Post 15: By the Seat of my pants

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“That deaf, dumb, and blind kid

sure plays a mean pinball!” —The Who

 

It’s been a light-speed week here in Lake-world-be-gone, my new home. In a ten-second-nutshell, Shannon won’t need spinal surgery—now, at least. YEAH! My dental surgery went so smoothly, it’s like I don’t even have this big gaping hole in my jaw. Haven’t even opened the pain meds. That surgeon’s not cheap—but he sure is good! The garden is springing up around us, the freelance work (as in super-secret new project I can’t tell you even exists yet) is too—though you never heard it here, and everybody’s taxes got done—though we had a very unpleasant surprise you can read about HERE, and next weekend is NORWESCON in Seattle—which we no longer have time to attend, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be driving down there Thursday to put up the art I have two more days to print and mat, livin’ in a pile and movin’ in a desperate rush! But after that—believe it or not—according to our normally nearly indecipherable calendar—our lives may actually, finally, slow down! ...

But not tonight! So let’s get back to those woods before the next bell rings, eh?

(Brief pause to gasp for air...)

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As I was saying last week, Junior High turned out to be all about reinvention—if of a more desperate  sort than I’d been hoping for that summer. Reinvention—always a dicey business—leads, under pressure as the clock ticks, to ‘any-port-in-a-storm’ strategies. So, yes, I went through a LOT of iterations of ‘me’ in a hurry that fall—which did nothing to keep my train more on the tracks—with myself or with others. By Halloween I was likely changing my story more often than I changed my shirt—and I was a fairly tidy kid by junior high standards. I’m certainly not claiming this behavior was unique to me. What is the primary business of early teen years—for nearly anyone—if not near-daily reinvention? But I still like to think I brought more to the game, for better and for worse, than your average junior higher.

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For one thing, I had a more active imagination than many of my peers. All of last week’s Keith Partridge jokes aside, almost nothing I was trying on at school had actually come from TV or popular movies. My wannabe tactics were aped from stranger sources—like the bible, and The Hobbit, and David Copperfield (Dickens, not the magician), not to mention Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, and even The Burgess Book of Birds, and Bulfinch’s (a man’s name this time, not a bird) Mythology—almost none of which my junior high friends had read yet—back in 1970. All of my heroes then—and their codes of honor and their great ambitions—lived in these books, not on action adventure shows, weekend sportscasts, and sitcoms. And the interesting part—in hindsight—is that virtually all these heroes of mine were seriously disadvantaged underdogs—who made good a lot later in life than others, by side doors and deer trails no one else in their worlds knew of, much less thought of using—and often ‘triumphed’ in ways that only the wise even noticed, much less recognized as victory.

Let all that sink in for a minute—because I think it mattered a lot more than I ever guessed back then, and I believe it went right on mattering more and more as I grew older—for better and for worse.

The world is different these days. Emo anti-heroes are a dime-a-dozen trope now. Nearly all our protagonists these days are underdogs—from Harry Potter to Hiccup. And, of equal interest perhaps, a huge number of our media and literary villains enter the story as acknowledged ‘winners’—basking in their habitual dominance and the praise of their enthusiastic lackeys and fans. Many of today’s villains show up as the most popular people—at the story’s beginning, anyway. Maybe you’ve forgotten it was ever different, but back in 1970, heroic winners were still in style, and most of my fellow 13 year-olds still idolized and emulated superheroes, sports legends, rock stars, royalty (Disney or otherwise), Fonzies and Farrah Fawcetts and Kennedys—the coolest of the cool. Aspiring to imitate a galaxy of disenfranchised losers—however ultimately triumphant—was still...well, unusual at least, for an early teen—especially a boy—in 1970. Nonetheless, these had been my pantheon since early childhood.  And my hasty struggle to invent that third chair between the winners’ and losers’ seats at school found its direction—reflexively and unconsciously—in them. To whatever extent I succeeded, it was because, from the outset, my heroes and their stories had me playing an entirely different game from the one my innumerable detractors and their heroes were all struggling to win.

...So...what the hell am I trying to say, exactly?

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Well, last week I posited that success or failure at concealing detectable shame often assigns kids to the winners’ and losers’ camps. Having my pantheon of underdog anti-heroes to emulate did nothing to make anyone else see me differently, or avert any of their inevitable attempts to raise themselves higher by lowering me. But my odd set of heroes did change everything about the way I saw me, and saw my antagonists, and the meaning I assigned to setbacks or embarrassments engineered by competitors in the great pecking order. You see, my heroes weren’t surprised by setbacks, or the dislike of others, or even by humiliation. In the stories I’d read for years—and adopted as my own—these misfortunes were not some unbearable catastrophe. They were expected, just standard features of the landscape, to be born ‘heroically.’ That’s how my life and my reading list had already predisposed me to frame things—everywhere, including at school. None of which is meant to suggest that I was ever ‘unflappable.’ However my heroes had taught me to “frame” hardships in my mind, I was as hysterical and ‘un-heroic’ a teenager as ever lived, more often than not. But my pantheon had shown me how such circumstances could make sense and resolve, in time, ‘victoriously and heroically’—if by very different definitions of ‘victory’ and ‘heroism’ than my peers embraced.

So, yes, given what a strange boy I was, people did, of course, try to frustrate and embarrass me—frequently—as everyone does, and is ‘done to’ at that age. And I was often embarrassed or frustrated. But I rarely acted recognizably embarrassed—or even surprised. Such events and experiences didn’t surprise or embarrass any of my heroes the way they certainly would have surprised and embarrassed Batman or The Fonz. So they needn’t surprise or embarrass me either. They’d already been anticipated and assigned different meanings ‘in the story’—long before I came to junior high school. I responded reflexively to ‘attacks’ from others in many of the same ways my heroes did: self-deprecating humor, weary aloofness, oblivious confusion about what was even going on. It wasn’t that hard to be clever, creative and funny when those were useful, and oblivious or even invisible a moment later, because I’d been watching it done, over and over, between the covers of my books for years. Soaking it in. Learning to think and navigate in the language of those stories. So, when I needed that third chair, my existing story showed me right where to look.

And, it worked.

I was never a cool kid. But I was never really a loser either. Because of the kind of hero I had related to and embraced for so long, attempts to make my shame ‘detectable’ didn’t have their expected effect. Rather than signify—to me—my shameful failure and disqualification, they just confirmed my place—sometimes even my progress—on the anti-hero’s path to ‘heroic victory’—of a completely different kind than anyone around me understood. My competitors had no idea what to make of my responses to their tactics—and so, they were not able to comfortably assign me a seat on any of the wagons they possessed names for. I actually did come—fairly quickly—to occupy some ‘third category’ that no one could quite make heads or tails of. Don’t get me wrong.  I certainly was shamed—and ashamed—and not just by other kids. The game of shaming toward conformity was every bit as popular with teachers as it was among their students—which I may delve further into later. But the way my heroes had taught me to frame that shame and failure made it unrecognizable to those looking for its more familiar shapes and labels.

Once again, without changing anything except myself, I had managed—blindly, for the most part—to change my results in the wider world. And so, I kept it up. The changing. Trying to perfect ‘my game.’ Trying to find the way my kind of hero could prevail in this new junior high chapter of my story. Not consciously, of course. Not like I’m describing it here. This was all just blind, groping reflex then. But that reflex was clear enough. Keep changing and changing. Don’t stop. As if your survival depended on it...

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Sadly, such tactics do not come without cost. As I have observed before, it’s so easy to start fixing things that weren’t broken. Harder and harder to tell what broken is anymore. The line between questioning too little and trusting nothing at all gets lost—along with the story itself. Can you remember where your story was heading five pages back—or remember five days from now where it was heading today? The more bullets I managed to dodge, the more focused on dodging I became—for its own sake, perhaps.

And right now, I must dodge another night of insufficient sleep. So let’s pick this up again next week.

Thanks, as always, for coming along, cyber-friends. G’night. :]

Mark Ferrari2 Comments