Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Other Possible Pasts

In early life we are simply the people that we are. I don’t recall thinking about identity at all. Later on we may wish to modify ourselves a bit, either by encouraging more ambition in ourselves or by seeking to add new skills. Much later, if we are lucky, we may begin to accept who we are. Or we may not. That last project may prove difficult for some of us.

We all have a temperament and a personality. It may happen that we wish that we could have been dealt different temperaments or personalities in the first place, but, as my ex-mother-in-law used to say, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” I believe that she meant that wishing for things is a waste of time. Wishing for a different temperament or personality would certainly be a waste of time.

Any of us might have been different people, but what would that have looked like?

I might have been one of the tough boys; that could have happened. There’s a powerful strain of it in my family. In every generation of my family with which I am familiar, there was at least one tough boy, one boy who frightened the other boys. It always continued into adulthood, where they continued to frighten the other men. No particular physical attributes are required, all that it takes is the present intention to hurt the other boys or men if the situation calls for it. Or even sometimes when the situation doesn’t call for it at all. It helps if you enjoy it. That’s the part that scares people.

I could have managed it, if I were so inclined. I was strong enough and quick enough. The inclination is part of natural selection somehow, it must be. My grandfather (father’s side) was a very rough and tumble sort. He would have been played by Jimmy Cagney in a movie of his early life. He was taken out of school at twelve, simply because his father, a widower, felt like it was time to go to work. “Well, Bobby,” he is reputed to have said, “it’s time for the free ride to stop.” He worked in factories for a time, worked as a trainer at the racetrack, and later as a jockey. He even tried his hand at boxing. (At five feet, two inches tall, he was a fly or a bantamweight.) He was briefly a conductor on the Long Island Railroad before drifting back into factory work. He helped to build Pierce Arrow automobiles in Queens, and it was there that he learned to be a machinist. That turned out to be a very nice salary. By World War Two he was a heavy machinist for the Todd Shipyard in Brooklyn. He was slow to smile and quick to take offense. Any wisecracks about his height were dealt with immediately. He was knocking people out well into retirement.

So it’s in the family history.

I had an Uncle Jack who was something of a terror in town. He went on to a career in the merchant marine, where he evidently continued as a terror for the National Maritime Union and the world in general. I heard a lot of stories. Knives were sometimes involved.

One of my cousins might have been the real terror of the bunch. He is nine years older than me, and I knew him well when I was young. His reputation in the town survived into my own era. He seems to have had the enjoyment part of the equation down pat. He was one of a group of teenagers who sought out fights like thirsty people in a desert seek water. If they couldn’t find a fight, they fought with each other.

Why does one boy go that way and another boy go this way? Does it happen at conception? In the womb? At an early age? If it’s in the genes, it can come out at any time, like a ruddy complexion or curly hair. Why does it come out in this boy but not that boy?

More generally, what is it that makes us the people that we are? Whatever it is, it made me into a fearful boy who was desperate to get along and avoid trouble. It’s probably some combination of nature and nurture. Being one of the tough boys might have provided me with certain life skills that I lack. It would have represented a disposition to action at least, as opposed to my strong preference for inaction.

Tough, however, wasn’t my style; that shoe couldn’t be made to fit. My cousin was kind enough to teach me how to fight when I was twelve, after I complained to him about rough treatment around town. It was a good course of lessons, enthusiastically taught. It helped me a lot, partly because it was very realistically pursued. I had to take a good deal of being thrown around; I had to learn to fall. I fought my way around the town for about a year, and I did succeed in elevating my position in the pecking order. When guys started leaving me alone, however, I simply returned to leaving everybody alone. I still much preferred to avoid trouble.

In the alternative, I might have been one of the ambitious boys, the competitive boys. You don’t have to be a star athlete to excel at competition. My own father was a supremely competitive boy, and man. After being stricken with childhood (and lifelong) arthritis he concentrated on mathematics. In high school, he was in the “Hundred Percent Club” for math, never scoring less than one hundred on a math test for four years. He was admitted to the Cooper Union and went on to a MS in engineering and a very successful career.

For that matter, my cousin the terror was quite ambitious himself. Also competitive, maybe that was a component of all of that fighting. His life was another great education and successful career. 

But those things were also denied me. My personal style was cut in stone by the time I graduated from grammar school. All I ever wanted was to keep my head down and not draw any attention to myself. I only wanted to make it through the day and try to enjoy the evening, one day at a time. I’ve never been completely comfortable outside of the sleep period. The evenings could be spent reading, listening to records, wandering around the town with groups of boys my own age, perusing (redacted) magazines, or listening to the radio. I avoided fighting and competition with equal vigor, and I did not have an ounce of ambition in my body. In fact, I avoided everything.

It turns out that one of the possible alternative Freds would almost certainly have made more of a success of his life. It turns out that if you want to be successful, you must do things to get ahead, you must expose yourself to criticism and possible failure, and you must go out and engage with people. Well excuse me, but I’m not that guy. Some measure of success would have made my life easier and more pleasant, but it just wasn’t in the cards.

So if the main task at this stage of life is accepting oneself, I could be in trouble. I’m beginning to have my doubts about ever accepting myself. Honestly, I have major doubts about getting that one together. The habits of a lifetime are difficult to change. But I won’t be the first poor M.F. to fail at that job. Look for the good! Pretty soon none of it will matter anymore. 

No comments: