Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Asshole Principle

Last week I sat down with two serious movers and shakers in the mental health community to ask them for help in starting an advocacy group.  The meeting went well.  Not only were they enthused with my ideas, they actively supported my effort.  One of them offered me a speaking position (unpaid, of course) at an upcoming seminar on the mental health system.  I had come into the meeting nervous and shaking.  My expectation was being laughed out of the room.  I was genuinely shocked at the response I actually received.

I don't know why I keep expecting people to be unreasonable. I'm quick to anger and quick to resentment.  It's constantly gotten me into trouble throughout my life.  Ashamed as I am of it, I can admit I'm capable of hate.  But so much of that hate is really presumption, and so much of that is really fear.  Paranoia is an enormously destructive force.  For me to continue my recovery, I must understand it.

I come from a world where trust was impossible.  My mother had ulterior motives; my father broke nearly every promise he ever made to me.  The subject didn't matter.  School was as violent as it was humiliating.  Children fear embarrassment more than anything else.  I still do, in many ways.  I've written about this before.  I was so goddamn gullible.  It was never the fistfights that truly bothered me.  It was all the times someone led me on.  Girls and romance.  Boys befriending me just to take advantage.  In my heart is a little boy, naive and wide-eyed who just wants to believe.  I get hurt so many times I become in my worse moments a bitter cynic who just wants to lash out.  Hurt others as they've hurt me.  But I get angry at myself the most.  In my heart I know I'll be back for more the next opportunity I get.

Those are my two personalities: the boy and the angry man.  I don't know if they can be reconciled.  To live with one or the other is incomplete.  I need both.  The boy gets hurt by people like Suzy Cherry Blossom and the scars feed the man.  The man brings me to situations like I faced last week.  I can tell myself the two aren't mutually exclusive, but it feels almost impossible in practice.  I cling to the boy because I know what the man can be.  The man is the person who calls into talk shows with an axe to grind against the world.  The paranoid gun nut who readily believes President Obama is a communist Manchurian candidate sent on a mission of pure evil.  The teenager who kills his family and shoots up a mall.  But the boy is no good either.  He lets himself be hurt because he wants to believe deep down that everyone is as pure as he is.  Maybe that's true on some deep level, but never in practice.  The belief sells well short the complexity of human emotions, too.  So what do I do?

I've explored two solutions, neither one of them perfect.  I can tame the man and I can empower the boy.  The truth is, I need both.  Right now they oppose one another.  They need to come into balance.  We're neither as good or as bad as they claim.  Yet it's so easy to think in absolutes.  Maybe then it's absolutism that's the problem.  People always think I'm a joke.  People always lead me on.  People can always be trusted if they sound nice enough.  Like anyone else, I'm a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  Who I am is as much where I am as what I want to be.  How many people do I know that never learned this lesson?  Myself included.  I try.  It's neither easy or fun.  This belief that people are all assholes, waiting to mock, humiliate, and betray me is as deep-seated as it is commonplace.  The boy needs the man and the man needs the boy.  Otherwise, the world is a very frightening place indeed.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Old Piano

Yesterday I got up on a stage and read aloud a piece I'd furiously worked on for the previous three days, whereupon I was judged by a panel of judges and given a score.  It was a fairly middling performance; only my second, at least in this format.  There was praise, there was criticism, as far as the contest went I was in the middle of the pack.  I had no real expectations of glory or winning.  In fact, things went just about as I expected them to.  There were no hard feelings, no harsh words.  But these people were my friends, and I was surrounded by people I knew who were also creative, and even despite this everything was perfectly fine.

When I got home, I immediately went to a collection of old liquor bottles on the floor by the fireplace (not refuse, we were in the process of redecorating) and kicked them, hard.  I wanted something to break.  This was the reason I hadn't wanted to do perform; why my friend the host had to twist my arm to get me to enter.  I yelled.  I kicked.  I screamed.  Took more out on Kari than I had any right to.  This wasn't her fault.  She was simply convenient.  Deserved absolutely none of it.  This is what happens when I grow frustrated.

I've long wondered where this stifling perfectionism came from.  I remember the sound of my piano teacher's voice, never punishing me for mistakes, but in her encouragement always that disappointment just beyond the words.  You're better than this.  Or my parents, wondering where the extra points went.  They never said as much, of course.  I really don't believe that kind of pressure happens so directly (the whole "Tiger Mom" phenomenon notwithstanding).  I suppose in many ways the story of my writing is the story of my piano-playing, and both the cause and effect of always feeling like I had talent, but never the ability to turn it into something real.

If my childhood had a title, the word "potential" would figure prominently.  It was all I ever heard about.  I think it was one of the things that held my parents marriage together when little else would.  I suppose they had good reason.  I did well in school, I was both artistic and musical, and I've always had a natural curiosity and desire to learn.  If I wanted to try something, they let me take it to its natural conclusion.  Praise no matter what I did.  Encouragement.  But laced within it a sense of expectation.  I was going to succeed at whatever what I did.  So when I inevitably didn't (at least not all the time), there was always that moment of questioning.  Me, the anointed one, the superhuman genius who could do anything he put his mind to.  Why couldn't I be a superstar?  I'm better than this.

Praise used ineffectively is just as damaging as no praise at all.  Love used the wrong way is as harmful as no love at all.  Piano was one of those things where I really shined.  I practiced every day, even if I didn't always want to.  The instrument became second nature.  Give me sheet music of a Beethoven Sonata and I could play it flawlessly.  Make you feel what Beethoven felt.  Parents and teachers swooned.  Adults took me more and more seriously.  It wasn't all just about the piano, but that was the most out in the open, and so it stings the most.  Whatever strife I had with my peers was rendered irrelevant.  I had a world to retreat to.  A safe place where I was elevated to the status of Greek hero.  Hercules.  Achilles.

If you've read this blog before, it isn't hard to figure out what happened next.  As much as I've improved my life and as far as I've come, I still can't seem to make myself back into that superhuman at the Steinway.  Nevermind that the boy didn't really exist.  The praise, the adoration, it either feels so empty as to be rendered meaningless, or worse, it was warranted and look what I've become.  There's always the worst of both worlds as well: all praise is empty, I'm actually a pathetic loser with delusions of grandeur.  Some of us choose to call this phenomenon the self-fulfilling prophecy.  It just so happen this is exactly the trap my mother fell into and never did manage to escape.

Succeeding, I've come to understand, means not succeeding for a while.  It also means not succeeding more often than the once or twice a year you work up the nerve to try.  It's one of life's most vibrant contradictions.  One I'm still figuring out.  This is not to blame my parents or my piano teacher or anyone else for my internalizing it.  Not only is that unfair to them, it's also incorrect.  I have no doubt they meant every word they said.  Intentions matter far more to me than results.  This makes it harder, I suppose, but it also clarifies.  All I can do is try, and let myself be wounded.  There is literally no other way to learn.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Wiseman's House

About a year ago today, I got in my car from my crummy apartment in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and drove down one of the three or four roads out of town.  My destination was ten minutes to the southwest, a town called Greenland.  I was headed to the house of my new best friend: a man I'll simply call the Wiseman.  2012 was only two weeks old, and it had started rough.  We were resigned to finding a smaller apartment, and it was likely we were going to have to leave the city. In a hospital bed in Massachusetts, my estranged grandmother lay dying.  But for tonight, that didn't matter.  A week earlier, the Wiseman had sent me an email telling me a play I'd written had been accepted for an upcoming variety show.  I was heading to the initial read-through, where he (the director) and two actors were going to bring something I wrote to life. It was dark when I arrived, and the house appeared shapeless from the outside. 

The Wiseman greeted me at the door.  He was all warmth and love, and the house felt the same way.  It probably hadn't been renovated since the 60s, minus a solarium addition off the back.  The decor was equally antique, but it felt organic in a way so few houses did anymore.  Nothing manufactured but the appliances.  He herded me and the actors into the living room, where two black cats were waiting.  One, the larger, climbed into my lap and began purring as I sat and watched the actors do their work.  I liked this house.  I liked these cats.  I felt at once at home and deeply envious of this place.  My home was cramped and falling apart.  New and clean this place was not, but it was a home, not a filing cabinet for those who couldn't afford anything better.  I used to hate cats.  But I liked these cats a lot.  They were as warm and affectionate as the surroundings.  Had I known then that within a year both the house and the cats would be mine, maybe things would have been different.  But that was several months away.

To this day I'm not really sure why the Wiseman liked me so much.  He never seemed to really like anyone.  There was what he thought and what other people thought.  What he thought was all that mattered.  Other people were only in the way.  Yet I understood this mindset well.  We shared a contempt for others, even for each other.  Nonetheless, I trusted him and the trusted me.  Maybe this play was his way of breaking the ice.  I know few people for whom our respective idiosyncrasies can go completely unspoken.  I got him and he got me.  As I learned, his youth was even more turbulent than my own.  While mental illness has been my demon, his was drugs.  We had similarly difficult relationships with our parents and we'd dealt with them in similar ways.  I had much to learn from him, I realized.  So he'd talk and I'd listen.  Or I'd talk and he'd listen.  He was in his mid-70s and I'm in my late 20s, but it was if the intervening years were meaningless.  We went for weekly walks in the woods.  He invited me to the theater.  And always, I learned.  Some of what he said was difficult; a lot of it was bullshit.  But over the next few months we became inseparable. So it was, one day in May, when we were walking in the woods, that he told me how he was going to lose his house.  He was mired deep in money problems.  He was moving to North Carolina, to be with an old flame who'd agreed to take him back.  He'd only be here for a few more months.

My life, when I get down to it, pivots on a dime.  Just shy of five years earlier, I'd met Kari and nothing was ever the same.  The right person appears at the right time.  I'll never forget what happened next.  He paused, dramatically, as only an accomplished actor could.  And then he uttered the words "Matt, how would you like my house?"

The arrangement was simple: he had a lien taken out on the house, and he needed it paid back.  This thing with his old flame was serious.  He had no use for the property anymore.  Rather than default, he had a better idea.  I'd pay off the lien for him, and in exchange I'd keep the house.  It needed some repair.  Okay, a lot of repair.  Heating oil in the winter was a concern.  But a risk worth taking.  Oh, and the cats weren't coming with him.  We'd have to take them in.  All problems that were not insoluble.  In October, we moved in.

Try as I may, I'm not sure I fully understand how this happened.  I'm not prepared to simply call it lucky, or objectify it as the power of kindness.  Not only does that feel like an oversimplification, I don't think it does the dynamic justice.  Without these connections I'd have nothing.  Without taking a risk and putting myself out there, I wouldn't have these connections.  We talk all day long without ever really interacting.  If the Wiseman's House is a lesson, this is it.  For too long I held the world in contempt, like I was too good for it.  I know I'm not the only one.  Was it really that, though?  Or was my contempt a reaction to the alienation I felt, which in turn came from not taking the risk.  A catch-22 of sorts.  A feedback loop.  Once trapped within, almost impossible to escape from.

My world reflects my mind.  The smaller my mind, the smaller it becomes.  The more I grow, the more it grows.  Had I not written that play (to date my first and only attempt), would I be here now as I write these words?  Had I not overcome my contempt, would I have this house?  Perhaps, but I think not.  In our darkest days we close ourselves off to the world to protect ourselves from it.  But nothing lasts forever, even our pain.  Only if we're brave enough to reach out do we escape.