Post 23: An ‘unqualified’ success

broken-mirror.jpg

You must be at least this impressive—

—to enter this attraction.

It’s been a really fractured week here at Lake World-be-gone, my new home. That industrial flu I got a couple weeks ago has never fully vanished, and since last weekend I’ve been coughing my head off, and exhausted all day long. Can hardly stay awake for more than a few hours at a time. Back to the Doc tomorrow morning—hours before our next house guest arrives.

And then, on Tuesday, the 21” Wacom Cintiq Pen Display on which virtually all my art has gotten done for the past nine years decided, without any warning, to go dark. Working fine when I went to bed on Tuesday night, lifeless and unresponsive on Wednesday morning—two weeks before I need all illustrations finished for the launch of TWICE. Timing’s everything, right? And mine is always…legendary. Tech support told me to replace the connecting cables before buying a whole new Cintiq, since they often turn out to be the problem in situations like this. But you cannot buy the cable or the adapter I need here on Orcas—so I had to go to America. Spent the whole day there, discovering that you can’t get them anywhere there either. When I got back home at 8:30 that night, I ordered them online from Amazon. They’re supposed to come tomorrow—on Monday. If they solve the problem, I’ve only lost a week of the three I have remaining to get the Twice launch art done. If they don’t solve the problem, then I order a new Cintiq—and sell an organ or two to pay for it—and wait another week for it to come. …These could be pretty hasty illustrations, people. :]

And then you know what happened?

I cleaned my office, which has needed doing since Norwescon in April, and spent a couple days working out in the garden where nature was inches from taking over my whole operation, and went to see Avengers: Endgame at our local theater—which was as awesome as we’ve hoped it would be! (That’s right. It’s just gotten to our little island now. The waiting we’ve done—dodging spoilers from the outside, real-time world all the way!) Hardly coughed at all, and didn’t need to use the bathroom once—for the whole three hours. Still got the bladder, babeee!

So, as catastrophic weeks go, this one really wasn’t so bad.

Better brace yourselves for some pretty hectic kindergarten scrawls at TWICE launch time in two weeks though. (The writing will be fine, of course.)

And speaking of bracing yourselves, let’s get back to the Cirque, okay? 

flourish 01 Wht sm.png

This week in Cirque du High School, we’ll exit the Religion Rollercoaster for a while, and go have a look at the Masculinity Hall of Mirrors. It’s a total gas—light, and perhaps my favorite—or at least, most obsessive—Cirque attraction back in the day. Shall we sidle inside?

——————————————————————————

Fun fact #1: A Real Boy’s first and most important task in life is learning how to prove to others what he and his father have known from the very start: that he is destined to be a superhero.

To fulfill this destiny, a Real Boy must make others recognize it—on the outside—as clearly as he already does, within. Despite his inner certainty, this task can be daunting, and figuring out exactly how to do it is the full-time business of every Real Man’s son. Of course, as with so much else in life, a great deal depends on the quality of coaching one receives—especially early on.

To begin with, your coach must know as well as you do—if not better—that you are, in fact, destined to be a superhero. This core understanding between Real Boys and their Real Fathers is fraught with tremendous power and very real danger—for both of them. Inevitably mistakes are made, friction occurs, injuries are inflicted—on both sides. These can be crippling. Superhero training is not for sissies. But the absence of this basic understanding altogether is likely to be even harder on everyone involved.

My second grade teacher likely understood all this very well when—as I mentioned back in Post 9—she gently suggested to my father that he consider playing catch with me at home. And the entire map of our long father/son tragedy was laid out in fractal miniatures that day, I think, when he replied that ‘no one had ever played catch with him, and he’d turned out just fine.’

My father never had any suspicion that I was destined to be a superhero. Neither, I suspect, had his father entertained any such assumptions about him. And so it goes. Had I ever had a son, I’d have been utterly useless to him as a Real Boy coach. Very hard to teach what one has never learned. My father may have been trying to admit this—to me and to himself—when he declared himself ‘my father, not my buddy’—or, by extension, my coach. Would my incapacity as ‘Real Boy coach’ have been a tragedy for my hypothetical son—or a boon? Likely, yes. Was my own father’s absence in this regard a curse or a blessing? From my current vantage point, I’d have to say, ‘both.’ But I won’t pretend confusion about which of these alternatives would have made life easier for me then. Most of the payoffs of having been excluded, right out the gate, from Real Boy coaching, would blossom and ripen only much, much later in my life. And, for clarity, this is not a complaint—I have been enjoying all these late-blooming benefits for years now, while many of my early-blooming acquaintances seemed bereft of much but nostalgia. ‘All’s well that ends well,’ and don’t I know it—now. But thenThen, I hadn’t even become conscious of its absence yet, much less begun to understand its impacts—even as they shaped my daily life.

——————————————————————————

It would not surprise me at this point to hear you sigh deeply—or yawn—and see your eyes roll. I know how worn and weary this theme is. Who has not already seen these age-old clichés pored over ad nauseam in a thousand Psychology Today articles, Men’s Movement self-help tomes, and ‘coming of age’ novels? ‘Sons, and the fathers who fail them…’ and so on. I’ve read all these accounts and explorations as well—some in my own previous posts here—and been struck, repeatedly, by how often they are framed and conveyed in the very same, all-too-narrow and familiar slice of masculine mythology tropes that catalyze the very betrayals being lamented: shame-games revolving around sports, hunting, fighting, addiction, sex, and work. As if all the trouble lay in failure to navigate these classic themes more caringly, competently, or constructively, and not in the assumed need to ‘work everything out’—successfully or not—within the confines of these ‘classic’ categories at all.

As with so many other regions of this tangled wood we’re touring, my own emasculation looked nothing much like the ones described again and again in all that ‘men’s literature’ out there. So…I’ll risk taking you down a deer trail or two in this valley, in case my developmental idiosyncrasies don’t turn out to be just a warmed-over rehash of All the Right Moves.

——————————————————————————

The usual categories of conflict and dysfunction between father and son were…well, nominally present, I suppose. But I don’t think they were the real drivers of our particular drama.

Yes, my father was apparently embarrassed by my abysmal athletic skills at school—but not because ‘sports’ mattered to him—or to anyone at our house. None of us were sports fans of any kind—least of all him. No one ever watched a game of anything at home—not even my father’s two ‘legitimate’ sons—except for the Olympics—which Mom liked for the spectacle of gymnastics, ice skating, skiing and diving competitions. If my poor athletic skills mattered to my father, it was only because of what they might ‘suggest’ to others about fears concerning me he didn’t want exposed. So masculine mythology about sports was certainly not the problem.

Same thing with fighting. Yes, my father once got my brother and me each a set of boxing gloves for Christmas—to help us get fighting with each other out of our systems, perhaps—and maybe to learn some useful self-defense skills in the process. But neither he nor we were really at all interested in physical fighting either—much less in those silly gloves. So they just gathered dust on a lower toy shelf until their faux-leather exteriors molded. If ‘fighting ability’ was ever an issue of importance to anyone at our house, I missed it completely. That issue wasn’t driving my disfigurement either.

My father was an enthusiastic game-bird hunter and fisherman. The first two words I ever spoke were, apparently, ‘duck-huttin’—likely because I thought that meant ‘daddy.’ Well, that and, ‘damn keys!’ I’m told—which might have meant ‘daddy’ to me as well. :] And, yes, it became clear pretty early on that, while I loved the day-long sorties into nature that hunting involved, I had no interest at all in killing the animals we found there. So, I guess I failed that traditional male test as well. But once it became clear that I was not a hunter-born, I was simply left out of the loop during hunting seasons—which was fine with me—and apparently with him. Whatever my father may have made of my indifference to hunting, it never bothered me for a moment—or seemed any kind of problem to others that I was aware of. So—no damage inflicted there either.

Tension over professional interests, work-ethic, or substance addiction were just nowhere on anyone’s radar in our home—then or later.

The only traditional ‘masculinity issue’ that did play a significant role in my exclusion from Real Boy eligibility was my father’s secret dread that I was homosexual. But while I have no doubt this ‘secret’ shaped a lot of things for me unconsciously, his fear in this regard remained consciously invisible to me until I was in college. My conscious awareness of the unbridgeable gap between me and Real Boy membership was, I believe, being driven by something less ‘traditional.’

Specifically, the constant drip of serious fear at home. Not—as you may be expecting—that oddly early fear of my father’s that I might be homosexual, but a far wider, deeper, older fear that something terrible might happen at any moment. This fear too belonged—at first—primarily to my father. It seems to have been a staple expression of his chronic depression, which predated not only my birth, but my parents’ marriage. My father’s pervasive certainty of imminent, if often vaguely defined, catastrophe was, I believe, an artifact of his genuinely dark upbringing as the youngest child of poor Italian immigrants. He never talked much about any part of his life to me, or to any others that I know of. Much of what I’ve learned about his childhood has been gleaned from my mother and relatives of his who saw his childhood unfold.

In virtually every photo of my father as a child, he is frowning at the camera, as if the photographer had him at gunpoint; this from a boy who would grow up to have his own darkroom in the basement and teach photography classes at school. When my father was very little, his family was literally run out of town by the school board for whom his father worked as a janitor—after ‘that uppity Wop’ dared object to racial slurs he’d overheard them expressing at a closed-door school board meeting one day while he was working in the room below them. My father’s family went next to San Francisco, to live in basements, working as domestics for wealthy families upstairs. When the letter announcing his oldest brother’s death in the Pacific during WWII arrived, my still very young father was the only one at home who read English, and so had to read it to his parents. His mother had a nervous breakdown after that, and was confined to an asylum for electroshock therapy. She came home as a murmuring, semi-delusional zombie for some time after. My father was taken as a boy to a doctor who diagnosed him—incorrectly, it turns out—with a degenerative eye disease, and told him he’d be blind before he turned thirty. He still thought he’d be going blind as he courted my mother in college. And these are just highlights.

By the time I came along, my father lived in a more or less ongoing state of waxing and waning preparation for ever-revolving potential crises—some more outlandish than others—all of which remained consciously invisible to me until I was in college. Ask a fish about water, and it will likely say, ‘what water?’ Had you asked me about the current of paranoia my family swam with or against every day, I’d have answered, ‘what paranoia?’ But ‘invisible’ is not ‘absent’ or ‘irrelevant.’

——————————————————————————

For clarity, some more fun facts:

1.       Though I first learned (and loved) to ride a bicycle during a visit to my maternal grandmother’s house in Portland, Oregon when I was around seven years old, I was not allowed to ride a bike again after that—at all—until I was sixteen, when I was given a bike at last, but told not to ride it beyond the end of the court we lived on. Our neighborhood was hilly, and the daughter of a family at our church had once lost control of her bike, crashed into a tree, and sustained severe brain injuries. Therefore, biking anywhere beyond our flat court was much too dangerous—at sixteen years old—while other friends were getting their licenses to drive a car. One day not long after receiving my first bicycle—at sixteen—I rode farther anyway, down one block, around the corner, and up a driveway to the grounds of my old elementary school—where, of course, I fell off the bike and cut up my left arm and foot badly enough to need stitches. The bike was immediately taken away, and I did not have another until I was twenty-two years old and finally living on my own in Berkeley, CA.

2.       I was not allowed to be ‘out’ after dark without my parents—except at chaperoned school events—until I was a senior in high school. My father was a teacher, after all. He had a front row seat to the kinds of things kids got involved in out on their own after dinner.

3.       I was not allowed to ride in any student-driven car at, to, or from the Cirque—or anywhere else for any reason—until my senior year in high school. I of course did not have a license yet—even then. I would not get one—or a car, obviously—until I was twenty-seven years old—and then only under pressure from my employer at the time. But I’m getting way ahead of myself now.

I could continue this list for pages, but I’m sure you get the picture. My father often assured me that it was ‘the world’ he didn’t trust, not me. But, as I’ve said before, what can be hidden from others consciously is harder to conceal from their unconscious minds. I was not to be trusted ‘out there’ in the world, or even at home—and we all knew it. My father’s fear had become focused over time on the weak link in our family’s defenses—for fear of the ruinous effects some misstep of mine might have on all our lives. Long before I got to Cirque du High School, I was so deeply immersed in the family myth of my unequipped and incompetent fragility, that I couldn’t see it, much less question it. Even as I came close enough to friends at the Cirque to discover and appreciate the vast gulf between my liberties and theirs, I just wondered how their families could allow such ‘reckless freedoms,’ ‘irresponsible rules,’ and ‘wacko assumptions!’ They were the strange ones—endangered by their lack of fear.

Not my family. We were sensible, responsible—and safe.

I’ve been told that working elephants are trained in infancy by chaining one of their legs to a large, heavy log. In time, they come to take the chain’s reach and power so for granted that even after they’ve grown large and powerful enough to toss any log aside, merely the chain itself—tied to nothing at all—is required to fix them in place. The elephant feels that chain around its ankle, and knows without question that it cannot move more than a foot or two. That has become unquestionable.

Humans cast such spells on one another too, to make the strings and chains we wear as unbreakable as they are invisible—if to no one but ourselves.

——————————————————————————

Now, rewind with me to that first, glorious year at Cirque du High School, as my star finally ascends, for a snapshot that I hope will bring this whole contextual filter into focus:

It’s a sunny Saturday morning, late in my freshman year. I’ve been given clearance to walk down out of the hills and spend the morning with three school friends, ‘Billy, Jake and Dustin,’ (not their real names) at Billy’s house near the high school. They are all freshmen too—and Real Boys, who, despite my obvious lack of credentials, have invited me to come hang out. Remember that by now my ‘brand’ has surpassed me in many people’s minds. I am a talented guy who lunches with upperclassmen and may, according to the rumor mill, have an older girlfriend stashed somewhere. Nonetheless, I am flattered, even somewhat intimidated, by the invitation.

Billy, in particular, is a Real Boy paragon. Athletically built, Dutch-boy blond, perfectly tanned, with the good looks of a catalog model. He’s even smart, and not the tiniest bit unsure of himself—that I’d ever seen. The other two are his hangers-on, but still Real Boys beyond any question—or they wouldn’t have been chosen even as followers by someone as coolly self-determined as Billy.

And they’ve invited me to join in their revels this morning—whatever those might prove to be...

As we hang out, in Billy’s bedroom, I carefully apply the sense of humor I’ve grown famous for, and my newly acquired ‘convincing-performance-of-fearlessness’ skills. Before long, to my satisfaction and relief, it seems I’ve passed muster when they invite me to come peruse the local liquor and convenience store a few blocks down the street from Billy’s place.

Fifteen minutes later, we are wandering the aisles of ‘Tony’s’ or ‘Jimmy’s’ or whatever it was called, examining and debating candy choices, speculating about whether to buy chips or go full-throttle with hotdogs, then discussing the properties and virtues of various kinds of motor oil—as if I had a clue about where in a car motor oil is put—much less why. At some point, I am gazing hard at a pack of powdered sugar donuts when I realize the others have drifted away. I go looking, and find them by a counter at the back of the store, ogling a magazine that Billy’s holding open. “See? I told you!” Billy exclaims in hushed excitement. “All stretched open. You can see everything!” When he looks up and sees me approaching, he smiles awkwardly, and shakes his head. “Not for you, Ferrari. You’re not qualified for this.”

I swear. Those very words.

He kind of nods me away, in a friendly manner, and goes back to looking at whatever’s in the magazine with Jake and Dustin.

But here’s the weirdest part. I just took his word for it. I didn’t feel offended, or embarrassed. I didn’t hesitate, much less protest, or ask questions. I just shrugged, and walked off to some other aisle, wondering what, exactly, I was not qualified to see—but not why—or if—I was ‘unqualified.’ It didn’t take long to figure out they must be looking at a ‘girlie magazine,’ which, though I’d never actually seen one, I’d heard enough about to guess what was ‘all stretched open.’ Whatever.

There wasn’t just a lack of umbrage, there was no surprise—at all. Just like that moment when my father had announced he was ‘my father not my buddy,’ I was being told something I already knew—had known all along—as did Billy, Jake and Dustin, apparently. We were all just acknowledging that I was ‘interesting’ enough to be invited to their party—for some reason—but that my success was ‘unqualified’—and not in the usual, complimentary way..

So, I hadn’t been invited along for those rumors about an older girlfriend, apparently. What then?

A short while later, we all ambled back to Billy’s house—as friendly as ever—and spent some time poring through his Mad magazines as Billy put on some ’45 records, and started playing air guitar, and even singing along—grimacing and gesticulating like he was a rock star. “Come on, Ferrari!” he said at one point, motioning me to sing along. Evidently, I was qualified for this. So I sang too. I’d been in choir all year long, and had a decent voice. I was rehearsing Hello Dolly by then—which, in retrospect, I suspect had not escaped Billy’s attention.

As I got into the singing—imitating Billy’s performance, really—he fell silent and stood watching me. I realized all three of them were watching, which felt …awkward. So, I jammed my ‘convincing-performance-of-fearlessness’ into overdrive, pretending not to notice they were watching, and gave them a show. Too late to pass now—better make it as good as I could.

“Whadayathink?” Billy asked the other two when the song ended and I fell silent.

Jake shrugged and nodded.

“He could do it,” Dustin said.

“We’re starting a band, Ferrari,” Billy said. “You wanna be our lead singer?”

Huh. So that’s why. …Lead singer in Billy’s band? Heck yes! “Uh…what kinda band?”

Billy rolled onto his back on the floor, held a rolled-up magazine to his mouth like a microphone, and with full rock-star grimace, started grinding out at the top of his lungs, “G-L-O-R-I-A-GLORIA! GLORIA! He spent a minute wailing additional lyrics and sliding around the bedroom floor on his back like Chuck Berry trying to recover from a painful fall, then looked up at me and said, “That kind. Can you handle it?”

“Sure,” I said casually, careful to hide the shouts of imagined glory leaping up inside me. “Sounds cool.” Lead singer in Billy’s band! Holy friggin’ moly—I’m really in!! All the way in!!!

“Rehearsals are twice a week, in my garage,” said Billy. “After dinner.”

“…What time after dinner?” I asked, suddenly still inside.

“Seven to nine. My mom says all my homework’s gotta get done first.”

“Okay. I’ll have to ask my parents though.”

He shrugged. “Le’me know. We’re starting next week.”

 ——————————————————————————

You know the rest, don’t you? I don’t really have to tell you.

In a rock band with three Real Boys? Rehearsing down the hill—after dark? No way. However concerned my father may have been about how I was stacking up as a guy, he sure as hell didn’t need me learning anything three Real Boys could teach me in a garage after dark—in a rock band. No-way-on-God’s-green-earth.

I had to call Billy with the bad news. He sounded disappointed.

But, honestly, their band went nowhere anyway. If they ever even actually rehearsed, it never performed anywhere that I heard about. We were high school freshmen. This was one of their more serious pipe-dreams. That’s all. So…how much could I really have missed?

 ——————————————————————————

That ain’t anything like the whole Hall of Mirrors, of course. We’re barely in the doors. But this’ll do for now. We’ll try out a different ride next week—assuming anything goes as planned, of course. It’ll be the ride you’ve all been waiting for—or dreading.

In the meantime, I wish you an even better week than the last one. :] See ya next Sunday, cyber pals.