Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Early Work: Redux

A commenter to one of the recent childhood postings described the series as “sentimental.” I replied:
I would never subject readers to mere sentimentality. I always have a higher reason - a spin I'm putting on the ball - and I always intend it to be useful or interesting or entertaining for others.
For the past 10 days we've spelunked my childhood. I have keen memories of creating each of those paintings, essays, and micro-pranks. I remember the accompanying smells and sights and sounds. I recall my exuberance - the gleeful conviction that I was doing something special.

All the rest, I'd forgotten. I did not record the full frostiness of my teachers' reactions. I do remember cheekily amending my teacher's Thanksgiving note to my parents - and the gut-punched feeling that prompted it - but I'd always assumed I'd overreacted. I forgot how tart it really was. I'd forgotten, too, that my stuff was garnering Cs. I'd remembered Bs. But, no. Jesus. Cs.

So it was worse than I'd remembered. I've been severely underestimated all my life, but I thought it hadn’t gotten bad until much later. I figured my youthful cuteness had shielded me a bit. I recall my early teachers with visceral dread, but always figured I was over-sensitive. Now I see that I wasn't, and I admire his perseverance. Especially so because he was sensitive.

He had no idea how good his stuff was. I've often noted on this Slog that I was better, sharper, keener, clearer as a child, and that my goofy, stumbling adulthood has been a spotty effort to avoid embarrassing his legacy. But I didn't imagine I was actually producing worthy stuff back then. I knew it was special - that I was putting a certain distinctive spin on the ball - but never imagined it was actually any good!

I'm particularly surprised by the artwork. I was deemed to have zero artistic talent. I agreed with this, myself, at the time, recognizing that my output lacked the meticulous precision of more talented children.

But the talented children couldn't convey visceral impressions of horror or alarm or heat or unbridled exuberance. As an adult, I understand that viscerality is the whole point, far more so than fine points of careful draftsmanship. "Neatness" scores points only in elementary school. But, alas, I was stuck in elementary school.

The teachers couldn't fully ignore my ability to fluently string words together, because there was precision there. So there was talk of how I'd become a writer. But even that praise was oddly backhanded, e.g. "I think we have a writer of sorts in our midst." C'mon, lady! Maybe go hog-wild and make it just "writer," period! Give the kid some inertia!

My impression of mediocrity has stuck with me to this day. And now that I'm actually looking at this stuff, I realize that I wasn't just showing potential. I was legit better then than now.

I lacked adult experience and skills and discipline, but the level of invested care - and the palpable result of that care in the output - was something I can't match now, as I painstakingly ply my various pursuits. I'll admit that I get good results most of the time now, but what you see on the page is a pittance compared to the humungous effort (see the video in that last link!). As a kid, I was far more efficient. 95% of my effort found its way into the result. Now it's more like 1%. These days, I shovel planets into building a hill, and take satisfaction in having conjured a righteous hill. Back then, it was planets in/planets out. No dilution. Lossless!

My superpower was exuberance. Unbridled exuberance, which throughout my youth was assessed as obnoxiousness, pushiness, and mania, among less polite terms. It didn't play well in a world packed with dreary, grim zombies. The soundtrack of Earth is Depeche Mode, while I’ve been bopping around to fun Ska. Having intruded with joyful exuberance, I've drawn perpetual fire as The Thing That Doesn't Belong. In a world of depressives, the last thing anyone wants is a compassionate, infectious offering of unbridled enthusiasm. Depression isn't a tragic deficiency of all that. It's a defiant recoiling from it. From me.

I once wrote a rebuke, 57 years in the making, to all those who've sneered at my exuberance. I made the case that it's not a question of my being manic, but of everyone else being sluggish. To me, they're on antidepressants (or ought to be), and frame their lives as a tedious grind. So bored and boring that anything interesting arising gets boiled, evaporated, and desiccated by their implacable numb ennui. As the persistent lively bit, I'm often construed to be the problem.

I still retain some lively exuberance, but not much. I was broken by age 12, and now I see why. It's not that I was sensitive, after all. It's that the beatdowns had commenced early, and support was sparse and grudging. Bearable for a grown-up; tough for a kid.
Note: this sounds bitterly self-pitying. No, I'm not that guy. In fact, that's the whole point! Even this dark material is viewed with exuberance, because I'm delighted to finally see clearly. Unfolding clarity feeds my immense curiosity and replenishes my ardor. Clarity/curiosity/exuberance, for me, is the magic formula. I feed on it while also playing it forward (I'm essentially an earthworm). A virtuous circle!
Re-examining the photo sequence from my last posting:

Age 4

Age 7

Age 8

By age 14, you can see that my lights had gone out a bit, my eyes reserving more than they’re offering:
And, flashing forward to my touring musician days (age 26), I'd puckered into a jaded leering vampire with gaping larynx, deep eye bags, and "go fuck yourself" haircut:

34 years later, I seem an ashen husk, but proudly so.

I once described what I was like by the time I hit junior high:
I was a cynical, bitter little shit. I'd discovered early how cruel and ignorant people are. My family had trained me to view fellow humans as a contemptuous herd of stupid fucking assholes deserving neither respect nor sympathy, and this proposition was not a hard sell. I already bore scars from random cruelty, and had witnessed dishonesty, corruption, and antagonism gratuitously wielded even where truth, propriety, and kindness would have better served. At a very young age I was already fed up (and, shamefully - though predictably - beginning to display touches of needless cruelty of my own).
This childhood spelunking has filled in critical background. I wasn't a sensitive mediocrity whining about insufficient praise. I was more talented and devoted than I'd realized, and the reception was frostier than I'd remembered. It helps to know this. I can forgive myself for not holding it all together with perfect aplomb, and for becoming what I'd become in junior high. I wasn’t close to monstrous, but I'd picked up some regrettable skew.

Fortunately, I course-corrected. At that juncture, something triggered inside, steering me toward yoga and meditation. I was too young to take classes or find gurus, so, as recounted in the same posting linked above, I devised my own spiritual practice, with unexpectedly transcendental results.

Then (also described in that posting) I eventually lost touch with those practices - and those results - for a long while, and my life fell apart (it's worse to know and to forget than never to have known), leading to a highly successful suicide in my mid-twenties which granted another reprieve. Another reset.

And finally there was, sigh, Chowhound. A few years in, I resumed - out of sheer desperation and deep survival instinct - my old yoga/meditation practice, engaging reset/reprieve #3. The stress of the final year, followed by my year at CNET, working for a sadistic and deranged boss, challenged even impregnable peace. There are pain levels able to penetrate the highest opium dosage.

Then I popped out of Chowhound and CNET into blank white space. A decade was a long time to have lost. Friendships don't easily resume. I was not remembered as a serious writer; just a zany food-obsessed musician. Having not touched my trombone in many years, I'd lost my ability to make even a sound. The gazillion journalists and media types who'd counted on me for pithy quotes on food news quit calling en masse, via a flocking process I still don't fathom. I wrote about it here:
I figured even if I wasn't helming Chowhound, I'd occasionally be called for a quote, or invited back to some of the dozen or so public radio programs where I was considered a "friend of the show". There'd be a trail-off, but it would be years before it all dried up.

Nope. There were very few calls (I ignored most, being tired of acting the part of the whacky, food-crazy Chowhound), and, within two months, my phone went dead. It wasn't that word had spread about my going incommunicado; my contacts were far-flung and disconnected. Yet within just eight weeks, it was as if I'd never existed.
I tried to fight my way out of the blank white space. I tried to find work, writing to an old friend who was chief editor of a major food periodical, noting jocularly that Chowhound's readership had exceeded that of her own publication, and offering to write a column to attract fresh blood to her aging demographic. She responded weeks later with a short sloppy note, asking where I was playing trombone these days. My pitch hadn't merited a response. And she didn't say a word about Chowhound. It was like it had been my childish lemonade stand.

All doors shut in my face, so I spent years creating an app packed with every iota of my food knowledge and offering savvy, pithy guidance for approaching restaurants of most every cuisine. A few dozen people bought it. The hundreds of journalists who'd considered me a wizard (and/or an influence) completely ignored it (all but John Thorne).

I was ok through all this. Finally wise to the perils of dropping spiritual practices, I'd kept them up, so inner peace deflected any pain. So, again, I'm not offering this as bitter complaint. But the oddness of my experience did leave me curious. My life had made little sense. I almost wished I were paranoid, because a world deliberately scheming against me would have been a relatively sane explanation!

I was compelled to create this slog, chronicling my efforts to figure it all out. I once wrote that deliberately creating a vacuum can leech out eurekas, and the blank white space I found myself in post-Chowhound - inexplicable and hermetic - presented one of the most potent vacuums any person has ever experienced. And I made hay. If you've ever wondered what conditions give rise to unusual levels of creativity and insight, the answer is: conditions you’d never want to experience! But to me, the most curious person in the world, powerfully confused about issues of creativity, perspective, and human thought-processes, it was worth it. Clarity, curiosity, exuberance!

So I harnessed my remaining exuberance - floating blithely on a perpetual yogic high and drawing from an unusually broad range of life experiences, with a perfect storm of oddball faculties and talents - and busily typed out these 2896 postings. I overshot, figuring out just about everything. Everything, that is, but how I got here. The path was murky and fragmented.

As I once observed, no one has ever driven from New York to Boston:
We drive from NYC to the Bronx, and from the Bronx into Westchester, from there into Connecticut, then through a boring patch, possibly involving bathrooms and food. Then we drive to Sturbridge Mass to get on the Mass Pike. From there we might glide into Boston in more or less one swoop. But the drive, overall, is six drives, minimum, and more often 60 or 600. I defy you to get in a car in NYC and simply drive to Boston. You can't do it. You will lose the flow. It will fragment.
Similarly, no one has led a single life. It's normally shattered into a billion pieces. But having weaved in this early chunk, the superstructure trawls into view. My life is becoming one thing.

What did it all mean? "Meaning" is beside the point. We're not grand enough for our lives to mean something. As I wrote here,
We don't live in cartoonish big-picture images, we live in trivial moments. This is not a movie. We're raindrops slowly working down windows, not heroic protagonists.
And as I wrote here:
Life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. And so it is with Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." That quotation used to conjure up images of wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. But it's just a matter of normal people blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river. The best among us are shitty little rivers. To me, that's what Edison was saying.
Yet there are benefits to making your life one thing, even if it's nothing grand. Because the implacable truth is that you've always been you. Which means it’s you that has shattered, not your life. So, while I'm no Freudian - he was way too specific - one can relieve considerable latent confusion and subconscious stress and dread by twining the split ends back together. Clarity! Curiosity! Exuberance!

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