Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thinking of Childhood and Old Age

When I think of my childhood, the first thing that comes to mind are the trips my family and I took. We would all pack into the car and take off. My dad was in charge of the driving and the music selection. The soundtrack of our road trips were mostly full of Billy Joel and Harry Chapin.

Years later, I filled my iPod with my own music, music that I like and music that I want to hear while I'm driving. But somehow Mr. Joel's and Mr. Chapin's tunes ended up in the mix. When their songs pop up on my drive, I am immediately brought back to my youth. I always sat directly behind my mom in the car and all four of us sang along to the songs... I don't think we would have ever made it to our destinations alive without those songs.

This morning one of those Harry Chapin songs came on while I was on my morning commute. Here is just a small section of the song that I heard:

"When I started this song I was still thirty-three
The age that Mozart died and sweet Jesus was set free
Keats and Shelley too soon finished, Charley Parker would be
And I fantasized some tragedy'd be soon curtailing me

Well just today I had my birthday -- I made it thirty-four
Mere mortal, not immortal, not star-crossed anymore
I've got this problem with my aging I no longer can ignore
A tame and toothless tabby can't produce a lion's roar...
I am the aged jester -- who won't gracefully retire
A clumsy clown without a net caught staggering on the high wire..."

I always thought Chapin was so much older than that. I figured he was a LOT older than 33 or 34. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I was 9 or 10 when I listened to these songs in the backseat of my parents' car and I knew Harry Chapin was already dead. People only die when their old, right?

The other thing that struck me this morning was the fact that he was MY AGE when he wrote this song. "I've got this problem with my aging that I can't ignore anymore..." He was writing about the fact that he was feeling his old-age creep up on him. He writes, "mere mortal, not immortal... am I the aged jester who won't gracefully retire?" And of course he's a singer/songwriter and I'm a teacher, but still, he is feeling the same kinds of things I'm feeling. I am no longer that bullet-proof teenager. No one is paying attention to me. I'm an old man.

Of course I'm not an old man, but I feel like an old man. I look back at who I used to be and I feel like the old guys I used to make fun of. I'll never be that lame! But yet here I am waking up before the sun, putting a shirt and tie on and dealing with rush-hour traffic. I swore I'd never do any of those things!

Harry Chapin continues a few verses later:

"And as I wander with my music through the jungles of despair
My kid will learn guitar and find his street corner somewhere
There he'll make the silence listen to the dream behind the voice
And show his minstrel Hamlet daddy that there only was one choice

Strum your guitar -- sing it kid
Just write about your feelings -- not the things you never did
Inexperience -- it once had cursed me
But your youth is no handicap -- it's what makes you thirsty, hey kid."

That last line got me: "youth... [is] what makes you thirsty..." Goddamn it. I have to hear those words while merging onto the highway?? Seriously? C'mon Mr. Chapin! What are you trying to do to me today? It's bad enough you have to mention a son (or daughter?) that is following in your footsteps. A child that will allow you to re-live your youth vicariously, but then you bring up the fact that youth isn't a handicap! Does that mean aging is a handicap? Now I feel even older than I am. Now I feel as if my youth has passed me by. Now I feel like I might as well go into an open field, curl up in a ball and just fade away. I want to still be thirsty!

Were these the thoughts that were going through my dad's mind as he drove us to our spring vacation destination? Probably not. He had two kids sitting in his backseat singing along with him. He had a job that afforded him the opportunity to take his entire family on a two week vacation every year. His wife was sitting next to him and putting up with him and loving him. And my brother and I followed in his footsteps (to an extent). We both still listen to those songs from our childhood. We both belt them out when they come on. And as much as I love these songs, they make me sad. I miss being that kid in the backseat. I miss being with my family and being free. I miss being thirsty.

I still want to be thirsty.

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