Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Boundaries, Physical and Literary

In the beginning was a remembered boundary, the 6100 block of Orange Street in the western side of Los Angeles.  You could go anywhere within reason on that block, but you could not cross its southern face to get to the empty lots on the next street over, Wilshire Boulevard.  Even though there was scant traffic, you were required to have your crossing observed/supervised by an adult.

Same for the north face, which was Sixth Street, a well-trafficked street.  Never mind that you didn't particularly want to cross Sixth Street; the rule was that you couldn't.  Your one regular dispensation was the fact of you being allowed to cross streets on your northbound route to the approximate corner of Fairfax Avenue (running north/south) and Third Street (running east/west), which was the location of your grammar school, Hancock Park Elementary School.  You were given frequent reminders about looking both ways before crossing,  You were reminded of safety, as though it were a live, viable quality.

At least once a week, often as many as three times a week, you also had permission to cross Third Street, from the southeast corner of Fairfax Avenue to the northeast corner, which effectively placed you at the entrance to the Farmer's Market that had been there since before your birth (and remains there today).

For most purposes, this was the physical world of your scope.  On occasion, you, your mother, and sister walked the block or so to the nearby corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, whereupon your mother would drop nickles or dimes into the collection box of the Wilshire bus, which took you to the Fifth and Hill Streets terminus of the Wilshire line in downtown Los Angeles.  Not bad for a kid, up to the point where you wanted a richer potential for adventure, exploration, and discovery, three words that held great sway over your choices in reading.

You pretty much knew reading was even more than the square or cube root of the Wilshire bus.  Reading was your transportation to strange lands and familiar ones in historical and contemporary times.  If you felt like going twenty thousand years under the sea or following the likes of Horatio Hornblower, you picked up a book, in effect removing all the supervision and permission and discussions relating to safety.

As the years progressed, you earned the confidence necessary to allow you to cross as many streets as you wished, and your curiosity about the potentials for transfer from buses to street cars in and about Los Angeles led you well beyond the point where you could--and often did--board a bus in downtown Los Angeles that transported you to the far extremes of Los Angeles County, which is to say you more than once rode to Long Beach, your then equivalent of the edge of the world.

During the progression of these same years, you undertook reading to places where you became not just lost but absurdly so.  There was an occasion when your mother asked you which book you'd like for a birthday present and you gave her a title relating to celestial navigation.  

Who knows what she'd come to think about her son by that time, but she secured the book for you.  The book did not go well,  You were able to make out the words with ease, but not their aggregate meaning.  You spent a good deal of time with that book, but you learned little about navigation or celestial bodies.

In a relative sense, you read more reasonable books because you'd read things about these books, and came to conclude how beneficial it would be for you to have read them.  Thus, early on, you read books you'd heard were such refined and lofty things as pillars of Western Civilization.  You found somewhere a story that led you well outside the cause-and-effect stories you'd been reading, into the Harvard Classics Series, where you learned the names of many Latin and French writers, but once again, scant awareness of what they were talking about.

You tried to convince yourself that these writers were boring only because you did not yet understand what the fuck they were talking about.  You were so convinced of your boredom and lack of understanding that the effect of many of these writers are still a chore for you to contemplate.

A sympathetic librarian directed you to the Loeb Classical Library, some titles of which you still have with you.  Depending on the color of the dust jacket, green for Greek and red for Latin, the books bore their original language with an opposing page translation.  

You appreciated this approach to reading and, once again, incorrectly posited you'd be able to learn both Greek and Latin as you read the English text.  Another idea that did not go well, although you were beginning to make something of the thoughts of the authors and their arguments.

However lofty your intentions, you did not become the classical scholar you'd hoped to become.  You in fact had these hopes because of things you'd read that suggested a well-read person should know and understand such things.  

But since you could not become a classical scholar or elevate yourself to a peer level with some of the more recent writers who wrote in French or German, you could and did move on to stories which were at some distance from plot-driven a+b=c formula, into character-driven narratives in which you were not only given choices but began to feel the burden shifting to you.

True enough, you were using nineteenth century and early twentieth century education models and standards from England and Europe.  You were in effect, trying to be another culture's version of the man of letters.

No wonder you were drawn to so many loners, in effect taking the same journeys as you, the journeys of the self-taught, the autodidact.  The writer is among the most notional of all journey takers, only on rare occasions having a specific destination in mind.  

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