The final book I had to read for my Freshman Reading class that first semester at Western Michigan University was Norman Mailer’s novel An American Dream. It was a story of a war-hero former congressman turned sensationalist talk-show host who murdered his high society wife in an alcoholic rage and then covered his crime by making it appear to be a suicide, descending into a lurid underworld of Manhattan jazz clubs, bars and Mafia intrigue. It was my first experience of engaging my impressionable mind with such a dark “adult” themed story. Among Mailer’s themes, was the provocative idea that modern life in our high technology society had magical underpinnings, including that serious diseases like cancer were really maladies of the human spirit, not merely biological processes.
The last week of summer finally arrived as it always did, and with some reluctance but also some excitement I left my hometown of Ann Arbor, the place where most of the developmental events of my life had occurred, the Tuesday after Labor Day in September of 1972 to head off to college. The Munich Olympics were underway and the initial killing of two members of the Israeli Olympic team and kidnapping of nine others by PLO gunmen, the beginning of the “Munich Massacre” had just occurred, though we were not aware of that yet!
I still was feeling a great deal of ambivalence about my choice to go off to school ninety miles west at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo rather than at my hometown University of Michigan, in whose university medical center I had been born, where my parents were both Alumni, and my little family had been part of the extended University academic community for as long as I could remember. My stated reason for choosing WMU was that I was planning on being a theater major and I had been told they had a better theater program than UofM. But at some deeper level that I don’t know if I could really articulate I had a strong sense that I had to leave my Ann Arbor nest to best proceed with my further development. The thought of leaving my hometown did give me a discomforting sense of aloneness, but also a more positive sense that I was somehow doing at least something (if not perhaps the best thing) to push forward developmentally with my life.
Among other presents, my brother and I got the Beatles’ White Album and Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme for Christmas, both on our list that our mom had solicited from us. The tag on the wrapped gifts under the tree in our living room indicated they were from “Santa”. Our mom continued to believe in Santa Claus, or at least that her kids should continue to honor the myth of this jolly old avatar who loved children and spent his entire undying existence bringing gifts and joy to young people throughout an often child-unfriendly world.
Now that I had quit my paper route and no longer had my own money from it, Christmas gifts were an important source of particularly the games and record albums that were so significant to me developmentally. When we were little our mom and dad had done their best to observe our play carefully and buy us toys that would present a compelling “curriculum” for our play. In more recent years, our mom had taken to asking my brother and me for a list of the things we wanted for Christmas, and then tried her best, even collaborating with our dad, to get us those things that they could within their limited budget. I would put careful thought into our lists, because the toys, games, records, tape recorders and other stuff we ended up getting over the years continued to play the role of important self-directed developmental curriculum.
Many of the events of the outside world came into our home on the little twelve-inch black-and-white TV in my mom’s bedroom. As such she tuned in to the 1968 Democratic Convention in late August of that year. As part of her continuing effort to connect with the academic community in our university town, she was getting into liberal politics, particularly around opposition to the Vietnam War. Often her companion watching TV, we both watched as events inside the convention hall were upstaged by the young people in the streets, protesting and battling with the police. I for one was struck by the courage of the kids in the street and felt a solidarity with them, though I did not know if I had the courage to demonstrate so brazenly like that and risk the wrath of the adult authorities.
The cast on my right leg finally came off a week or so after the end of school. All was well with the healed wound and the function of my right leg and I gave up the crutches that I had been mostly embarrassed to show in public and had contributed to me being pretty much housebound the past six weeks during an otherwise glorious (as always) Ann Arbor spring. I was ready to try to put the trauma and stress of my second junior high year behind me and embrace the range of my own chosen activities that was my ten weeks of liberation before I would have to report for duty for one final year at Tappan Junior High.
Part of that stress was the difficult question that Grace Slick would continue to ask me from the rock radio stations from time to time…
Don’t you want somebody to love?
Second semester of eighth grade started in late January of 1968, along with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on U.S. television and the Tet offensive in Vietnam. My mom worried about an endless U.S. involvement in that war that might eventually lead to me being drafted for military service in another five years. My hands ached from the cold even with gloves on as I lugged my saxaphone case in one hand and a load of books in the other arm the nearly mile-long trek to school and back. It always seemed farther than that because of all the twists and turns on the five different streets that got me to my destination, along with the fact that given a choice I wouldn’t want to go to school, particular this one. Though my American history teacher was entertaining at times and I still had some sort of a crush on my young female math teacher, I knew at some level that I could better spend my time doing activities and being around peers of my own choosing.
I pretty much dreaded the first day of school in the fall of 1967. I was returning to Tappan Junior High now for eighth grade with the memory still raw of my first difficult and painful year in that institution. The intervening ten weeks of summer sojourn had helped me recover my self-esteem to some degree, but I really did not like the idea of going back to those packed classrooms full of other uncomfortable kids my age picking on each other to blow off the anxiety of being jammed into that unnatural situation. If it had been my free choice I would never choose it. I’m not sure I thought of it at that point as something that all us kids had to do. Or was it more like it was something that if you were not willing to do it, there was something really wrong with you, and if you missed that developmental train that society had worked so hard to create for you that you would be doomed to never being able to participate in the adult world.
I felt the profoundest sense of relief when the last bell rang ending the last day of my first year at Tappan Junior High School. All us students spilled out onto the big front lawn on the south side of the school overlooking Stadium boulevard, a part of the school’s campus that seemed rarely used during the school year. We had all been given our yearbooks and the idea was we would all mill around together signing each other’s copies with cute or poignant little memorable comments. One last exercise in social hierarchy. All the cool kids clustered around each other laughing, joking and signing each other’s copies.
Our mom, my brother and I returned from two long full developmental weeks of our vacation on Cape Cod, beginning to find some equilibrium as three still emerging human beings, without a male parent in the household, now in mostly positive relationship with each other. I was now pretty much transitioned from my childhood, where one fully existed in the orbit of their parents and their parents’ worldview, to my “youth” (as the term is now used to describe the years generally from age ten or eleven until adulthood), where one begins to achieve the escape velocity (to continue the astronomical metaphor) to leave that orbit and explore the greater solar system of a community beyond ones home.
But stressful challenges were ahead for all of us. Our mom still figuring out her persona now as a single adult woman, “divorcee”, and part of the progressive community that existed around the university. Continue reading →
While the events of the U.S. civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were roiling the larger society, the first big event that I was privy to in our little family’s cataclysm was in early April of 1964 around my ninth birthday, bearing helpless witness to my mom having what later I would learn was a panic attack. I recall that I was in my room and heard her out in the living room pacing the floor and crying haltingly punctuated by gasps for air. When I came into the living room to see what was going on she looked at me with absolute terror in her eyes, “Cooper… I can’t breathe!”, as if somehow she was hoping I could do something about it.