Because I am a true American original, one of my favorite books is “Catcher in the Rye.” Just a pretty obscure and impenetrably deep novel that I am virtually alone in liking. Sometimes, though, when I hear or read people discussing “Catcher” I feel like I read a completely different book than everyone else, because I’ve never really felt terribly misunderstood by society or regarded every one else in the world as a phony. I know that that’s a phase a lot of teenagers go through, and some of them never grow out of it, a fact of which I am intimately aware because the ones who never grow out of it all end up moving to New York.
If the teenage Kook could have been bothered to spend his time doing anything other than rollerblading around the neighborhood with his shirt off, begging people to drive him to Smith’s to buy Pringles, and glaring at anyone over the age of 18, I think the themes of alienation and phoniness in “Catcher” would have resonated with him. But that wasn’t ever my thing. I actually didn’t come to love the novel until I was in my 20s, when I re-read it shortly after moving to New York. It was on this reading that I noticed – and heavily identified with – two themes that had largely escaped my attention when I first read it as a teenager: 1. The effect that children can have on adults, which I can best describe as the effect that aloe has on a sunburn, and 2. The yearning teenagers and adults sometimes feel for the ease and innocence of childhood.
It’s silly, I suppose, to prop one’s head upon one’s palm and daydream about carefree days long since gone. But it would be untrue for me to claim that it’s not a silliness in which I allow myself to indulge every so often. I hasten to mention that I am very happy with my life. It isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s turned out quite well so far and I have every reason to believe it will continue to do so. It isn’t so much a matter of being unhappy and longing for a time when I was happy as it is having challenges and responsibilities and problems and pining for a time when I didn’t.
Children do have challenges and responsibilities and problems, I guess, but relative to those associated with even the happiest adult life, they kind of don’t. The great tragedy of all of this, of course, is that children don’t know that they their lives are ridiculously easy. Little idiots. I thought my life was hard because I had piano lessons once a week. You know what, though? There was one time a year when even as a kid I was conscious of just how amazing my life was. That time was summer. I didn’t understand it in its glorious fulness, but I did understand it on a basic level.
And what was so great about summer as a kid? Good heavens. Was it the absence of having to do things I didn’t like, or was it the abundance of awesome things that I loved to do? Both. It was both. There are so many things I want to write about this topic – hand fishing, water ballooning, yearbook calling, bird hunting, night walks – but it’s 11:30 PM, and I have to get up and go to work tomorrow. I guess this can be my little kick-off to the next couple of summer-related posts.
There’s a famous part of “Catcher in the Rye” where the protagonist, Holden, describes his desire to save children from growing up, or as he terms it, “go(ing) over the cliff.” “I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
Holden was ultimately wrong, of course. Adulthood, even with its attendant challenges, is necessary and beautiful and ultimately better than childhood. But I know what he means. And every once in a while I find myself wishing I could turn around and scale that cliff and get back to the field of rye. And if I were to somehow succeed in doing this, I would then will it to be summer in the field of rye. And then I would go hand fishing.