At 10, I worried because I couldn't make the sides of my tongue curl upward, so it looked like a taco.
It was the big thing in the fifth grade. All my friends could do it. But not me, even after practicing in front of a mirror, night after night.
Now, 13 years later, I can easily make a tongue taco. What worries me is how happy I can get just being able to do such a simple, stupid thing.
Here I am, about a month ago, standing in the dressing room of a respected department store, disheveled and bored from trying on itchy blazers, wondering if I can make the tongue taco and then making it.
I'm thrilled because I can. And because I know someone's watching my accomplishment through the mirror, since stores like to hire peepers to snatch shoplifters.
Days later, it occurs to me that maybe I should be embarrassed.
None of my parents or relatives would have done that when they were 23. What would they think? And other important people, like an editor or priest?
They'd think I'm weird.
After all, I am an adult. I'm supposed to feel wise and mortal.
As a kid, I envied adults because they seemed so knowledgeable about life's secrets: Why does everyone have to die? Are the dead lonely? How did the world begin? Why was I born? Why were you born? Why do dogs bark, cats purr, humans babble? What provokes a person to kill? Why do some people have hair on their toes?
Becoming an adult was supposed to be a trade-off: Exchange childlike wonder for grown-up wisdom.
A couple of years ago, when I turned 21 and "officially" became an adult, I mentally pushed aside my childlike ways and waited for profound insights to grip my mind. When that didn't work, I acted like a 2-year-old, asking adults for answers to my long list of whys.
Everyone had different answers, leading me to conclude that everything is uncertain.
So why suppress my desire, on hot days, to blast friends with squirts from a water gun? Why pretend I'm mortified--when I'm obviously delighted--at my mom's offer to verbally kick the butt of a psycho-pervert who wouldn't back off until slapped with a restraining order? And why feel embarrassed about making tongue tacos?
Even when I think about the tongue taco and the time I flew with my Smoki Icon of Greatness (a black stuffed mutt memorializing the best dog ever) to a job interview, not realizing that, soon, the editor with the power to hire me would meet me and my Smoki Icon of Greatness, who was way too big for my overnight bag.
What would I say? "Hi, nice to meet you. I'm Kristina Sauerwein, and this here is my Smoki Icon of Greatness, who accompanied me because sometimes I'm afraid to fly, despite loving turbulence, and he gives me security. Now let us tell you why you should hire me. . . ."
(Crisis averted: The editor was late, so I had time to buy a cheesy T-shirt, which came in a cheery bag, which nicely hid the big dog.)
Still not embarrassed.
Even when I think about the tongue taco and the doggie interview and the time I strapped myself into a kiddie swing at a Palos Verdes park--because I just had to feel free, to swing as hi, hi, high as I could--and got stuck in front of an ex-boyfriend whom I still found attractive even though I didn't want to "go" with him.
I'm thinking of all this, the 102 stuffed animals I will never give up, the sprinkler I recently danced through after work, the tree I like to climb in Torrance, and I can't make myself feel embarrassed.
I'm thinking that I should ask an expert about my childlike likes because maybe it means I'm weird in a bad way.
So I call Phyllis Lieber, a counselor who co-wrote "Grown-Up Children, Grown-Up Parents" (Birch Lane Press, 1994). I explain my ways and ask her if I should be concerned because sometimes being adultish looks so un-fun that I don't want anything to do with it. Or perhaps this is something all people in their 20s go through?
After a spurt of little-girl laughs, Lieber's voice turns authoritative.
"Well, I wouldn't say everyone goes through that. And I wouldn't worry because you are aware of the way you act."
Lieber then sighs an official-sounding sigh before 'fessing up.
"Actually, I love to skip through parks and sing and play in the water," the grandma says in a spirited tone that makes me think, "Aha! So that's why she's so hard to reach by phone."
"I think it's healthy not to bury that childlike part of yourself," Lieber adds. "As long as you're responsible when it's important. Are you?"
I'm on my own. Feel solid about my career goals. I curse Uncle Sam. Fret over boring things like bills, President Clinton and good hygiene. I've learned that sex doesn't always mean love. Things aren't always what they seem. And that for life to be fulfilling, difficult decisions must be made.
Most of this stuff, I'd learned before I hit puberty. Had to. In this regard, I'm just like other people in my age group.
Although trapped in pity-me prose, Elizabeth Wurtzel, 27, deplores this reality, specifically among children of divorce, in an essay in "Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation" (W.W. Norton, 1994).
A screwed-up family, a screwed-up economy and, in general, a screwed-up society have screwed up the traditional transition from childhood to adulthood, Wurtzel writes, so that people in their 20s "got the whole life cycle backward: all grown-up and running a household at 10 and all set to jump on the seesaw and slip down the sliding pond at 25."
It's a correct observation, but Wurtzel's conclusion is too narcissistic. According to people I've talked with who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, things have always been screwed up, though maybe in different ways.
Yet these people, like Lieber, still bubble when revealing secret pleasures they've indulged in since childhood: for example, reading Judy Blume books (a 42-year-old woman), playing with trains (a 67-year-old man), eating dessert for dinner (a married couple in their 50s), bouncing on a trampoline (my 45-year-old mom) and chasing sea gulls on the sand (my 48-year-old dad).
But they're reluctant about publicly expressing their fun--something about manners and dignity?--whereas those of us in our 20s don't care if we look silly to some outsider who will probably never know or see us.
We've grown up in a shocked-out society numb to human oddities. No one cares if we--or anyone--are carefree.
Anyone want to come out and play?