Although this blog often publishes non-political pieces on the weekends, things rarely get very personal around here. This post will be different. I may not even hit the "Publish Post" button when I'm done. But sometimes, words start buzzing around your cranium and you just gotta write them down.
Just about everyone in my ladyfriend's family loves a certain animated show which appeals to both adults and children. I won't name it. About a week ago, I looked up the history of the show and discovered that one of the two creators is someone I knew fairly well back when I was thirteen.
His name is John. (At least, that's his name in this post.) I had forgotten all about him -- just as he has no doubt forgotten me. That fact now seems astonishing, since my younger brother and John were the best of friends. In fact, my brother practically lived at his apartment throughout much of 1972.
That became a huge
John's mother was an archetypical free spirit -- an attractive, fair-haired hippie named Denny who didn't worry much about bread (or money
, as you younguns would call it) because her father was a famous jazz bandleader who had made it big.
(A great guy, he was. Had the most amazing stereo system I had ever seen -- loudspeakers the size of billboards, built right into the wall.)
Denny was sweet and funny, and all of the kids in the neighborhood gravitated toward her. I both liked her and couldn't stand her.
When it came to raising kids, she had a strict no-strictness policy. Some of you may recall the song lyric: "Like a beautiful child, growing up free and wild...
" Such was her philosophy of parenting. No rules, no punishments, no curfew, no criticism of any kind, no saying "no" to...well, to anything. If the boys had told her they wanted to try heroin, she probably would have said: "Okay, I'll see what I can score."
Her parenting approach did not arise from laziness or hedonism. She really believed in total freedom -- an idealized, reified, romanticized capital-F Freedom
. In her opinion, discipline created all of the world's problems. The word of sin is Restriction
. That's how Nixon became Nixon, y'know: His parents told him what to do.
kids would turn out different. They would be confident. Magical. Naturally brilliant. Free.
In Denny's world, there was a new project nearly every day -- some place to go, some grand scheme to fulfill, some adventure to live. Denny was Mary Poppins: There was always an amazing outing or someone cool to meet. There was fun.
For some unfathomable reason, Denny always tried to include me in these adventures, even though John was my brother's
friend (not mine) and even though that woman had zero reason to like me. Maybe she fixated on me precisely because I was the only young person in the neighborhood who did not view her as the Coolest Mom Ever.
In fact, there were times when I loathed her, despite all the wonderful things she did for my brother and for me.
You must understand one thing: It was hardly my
fault that I knew everything. I was, after all, thirteen. And if there was one fact of which I was certain, it was this: Denny's ethos of total freedom
was a cosmic mistake.
The proof: John's brother.
(What the hell was the kid's name? I want to say Michael. Well, let's call him Michael in this essay.)
Michael was blonde, maybe five-ish. If you had seen him, you would compare him to an angel in a painting by Raphael. He was also the single brattiest kid ever to assail the planet.
The Cloverdale Monster had better manners. He said whatever he liked, however harmful or insulting, because his mom had taught him to be free and confident and outgoing and unrestricted and wild and free free free
. If he wanted your food, he'd grab it. If you told him no, he'd scream like a banshee until Denny made sure that he got his way.
He was, in short, pure Id. And he was awful. Even when I had him on my shoulders to watch the fireworks at Disneyland, I couldn't help thinking: "God, what a terrible kid."
John was a good guy. Michael was Boy Satan.
And every day, every freaking day
, there was that urge to tell Denny: "This is all your
fault. You're raising this child all wrong. Your Freedom Philosophy is a proven loser."
She sensed my disapproving attitude. No doubt she wondered how a thirteen year old could get so uptight.
Come to think of it, that may be the reason she kept inviting me to those outings: She wanted to prove that her Freedom Philosophy was right. She wanted to score a conversion.
What she never comprehended was this: I came to loathe Denny not out of an aversion to the Hippie lifestyle, but because she had discredited that ethos. Her impossible younger son proved that hippie-ness was a failed experiment. Total Freedom produced human beasts.
For me, that one blonde brat killed the spirit of the 60s. That kid, and Charles Manson.
But even though Denny was annoying and infuriating, I also liked her. I'll always be grateful to her for inviting my asshole self to tag along on her extended family's various outings.
On one occasion, we made a trip to the Colorado river. John, my brother and I went innertubing down some very wild and picturesque tributaries, far from any other human being -- and totally
unsupervised by adults. An unforgettable experience. Dangerous? Hell, yeah. No sane parent nowadays would allow his or her children to undergo such an excursion unattended. But Denny felt that supervision would have restricted our capital-F Freedom. (I think John may have acquired his nickname on that occasion.)
Denny had divorced her husband because he did not share her Freedom Ethos. There was an ugly custody dispute. I can't recall the details.
She was so caught up in her own Dennyness that she never quite realized that most of the other parents in our apartment building -- especially my mom -- had come to despise her. All of the neighboring kids made no secret of the fact that they preferred living the restriction-free, every-day-an-adventure Denny lifestyle to living at home. When my brother finally, reluctantly, returned home at the end of the day, he would be rude and sullen and insulting. My mom wasn't big on rules herself, but she did insist on having a few -- and once a kid had experienced life with Denny, he would make no secret of his preference for having no
rules whatsoever. Just fun fun fun, each and every day.
One day, Denny moved away. I guess she finally understood that she had alienated too many people. In retrospect, I admire her persistence in standing up for her beliefs, even if I still cannot share those beliefs. She stood
Is she is still alive? Dunno. Her father passed away in 2001.
God only knows what happened to Michael. Maybe he ended up in prison. Or maybe he's working as a henchman to Lloyd Blankfein. I will always
consider him the Brat Who Killed the 60s.
His brother John, of course, is best-known for his animated show about two ten-year-old boys who come up with amazing new projects and adventures each and every day, despite the furious disapproval of an uptight 13-year-old sibling.
And the point of this reminiscence?
Maybe it's time to admit that my 13 year-old self might have been wrong to blame Denny. The brattiest kid I know now has a very conservative father. Maybe brattiness has nothing to do with the Freedom-vs-Discipline scale. Maybe our personality patterns are imprinted at birth -- at the moment of conception. Maybe we are who we are, for good or for evil, and no parenting strategy can change genetic destiny.
That's a depressing thought.
This narrative has another point: My brother and I had forgotten all about John
, even though my brother was once practically a member of John's family. All of those ancient tape recordings were tossed into the deepest sub-basement of memory. At the age of thirteen, all experience seems incredibly vivid and intense -- yet as decades pass, we become alienated from our own history, like the Alzheimer's patient who talks to his own children as if they were strangers. In the end, we have no friends, no family, no loved ones. We are alone.
That, too, is a depressing thought.
This narrative has a final point. My 13-year-old self embarrasses me. I close my eyes and there he is -- and the sight is horrifying.
True, that young man had some admirable characteristics: He had creativity, self-assurance, a buoyancy which often segued into a sort of ecstasy. It would be nice, once again, to feel that all things were possible. Oh that magic feeling...oh, where'd it go?
Only in later years did the truth become clear: I was no world-conquering genius, just a solipsistic juvenile creep with some (but not enough) drawing ability. In a way, I was a bigger monster than Michael was. I certainly had no right to judge that kid. Or Denny. Or anyone else.
One longs to apologize to the ghosts of long ago, but one never can.
That is the most depressing thought of all.
All memories are sad. Even the happy memories are sad -- because they are only memories.