How I Became a Human
The absolute worst incident of bullying I dealt with was during my freshman year of high school. Four of the guys who used to pick on me sat behind me on the bus. One of them took a half-cut geode and started smacking it again and again into the back of my head. I thought "At least its a fancy science-project stone and not just some old rock."
I told my therapist that story when she asked if I'd been bullied. I started the story by saying "Yes, but it really wasn't that bad." She was appalled both by the story and by my poor estimate of its severity. My belief is that other people always have it as bad or maybe worse than me. In the grand scheme of things how bad is it to have had a bully smash rock into your head over and over again?
OK, yes, when I see it written like that, it does seem pretty bad. And I did spend the next two days unable to get out of bed because of head pains and fear of returning to school. But I got over it if you ignore the lifetime of depression and therapy. Which I do.
My skull might not have been broken, but my identity was sort of shattered for a few years after that. I didn't want to be a target so I figured I'd try to blend in instead.
Of course, before the 80's, I wasn't always picked on. In fact, at one point I was a pretty cool dude. The most suave and sophisticated moment of my life happened when I was ten months old and was preserved on film forever. Here it is:
I look like an ad for "Baby Brandy" or "Cigars for Toddlers." I clearly had a taste for the finer things in life as a wee lad - high class clothes, classic furniture and luxurious lead-painted tops.
Pardon my language, but I was cool as fuck before I could form complete sentences. As I learned to speak, though, my level or relative coolness plummeted. By the time I was in high school, I was too tall, too skinny, too socially awkward and had a voice that was way too high.
My voice is still pretty high - when I order at a drive through or talk to a salesperson on the phone, they inevitably call me "Ma'am." I enjoy this because when they discover I'm male, they often start trying to cover their presumption by calling me "man" over and over again. It makes many of my professional conversations sound like conversations with The Dude from The Big Lebowski.
By the time I was a freshman, I loathed myself but didn't really recognize that. What I thought was "I am a chameleon and can change my personality for any situation so I can fit in." This never, ever worked. Not even once. I believed it firmly with my heart and soul. I thought that if I wasn't able to fit in, it was because my pesky real personality kept spoiling my remarkable power to blend right in. I just needed to work harder to destroy my actual personality.
French absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry once wrote:
We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well. But the only way I can see of doing that is to use them to put up a lot of fine, well-designed buildings.My personality was my personality and no matter how I broke it apart, or suppressed it, or forced myself to act out of character, the only materials I had at hand for use in building new personalities were parts of my core personality. I know now, of course that you can't really remake yourself completely - some shard of the old you will always remain to much things up.
By the time I was a sophomore - 1982 - I was an absolute mess of a teenager. I avoided doing things I enjoyed. I had a group of friends I saw regularly but whom I would abandon the minute an opportunity for social climbing came along. I didn't even listen to music I enjoyed. I listened to classic rock because that's what everyone cool in my school liked.
One day, I was listening to I-95 (our local classic rock station) and they played this song. I recall the DJ saying something about how this was an unusual song for them to be playing, but that he thought we'd dig it.
This was a video of "Little Red Corvette" by Prince. They keep getting taken down."Abacab"</a> and Eric Clapton's "Cocaine".
And then I saw the video and my mind was blown all over again. I knew the song was by Prince but I thought that name signified a band, like Queen. I was expecting a Freddie Mercury frontman, Brian May on guitar, etc. I was stunned to discover that Prince was a specific person and that his band was multi-racial and composed of both men and women. At age 15, I had no idea that was an option.
Prince did not look like my image of a music star at all. He was short and slight, he dressed in some pretty crazy things, and he often sang in a high voice (though his vocal range was actually pretty enormous). Yet, he radiated confidence, masculinity and sexuality. Also, of course, he dressed with the kind of flair that I'd lacked since my first birthday.
I later learned that he wrote all the song and often played all the instruments on his albums. He was clearly the guy in charge of the band and the creative force behind all of his own music. Prince was 100% Prince and very comfortable in his own skin. If Prince could do that, maybe I could do that too.
My life almost completely changed in that one year. I took the ruins of my personality and started rebuilding it. I stopped trying to fit in with "cooler" groups. I became a much better friend (and expanded my group of friends significantly). I listened to whatever I wanted to listen to. I even started dating. In fact, the only thing I was ever busted for in high school was excessive PDA. I like to imagine that 80's-era Prince would be proud that he inspired that sort of crime against high school authority.
I was so into Prince that the first time a girl and I had a song that was "our song," we managed to completely bungle the selection by choosing Prince's "When Doves Cry," a fantastic song we loved but one that is a terrifying harbinger of where a relationship might end up.
My fan relationship with Prince and his music has waxed and waned over the years, but back in 1982, when I needed somebody to make me a whole person and to let me know that it was all right to be myself, he was there.
This past month, I finally started getting over the fact that David Bowie was gone, I found consolation in the thought "Well, at least we still have Prince." Now, of course, we don't have either of them.
We all have issues. Sometimes, mine feel like they're going to overwhelm and destroy me. I can let that pain force me to stay in bed all day; I can use it as an excuse to behave like my bullies and hurt people around me; or I can be like Prince (who surely faced bullies of his own) and create stuff that leaves the world a more interesting and beautiful place.
I believe that the best way we can pay tribute to amazing people who influenced our lives is to do everything in our power to be amazing ourselves in our own ways. I'm intimidated at the thought of trying to do the things that I've always wanted to do (Write that book! Direct that play! Perform on that stage!) but I believe I can do them. The absolute best thing I can do is try because now I'm a (mostly) whole person again and I owe it to Prince.
Quite by coincidence and not by design, this completes a thematically linked set of three entries. Two weeks ago, I became a demon and last week I told you how I become a god.