Post 20: The BIG tent
It was a NORMAL week here in Lake-world-be-gone, my new home—or at least, it felt like one! And as I assume you understand by now, there’s nothing at all normal about that. We had friends over for long-overdue dinners, attended an open-mic at the Barnacle here in town—where Shannon will be a featured writer/reader next month—and went to a ‘disaster preparedness’ lecture at the local firehouse where we learned all about the many batteries and radios and internet protocols we will want to have purchased and mastered before that next subduction-zone quake or hundred-year solar storm. I’ve worked in the garden during sunny interludes between rain showers, and we went to the dock in West Sound to buy our six-month supply of salmon filets right off the Alaskan fishing troller. I even got a haircut. All this—alongside some solid progress on various freelance illustration jobs and early work on the weekly illustrations for my upcoming online serial, TWICE. It’s been…well, rather like a life!
And what has a week of something like normal human life done for me? Well…I’ve come down with a really vicious respiratory flu after nearly a year without colds. :] I guess my immune system figured I had time for that, at last.
But, hey! Seems I’ve buried the lede! In case it has escaped your notice, this is POST 20! I have been blogging consistently—however ill-advisedly—for five months straight now. I believe my ‘persistence dysfunction’ may have been beaten at last! And whose fault is that? Why, yours, of course! I don’t know if I could have done it without you, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have without the relentless, nagging anxiety that maybe one or two of you were still out there, expecting something new to read each week. Thank you for that! …If you are still out there. Waiting…
So, I guess I’ll shoot for thirty consecutive posts now—then forty—and fifty—possibly, someday, on some whole new topic—though what could possibly be left to discuss by the time this adventure is concluded remains…uncertain. But I-will-do-it—to assuage the fear of failing you! :D
And also because I have become pathologically committed to seeing this through now. There’s that too, I must concede.
This also seems the proper moment to especially thank all of you who have taken time—in written comments and face to face—to share your thoughts about what I’ve written here. You, and you alone, have been there to confirm the nagging anxiety that keeps me going—which makes you a whole ‘nother level of heroic. Thank you guys most of all! You really do help me see what I am writing here in brand new, and helpfully illuminating ways.
Speaking of which—before we plunge into the most colorful region yet on my ever-evolving forest tour, I’d like to clarify something that one of the afore-mentioned generous readers brought to my attention in her response to last week’s post. She commented that ‘the status of family scapegoat seemed a rather heavy crown to place on the head of an eight-year-old boy.’ And, yes, it was a heavy ‘crown’ to bear. But what struck me as needing immediate clarification is the impression I’d clearly left that my family had ‘placed’ that crown on my head. In truth, no one ‘placed’ that crown. Or ‘chose’ my head to bear it. Consciously, or unconsciously. Not even me.
Once again, this thoughtful reader makes me aware of how significantly my telling of this story—years later—profoundly informed by the power of hindsight—changes the story itself in ways I neither intend, nor notice until someone—like you guys—points it out to me. (Which, in case it still isn’t clear, I deeply appreciate every single time!)
The way I am selecting, assembling, and articulating years of cumulative reflection and hindsight does make it sound like all the inflection points I recount here were clearly and consciously understood by the central players, rationally, if manipulatively, decided upon, and intentionally implemented in ways almost mechanically straightforward. But nothing could be further from the truth.
I don’t believe that anyone—including my father—ever knowingly assigned me the role of ‘family scapegoat’—or ever wanted to—consciously or unconsciously. If anyone in my family had been aware that I was being scapegoated, I believe they’d have gone to great lengths to avert that outcome. The truth is that while I present glib, intentionally simplified diagrams now of what I think happened, and how, and why, none of us so much as imagined any such diagrams then. Even I had no idea what a scapegoat even was back then—much less that I’d become one for my family.
I believe the only intent—conscious or otherwise—that my father did have—precisely because he was a man who so desperately wanted to be and do GOOD—always—and found his own failures in this regard too painful to face—was to avoid any and all awareness, much less ownership, of his own normal, human shadow—or any glimpse of himself that might trap him face to face with ‘intolerable’ parts of himself. Unfortunately, refusing to own any part of the family struggle does not make that struggle cease—or even disappear. It’s still right there, in plain sight, needing to be explained and owned—by someone. No one assigned that role to me, however—or wished to—at all. If I did end up wearing the ‘crown’ of family scapegoat, it was simply because, as a toddler, I was less equipped than anyone else present and involved in the desperate contest to refuse this ‘crown’ even to recognize the game of psychic musical chairs playing out around me, much less say, “No! Not mine!” and shove it effectively away. By the time my next younger brother came along—a year and a half after my birth—the ‘crown,’ such as it was, had already fallen to me—purely by default, not by any level of intention—and so, that particular hot potato no longer needed fighting over. The ‘contest’ had been resolved without anyone even being aware of it, much less ‘understanding’ it—consciously or otherwise.
This is how families everywhere do things to each other that no one ever ‘intended’ or ‘desired’ to do. I have come to understand my family’s history metaphorically this way:
A carload of happy people set out for a pleasant Sunday drive, but some sudden scare made the driver swerve and lose control of the car. As it skidded off the road and began to tumble and roll down the hillside, the bodies inside were thrown violently about. Someone’s elbow broke someone’s jaw. Someone’s knee broke someone’s ribs. But none of these injuries were intentional acts by one passenger against another. These wounds all resulted from what was - happening - to - everyone in that car. To my best knowledge, no one in my family ever ‘decided’ to wound me. The wounds we all bestowed on each other resulted from efforts to wrestle with unrelated issues in pursuit of other, entirely unrelated outcomes—without any clue of where it would all lead. The rest is ‘what happened instead’—to everyone’s surprise.
So please do keep in mind that none of the Machiavellian ‘dance charts’ I present here ever existed at the time. They exist only now, in hindsight, as I share a lifetime of deductions and guesses with you—any or all of which might also be entirely wrong, while I’m clarifying things.
So then, moving on…:]
At the center of the great jungle of my youth, there is a wide, deep defile into which many rivers plunge in foaming cataract through swirls of mist, rainbows and flocks of exotic birds. At the center of that defile rises a cluster of gaudy tents, dazzling decoration and lurid architecture. The grounds are teeming with elaborately costumed performers and crowds of spectators from virtually every corner of the forest—all come to watch—or perform in—the infamous, the indescribable, the unforgettable and virtually un-navigable, Cirque du High School!
It was here, among the breathless high wire and trapeze acts, the lion tamers and the dancing pony shows, the exotic zoo of animals—caged and un-caged—the carnie rides and games of chance, the gallery of freaks, the house of mirrors, and the tunnel of love and horror, that I finally learned to make my story work—beyond any and all expectation. And, after a fleeting season of elation, it was here that I had my first un-watered taste of true despair. The core essentials that would shape my ‘life in-extremis’ for years to come were all solidified, if not learned outright, right here.
So come with me now to the show of shows: full-blown and ripened adolescence! Gaudy and empty as a paper party hat, and an inflection point discounted or dismissed only by fools at tremendous peril. Prepare to be amazed, thrilled, and horrified as you have never been…since your own four years in some other circus dreadfully like this one, I suspect.
If I had come to junior high school imagining a chance to reinvent myself, it had turned out to be a useful little laboratory in which to learn invaluable lessons about how not to go about it. High school offered me a chance to try again—applying everything I’d learned—on an even bigger stage. Once more into the breach—surrounded by a new and vastly larger crowd of strangers, and a menu of facilities, subjects and extracurricular events dwarfing anything Eden Jail had ever dreamed of offering—this time informed. The strange part is, it finally worked! For a while.
But not without a hitch or two right out the gate, of course. What kind of story would that make? What kind of hero—anti or otherwise—is ever hitchless?
I started the race well enough. Our high school had a sort of decorative ‘bell tower’ at the main entrance. If there were entrances of any kind to that ‘tower,’ they were maintenance hatches at most. That seemed plenty obvious to me as we freshmen began encountering juniors and seniors selling tickets to the Folly’s supposed ‘observation deck.’ I waltzed right by all sorts of freshman hazing tricks liked that. I even came armored with genuine, store-bought clothes—albeit, still in wingtips. More to the point, I knew to play everything ‘down’ this time around. No more cues taken from Keith Partridge or any of his stunt doubles. I may actually have been slightly more sophisticated than your average freshman. But that sophistication was to be instantly tested—in a truly brutal way.
You see, my new high school’s student body was so large that everyone could not be fed in a single lunch hour. So there were two consecutive lunch hours: the first for freshmen and sophomores—who, being soft little kids, were not expected to survive an extra hour without nutrition—and the second for juniors and seniors, toughened veterans of deprivation. Somehow, among the entire freshman and sophomore classes, I—and only I—was ‘accidentally’ assigned the second lunch hour. This bureaucratic error was apparently irreversible—for vaguely explained reasons involving punch cards and complex logistical stratagems, and over-worked school secretaries who really didn’t need another trivial pain in the ass issue brought them by some whiny new kid. So, ‘just for this first semester, sorry,’ I’d be eating lunch—every day—with a herd of utterly unfamiliar juniors and seniors.
And, how did our unusually sophisticated freshman navigate this daunting development?
At the lunch bell every day, I ran to my locker, hoping to grab my bag lunch before the halls were entirely choked with menacing gorillas and eye-rolling Vegas showgirls, then ran—not walked—to a spot way out at the other end of campus—as far from the cafeteria as it was possible to go—to a spot underneath the bleachers by the sports field—and ate my lunch in hiding. Every day. Because oh my god the difference in size and behavior between 14-year-olds and 16-18-year-olds is…well, imperceptible to most adults, I now realize. They all look like kids to us. But to them—I mean, to us, back then—it is the difference between gophers and Labradors. And everyone knows who gets eaten when two such creatures end up ‘at lunch’ together.
None of this was made better by my lifelong ‘gift’ of strangely youthful appearance (briefly alluded to in another recent post). That strange feature of my strange mix is all very nice now—at the age of 62—but looking eleven when you’re fifteen was definitely a BUG, not a feature, back in those days—about which I will have more to say in some later post.
Which transitions perfectly to high school PE class—for which I was no longer simply expected to change outer garments, but to strip down entirely, and shower—naked—with a bunch of ‘real boys’ often also significantly older than I was, since there were usually multiple PE classes happening in the same period. I was clearly not the only one who found this awkward. Everyone betrayed their discomfort via different ‘tells.’ Some laughed, some teased, some flexed…things. ‘Glacial’ might best describe my tell. I just shut down and ceased to ‘be there’ in some weird way. Dissociation, do they call that? I am wondering how many of the rest of you actually ‘dissociated’ during showers in the locker room at high school. I’m betting…not a lot of you? I’m going to leave this bit there for now. Just think of this as foreshadowing. But I’ll come back to this particular deer trail—no, more like foot path, mmm…or maybe large dark, scary cavern entrance would be better—yeah, that does the job—later. Oh yes. I will.
Are you wondering, perhaps, which part of this equals “it worked?”
Well, lunch and PE accounted for only two hours of any day. The rest of the time, I was busy employing every single lesson my Eden Jail experiments in ‘anti-hero strategy’ had taught me. I was intelligent—but only when given no choice about revealing that, funnier than ever—especially in potentially dangerous situations. I was talented too—at an age when that was finally starting to matter even to us kids. But I didn’t even think about doing something as stupid or dangerous as showing off—especially in art class. Boy oh boy did I LOVE whatever THEY were drawing! Even if that was Raggedy Andy humping Raggedy Ann. Oh yeah. This was high school art class, baby! And this time I knew the rules—however semi-consciously:
1. Do kind things whenever possible, and make other people feel good about themselves—in every way you can think of, at every opportunity that presents itself.
2. Make other people laugh with you—or, if necessary, at you—before they have time to think of teasing you first—especially in dangerous situations.
3. The rest of the time, NEVER, EVER do ANYTHING to call attention to yourself—for any reason—until the shot is so obvious and so certainly a slam dunk that it would be conspicuous to pass it up. Then nail it, give them a nod—nothing more, ever—and vanish again, immediately.
4. If someone does manage to call attention to you—especially in a complimentary way—dismiss that attention, politely and appreciatively, with a joke—then redirect with another! ‘Thanks, Jan. My mom says I’ll hang in the Louvre someday. Or the loo, maybe. I’m never sure. She mumbles. How about that lasagna at lunch yesterday, huh? Is there, like, a case of stucco missing in the woodshop today, you think?’
5. Only real boys get away with bragging. Everyone else is punished for it.
6. If you do fail at something visible—see rule 2.
7. Never make fun of anyone—including freaks and nerds. Karma is real—and potentially dangerous.
Early on, this set of half-unconscious guiding principles merely helped me avoid trouble. I was treated mostly with pleasant indifference—except when I was making people laugh, and people liked to laugh—and not hated by anyone I was aware of. But at some deeper, unconscious level of ‘anti-hero-in-training’ awareness, I think I ‘knew’ that sooner or later I would be ‘noticed’, for some unanticipated reason, and that when it happened, if I’d been careful enough, I’d have left no one predisposed to attack me for it.
That moment came much sooner than I expected—in a very unexpected way.
I loved to sing in those days. In fact, though I never thought to include it in earlier posts, as a child, I’d often sung out loud to anything that made me happy: the ocean, San Francisco cable cars, pineapple pie… Sometimes I forgot even to think about who else might be watching. I just started humming—or opened my mouth and belted out whatever tune expressed my delight. … Yeah, I know. Didn’t hear much about that boy, did you? …Hmmm….
Anyway, one of the electives I had signed up for the first semester of my freshman year was choir. It allowed me to sing precisely where no one would notice—or even hear me. One more face in a sea of faces, one more voice in a wall of sound. Not a soloist—no interest in being one—but plenty able to carry a tune—without a bucket. In other words, singing—yet inconspicuous in every way. And I had already noticed that people who like to sing tend to be safer company… Just sayin’.
Choir class was held in a big amphitheater-style room near the cafeteria, and one day, as I stood at my locker preparing to leave school for the day, I realized the books and homework I couldn’t find had been left in the choir room. So I went back there to get them, hoping the room was still unlocked. To my surprise, it was not just unlocked, but full of students—older students—who all turned to look at me as I came through the door.
“I,uh…sorry.” I ducked my head, embarrassed to be interrupting whatever was happening there, and half tiptoed into the room, kind of hunched up, as I recall, to find my books and flee. Before I’d taken half a dozen steps, one of those older students, a blond, bucktoothed, sort of athletic-looking guy said, “You here to try out?”
“Uh. For what?”
“The play,” said the boy.
“Our prayers are answered, people!” exclaimed a big, cheerful man who turned out to be the drama teacher. “I think we’ve got a Raymond!”
A PLAY?! No friggin way! “Oh, no, I just—”
“Oh, please try out!” said a tall, pretty, blond girl, who looked even older than the bucktoothed guy, and filled out her sweater in a very cheerleader-ish way. “You’d be perfect!”
“It’s a really good part,” said the drama teacher, already handing me a form of some kind. “Fill this out, if you’d be so kind, and I’ll get you a script to read from.”
As I took the proffered form, he turned away to go get the script, and I found myself strangely embarrassed to explain that I’d had no idea there were tryouts for play going on in here—that I’d just come to get some books I’d left. It sounded so clueless in my head, somehow, to admit I hadn’t known what was going on. And the room was full of the very same older students I hid from every day at lunch—who really seemed to want me to stay and ‘try out.’ For a play. …A play. Talk about nuking rule #3—massively. Just leaving—like a clueless freshman who’d stumbled in here by mistake… I looked down at the form: just for my name and homeroom, and a signature to show I understood there would be after-school rehearsals, and performances, and I would not be excused from any of my homework or other school responsibilities for this activity, etc. “You can read, right?” asked the bucktoothed guy in the letterman’s sweater.
“Of course I can read,” I said, sitting down to scribble my name and homeroom on the form.
The would-be jock came to look over my shoulder as I signed the bottom of it. “Pretty nice signature,” he said, sounding surprised in a sarcastic way.
“I’ve had a lot of practice,” I replied, smiling as if this extremely ‘dangerous’ situation were all very funny, which, of course, I was already working up ideas about how to make it—in a hurry.
To my surprise, he laughed—at that—and, to my even greater surprise, turned to the others, and said, “Hear that? He’s perfect!”
Was that an upperclassman calling me ‘perfect?’ For what, I wondered, just as the drama teacher returned with scripts to hand me, my ‘witty’ new foil, and the pretty girl in the fluffy pink sweater. “Jan, Thomas, will you read scene five with—” he turned to me. “Sorry. What’s your name?”
“—with Mark, please?” He bent down, opened my script to the scene, and said, “Read it like you’re just talking to them. No big thing. Just like you’d say these things to anyone, okay?”
Reading I could do. I’d been doing it avidly, all my life. Deeply relieved that I wasn’t supposed to stand up and ‘act’ or anything, I took a moment to read some of the scene silently. The play was called George Washington Slept Here: a high school classic everywhere—back then, at least. And ‘Raymond,’ it soon became clear, was a very young, skinny, extremely nasty brat with evil plans—and funny as hell. Oh yeah. I could do funny as hell. And ‘fail at nothing’ was an important rule as well, right? So I made sure not to fail.
To my very ambivalent astonishment and dread, I left that room with a part in a play! Life can turn on a dime—because some books get left behind in choir. I couldn’t even bring myself to think yet about standing on a stage and saying these lines in front of people. That would all come much, much later. There would be rehearsals first—months of them—with these upperclassmen, who were all treating me like one of the team now—and with whom I could sit safely at lunch tomorrow! That seemed more than worth whatever this rash move might cost me later.
I didn’t know it yet, but the cosmos had just handed me that golden ticket I’d been struggling to engineer ever since fifth grade. The effects that being a freshman who hung out laughing and joking with juniors and seniors at lunch would have on my freshman peers had not even entered my mind yet. But like it says in that lyric from the Broadway musical, Gypsy, everything started coming up roses and buttercups for me that afternoon. …Yes indeed. Just like the song says—or near enough as makes little difference. If you’re familiar with Gypsy…well, let’s just call that more foreshadowing.
And there I must leave us, halfway across the first high wire act we’ve seen in this cirque, until next Sunday.
Hope to see you then, cyber friends. Thanks, as always, for your company.