06/26/2014 04:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Pitfalls of Self-Expression


Fifth grade is beginning in less than a week. The summer has been a long one but with the new school year looming, perhaps not long enough. At the end of our block lives a boy one year older and a decade more experienced than any other kid my age. His name is John Hartwig and he's always been first. First to touch a girl's breast, first to smoke a cigarette and the first to own Hot Wheels, the model race cars he'd douse in rubbing alcohol and send careening down their narrow orange tracks in blue flames. Once, in the midst of the driest summer we Minnesotans had seen in years, he made a miniature hot air balloon out of a plastic bag, four drinking straws, several sewing pins and a couple dozen-birthday candles. The design was simple:

1. Double the length of each straw by inserting one end into another straw.
2. Crisscross the two lengthened straws and hold them in place with masking tape.
3. Push a row of pins upwards from the bottom of the straws until the pointy end is sticking through.
4. Carefully push the birthday candles onto the pins.
5. Secure the criss-crossed straws with the candles in the mouth of a large plastic bag,
6. Light the candles and watch the bag go slowly upwards as the hot air begins to rise.

To see this luminescent orb floating into the darkness of a Minnesota night was nothing short of breathtaking. It was so magical in fact, that neither John nor any of us watching had any concern about what might happen if the bag were to have gotten stuck in a treetop, landed on a shake roof or in a pile of dried leaves in someone's backyard. We never asked. We never cared.

In our neighborhood there are two orders of humanity. People who may look essentially the same, who may wear the same clothes and go to the same schools, but in fact, inhabit totally different universes. They are the Jews and the non-Jews. It's never clear if John Hartwig has ever made this distinction. To be fair, it's hard to describe. By my reckoning, the Jews are a people living in their own heads, inhabiting a place of thought alone. An inward directed world of imagining, replete with an overabundance of anxiety and second-guessing. The non-Jews, like John for instance, are far better rooted in the natural world. They are more awake to the very stuff of the physical dimension. They're at least a hundred times braver, and enviably to me at any rate, a thousand times more impulsive. It is this impulsivity that leads John Hartwig to suggest that we walk to the Peace Presbyterian Church and draw to our hearts content on the back door of the chapel.

"Everyone does it," he says.

When we arrive there with our colored Marks-a-lots and I see no other drawings on the door, I simply assume as I always do, that John knows best. I begin my drawing with a passionate red arc starting at the heavy brass handle and moving up the door as high as I can reach. As I'm about to add a flourish of green, John screams,


And run he does, like a fucking gazelle. Seconds later, a janitor grabs me by the arm and yanks me into the Minister's office. As I wait I realize I've just done something of colossal stupidity, something, for which I may be beaten -- or even killed. The Minister finally enters and through tears I try to explain that I didn't realize people weren't allowed to draw on the door.

"I thought the door was for self expression," I pleaded, (self expression being one of the loftiest virtues in our home).

The Minister just looks at me, more disgusted than angry, swivels his high-backed chair to turn away, and calls my mother to come take me home.