Well? Who is he?
I find that trying to flatten yourself out to fit on the printed page ends up with something which sounds either like an Obituary or an AOL profile.
Of course I couldn't post this on AOL because AOL is a censored medium, and I wrote fuck. Necrophilia might make it through. I once listed one of my hobbies as Masturbation. That got me flagged.
Anyway, you can see the hopelessness of this as a description of a living breathing human being. I won't even attempt The Obit. That's too much like asking for it. I then thought of a short autobiography, except who'd want to read it? So, then I remembered a piece by Mark Twain, (One of my triumvirate of heroes,) where he wrote about specific events which formed his life. I decided for that one. So here goes...
I started out as a baby in 1950, which was a popular year for babies. My childhood was a normal 50's duck and cover childhood, father mostly absent at work, Mother being over-protective until my brother came along in 53 and took the main seat in that position. The only truly weird thing stuck in my memory banks from back then is a small overgrown square in the back of the next-door neighbor's yard where I used to hang out. I called it the "Magic Woods" and I actually have two memories of seeing real live fairies out there. Just like in the books, lithe little women with tiny breasts and gauzy wings. I have no explanation for this, it mystifies me completely. I don't think that acid flashbacks can predate your first experience with LSD.
I also made up my first story out there. I told it to my mom and she was so impressed that she wrote it down. It was about a mad scientist who had a flying clock that spit poison. I don't think I got that from TV, as there was only an hour of kid's shows on TV then, and I doubt that "Ding Dong Schoolhouse with Miss Francis", or "Howdy Doody" dealt with that stuff, much. I wasn't allowed to watch any grown up shows. Maybe the Fairies told me about it, but I doubt it. I think I was just born with a touch of apocalyptic dementia.
Anyhow, this idyllic, if strange, childhood ended in 1959 when we moved to Moorestown, New Jersey. I suddenly went from hanging out and being fairly popular with kids from a blue collar crowd, to being thrust into the middle of a white collar, parentally driven, strict social-pecking-order crowd, who's fathers were all engineers at RCA, plotting nuclear holocausts, just like my Dad was now. (Before that he had worked for the Franklin Institute, and I used to go in with him on Saturdays and have the run of the museum before it opened. That was heaven.) Suddenly, I was in a highly competitive caste system where your entire worth as a human being was based on your abilities to hit and throw a baseball. Now, unfortunately, I had never thrown or hit a baseball before. In fact I had never even seen a baseball game. My Dad was an optical physicist, and although they can play sports, they get too caught up in measuring the parabolic trajectories of a spheroid's flight to pay much attention to the actual game. My Mom was a fundamentalist Christian and, I think, believed that since sports were fun, they were somehow vaguely sinful. This was before basketball players were thanking Jesus for each successful slam dunk.
So, I was an immediate outcast. Some well meaning teachers tried to help, but a 9 year lag is hard to make up, and they really hadn't much of a chance. The gym teachers were of no help. Back then they were all former Hitler Youth members who's only teaching method was to scream, "I said keep your eye on the ball Conant!" Which doesn't explain much.
At the time it hurt a lot, but in retrospect, becoming an outcast at such an early age was a wonderful thing. First, you got to hang around with the other geeks and nerds who were genuinely strange people and therefore endlessly fascinating, Secondly, you got forced into a career in the arts, (why sports and the arts are so mutually exclusive we'll get to in a minute,) and thirdly, being on the outside lets you see things the way they really are. IMHO (In My Humble Opinion.)
For example, sports. IMHO, Sports are just very simple actions, which have been made absurdly complicated with sets of arbitrary rules. Take the game of pool as an example. The object of pool is to roll a ball into a small hole, something any 5 year old can learn to accomplish in 15 minutes, BUT, the rules say that you can't touch the ball you want to roll, you can only move it by hitting it with another special ball, AND to further complicate matters, you can't touch the special cue ball either, you have to poke it with the end of a long wooden stick. Something absurdly easy, made difficult by bizarre and arbitrary rules. Again, IMHO.
Now, I know that a lot of people, the majority of people in fact, take great enjoyment from playing or watching these events, and I'm not faulting them in any way for that. In fact, I think it's great! I think sports takes the place usually occupied by war, killing, and random violence in our society, and anything that does that, I'm in favor of.
NOTE: If you think I'm totally full of shit here, you may be right. But first listen to the words used in sports: "Blitzkrieg! Smash the opposition! destroy em!" and so on. Add to that the fact that modern American football is actually the last vestige of medieval "melee" - armored men wrestling an inflated pigskin to a goalpost, as opposed to mounted armored men dragging a dead sheep to a goalpost. And, if you still don't believe me, I have one last word for you: Hockey.
Also, you might ask, if sports takes the place of violence in our society, how come our society is so violent? I have a theory that there is a direct connection between seeing and playing. As people play sports less, and only watch them, the violence index goes up. Again, IMHO.
Surrounded as I was by arbitrary rules at home, in school, and in fact in the Presbyterian Church itself, which told me that all of Life was run by a set of arbitrary rules handed down by a loving God who would make you burn in Hell for all of eternity if you didn't play by them, I saw no reason to indulge in more arbitrary rules during my leisure time. So I played games that needed imagination.
Probably some sticklers will tell you that you need imagination to play sports, but I think that's pure BS. Organized athletics are for people who want security, NOT anything creative. The story behind any game (and it all comes down to stories, for me) is always the same. One side wins and one side loses: or, there might be a tie. You can safely sit down and watch any sporting event and be assured that you won't see anything that you've never seen before. I mean sure, the player may turn a slightly different way when he reaches to receive a pass, but he sure as hell isn't going to turn into a scarlet tanager and fly through the goal posts with the ball clutched in his claws.
And this is as it should be. Millions of people get great enjoyment from sports, and I think that's wonderful! We all need something to break life's tedium sometimes, and whatever works for you, I say great! It just doesn't work for me. (Although the 2 times I've actually been to professional baseball games, I've enjoyed the hell out of it.) So anyway, sports fans, please don't feel attacked by what I've written. I'm just telling you how I think, IMHO, and the last thing in the world I want, is for ANYONE to have to think the way I do. Even my kids. "Whatever gets you through the night, it's all right," as John Lennon sang. (Second of my triumvirate of heroes, by the way.)
Being a junior high school outsider led me to develop my first working philosophy, the Pinball Game Theory of Life. In it, I was the pinball and would forever remain the pinball, constantly slammed from one bumper to another, through high school to college, random hands on the flippers keeping me ever in play. From this came my first taste of ambition. I wanted to get my own hands on the flippers, and eventually to find a way to disable the TILT mechanism so that I could tip the table anyway that I wanted to. In short, I wanted to stop reacting, and start acting on my own volition. This was going to require another 38 years, but the kindness of the universe prevents young people from having that much foresight.
As a high school outsider, I developed my Road Map Theory of Life: at birth, each of us is subtly handed a Whispering Road Map by our society. Soothingly, it purports to lead us to The Good Life. Everyone's map has his or her name on it. Really, though, they're all the same. They usually read something like this: in pre-school, learn to play nicely with others; in kindergarten, learn to follow the rules even when they don't make any sense; in grade school, learn to behave with respect towards stupid and occasionally cruel people, because they have control of your life; in junior high, learn to accept your place in the social hierarchy, from JD's (Juvenile Delinquents,) to Jocks-and-Cheerleaders, and treat those above you with respect and admiration and those below you with scorn and cruelty; in high school, try to get the best looking boy/girlfriend you can afford based on your appearance and social standing. When it came to college I had only a hazy idea that it would be a continuation of high school, which would eventually lead you towards a career with some big corporation, marriage, a family, a mortgaged house, and then, happily ever after, The Good Life.
But theories are cooked up in the absence of experience. My experiences so far had definitely led me to question whether real happiness lay at the end of that road, or only the smug contentment I saw in my parents' friends, combined with a fierce determination to keep everything JUST as it was so as to "not rock the boat." I think the Depression had taught them how precarious their positions really were. When disaster (car wrecks, polio, sudden plant closings) destroyed their idyllic existence, they seemed to suddenly age, turn vitriolic, and complain all of the time.
Still later I began to wonder if there weren't other roads which weren't even shown on this map, but that's jumping too far ahead.
Now I've probably left you with an impression of this deep soul -searching kid, and he was there at times, just buried pretty deeply.
Since I hadn't been able to distinguish myself in sports, and I had to have a place in the social order, I turned to humor as a way of distinguishing myself. I became The Entertainer! The Entertainer starts out kindly enough, doing ventriloquist acts at talent shows, but it eventually becomes all consuming when that's all there is to your identity. Being The Entertainer eventually meant becoming one of those assholes who is "On all the time," and consequently meant that I couldn't really listen to what anyone was saying, but had to keep 4 steps ahead of the conversation in my mind looking for the cheap laugh or crude double entendre. I'm afraid to admit that in my high school yearbook, I was listed as "class clown."
As I mentioned, I started with ventriloquism, which I had taught myself at age 7, and later started doing standup and acting in plays. This brought me into contact with the other artistic outcasts, who still behaved like assholes pretty often, but had the distinction of not needing to hurt anybody to maintain their social standing. (I think this explains why no artistic types were shot at Columbine.)
Then in third grade, it occurred to me that if I could learn ventriloquism after seeing it on TV, I could learn to make movies! I mean, what the hell, kids are supposed to have unlimited belief in their capabilities, right? (I was able to hold onto mine for about another 9 months.) I wrote my first script that day. Was it crude, derivative, and childish? You betcha! That's the only way to start out, and my children think that I've pretty much held course ever since. It took me a year to talk my parents into getting me a movie camera. After all, even a used one cost TEN whole dollars! (At a quarter a week for allowance, I received $13.00 a year.)
I got the camera, an 8mm Brownie, on my 10th birthday and shot two short comedies that afternoon. In the Mack Sennett days they would've been called split reelers, because it took two to make up an entire reel. Chaplin's first film with The Little Tramp was a split reel. It went out with a documentary on harvesting olives! Honest to God!
Speaking of Charlie, I was lucky enough to grow up in a town with an independent movie theater. Dave Grossman who ran it, loved old film, and held "Nickelodeon Nights" once a month. That's where I got my first glimpse of the mustache, derby and cane. An Essany short called "the Adventurer." (Earlier that year, Dave had run "Modern Times," but my parents wouldn't let me go. They had heard that the film was "a little too pink", as the saying went. (Pink as in Red, Red as in Commie-homo-baby-killer...) So that's how Senator Joe McCarthy influenced my childhood. Kept me from seeing Chaplin's masterpiece, my personal favorite, for eleven years. It wasn't run in the theaters very often, and never on TV. It still isn't for that matter, with the exception of good ole AMC.
I don't know what it was about Charlie which drew me to him so readily. At the time I would've told you that it was because he was so funny, but in retrospect, I think it had more to do with the Little Tramp always being a loner, an outsider, wishing he were part of the rest of the world, but knowing he could never really fit in. Watch Charlie wiping the glass to peer in the window of the dance hall on New Years eve, in "The Goldrush."
For whatever reasons, I loved him and still do. I think his comic timing was flawless, his physical grace awe inspiring, and his stories, in the later films, still get me all misty eyed. Watch the end of "the Circus" sometime. It's a wonderful film, hysterically funny when you can see it with an audience, and one that most people never see.
But anyway, as I saved my quarters to buy and develop movie film, I eventually graduated high school and entered college pretty much the same asshole I'd always been. And a rabid Nixon Republican asshole at that. The town I grew up in was as rabidly Republican as Tehran is rabidly Shiite. This was because it was a town of people for whom the system had succeeded, and they didn't have to consider the plight of the have-nots. In fact, with a little judicious driving, you never needed to cross the tracks, literal train tracks, and ever even have to see the poor and Negro part of town.
The next big life-changing event was a 60's college campus where elitist conservative Republicans were openly considered assholes, and indeed this had profound affect and I did not remain one for long. However, the biggest break I caught was living in a dorm where the resident director, Big John, was learning to be a human relations counselor, and ran encounter groups.
NOTE: For you youngsters out there, an encounter group was a small, candle lit meeting of tie-dyed people who wanted to shuck off their societal masks and try to discover who the real people were when the masks were gone. Why, you may well ask, did someone as totally hidden behind masks as I was, ever consider doing such a thing? I was certain my mask was impervious and put on with super glue, and people said going to encounter groups was a great way to meet chicks. Why did you think?
Anyway, here's what happened. I can see it like it was yesterday. We sat in a circle on the floor. Big John always started the group by asking each person how they were doing. You couldn't get away with, "Oh, Okay," or "pretty groovy," you actually had to say what you were really feeling right then. Scared the hell out of me and I usually cheated. Tonight though, Rosie, a little round red headed girl, who I didn't really know, began to tell how her brother was sick and she was worried, and then she actually started to cry! Now this freaked me out because I'd grown up in a home where if you cried Dad would say, "You wanna cry? Here I'll give you something to cry about!" and he smacked you. So I just sat there watching the tears stream down Rosie's freckled face and waited in intense agony for someone to do something for God's sake! And nobody did! They all just stared at Rosie as her shoulders began to heave and she dropped her face into her hands.
Well for some reason, probably because I couldn't stand it anymore, I found myself racing across the circle, taking Rosie in my arms and trying to comfort her.
For the next few minutes the group ceased to exist, and it was just me an Rosie and I found myself asking gentle questions, letting her cry against my shoulder, and telling her it would be okay. When she finally stopped crying and said she felt a little better, it was like the rest of the room suddenly crashed back into existence, like an elaborate stage set falling from high in the risers. I suddenly felt trapped, caught out of costume, and deeply mortified. Here I'd acted impulsively, spontaneously, without even considering what anyone else would think! I felt naked!
Big John was kind enough to let the moment pass and continue the questioning around the circle. It took me the rest of the group to stop the quaking inside my chest and to drop into some semblance of my old cocky self. As the group was finally ending, and I was thinking, "Thank God! I breached my front and got away with it!" Big John spoke up.
He said very gently, "Luther, we all enjoy your jokes, and the way you make us all laugh, but tonight you showed us another side of yourself, a side that I think we could learn to love even more, if we get another chance to see it sometime." And the group broke up.
I'd like to tell you that I was suddenly transformed, that I immediately dropped my mask and became a genuine person, but a lifetime defensive posture like being The Entertainer is harder to quit that cigarettes. Cigarettes with crack mixed in them. It took me at least 10 more years to get comfortable with that side of myself, in fact I went so far away from my alter ego, that one day years later, I made a joke at a new job and someone said, "My God Luther, I didn't even realize you HAD a sense of humor!" Finding a balance is tricky.
My goal now is to become psychologically transparent. That whatever I'm feeling shows on the surface, to be a living example of what you see is what you get." And I do approach it on occasion, but it is a quest, rather than a reachable goal.
But the really important thing that I eventually learned was that there was someone inside me who I didn't even know! Someone who could act impulsively without weighing and preplanning every possible option, and he seemed to do a good job! Even better than the self I had spent years constructing! (I often wonder if this is the self I had before being unable to catch or hit a baseball got me labeled as a "loser.") There was someone inside me who's judgment I could trust in tricky situations, someone inside me who was, (dare I say it and risk the wrath and ridicule of the world), a really good person!
Over the years I've come to trust this spontaneous self more and more until now I let him make most of the major decisions. There have been a few massive Hiroshima-bomb-impact fuck ups, but for the most part he does a great job. And in retrospect, most of the disasters occurred when I thought I was giving him his head, but some part of the thinking/planning/plotting me freaked out and just pretended to be spontaneous. It was a big lesson, and it still is. Feel first, think second. Get the order right. Trust your instincts, trust your inside self as my mentor Sterling Ellsworth put it.
Around this point in my college life I came up with "LUTHER'S FIRST LAW OF THE UNIVERSE", to use it's less grandiloquent title. The rule is this:
What it meant to me was to look on everything I was certain of as suspect. To re-examine everything I'd learned, particularly those things I had imbibed with my mother's milk, as they used to say, and basically to question everything. (I guess it's a variant of Emerson's "A life lived unexamined..." but it was knew to me.)
And in going over all of my facts, I found out that quite a number of them didn't hold water. Particularly things I'd told myself about myself. I'll let one example suffice:
My family originally comes from New England where being reserved has become an art form. I hadn't kissed or hugged my mother since I was 4 or 5 and I couldn't ever remember doing either with my Dad. A handshake was the height of intimacy for us. So, I'd told myself, "You are not one of those touchy feely-people, you do not require human physical contact unless it has a chance of becoming full out sex." And I believed this, it was just Who I Am.
My closest college friends were mostly Italian, and when Ross' mom, Mrs. Cirincione, came to visit, she would sweep into the room and hug and kiss everyone in sight, me included. Now, because of the lie I'd told myself, I hated when that happened, or vehemently thought I did anyway. Then, one day Mrs. Cirincione came to visit, swept loudly into the room and kissed and hugged everyone but me. I was devastated. I felt this huge hole in my gut that I didn't even take time to analyze. I just caught Mrs. Cirincione when she was alone and asked, why?
She said, "Oh Luther, every time I hugged you I could feel you stiffen and try to turn away, so I figured that I was embarrassing you..."
"You were," I said, "but I'm trying to get over it, so next time..."
Of course she didn't wait for next time, but gave me a ferocious hug and covered my cheeks with kisses. Sure, I stiffened up, but after she let go, I said, "thank you very much," probably blushing like a beet. She gave me an understanding grin and I realized that not only was the hole in my chest gone, but now it was filled with an odd feeling which I was later to identify as joy.
So, one thing I was sure was true, turned out to be a lie.
I even went home and told my parents, "Hey! We're missing out on something great here!" and after years of awkwardness, we now kiss and hug almost like ersatz Italians! (It wouldn't look like that to real Italians, but it feels that way to us.) And we love it!
So, whenever I hear someone tell me about something they do which hurts or limits them, and they follow it up with, "But that's just how I am," I smile and hope that there's a Mrs. Cirincione lurking in their future. My goal is to have "how I am", totally merged with "who I want to be", and if I can live enough centuries, I'm gonna do it!
All of this gave me a mindset which eventually allowed me a flexibility in my reactions, and an ability, sometimes used, to really listen to other people and be able to understand their side of things, or more accurately, their way of looking at the world. I realized then that most people's behavior hangs on the answer they give to several key questions. The first being, "Are people basically good or basically evil?" If you know someone's answer to this question, you can basically predict a large part of their behavior and belief structure.
I fall on the side of people being basically good, that they have to have been damaged in some way to treat others cruelly and dishonestly, and it's served me well. I meet mostly nice people. And the response to my present situation has been an overwhelming confirmation. The vast outpourings of kindness I've received could be measured on the Richter scale.
If however, on the other hand, you are someone who believes that people are innately cruel or bad, I'm not here to argue you out of that viewpoint. I don't think such basic belief systems are alterable by anything short of a lightening bolt, certainly not by writing anyway. So if you're on the other side of the coin, I say great! Enjoy your life! Vote conservative and know that the majority of America agrees with you. At least for the moment.
It's so hard to leave out so many important friends and happenings, but my goal is to make this readable, so I'm forced to skip over a lot. One thing which I'll mention in passing is that I discovered that my university had a film department. I'd originally gone there for Radio/television, figuring that since filmmaking was vital and exciting, it wouldn't be taught at a school. High school had convinced me that there was a law against teaching anything anyone would want to learn, and that the few teachers who had, were somehow sneaking passed the censors. I really blossomed in the film department and was the only one who's senior project was a silent comedy. Thanks Dave and Joe!
The next big life changing event I'll write about, was meeting my wife. We met at a party, and it turned out that we'd lived 5 minutes away from each other for 12 years, and our younger brothers were best friends. But somehow, we'd never met before. She was one of those gorgeous women who didn't think that she was, she had an IQ, I was to find out, of genius level, and a way of moving which was both totally awkward and completely enchanting at the same time. Where I was the extrovert, the life of the party, she was an introvert, preferring to stay on the periphery of things to watch and have small one on one conversations. She believed firmly in science, while I believed in everything else. I still have the journal I was writing then. That night I wrote, "I think I've finally met the girl I'm going to marry."
Lynne, the girl in question, took a year to figure that out.
In the 24 years we've been married, I've learned so much from her that nothing I can write will do it justice, not even federal justice. In some ways, the parts of my self I like the best all came from her.
Lynne is 5 years younger than me, but she was much older and wiser in the ways of the world than I was by an epoch or so. Her childhood from age 11 on had been a nightmare of sadistic and/or stupid doctors, missed diagnoses, years of intense physical agony and many, many surgeries. During her recovery from one of these surgeries, she slipped out of her room every night, (she had also learned that playing by the rules got you hurt,) and visited the kids in the children's ward. One little boy she stayed with often, until the nurses caught her and sent her back to her room, was a boy of about 6 named Robbie. Robbie couldn't talk and his parents had covered his body with cigarette burns among other even more disgusting things. (I have trouble even thinking about such abuse, and I'll assume that my readers have the same predilection.) IMHO, it was at that point that she decided that while she couldn't control the torture that her body and the medical profession were putting her through, she could protect these little ones. And she did it!
Lynne became the most ardent champion of hurt people and animals who I've ever had the pleasure to know. If you were going to hurt something or someone in front of Lynne, you had no idea of the blonde human hurricane that was about to descend on you. Once I had to poke my foot from the passenger side of our VW bus, to hit the brake pedal and keep her from running down a man who had just viciously kicked his puppy. Not that he didn't deserve skid marks up his back, mind you. I was just being selfish. I didn't think I could stand the time away from her until she received parole.
She ended up working at a school for multiply handicapped children. Being lowest on the totem pole, as the last one hired, she received the "incorrigibles," those kids no one else in the school could handle. She not only handled them, but she loved them, and helped them achieve progress that the school doctors believed was impossible. (Rubbing doctor's faces in their mistakes was one form of amusement that never became stale or "old hat" for her.)
So Lynne taught me courage, the courage to never stand by and watch while something I believed in was being violated or hurt, regardless of the consequences. It was a hard lesson. Lynne is a Taurus, (I'm not usually big on astrology, I read the column in the newspaper everyday just to find out what will definitely not happen to me; but Lynne fits her sign.) She has a stubborn streak wide enough to land the Concorde on with room to spare. But she also has a generous streak of equal proportion. Her whole family practices that. If you need something and they can get it for you, it just shows up. One of Lynne's laws which I have come to live by, is: "Never lend money, if someone needs some and you have it, just give it as a gift with no expectation of a return." This works wonderfully in practice, it keeps friendships from straining, and I have to tell you, the gifts we have given have always returned to us ten fold.
Lynne not only taught me courage and generosity, but also the true meaning of kindness. She always had a way of being able to help someone without making them feel that they were receiving charity, or were under any obligation because of it. Rather, she made them feel that they deserved the kindness they were receiving. That it was their right, their due as human beings. She made giving and receiving kindness look right and natural. She made a plaque that hangs in our bedroom. It contains the words spoken by a French Catholic farm woman who opened her door to find two young Jewish girls seeking shelter. This during the height of the nazi occupation, when harboring Jews meant a death sentence. The woman's words were, "Of course, come in."
I think it's the words "Of course," which appeal to Lynne. To her there is no choice. How often have I heard her defend some risky action she had committed by saying, "Well, they/he/she needed help! What else could I do?" That even applied to standing in the middle of a highway, over an injured dog, waving a tractor trailer to stop while the driver leaned on his horn and gestured her frantically to get the hell out of the way. When he finally brought the rig to a halt he screamed out at her as she was gathering up the dog, "You could've been killed!" To which Lynne replied, "You stopped, didn't you?" and put the dog in the car to rush it to the vet. He lived, by the way, although the vet's bill was enormous. We named him Spencer for some reason I don't remember now.
So, that's the Reader's Digest version of Lynne. I know that I'm leaving out all of her faults, which are as numerous as anybody's, but her strengths so far outshine them, that they are hardly visible. Most of the time.
Lynne was the strong one in the family, the person who got things done, whether the rest of us saw any merit in doing them or not. She handled the bills and all of the hard stuff, which made what would happen later, so totally shattering to me. (I know that this is foreshadowing of a most shameless sort, crude and with the subtlety of an ax blow, but there it is! So sue me!)
Luther at Luther@lutheroutloud.com.
Tell him what you think, what you know, how you feel, or what made you feel
All images, text, animations,and music © 2000 By Luther C. Conant III (unless where otherwise noted.)