Sunday, March 25, 2012


An early, bookmarked memory in your experiential hard drive focuses on you at age seven or eight, at play with a group of now forgotten playmates on Cochran Avenue, a long north-south street cutting through residential areas in west central Los Angeles.  You are summoned to come inside by your mother, not unkindly but in a tone several notches above supper is ready.

The “inside” to which you were summoned is a lower-floor apartment at 442 S. Cochran, its front room windows opening toward the street, thus the sounds of your play could be heard from within.  The reason for the summons was to inform you of an infraction you’d committed.  You’d called one of your playmates a name your mother found objectionable.

From the perspective of today’s retrospect moving you south about a hundred miles and into the past by decades, you are relieved to recount that the name bore no racial or even class/social attack.

“But mom,” you protested.  “James Cagney called someone a dirty rat.”  You were still young for most nuance, thus your mother’s reminder that James Cagney was portraying a character in a film, that he probably did not consider the other character a dirty rat in their personal life any more than you truly believed your playmate was so despicable.  You were, she said, caught up in the heat of the moment, and you were being called in to remind you how easy it is to say things in the heat of the moment that have only passing intent.  This was already too much for you to take in; you wanted to be back out at play, this incident behind you.

And soon, the incident was behind you; whoever the dirty rat was, he had morphed into something less generic and more likely a specific reenactment of a particular character in a particular story known among your friends and you.  Possibly the Green Hornet, Jungle Jim, Mandrake, the Magician; possibly even the Lone Ranger, Terry (of Terry and the Pirates), or The Shadow.

The incident was behind you but, clearly, not the memory—or the implications you have built into its meaning for you; it is much more fraught with meaning now, perhaps well beyond your mother’s original intent.  This +perhaps” takes you out of prologue and into the topic point here.

Early on, we have parents as authority figures, then teachers.  Then come employers, all of whom exert a certain degree of power.  There is much to be said about our choice of friends and romantic partners, where the coin of power is often exchanged, giving the individual some practice with the use of power as contrasted to the designated follower.

Those who become parents take on the ranking system of power.  Those of us who enter military service or become medical interns, then residents, or law enforcement or, as you have done, academia.  Lecturer.  Instructor.  Associate, then assistant, then full professor.  And publishing:  associate editor.  Editor.  Senior editor.  Editor in chief.

Rankings.  Positions of power.  Invisible insignia on sleeve or shoulder.

Ah, you nearly forgot.  Lover.  What delightful and fluid movements of power, this person who, with scarcely a thought, causes you to redefine your sense of self into someone who sometimes is at pains to throw power to the winds in order to get an hour or two at his writing, but who now, because of love, is tossing life preservers, guide ropes, any supportive devices to the side for that dizzying sense of what has happened to him because of love.

In the culture where you live, there are no dukes or earls, no lieutenants nor captains. Rather the sense of the possibility of power that comes from following your discipline, living in it as you can to the point where so much is now muscle memory.  To teach and edit that, you must reflect on the process, try to identify it, even as it grows within.

So much of the growth process is about risk, and so much of the risk process is affected by love, whether that love is for the process itself, for humanity as a category, or for some special one who inspires you, intentionally or not on her part, to take that leap of risk.

Are you some sort of Bernie Madoff, leveraging power and muscle memory, building on some well-tested paradigm?  Or perhaps you have evolved to the point where risk appears to you personified, reminding you of the Wile E. Coyote downward spiral that inheres in taking no risk at all.

I have never slept with a man your age, she says.

Neither, you say, have I.

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