My mother knew I was a wimp.
One day when I was five or six, she looked down at me clinging to her dress and decided that I would never succeed in life unless she forced me to socialize. She said I was a milquetoast. I thought that was something to eat.
Soon after that she signed me up for an endless string of extracurricular activities that included: tap-dance, swimming, piano, and clarinet lessons, as well as Cub Scouts. Dreading the obligatory structure at the end of a tough school day; I would rather be held in detention than mandatory attendance at any of these self-improvement activities.
Sensing that tap dancing held no future for an uncoordinated little white boy, I hated the class so much that I would sneak over to the room where other children were taking voice lessons. I told my mother I wanted to sing instead of dance: and because she liked to sing herself, to this day I do not understand why she said: “No.” Maybe the lessons cost too much; perhaps I had no voice potential; or perhaps because perfect pitch came naturally to her, she thought that everyone else had that gift too.
At the YMCA, where I learned to swim, I would come home crying to my mother that the other boys snapped me with their towels in the locker room.
Without sympathy she said:
- Snap them back.
She wanted me to fight and learn self defense , but in always innately tending to be non-violent I could never see a reason why anyone would want to hurt someone else in the first place. However, since we spent every summer at the shore, learning to swim did turn out to be a good idea, as it then had some actual practical value: preventing drowning.
Not only did I never snap back the towels, but also never practiced the two musical instruments, as a result remaining non-violent and musically inept. Either my music teachers were uninspiring, or I had to deal with Uncle Jimmy. Instead of being fun, practice was a chore as I always had difficulty with chords that contained more than one sharp or flat. And one cannot exist forever living in a world that only plays the key of C. But the utility of the lessons was at least to give me a sense music appreciation, in particular the Classics. The biographical lives and times of the great classical composers, especially the dysfunctional or psychotic ones was also interesting; Mozart and Beethoven being prime examples.
Losing interest in the Cub Scouts after two years, I quit.
The Cub Scouts were a colossal waste of time. The regimentation was hateful, the hierarchy was stodgy and I loathed everything about the starched uniform: a dopey tie I could never knot, patches, stripes and pins for completing totally inane or pointless projects such as cutting paper snowflakes or making a poor-man’s telephone system out of two tin cans hooked together by a string.
When I was sent to YMCA day camp I disliked being forced to bond with strangers along with perceiving no purpose whatsoever in dressing up like a little Indian, learning how to braid plastic strands or to finger paint my face, as if I were some warrior going off to be massacred by the cavalry. I never could get the braiding correct, always managing to wind up with some unresolved extra strand dangling in the breeze where the end of the braid was supposed to automatically come together. The entire thing would have to be pulled out to be re-done under the supervision of either an impatiently testy or a condescendingly amused camp counselor; depending upon who it was or what mood he or she happened to be in that day.
I had only several real passions: reading, science, daydreaming, riding a bicycle with friends, and discovering the world around me; especially the dense silent woods in the protected watershed area that supplied New York City. Signs that read:”Keep Out: Violators Will Be Prosecuted” translated in our minds to a “Welcome” mat at the doorway of a safe haven and freedom from the artifices of forced socialization.
The bicycle became the vehicle for my personal freedom and for exploring the local world after school. My wheels…..my magic carpet.
We’ve all got wheels,
To take ourselves away.
We’ve got the telephone,
To say what we can’t say.
We’ve all gone higher
And higher, everyday.
So come on wheels
Take this boy away.
(Graham Parsons/Chris Hillman)