Archive for August, 2008


Throwing (away) the hand grenade

Diane Arbus, Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962

Here is a train of thought that moves from photography to childhood, and the change in outlook that occurs over time.

Joe turned me on to a wonderful post on The Year In Pictures about a Washington Post article on Diane Arbus. In it, some of her subjects were interviewed 40 years after they were photographed as children. Of course, one of the famous images discussed therein is that of the “grenade boy”. The subject, Colin Wood, talks about how, for a time, he was very interested in guns and grenades, and how this led his teachers to believe he was deeply troubled and in need of therapy.

This brought to mind my own childhood obsession with guns and war, World War II in particular. I played with army men, built models of tanks and planes, and played with toy guns for years. My friend Doug and I used to march around with replica WWII firearms and army surplus gear even in seventh grade. Kids where I grew up did not do this in the 70s

I used to make tiny little flags for the army men. I’d get an old sheet and cut tiny little rectangles and color them with crayon or felt tip markers. Mostly it was American, British, and German. They were pretty good, too. Once when I was in 5th or 6th grade, I was playing during recess with a few army men I had brought to school. Among them was a German flag, which had, of course, a swastika. To me this was just historically accurate, as I had German soldiers. But to some teacher it was extremely distressing. I got hauled in and lectured and had to stay after school. The offending item was taken away and destroyed, of course. And I was told, “you can’t just bring that to school and play with it. You just don’t understand what that means, what it stands for.” In fact, I did, and I didn’t. I knew in a matter-of-fact way exactly what it stood for, since I constantly read all about it and knew perfectly well what the Third Reich did. But I had no real emotional sensitivity to the reality of it all, the suffering, the inhumanity of the deeds; I just had a kind of text book understanding. I had no idea what the emotional meaning was for people a mere 25 years or so after the end of the war.

When I started junior high, I took as an elective class something called military science. We did a lot of military drilling, learned how to read maps, practiced target shooting, and once a week we came to school in uniform. This was the California Cadet Corps. It was a pretty geeky thing to do at the time (1974), because kids were growing their hair, hanging out, smoking cigarettes or pot, and trying to figure out the opposite sex (or whatever sex they were attracted to).

I stuck with it through the seventh and into the eighth grade. During my eighth grade year Fort Miller Junior High became a “renaissance school”. This just meant that they were bringing in a hard-ass dean of boys and dean of girls, cracking down on bad behavior and getting back to the basics. So, at one point the decision was made to entirely close the east fields during breaks and lunch to make it easier to police the smokers, etc.

Naturally, there was a huge outcry. It was going to upset all the social patterns to simply lop off 50% of the open space. So, the students did what students did in those days: they had a sit-in in the east field to protest the closure. I participated as we sat there through lunch and 6th period. It happened to be on a Friday, which was cadet uniform day. The protest led to some dialog with the school about use of the field, no one got in trouble, we got some limited use back.

But in the meantime, the next Monday, something awful happened. Naturally, the cadets in the protest were easy to spot. I got called into Mr. (Lieutenant) Eggers office where I got busted down from master sergeant–and Battalion Supply Sergeant–to corporal. This was for bad behavior while in uniform. I was totally bummed. (This was on top of some other minor trouble that I got into over the summer when our battalion went to summer camp at Camp San Louis Obispo. A friend and I had wandered over and climbed onto a couple old Japanese tankettes mounted as display pieces on the parade grounds.) I had started to see, and now it was painfully clear, that military life was not for me. Any wandering off the narrow line was not tolerated. Any questioning of authority and free thinking could not be tolerated. I was not all that good at keeping myself from questioning things, or from straying away when I was supposed to be marching in lockstep. And I could not see the sense of some of the many, many rules laid down. I could not see why exercising my voice in protest was a source of shame for the Corps. That’s not to say there is not in fact a point to these things. But I, the 14-year-old, did not see it. In any case, it was a turning point for me.

I quit the Cadets the next quarter. I lost interest in all things military. I got more into rock and roll. I started reading Carlos Castaneda, I started… well I’ll leave the rest of that thread for another time. For now, let’s just say I ended up studying philosophy, living in Berkeley, taking up photography, and appreciating the work of Diane Arbus.


When the Cultural Intersects the Personal

I have mostly kept to personal writing in this journal. But there are times when cultural and societal conversations possess a gravitas that pulls all matters into their orbit, including the most isolated personal ones.

Recently, i was again reminded of the conversation going on at a site dealing with a topic of importance to all Americans, How to Avoid the Bummer Life. I trust that the below is all that need be presented to establish the apodictic centrality of this site to your life.