My life has been a long exercise in the avoidance of being challenged. It has happened, however, and I must admit that I have generally done better than I had expected in challenging situations. “Challenging,” ha! When you read what I consider challenging, you’ll think that this is a humor piece.
I’m thinking primarily of personal challenges, but the world itself was a very challenging place when I was a boy. Society was faced with the aftermath of World War II; Korea; the Cold War; the ever present threat of nuclear destruction; Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement. Then Camelot . . . and then JFK’s assassination. It’s hard for anyone who was not on hand for that shocking event to understand just what a profound impact it had on the top to bottom of American society. It was like splashing boiling water on a toddler, a deep and powerful trauma, indeed a re-set moment.
The years from 1964 to 1967 were the years when America grew up. By 1967, people were seeing things like the Vietnam War more naturalistically. In 1968, even Walter Chronkite was saying on TV that “war is foolish.” Growing up somewhat did not bring the onset of wisdom, though, and things only seemed to progress from bad to worse, and in leaps and bounds too. Institutional racism fought back vigorously against the small advances made in civil rights, and we were treated to the spectacle of the extrajudicial murder of Black Panthers like Fred Hampton. There was more to come, including Nixon and Watergate, the oil embargo, and the beginnings of a new brand of mass incarceration masquerading as a “War on Crime,” etc. By 1980, America had become very cynical.
Challenging situations can be merely exciting, like appearing on Jeopardy, or they can be truly terrifying, like being in the first wave landing on Omaha Beach. In either case there are likely to be some residual effects once calm has been restored. This may vary from a pleasant thrill upon remembrance to the inescapable horror of full blown PTSD. All shades of experience are represented, and all degrees of aftereffects may be observed as well.
My own personal challenges might seem like garden snakes to many people, but to me they were mighty king cobras, I can tell you. The challenge of learning how to deal with my parents was so depressing, and the effort so doomed to failure, that I am still haunted by it. (And that will be my only comment on the subject.) Navy boot camp was, I think, a challenge well met. I amazed myself by doing fine and getting through it with no trouble at all (although they do seem to have marked my file, “do not let this young man anywhere near our ships or explosives”). Law school, at the age of forty, was another one, another amazing surprise. Law school, followed immediately by the bar exam and actual law work, is an effort that is sustained and heroic. I got through that fine as well. I met all my goals, clerking in a law office during my third year, graduating in the exact middle of my class and passing the California bar on my first try. Notice that I prefer modest goals. I’m sure that there are reasons for that, reasons based in my boyhood.
Which is the challenge that I’d like to discuss.
Maybe, dear reader, you were one of the lucky ones, and you grew up in a town where it was an easy matter to become one of the boys, or one of the girls, and everyone kind of got along with only a smidge of that common cruelty that children sometimes encounter in other children. We were not so lucky in my town. I was a boy in a working class enclave of the New York City borough of Queens. It was an isolated town of about 30,000 residents called College Point. The East River wound around one side, and of the four roads that led to town, three ran through a barely drained swamp and were subject to regular flooding. It was a rough place.
I adopted this formulation many years ago: we were hit by our parents at home; we were hit by the nuns at school; and when we were on our own, we hit each other. It was a challenge to fit in, not to mention the insurmountable difficulty in trying to make sense of it.
I was a sensitive boy, kind of day-dreamy, and I did not take naturally to all of the fighting. Many of the boys that had temperaments similar to mine simply chose to stay at home at all times. They went to school, certainly, but after school they went directly home and stayed there. You just never saw them, unless it was on the bus after school. And in those situations, the odds were that one of the other boys was drumming on their head with a pencil or something. Staying home wasn’t an option for me. My agenda was to spend as little time at home as possible. Whatever was going on outside, home was worse, more dangerous and unpredictable.
Besides, I enjoyed the games and the running around wild, the dirt-bomb fights, throwing snow balls at cars, playing with matches, I enjoyed everything but the bullying and the fighting.
Between home, school, and the outside world of the boys, I was afraid most of the time. That kind of situation is corrosive of the brain itself, not to mention the soul. The challenge of learning to be a boy in College Point was one that I was not up to, and I’m paying the price for that failure to this day.
Mea maxima culpa! But it’s okay. I haven’t written this by way of complaining. Any failure for which only one person pays is small potatoes, by definition. Besides, I’ve almost gotten used to the price that I pay in morbid anxiety. It won’t be much longer anyway; that's the way of all flesh. I saw a beautiful photo of Katherine Hepburn on Facebook this morning, with a quote. “Life is hard,” she is reported to have said, “it kills us all, you know.”