"What can we learn," Joshua Rothman wonders in a New Yorker essay, "by asking if we've always been who we are? . . . Are you the same person you were as a child?" Questions worth asking but answering them requires knowing who you were as a child and who you are now and figuring out how to determine whether those two identities are the same or different. I return to Rothman's challenge to readers: "Try to remember life as you lived it years ago, on a typical day in the fall." A typical fall day in my childhood quickly arose in memory, but I needed to get inside that skinny blonde kid, not just conjure him from photographs or recall the places and people he recognized outside himself.
As a child I was a relentless reader who tended to create adventure stories where I pretended to be a superhero of some kind or a western hero of some kind or a Robin-Hoody/Zorro-ishy swashbuckler of some kind. What I read in comic books or comic strips or heard on the radio fired my imagination towards variations that suited my preferences. I never imagined myself playing sports and seldom attended sporting events or watched them on TV. Hanging out with friends I preferred donning a costume like those worn by action stars and pretending to overcome various villains. We never played on opposing teams trying to beat one another—we were always the good guys. When hiking across town and climbing trees in Outwater Park, I tried to emulate Tarzan's movements from tree to tree or ducked into the only cave-like space on the hillside to hide out or pretended a shootout in the cemetery made me leap (or at least clamber) over tombstones.
Reading, viewing, listening, and writing isolated me. My neighborhood friends didn't go to my elementary school and had other friends elsewhere; I had a lot of time to myself. I often claimed to be sick and stayed home from school catching up on my reading and imagining myself to be someone else. I had my own bedroom, my own radio and record player, and the solitude to sing along with teen performers and share their lyrical emotions without indulging in lifestyles the songs implied.
Somehow I got through high school and college and became a high school English teacher—still writing all the while, mostly short stories, one very short high school novel, a college newspaper column, reviews and poems—and went on to grad school, where I took up creative nonfiction as a scholar and an essayist/memoirist. I taught composition and creative nonfiction for almost thirty years, published academic articles and books, and eventually concentrated on composing literary nonfiction.
My essays and memoirs were largely either about where I'd been and what I'd done there or about other writers and what they'd written about. That seems very much like an extension of what I'd been doing when I was young, learning from what I'd read or viewed or listened to and imagining myself as one of those people. In youth I had modeled myself on Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran; in adulthood I connected to Ruth Douglass, Isabella Bird, John Muir, and others. My literary studies angled towards dramatists and essayists whose work appealed to me most, often less celebrated than others, or whom I identified with more, like the Restoration dramatist Thomas Southerne, E. B. White as an essayist, and nature writers Aldo Leopold and August Derleth.
When I consider the adjectives that would best describe me as a youth, I think of these: withdrawn, solitary, reserved, self-absorbed, shy. Over the intervening decades I had to learn to be (or to at least seem) more sociable, approachable, cheerful, and outgoing. All these later traits were necessary developments for me to become a lecturer, classroom teacher, scholastic advisor, husband, and father. I've been mostly comfortable in those roles and certainly the happiest.
But it occurs to me that those traits aren't ones that define me for myself. I'm now a retiree, almost exclusively an aged homebody, and my most outward-seeming behavior is what I'm doing here: writing about what I've been reading, reacting to ideas that circumstances have suggested I might think about. My social life is limited—it doesn't often occur to me to get in touch with anyone (I receive almost no personal mail or email and mostly post only a "like" in reaction to others' Facebook posts, seldom a comment, almost never a judgement.)
So to Joshua Rothman I guess I'd reply (if I had to) that I'm pretty much the same person I was as a child, despite accommodations that growing up has influenced me to willingly accept. That's who I am. That's okay.
Notes: Rothman, Joshua. "Becoming You". The New Yorker (October 10, 2022: 20-24)