I think of childhood as a kind of slow switching-on of personality. This gradual dialogue between a young person and the people around him about who he is supposed to become.
Childhood wasn't easy for me. I mean, it isn't easy for anyone, but no part of my life so far has been even close to that difficult. Poor control over my emotions, poor social skills, bullied, pulled in opposite directions by divorced parents who couldn't stand to be in the same room together. Few friends, no romantic prospects. I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up and they weren't teaching it in high school at the time, so every minute I spent there felt like wasted energy, energy I could have spent hanging out online being taught to code by Swedish computer science students. There literally wasn't anyone in my offline suburban Minnesota life with enough context to know where I was coming from. Not in school, not at home. They couldn't see what I was steering toward, so mostly they just thought I was failing, and possibly on drugs. I wasn't on drugs or even failing, my head just wasn't where anyone thought it was.
Meanwhile I was drowning socially in school. There are people (military brats, for example) who change schools so often that it teaches them how to make fast friends. This wasn't a skill I had. I changed schools twice, once at age 7 and then a second time at age 13. Both times I felt not just like I was starting over from scratch but like any friendship I made would be competing for attention against older and therefore deeper friendships. It simply didn't occur to me that "new" could have any kind of appeal to it.
So I tried to keep my head down. Fit in. I would shyly ask people if they had a computer at home, if they knew what BBSes were, if they knew what MUDs were. With a "no" I would retreat back into safe silence, with a "yes" I would reveal my inner life to them and see what they thought about it. And it wasn't working that well. The people who gave me "no" answers or who never gave me room to ask the questions in the first place could see I wasn't one of them, and they pushed hard to make that my problem.
I have this very distinct memory of sitting in 10th grade American History class, wearing this almost brand-new red flannel shirt that I had bought at a local department store because it was 1993 and that was what people were dressing like on TV. Looking down and being like: "This isn't working, nobody cares that I'm wearing the correct shirt, and this was never correct for me to begin with. Fuck it." I never wore that shirt again. Within a few months I was mostly wearing clothes that felt like a kind of armor. Bulky trenchcoats, hiking boots, baggy oversized jeans, undecorated T-shirts and pullovers, suede drawstring pouches from the Renaissance Festival. I stopped cutting my hair, and when it got to that awkward phase where it was too short to tie back but too long to stay out of my face I started using the belt of my trenchcoat like a headband because my school did not allow hats. Zero fucks given.
Supposedly, anyway. Aesop Rock said in a recent Hail Mary Mallon song called Kiln:
You'd like to think you're cool enough to not care if you're cool / but the spirit gets distracted / the flesh is fucking cruel. I lived that, and still do. I was dressing and acting like someone who didn't care socially, but it wasn't because I didn't care, it was because I had given up on succeeding. Why try to fit in when I never, ever will?
But, weirdly, this somehow worked for me. I was dressing like my inner life felt to me, and suddenly everyone in school who shared some portion of that inner life with me seemed to know who I was. Suddenly almost everyone in my life who thought I was worth speaking to was addressing me by my BBS handle instead of my given name, and I found myself right near the center of this sprawling oddball anti-clique at the fringes of what was otherwise a Midwestern suburban monoculture. For many years afterward I would still occasionally meet someone who knew all about me even though I couldn't remember them at all. Somehow, without really trying, my reputation had become bigger than I was. It wasn't fame, it wasn't popularity, but it wasn't the kind of anonymity I had been living under previously. Just like all those heavy, shapeless clothes, I began to wear that notoriety like armor.
Around the same time as I had my "fuck it" moment during American History, my reading choices took a left turn. I had been reading Ayn Rand novels because my Honors English class gave me one as assigned reading and the intellectual elitism on display there gave me a reason to feel above the norm instead of beneath it. For a brief period there, aged 15-16, I was one of those insufferable teenage dorks who went around school carrying an Atlas Shrugged hardcover and claiming that he was an Objectivist, not a libertarian. But those Swedish computer science students saved me again: I tried to engage them about books in between coding lessons, and one of them slyly suggested I check out Robert Anton Wilson. In his The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Wilson has a section which ruthlessly parodies the most obnoxious and self-indulgent part of Atlas Shrugged, the dozens-of-pages-long monologue that John Galt gives when he finally reveals himself to the world. Reading that parody so soon after reading the original monologue took me out of my skin for a moment and I realized that I could never be an Ayn Rand fan again. I went back to the Swedes and told them so, and one of them introduced me to Discordianism via a hypertext version of the Principia Discordia hosted on a webserver at Carnegie Mellon University. Another piece fell into place. I had been a lifelong atheist, and would always announce this fact to anyone who brought up religion in my presence; not a smart move for a kid trying to keep his head down and fit in, but I hated religion for the way my extended family had tried force it on me so often over the years. Discordianism was valuable: some actually-wise philosophy down in the bones if it, but still openly contemptuous of religion itself. The best part was that the people who had been taught to challenge my atheism when I announced it had no idea what to do when someone announced Discordianism instead. They receded into confusion, and so I wore my new faith like still more armor.
(Wilson is just as problematic as Rand in some ways. Or perhaps what I mean to say is: Wilson readers are just as problematic as Rand readers in some ways. I think his text has aged badly, particularly for the way it deals with feminism and with issues of race. But it did something important for me at a time in my life when I needed that.
I dug into music. Prog rock, heavy metal; later on, underground rap. The more complicated or angry or disaffected, the better. Retreated underneath headphones and brand T-shirts. More armor.
Meanwhile, underneath all that armor, I was still deciding who to be--and thanks to all that armor, I was doing it with relatively little interference from the people who had made me feel so isolated to begin with. Technical, bookish, so indifferent to normalcy that it started to look like a form of arrogance, almost intentionally ridiculous, fellow-traveler with introverts and outsiders of all stripes, and totally at ease with it all. And, right down near the core where nobody could really recognize it, total fraud. I had built myself up into this person who affirmatively stood for all of these things, but I knew where it started: On a day in American History class when I had decided that because I was never going to get what I had been trying to get, it was better not to try at all.
I'm 37 now. I'm still exactly who I decided to be back then. Still layering on more armor, still feeling like a fraud right down near the core. Except for one thing. Give me a second, I need to share with you a quote from House, a T.V. show I've essentially never watched. I got to this quote because BK-One sampled it on his excellent Set in Motion mixtape. Meet me at the bar sometime and ask me about that CD and what it means to me. Anyway, the quote:
I know that limp. I know the empty ring finger. And that obsessive nature of yours, that's a big secret. You don't risk jail and your career to save somebody doesn't want to be saved unless you got something, anything... one thing. The reason normal people got wives and kids and hobbies, whatever, that's because they ain't got that one thing that, that hits them that hard and that true. I got music. You got this. The thing you think about all the time. Thing that keeps you south of normal. Yeah, makes us great. Makes us the best. All we miss out on is everything else. No woman waiting at home after work with a drink and a kiss; that ain't gonna happen for us.
The word that quote is grasping for is "devotion," or perhaps "fidelity." That's the thing I know about now that I didn't know about at 15 when I truly gave up for the first time: You get to decide you're going to be about something.
I'm not religious and so this didn't come naturally to me. That extended family of mine, they're all Jesus take the wheel types. They know what they're about, and it's practically all they talk about. Devoted to Christ. To faith. I don't mean any of that in a bad way; their faith commands them to kindness, to temperence, to charity and thrift and industry, to cultivated talents around music and art and craft, to lives centered on church and family. It's a gift to them, but it's one I will simply never be able to share.
A Muslim I met once at a bar (yeah, I know) told me that the heart of Islam is submission to God. I get that, just like I get it with my relatives: You can decide that you're going to be about your faith. Really about it, to the exclusion of other desires, to the exclusion of other points of view, even to the exclusion of your own will.
In one of the more pornographic chapters in his Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson breaks briefly from the stream-of-consciousness sex narrative he's been composing to mention a Sufi proverb that he describes as "the three stages of the Path." He paraphrases these as:
- Lord, use me.
- Lord, use me but don't break me.
- Lord, I don't care if you break me.
I haven't been able to sit still for any of Wilson's fiction since around the time he passed away, even though it's all part of the Discordian canon. As I said, I think parts of it have aged really badly. But when I first read this passage, with such simple and powerful phrasing, it shined a light on something that had always been inside of me, and allowed me to give it a name. The words have never left me since.
Other descriptions of this same path use different language (purgation, illumination, unity) and characterize a penitent's gradual submission to the will and love of God. Wilson used it differently here, in the same sense that other writers have said "love is alchemy." That theme is prevalent in much of Wilson's writing.
This quote stuck with me as hard as it did because I'm not religious, not really. Discordianism isn't a faith, it's a tool for exploring the nature of faith. Given a mind that holds no room for God, what can I choose to give myself to and make it so important that I don't care if it breaks me?
The essential meaning of alchemy is transformation. Love can get underneath all that armor, all the way down to your inner core, and it can transform you. The question I've been struggling with lately is: when that happens, is all that stuff layered above really still armor, or does it become something else entirely?
You're too smart to say what you think
And I'm too real not to say what I feel
But when it starts to sink
I'll grab the wheel
I'll keep on steering for you
I'll keep on steering for you
-- Sims of Doomtree, The Wren