My house is small so we have to throw away things all the time to make sure there's still room for us. There is stark inevitability in this act. One form has to do with the process itself, which I would never seek to undertake unless driven to it by my wife. "Pack rat
" she calls me as my mother did. I see no reason to give up hard earned booty or once won territory. Somewhere in my attic lies my bronzed baby shoes
, callously tossed by my mother when she moved out of the house and into the small condo she now occupies.
Another facet is that everything that gets tossed out is mine, for my wife saves absolutely nothing. I'm certain she'd figure out a way to dispose of the living room and one of our cars if it could be made convenient.
"Inspired genius?" she says to me, bent over a box and into it up to her elbows so all I can see is her jeans' pockets and the backs of her legs like an anime ass-faced pokemon monster kids call ichibutto. Somehow, I'm supposed to know what she means by this.
"What the hell are you talking about?" I say to her ass, and wonder how she could have expected me to say anything else.
Upward goes an arm holding a sheaf of paper. Immediately, I recognize the disrespect she's showing my high school senior class project.
"Gimme that. We can't throw this out." I grab it from her. The pages are yellow. I imagine my own bones have become this color with age. How can anything I did be this old?
She stands upright, her hair flying in crazed lightening patterns that makes her look like an ad for atomic bombs. She says, "Fine. You find a place for it."
The paper is a screenplay to a movie I made. Instead of a massive senior paper, I did a project with school funding. It made me the most popular kid in school, because I got six of my friends out of having to do the paper by acting in my movie and being my crew. It was a multi-media affair before anyone knew what that meant. Three screens. The eight millimeter movie shown on the center, two slide projectors displaying complimentary images to the left and right, an original soundtrack performed on piano and recorded on the school's huge reel-to-reel, started in sync with the projector.
"This is a work of inspired genius," written across the top of the screenplay in big red letters by my English teacher.
The letter grade below it, "B+"
My wife looks at me without comprehending her Bride of Frankenstein appearence is freaking me out. I sleep with this woman. I've seen her give birth to three people, and she can still freak me out with a look.
She says, "If you're so much of a genius, how come you only got a B+?" And I can see it in her eyes. It's taken her twenty years of marriage to develop that hellish reality she fires in beams like godzilla. The promise of castles and unicorns unrealized. Instead of Camelot, inspired genius had gotten her to a dusty attic in a tiny forty-year old house in Los Gatos. Whatever dreams she had, she traded in for me, and I have not delivered.
"He was afraid I wouldn't work hard enough, or something," I said. I thought you weren't supposed to get mad at things that happened years ago. How many? Like twenty-seven. I remember my blood boiling. Where the hell was my "A"?
Mr. Farrell, his hair forever slicked down like he keeps forgetting the sock hop was last weekend saying, "Someone needed that 'A' more than you. You know how it is. Grading on a curve and all."
Long after I was married and had kids, the bastard got arrested. Accused of attempting sex with one of his students, male.
In those days, there was no hint of it. Not with me, anyway. I was not his favorite and he let me know it. So he said, "Besides, you're going to be an engineer. What does an engineer need with an 'A' in English?" because in those days what he valued was his students being thinking people, which to him meant--people who could read Sartre and know the pain that drove one to existentialism, people who would live in a Parisian loft and drink absinthe, smoke dope, and understand and live in the world while refusing to be a part of it.
He was my mentor. Wanted me to be a writer. He was disappointed that I never saw it coming. I was good at disappointing people in those days. It was the way it always was with me. He said it over and over. --Always pretty reasonably good-- Never quite, though.
What did Socrates do with the students that weren't as smart as Plato? Send them out to earn a living chewing leather to make soft sandles?
"But this says..." I said, or stammered, or whatever I did in those days.
"Yeah. You're a fucking genius. You don't need me to tell you that."
You want to shut someone up forever without bullets? Call them a genius as genuinely as you can, then walk away for the rest of your life.
We both knew I wasn't a genius, and neither of us thought I was. Thus, he condemned me to my engineering career, which to him was a profession full of leather-chewers.
I tore the screenplay in half. Happy the bastard went to jail for a year, I shoved it into a brown triple-ply hefty garbage bag I wanted to burn.
This means nothing.
Let's think about genius. What the hell is it?
The western world's most famous genius, Albert Einstein, indeed failed classes in the equivalent of secondary school. He couldn't dance, and though he tried his whole life, he was only a mediocre sailor. He came up with the special and general theories of relativity. Photoelectric effects. Did all this stuff while he was young. Changes the whole world.
Wins the Nobel Prize, then spends the rest of his life on the Grand Unified Field Theory. Crashes and burns. Meanwhile, he's a miserable father and if anyone needed the Queer Eye guys to visit, it was Einstein.
The Mona Lisa is the size of a neutron compared to the great galaxy in Andromeda and won't last nearly as long. What makes that pigment on canvas mean anything?
Did Mozart know he was a genius when he was composing? Did it just come out of thin air for him?
I like to think that when he composed something, after it was done, he was as amazed at how cool it was as the rest of us.
I have two friends who got 1600 on the SAT, the test we in the US of A take to qualify for university. 1600 That's a perfect score. Some people do it.
I took the SAT three times. I think the best I did was 1350, after all sorts of studying and tearing out of hair.
I asked my friends, "How did you do it?"
They said, "What? That? It was easy. It's all just one trick or another."
No matter how many of those tricks I learned, I still couldn't do it. I struggled. I swore and lost sleep. When it came time to color in the answer circles, I filled in the wrong ones.
Or maybe, they were exactly the perfect circles for me to fill in at that point in time, as the new agers say.
But hell. They were not the circles that the educational testing service thought I should color. That day, they defined what was right, and it wasn't me.
I do not understand Waiting for Godot. I pretend I do, but I don't, really. It just seems stupid to me. Lots of thinking about this has gone on in my head, and really, there's not enough smarts in my brain to understand why that's good.
Nor do I understand Medea, even though I wrote three papers about it in high school and college. What I said was that Medea was a classical story about the separation of church and state. But what it really is, is a story about a family trying to get back the body of their dead father. I mean, how do we know Euripides wasn't trying to write about a miserable family who had the grief for their killed loved one compounded by bureaucratic red tape?
I was in seventh-grade when I got my first "B" on a written essay. Before then, it had been all "A" grades. But the teacher had started grading on a curve, and so there were only so many 'A's to give out, and one wasn't mine.
The essays were about Christmas. Jerry Jungles had gotten the highest grade in the class.
Privately, Mike Reynolds read me his essay. It was really short. It was:
Christmas is over
Hip hip horray
Only fifty-two weeks
Till the next Christmas Day.
I told him I thought it was good. He had gotten a 'C'.
Sister Emmeric read Jerry's paper aloud and I was astonished. How had he thought of those things?
None of us with 'B' grades had our papers read in class, so I don't remember what mine was about. But I do remember Jerry's characterization of the thanksgiving turkey resting in its steamy confines. And I had to know--what made him think of "steamy confines" when it really was an oven, which isn't steamy at all, but rather, kind of arid like the desert or maybe the surface of Mercury.
Anyway, humid or dry, Sister had liked it a lot, which was all that was counting, and Jerry confessed that he hadn't written it, his sister had, and she was in college.
When I showed my movie to the class, we did it in stages. There were seven forty-five minute "periods" to a school day, and we would show the movie seven times, one for each English class. It was about twenty minutes long, and so mister Farrell would use the remaining twenty-five minutes to get impressions and interpretations.
The movie was abstract. It didn't actually follow the script I wrote, because there couldn't be any dialog, this being a movie done in the days before readily accessible videotape.
What I had done was to take ideas for a bunch of situations I had in my head, and then staged my classmates to perform the actions in bits so I could reassemble them later.
For instance, I wanted to have a scene where the main character is startled by someone who looks exactly like himself walking the opposite direction down a sidewalk. He's even more startled when the character produces a gun and shoots him dead. But then our POV follows the character who had the gun, and we realize it's still "him", only he's been fooling around with a gun.
So I took movies of my pal, Joe, walking one way down the sidewalk then stopping dead in his tracks and looking reasonably astonished. Then I filmed him walking the other way, pulling a .45 out of his belt (my Crossman BB gun), aiming it, and shooting.
We never see him killed. He just disappears, and we can see that as we pan behind him holding the gun out toward nothing.
I took my friends down to Sandy Hook. I made Joe's girlfriend appear out of thin air like some kind of land-based mermaid while he diddles with his .45 in the sand. She and he have a nice romp in the sand (with all their clothes on--hey, this was Catholic school), and then she goes back into the thin air.
She appears a bunch more times, basically out of nowhere. They make out. I do as many close ups as they'd let me without getting self-conscious. I take out my still camera and make them do everything again, only this time I show what each of them are thinking. I had to ask them, while they were necking, what was going through their minds, and other than how to get each other's clothes off, I create that situation in a still and take the picture.
I get all the film and all the 35mm still slides. I splice the film however the hell feels good to me. Then I put the stills in slide trays in an order that follows the characters so you can see what's in their heads. I spent weeks on the project. It was hard work. I got a 'B+'
Pretty much all that was going through my teenaged mind when I was doing this is that those scenes would be cool together. I was good at telling stories, and if anyone asked me what the hell the thing was about, I'd make up a story on the spot.
Hopefully, I'd make up the same story every time I was asked. Sometimes I didn't. But it didn't matter. Most of the kids were amazed the school would let me show pictures of Joe and Mary necking on beaches, in county parks, and on Joe's bed in his bedroom. They thought it was cool. It was 70's teenage porn. French kissing with a cheesy soundtrack, and in a Catholic school, no less.
And so they made up stories in their own minds. They came up with elaborate plots I never envisioned. They said it meant things I never intended. And the worst was Farrell, whom one would have thought was interpreting something from Kafka or Kazantzakis.
One big, huge, ridiculous group-grope of self-inflamed literary weirdoes. Talk of human conditions, psychological responses to stress, flights of fancy, trips into the subconscious and back again, the essential core of love.
When Farrell told me I got a 'B+' I was so angry at him, I didn't care if he failed me after he found out. That script had nothing at all to do with the pictures I took.
"It's bullshit," I said. "You know that. Right? I made the whole thing up. It doesn't mean anything. All those kids saying those things, it's stupid. I never meant any of that."
"It's not what you wanted to show?" he asked me.
No, it was exactly what I wanted to show. It just didn't mean anything.
"You have a lot to learn," he said. He shook my hand. Led me out. Congratulated me on a good accomplishment. I had been the first. Because of my work, they'd probably allow other seniors to make movies in subsequent years. There was a competition coming up, an art thing. There was a scholarship involved. If I wanted, I could enter the movie. The school would sponsor me.
I didn't want to. I already had an engineering scholarship and I didn't need any goddamned art prize. I wanted him to rot in hell and I wanted to get out of high school forever.
So I did.
It would be great, with the benefit of hindsight, to redo big sections of our lives. But we can't. It's what makes life, life.
If I was smart, I'd come up with a name for this pain.
They have a contest in Antarctica. Every year you submit poems and prose and pictures. They have experts evaluate the submissions. They choose winners, these experts. And they are experts. People you've heard of. Famous authors who have been to the ice. Famous photographers, journalists.
So every year I submit something, and so far, without fail, I have won third prize in the prose categories every time. I've never even come close to second place. And I'm way, way out of first.
This year I submitted a poem. Something that came to me while I was skiing across the sea ice, watching the gas plume rise from Erebus' caldera under a pristine azure sky.
My poem didn't place. Nobody liked it. Except one person.
I showed it to her atop a ridge overlooking town. You could almost see the ice edge to the north, the blinding white giving way to the inky blackness of the antarctic ocean.
She cried when I showed it to her. She said, "It makes me feel like you wrote this for me." I hugged her for liking it. I would have kissed her if she'd have let me. But she didn't
I said, "Yeah. Well," because I know how these things go. You write what you write. People see what they want.
"How did you do it? I've been thinking something like this..."
"I forgot to tell you. I'm an inspired literary genius," I said, and she laughed so hard the poem flew out of her hand and into the wind over the ice.
Where it still is.
Cross prehistoric planes of ice,
And breathes within such strange device,
The cloudless sky, dearest blue,
I know I dream you.
What divine hand gives shape my path?
Carries soul to this forgotten land,
Reminds the spark lives not above,
But within ever,