I have tried to isolate the first moment I knew I was going to stand in the middle of life. There had to be something profound in my life that left me so suspicious of seeming consensus, of being a follower. What gear in this clock of my mind so intently refuses to join anyone or anything without asking: Why? Surely, it was be a far simpler, cleaner path to follow along. All one has to do is find a crowd, step into the middle of it and walk or think or emote. Gangs exist for a reason. There is enormous power and validation in knowing that the person to each compass direction around you are your unwavering peers. I imagine how my body and mind would finally fully relax if I just stopped asking questions, accepted, bathed in the soothing pond of unrippled confirmation bias. Surely, there has to be an easier way to live.
One day, while watching a crew lay a new concrete, I was enjoying the well-oiled team. Every member of the crew knew where to be at the right time. And each person knew where not to be lest they create a minute diversion from the job at hand. When you watch such a crew, it is easy to see the leader, and tumble down the hierarchy of experience. Here, as is often true with construction crews here, the only language spoken was Spanish. Most remarkable, as a cement truck slurried its load at the feet of the patron, el jefe, the boss, was how little talking occurred at all. I could not even discern gestures exchanged except with the youngest member of the team who had the least important tasks but whose actual job was to watch and learn. The most important task, the micro leveling of the final surface to follow a slopping line, was the single hands-on task of the leader. When he pulled up his rubber boots and stepped into the unformed concrete, everyone else existed only to expect his needs. It was that crew that flipped open a long ignored synaptic connection to my first memory of being both a leader and in the middle.
Second grade, 1962. I had been daydreaming when the class left the room for an assembly. I liked assemblies, the breaks in the day’s rhythm, the white noise of a couple hundred children murmuring in the high ceilinged multi-purpose room. But this day, as I walked out the door, I did not know we were going to an assembly. I thought it was time for recess, maybe lunch. I jumped out of the line from the sidewalk to the grass and yelled, “ALL MY MEN!” I waved my hand in the air above my head in a circle so that my men knew to gather around me. But no one else moved. Instead, all the children started laughing, some pointing at me. The teacher simply shook her head and pointed me back in line. Sheepishly, I obeyed.
What in the world was that outburst all about?
Lunchtime playgrounds evolve their activities. The Lord of the Flies world of early 1960s boys would be utterly unrecognizable to any current child or teacher. It was the heart of the cold war. Several times a year, bells rang, and we pushed our desks together in an ersatz shelter. Huddled underneath the desks, we practiced what we were told was an earthquake drill. Fair enough, the San Andreas fault was visible a few miles away. But children across the country knew different. We were assuming the position to take when warned the Russian nuclear missiles were inbound. The apocalypse was on its way. Maybe it will surprise some that active shooter drills always existed. Ours were merely bigger guns. Still, the offhand references to the cold war were everywhere. Even my small town had mostly useless fall-out shelters. And, from the veterans of WWII or Korean or Viet Nam among us to the young men leaving for basic training, war was an easy theme to grasp.
Our little boy war happened daily on the lunchtime playground. Battle strategy (god only knows) was planned on the shorter breaks. It went like this. Boys would divide up into two large groups at opposite ends of the playground. We didn’t have defined fields, just a large expanse of lumpy, patchy grass. The two armies, yes, that is what we called them, formed around two opposing leaders. (For anyone dying to put this strangeness in a pointless 21st century context, the school was about half Latino and well blended. Race on that playground wasn’t a thing.) Leaders were always the most promising athletes, and as I recall, the correlation between athlete and bully was very close. After much whooping and hollering, the two amassed armies ran toward each other to do battle. Worried teachers, whoever was stuck with playground duty, watched at a distance, though blown whistles were rare. What happened in the battle was oddly non-violent. Oh, there was some bumping and pushing, but kids didn’t get hurt. Most of the duels were entirely imaginary. At some point, getting tired and close to the bell, one side declared victory with a chorus of yelling and arm waving. The winner seemed to be determined by which leader had the most followers. Yea, it turned into a popularity contest. For the teachers, this expunging was so much little boy energy was a blessing for the afternoon classes. Girls? I was a little boy and didn’t notice or care but they seemed to own the area around the parallel bars.
I was part of an army, but I didn’t like it. I suppose this is the nature, not nurture, part. I wanted to lead but wasn’t popular or athletic. But I had discovered the Civil War and was captivated by the stories of the cavalry troops who moved independently of the enormous armies raiding and constantly on the move. I decided that what I needed was my little army, one that could swing the battle. This seems like bizarrely sophisticated thinking for a second grader, but there it is. I started with my closest friends and carved the outcasts from the larger armies. Twenty-five, or slightly more, boys. I would rally them at the Juniper bushes at the back of the playground to watch the battle unfold and decide who we would rush to join. Yea, we were the cavalry arriving to save the day. I may have named the little band of rebels, but those synapses are not available.
My life now as a centrist, a sort of iconoclast, formed on that playground. I was both a leader and a politician. I had to recruit other boys to a non-mainstream cause. Mostly, I think there are people who are inspired by a simple thing. They don’t want to be them. Pick the them. The leaders of the two armies came to me, wanting to form an alliance. I don’t think I ever did that because it would have violated the essential nature of our little band. From that young age, I had an innate desire to stand in the middle, create a different path and make the case to others that ours was the rational choice. Don’t follow the assumed leaders and lend your energy to tipping the balance to something you have observed and consider right.
I don’t understand why I was that little boy, who was inherently suspicious of default paths, those routes with the least resistance. But, over my life, that desire has proven to be my most consistent philosophical and political identifier. I proudly started voting at 18 and only a few of my choices came from the two parties. I fear dogma more than the little chaos of assembling independent opinions. Extremism, when applied to anything but baseball, is abhorrent. In a time dominated by the consolidation under orthodoxy, I am resolutely heterodox. What could have been more fitting than my choice to focus my graduate work on social and political polarization?
The middle way can be lonely. Generally, people pick a side and stay there. I dip into writers and thinkers on both sides of our current political dilemma and do so with a mostly open mind. (When I tell people here that I also watch FoxNews, they often say, “Oh, I can’t do that.”) People don’t like to have core beliefs questioned, so my love of the word ‘why’ can get me into trouble. Still, I am glad that seeing that crew working concrete broke loose a memory of a little boy raider and his band of outcasts. When it gets windy above, in the swaying branches, knowing the depth of one’s roots is mighty reassuring.