Post 17: Perfecting my 'brand'

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My own private category

Always with, but never of the herd.

It’s been a fast, productive week here in Lake-world-be-gone, my new home.

We had a great Easter visit with my mom—who, at 86 years of age, has decided she’d like to go on an Elderhostel cruise next summer to the Cote D’azur: the coast of southern France, Eastern Italy and North Eastern Spain. This is not just a frivolous ‘senior’ amusement for her. While studying language and music—on a scholarship—at storied Mills College in Oakland, CA, my mother once dreamed of an international career in Europe, but gave it all up—as so many women did in the early fifties—to marry my father immediately after her graduation and spend her life raising four ungrateful boys (I count my father in that number). To this day, my mother has never been overseas—or even farther east than Reno, Nevada, that I’m aware of. If this cruise to the Cote D’azur happens—as we are profoundly hopeful it will—it will be major life business—far too long deferred for her. I am excited and hopeful that this amazing opportunity comes to fruition!

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Beyond that, much has gotten planted in our garden here (as spring has become ever more beautiful—and is clearly waiting for no one!), and a whole lot of new freelance illustration work has been—and is being—done, and a whole lot of new tech has been set up and made fully functional to replace all the dead devices with which the previous weeks here have been littered. My office is fully functional again for the first time in a month or more!

I’ve even set up a new crowd funding account in anticipation of the June TWICE launch and other upcoming projects—which I’m not going to tell you any more about here, and don’t actually want any of you looking for yet—as there is little but a shell to see right now, and so much still to be done. So…forget I mentioned it. (But do watch this space for announcements soon!)

Oh—and I sold two whole prints at Norwescon—after a week of grinding labor and hundreds of dollars of investment preparing for that show. Ah well. Can’t win ’em all. The work I put up there was all new, from recent projects currently highlighted on this website, and very different in style than any I have ever shown before. So, perhaps people looking for ‘Mark Ferrari art’ at this convention…didn’t actually find what they were looking for. Rest assured, we will perform further experiments in the coming months before leaping to unscientific conclusions about what, exactly, happened there. :]

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In the meantime, shall we get back to exploring my experiments in ‘story management’ back in junior high? (I’m done, for the moment, pondering unfamiliar deer trails. We’ll return to the main trail this week.)

So then, back to the jungle!

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While my new junior high identity as the watchful, talented, disarmingly funny, ‘winning is for losers’ kind of anti-hero may have helped keep not being a ‘cool kid’ from identifying me as a mere outcast, the strategy had unintended consequences too, of course.

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For one thing, disarming my critics by making fun of myself before they had a chance to make fun of me became kind of…an entertaining pastime. As I got better at using teasable moments to make others laugh harder than my critics could make them do, by telling far wittier jokes about myself than theirs had been, this new game became kind of a personal ‘trade-mark’—if you’ll forgive the pun. Even my best friends started trying to say something funnier about me than I could.

On the upside, jokes about me were rarely about ridicule anymore. This was a new sport—and I was that sport’s acknowledged master of revels. It made me seem both clever and strangely immune to ridicule. This aspect of my emerging ‘brand’ became so striking that soon even my teachers started jumping into the game. My history teacher—whose name escapes me all these years later—got so into the fun during class one day that he sort of stuttered to a halt, mid-joke—suddenly hearing himself, perhaps—and, with an uncomfortable half-grin, explained—in front of my classmates—that “people only like to make fun of you because they see you can take it, Mark.” The other half of his grin arrived. “That’s a good thing,” he assured me. “Shows you’re strong.” I remember giving him a nod, entirely conscious of the fact that he was apologizing, in his way, and wishing only that he hadn’t explained my game quite so clearly, out loud.

Because he was right on target, of course. A little too on target. Making fun of me had become “a good thing.” An enjoyable and entertaining game—at which I was usually better than any of the others. And so, ‘making fun of me’ only rarely made me look weak anymore. Most of the time, it did make me seem strong now: smarter, funnier and ironically, more in-control than other contenders. And I really didn’t want my classmates’ attention drawn so clearly to these strange dynamics. Nor, really, did I want teachers joining the game. They were adults and teachers, after all—while I was just a kid, under their authority—as Mr. What’s-his-name had likely just remembered before deciding to clarify his position—and mine—that day in history class.

He was far from the only teacher lured into my traveling sideshow. My preemptive challenge to all potential challengers had quickly become that omnipresent, that impossible to miss or ignore. Even the art teacher—another Mr. What’s-his-name, who seemed to like me quite a bit—got into the act on one or two occasions—which may, in fact, have helped precipitate that cutting of my hair in his class one day. Not that I ever thought to blame him or any of the others. I certainly invited it. This trick had become a sort of superpower, after all. But all that hit the skids—at least temporarily—when a different Mr. What’s-his-name, the shop teacher, took it a bit too far.

As adolescence began to have its way with me, I’d started having episodes of rapid heartbeat, accompanied by sudden weakness and dizziness. Toward the end of 7th grade, I was diagnosed with tachycardia, prescribed daily doses of Quinidine, and admonished to sit—or if possible, lie down—whenever an episode came on. Such an episode occurred one day in the middle of my 8th grade shop class, as we were starting the semester’s first ‘wood-working project.’

I was not at all the manly sort of boy our shop teacher clearly warmed to anyway, and when I quietly explained to him that I needed to go lie down someplace for a few moments, he apparently assumed this was some kind of manipulative adolescent hysteria, and decided to teach me a lesson about such ploys. He announced to the class that Mark had to lie down for a moment, then had me climb onto a shop table at the center of the room and lie there as he spread his own shop coat over me, almost tenderly. Snickering japes passed between him and my classmates from there, and—momentarily weak, dizzy and vastly outnumbered by real boys—I failed, for once, to be funnier than my opponents.

To my parents’ credit, a meeting was quickly arranged—between them, my shop teacher, and the vice principal, Mr. Leonard—which, come to think of it, might have had something to do with Mr. Leonard’s strange disposition toward me later on, regarding unauthorized jokes in speeches and cut hair in art class—which you may recall from my earlier post on ‘waiting for permission.’ Whatever the case, a few days later Mr. What’s-his-name, the shop teacher, explained my ‘condition,’ and apologized—to the whole class. Then I was given an ‘A’ for what was surely the worst wood-working project ever executed in shop class history—anywhere, not just at Eden Jail—none of which left me any better off, I fear.

I can’t remember any teacher at Eden Jail giving me a hard time again that year—except, of course, for Mr. Leonard, who seemed to give me the hardest time he could on any occasion that presented itself.

And I really do wonder now what went on, exactly, at that meeting with my parents and the shop teacher… Hmm…?

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But I don’t mean to suggest that my ‘new story’ at Eden Jail was all just about the ups and downs of wielding self-directed humor. The pantheon of heroes I was emulating were about much more than that—and so was I. For instance, my heroes were not just funny. They were smart.

For many of my male acquaintances then, academic study was just an oppressive burden to be borne or rebelled against. LIFE was calling to them more loudly every day now, and readin’, ritin’, and ’rithmetic had nothing—at all—to do with LIFE. Their destinies called from athletic fields, mechanics shops, rock concert stages, or even porno magazines—not from classrooms. Their academic goal was ‘passing’—with a ‘C’ if possible, though ‘D’s would do in a pinch. My father was a teacher, however, already embarrassed on countless occasions by his eldest son, and it was too clearly understood in our home for any need of discussion that ‘B’s were the lowest grades I better come home with—if I planned on comin’ home at all.

So, I did well in English, because that was all about reading, writing and storytelling—my passions since childhood. I did well in art, because my talent there was already expressing itself as well—though it would be literally decades before I would understand consciously that my fascination with art was also primarily about storytelling—one painstakingly drawn frame at a time. I developed an equally intense interest in science because, having a science teacher for a dad, I’d been bathed in the subject since birth, and many of my best friends since childhood had been invertebrates, and my junior high science teacher, whose name I do remember—Mr. Eschen—was a gentle, kind man who never made fun of me, and loved his subject as much as I loved his classes. It was during these years of Mr. Eschen’s tutelage that I successfully administered artificial respiration to an octopus. (No lie! But don’t worry. It’s done to cephalopods with your hands, not your mouth). I also did reasonably well in history, because, at its core, that’s about storytelling too—though I had no conscious understanding of that either then. Conscious understanding—as you may already have noticed—wasn’t really needed—or even relevant—at that age.

Only two core subjects caused me much trouble: PE—which we didn’t talk about at home—ever, and math…which I could spell reliably. M-A-T-H. That was pretty much my entire grasp of the subject, and it was a lot of work to get B’s in that class. I was saved from ‘C’s mostly by geometry, which was visual, and seemed the least abstract of mathematical topics—to me, at least. “Between any two points there is a third point.” How could anyone living like I was living have trouble understanding theorems like that? Although, “The shortest distance between any two points is a straight line,” did throw me a bit—having never taken a straight line between any two points in my life…)

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My family’s general motto in those days: ‘Perfect is good enough—if that’s all you got,’ conflicted not at all with the framing stories of my generation’s Harry Potters and Hiccups. None of my particular brand of anti-heroes were ‘rebels.’ Not until much later in their stories anyway. In fact, one of the reasons my heroes were so often outcasts at the beginning of their stories was precisely that they were too well-behaved to be as much fun—or as impressive and intimidating—as the rebels, prom queens, alpha jocks, and delinquent bad-asses leading the parade around them. In addition to being smart, my heroes were also preternaturally mature, humble to a fault, strangely patient, and, sadly, unusually well-behaved—if rarely well-behaved enough to satisfy their superiors. My signature archetype back then—like my path—was very specifically straight and narrow.

Ironically, my investment in ‘smart and well-behaved’ made me surprisingly popular with GIRLS—who tended, far more often than boys, to be smart and well-behaved as well. Girls I could understand—having been raised largely by my mother. And they seemed to understand me too, a lot better than real boys did. I could trust girls. The ironic part here is that, being smart, well-behaved, and 13, I completely failed to recognize the obvious advantages of my position. Girls looked at me and saw—not a desirable hunk—because I wasn’t—but something familiar and comfortable. I looked at them and saw…the same. Before long, the majority of my closest friends were girls. And the irony only ratcheted up from there. Despite the utter lack of even mildly romantic content in my friendships with all these girls, many of the guys around me, being 12 or 13 as well, and often knowing even less than I did about girls and how to get along with them, made the assumption (understandably, I suppose) that the cloud of girls around me made me ‘a ladies’ man’, who must be quietly zooming ahead of the pack in the ‘scoring game.’ The fact that I never talked about it to anyone just made me look even more ‘grown-up’ and mysterious to some of them. HAhahahaha ha  ha! My new legend was practically running itself now.

In reality, of course, I was so clueless that I never even suspected this spurious cachet until someone finally told me about it several years later—well after this misapprehension had been seen through and corrected by those around me. Nonetheless, clear through my freshman year in high school, there was apparently a widespread rumor that I had a secret, college-aged girlfriend somewhere. Are you laughing your ass off now? ’Cause I am—still. As I posited in an earlier post, we are far more often rewarded or punished for the inventions of others than for who we actually are, or what we’ve actually done.

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Anyway…if my ‘way with women’ happened to put me in another ‘Mark-only’ category at school, so much the better, right? As my evolving ‘new story’ at Eden Jail gathered momentum, I just grew farther and farther away from membership in either the winners’ or the losers’ circles. I truly had become a brand of one. Which was exactly what I had been desperate to do, right?

Only…being in your own private category turns out to be…weirdly lonely. For the first time in my life, I became conscious of feeling like “my own species.” I told my therapist one afternoon that I “ran along beside my friends, feeling always with, but never of, the herd.” It would be decades before I made any conscious connection between that persistent feeling of ‘otherness’, and my equally persistent pursuit of ‘otherness.’ Inventing my strange new ‘brand’ had made me unique—which is French, I believe, for ‘isolated and alone.’ Funny how often our victories in one battle just earn us tickets to some whole new war.

Nonetheless, by the end of eighth grade, I was doing so much better in general than I had ever done in grammar school. I was not cool, but I was strangely ‘popular’—or at least compellingly conspicuous—interestingly different, which amounted to much the same thing at that age. I was not where or what I had imagined being when I left grammar school, but I was weirdly ‘in control of my story’ as I had never been before. I was doing well academically. (In fact, I was called out of class one day and given a special test—which I aced by knowing the words ‘deciduous’ and ‘dendritic,’ then effortlessly using both in a single sentence—thereby qualifying, I was informed, for an exciting, new ‘more able’ program—which never materialized at Eden Jail due to lack of funding.) But all in all, I wasn’t doing a half bad job—by junior high standards—of making life work! My ever stronger obsession with questioning—and fixing—everything, had really begun to pay off big—which is sort of how I and my therapist finally realized one afternoon that we’d actually been working at cross purposes all those years.

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…You see, despite all the years of tweaking and adjusting I’d been doing to fix myself and my story, it seems that I had somehow never actually talked specifically of “tweaking and fixing myself”—in those words, at least, during therapy sessions (maybe because I wasn’t half so conscious of, or articulate about, all that at the time as I may seem here). I’d just been expressing excitement about what was going right in life, and confusion or disappointment about what wasn’t working. Not until that afternoon, I guess, did I actually say the words, “fixing what’s wrong with me.”

I still remember, very clearly, my therapist’s pained expression. “Is that what you’ve been learning, Mark? …To fix what’s wrong with yourself?”

“Well…Yeah. I was making a lot of trouble for myself before…wasn’t I? Now…I’ve learned a lot, I think, about how to stop messing things up behind my own back. Isn’t that the point…of this?”

She looked down, sadly, and took a long drag on her cigarette—because this was 1971, and people still smoked in places of business then—even with children—in therapy offices. Then she said, very quietly, “Well, this is rather disappointing.” She looked back up at me. “I had thought—hoped—that you were discovering there isn’t anything wrong with you. That you’re fine—as you are.” She took another drag and shook her head. “If anything, I had hoped we were helping equip you to deal with what’s wrong with some of the people around you.”

Ironically, this just made me feel I’d gotten something else wrong. Something large and really important. Really wrong, and I really didn’t want to disappoint ‘Nanny’—or Gandalf, or this entirely supportive surrogate parent, or my one, most unique, trusted friend, Mary (and yeah, I’m hoping she won’t mind if I use her real name here), all of which she was to me then—though, again, I knew virtually none of that consciously back then either.

At some point not long after that day, she and I decided I was doing really well now. So much better than I’d been doing when we’d started seeing each other, that perhaps I had no real need of therapy anymore. We decided to take a break. She made it clear that I would always be welcome to resume these meetings, that she’d deeply enjoyed her time with me for so many years, and would still be right there if I wished to find her. But, for now, it seemed time to celebrate so much good work and success by releasing me back into the wild.

I wrote that last phrase intending to sound funny. And it is really, really surprising to me how hard I am working not to cry right now. Even stranger, I have no idea why.

…I’ll have to look into that—but don’t worry. I promise not to make you read along while I do this time. ;]

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Though I didn’t see it at the time, I have come to suspect this decision to ‘take a break’ may have been driven by the discovery that therapy had become—for me, at least—so much an exercise in reinforcing the idea that I needed fixing. A badge of perpetual ‘malfunction.’ Maybe she was hoping to short-circuit that. I have no doubt whatsoever that she believed the decision was right. We both did.

But we were mistaken.

For all it really felt that spring like I’d become pretty equipped to be or do “whatever I wished,” I would be right back in her office less than two years later—in worse need of her shelter and her generous and wise listening ear than I had ever been. But that spring, it really felt like the work I’d started with her at the age of eight might finally be done.

All that new story management, so many new kinds of control, felt like happiness to me. And sometimes, I guess they really were. There was certainly more happiness in my life then—with even more just about to come—than I’d ever experienced before.

So, let’s stop there this week. In a happy place. In spring.

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Next week, we’re going to high school! That’s right—the big tent!

See ya then, cyber-friends. :]

Mark Ferrari1 Comment