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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Being Young

People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all. I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God's will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed. - Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Sometimes when I'm trying to fall asleep I think about my blog, which in and of itself is very sad, but it gets sadder. I've spent "pages" of semi-imaginary digital text trying to justify this thing's existence and so far I still find the justification wanting. Literally every weekend I ponder the freedom of never having to post again, and yet Monday rolls around and I find myself staring at this window, its square box a prison literally designed by yours truly. 

Like the proverbial raccoon trap in Where the Red Fern Grows, I can release it whenever I like, yet instead I hang on tightly and wait patiently for Old Dan and Little Ann to mete out their instinctual Redbone brand of frontier justice. Like raccoons, there are too many bloggers and not enough resources to feed them. Turn on the light in any dark corner of this dumpster we call the internet and you will find us: frozen, our eyes reflective, a handful of garbage clutched in our tiny hands. In this light, we appear almost human.

My parents have a bird feeder just above the room we sleep in when we go to visit. Since house finches are just so bad at opening sunflower seeds, the majority that they try to eat end up on the ground below, making a pile just outside the window. At night I sometimes hear the sound of chewing, and look out the window to find myself face to face with a raccoon who is frantically double-fisting sunflower seeds. When caught, it freezes and stares back, its hands full of black seeds, like a man on a diet caught with the fridge wide open. It's hard not to imagine it reflecting on the life choices that led it to this backyard, this night. What brought me here, those shining eyes seem to say. Oh yeah, it's sunflower seeds. These things rule.

The sunflower seeds to me that keep me coming back to the festering pile of bird castoffs that is Howie's Book Club Dot Com: The Blog is the thin yet relatively steady stream of recognition that I exist, and that somehow that existence is worthwhile. I'm told rarely, but enough, that something I said resonated with someone, and like the seeds, that rules.

So what worries me when I can't sleep and I've run through every possible way in which I could fail or die or my family could experience tragedy and then I've enumerated every debt I have and then I think for a little bit about how much I want a Super Nintendo Classic, is that in my blog posts I come across as a scold. Really all I'm trying to do is put into words this journey I've been making to try to understand my place in the world through literature, but sometimes I'm also just a little bit preachy.

So many sleepless nights

NO, you say. PREACHY? NOT HOWIE. But yes, it's true. There are times when I may come across as having more answers than the average person. This is pretty unfortunate. If you know me in real life, you'd realize pretty quickly how unaware I am of very basic things happening around me on a regular basis. What I'm saying is if you were to kidnap me and take me to your secret location, you wouldn't need to blindfold me. Also, I can't think of any reasons why you would want to kidnap me. The reason that every book I read seems to blow my mind isn't because I'm super smart and get books. It's because I know, like, so little about anything.
Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn't know what I was aware of.
This, by the way, has got to be the longest introduction to a point I've written yet. It's almost like the point doesn't matter and this whole thing is just a vehicle to deliver raccoon jokes. Basically I'm writing a Guardians of the Galaxy script. The point is this: when it comes to recommending books I'm a big snooty-patooty about it.

The silliness of this is not lost on me. I'm so obsessed with reading grown-up books that I rarely acknowledge the irony in the fact that just last week I wrote a very long post about social justice based on a comic book about a girl whose main power is that she makes her fists very very large because she was exposed to a cloud of mist that turned her into a cocoon from which she emerged with super powers. Someone told me to call them graphic novels and that would sound more important but I pushed up my glasses and said, "actually graphic novels are complete stories while trade paperbacks are serialized, ongoing adventures kind of like a soap opera or WWE storyline."

Typical library haul
When I read books, though, I read frickin heavy ones. Not heavy in weight because with few exceptions I think really long books are bad for society, but heavy in subject matter. Some of these really weigh on me. I need a break from that stuff and comic books are where reading and play are the same thing. The reason I pick comic books is because comics today are awesome and they only take 30 minutes to read. I got a blog to write, you guys. I can't be wasting book time on spaceships and aliens.

The silly thing is that I allow myself that indulgence but quietly judge people who spend the majority of their reading time immersed in fantasy or science fiction universes. In a literature class decades ago there was a middle-aged woman who said that her "nose was always stuck in a book," which is fine and probably a reasonable way to live. But even though she'd read "thousands of books," nothing she ever read challenged her in any way. She struggled mightily with our class because every book we read in there shook her to the core in ways she'd never experienced. They made her analyze things she'd never thought of before, and that can be uncomfortable. I've said before that the best books take me apart and put me back together again in some new, unanticipated way. It makes me sad that a lot of people I know who call themselves book lovers never experience that.

That's all I'm trying to do here. This whole blog was part of an experiment to get me out of my literary comfort zone. I was reading "big" "important" "literature" written almost exclusively by white men and almost exclusively about what it's like to be a white man. I thought this was important because I was tricked by a society that has consistently and unerringly put a premium on that experience, making it the default against which every other life should be measure. I'm working on fixing it. It has been very rewarding.

That change was in itself the beginning of an experiment to get out of the rut I'd gotten in where all I read were detective novels and I realized that while I read constantly, I wasn't well-read. I started poorly, with a list from a men's magazine about books "every man should read." Some of those books were very good, of course. Some of them were technically very good but profoundly shallow and dehumanizing, and detrimental to my very soul. So many of them were about middle-aged frumpy men who were stand-ins for the author who have borderline abusive relationships with "free spirit" 20-something beautiful girls who throw themselves at the main character for no reason other than to teach them how to live again. Reading them made me say, no wonder people stick to books with dragons on them.

Anyway, that's what Howie's Book Club is about. Sometimes the message gets lost on tangents. Sometimes it spends too much time to get there. But at the core of its little raccoon heart, it just wants to introduce you to books you might like. They are generally serious books. But you guys, if you want to have fun, have fun. When you watch little kids play, they are very serious. Kids play because it's their frickin job to play. It's how their brains grow. I have a pretty good hunch that it's the same for adults.
To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflict than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.
I feel pretty lucky in retrospect that I was allowed to just be a kid for as long as I was. I played pretend for way too long. We were Ninja Turtles, we trick-or-treated, we had water fights. While kids at my school navigated complex social strata, my friends and I played Mario Kart and Goldeneye in the basement for so long that when we went home we pictured floating guns in front of us, and when we drove we felt like we should be able to powerslide. Most importantly, I didn't have to grow up too early because of abuse or neglect.
To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision.
Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a memoir of childhood. She's not even Maya Angelou yet. She's Margeurite Annie Johnson, or Ritie for short. For much of her life she was raised with her brother by her grandma in Stamps, Arkansas. Some of it she spends with her mother in California. Lovely things happen, horrible things happen, and lots of, um, in between stuff happens too. 

She experiences racism, both the crushing unfairness of segregation and threats of lynching and murder in Arkansas and the Northern version favored by "enlightened" whites. "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult." She sees the world around her with clarity, and understands the forces against her. And she sticks with it.
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic admiration.
Angelou talks often about youth. In some ways she grew up too fast, in others she remained childlike. She seems to be able to tap into her youth easily, though, which seems a near necessity for a poet. 
Until recently each generation found it more expedient to plead guilty to the charge of being young and ignorant, easier to take the punishment meted out by the older generation (which had itself confessed to the same crime short years before). The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth.
For terrible reasons, Angelou was mute for five years. What finally helped was a refined old woman in her neighborhood. For a young girl whose world consisted of her Grandma's store and a handful of houses and streets around her, Mrs. Flowers gave her, "her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books."

Someone told me once that we don't become new people as we grow up, that we never really change, but rather we are all of us at once. I am a 38-year-old man with a pretty good career and a wife and kids and a lot of responsibility, but I'm also still the 10-year-old who wanted a Nintendo for Christmas so, so badly. I'm still the 16-year-old in the projection room reading one novel a day and walking to the bookstore on break to buy another one. I'm still the 20-year-old living in Mexico as a Mormon missionary, always feeling inadequate, always wondering which one of my sins was preventing me from having success.

Youth doesn't go away, and the harder we try to say we're past it, the more childish we get. Kids hate to see someone else break the rules, not because of a feeling of justice, but because they themselves are following them. A lot of these rules are reasonable, and some are vital to human society. Growing up in the sense of being responsible for our lives is pretty important. "Growing up" by dressing nice and pretending that Avatar: The Last Airbender isn't awesome is not.

Think back to the ridiculous tough-guy posturing of the 12-year-old bully who made fun of his peers because they still watched cartoons and played pretend. Or look at me at the splashpad internally making fun of dads who are wearing Star Wars shirts. Both me and the bully have given ourselves rules that don't matter, and we get annoyed when someone else breaks those rules and seems to be enjoying themselves. It's like the fitness model who spends 4 hours a day exercising and watching every calorie raging at the body acceptance movement. You can only post "Cake doesn't taste as good as being skinny feels," before you start to imagine the person next to you as a giant cake, Bugs Bunny-style.

We're all stuck in the raccoon trap. Nobody is forcing us to behave like adults every day of the week but ourselves. Here's the deal we should make with each other today: let's enjoy things that made us happy when we were kids, too. Slide on the slip and slide sometimes, even if you're not in a swimsuit. If you liked books with elves and crap on them, that's very cool. If I happen to remember very clearly the first time I realized that I had a crush on Rogue from the X-Men, that's... maybe kind of weird. But shoot,16-year-old me derived an enormous amount of satisfaction writing a humor column for the newspaper to make his friends laugh. That's probably why I do this now. Whoa.