The teenage years continue to haunt me literarily. Stuck as I was in a Milwaukee back brace for scoliosis, books were my means of escape. I read a ton of Paul Zindel books from age 13 to 17. Zindel, who died in 2003, was the literary voice of adolescent angst in the 1970s and 80s. The product of a broken marriage, he lived a somewhat rag-tag life with his mother and sister which fueled his plays and, later, his novels. (Zindel's 1964 play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds won the Pulitzer prize.)
Zindel's characters were usually fringe-type folk: nerds, dysfunctionals, obsessives, and though mostly young, sometimes ranged to the elderly--The Pigman and The Pigman's Legacy had older main characters. The teens consistently had quirky family lives (a hallmark of 1970s YA fiction, it seems) and looked to friends for normalcy and balance. Although I loved everything Zindel wrote through the 80s, the novel that continually pops into my mind now is Pardon Me, You're Stepping on my Eyeball. Just the title was enough for me to grab it from the shelf at my local Paperback Booksmith back in 1979. The plot centers on Edna Shinglebox, a plain quiet girl, whose perenially dateless life is a disappointment to her mother. Marsh Mallow is the school misfit who carries around a raccoon in his pocket. The unlikely two befriend each other and head on a crazy cross-country trip. What strikes me now, reading Zindel's prose, is the delightful hilarity infusing every artfully constructed sentence. There is humor here, and delicious irony, as he simultaneously pot-shoots and pardons the popular kids. The football captain may be a moron, but he's not evil, is he? And the pretty girl is actually really kind. Marsh Mallow is weird but smart, and, well, cute. Not everyone is a stereotype, Zindel suggests. Don't look for either black or white, this or that--most people you will meet in life are a subtle blending of both.
This lesson of living life in the gray in-between is one to relearn. People cannot be defined by political parties or religion, by family background or street addresses. Polite conversations in American living rooms are nearing extinction. Democrats, Republicans, whatever--we're all guilty of shoving an agenda down chit chat's throat. I can't tell you how many times a well-meaning discussion about the weather has turned into a political debate about global warming [or climate change :)] When did polite conversation become a battleground? I'm a mild mannered soul, and even I've found myself trapped in a dialogue quickly turning to lava. So, I've decided to return to one of the lessons I learned very young, the theme of Paul Zindel's and other 1970s children's authors' books: tolerance in your community. Pluralism in your own kitchen. And (sigh, because this will be difficult) minding the gray in-between with your very own children. Listen, nod, and smile: life is more colorful lived in the gray.