Everyday Neoteny

September 11, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Auto-Biography, Neoteny, Play

When I was a kid, my mom worked part-time in the local toy store, Wienecke’s.  I would stop there on the way home from school.  In the early grades, I’d stop and look at dinosaurs, seeking new ones to add to my collection.  Wienecke’s had a chemistry supply department.  When I was in sixth grade, the toy store ladies wondered at what experiments I was conducting that required so much saltpeter, sulfur and carbon.  I had a bomb-making laboratory in my basement. Creative ways to make loud noises was all the craze among my friends.  I was a poor chemist.  An arms manufacturer or terrorist I would not be.

I dreamed of when I would be old enough to work at the toy store as the gopher fix-it boy whose job it was to put together tricycles and wagons, run up and down the stairs and price inventory.  Finally, I achieved 16 and was offered the job after passing the grilling by the store matron, Ruth.  It was 1968.

My mom had been placed in a mental institution for a third time for manic-depression.  My parents’ divorce began.  The playful part of my personality was subdued.  One of the two older, hippie cashier girls introduced me to Ayn Rand, and I became a fan.  Proceeding to read every book she wrote, I found that the Rand cult of individuality didn’t feel contradictory to my soon-to-emerge hippie ethic.

Identifying with the artist architect in The Fountainhead, I remember encouraging my businessman father to read the capitalist anthem Atlas Shrugged.  He liked science fiction.  He didn’t like thick books.  I was unaware that it was a virtual manifesto for the Social Darwinism branch of Republicanism.  I loved the heroes.  I wrestled with the idea that altruism was a dirty word.  If he’d read the tome, it would have been something my dad and I had in common.  The moment passed.  My hair grew longer.  A friend introduced me to some of his older sister’s weed.  I joined a high school anti-war organization.  It would be almost 25 years before I would feel that Dad and I were on the same page.

My mother was introduced to lithium, fell in love with Bernie Christianson and moved to Washington State.  I left to go to college in St. Petersburg, Florida.  In 1971, Florida Presbyterian was one of three institutions in the country where you could pretty much show up and take the courses that you wanted.  If the course was not offered, you could design it.  I adored school.  For decades after graduating, I’d have dreams of going back.  This desire would be during difficult times in my life.  I’d awaken confused that I wasn’t back in college.  I was confused that I wasn’t having fun.

First semester, in November, I lost my virginity to a girl who, after the culminating moment, opened up her bed bolster to reveal her dinosaur collection.  They were the exact same dinosaurs that were my first passion when I was small.  Except these were painted in pastel, girl colors.  If ever there was a sign that she was for me, this was it.  Then she told me she had a boyfriend.  I was ushered out of her dorm room and out of childhood by a girl with pastel dinosaurs.  It could have been worse.

Coming home from Christmas break while at college, I’d work a week at Wienecke’s during Christmas rush and then participate in inventory.  Returning to the college dorm with many toys, my room filled with the accoutrements of childhood.  It became the play room.  Students would do a drug, regress and come to my room to draw in coloring books, play a musical instrument or explore the toys.

Once I returned to college with two dozen squirt guns.  I distributed them to the guys in the dorm.  The melee escalated.  By evening, students were filling three-foot garbage cans with water, ringing buzzers and dousing friends.

At graduation, I got the idea to pass out bubbles to the graduates as they arrived to be seated for the ceremony.  My buddy Martin, the student association president, had a couple hundred dollars left in the account.  Bubbles burst against the brows of graduates and administrators for two hours.  It was a jubilant event.  Thirty years later it’s the tradition.

I met my first wife as I was drawing her son’s portrait while sitting on the city’s summer sidewalk in 1978.  I met my second wife when I walked into her toy store to sell her the greeting card reproductions of my watercolor maps of places that don’t exist.  In time, I was again working Christmas rush and conducting toy inventory.

Life being a dream:  love, toys, sex and childhood are all themes that keep resurfacing through the years.  Neoteny is not just a scientific principle.  Neoteny is a lifestyle.  Whether it’s playing with dinosaurs, playing with political ideologies or just playing, neoteny recognizes wonder in the everyday.


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