"Freedom is a garment that always looks great on display in a department store window.
The difficulties begin when we buy it, take it home, and put it on--the fit is rarely as snug as we hope for."
My Uncle Tasso
Ever since I was a kid, I have been obsessed with permission. No doubt this was because back then, so much of what I was able to do was qualified by getting the parental go-ahead to do it. The phrase, "May I have permission to" was as rote as my use of "please" and "thank you," which were staples of the day.
The funny thing is that I have never been able to admit to this fixation—even to myself—until recently. I’ve behaved like a man who is not dependent on anyone to grant me permission to do anything—when for most of my life just the opposite has been true. Permission was the key that unlocked the door to my freedom, and for far too many years, it was something I refused to carry.
Not surprisingly, my introduction to the idea that permission lived outside of me and was granted by people of power came from the initial purveyors of authority: my parents. And as I grew older, they extended that status to other adults, regardless of their qualifications. In their minds, I was just a kid and thus had to constantly defer to other adults. Why? Because, quite simply, they were older and assumably, they knew better. It was a system I accepted for a few years, though at some point, it ceased to fit me. I could feel it as oppressively as a garment that I had outgrown, leaving me tugging and pulling at myself to break loose. My efforts were rewarded one night in the most unsuspecting way.
Growing up, my family spent a lot of time at church. As a family we weren’t particularly pious; for us, church was a major social hub. My parents sang in the choir, and my sisters and I went to Sunday school more regularly than religiously. All this in addition to the numerous dinners and dances held there.
I was at one of those dances some time in my tenth year. At that age those dances overwhelmed me. Live music, Greek dancing, and people eating and drinking with an abandon that was so palpable it had its own scent. All of this churned into a smoke-tinged kaleidoscope that drove me wild with possibilities I couldn’t yet fully grasp.
On this specific night, I’d grown bored of dodging between flying feet and the clutched hands of the dancers that crowded the floor, so I retreated to a corner where I could just watch. As I scanned the room, everyone was waist-deep in celebration. Everyone, that is, except the church sexton, Mr. Kouras. A gallows pole of a man, he was the prototype adult-to-be-respected I had been weaned on. Even back then I was sure he was born looking older than he was, and because the nature of his job was to fix things, he was always looking for something to go wrong.
Well, at this particular gathering, the boiler malfunctioned, and the smell of smoke began wafting into the hall. Mr. Kouras sniffed the air suspiciously. Then, with all the gravity of a Secret Service agent looking for a bullet to take, he strode to the fire alarm in the back of the hall.
It was one of those old-fashioned fire alarms, the kind that was embedded into the wall behind a locked pane of glass. Next to the glass was a small mallet on a chain. In case of a fire, you were supposed to take the mallet off its hook, smash the glass, and sound the alarm. But the chain on this particular mallet had broken, and someone had placed it inside the glass compartment next to the alarm itself.
In an indescribable fit of panache, Mr. Kouras opened the pane of glass that shielded the alarm. He then took the mallet out, firmly closed the glass, smashed it with the mallet, reached in and rang the alarm. In that moment, it was as if a law of nature had been broken. Like I’d seen something falling up when it should’ve fallen down. I looked around to see if anyone else had witnessed what I’d just seen—an adult had done something wantonly stupid!
In that instant, the universe was reordered. I no longer struggled for permission to subvert my parents’ approach to authority. From that moment forward, respect was going to have to be earned for it to be exhibited. Nothing felt more liberating than that.
Growing up in the 60s, questioning authority became de rigueur. This event put a face on that fact. It wasn’t long after that I was at my cousin’s house and my aunt was making us lunch. As we sat down to eat, there was the cup of canned vegetable soup she always served—soggy shadows of what were once vegetables slowly drowning in a pasty pool of leaden broth. Before, whenever I protested her offering, my aunt prevailed by dint of her authority as someone "who knew what was good for me." But the vision of Mr. Kouras and his little mallet eroded her clout in a flash. When my aunt forced her hand, I stiffened, and countered with a pair of folded arms and a knowing smirk. No canned soup ever passed my lips again.
A couple of years later when I became an altar boy, I saw Mr. Kouras with great frequency. I never told him that I’d seen what he’d done that day, and how it gave me permission to think for myself. And I am glad that I didn’t because today I know that he didn’t give me that permission. I did. It’s something that I have to remind myself of every day, which, oddly enough, leaves me feeling free.