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May 3, 2003

Recovering Your Child
(No, Not That One)

Children are more expert in happiness than adults. The adult who can carry the spirit of a child into middle and old age is a genius, for he will preserve the truly happy spirit with which God endowed the young. The way to live in this world is to have a childlike heart and mind.
      − Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking

It's nice to know that I'm not the only guy who thinks this way.

Ever since early last year, when I found out I was going to become a Daddy for the first time − a 31-year-old Daddy, at that − I've given a lot of thought to my own childhood. I've worked very hard at remembering things that I've let slip away over the years: primarily good things, like evening kickball games in the cul-de-sac in front of my childhood home. Like using greasy folds of raw bacon to fish for crawdads in the drainage creek behind our house. Like four-on-four touch football games in the street. (Yeah, it was a nice neighborhood; my middle-school-age friends and I lived in a world where tar lines meant you'd always have first-down and endzone markers, and what little neighborhood traffic there was meant you'd always have more time-outs.)

Most of this began as just my attempt at simply remembering what it was like to be a child, a teenager, an almost-twenty-something. I figured this would be a good thing to reconnect with, if only to allow me to gain a bit of perspective on my new daughter's upcoming world. What I know now is that Age 30 must've been my personal high-water mark for Fear of Lost Childhood Memories. That, as it turns out, was a good thing for me.

Sure, I miss a lot of that stuff. Cherry Sno-Cones tasted different then. A trip to McDonald's meant wondering if you could finally finish every bit of a Big Mac and large fries. After-school activities meant running home for a bologna-and-mustard sandwich and a big glass of cherry Kool-Aid (I still love that stuff) and then changing into your soccer shorts and cleats and getting ready for practice.

In these memories, for my purposes, there is no bad. There is only good. And this new Daddy finds such recollections to be exceptionally cleansing.

Of course the world is immeasurably different now. My daughter's world will have aspects to it that will probably make me want to run and hide. As Louis Armstrong tells us in what might be the most perfect matchup of voice to song that our world has ever produced:

I hear babies crying; I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.

Undoubtedly, we live in a world where stress is our daily medium. Haste is our minute-to-minute vehicle. And every so often we ought to get out of it and admire some of the sights we're leaving behind.

Next chance you get, glance at a happy baby. Relish that big grin of hers, how when she smiles she smiles with her bright eyes, her short arms, her pudgy legs, her entire body. When was the last time you did that? When was the last time you had a reason to?

Yeah, me too.

But I'm working to correct that. Now I make some effort to find a reason, if not on a daily basis, then at least once or twice a week.

It's a largely private thing for me, something I'd prefer to do when no one − not even The Wife − is around. For me, Getaway #1 is music. I mean, most of us probably listen to the music we grew up with. Here, I'm suggesting that you try loving it again.

In this way, music is really great for dragging up good kidhood visuals. I grew up in the 1980s, so Def Leppard and Culture Club and Madonna and Howard Jones and Poison and all that other stuff now gets played not only on occasional commutes to and from work, but also when I have a few moments to myself. (Napster, Kazaa, and the MP3 revolution were awful handy for this. Not that I've ever used my cable internet connection to download a single copyrighted tune. Ahem.) Instead of relegating the music to a level just above road noise, I make some effort to concentrate on it. I don't just wait; I go looking for the personal memories that inevitably project around the bass lines and electric guitars and drum beats and synthesized instruments.

Try reading the books you read as a kid. I'm rereading all my Three Investigators mysteries, and after that I'm going to tackle my collection of old Judy Blume novels. Somewhere down the road I'd like to get my hands on some Encyclopedia Brown books.

(On a sort of related note, did anyone out there get this same sort of déjà vu from Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes series that I did? If so, you might try picking up some of his collections. I know I treasure mine. And for what it's worth, I plan on giving my daughter a lot of the same "Why is such-and-such like it is?" answers that Calvin's dad gave him.)

Try watching some notable movies from your kidhood. Movies like E.T., A Christmas Story, and Star Wars and all its hyper-marketed offspring are so rooted in the happiness of my younger days that I often lose chunks of the movies on rewatch because I'm so wrapped up in remembering what I was running around doing back then.

I'm getting a lot of mileage out of a certain cluster of five or six kid memories. This will probably be the case for you, too, and there's nothing wrong with that. Two or three of my memories are so full of happiness and joy and inner peace that fifteen years later, when coupled with the right background music, they still bring me to tears, and there's not a darn thing I can do to hold them back. But make no mistake:   These are very good tears. These are tears worth looking forward to. Worth looking backwards for.

There are lots of Life Secrets in this world, and I'd like to think that I'm uncovering little nuggets of them and piecing them together, edge to edge, corner to corner. I think I've recently put one together, for sure, and it was probably only a secret to me because I'm largely new at being a parent and caring again about recovering something that I'd pushed to the very back of my mind's dark closets. Turns out it was much too valuable to lose.

Childhood is a wonderment. It is a beauty. And where children are, God is.

Work on recovering some of your childhood. When everything else is going wrong, look back in your life and unwrap those certain moments where being a kid made everything in the world exactly right. Clasp onto that gift again. Recover your "lost kid" at just the right time, and the rewards might not be monetary − at least, not in a direct way. But they can be rewards of a different sort, and they can be immense. Tearfully immense.

That is the reward of rediscovering happiness so strong, so pure, that you were practically blind to it back then.

Now . . . well, I could really go for a cherry Sno-Cone. Maybe after I plow through this Big Mac and fries.

Dollar says I finish every bit of it.

Michael | May 3, 2003

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