[This is the fourth of a planned 365 consecutive posts.]
Like most people, I grew up thinking that somewhere I missed the day at school where they gave you the rule book. You know: all those things everyone seems to know, but no one explains. Sometimes I actually did miss a lot. My dad’s job required that we move a lot. We’d go rolling into a new town every couple of years. When you spend all your time being the new kid you learn to be a quick-study anthropologist. One thing it taught me was the wisdom of Mark Twain’s rule that it’s better to be silent and thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.
I have a feeling that some people think I violated that rule with yesterday’s post. I disagree. I often disagree. I used to not care so much whether I was disagreeable when I disagree. As I’ve gotten older I try to hold off on immediately pissing people off. I’ll go there. I just try to avoid it. I’ve never been particularly good about not speaking my mind. I’m a terrible poker player. Which is OK, because my biggest gamble is getting out of bed in the morning.
So that’s me over there. I figure that photo was probably taken in 1965 . That would make me two years old. I actually kind of remember those overalls. I pretty much lived in them. This is the photo my grandmother kept out to represent me on her shelf of grandkid photos. It was a very, very crowded shelf. My mom was the oldest of 7 and we were on the low end of the offspring-scale with only three kids.
My absolute earliest memory is getting separated from my Mom in a department store. I remember being asked what my name was and what my mother’s name was. I was pretty sure the last one was “Mommy,” but I remember something to the effect of “My name? That’s something I’m supposed to keep up with?” Probably not in so many words, but that was the gist of it.
A lot of my life since has been being astonished at the things people expect me to keep up with.
You may or may not have noticed that I’ve gotten this far talking about where I come from without mentioning a geographic location. That’s very un-Cincinnati. It’s un-a-lot-of-places. I was born in Kansas City, MO. We lived out in Independence, then moved every two or three years until I hit 6th grade and we settled in Houston, TX. Then there was college in two places, grad school in a third, a couple of jobs in different cities and I’ve been in the Cincinnati, OH area for 18 years. That last is the longest I’ve ever been in one place.
The net effect of all that moving around is that I don’t feel like I derive much my identity from any one location. I tend to like where I am when I’m there, but I find other things I like when I move on. I can honestly say I’ve never hated any of the places I’ve lived. I have to say, though, the notion of deriving some part of your identity from where you happened to drool first is weird to me. On the other hand, I have to know the history of the place I’m living. I have to know the food. I’m short for my weight. I should be about 8’3″. I don’t feel like I know a place until I know what they eat. And I do a lot of research. For which I apologize to all the doctors I’ve ever had.
A possible exception to what I said about identity and geography is Harry Truman. He, of course, was from Independence. I remember my mother plopping me down in front of the television set on his birthday to watch him speak to students from Truman High School. He was revered around my house. On the other hand, I was fairly sure Nixon’s name real first and middle name was “That Goddamned.” It’s all my father ever called him.
Anyway, Truman was fond of saying that the only thing new under the sun was the history you don’t know yet. I joke now that people who know history are forever doomed to quote Santayana, but that came later. I like Truman’s version better. I read voraciously as a kid. My mom would go to the library and check out books for me while I was at school. She reminded me later as my academic career careened around that I didn’t want to read fiction. “Get me books about things that happened,” I’d say. I was also a big fan of Bennet Cerf and Richard Armour. Later I’d read Art Buchwald and Mike Royko because they combined the things I loved to read.
Moving around so much I learned what it was to be the outsider, the “other.” Always being one of the biggest guys in the class as an outsider gave me a bird’s-eye view of power relationships. Bullies wanted to bully me, but were afraid to. They’d pick on someone else. They tended to pick on the very outsiders who were willing to accept me. That made me mad. It still makes me mad.
I also learned the arbitrary nature of authority. I’d live in one place and there’d be this person who was considered a big deal, but there’s be nothing about them any different from a dozen other people I’d known other places. They’d have a family name that was a big deal because the family name had always been a big deal, though no one could really say why. I also noticed that people often did what was expected of them — good or bad — but if you talked to them about it later you found out they did it because it’s what people expected them to do. It was just easiest to go with the flow. It was years before I ever heard the term “dramaturgy,” but when I did it wasn’t very hard to wrap my head around it.
I’m not going to say any of this is terribly profound. I’ve spent a fair bit of time on this and I’m not even sure there’s really a point. If there is, it’s this: I’m still that little kid over there. He has more hair and is skinnier, but I still have his confusion. There are things people think are important that I cannot understand. There are things people willfully ignore that are so clearly important it hurts. I’m not saying every post is going to be a rant — I don’t want to do that — but part of what this year is about is me trying to explain things to that kid over there.