Post 14: Into the jungle

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Wherever you go, there you are.

Buckaroo Banzai

It's been a more hectic week than EVER here in Lake-world-be-gone, my new home. In a storm of printing and assembling and packing, Shannon and I helped out with Orcas Island’s new Literary Festival this weekend—and ran a splashy vender’s table there, advertising half a dozen recent, current, and imminent creative projects—including my upcoming online, illustrated serial, TWICE. Which meant getting the new TWICE WEBSITE sufficiently up and running to start taking subscriptions! (Yes, cyber-friends, though the first actual episode won’t go out until June 28th, you too can SUBSCRIBE now, any time you wish to!) After many late nights, the serial site’s home page, ‘sneak preview,’ and subscription pages are live, functional, and linked to the Writing page of this site (though all imagery there now is still ‘placeholder’—FYI).

While blazing through preps for all that, Shannon and I have also been navigating her spinal nerve issue—which has markedly improved (yeah!)—and my dental and dermatological issues, which have not. Tomorrow we sail back to America for Shannon’s appointment with a neurosurgeon, then spend the night with ‘outlaws’ (whose daughter and Shannon’s younger brother have a child together, share a lovely home, and have the world’s most-inspiring-ever relationship, all without being married—hence, not ‘in-laws’ ;]) before my first big dental surgery on Tuesday! And there’s been so much more in play here! But—

—this week, I’m droppin’ all that right here.


Because Tuesday morning, as I got up at 5AM to resume management of our many urgent tasks, I went into the bathroom and discovered that, at that hour, the Big Dipper perfectly fills the bathroom skylight—as if that little window had been built for just that purpose. And, as I stared up at it in something like amazement, I found myself wondering where things like this have gone to in all my Lake-world-be-gone musings here?

After a year and a half, it often seems we are still struggling just to be here—at all. But this—I thought, gazing up at the perfectly framed constellation filling our bathroom skylight in its shimmering field of impossibly starry sky—is what we came here for—what we love about this place—this life—that I am already losing somehow in all the off-the-rails work projects and dying computers and appliances and relatives and friends, the dental surgeries, the MRIs, the neurosurgeons and pressing projects...

How has that happened—again—so quickly and stealthily—even HERE?

Even as I write these posts, becoming more and more aware of the limitations and dubious certainty of memory—and the transformative impact—for better and worse—of story-craft and EDITING, ‘the story’ continues to dictate the story. And I can feel myself losing myself—all over again.

So here’s what I most want you—and ME—to know about this week. The sun was clear and warm today. And when Shannon and I went out to sit down by the pond and eat our hasty little lunch, we saw that all the doodle bugs have returned to race in arabesques on the water’s surface, and that the school of coal-black goldfish that appeared mysteriously from nowhere last summer have made it through the frozen winter—and grown—and begun to change color. Some of them now sport big patches of brilliant orange. These are the children of the school of koi that were all eaten—in just three nights—by a marauding band of river otters weeks after we moved in. And all the tulips I put in last fall—which I thought dug up and eaten by our squirrels—have come up from their cratered beds after all, and are just about to bloom. THAT is what happened here this week. The part that matters, anyway. And don’t let me forget it again! Ya hear?

Damn straight.

Okay, now... where have I put those other woods we were exploring... Hmmm... Ah, yes.

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So, this week we really are, at last, leaving the petal-strewn glades of my idyllic youth, to begin touring the steamy jungles of JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL—where my unfolding train wreck began to pick up speed. For a young acolyte just starting to explore the mysteries of 'story management,' this was a whole new playground—literally.

Grade school had been just around the corner from my home. One actual corner. My mother could practically have tossed my bag lunch to me during recess without leaving our yard. Junior high school, however, was a two-mile walk away, out of the hills in which I lived, and down into the previously forbidden city. Every morning now, I walked through dilapidated housing tracts so much edgier than our own, across freeway overpasses and through stop-lit intersections, past the suburban shopping mall I'd always needed to be driven to before, along a four-lane boulevard lined in cheap electronics stores and greasy spoons, not to mention closed bars and strip joints, kicking through the moldy scraps of paper, old chip bags, drink cups and crumpled aluminum cans blown about the sidewalks like autumn leaves by the warm, smoggy breeze of passing traffic. An exotic world, new and unexplored, gritty and 'grown up.'

And then there was the school itself! Two blocks long! Four times as many students! Different classes ever hour—in different rooms! Science, English and Art—areas of special interest to me—were separate and serious subjects now, not just papier-mâché masks made over balloons, Dick And Jane books, and cut construction paper butterflies to celebrate 'nature.' And as if all that weren’t enough, there were even clubs and dances and field trips... The lid of my world felt lifted at last!

And very best of all—virtually no one at this much larger school had ever heard of me. I was an utterly 'un-marked' page, if you’ll pardon the pun. Tabula rasa. Suddenly, my story no longer needed fixing. It could simply be replaced! I would manufacture a brand new one, brilliantly informed by everything I'd learned from all the mistakes and failings and humiliations I could finally erase. What else had all that therapy been for—if not to equip me for this transformation?

Was I the only kid with such ambitions? Hell no. Do any kids arrive at junior high—or ‘middle school,’ as it’s often called these days—not hoping to reinvent themselves? Does any grade school graduate not rush out in August to get cooler clothes, cooler shoes, and a cooler haircut, dreaming of their imminent rebirth as Keith or Susan Partridge—or whoever occupies those adolescent idol slots today? Likely no. But none of my peers then had already spent years in therapy acquiring my secret awareness and understanding of ‘story management’ and its power to transform life. They were so self-trusting, so easily self-deceived, and thus, so easily undone by their own unexamined foibles. The new identities they all groped after in half-conscious fits and starts, I could map out and strategize in coldly calculating ways. My all-new story would surely run circles around theirs. Yessiree-bob! Teeth on forks during lunches alone, chasing butterflies in outfields, urine-soaked corduroy pants, and punches that refused to connect—strange looks, strange clothes, strange behavior, and pathetic reputation...need never have happened at all here in JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL—surrounded by total strangers, and two whole miles away from my mortifying previous life! I felt ready and equipped to write my story entirely over—and get it right this time!

Of course, my father being a teacher, and my mother working for free at home, we shopped for school clothes mostly at thrift stores—which meant I’d be starting my new life-story costumed in the polyester flair-bottomed pants, patterned rayon disco shirts, and copper satin, leopard-spotted Apache scarves that cooler kids had thrown away... And my father made it clear that I must still wear the polished, hard-soled, leather shoes that proved me a more ‘respectful’ child than all those braying, tennis shoe-clad hooligans parading through the junior high school he taught at. ...And I was also somewhat hampered by the fact that adolescence had suddenly transformed my once straight, shiny hair into a wiry nest of frizzy tentacles... But I wasn’t about to let a few sartorial hiccups derail my master plan. Whatever my limited selection of clothes and bad hair might convey to my new classmates would be more than compensated for by my astonishing self-possession and conversational sophistication. Appearance means so much less than attitude, right? I could do attitude! I’d been accused of ‘attitude’ by all kinds of people—since the first grade! How hard could these tricks be for someone equipped with as many years of therapeutic savvy as I had under my brown leather belt by then, right? my increasing frustration, there were snags—almost from the start.


For one thing, this was not the junior high school all those Partridge kids had gone to. This was Edendale Junior High School, known fondly to its inmates as “Eden Jail.” As mentioned in an earlier post, a surprising number of my fellow students there put it delicately, ‘grown considerably beyond average junior high age—and physical stature—during their extra years of tenure,’ and knew a lot more than I did yet about mature tactics, like slashing tires. The unpainted, unvarnished, wood-plank benches in Eden Jail’s locker rooms were occasionally sat on while ‘suiting up’—or down—for PE. But their three main uses were for stubbing furtive cigarettes out on, pushing smaller kids over in a fight, and hoisting to smash other people’s lockers in—particularly people with cooler tennis shoes. Thank god my father had forced me to wear wingtips! No one wanted the contents of my locker. During my first month there, a boy with curly hair and freckles told me between classes one day that he and I ‘had a problem’—and asked me how I was ‘going to solve it.’ I rapidly consulted my mental Rolodex of Keith Partridge repartee, and held up both fists for the other boy to see. “With these,” I said, giving him my most menacing stare—and swearing silently that this time I would MAKE these dang appendages connect. Fortunately, that other boy was just the flunky of another flunky of one of the school’s legitimate thugs. So I wasn’t hit. He just stared, slack-jawed, at my raised fists, then began to grin as he looked back up at my face, then leaned his head back and brayed with laughter as he turned and ran down the hallway to share the story with some friend of his, who laughed as well. I had not yet realized that Keith Partridge’s repartee only came across as cool if one was: a) taller, b) much better looking, and c) had a team of sitcom writers penning lines for all the other characters about how cool Keith was.

I began to learn though. Rapidly.


Before I go further, perhaps I should also acknowledge that the junior high school my father taught at—not much farther from our home than Edendale—was regarded as one of the best and brightest junior high schools in our state then. And, as a faculty member’s child, I’d have been allowed to go there, rather than to Eden Jail, even though we lived outside its district. The reason I didn’t—I learned years later—was that my father feared having us attending his school, in classes taught by his colleagues, might result in embarrassing situations—for us and/or him. So...Eden Jail it was. So much embarrassment averted—eh? ...


Meanwhile—back at cell block E—I saw very quickly that tough-guy lines weren’t going to work for me—not because I’d realized that such lines just don’t ever work off-screen, period—but because, in the presence of so many guys who, even at that age, were already built to back such lines up, I now understood, viscerally, that I was not. So, being a clever lad despite all that arrested development, I learned with rather astonishing speed to protect myself with...laughter. Theirs, in fact. Since I more or less explained this part way back in Post 5: on ‘waiting for permission,’ I won’t go over it all again now. I’ll just recap by saying that ‘making others laugh’—even at you—is not at all the same thing as being laughed at. Detectable shame is blood in the water—anywhere, at any age, but especially during adolescence. Detectable shame can get you hit—a lot. But where ridicule is concerned, detectable shame is nearly always created and aimed by those who are first to laugh, and assigned to those who laugh later, or not at all. As I said in Post 5, I had started understanding that back in grammar school. But that first, really rather frightening year of junior high school was where I perfected the art of ‘preemptive humor’—at a moment’s notice, about whatever was handy, even, and often most easily, myself. Launching the tactical joke before anyone else had even thought of doing it yet quickly became reflexive for me. While not all of the consequences of this strategy have proven constructive over the years, I can’t recall ever being physically hit again—in my life—since that weird after-school fight I wrote about in Post 12.


Make no mistake, though: whatever I’d briefly imagined about my impending new life in junior high, that shiny revised life-story I’d intended to craft ended up written quite differently, in tremendous haste and desperation, as I discovered—almost upon impact—just how equipped for this wider new world I was—still—not.

For instance, that locker room I mentioned. I had to undress in it. In front of all those strangers I’d imagined spinning new, improved stories for. I doubt it’s necessary to belabor the multiple levels or intensity of exposure this involved for someone like me. No one had prepared me for this new rite of passage. No one had even mentioned it, in fact, before the day I was greeted—beside my mostly larger, wirier, cock-sure-of-themselves and athletically eager new classmates—by our young, muscular, blond, superhero-handsome PE ‘coach’ who talked about ‘learning to be men,’ and what a jockstrap was, and where to get one along with the rest of our school’s color-coordinated PE uniforms—by Monday—after which, we would all be expected to ‘suit up’ in the locker room for class every day.

Allow me to clarify that in grade school, “PE” had meant dodge ball or light calisthenics on the playground during recess. Having to undress in front of older, bigger, real boys was an unanticipated and unimaginable development for me—a crisis in ‘story management’ of unprecedented dimensions. We were—thank god—allowed to put those jockstraps on over our underwear—until going off to high school two years later. But having to stand, even in my ‘tighty-whities,’ before all those real boys every day drove my first, most difficult new challenge home with lightning clarity. I had known for years already—all the way down to where my family’s most unconscious secrets lay—that I was not, and never would be, qualified to be a real boy. Nor, given such complete, repetitive exposure as this, could I hope even to pretend to be one, convincingly. I also knew what wimps, nerds, losers and pussies (the male kind, not the female) were, and everything about the new life-story I so desperately hoped to inhabit depended on not being assigned to that group either. Which left me needing to invent and become some third new species of my own—in a very big hurry—before I was just permanently assigned to the latter category by the obvious alphas among us and their hangers-on.  

Man, oh man, did I have a whole new slate of things to discuss in therapy all of a sudden, as super-urgent, code red, warp speed attempts to correct course began to make story management more pervasive and obsessive for me than it had ever been before. 

Which is no small part of how my persistent little train started moving from ‘inconspicuously off kilter,’ to ‘headed more and more swiftly off the rails.’ But let’s pick that thread up next week, shall we?

G’night, cyber friends. :]

Mark Ferrari1 Comment