The older I get, the younger I want to be. No, it's not like that. It's not about appearances. It's about attitude. How I see the world and how I live in it.
These days I try very hard to be a child.
The other day I was waiting in a pub for friends. It's true, children can't do this, which is one reason it's more fun to be a pretend child than an actual one. My friends were running late: adults are very busy doing many adult things. Knowing they'd be late, I brought a magazine and read an article about Reinhold Messner. Messner, if you don't know, is widely regarded as the greatest mountaineer ever. The Italian has accomplished superhuman things, things once deemed impossible, like climbing Everest. Alone. Without oxygen. "Like Copernicus," another climber has said. "He conceived a whole new way of seeing his world."
I greatly admire Messner's fearless mountaineering feats (I begin to weep atop a step ladder), but in reading the article it was Messner's words that charmed me.
"Probing the edges of what may be possible is the only thing I know how to do," he said. "... And more than anything, I am like a child, I would always be unhappy if I didn't try."
Certainly, children are not perfect. We know this because we were children once. But there is much about them to admire.
Just the other day I had the opportunity to behave like a child. I received a letter from our bank. I would tell you what it said, except I had no idea. I read the letter three times, but that still didn't help. It was a letter we all know, filled with the big shot phraseology you see in many adult missives these days. The letter had lots of complex financial terms and big words like phraseology.
But it looked like the letter was very important, so I went to the bank. This was quite adult-like (and very out of character for me). An employee came over to help me.
Swallowing my pride, I told her the truth.
"I don't know what this letter means," I said.
She read the letter. Then she looked up at me.
"I don't know what it means either."
Children ask the honest question, but it is also true that they can get away with it. How come William's mom has blond hair with lots of brown under it? Too much honesty can land you in hot water, or possibly inside an ambulance, but you only need to have a pulse to realize our world could do with a little more honesty.
Often, when I find myself in an uncomfortable adult situation, I think about what a child would do. Once I was a member of a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The auditorium was filled to the rafters (not for me; there were three other authors of far greater note) with Very Serious Looking Adults.
Someone asked a question. It was a very intelligent question, filled with insight and laced with clever nuance. I'd tell you what it was, but I was so damn terrified I forgot it immediately.
The room of serious adults leaned forward, no doubt waiting to eviscerate the first pretender to open their mouth.
The moderator turned to me.
"Let's start with Mr. McAlpine. How do you feel about this? "
First I looked around for my father. When I discovered that he wasn't there, I knew it was up to me. Gazing out at the stone-faced crowd, I smiled. It was a real smile -- people can sense this -- because I had made my decision.
"Scared witless," I said. "I'm so terrified I can't even remember the title of my own book, much less the question."
Just like that all those hard faces softened and then they laughed, and I was looking out at an auditorium filled with eight-year-olds and the day turned right (okay there were still a few sourpusses, but too bad for icky-faced them).
Acting like a child doesn't always work, but it works far more often than not.
There is also the childish matter of emotions. A few years ago I spent a few days at a pre-school. My new friends were four and five. We did yoga together, and drew pictures and played tag and guessing games. It was great fun, but as I said, it was only a few days. On the morning I was to leave, Elise came up to me.
"Good morning, Elise," I said.
Elise skipped the formalities.
"I want you to stay here forever," she said, and she hugged me like I had never hugged an old friend.
Now I hug my friends when I see them. At fifty-four I appreciate that my time here is fleeting. Maybe, instinctively, Elise knew that.
And, of course, there is the childish matter of boundaries. In short, there aren't any. Reinhold Messner knew this. Precisely why, again and again, he climbed up into the "Death Zone" (above 26,000 feet) without oxygen. A child's dreams and choices are limitless. Remember this the next time a sourpuss adult tells you otherwise. It might be too late to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet. But then again, it might not. The friends I admire most aren't power brokers and Alfa Romeo drivers. They're wide-eyed and curious, willing to stick their finger in the flame to see if it really will burn them.
Of course, being a child doesn't go over well with everyone. It is true that on certain occasions, adults have turned their scowly faces to me.
"You're such a child," they say.
"Thank you" is what I want to say, but sometimes you have to be an adult.
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