April 27, 2011

Childhood bravery, 1

On Facebook my brother just re-posted a viral status update about how devil-may-care kids used to be vs. how wimpy they've been in recent times (obviously referring to the post-1992 decline of all that stuff).

It's easy for people who didn't grow up during the '60s, '70s, or '80s -- or for current helicopter parents who may have forgotten what it was like -- to dismiss that way of living as reckless, foolish, etc. And sure, there's a real downside to unsupervised young people doing what they want. But that lazy dismissal ignores the development of moral character that only results from going through these dangerous rites of passage, and the solidarity that can only be forged by going through them together with your age-mates. Not to mention all the fun you get to have -- but again I don't want to play into the stereotype that the anti-helicopter parent army is only interested in kids having more fun.

During sheltered times, it's rare that someone growing up gets to act brave, and we have to count that as a real cost of living with a falling crime rate. Please don't suggest that kids in the past 15 to 20 years do get the chance, but that they merely express it in activities that only current youngsters would understand, like video games. I'm sure that the instinct does get channeled in that direction, say by taking a hit to save your buddy in an online first-person shooter game. But that is no more an act of bravery than jerking off to internet porn is an act of getting laid.

So in the interest of historical preservation, I thought I'd go through some of the events of my childhood where I had the choice to take a frightening risk that would pay off big -- if it worked -- rather than sit it out on the sidelines. And crucially where that pay-off was either to my character or to helping out people in my social circle, not like shoplifting. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

All of the events in this series happened during elementary school in mostly white middle-class suburbs of Columbus, Ohio between 1985 and 1992. This isn't exhaustive, just off-the-cuff. I'm not bragging here either -- everyone who grew up back then has tons of these stories, and I didn't think I was anything special for having gone through them.

- Nothing shows up from my earliest memories through pre-school. You're just not social enough at that age to care about your reputation. The most that comes to mind is going on board my dad's ship (he was in the Navy), walking up to the front, and staring over the edge -- with no railing to keep me from falling. That must have been what gave me my fear of heights.

- When I started kindergarten, my parents drove me over to the school to get familiarized before the year began. They offered to drive me there on the first day of school, but I wanted to walk there by myself (remember saying that all the time? -- "No, I wanna do it by myself!"). It was about a 5-10 minute walk, but still something I had never done alone, having been driven to and from pre-school. They consented, and off I went.

It was no big deal for the first couple blocks, right up to the place where I'd turn right and find the school another block ahead. As I approached that corner, some large thing started racing toward me so suddenly and shouting so loud that it arrested my senses. After I unfroze a second later, I beheld one of those Cujo-looking beasts that people used to keep, before switching to zippy, yip-yip pets. Next I registered that there was a fence there, and so I was probably safe to just run like hell to school instead of backing off and getting a ride from mom and dad after all.

When I told my parents what I encountered, they pressed again to drive me to school, but I stubbornly insisted on walking again. For the next 5 to 10 days, I walked on the opposite side of the street before I hit that corner, so that when I did have to turn, I'd only have to run past one side of it, avoiding the part of it on my street. That dog never let up either -- every day when I got too close, he'd rise up out of the earth like an escaped hellhound and damn near break through that shaky wire fence.

After continuing to refuse their offer for a ride, my parents gave up, and my dad figured he might as well encourage me. "Hey, you're being braaaave, Agnostic," drawing out the pronunciation the way grown-ups do when they're teaching you a new word. Around the second week, I said to hell with it, and walked along the dog's side of my street instead of hiding on the opposite side, and I stopped running once I got there. After several days of that, I could stroll right by him -- with my heart hammering against my ribcage the whole time, of course, but no longer showing any outward signs to that overgrown mutt that he was getting to me.

Toward the end of our brief stay in that neighborhood, I even started staring him down as I passed by, a practice that I still do whenever some foul-smelling growler races up and down his side of the fence when I'm out walking around. Today it would be unfair to pick on a smaller creature, but one does get tempted when some annoying, shouting fleabag needs an ego check.

These showdowns with terrifying animals are somewhat safe since there's almost always a fence separating them from you, and they aren't going to track you down later like another person might. Still, confronting the big-ass scary dog on the block was one way of preparing you for what you might face later on. With everyone owning family-friendly pets these days, that source of toughening yourself up has all but evaporated. And again, please don't try to tell me that some fake dogs bursting through the window in Resident Evil are the same as real dogs with real muscles and real teeth.

To be continued.


  1. Big, scary dog stories: I've got tons. Rural "neighborhoods" don't have fences. Next door I had 2 St. Bernards and a Newfoundland, all of which roamed across property lines and didn't like intruders. One of my earliest memories (1st or 2nd grade) with my bb gun (think on that, I had a bb gun much earlier than kids today are allowed) is when I decided it would be my tool for declaring to those dogs I would no longer be intimidated. I purposefully marched to where I knew I would get chased and stood my ground to pop a shot into a flank. Thinking on it now, had that weak bb served only to infuriate one of the beasts, or had they attacked en masse, I would have been in serious trouble. But, success with one emboldened me to plink them whenever I had the need and I felt like a big man.

    I also rode my bike upwards of 4-5 miles, to different friends' houses, and there were various dogs that could give chase on a given day. Anyone who rode tallied the possibility up as the price of freedom and simply prepared for the occasion with vigilance and speed. I took to carrying a stick across my handle bars to whack small dogs across the nose. It was insulting to have a small dog give chase, so I'd actually slow down to teach it a lesson.

    I look forward to the rest of your stories as I relive memories that I know most kids today will never experience.

  2. There's this commercial for Nationwide that just sends me up the wall.

    A truly wimpy white guy, who is representative of how Madison Ave. now portrays white males in this country, behaves in a disgusting sycophantic. supplicant manner in order to convince a woman, who just happens to be an African-American, that his company will provide her with personalized service.

    As a kid growing up, I remember no such emasculation of men in commercial ads. I hate it. I that masculinity has been demeaned by those who are probably not masculine at all or by those who assume that women don't appreciate manliness.

    Contrast that white guy in that ad to the strong, masculine, deep-voiced African-American actor used in All State's ads.

    So, who are the ad execs who put these ads together?

    I told my sister yesterday that that Nationwide ad alone would keep me from ever switching from my insurance company to theirs, even if they could offer some dollar savings.

    BTW, I am a woman.


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