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?
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.