Thursday, August 29, 2013

Catalysts

There is a large measure of accuracy within the observation that you are a dawdler.  At earlier times in your life, say when you, your parents, and sister lived at what was then 6145 1/2 Orange Street in a Los Angeles so relatively young that it knew nothing of zip codes for mailing things or area codes for long distance calls, your mother would on occasion find you sitting on the edge of your bed, staring off into space, one sock on, the other still in your hand.

"Don't dawdle,"  she'd tell you then.  "Your breakfast is getting cold."

"I'm thinking,"  you'd say.  And in what may pass for honesty, you believed you were thinking, drawn along in a rather straight line, wishing for a greater sense of adventure in your life than the straight line you were on.  

That was one of the things it was like to be five or six, with five- or six-year-old adventures limited to radio programs geared for you, where adults and young persons you began to suspect were not all that young got into adventures.  

Being five or six also put you in a position where any number of adults, teachers, for instance, or rabbis, or relatives seemed to think it their responsibility to teach you things you later came to discover were coded messages of a particular cultural type that seemed to center on how responsible five- and six- and seven-year-old boys should behave.

There was also the considerable lore boys who were three or four,perhaps even five years older than you wanted you to be aware of, perhaps showing off because they had finally reached a plateau where someone looked up to them for their wisdom.  If you were lucky, fifty percent of this lore was useful.

One day, when you were six, an older boy named Leon, who used to race past you on his bicycle, calling out something like "Hi, kid," or, if you happened to be with a group of other boys, "Hi, stupid," turned around after racing past you, screeched his bicycle to a halt, then came back to ask you what you were doing.

You were actually in the process of assembling a primitive form of radio called a crystal radio, which seemed to take its power from a combination of radio waves and a long antenna.  When you told Leon, he said that was alright for grammar school kids, but he was going to tell you something that would effect the rest of your life, if you thought you could stand it.  He watched you carefully for a moment, shook his head, then turned to his bicycle.  "You're not ready for this yet."

"What?"  you said.

"Skip it.  You're too dumb for this."

"At least tell me what I'm too dumb for."

"All right,"  he said.  "You're too dumb to know about catalytic agents."

He was quite right, but in a rare stroke of dramatic logic, you called after him.  "We already had that,"  you called.  "They give us stuff like that early at Hancock Park School."  Leon was in his first semester at a junior high school you would ultimately attend, therein to spend some of the most miserable years of your life.

"Catalytic agent,"  you said, already liking the sound of it.  "Catalytic agent."

You had never seen Leon so defeated.  "Ohm's Law,"  you called after him.  

Two days later, the boyfriend of the maid who worked for your parents stopped by for a visit.  Because of his job at Douglas Aircraft, a plant in Santa Monica that produced airplanes, he seemed the ideal person to ask about catalytic agents.

Leon was right.  In one way or another, you've been dealing with, even inventing, catalysts of your own.

There was one program you listened to because there was nothing better on at the time, called "The Uncle Whoa Bill Show," where once a year, around this time of the calendar, Uncle Whoa Bill and his assistant, Piggy, would instruct you to look somewhere non-adventurous for a birthday present your mother would have hidden.  She often chose the piano bench.

You were more fond of programs such as Red Ryder, Tom Mix, Jack Armstrong, Captain Midnight, and of course the Lone Ranger.  But even these were beginning to grate on you because they usually had code messages for their fans, using some code ring or badge or secret wallet.  The messages were a step or two up from your birthday surprise being in the piano bench, more along the lines of "Captain Midnight urges you to help with the dishes after dinner."

It is no wonder you were frequently thinking when you should be putting on your other sock, followed by both shoes, before coming to breakfast.

True to form, you dawdle these days, even though there is no one about to tell you to hurry up, you have a class, or to warn you you'll be late for breakfast with friends.

Your dawdling is of a more complex, perhaps even cynical nature, where you wonder who was the individual who got stuck being Uncle Whoa Bill, always having to tell his listeners that instead of crying when they hurt themselves, all they had to do was say "Whoa Bill" and the pain would go away.

Somewhere along the way, you had enough experiences to provide at least an interior adventure if not an overt, literal, outside one.  Things previously unconnected seemed to want to introduce themselves in your mind, not only in the morning when putting on your socks but--and here was the beginning of the adventure--at any time, without warning.

You were still young enough when this began to happen that your mother, no longer telling you not to dawdle, asked you if you were listening.  A number of teachers asked you the same question, and with good reason.

This was almost as wonderful as your discovery of girls as a stunning source of adventure, complete with the kinds of coded messages Captain Midnight and the Green Hornet could not or would not divulge.  You were no longer a hostage to a fact, memorized for its own sake.  And to this day, you have never been asked or in any way held accountable for the fact that water boils at 212 Fahrenheit degrees at sea level.  Whenever you have to boil water at sea level, you just turn on the flame and wait it out.  But connecting boiling water with, say, cooking pasta or lobsters was another matter, involving decisions, theory, applications, even meals or food for thought.

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