Sunday, August 22, 2010

Children and Turbulence

I spent the day reading Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle.  I picked up Walls' memoir after a friend sent me a copy of her novel, Half-Broke Horses.  I really enjoyed the latter, so I followed my usual policy of reading out and around--or, what Twyla Tharp has described as, "reading fat" or "reading archeologically"-- moving backward in time from a text, reading contemporary works, other works by the same author, biographies, etc.

Half-Broke Horses is the story of Jeannette Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith.  Because her grandmother died when Walls was 8, she crafted her story from a combination of family anecdotes and research, writing a "true-life novel" told from the perspective of her feisty grandmother. 

Reading Walls' The Glass Castle is a very different kind of experience.  It is also the story of a young girl growing up in a world that she quickly realizes is often harsh and quite confusing, but the emotional counterpointing of Walls' memoir is quite different from the narrative spirit of Half-Broke Horses

Girls like Walls and, to a much lesser extent, myself, grew up in a world that is rapidly disappearing, if it hasn't already vanished.  For better or for worse, parents today almost never raise their children without any regard for the watchful eye of social institutions and the norms or opinions of their neighbors.  Suburban, middle-class life is cushioned by a buffer zone of theories about how best to raise a child with self-esteem and independence.  At the same time, this upbringing is supposed to occur in an environment that is by definition deprived of any experience of actual, physical hardship.

While I certainly never experienced anything as harsh or unstable as Walls' childhood, I worked with my dad from the time I was 5.  He had inherited the family business, selling dairy products to houses and restaurants.  We didn't have a farm; the milk was all pre-packaged, and we delivered it house-to-house and wholesale, six days a week.  

A case of 16 quarts of milk weighs 32 lbs.--by the time I was ten, it was understood that I needed be able to carry one case in each hand, because carrying them one at a time is too slow.  My dad told me that "boys are a little bit stronger, sometimes" but that if I tried, I could "catch up" and be "a lot better than any of the lazy-assed ones out there."  (I was also warned that there were a lot of lazy-assed ones out there, so I'd need to get good at spotting them and telling them to "get the hell lost.") 

I learned how to safely jump from a truck that is still moving: gauge when the driver lets up on the gas, look where you'll be landing, and make a decision, don't "screw around thinking about it."  Be sure to land on the balls of your feet, with your dominant foot forward, because if you land flat-footed, you'll go "ass over teakettle."  I learned that, if you slipped and fell carrying a glass bottle, you should try not to fall on the glass since "broken glass will rip the shit out of you." 

I learned that sometimes, if you hurt yourself, people laugh because you look "pretty damn funny" and sometimes, if you cry, they tell you to "grow up and stop being a big baby."  It doesn't mean that they don't care about you.

In 1978, when I was 10, I made $1. for each morning I went out on the truck.  That was my allowance, and I earned it by working from 6:00 a.m. until noon, regardless of the weather.  In summer, we had extra deliveries to camps, from noon until 2:00.  I always had to go along on those, without pay, whether or not I had gone out that morning on the truck for the regular delivery route.

I remember that, in the summer, I used to love to ride in the truck with the door open: when my dad hit the main road and the truck got going fifty or so, you'd get a great breeze and the whole world looked different, blurry and zipping by.  I understood that, if I fell out, I'd "probably die" and that my mom would be "pretty upset with everybody," so I'd better be careful not to fall out.  I learned that "it's all right to daydream, but you've got to pay attention too." 

So I think the sensibility that I share reading Walls' description of her childhood is that, raised in a physically challenging environment, you learn that life is usually kind of tough and not very fair, that people get hurt sometimes, and that you're always going to have to stay on your toes and be just a little bit tougher than your circumstances--that's just the way it is.  

In Walls' story, of course, lines get crossed that my parents would never have considered approaching.  As her father cautions, you have to make sure you don't get too close to the boundary between turbulence and order--the irony being, of course, that his family's lifestyle is one of obvious turbulence and downright danger.

So where, then, is the boundary?  If children experience nothing but order and safety, is that necessarily a good thing?  Reading Walls' experience upset me more often than not, because I frequently found myself wishing someone would rescue her and her siblings from what my dad would have described as "their no-good, crazy-assed parents."  But I wonder: is there ever really a safe way to learn about life's turbulence and its hazy boundaries?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."