spacetimes, please forward me to 2012, a year when only black women and Elton John wear wigs.”
A loud “WHEEEEE” issued forth from my gut as the sled sped into the fourth dimension to exploit the vagaries of the space-time continuum. What seemed like seconds–but, in fact, was more than three hundred years–later, the tobaggan cruised to a stop in a park near my house.
“Crikey,” I thought, brushing shattered moonbeams and handfuls of stardust off my shoulders before plucking a baffling green blob of skin out from my central incisors, “I may be almost 45, but sledding is still dang fun. Who says it’s the sport of children?”
Hey. Wait. A. Minute.
Replaying my conversation with Samuel in my mind, I thought further about how magical the activities of youth can feel to an adult. As my gaze wandered over to the playground at the park, I took in the slide and remembered how very, very much fun I had the first time I held my six-month-old daughter on my lap and scooched us over the precipice. At that point in my 30s, I hadn’t been on a slide for at least ten years–since the drunken nights in college when a pack of us would stop off at the middle school playground on our post-closing trek home from the bar. At least when I whizzed down the slide with my daughter all those years later, it was she–not I–doing the vomiting at the bottom.
The feeling of “Jinkies, but I’d forgotten how delightful this is” stirs up every time I hop on a slide or a sled or a swing or a scooter. Last summer, when Girl, no longer six months old, bought a trampoline with her savings, and we all started bouncing around on the thing like quarters on an obsessive-compulsive drill sergeant’s bed, the feeling of More Fun the Second Time around was profound. Every time I zip into the trampoline’s enclosure, the melded word “omigodthisissofreakingawesome” surges through my head. What’s more, I don’t recall trampolines being so transportingly enjoyable when I was a kid. Sure, jumping was a laugh when I was twelve, but now, as an adult, I’m fascinated by the structure of the thing: the tautness of the bounce mat, the power and resistance of the springs, the feeling of privacy provided by the enclosure. I was fascinated last autumn by the way fallen leaves crunched into a bounce mat carpet. I am fascinated by the rule setting and abiding the neighborhood children do so as to retain their privileges. I’m fascinated by the endless variety of doofy poses and tricks that jumpers can create. I’m fascinated by how high I can make my kids fly, if I time my bounce just right. I’m enchanted by the warmth of the sun on my body and the black mat when I crash down and lie prone, in search of breath.
As an adult, I find time on the trampoline much more than “a laugh.” I find it a sensory, full-body antidote to the grind of grading and paying and washing.
A similar thing has been happening these last few months since we bought a vintage Ivers & Pond piano from a smiley and hugely-cranially-endowed man named Dan. (Seriously, you could cut off his head and use it as an ottoman. Only do this if you don’t mind an ottoman that smells of decaying flesh and squishes slurpily every time you put your feet up.)
My foibles as a child pianist, previously detailed, were undeniable. I liked monkeying around at the keyboard, and I liked the fact that I could crank out “Nadia’s Theme,” but mostly I wanted to go next door to my friend Lisa’s house and watch Grease 2 for the fourteenth time on that whiz-bang new channel called HBO. Time at the piano was something to be endured–and unfortunately, as was proven a few decades later when, laboring to expel my first baby, I announced “Okay, I’m ready to be done now” on the 8th out of 98,000 contractions–enduring is not my forte.
But now that I’m a Big People? I could spend all day dallying with my beaux, Mr, Ivers and Mr. Pond. When I sit at the keyboard and try to figure out how to play a song, I feel my brain expanding and contracting. Often, I have to stop and talk to the music and ask it what it’s going on about. Sometimes, when I get to page 6 of “Quasi una fantasia” (aka “The Moonlight Sonata”), and my armpits are prickling with the perspiration that comes from carrying so much adagio weight for so long, I have to take a break to note, “Oh, Ludwig, what a complex man you were. Here, you force my hands to stretch across so many keys, but in ‘Fur Elise,’ you are all whimsical rondo that makes my plaque-ridden brain creak as it attempts to decipher the notes with more alacrity than it’s displayed in years. When I was a kid, all I knew was that I was assigned to play some sort of something by the famous guy named Beethoven, but my response to the notes I subsequently tapped out was distinctly less than emotional. Now, as an adult, I can hardly bear that we’ll never meet; all evidence holds that you would be a serious trip, and I would love to take you out to the trampoline to burn off some of those cheeky crankies.”
When I sit down at the piano these days, no one is teaching me, I’m not really very good, and there is no true purpose to my time on the bench. I’m not being trained to become “a pianist,” and with that release comes sheer beatific felicity. I may struggle to find the right notes, and I may blunder my way to the final fermata, but I am full of feeling during the hours I’m at the piano–feeling for dynamics and pacing and cleverness and composerial intent. When I sit down at the piano, my brain is all exposed brick, but by the time I decide it’s time to stop and make a latte, there’s an incredible mural of color rippling across my neurons.
In contrast, when I was a child and spake as a child, I would have described playing the piano as “like, spazzy and lame.” Puerile, I didn’t possess the depth or sensitivity to appreciate the lagniappes of musical practice.
Hearteningly, I am not alone when it comes to the limitations of youth.
Recently on the NPR program Fresh Air, actress Meryl Streep recalled studying opera at age 13 and training her coloratura voice. Patently, she hated it because she was asked to learn and perform material that was remote from her experience and sensibility; it was only years later that, as she noted to interviewer Terry Gross, “I learned that I was singing something that I didn’t feel and understand.”
Only with age, indeed, do we amass the tools–feeling, understanding, sensibility–that allow us to divine the fullness of beauty and experience.
This isn’t only true for trampolines and classical music, of course. A more prosaic example occurred when my husband was in his early thirties and became a newspaper delivery boy. Many people with degrees in anthropology and environmental science and a professional history in teaching environmental education would have registered newspaper delivery as a come-down in the world. Fortunately, Byron’s ego is immune to challenge and his personality is no nonsense. The facts were these: we had been carrying two mortages for two years, paying out 55% of our monthly income towards a house to live in and a house we couldn’t sell; I was working full time while he was staying at home with our toddler (she of 98,000 contractions); I couldn’t imagine working more, and he wanted to contribute to the coffers without having to shell out for daycare. A job with hours from 3:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. filled all the criteria.
Although we traditionally think of paper routes as “kid’s work,” these days–at least in my city–it’s nearly impossible for a youngster to sign on for a route without parental assistance. Paper delivery people start the day by heading to the newspaper building downtown, where they pick up their papers, spend some time inserting ads into them, and then roll them in preparation for drop-off. Once their papers are ready to go, deliverers get themselves to their assigned neighborhoods (usually a good distance from downtown and from where they live) and begin dumping their papers, one at a time.
For kids, the only upsides to a paper route are a paycheck and the perenially-clear sinuses that come from dramatic, put-upon sighing. For Byron, yes, there was the paycheck (massive!), but beyond the $1.53/hour he was making,
there was the peer watching he did during paper pick-up (FYI: a sack of pierced and tattooed human skin drops off your paper, if you’re one of the seventeen who still subscribe);
there was the particular peace that softens the air in the wee hours;
there were the glimpses through windows of insomniacs, driven exercisers, La-Z-Boy dozers and, on the morning of Black Friday, an uncommon hum of activity as shoppers-to-be amped up by hydrating their bodies and polishing their credit cards;
there was the routine of picking up, prepping papers, and sliding amongst private spaces;
there was the welcome warmth of activity, as Byron ran his route each day.
A twelve-year-old wouldn’t know how to be gratified by routine and peace. There hasn’t been enough stressful counterpoint yet in a twelve-year-old’s life to help develop appreciation for such low-level stuff. For a thirtysomething, however, a paper route was an unsullied blast.
Roused by the idea of a good blast, I shook myself from my musings and realized it was time to hop back onto the Temporal Transit Toboggan™ and make a jump backwards. If I steered just right, I could land 250 years in the past and snag the aging Samuel. I’d even let him bring his quill and call me Pamela. Although Sammy had never ridden a bike or played with Legos as a child, that didn’t matter. Such childish delights would have been wasted on him anyhow. With his advanced years, though, there was every possibility he had developed the maturity to see poetry in spinning spokes and snapped-together architecture–
because everything’s amazing once you’ve learned how to hold it up to the light
and turn it slowly, patiently, incrementally
until a slant of sun channels itself
that your twelve-year-old self didn’t know were possible.