Uncles. Given babysitting duty, they’d sit us down and make us learn all the latest Beatles lyrics. I can still sing all those songs. I still believe in my heart of hearts that my father’s hunky little brothers are BFF with the Fab Four. And I still feel in my bones how the true discipleship of rock-and-roll is made up of two parts memorization, one part idolatry.
Queueing up for the phone at my parent’s house, (we were 6; all teenagers at once). I spent hours tying up the line, shooting the shit with my crew. Sexually charged sessions with boys. Dissecting these conversations afterwards with girlfriends. Games we played on Ma Bell included; ‘Didjuhearthats/he?’. Pithy Retort Table-Tennis. Solve the Problems Of The World, (Love, War, and Clothing editions). Breathe, Heart In Your Mouth. Tell Me Something Meaningless About Your Day, And I Will Glean You From It.
Reading the paper, to find out what was happening in the world. The morning paper: The Washington Post, (a force, and home to three pages of lazily large comics, with elegant prose, to boot, in those days). The afternoon paper: The Washington Star (gritty, spunky, pugnacious - or maybe that was just the way I was feeling my young oats as I read about the latest from Viet Nam and the Watergate scandals). Reading, with the radio for baseball and Top 40, and the 5 o’clock news.
Penpals. I had some. Distant cousins. Impossible crushes. Girls from the rental next door at the beach. My grandfather, who would answer my sorry poetry with beautiful verses of his own, written in an ambidextrous hand informed by the draconian rote teaching methods of Imperial & Weimar Germany (beating will set you free). I learned to compose my thoughts into language that could be expressed without too much erasure, too many crushed leaves of stationery.
My siblings, (little sister, I). From them I learned to read, to dance, to listen to Hendrix, to curse like a sailor. To bide my tongue where they had not, stupid fools, in the face of parental wrath. To keep my sins away from the house, or hidden in my head. To compete. To be mean but never cruel. To take care of each other. To suffer foolishness. To see the world as a village, all of it just for me.
My church. There I first learned to separate piety from pomposity. To sense pervs. To value acts over bombast. To suffer the misery and indignity of having parents who believed in standing up for justice. To accept as basic human endeavor the acquisition and practice of skills with no earthly reward. To be ashamed of my body. To have the tools to revolt. To use the myths of Christianity as a baseline for interpreting experience. To stand with a crowd and sit with a crowd and speak with a crowd and kneel with a crowd. To genuflect.
My schoolyard. There I learned to play Red Rover. And to never let it show when words stung. That being smart was for losers. That my parents were weirdos. That my uniform was hopelessly out of fashion. That when I went to public school next year, I’d be raped by black people. Next year, not having been raped, I learned that I had a tongue like a lash, that could win friends and influence people until the day when a critical mass of victims had been cut. Then I learned what it was to be cut loose, that Social Limbo waits for the chronically indiscreet. I LEARNED THE POWER OF INFORMATION PASSED AND INFORMATION WITHHELD.
My schoolyard, continued (this was a grapevine of beanstalk proportions!). I learned what it felt like to be hopelessly aflame for David S, then Jem C, then…oh, never mind. I learned to smoke Marlboro Reds, and wear shit-kickers from Sears, and to expect that rush of pleasure when Julio would slip his arm around my waist. I learned to pass the doobie, because I couldn’t stay awake in class if I got wasted first. I learned that theater was a great way to stay late after school instead of doing my homework. I learned that theater was in my bones, and wa-aaay harder than any homework ever tossed my way.
And all this time I was taking, I was giving.
From and to the uncles, the phone, the papers, the penpals, the siblings, the choir, the schoolyards and back halls and back seats and dance floors and street courts. I was learning the ropes for being in the world, so that once in the world, I just kept on learning.
Now, there’s facebook.
And, aside from the genuflecting, this works pretty well for me these days.