Think about who you were before you discovered socialization. That steady beat of your self-appointed drummer defined you once. I never needed my parents’ validation, as I had three other siblings vying for their attention. I found a willing audience of one, amassing a tribe of books from the library, magazines spinning tales of the city of New York. Between memorizing the lyrics to Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” listening to rhapsodies colored blue, and mimicking the moves of girl groups supreme, who cared about the outside world of an aspirational bedroom community that was Pico Rivera.
Once you enter the Thunderdome of public school life, you learn quickly what the kids will or won’t accept in the schoolyard. Waxing lyrical over drum solos on rock stations KMET or KLOS was okay, but telling your Little League teammates that the drum hit in “Perón’s Latest Flame” from Evita was not okay.
I chose to hide, seeking approval by adopting their likes. It wasn’t me, choosing instead to encase myself in an armored suit of fat and fur to shield myself from standing out from the crowd too much. Amazing what the portly and jovial trope can do for you once you know the right words for people to hear. You become huggable, adorable, non-threatening, always brandishing a quip, and never the one who gets kissed in the rain. I would stay in that lane for a long fucking time, too long.
As I make my way over the hill of my mid-50s, I am revisiting the books that marked my pre-teen and early teen life, books written by Paula Danziger and Judy Blume. Their combined insights into what it was like being an adolescent in the 1970s and 1980s spoke to me quite loudly. Danziger’s “The Cat Ate My Gym Shorts” and, especially, Blume’s “Blubber” and “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” helped me feel understood by someone close to me. It bugged me that most of the books of this genre focused on the social and gender problems endured by girls. What about the boys? (While Blume did pen “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” as an answer to the success of “Are You There God…,” it didn’t quite fit the bill enough.)
The lead characters of the Blume and Danziger canons found their strength in family and friends by the final pages, reaching a plane of understanding, evolving just enough to support the life lessons of these often compelling and universal narratives. (Even being a first-generation-born Latino in the suburbs east of Los Angeles did not exclude me from these books. Oh, the feelings I found validated by Blume and Danziger’s prose still give me goosebumps today.)
Much has changed in how we deal with social Thunderdomes today, and much remains woefully the same. We still bully, a phenomenon that hangs just as poorly on adults as it does on kids. (Maybe it feels even more savage today, given the speed of how quickly we post our negative comments against one another.) As I stumble through my ennui with the world, I feel perhaps it is time to revisit that younger me and give him a different context.
Perhaps the full circle moment I’ve been looking for is to start at the beginning of a creative life shaped by the books and stories that ultimately helped refine my voice. When in doubt about yourself and the world, perhaps that is when you must create something and express yourself.
I’ve been listening to this one track from Sara Bareilles quite a bit. It’s called “Little Voice,” and its chorus felt like lightning bolts of truth to me:
It’s just a little voice
And if you’re listening
Sometimes a little voice
Can say the biggest things
It’s just my little voice that I’ve been missing
Big or small, I can’t wait to start this journey.