The Bell Tolls

When I was fourteen I began a friendship with a young man almost three years older than I. It would be the most complicated relationship of my childhood, and as is often the case with such friendships I felt drawn into it as if having been caught at the edge of a seductive whirlpool. My behavior with him often puzzled me. There were days I would find myself marching over to his house dutifully, a good soldier fulfilling his conscription. One of my earliest memories of this friend was of him asking me what sort of music I liked. I did not understand at the time of the asking what a weighty question this was. At fourteen I was only just emerging from the full cocoon of childhood. In fact, a teacher who saw me through all four years of high school remarked during my senior year, “Bill, you were kind of out of it when you first showed up.”

Out of it enough not to recognize to whom I was talking when I told my friend that I loved the band Styx. This information was at first met with a controlled silence. For those of you too old or too young to remember the composers of Come Sail Away and numerous other guitar rock hits of the late 70’s, that’s just as well. Or perhaps it isn’t. My feelings about Styx changed forever the day shortly thereafter when my friend and I got into an argument and he pointed out, “Well, at least I don’t listen to Muzak like Styx.”

As my teacher said, I had been a little out of it. It had not occurred to me that one’s taste in music or books or anything had any bearing on one’s worth. After all, this liking seemed to occur independent of me. I heard a song, and the happy bell of liking either went off or it didn’t. I had no control over it. Now, it appeared, this bell could be wrong. I never listened to Styx again.

In retrospect, I would have moved on from Styx without my friend’s criticism. My tastes were changing as rapidly as my body at that time. I would use this evidence of my evolving tastes to soothe the voice that said I had betrayed myself the day I put my Styx albums away. But it was confusing. The bell of liking Styx had truly stopped ringing, stopped just as it began – without my friend or me raising a hand. I could not make it start again anymore than I could stop it when I saw my wife-to-be for the first time four years later.

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