Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Messy Room

As a child, my bedroom was a mess.

To be fair, most of the house was a mess. I come from a people who are nothing if not cluttered. Who keep things long past the point of utility, who value material possessions.

My bedroom took things to another level, though. The bed in one corner, covering toys I had outgrown and crumpled elementary school worksheets. A nightstand behind it, its lower compartment crammed with books and loose papers, drawer filled with mementos and party favors. My collection of stuffed animals. A dresser on which none of the drawers would close all the way for the sheer mass of stuff (only about half of it clothing) I had crammed inside. Another corner littered with half-completed art projects, books, games, and other miscellany.

Every now and again, I’d feel motivated to clean it all out, but even on those occasions when I did get started, the sheer immensity of the project had a tendency to overwhelm me before I made much headway. Or I’d get distracted by picking up the charge of one of those discarded art projects. Or the volume of dust would overwhelm my sensitive allergies, and I’d have to give up to tend to the flood of mucus flowing from my nostrils or my itchy red eyes. And so, the mess prevailed for a period of years, compounding upon itself, threatening to leave room for nothing but sleep if it reached much further.

I’m not sure what straw broke the camel’s back, but there came a point where my parents, and more specifically my father said we needed to clean out my room.

To contextualize this moment, my father taught me how to read. He schooled me in advanced algebra before school would get to it. I learned to drive under his tutelage. These were, collectively, some of the most demoralizing, hurtful experiences of my life. Though I developed essential skills through his teachings, they’re also the core moments of my upbringing that, though I’ve mostly made peace with them, make me believe I’ll never have an entirely fully functional relationship with him.

But there were a handful of other moments when my father taught me things in far less conscious ways and the lessons actually stuck, sans the psychological scarring. My father sat beside me, poring through scraps of the blue-and-red-grid-lined paper my mother would bring home pads of from work, and he said, “When you have a problem, you can’t just look at it.”

He went to explain the point in greater detail. That problems demanded action. That you’d never make progress without taking steps, as small as those steps may be. That, to appropriate the Chris Gardner quote I didn’t hear until decades later, “the cavalry ain’t coming.”

I’d have to be reminded, or remind myself of this lesson at different points in my life, from the immediate years to follow to recent times. But that may be the most important sort of a lesson of all--not the ones that we know, instinctively, to be true, but the ones that we must remind ourselves as the need arises. And the ones for which that need will inevitably arise time and again.

I looked at my messy room. When I learned that I needed to do more than look, everything changed.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Playing With Fire

I told the cashier my father lost his lighter and that he asked me to go to the corner store to buy him a replacement. The cashier, my father’s age, Indian and thick-browed, squinted at me and looked at the crisp five-dollar bill in my hand, carefully selected and carried into the store in my hand to create the illusion it came straight from a parent’s wallet, bestowed from father to son for a specific errand.

A few seconds passed before he parted his lips. “What color?”

“It doesn’t matter.” I made that decision on the fly. My friend, who fronted the five dollars on the condition that I’d make the purchase, had told me to buy a blue one, but decided that no grown up would really care about the color of the lighter--just that it would produce a flame to light cigarettes, cigars, birthday cake candles.

The cashier turned to the cardboard display of Bic lighters behind him, arranged in rows by color. Only two blue ones left. Three greens. Four or five reds. And, filled to capacity, over a dozen ugly, canned-tuna-colored lighters. Naturally, he picked one of those.

He punched the keys on the register and read off the total. I held out the five and cupped my other hand to accept the change.

Outside the store, Billy waited for me. “How’d it go?”

I flashed a grin and held out the lighter in my hand. “Who’s the man?”

Billy squinted. “All they had was tan?”

On the walk home, I explained the rationale for taking whatever color the cashier would give me, and we debated whether I should pay for half the lighter after messing up the hue.

We forgot all that when we got home to his place. He dragged a big cardboard box from his garage—the packaging for his family’s new TV. For a second, I thought he meant to torch the whole thing. Instead, we spent the next hour breaking of clumps of Styrofoam padding from within the box, setting them on fire, and leaving them out on the street for passing cars to swerve around or run over.

In retrospect, I envision an Oldsmobile with an unsuspected gas leak. I see a new driver veering around the flames and straight into a tree.

But little of consequence happened. More often than not, the fires burned themselves out inside of thirty seconds with little dramatic effect.

And so we advanced to the next stage of Billy’s vision, uncoiling a spool of thread around his driveway with designs on setting the whole thing alight so we could shoot hoops inside a ring of fire. With shaking fingers, I tried my hand for the first time, pressing my thumb to the cold, ridged steel of flint wheel and flicking it downward. Marveling that despite my inability to generate enough hot air to inflate a balloon or to ever fold a paper airplane that would take flight, that I could, just that simply, create a flame.

Be it a demonstration of the principles of physics or a merciful instance of divine intervention, we couldn’t get our ring of fire burning, and before long Billy’s parents got home. Billy retained custody of the lighter. I don’t recall that the two of us ever used it together again, nor that he was ever caught with it.

For the responsible adults reading this post, and particularly any child who might stumble upon it, I wish I could share a moral at the end of this story. That we came to some grand epiphany about the dangers of fire or at least playing with traffic, and that we wised up. Because the truth is that fire is dangerous, and playing with it is stupid.

Just the same, kids do stupid things. To play. To experiment. To learn. And if they survive such experiences, literally and figuratively unscathed, and don’t grow up to become true pyromaniacs, then I dare say the story itself is the worth the while.