Memoir: moments of freedom, part 1

For this post, “freedom” is the sense of agency one gets when freed from external constraints on one’s choices. This freedom from allows one the freedom to–to choose one’s course in a universe where “free will” is ultimately an illusion.

Feeling free never lasts. It’s there for a moment that passes as soon as you choose a new course of action, which limits your freedom again. But while there, feeling free from control and feeling free to act are very pleasant, which must be why I remember “free” moments from my childhood so well.

Spring 1971: It is Friday night, so I am homework free. Once I finish the dishes, if my older sisters have not already claimed it, the basement tv is mine! Until my extended bedtime of 10:30 pm, it is I who am free to choose among the five VHF channels. My preferences, at last, matter (“free at last”). I choose channel seven, and watch ABC’s The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, The Odd Couple, and finally Love, American Style, followed by the ten-o’clock news, probably on WGN, channel nine. To intensify my dopamine, I drink at least one16-ounce Coke and eat a frozen pizza or munch a bag of salty, oily snacks. Relaxed in my bed at 10:45, my body fully satiated, I smile, pleased with my self. I have curated an entire evening of comfort, using what I have to enhance my experience, just like a big person.

Summer 1971: I am ten, and when free from chores I hop on my green Stingray and ride through all the paths of nearby Rhem Park, wearing my hockey helmet to resemble motorcycle cops and mirror sunglasses to resemble Walking Boss Godfrey in Cool Hand Luke. My Levi’s jean jacket displays patches I have chosen to represent my evolving values:  “Keep on truckin,’” Betty Boop, and the Rolling Stones’ tongue, which my older sister finds disgusting. Somehow, her distaste makes that patch more valuable.

As I cruise, a stream of exciting narratives like the Jack Webb (Dragnet, Adam 12, Emergency) dramas I watch at night play out in my imagination. I am the humble star, protector of and hero to the hopeless. I notice the kids in the neighborhood laugh at my conceit, but inside I feel comforted: with my freedom, I have crafted a persona and then, boldly, carried it into the world.

Spring 1977, Having just received my Illinois Driver’s License, I am free at last from relying on public transport or others for rides. In auto-based American culture, a young man’s rite of passage is to get alone behind the wheel and take his place in the only space where it matters: on the street with the adults. I drive a 1973 Dodge Duster. I have waxed it to an impressive shine, and installed an after-market FM radio so I can enjoy quality music as I drive. It is my mother’s car, but on this blue sky May afternoon, it feels all mine. I maneuver it down Oak Park Avenue near Lake and amazingly enough, just then the Who comes on the radio. I crank the volume and shout along with Roger Daltrey from the Tommy soundtrack, “I’m Free!/ Free/and freedom ta-a-a-stes of re-al-ity.” For a moment, my constraints feel entirely lifted, and I exult in the far-ranging potential this license has given me. 

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