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Cursed By A Happy Childhood: Tales of Growing Up, Then and Now

To My Fellow Parents

This book began as a diary I started to keep for my 11-year old daughter.

She was two years away from a birthday with "teen" in it, so I felt the time was right to put down on paper some thoughts and advice that might be of use to her in the future. I started with some important things happening in her life now, and then, if it applied, I'd make a connection to a good memory from my childhood and teen years. Everything I planned to record were things we'd either talked about already or would when the time arose, but I felt a strong need to get it all down in one place.

Was I really writing this in order to pass along some supposed wisdom to her, or was I doing this for myself? Were things just happening so fast that I felt a need to take time out to look back as well as anticipate what lay ahead? (There's an idea: time-outs for parents.)

A beautifully bound journal that had long been awaiting use (where does the time go?) was soon filled with a stream of reflections. I hadn't handwritten so many pages since the long-ago college days of earnest ten-page letters to a faraway friend or girlfriend, but I had tapped a reservoir of wonderful recollections of my rural upbringing. There was so much I wanted to say, but I worried that my adolescence might not be relevant, that it was just too different a place and time. Me: boy/small town/Sixties. Her: girl/big city/2002 and counting. But I was surprised, pleasantly so, at what I found as I wrote.

It has been a dozen years of parental learning on the job for my wife and me, and what did we know going in? Teachers have degrees, but parents are "graduated" with a hodgepodge of well-meaning advice and a few books by experts from divergent schools of thought. Since parenting often feels like one HUGE essay question without real grades, I wanted to try and take some sort of measure of how I'd done so far? I knew I'd find room for improvement, but just how much? Most of the time, being a parent, I have felt like the manic man on The Ed Sullivan Show spinning all those plates on the end of poles--and mine, or course, were often very, very wobbly. My wife seemed much more secure in her parenting style, while I felt thoroughly confused most of the time.

I wrote for a little bit each weekend over the course of a year, and found that I had much I wanted to share with other graduates of the 'School for Imperfect Parents.' We are all so anxious to raise great kids, and yes, we can always be better at it, but we learn as we go along, especially if we reflect on our past and then let ourselves be taught by the very ones we are trying to guide, our children.

I'm no parenting expert; but I was a kid once, so here goes.

Carl Lennertz
New York City, 2003
music and memory

My daughter is across the room reading a pop music magazine, her legs tucked up under her little girl's body in an armchair.

It is strangely reassuring to me that there are still such magazines. While celebrity-watching is now officially out of control in our culture, a kid can still have innocent fun talking with friends about the latest singers. And it isn't just blind idolatry. If one of their favorites gets too grown-up or stuck-up, my daughter and her friends start to tune out. But ultimately, it is still the music itself that matters most. Does it sound good? Do the words and the rhythm catch in each kid's head and heart, just like it had to for us?

I'm happy that she has her own music, yet still tolerates my occasional attempts to play some of my music for her. If it has a strong beat and good harmonies, chances are she'll like it. The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Santana, and Sting all became mutual favorites. (And I confess; we both dig a little disco, too.) My well-intentioned dad tried to get us kids to listen to opera, and failing that, Broadway tunes. It just wasn't 'cool,' so we kids did our best to make an excuse to leave the room. (Got lots of homework, Dad!) Also, I just couldn't suspend belief when actors broke out into song in the middle of Main Street. I don't know if I was just being too literal, or just contrary.

Later in life, I did come to appreciate music that was more intricate than a three-minute pop song (rock operas, anyone?), and to thoroughly enjoy musicals and the art of putting serious themes to music. Still, when it was my turn to 'inflict music' on an offspring, I had to remind myself that each of us has to come to accept certain aspects of culture at our own speed. In other words, I shouldn't get my adult feelings hurt when my daughter gives the thumbs down to an icon from my youth.

For teens in the late Sixties, music was an integral part of friendship. Every Tuesday night, my best friend and I would listen to the "Top Twenty Countdown" as we did our homework in our respective homes. We would call each other at the commercial breaks to talk about the newest songs and to guess what was going to go "all the way to #1."

It didn't matter that the radio signal barely reached us way out in our small town, a hundred miles from the New York City AM station we adored. Much more so than now, the radio was our connection to the rest of the world and to what was happening in music, whether folk, rock, or soul. Our little radios were like portals, and the music that poured out was 'ours,' not our parents.' The songs--whether about love or politics or personal freedom--made us feel rebellious, but mostly, they just sounded good to us.

My friend and I marveled at the DJ's uncanny ability to talk into the beginning of the song, ending his verbal riff at the exact moment the singer began. (Is he going to make it, did he cut it too close; ohhhh, just in time!). We imagined a room somewhere in the city packed floor to ceiling with 45's. We couldn't figure out why British guys lost their accents when they sang, and we didn't know then that the Supremes didn't get along. It only mattered that we be up on the latest hits. I used to list the top twenty song titles in a notebook, keeping a chart from week to week. (Then as now, list-making gave me a brief sense of control and accomplishment, of everything being in its place in my little corner of the world--at least for a short while.)

A mark of maturity for a kid back then was the transition from singles to albums. Singles = junior high school; albums = high school and college. I squeezed in a lot of album-listening time, either fully engrossed in each song and the lyrics, or letting it be a soundtrack to my daily life. All these years later, I still anticipate the first notes of the next song on any album I owned then. Call it musical dejavu.

My daughter and I share the thrill of buying records. I bought my first one--a Beatles album, of course--at my hometown hardware store, as town wasn't big enough for a record shop. Other rural kids might have found their first records at a Woolworth's or the grocery store, but for me, heaven was Rothman's Hardware Store and its one bin of records. My daughter bought her first CD at a huge record store with miles of aisles, but she still left the store with that same imperative to rip off the wrapper, read and reread the song list, and get home as soon as possible!

I used to get a wistful pang each time I realized that my daughter would never have that particular and peculiar pleasure of moving a record player arm up and over, of putting the needle down, just so, at the edge of a large vinyl disk, and of hearing the slight hiss in the thin slice of time before the first song. I loved that moment of knowing exactly what was coming, but still marveling at the pleasure the opening notes of a favorite album gave me every single time I heard them. I now see that she gets that same pleasure from putting the CD in its player, pushing the top down, and pressing play. There is the whirr of the CD starting to spin, that moment of anticipation, and then--bliss.

I wish I knew how the record needle turned those thin grooves into music, or how the laser turns digital bits into notes. Despite my school years as a science geek, I don't fully understand either process, but it doesn't really matter. For our kids as well as for us, music is both just fun and essential. It clings to us and we to it. It's a reliable, pleasing constant, and often the source of pure euphoria. Music can be solitary or social. It is part of the language of friendship, something just fun to have in common, or a connection that makes a relationship even stronger.

I've read that, of the five senses, smell is the one that most often evokes a memory of a past time or place. I have to go with sound and with song. Notes and harmonies insinuate themselves into every stage of our lives, and hearing a song can bring back great memories, or, yes, bittersweet ones about an old friend or a lonely winter day.

We shouldn't live in the past, but it's okay to be a little self-indulgent every now and then. If we need to get away from some worries for awhile, or just take a break from school or work, music is there. I often find that music is what I've neglected during a difficult patch in my life, and returning to a favorite album can often begin the journey back to a better frame-of-mind. I can just enjoy the music for the music, or I can allow the associations to flow in, whether they take me back to a certain summer, or to a college dorm room, or even to my childhood bedroom, the one with my first record player.

That bedroom looked out over just a few houses on the fringe of a small town, but it was an oasis in a larger world that mostly confused me. The world is so much bigger now, and out our kids' windows is an unimaginably vast array of rooftops and people living under them. But inside, it's still safe and familiar, a place for the restorative power of music.

worn out

We were tricked!

After dinner and before sunset on some summer evenings, it was a treat when my dad took us kids to Horton's Point. A few miles of backroad led to a cliff that overlooked the immense sound that formed the northern boundary of the string of towns out on our end of Long Island. Way over the western horizon was Oz-like New York City, to our east the open ocean, and across the way, visible only on a perfectly clear day, was New England.

As we pulled into the parking lot of crushed clamshells, all of us packed into a Rambler station wagon, a whitewashed lighthouse loomed into view. We piled out and made for the break in the hedges at the top of the cliff, where an incredibly long flight of old wooden stairs descended to the sliver of beach far below.

After having behaved ourselves like little angels at the dinner table, we could now make as much noise as we wanted in this wild, beautiful, and slightly dangerous place. We'd barrel down the steps, and then climb back up, counting each step out loud. We'd quarrel when we came up with a different total. Did you count the beach as one? Did the top step count? What about a broken step? Back down we'd go, and back up again, albeit a little slower each time, but we'd be sure to get back to the top in time for the countdown to the dramatic sunset over the water.

What was my dad doing this entire time? Now that I'm a dad, I know. He was also counting--counting the minutes until our bedtime so he could have a quiet evening with mom! I'm sure he was taking in the natural beauty of the setting--and this is a particularly sublime spot I am still drawn back to every year-- but he must've also been smiling to himself that he had so easily deployed the "wear-your-kids-out-by-letting-them-run-and-jump-so-they'll-go-to-sleep-earlier" technique.

We all love our children, but we so need some quiet time at the end of the day--time for a cup of tea or glass of wine, time for a book or some TV, and time to catch up on how our spouse's day went. And that's only possible with the little ones tucked away. Children resist bedtime almost as much as vitamins or hairbrushing, so in order to get the peace we crave, we have to find ways to get them to burn all of their daily allotment of energy.

So we take our children to playgrounds and parks, to swing and climb and run, for the fresh air, for the exercise, for the fun...and to wear them out. They may have been at this playground and on that slide a million times, but no matter. Down the slide, around, and back up. Down, around, up. Over and over again, never getting bored. After being told what to do and how to behave most of the day, this is their moment of abandon . . . and control.

At first, we join in the play, but after the umpteenth push on a swing, our restless adult minds return to thoughts about work or a project around the house that needs doing. We see our day as finite; a child sees it as infinite.

However, it is when we let ourselves see the world through their eyes and in simpler terms--when we too get on a swing or stack blocks or carry buckets of water back and forth from the water's edge-- that is when we preoccupied adults become kids again, at least for awhile, and our heads hit the pillow that night with the exhausted pleasure of a day well spent.

Excerpted from CURSED BY A HAPPY CHILDHOOD: Tales of Growing Up, Then and Now © Copyright 2004 by Carl Lennertz. Reprinted with permission by Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.


Cursed By A Happy Childhood: Tales of Growing Up, Then and Now
by by Carl Lennertz