Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.
Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream
A pity the real world isn’t always friendly.
To my best recollection as a child I didn’t find the world terribly friendly. When I was four, the world often took the form of a shattering thunderstorm. You never knew when soul-ripping sound would explode around you or when a sight-stealing blue bolt would blast a nearby treetop. One had to tread carefully. One could not be too careful. But one was too young to forecast the weather. So when the sheet of punishing rain marched down the street in your direction, it was time to run as fast as your stumpy legs could carry you. I speak in metaphor, but for the very young there is little difference between the metaphor and the real thing. The tender psyche reads them the same.
For me the best shelter from the metaphorical tempest was deep, deep, deep within my mind, where I drifted like a feather downwards into oblivion, at first for peace and then because I came to like it better than “real” life. In my safe, submerged world, grownups were two dimensional, dimwitted figures, as in the stories by Roald Dahl–James with his Giant Peach, Charley with his Factory. My third grade teacher, Miss Ott, fed my ant-lion brain by reading Dahl to the class. I was an eager and willing acolyte of those caustic black ink characters. My voracious imagination began to construct its own adventures, full of living toy soldiers and unlikely heroes (like a young, dark-haired boy), and, naturally, maidens who needed rescuing.
Many of my earliest conjured adventures were in black and white. That was Shirley Temple’s fault.
I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a collection of Shirley Temple movies in a bargain bin at the bookstore. Shirley Temple was my first ever celebrity fixation (I must have been a sucker for soft focus). In my monochromatic dreams, I vastly improved the plots of Shirley’s films by being in them myself. I was careful, mind you, not to replace the handsome leading man who played the heroine’s father. That would have been stupid, because He With The Nicely Trimmed Mustache had to smile down beneficently upon the boy hero and praise him for his selfless bravery. This was required to round out the plot.
In my dreams, the Trimmed Mustache belonged to Errol Flynn. No matter that Flynn never played opposite Shirley Temple. I never knew that he hadn’t. It was common knowledge that all the guys in the old black and white movies really wished they were Errol Flynn. They certainly tried their best to be like him. But naturally no one could do black and white action quite like Flynn. Even Ronald Reagan wanted to be Errol Flynn. So, for me, Errol Flynn was in every Shirley Temple movie, too. The logic was nearly overpowering.
Even in my fantasy-reinforced mental storm cellar the battering thunder and lightning had a way of blowing in from time to time, messing up the carefully regulated symmetry of my inner life. The onslaught could be relentless at times, and cruel. I’ll never forget the day I was watching television, all innocent and unsuspecting, when a middle-aged woman with a black bun for savage emphasis was introduced by the show host as Shirley Temple Black. Milk and corn flakes spewed from my nose as my world came crashing down around me in my Apollo 11 pajamas. It was without a doubt one of the worst days of my life.
That’s how I first learned what it was like to be unlucky in love. How I managed to move on, I couldn’t tell you, but manage I did. I moved on to Lena Zavaroni.
In fact, Lena Zavaroni prompted this little daisy chain of awkward reminiscence. Her name popped into my head randomly after more than thirty-five years of slumber in my subconscious. I have no idea how this sort of thing happens. But I guess I should be glad it was her and not the girl who challenged me to a wrestling match when I was seven and almost beat me. Her name I don’t recall. (Okay. It was Jodie.)
At first I couldn’t actually place the name that had popped into my brain, so I did what anyone else would do in that situation. I Googled it, unsure of any result and not really expecting anything to come of it. But then I saw a picture and … with a funny (as in “curious, beyond or deviating from the usual or expected”) rush, it all came back to me.
Long ago, my father, out of concern for the educational well-being of the domus, had been good enough to supply our working-class, middle-income household with the emphatically unclassy New Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia from whose coarse, cheaply printed pages I wrote my first ever research paper–on Adolf Hitler, of all people. Five whole, scarcely legible pages emerged from the sweat-slippery pencil one night and I thought I had delivered my own Kampf. Miss Salvin, my fifth grade teacher, thought so, too, because she gave me an A and wrote, in declarative red-ink, “Great job, Matt. I can tell you worked very hard on this.” It was the only thing I ever got an A for in my entire elementary school career.
So the Book of Knowledge was kind to me and I ended up spending a great deal of time with it. For a while, we got additional annuals like clockwork once a year with the latest scientific discoveries, technological advances, geo-political news and top entertainment stories. And in 1974 I was flipping through the newest annual with its new glue smell when I came across the photo of an eleven-year old Scottish singer, an actual star close to my age, (I was 12). Her name was Lena Zavaroni. I remember pausing for quite a while over that photo and then finding it again several times after that and re-reading the extended caption beneath it, something about the astonishing talent of this child sensation.
Truth be told, I never heard Miss Zavaroni sing, never saw her on television, never listened to an album of hers, never read a single other news item about her, never even heard the slightest mention of her name again from any other source until just before writing this.
But those minor obstacles were unimportant at the time. Shortly before I first saw Miss Zavaroni’s photo, my family had joined a tiny religious sect that thought the Second Coming was due any second. To prepare for the momentous event, we got rid of our TVs, foreswore movies and wanton music, fled to the mosquito-infested swamplands of southeast Virginia and planted ridiculously abundant vegetable gardens. We canned the fat of the land and tarried in virtuous misery for the happy return of the Lord of hosts. Like the survivors of “The Thing” in the original Cold War era science fiction movie, we kept watching the skies. For ten years we watched the skies, until I grew old enough to head out to college and rediscover the planet beneath my feet.
For a brief time in 1974, Lena Zavaroni’s photo filled in for the tragically fallen Shirley Temple as I began a serious withdrawal into my mental bunker. I believe it may have been the timing that has made the photo stick in my mind. The thunder storms of life associated with the isolationist sect would make a wasteland of the real world for a time. I can’t recall any adventures I concocted, nor from exactly what perils I saved the little singer, but the fascination evaporated as soon as I found C.S. Lewis, Dickens, Verne and Tolkien, who broadened my little horizons considerably and took my daydreams into far more epic proportions. Lena was forgotten.
Back to the future, or “Meanwhile,” as the Internet meme goes, I stumbled again on the existence of Lena Zavaroni after three and a half decades … and no sooner did I find that she had grown and enjoyed a celebrated career than I also found that she was dead. It was as if Google had resurrected someone from my distant past, flashed an entire life in front of me, and then closed the book on it, all in a few minutes of surfing. There was something decidedly cruel and harshly real about it at the same time.
Lena Zavaroni fell victim, as have many others, to the perils of child stardom. She suffered cruelly from anorexia, led a desperately sad, psychologically impaired adulthood and died in 1999 at the age of 35, too fragile to recover from pneumonia in the wake of surgery. She spent every penny she had earned as a singer on treatments for her depression and disorders, but they all failed. In the end, she was eking out a meager existence on welfare. She is remembered now as a British Judy Garland or Karen Carpenter and still has a loyal fan following who strive to keep her memory alive with photos and video clips from her many performances. A film based on her life was in the works at one time, but seems to have gone by the wayside.
Obviously this isn’t going to be one of those happy parables with a tight little compositional bow tied on. The real world wasn’t friendly to Lena. Her life and career mirrored the Shakespeare lines I quoted at the beginning, “So quick bright things come to confusion.” No Errol Flynn, or other heroic stand-in, was there to save her. Those who tried to help her labored in vain.
It was, and is, hard for me not to take the whole thing just a little personally, along the lines by which all of us to a certain degree bend the whole universe around our own little lives. While Zavaroni’s life and death–in reality–have nothing remotely to do with me, a mostly forgotten fictional version of her had lived in my mind all this time and seemed taken by surprise by the turn of events in real life that spelled an untimely end to the fiction as well. There’s probably a quirky one-act play in there somewhere.
And of course, this got me wondering how many self-manufactured oddities rattle around inside us, like space junk flying around Earth even now, mostly forgotten but ready to become suddenly very noticeable in bus-sized pieces without much warning.
Maybe I’m conflating the issue. Maybe most people don’t have a lot of mental space debris orbiting their micro-cosmic psyches. That would be a good thing. But Lena’s story suggests that our private carefully crafted versions of reality may have flaws.
For we do craft our internal realities and project them onto the world. Everyone does.
It’s how we make sense of things, how we order our waking lives. And when we sleep, the windmills of life and the knights of imagination mingle in riotous dance. I’m old enough..and wise enough, I hope…to know that Dorothy’s storm cellar is a hiding place for children. As such it isn’t a bad place. It was actually a very good place for me to be sometimes. But as an adult, one must learn when to take shelter and when to stand atop the mountain and hurl lightning back at the storm. As a child, you have to run.
Lena’s memory took me back for a little rummage into a cobweb festooned corner of my existence. At the same time it forced me to reflect on the intersection of people’s stories, these apparently random connections that are as visible as dust motes but as substantial as monuments. This brief reflection is but one offshoot of a connection so ephemeral as to have no measurable being. And yet … now that I have released it into the world, who knows where it will go from here?