What we lose in growing up

Walking through the neighborhood this weekend, I overheard a thirty-something woman talking to her daughter:

“Wash their hair in the washing machine? You silly, how are you going to get their hair into the washing machine?”

I don’t know the antecedent of “their” here — dolls? people? — but what was happening in the conversation was something basic. The little girl had proposed some way of washing hair, i.e., in the washing machine (which, after all, has “washing” in its very name), and her mother was teaching her that this is not a correct thing to say or even a correct idea to have. That the correction came in a playful, happy voice didn’t make it less of a correction; in fact, the child was probably aware of the condescension that lay behind the smile and the “you silly.” A possibility was being foreclosed; a particular avenue of speech and of thought was being marked as inappropriate for the grown-up world.

As children, we all had all kinds of ideas like washing hair in the washing machine, and we were all trained out of these ideas by more-or-less well-meaning adults. Part of learning how to operate in the world is learning that you do not wash hair in the washing machine, precisely for the reason this mother suggested: you can’t separate the hair from the head to put it into the machine and then hope to reattach it. In this way, hair is unlike clothing, which you can certainly take off, launder, and put back on.

Everyone needs to learn this kind of thing, and yet something is lost in this learning. While children constantly come up with fresh combinations of ideas that follow exotic, fecund logics, we grown-ups have a much harder time having thoughts that we have not already been taught to have. It is often not until we spend time with children and enter their less inhibited thought-worlds that we realize what we deny ourselves in the name of maturity.

I’ve learned from watching my dad with my younger siblings and now with his grandchildren that he spends a lot of time correcting very young children and teaching them how to “properly” orient themselves in the world: recite the alphabet, recognize an exit sign. My mom was an English major and a stickler for manners, and between the two of them an atmosphere of correctness reigned in the home of my childhood, especially with regard to language. I joke that our household was one of a relative few where Standard Written English was the native spoken dialect.

I didn’t lack creativity as a child, though, and I can recall a number of excursions into now-deprecated logic. One example: I was fascinated by the way newscasters would straighten up a stack of papers at the end of a broadcast by grasping it with both hands and tapping the bottom edge on the desk a couple of times. I also thought adults always read things in “cursive,” which may or may not be related to the printed letters I was being taught to make but which in any case was completely incomprehensible. So in class one day during free time I took a bunch of pages of blank notebook paper and scrawled lines and lines of loops across each of them — cursive. The teacher told me not to waste paper; I shrugged her off, as she clearly did not understand my project. I then practiced stacking and straightening the stack, over and over again, pretending I was in front of a camera and had just announced some important news. This gave me immense satisfaction.

As I got older I became “better trained” and lost most of this creativity. The early joy I took in writing got caught up in worrying about getting things “right”; my sentences grew more correct than interesting. And this didn’t happen just in writing; at some point, even my reading interests shifted from fiction to nonfiction as I became less interested in stories and more interested in facts, a shift I interpret as a kind of deadening positivism. My therapist said to me during our first or second meeting, “You seem to have a real thing about being right.” Yes, yes I do.

Luckily, there are ways in which I can escape being right. Some kinds of art are among them. I think the drive to connect with the delightful “wrongness” of childhood is what makes the art of, for example, Robert Rauschenberg and especially Cy Twombly so appealing to me. Rauschenberg made unholy messes that both invite you inside and exclude you by their alienness. And how could a kid who once made loop after loop of crayon markings on paper not adore this loveliness by Twombly?

cy-twombly untitled 1970

Music, too, is a way I escape the strictures of grown-up thought. Of course there’s a lot of “right” and “wrong” in music; I grew up taking piano lessons in which the idea was to correctly reproduce songs based on written notes. There’s beauty in getting a Bach or a Chopin piece “right,” although even then there’s more to playing beautifully than playing correctly.

All music has a tension between structure and freedom; the ratios are different in different performance traditions. Last Friday I made it to a performance of Terry Riley’s In C at Carnegie Hall. It’s an amazing piece that consists of 53 ordered musical fragments and a page and a half of instructions. The musicians are to move from one fragment to the next as they see fit, trying to stay generally together with the group but asserting their own wishes as well; throughout, a pulsing eighth note C keeps time and provides a framework on which freedom and spontaneity grow. The performance brought me to tears at several points.

In my own musical pursuits, my current instrument is a grid of 256 buttons that light up. Most people who use a Monome take advantage of how neatly it divides into fours — it’s really easy to make techno and other solid, danceable beats on a grid with that property. I think because music has become something purely playful in my life, I’m not interested in four-on-the-floor musicmaking at all right now. Instead, my stuff sounds a bit like a Cy Twombly painting. Here’s an improvisation on a whistle sample:

What I’m aiming for in life is a balance: I don’t want to be going off and washing people’s hair in washing machines, because that would cause all kinds of problems, either angry bald people or very dizzy and waterlogged people (if instead of taking the hair off I put the whole person in). At the same time, I want to be able to be able to engage in the kind of free, playful thought that leads to ideas like that. This seems like an elusive but attainable goal.

28 responses to “What we lose in growing up”

  1. lane says:

    really cool!

  2. Scotty says:

    What an absolutely fabulous post!

    I often think about the idea of learned behavior in the arts – it usually coincides with the frustrated proclamation by someone: “I’m not an artist.” I explain that one only need find one’s own voice, but I’m often met by a blank stare at this one. Sadly, most people were rewarded as children for coloring within the lines.

    It bums me out because it’s so easy to be an artist. In fact, it’s the easiest thing there is; one only needs to be a pure version of one’s self – that’s it! The production of artifacts will follow.

    And yes, music is a tough one since there are more mathematical rules to follow, but I consider every song I’ve written to be a journey in trying to recapture the pure bliss I felt the first time I successfully strummed an open G-cord on a guitar.

    (Sorry that this comment sounds so lofty, but thinking about art makes my brain chug a little harder – I think I can; I think I can…)

  3. Scotty says:

    Oh, and I recently saw a Twombly retrospective. I love the outlandishness of Cy in the early 50s, and liveing in Rome, spending all of his time trying to convince people that what he was doing was worth while — it was pretty out there for the time.

    …just like my favorite of Rauschenberg’s pieces: “Erased De kooning Drawing.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpCWh3IFtDQ (sorry I forget how to imbed links in comments)

  4. Rachel says:

    Oh, this is marvelous, Dave. I have a wide silly streak, but “silly” is such an adult judgment, isn’t it? On cold days I always fantasize about driving the bed to work instead of the car, so I won’t actually have to get up. It makes as much sense as washing one’s hair in the washing machine, but both are fun to contemplate.

    Kids’ logic is pretty clear within its own parameters. I remember once when my little brother spiked his hair with half a tube of toothpaste because he proudly read the word “gel” on the tube. (Hey, it was the 80s!)

    Scotty, I love using “Erased de Kooning Drawing” as a discussion example in my theory class. Examples from genres other than literature are useful because the students tie themselves up in knots with language. Also, Rauschenberg freaks them the hell out–always fun!

  5. J-man says:

    Dave, this is a really interesting discussion. Scotty, I find it admirable that you feel so unfettered with your art. I meet very few people who aren’t beholden to their inner critic. Mine is a zombie that rises from the dead daily, no matter how I try to kill him off.

  6. LP says:

    Dave, I join the chorus here: this is a fabulous, thought-provoking post. I love your therapist’s line; s/he is obviously insightful and worth the money! I say this as a person who is so much like you: my house, too, was a place where logic and successful argument won the day, and I am way more rigid than I’d like to be in trying to be right all the time. What I love about spending time with you is that we’ll battle to the death about some minor, stupid point and then quickly give in so we can get back to our scotch.

  7. Dave says:

    Thanks for the kind words, all. I was worried that this post was too personal to be of interest.

    Scotty, I second J-man admiring your music and art making — there’s a great playful, uncensored quality to it.

    How do the rest of you get past your inner critic/editor/grownup?

  8. Marleyfan says:

    Sometimes you just gotta say what the fuck.

  9. I use kid’s language in my everyday speech and even in my everyday text-speech (like in IMs, in status updates, in comments, etc.). My model of the kid’s language comes from a kid named Neal whom I’ve heard lots of stories of, but never actually met in the 2 to 4-year-old form. Instead of saying, I can’t//won’t do it,” he would say, “I not can do it,” or, “I not do do it draw,” or sometimes simply, “Not can!”

    There are other specific examples from his four-year-old days, and he’s grown up to be a perfectly normal teenager, as far as I can tell, but I’ve found that integrating these sorts of intentionally-not -correct things into my adult speech keeps me from taking myself too seriously. Considering I’m an English major who knows all sorts of big words and whose everyday language is probably a little higher in diction than the Joe-Shmoe, that intellectual haughtiness can be really easy to slip into.

    Saying this type of stuff makes other inconsistencies pop out that sound funny– and they are. Because I know the right way to say them, and those who know me know that I can speak correct English if I choose– They just make life a llittle more interesting, and a little less inside-the-lines.

    But I do have a question that came up during Dave’s post: If correcting language and manners and ideas creates such a rigid habit of being right, does anyone have any suggestions as to how to raise children so they are still mentally open to the flexibility of art when they grow up? Or is a parent’s job just to teach a kid what society expects, how to be a grown-up, and what the social norm is?

  10. Rachel says:

    Kate, this is one reason I love Lynda Barry so much. She is so good at evoking kids’ speech patterns. After a while of reading her, though, it’s all too easy to slip into Lynda-speak. Dag!

    Oh, and Dave, on the one tiny occasion that I actually went head-to-head with you on a point of fact, it was only because I was 150% certain of the correct answer. If only it had been on some arcane point of political philosophy and not a drug interaction. Sigh.

  11. trixie says:

    my brother’s best kidspeak when we were growing up was “because my wants to”
    i believe he has a website to back that up.

  12. Oscar says:

    I win you! is my personal favorite to toss around and I love the reaction it evokes.

  13. farrell says:

    As another darling 4 year old I know likes to say: “You’re making me drive nuts!” Try it, it feels good.

  14. farrell says:

    Who happens to be having a hard time sleeping tonight, thus the late hour. Hope all y’all are sleeping soundly and peacefully at this moment. xoxo.

  15. Scotty says:

    Was something making you drive nuts, so you couldn’t sleep?

  16. If I’m reading 13 and 14 correctly, it was the darling 4 year old which was mking Farrell drive nuts.

    This is a great post, Dave, thanks for writing it. I am hoping/planning to look it over some more this evening. Alas my computer is currently in the shop so that will depend on my being able to shanghai Ellen’s.

  17. Tim Wager says:

    I, too, really enjoyed this. It made me think of a lot of things, including a “This I Believe” essay I give to my students about imperfection. It’s by a writing teacher who aspires to teach his students that making mistakes is inherent to creativity and a richer life, that proper grammar won’t lead to new thoughts. I always find it neatly ironic that I then mark up the grammar and spelling in the essays my students write in response, all the time, of course, heartily agreeing with the author. I like to think of it as “the loving red pen,” as a friend of mine once described the editorial role.

    (Side note: this also makes me think of the usefulness of Heidegger and Derrida’s concept of sous rature — how in a similar way the ‘mistake’ and crossing it out are and can be generative of much interesting thought, i.e., “Why is it ‘driving me nuts’ and not ‘making me drive nuts’?”)

    Also, plus, too, I thought of Wordsworth and the Lake School Romantics’ urge to recapture childhood and remorse at the incursion of the rule of law:

    “[T]railing clouds of glory do we come
    From God, who is our home:
    Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
    Shades of the prison-house begin to close
    Upon the growing Boy,
    But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
    He sees it in his joy.”

    Sorry about the God part, but we could perhaps substitute something more amorphous (“the void”?).

    Furthermoreover, LP sez, “I am way more rigid than I’d like to be in trying to be right all the time.” Maybe this is what makes me instinctively disagree with you all the time. I want to be your gadfly.

  18. Swells says:

    This post is beautiful and a little tragic. For me, it evokes Wallace Stevens and his observations about our “blessed rage for order” that sometimes prevents us from being able to appreciate the chaotic of the bigger world, the slovenly wilderness, the genius of the sea because it makes us drive nuts that we can’t classify and demarcate it. Yet he acknowledges that it’s these unorderable challenges that we’re really most drawn to in the first place, hence our thrilling to the untamed childhood logic of washing one’s hair in the washing machine. We romanticize and are charmed by such suggestions, so why is it that the first thing we’re taught (or in some of our cases as teachers and parents, that we teach) is to make our use of language conform to the norm? This also reminds me of Jeremy’s post about “Escape Goats”—a phrase I read in four different essays last week! That’s where the irony of Tim’s “loving red pen” comes in. We ”correct” it (we are the problem), but as Stevens notes, we love it:

    The imperfect is our paradise.
    Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
    Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
    Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

  19. LP says:

    17: “Furthermoreover, LP sez, “I am way more rigid than I’d like to be in trying to be right all the time.” Maybe this is what makes me instinctively disagree with you all the time. I want to be your gadfly.”

    Is that why you do it? Silly gadfly, no need to gad about disagreeing with me all the time! Plus which, I humbly submit that you and I share the trait quoted above, which perhaps further fuels some of those disagreements. It’s what adds that little frisson to our interactions.

  20. LP says:

    Also: one of my favorite child-speak phrases, uttered by a then-four-year-old daughter of friends: “I so angy!” Try it next time you’re angry at someone. It definitely takes the edge off.

  21. Dave says:

    “loving red pen” sounds dirty.

  22. I put a detail of that Twombly print on my blog so I’ve seen it several times this morning; the two things it is making me think of, are salt-and-pepper hair, and ιχθυσ.

  23. Tim says:

    Tim’s “loving red pen”

    Somehow it sounds much dirtier in this construction. It’s actually Mason’s phrase, if I remember correctly.

  24. I’m listening to your whistle piece now and enjoying it. And thinking about how to respond to what I see as your point — that artistic expression is for you a way of getting out from under the need to be right, to have your facts and logic in order. I certainly labor under the same perceived need to be “right”, though I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at hiding that, acting the clown and talking myself down in order to obscure how important being right is to me. But I think that’s true with art as well — I only feel any release or pleasure in the expression if I can tell myself a story about its being worthwhile, valid art. This is a major impediment to my getting anywhere, sure.

  25. Stella says:

    The cat was very intrigued by the music.

    I love the newscaster imitation. the authority of straightening the papers. the incomprehensible cursive. what a great piece of performance art.

  26. I started writing a little more about this at my blog, will probably come back to it some more this week, I hope.

  27. Dave says:

    Tim: I’d forgotten the second half of that Wordsworth stanza in 17. (The first three lines are used all the time by Mormons in talking about the “pre-existence.”) Sometimes I think I should give up and declare myself a Romantic.

    Swells, you bring up tragedy in 18 and there definitely is something tragic to this whole business. I’m no Nietzsche scholar, but maybe the idea of learning what’s “right” and losing access to what’s “wrong” is related to the Appolonian/Dionysian business? What you say about Wallace Stevens and the sea makes me think of the 18th-c. notion of the sublime, particularly in Kant’s formulation: something (for Kant and those guys, it was always in nature) that completely overwhelms our categories of understanding. Maybe the experience of the sublime is one way in which we escape the rules by which we order the world, which is what attracts us to this otherwise fear-inducing experience.

  28. Rogan says:

    Dave, your post reminds me of the first couple of paragraphs from Andrei Codrescu’s new book, The Posthuman Dada Guide (Tzara & Lenin Play Chess). I quote below without italics, bold or links (because I don’t know how to make them in a comment) and because I’m sure that brother Codrescu wouldn’t mind. Check out his book:

    This is a guide for instructing posthumans in living a Dada life. It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life. It is and it was always foolish and self-destructive to lead a Dada life because a Dada life will include by definition pranks, buffoonery, masking, deranged senses, intoxication, sabotage, taboo breaking, playing childish and/or dangerous games, waking up dead gods, and not taking education seriously. On the other hand, the accidental production of novel objects results occasionally from the practice of Dada. During times of crisis like wars and plagues, some of these objects can be truly novel because they sabotage prevailing sentiments. At other times, Dada objects are merely interesting, by virtue of an added layer of irony, an extra punch line, or a new twist to an already-consecrated object. In such times Dada objects amuse everybody, and since these objects are (mostly) made collectively, they are a strong community bond. Amusement (of oneself and others) and the making of art communities are the goals of Dada. Dada is a priori against everything, including goals and itself, but this creative negation is very amusing and is meant to be shared. For one whole century, Dada has delighted in uncovering and using contradictions, paradoxes, and negations, the most important of which are: 1. most people read signs, Dadas make signs, and 2. most people are scared of scary faces, Dada makes scary faces. No one should go Dada before 1. considering whether one would rather be a. amused or b. grim; one must weigh in the balance childishness and seriousness; both a and b have a history; both affect everyone in the world; both are possible at any moment, but the difference is that being childlike (a) is pleasing to creatures lighter than air (with or without wings), angels, St. Francis, and Candide, while being (b) serious is a weight, like the cross, and heavy as a lead ball (see hugo, ball) and iron chains; and 2. understanding that art is life and vice-versa and Dada is against both, except on the road to ecstasy when it stops for exceptions. It is the thesis of this book that posthumans lining the road to the future (which looks as if it exists after all, even though Dada is against it) need the solace offered by the primal raw energy of Dada and its inhuman sources.