"Sometimes I read Somerset Maugham."
"There aren't many people who'd consider Somerset Maugham new."
"I love Maugham. I've read The Razor's Edge three times."
- Haruki Murakami, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World
I am slouching shallowly at the edge of a neighborhood (read: "subdivision") pool, out in suburban Atlanta. Two female seven-year-old persons, who are taking turns jumping into the pool from the top of the lifeguard's chair, are charged with taking care of me for the afternoon. In my lap, a tattered copy of W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge.
"Can I . . . really go up here?" asked Emma, the seven-year-old who is my sister, a few minutes earlier, in regard to the (currently unoccupied) elevated lifeguard chair. "And . . . jump off?"
"I don't know," replied I, a bit drolly. "What do you think?"
"CAN I or CAN'T I?"
"I encourage you to make your own considered decision in this matter."
Within minutes of my arrival on the East Coast, Emma had ceremoniously presented me with a bag of books: "Erin left these." She knows I like books. "Kick-ass," nearly replied I. The bag had some good stuff but none better than the Maugham. I'd been thinking it might be a very good idea to re-read this, and see if it really did speak to my current life circumstances as much as I've been pretending it does. (It's been about five years gone by, I think.) I thumbed to the title page: "Dear Erin - Happy high school graduation. Hope you enjoy. Don't be Larry. Well, at any rate, don't be Isabel. Love, Michael, 06/98"
"Watch, watch!" Emma, and her exuberant compatriot in Michael-watching duties, Natalie, are leaping with increasing abandon from the normally radically-proscribed lifeguard's chair, into the 4-foot-deep water below. "Nice one," I allow, before glancing down my face again at the volume of Maugham. The novel is turning out to be even more spot-on than I remembered and I'm digging out even more highly a propos quotes, for use in this space. Moreover, the spare copy is a nice boon for a guy who's declared an indefinite moratorium on book-buying, due to having no shelves to put them on. (A few days later, I would become the proud owner of a Cobb County library card; and would borrow my first book in 20 years David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which represents the very first 1,079 pages on my "must re-read" list for the last few years.)
"Yeah! Really high?"
"Ladies. I am entirely at your service."
I am learning, albeit belatedly, some really great lessons for interacting with seven-year-olds in general, and Emma in particular. Pops once told me that a lot of what passes for brilliant business management is really common sense. ("Don't expend more money than you take in.") So it seems to be with pedagogy. In years past, I misspent a lot of energy trying to talk Emma into reading with me, and to explain to her in compelling terms why early love of reading is absolutely key. (In a word, it makes you smart. And it's not entirely clear that there's really anything else that makes you smart.) But she just didn't share my love of letters she's always been more interested in the visual arts (and in playing). My first, broad mistake was in not respecting our differences, and in trying to engage in ham-handed behavior modification. My second, specific, stupider mistake was in terrifically misconstruing seven-year-old psychology:
In one respect, seven-year-olds are like everybody else in the sense of the old, sage adage that "You can't tell anybody anything." But, if the young don't give a good goddamn for your solemn verbalizations about how they should conduct their lives . . . they will, as it turns out, pretty religiously do absolutely anything they catch you actually doing yourself.
So, now I save my breath about the importance of reading. I just go over there and read all the time. (*)
I'm also learning a bit about the fluctuating utility of dogma. Anyone who's had to be around me long has probably heard me heartily vocalize my deep distaste for the suburbs and my abiding commitment to the "lifestyle choice" that I would no sooner live in the suburbs than I would drop a live ferret down my pants (head-first). Well you know what? I'm really, really enjoying being in the suburbs right about now. Big, roomy houses with spacious, private yards. No neighbors on top of you; no street noise. Air conditioning. Comfy cars, with crisp-sounding stereos, to tool around in. (And air conditioning.) Privacy, quiet, time to think. When you need produce, or toiletries, or dietary supplements, a well-appointed strip mall is never more than a mile or two away. Good multiplexes. And air conditioning. And quiet.
When we were growing up, Rush's Subdivisions was our official anthem of angsty, suburban discontent. It's all about the hateful conformity of the suburbs, and the immanent, burning impulse of young, creative individuals to get away, just get away. (lyrics here) But I tell you something: Eighteen years of listening to that song (and air-drumming wildly and intently every single time), and somehow I (and Alex too, I think) never actually heard the very last stanza the one where those who've fled all that sad, quiet, conformity one day grow weary of their principled exile. And get tired. And come back:
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory
Of lighted streets on quiet nights…
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown
Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth
Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night
Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights…