Well, it’s been another fast-and-furious week here in Lake World-be-gone, my new home. The Malaysian Trumpet Snails we ordered WEEKS AGO ago finally arrived from god-knows-what ‘snail-mail’ limbo they’ve been lost in—miraculously alive and well, if slightly wobbly on their legs. They now thunder hungrily across our aquarium walls in great herds, consuming the rafts of algae run amok there since our late, lamented Mystery Snail fell to his untimely death a month ago... But that’s yet another story I’ve no time for with so much else to report.
Dumb Bird continues to stalk our pond, grimly hunched and solitary, as every living creature here braces for our imminent share of the cryogenic weather currently deep-freezing our nation. Temps in the low 20s, they say, and the first forecasts of snow this winter! I’ve moved every pot and hanging basket I can carry from our garden into the garage, and stacked a month’s worth of firewood in there too. We’ve moved our car uphill to a relatively flat fire-circle—in case we’re forced to drive somewhere before the drifts of glacial ice that will doubtless bury our long, winding, mountain-steep driveway abate. I’ve sprayed de-icer on the front and back stairs as well, stockpiled food and other necessities—like lavender bath bombs and martini olives, (if the Donner Party had just laid in more of these, I’m sure everything would have ended differently), set traps for the mice flooding into our garage, basement and ceilings before the storm, (Hate me if you must. I am Vlad the Impaler when it comes to mice), and put up the last of the storm windows—all while finishing another book cover. Now...we survive this, or we don’t. (Drama queen? ... What’s that supposed to mean?) As Shannon and I huddle by our fire, staring at possible extinction down the barrel of a snow-gun, I am careful, of course, to focus on the bright side—thinking of how picturesque it will be to sit in our ‘view-surround’ dining room, gazing out at the white-robed world, watching all the little birds outside drop, frozen, from our feeders as we enjoy perhaps our last-ever steaming bowl of oatmeal. I’m just a silver-lining kind of guy.
Oh! And, as of this past Friday, that Living Worlds App announced on my home page is NOW AVAILABLE FOR iOS DEVICES! All you iPhone and iPad users can FINALLY join the fun—while you’re snowed in!
In other splendid news, ‘Spider-man—Into the Spiderverse’ finally came to our island’s little movie theater this weekend. If you haven’t seen it yet, (and yes, I know; who but us here hasn’t?) run don’t walk to your nearest theater! This movie is at the other end of the bell curve from wincingly cheesy Aquaman. How does Marvel just keep getting it more and more RIGHT, while DC just gets it more and more and more...the way they do? VERY mysterious.
But enough of all this bright and happy fluff. As I recall, I left us wandering in my dark wood last week, up to our necks in vague poetic questions with very few hard facts. Shall we rejoin us there—before the firewood runs out, and my fingers become too frostbitten to type with anymore? (What? No, I do not think I may be ‘overstating things a bit.’ So what if you’re from Wisconsin? I am the son of scientists—totally devoted to objective observation. ... It is totally getting very, very cold out there. I mean ‘coat AND sweater’ cold! Really, you have no idea...)
So, where was I? Oh yes. Waiting for permission...
I’ve been wondering a lot this week about how to get ‘specific’ about a ‘vast and ancient forest.’ Should I start with the bog I’m in right now, and move backward, like that film, Memento, through all the missteps that led me here? Or should I start with early misadventures—as a toddler—and move from there, deeper and deeper into these woods, across a lifetime...for, say, 20 or 30 posts? (Yeah, don’t worry. I’m just joking about 30 posts. ... I think.) Or would it be better just to pick some random but exemplary glade, or hill, or swamp and explicate outward? And what about the crucially important parts of this tale that seem impossible to discuss without delving into other people’s transgressions and/or misadventures—often well-intentioned people whom I care about, a number of them dead now? Is it permissible to illuminate my own screw-ups by talking about theirs when they’ve no chance to rebut my tale? How much—of what—will you, my readers, want, or even tolerate in this series of confessional posts? I so want to do this right, but I can’t quite figure out what ‘right’ is in this situation, and I’m already scrolling through my inner rolodex to find someone sufficiently trustworthy and qualified to give me some...uh...instructions? ... Reassurance?
With a mere blog post.
See how it is?
Just imagine me trying to figure out something really BIG. By myself. Like how a client might want the picture I’m drawing to look. Or how to handle an abusive employer... You have no idea how desperately I wish you could just tell me—right now—whether I’m doing okay on this post, or how my course needs changing. ‘Cause I sure can’t tell my ass from a tea kettle. I almost never seem able to—with any confidence.
Oddly, other people’s anguished questions are a different matter. I am asked pretty frequently by other people to address questions for or about themselves, and, having a pretty rich well of life-experience to draw from, I am often told I do a very good job of it. A lot of other people trust me—and my feedback—quite a bit. Even my wife—who should know me well enough by now to know better. But when it comes to answering my own questions, or questions about myself (often different things) I wouldn’t trust me any further than I could throw me. If I’ve proven anything to myself, over and over and over again, it’s that I am notremotelyqualified to answer my own questions ‘correctly.’ And that the consequences of daring to try will be ineffectual at best, and more likely, catastrophic.
Or...well, I mean...someone’s proven that to me. ... All the way down, certainly. ... And very early on... I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t understand how deeply unqualified—unworthy, in fact—I am to make important decisions for or about myself—much less act on them—without permission—or qualified confirmation, at the very least. I spend a lot of time lately—often in the middle of the night—wondering when...how...that happened. And the question does conjure up some snap shots:
One of my junior high teachers encouraged me to enter the school’s ‘public-speaking contest.’ So, I wrote an orderly little essay about...I have no idea anymore, read it aloud at the after-school competition, and—lo and behold—was declared one of the three winners! Which meant being stood up on stage with the other two ‘winners’ in the school auditorium, to deliver our speeches to the entire student body. When the dreadful day arrived, I waited in the wings, keenly aware of just how boring my orderly little speech was, and of what a popular boy I already wasn’t.
But when the presiding teacher announced my name and beckoned me to the podium, a really odd thing happened. As the teacher pulled the microphone closer to my face, I looked out at that sea of skeptical faces, and...relaxed. Being one of those small, thin, physically immature, and intellectually overenthusiastic junior high boys you likely remember all too clearly from your own early adolescent days, I had long since learned to ‘protect myself’ with the only weapon available to me: humor. If you get them to laugh before they laugh at you, then they’re not steering, you are! Right? Nor, if you laughed first, are they laughing at you. Rather, we’re all laughing together at your great comedic skill, aren’t we? Yes. I’d known all that for years before finding myself on a stage that afternoon. Glancing down at my pathetic speech, I immediately saw an opportunity in the very first line. I’m sure none of my teachers had ever realized—until that day—just how advanced my ‘extemporaneous comedy’ skills really were. I am not abashed to tell you now that—by junior high school standards, at least—they were spectacular. I omitted not a single line from my prepared speech that afternoon. I just dressed those lines up a little—on the fly. My first joke won a good strong laugh—which was all the affirmation I required. By the end of my presentation, I believe a few kids in the back may actually have thrown up from laughing so hard. Applause as I left the stage was thunderous. I had just revealed myself a public-speaking prodigy, right? … RIGHT?
Our vice principal, Mr. Leonard, didn’t think so. Ten minutes after the assembly, I was sent to his office for a shellacking I recall far more clearly than I remember anything I said on stage that afternoon. ‘How dare you?!’ he yelled as I sat down before his desk. ‘You were honored with the opportunity to read your speech in front of the whole student body, and instead, you stood up there and made a disgrace of yourself, and of everyone who helped put you up there, and of this school! What on earth made you think that was okay to do?!’
‘But...’ I was stunned, and ashamed, and terrified of what he was going to tell my parents. ‘I just...I –my speech seemed so boring,’ I stammered, ‘and I just didn’t want—‘
‘You were given permission to read that speechjust-as-it-was-written!’ he thundered. ‘Just as you read it at the competition. No one said you could stand up there and re-write it in front of the whole school! That’s called fraud, Mark. That’s not okay! You understand that now?’
I nodded, my chin down somewhere near my sternum.
‘Don’t you ever do anything like that again.’
Later that year, some tough boys in my art class, (where I was beginning to excel in ways that marked me as a loathsome ‘teacher’s pet’), came over to hold me down in my chair while one of them used a pair of scissors to cut some of my hair off. As these boys were know to slash the occasional tire, our art teacher looked the other way until it was clearly over without the threat of actual bloodshed, then sent all four of us to Mr. Leonard’s office. Perhaps recalling my act of smart-mouth fraud earlier that year, Mr. Leonard sat in front of my erstwhile barbers and told me that my ‘tendency to use flashy vocabulary and show off my intelligence sometimes made other kids feel I was making fun of them—or even being aggressive.’ Wish I were making that up—but no. That’s what he actually had to say about the situation. Mr. Leonard suggested that I be more careful in the future about ‘how I talk and show off’—and sent us all back to class without saying a word to the other boys. Perhaps Mr. Leonard had just put new tires on his car...?
Happily, even my father had a hard time seeing the logic in Leonard’s assessment. He just assumed I was reporting the episode inaccurately, and told me to ‘be more careful in the future.’
So—mystery solved, right? The despicable Mr. Leonard is responsible for teaching me to doubt myself, and fear rash decisions without permission. Just shove a mental pie in his face, and— But wait! Not so fast.
It’s not as if Mr. Leonard was anything like the first one to that trough. His is just one of many snapshots from those tender years... Here’s another:
In the first grade, you’ll be astonished to learn, I was an exceptionally...awkward boy. The kind who usually spent his lunchtime in the cafeteria—not on the playground—eating at a table by himself. One day, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Smith, (I am not protecting the innocent—or the guilty—here. Her name was just Mrs. Smith.), came up and stood behind me as I forked creamed corn or canned spinach from my lunch tray—silent and alone, as usual. ‘Stop that,’ she said quietly, from behind me.
I wasn’t sure she was even talking to me, but I was afraid to turn around and look. So I sat still for a minute, then carefully brought another forkful of canned...something to my mouth.
‘I said, stop that.’ She was definitely talking to me, and her tone the second time was…less gentle. But I had no idea what I was supposed to stop doing. Eating? ... What was wrong with eating? I held still longer this time, hoping she would go away. But she didn’t, and when doing nothing started to seem dangerously strange in itself, I timidly took another bite of food.
WHAPPPP! Mrs. Smith’s famous ruler came down sharply on my shoulder. (This was the early 60s. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ was still standard teaching procedure in public schools then.) She grabbed my elbow, pulling me firmly, but not violently, from my seat. ‘Now we’re going to see the principal,’ she said in the long-suffering tone she employed so often and effectively.
Not until I was seated in Mr. Jarimello’s office while Mrs. Smith told him what had brought us there did I finally learn what my crime had been. To his great credit, Mr. Jarimello was kind to me. He respectfully suggested to Mrs. Smith that a boy of my age may really not have known that scraping one’s teeth on the fork was considered rude behavior. He turned to me, smiling, and said, ‘You’re not in any trouble this time, Mark. But now you know, and I hope you’ll be more careful in the future. Okay?’
There’s that phrase again. ‘Be more careful.’ ... One seemed to hear it everywhere when I was growing up.
I assured him that I would be more careful—and tried hard thereafter to keep my teeth off of the fork—even though I hated touching the food itself with my lips. Made eating somewhat more strenuous, but I found workarounds.
I know how this must sound, but I am making not a word of this up. It was a different world back then. Standards and expectations were VERY different, as you see.
Later that year, Mrs. Smith wrote the following comment on my report card: ‘Mark seems to like doing things in his own way and at his own pace. This appears to be deliberate disobedience, not mere immaturity or misunderstanding of school policy.’ As if it might be ‘immature’ for a first-grader to want to be himself, or it were ‘school policy’ that he be someone else—which, in the early 60s, it may have been. ? She finished her assessment of me with, ‘Mark holds his pencil wrong.’ ... Years later, I sometimes wished she were still alive to see how much I was, by then, being paid to hold my colored pencils wrong. Because I was still holding them just the way I always had. (And back then—in the 1990’s—I was being paid very well.)
And, yes, if you’ve read The Book of Joby, then you have heard that same report card remark somewhere before. While I was still writing that novel—about a well-intentioned boy’s journey through an unsympathetic world—I showed the report card, (which I still have, courtesy of my mother), to Jerry Juhl, who did a lot of writing for The Muppet Show. He laughed and told me that the quote was “bankable.” And since it did seem both too rich and too relevant not to use, I took Jerry’s advice and put it on Joby’s report card too.
In fairness to Mrs. Smith, at the end of that school year, she gave me a “valuable” piece of rare blue agate which she and her husband (inveterate rock-hounds) had dug out of a desert somewhere themselves. She knew how much I loved collecting minerals and shells, and I think she may actually have liked me—in her way. I think she genuinely worried for her students—that if they didn’t learn early how to behave and ingratiate themselves to the world, terrible things might happen down the line. I think a lot of her generation shared those fears. And a lot of her students didn’t learn to behave or ingratiate themselves. And a lot of terrible things did happen—to some of them, and to the world in general—even to many people who did learn to behave and ingratiate. So, was Mrs. Smith right all along?
Perhaps more to the point here, was it Mrs. Smith, then, who first taught me to so carefully doubt my every little move and motive that I eventually became immobilized by ‘carefulness?’
Of course not. She came almost as late to that party as Mr. Leonard did. In the early 60s, no one in the western world made it through a month of childhood without stories like these. ‘You can go play when all your homework’s done.’ Ever heard that one before? As if all of one’s ‘homework’ in this world will ever be ‘done’—and as if play had no value of its own in danger of being lost by never getting to it. Ask the Finnish about that absurd assumption.
Did you ever feel sad as a child? ‘Stop moping and cheer up.’ Did you ever feel unbearably happy as a child? ‘Stop all that racket and settle down!’ Did you ever think too little of yourself? ‘Stand up and be a man!’ Or too much of yourself? ‘Sit down and stop showing off.’ Whatever you were doing—or being—as a child, it was probably ‘wrong’ unless you’d been very specifically asked ahead of time to do or be it. ‘Who said you could do THAT?’ ... Who indeed? Whoever was supposed to be giving us permission to be ourselves at any given moment as children, it was certainly notourselves.
In hindsight, it seems clear to me that most of my favorite people learned early to offer their handlers a repentant nod, then shrug off such hooey altogether. Unfortunately, I had been unusually well prepared, long before the first grade, to miss entirely the necessity of defiant independence that was so obvious to so many of my peers so much earlier in the game. I was deeply primed—from the literal start—to veer to the right where so many of my less obedient—and healthier, more successful—friends veered left, just as they’d been told they mustn’t, and precisely as they knew, deep down, they must.
Why did I have no such ‘deep-down’ knowing then too—nor even a suspicion of it? I’ll get into that next week, along with why and how that early miscue continues to define my trajectory so stubbornly all these decades later. To do so, I will have to write about the first of several landmarks in my life that I have absolutely no permission I’m aware of to mention publicly at all—much less discuss here. That will be uncomfortable for me, and possibly for others, though I will try to do so as fairly and sensitively as I can. But I learned long ago that the answers you have never, ever been able to find are almost always hidden right wherever you are clearly forbidden—by yourself, or others— to look.
I know that this post was VERY long. I ask your forgiveness. :]
In other news, it has started snowing outside. ... The dirty little secret is, I actually love snow.