I am approaching a birthday, and birthdays always seem like a time to assess my life. Actually, for many years now they have seemed like a time to shriek with horror over the prospect of mortality, but I’ll settle for the assessment. Today, I’ve decided to look back at what can only be called idiot moments. There have been so many over the years that it will be hard to pick just a few. But here are a couple that come to mind.
I am not known for my bravery, but I did something at the age of 11 which showed bravery, or, to put it more accurately, incredible stupidity.
I was the skinniest boy in my seventh-grade homeroom. I had complained about this to my dad, who assured me that I was not. But one day in our gender-segregated hygiene class the teacher measured the heights of weights of all the boys in the class and announced them out loud. Loving math, I wrote them all down, and divided each boy’s weight by his height; I discovered that my ratio was the lowest. I was right. Plus I was not very tall. I was, in a two-word phrase, a skinny shrimp.
But I was a boy, and boys challenge other boys.
A popular pastime in the schoolyard after lunch was “Indian wrestling” (probably today called Native American wrestling). Two boys stood facing each other, with their right feet side by side; they then grasped each other’s right hand. Another boy said “Go,” and each participant would try to dislodge the other from his position.
I challenged Robert, one of the biggest boys in the class.
He protested. “No, Mark,” he said. “It’ll be ridiculous.”
But I was a boy. I had to prove myself.
So we assumed the position, surrounded by other boys; we took each other’s right hand, and someone said, “Go!”
The next thing I knew I was flying through the air and coming down head first to the ground. Amazingly — and maybe because I was so low to the ground — I don’t think I lost consciousness. But my head hurt terribly all afternoon, and the next day my neck was so stiff I couldn’t go to school.
But I had proved myself.
I had proved myself an idiot.
Another incident occurred when I was 11 or 12, and my brother was about 10, and our parents had left us home alone for a couple of hours one afternoon. Of course, this was a mistake. I don’t know if you’d call it child abuse or neglect, because we were, theoretically, a couple of pretty bright young guys, and this was a Jewish neighborhood in 1950s Brooklyn, where violent crime was almost unheard of. But leaving brothers alone together for any length of time before they reach the age of 60 or so is probably unwise.
What I thought might be fun was to toast some matzo. So I got a small piece and put it in the toaster. After a minute or so, when I figured it was done, I tried to take it out, but there was no way to reach it without using a fork. So without unplugging the toaster, I put the fork in.
Suddenly, I was jerked sharply backward.
Wow, I thought, that was great!
I didn’t realize that what had happened was that I had literally received a jolt of electricity, enough to convulse my body. All I knew is that I had had an incredible experience, which made my usual attempt to change my consciousness — namely, spinning — seem like a childish waste of time.
“Try it,” I said to my brother. “Come on, try it!”
While he was younger, he was in this case wiser, and he declined. I guess it had looked pretty frightening to see me thrown backward. And, actually, I did not repeat it. Something in my brother’s look of alarm probably convinced me that this was a one-time thrill.
I have long considered myself a pretty cautious person, but I guess that as a child I was relatively fearless (or monumentally stupid). Along with the Indian wrestling and toaster incidents, I once put my finger into the socket the guy at the corner hardware store used to test light bulbs, and another time I swung from our refrigerator door, jumping down only as the refrigerator began to fall forward.
Thankfully, I did wise up as I got older. Otherwise I could have wound up a candidate for one of those “Darwin awards,” which commemorate those who, according to the books and website of the same name, “improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.”