Waving his Withering Pencil as if it were a Pirate's Cutlass

Waving his Withering Pencil as if it were a Pirate's Cutlass

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Waving his Withering Pencil as if it were a Pirate's Cutlass


There have been precious few consistencies in my life, very few things I have been able to hold on to for stability. When people ask me where I’m from it is impossible to tell them with any degree of accuracy. My parents split up when I was four, and from that time I have never lived in the same place for more than two years. I attended over twenty different schools before I graduated high school. I’m thirty years old and I have lived with my ten-year-old dog for more consecutive years than any other creature on Earth. I have lived with my mother several times, but never successfully, and my father here and there, also without success. I have been shuffled between grandparents, aunts and uncles—back and forth between them and my parents until I had finally had enough. I got out on my own at fifteen, and had one very temporary relapse. Even as an adult, I have continued this pattern. I went to six colleges over eight years before earning a Bachelor’s degree, and I have already begun two different graduate programs at two different Universities. Nothing has been permanent, grounded, or stable in my life except for this inconsistency. I believe the persistent unpredictability that I grew up in contributes to the fact that I seem to be more comfortable playing the role of the outsider, the disenfranchised. I am genuinely out of step with my own culture in so many ways; it seems wherever I go I am on the outside looking in. I have never even fit in with my own family, although I am the only one that can bring them all together. Almost always alone and isolated at school, I never actually had friends until I was in high school. Socially, you might say I'm a little underdeveloped.

When I was eight, I found myself with a stepfamily. It was close to christmas time and my mother, her new husband (Craig), his two children (Todd and Melanie), and I were all at my new step-grandparents house. Craig's father had two children that were very close in age to Todd, Melanie and myself, and the five of us were in a bedroom, getting ready to play a game.

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They pulled out a board game, one that they regularly played, with a maximum of four players.

"Oh…well, you can watch us." One of my step aunts said to me.

Now this part of the story I remember with perfect clarity, because it has stayed with me ever since. I was very upset about being excluded from the game (being left-handed I stay away from phrases like left out), and ran to my mother. She explained to me that I was blaming the others when I often exclude myself from the group—I purposefully set myself apart. I defensively rejected her opinion at the time, but try as I might to keep it out, what she said sunk in.

Throughout elementary school and junior high, I was always the new kid. I only began a new school year at the same school I finished the previous year twice before high school. I remember telling a number of people in my brand new fifth grade class that I alone had the ability to acquire certain special clear dice for Dungeons and Dragons, a game I became more and more interested in as my mother grew more and more opposed to it. She had recently come under the influence of born again christianity, as had I. But I didn't see the inherent evil in D&D, and she was more than willing to point it out to me. Christians don't like the game because it has spells that can be cast by someone other than god. They also don't like any cult that is more fun than theirs. So to her D&D was evil, but since I didn't see the harm, I continued to play against her wishes.

The fact that I had no idea where to get the dice I advertised didn't trouble me until about two weeks after I had collected money from several kids in my class, and they were asking for them. I clearly remember the conversation where I first mentioned the dice—Tyler and Aaron were discussing D&D dice, and these were the only two kids in my class that showed any sign of interest in friendship. We were all in the gifted class, which alienated us from the rest of the school right off, but Tyler and Aaron seemed a bit apart from the rest of the class as well. Tyler was tiny and too smart for the gifted program, and Aaron could have and would have fit in the regular classes, but the tests said he was too smart for those classes, and in Southern California in 1981 every parent wanted a gifted child. So Aaron and Tyler, the misfits of Ms. Rattenbury's fifth grade class were the people I was trying to impress. Only I had about twelve orders for dice from half the class by the time my big mouth was finished.

I thought somehow in the back of my head that somehow my horrible lie would become the truth and everything would work out. My mother would find out, and like the Brady's, we would go find exactly the kind of dice I bragged about being able to get, and I would have two new friends. Sure, there would be consequences, but someone would understand that I only lied to be liked, to somehow fit in with people who had all grown up together. But I wasn't trying to fit in; I was trying to stand out. And my mother didn't help me find dice when she found out; she took me to a therapist. She also thought the devil was inside of me, making me do these things, and that D&D was how the devil got in my head. So she burned all my D&D books, and I had to make a speech to my class explaining my lie and then give refunds with an apology to everyone. Once again I had found a way to make myself separate from all around me. I remember my mother, trying to get me to accept responsibility for what I had done, telling me how I brought it all on myself. I refused to listen, although somewhere inside me I sensed that she was right.

I think at some point I started defining myself by how I was different from everyone else, but I couldn't tell you when. Perhaps it's that way for everyone, I mean, we live in a world where we are compared to each other and judged in school, at work, in court—everywhere. In a society that values individualism so highly, isn't it natural to try to set yourself apart from others? As much as we value individualism, we value conformity more. Getting along and fitting in are very real and compelling drives in most people, poorly developed ones in my case. As a child, I always chose to identify with the hero that alone could overcome the insurmountable odds and achieve truly everlasting glory, as I am sure most kids do. But I have also always had a problem distinguishing fantasy from reality, which you may have already figured out on your own.

As I got older, the strategies and skills I learned from moving so much taught me how to be a good talker, how to be charming and pleasant and entertaining when around new people. It's just that I was almost always around new people. In eighth grade I was again starting a new school. I was now living with my father and his family, and we had moved to Half Moon Bay from San Mateo the previous summer. I remember being excited that we were in such a small town, and I felt myself to be from the city—splitting my early years between Orange County and the San Francisco Bay area. I spent that whole year with few friends and eventually got myself into a lot of trouble because I came into that school with the attitude that I was so radically different from everyone else that I couldn't possibly fit in, and I didn't. I made a couple friends there, but usually found myself eating alone at lunch.

I think back now at how strange it was that I was on the basketball team, and spent the second half of the season on the bench, not because I wasn't good, but because I didn't get along with the rest of the team. At the time my perception was that they hated me for unknown reasons, but when I look back it is clear that I distanced myself from the rest of the team right off. I was uncomfortable showering and changing with people who were chronologically my age, but were biologically light years ahead of me. I was condescending and patronizing to people I considered intellectually inferior, and at that time of my life that description fit just about everyone. By January they wouldn't pass the ball to me—not at all, not ever. I think they had a meeting with the coach when I wasn't around and the next game I was benched. I never played another minute for that school, and should have quit the team, but I stayed on and endured threats and intimidation for the rest of the season.

I was "asked to leave" the first school I attended out of high school on the last day of the first semester. That's the way the Artistic Director and the Head of the Acting Program phrased it when they met me on December 23, 1989, they asked me to leave. If I refused, they would then put the wheels in motion to throw me out—a two-week process. I could save everyone the time and heartache if I went quietly. Again, I was surprised and felt rejected by a group I really wanted to be a part of. I had just graduated from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts in June of 1989, and (more or less) followed my girlfriend to the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria the following year. Jessica and I had problems throughout the fall semester—problems in the sense that she wanted to break up with me and at the same time couldn't stand to see the pain that breaking up caused me, which was excruciating. We spent most of that semester in an on again off again type of thing that left me bitter and angry. I had no idea that it was affecting everyone else there so much, but it was. When they asked me to leave and I was genuinely shocked—it surprised them. How could someone be so unaware of the effect they have on others? They explained that not only were my problems with Jessica to blame for my dismissal, but that the most important thing in the theatre is the concept of ensemble, and that I had shown no interest in being a part of the group—that I consistently set myself apart. In Shakespeare class, when everyone else cramped themselves into tiny chairs around a small table in a portable building, I sat apart, in the windowsill. I explained that I was claustrophobic, but they insisted that it was a pattern of behavior and that I was not ready to be a part of their group.

I wonder what it is that made me this way. Why am I only satisfied when I am so completely separated from everyone else that I am thoroughly isolated and alienated from everyone? No one is ever allowed onto my side because it always has to be me against the whole world, by myself, and in spite of every motherfucker that has conspired to keep me from whatever it is that I'm looking for. It's funny, but years later a teacher told me that my writing reminds him of a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald—something about running faster and faster, trying to catch up to a past that's irretrievably lost. Somehow, when he said that to me, not just a lot of my writing, but a lot of my life had a new perspective for me. Something about the way I grew up kept me running faster and faster, maybe trying to get back and fix things where they went wrong, I don't know—but I did know that I would never find whatever it was that I was looking for as long as I was looking for it.

Not too long ago, driving home from a party, I was expressing my uneasiness with others to my wife, who was still my fiancé at the time. Driving up Fickle Hill in the rain, I asked her why it was that I have never felt like I fit in anywhere. It's bad enough not to have a home town, not to know how to answer the question, "Where are you from?" or to have had any sense of stability even in who would be taking care of me from year to year, but I have never really felt any lasting sense of belonging anywhere. How do you create it if you don't even know what it feels like? Why do I leave every social situation I am ever in feeling awkward and strange, feeling like everyone was very—how can I put this—feeling like they were being a polite audience to me?

"Well…you might try actually listening to someone, once," was her reply.

I sat back and looked out the window at the rain being funneled down through the trees to the forest floor below, feeling like I had been hit by a truck. Not because what she said had hurt me deeply, although it did sting, but because for the second time someone had helped give me new perspective on myself that I was unprepared to encounter. All of a sudden everything gets reexamined and I realize that I have never allowed any room in my life for other people, except as an approving audience. I have spent most of my life writing the script for everyone else, and getting very upset when they refuse to play the parts I have assigned them. But people aren't characters in my life story, and my world must come into contact with others, and I must allow those others to shape my story.

I'm beginning to realize that it is other people that make life worth living. I got married a couple of months ago, and not only did members of my family that I hadn't seen in twenty five years show up, but friends from all over the country came to Patrick's Point for the wedding weekend Angie and I planned. Both sides of my family (mother's and father's) were together for the first time in history. It is hard enough to get any two members of either side in a room together, much less all of them at once in one place. I was apprehensive before their arrival, but what happened that weekend can only be described as a miracle. Old wounds healed at an unprecedented rate. My father and my sister, who haven't spoken a word in seventeen years saw each other for the first time, and have talked at least once a week ever since. My formerly segmented life had partially fused as people from all different parts of my life came together and became one group, even if it was just for the weekend. Everywhere I looked was someone I shared a serious connection with. For a couple of days Angie and I had created our own community, but in the real world it is not that easy.

I still don't fit in just about everywhere I go. I grew up in the city and the suburbs, but it is only out in the country that I feel at home. I have spent my entire life in school: eight years of college and going on three years of graduate school since 1989, and although I am dependent on it, I despise the elitism that is a fundamental part of the academic system. I don't crave money, but I would be a liar if I claimed I was without American materialism, consumerism, and avarice. I don't believe in god, although I once did—I believed desperately, the way I believed that someone would scoop me out of my life and save me from it. I am just as out of step with my culture politically as well as religiously. My perspective keeps me from fitting in with most people without even having to look at whether our personalities will clash.

The difference between me not fitting in now and not fitting in when I was younger is that I am no longer seeking a place or a group of people to fit in with. I have finally become comfortable with the fact that the ideas I have and the things I think about are nothing like the ideas most people have or the things they think about. I take everything very seriously. I don't know how to relax. I still have trouble with that whole fantasy/reality thing, and am the most argumentative person alive since Daniel Webster. But I am learning that listening to others, letting those I care about into my life, and working with those very people, I can create a world I fit into. There is a place I belong, and it is with those I love.
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