Wednesday, October 20, 2010

identity and hard truths

My dad was in the Air Force until I finished seventh grade. When he retired, we moved to Jacksonville, where he grew up. I entered Lake Shore Junior High. Strangely enough, it was not on a lake. It was on Bayview road. It was right next to Bayview Elementary...which was on Lake Shore Drive. Bayview Elementary did not include a view of any bay. In fact, there wasn't a bay or a lake anywhere near Bayview Elementary or Lake Shore Jr. High.

I found this confusing at first, but when I finally learned to quit trying to look for logic where it didn't exist (which, sadly enough, was public school's most enduring lesson), things got much more bearable...for a while. I dunno...maybe they thought the names created an exotic image or something.

I then entered Ed White High School on the heels of my brother, who had graduated the year before I got there. Nevertheless, he paved the way for me. One of the first things they did to incoming students was to herd us straight from homeroom into a line, where we would 1) get our schedule, 2) give you an id card, and 3) be assigned a locker. Lockers were of immense importance. Get a bad one, and any time you needed to grab a book or some homework, you would be doomed to a long sprint through the halls between classes, pushing over chess club members, hurdling over the shorter of the cheerleaders, winding through the labyrinthian hallways, towards your locker, and you would have to do it fast to avoid the dreaded tardy slip (and the inevitable accompanying detention). A good locker, though, was a status symbol...get a nice one, and you would be "da man."

When I got to the head of the locker line, the student looked at my id. "Hey! Are you Mark's brother?" I admitted I was while secretly praying my brother wasn't a jerk to this guy. Things worked out good, though, because I quickly found myself in possession of a front row locker. I joked that my locker was so cool, it would make me the envy of all my friends and help me woo babes. Strangely enough, within three weeks, the locker did become a chick magnet...I was sharing this locker with a pretty hot Junior ROTC chick (whom I have no idea how I initially met, nor did I (sadly enough) ever had the courage to ask out...and I have no idea what became of her).

My brother paving the way didn't just yield me the locker of my dreams. I also had an instant "in" to my brother's group of friends, which meant I had people from whom I could regularly bum cigarettes, I had an already-reserved before-school place in front of the trophy cases, and I had a ready-made peer group of cool kids.

However, the instant peer group did not turn out entirely to be the boon it originally appeared. Yes, there was a social circle waiting for me, but it was also a circle that came with a readily-defined (and in fact required) role: that of the little brother. My brother wasn't always around, but I was still tagging along in his footsteps. I had friends, but I always wondered if, to them, I was Mike or "Mark's younger brother." I always had possibilities for company, but whenever I was around (who I feared to be Mark's) friends, I always felt destined for the background.

So I compensated, and I did so in a fairly pedestrian way: I tried to be unusual. If I stood out in some way, I reasoned, I would be my own man. So, as I suspected I was already slightly weird as a kid, I became fully goofy...which, while it made me stand out, also locked me permanently into the role of comic relief. I also tried to adapt a rebel image, but I did so in fairly predictable and role-enforcing ways, by wearing concert shirts and growing my hair into an awesome heavy metal style (covered earlier)....which just meant I merely became the goofy heavy metal kid

And for reasons I still don't fully grasp, I decided to wear my school...the entire day...every day. Literally, whenever I was in school, I had on my sunglasses. Years passed, and when it came time to take my senior year book photos, yep, I was sporting the sunglasses. This did, in fact, have the effect of making me stand out, but it became more annoying than fun. Eight years later, I was in my bank to open a new account, and the teller stopped in the middle of a transaction, looked at me, and said, "hey, aren't you the guy with the sunglasses?"

It was then that I realized that the sunglasses thing, while it might've made me stand out, didn't make me cool. All it did was lead to yet another image I couldn't escape.

I would like to say that things got better, that I eventually became my own man, and that I became a person of substance rather than image. However, like the whole Lake Shore/Bayview thing, it's more complicated than that. Yes, I was playing the role of heavy metal kid, but I actually was a heavy metal other music really spoke to me. In addition to fitting the "goofy guy" role, I was genuinely goofy...not to the extent which people saw, but it was still there. After all, one of the lessons of the great hair-cutting-off of 1998 was that even without the trappings of my identity, I remained, to a large extent, the same person.

Maybe this should make me feel good, that I've in fact achieved the consistency which many people seek...that I know who I am. However, there are days where I wish I was just playing a role, putting on a front...because if I was, I could change who I was, become someone else, maybe someone with whom people would want to hang, connect, befriend...who would not grate on people's nerves and turn friends into reluctant acquaintances...who people might take seriously...who people would never underestimate or (even worse) dismiss.

If you've read more than one of these posts, you know I am not the world's most optimistic person. I might argue, with my spectacular lack of success on the job market, amongst other things, that my pessimism is warranted. I might also make great pains to be pessimistic in a humorous manner (after all, I do have British blood in my veins). But in spite of however ingrained (and thus inescapable) my pessimism is, I wish sometimes it could just go away...because I know it makes people find me whiny and high maintenance. People tell me as much to my face, and I don't know if they're trying to be helpful, pointing out the obvious, or simply letting me know that they find me annoying.

You also probably know, from being a reader, that I am in fact a little weird. Again, it is legitimate. I tend not to look at things from expected angles, and I try to be unique in my thinking. But however this skill might be a boon in my chosen profession (after all, would you want an academic who always took the expected path?), it also means that I am doomed to the role of the department weirdo. And while uniqueness is, I suppose, a good thing, it's also true that no one really takes the weirdo seriously. Even if the Shakespearian foole spouts the wisest words, he is, in the end, still a fool.

But what choices do I have? If these things are inside me, can I change them? Should I? Can I in fact temper my weirdness while maintaining the uniqueness that serves me well in my scholarship? Is it possible to minimize my pessimism and still have anything resembling my sense of humor? Ultimately, how much of what people see is me?

What is the cost of being yourself?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

beverage: the Candy Corn

Due to popular demand, here's another mixed drink, perfect for those autumnal feelings! As a word of fair notice, there is no actual corn in this beverage.

  • Chill a couple o' martini glasses
  • Fill a shaker most of the way up with ice
  • add

    • 2 measures of bourbon
    • 1 measure of triple sec
    • 1/2 measure of peppermint schnaps
    • fresh local apple cider to within an inch o' the top

  • shake well to combine while doing a light "cha-cha-cha" dance to remind one's self of summer days gone by
  • pour the mixture into said glasses
  • add a splash of grenadine to each, making sure not to stir
  • sip while contemplating how to carve an erotic design onto a pumpkin of your choice

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

clearing out the deadwood

Way back when I started this blog in December of 2004, I had a few definite thoughts in mind for what I wanted to do. First and foremost, of course, I needed to convince and remind myself that I found the act of writing to be fun. This is one thing that this blog has done extremely well. In large part to its existence, I love writing again. Indeed, some of the writing of which I'm most proud in my life ("Issues and Six Strings" and "On Exits") is on this blog.

There were a few other guiding thoughts, though. I was facing a fairly dire situation: I was long out of money, did not have any work prospects, no longer felt like a scholar, was uncertain about teaching, was a failed musician, and generally felt like I had failed at life. These are things that, if you can get past the rough (and frankly embarrassing) prose and the macho bravado applied to mask the deep depression into which I was sinking, come through loud and clear in those earliest of entries.

Things are different now. I have lucked into a steady job which I can (and probably will) do until I either retire or die (I can see it now...a hoard of students asking the chair (while the EMTs drag off my bloated corpse from in front of the white board) if they still have to turn in their essays). In spite of being pretty sure I will never land the fabled tenure-track job, I am very confident in my scholarly production and think I have done good, note-worthy research (currently under review in major journals as we speak). I play in what I modestly think is a pretty awesome band. I am slowly, ever so slowly crawling out of debt. So I live, in the balance, in a universe drastically better than the one I inhabited upon entering the bloggosphere.

I have not (and, I suspect, I never will) run out of things to say, which I wish to share with the world. But a lot of what part of me thinks is important in "The Quest to Understand Mike" are topics which I'm pretty sure I should not speak. I've never, for example, wanted to write about the highs and lows of teaching, because I cannot really do so without violating the confidentiality of my students (which is something I will never do). Everyone who has ever glanced at this blog knows I've been frustrated with the state of academics and the job market, so to say anything else would be to rehash. I am also pretty sure that no one really wants to hear any mid-life crisis rants either.

What is left? It's a question with which I've been struggling lately. The short answer is: big things. Big changes. Big realizations about my past, present, future. Big understandings about what is important in the world. Some of these might be vague. Some of these might hinge on the "to be revealed at a later date." But I can assure you: most of what is to come will be pretty important, at the very least to staying tuned isn't an entirely bad idea.

Mainly, it all has to do with the state of where I am and how I'm feeling about the world in general and myself specifically. I will admit that I have always been a melancholy kind of guy, and things like self-deprecating humor have always come naturally to me. I always used to think about such attitudes as being endemic to the state of TheMikeDuBose-ness. Lately, though, I have wondered about whether such an attitude is in fact an intrinsic part of me, and I have started to contemplate the cost of such a mindset.

If I'm to be honest with myself, though, I believe I've been (on some level) contemplating such matters for a while.

Back when I was a recent MA, I was finishing up the summer in my grad department office before moving to Ohio, when I suddenly decided to cut off my heavy metal hair. I had been growing my metal hair since really getting into ACDC, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden. I had gone from straight to Bon Jovi-ish perm back to straight, plowing through countless brushes and gallons of conditioner. By my last summer in Florida, my glorious hair had reached within a foot of my waist.

One day, though, I decided it needed to go. I joked about this with friends one night at a bar, and although most of them took it as drunk talk (sweet, sweet drunk talk), one of them suggested I make an appointment at the stylist where she worked. The next day, I did so, without telling anyone. I took a lunch break, drove to the stylist, got all my hair chopped off, and went back to work. The afternoon was filled with a whole bunch of "Hi, Mike...OH MY GOD!!!!"s. When I came home that afternoon, my own parents didn't recognize me at first. I went to the bar that night, and some of my own friends wondered who was this guy sitting at their table.

Most of the reactions were of shock and of the "oh, it looks good" type of surprise (with the exception of one professor with whom I was working who didn't even notice the change). There was one professor in particular, though, who demanded explanation, justification, and all that. He was strangely oblivious to my plea to lower shampoo bills.

I never was able to give him an explanation at the time. I can do so now. I was, at the time, wondering if my image made me me. Would I survive without the hair? Would I stand out? Would anyone notice me if there wasn't an intrinsic shock value? Chopping off all my hair, ultimately, was about trying to figure out who I was when all the trappings were removed.

This is, incidentally, what this blog will try to do from now on..and, if I'm honest with myself, I think that clearing out the deadwood in myself has been perhaps one of my main motivations from the start.

Monday, October 04, 2010

dreaming of the future

I awoke far too early this morning but in a shockingly good mood, better than 6:30 really warrants. I was having a very good dream, you see.

Me and some generic dream-friends had decided to enter this competition to see who could build the best science fiction-y device that actually worked. So we developed a hovering 30 foot rocket car out of pipes, mystery blue fluid, and more bottle rockets than you would conceivably fit on a semi. We took it to the competition center in downtown Bowling Green on the day of the show, and it worked...sorta. We really couldn't steer it, and it took wild, unexpected laps through the alleys and paring lots of BG, frightening conference judges and pedestrians alike.

In spite of our car not being 100%, we were giggling nonetheless...because it was simply so damn cool. Then, overhead, we saw another entry...a working replica of a Pod Racer the size of a soccer pitch. Our giggles quickly turned to laughter. Then, entering our town's airspace from the opposite direction, was an actual flying version of Lando Calrissian's cloud city double pod patrol cars, jetting overhead to the BG (s)mall, and our laughter turned to wild, insane cackling, mixed with unbridled applause.

Yes, we were building science fiction.

We were not really cheering because our creations worked all that well. As well as having no steering, our rocket car's brakes quickly failed, and the Pod Racer almost took of the top of city hall. And it wasn't just because we were watching science fiction come to life.

No, it was awesome because instead of some company like Apple taking our common sci-fi mythology, making it shiny and plastic, loading it with proprietary software, and selling it back to us at a significant cost, it was us. We built it. We ripped the science fiction right out of the guts of its corporate owners/overlords, made it real with vice grips, baling wire, and our own hands, assembled it right in our back yards, and gave it back to the world at large for the simple joy of doing so.

It was a good dream.

Friday, October 01, 2010

on exits

One of the least fortunate things about being a renter is that pets are problematic. I can't have pets now, so the best I can do is fawn over my friends' cat. It's a poor substitute, though, so I also just have to remember pets past.

We had a dog named Rusty when I was one, but I don't remember him at all. My dad was in the Air Force, and when he was assigned to Germany, we couldn't take Rusty with us. Instead, we left Rusty with a relative. I met him briefly when we returned to the US, but we didn't recognize each other.

We then had a Guinea pig named Snoopy. I liked Snoopy, but I don't remember much about him...Guinea pigs don't have an awful lot of personality, and I was quite young. We also had fish, but I always saw them as more decoration than anything else. As such, it was quite a while before I really understood the whole pet thing.

Tigerlilly changed all that. We got Tigerlilly when visiting my Grandmother. Tigerlilly was a Calico mix cat who I immediately loved. Tigerlilly didn't really care for me at first, though, and she would resist my efforts to hug or hold her. Eventually, when I learned to calm down a bit, Tigerlilly and I became friends. She was an interesting cat...she liked to sleep with her head buried in my shoe. She would also crawl into my violin case or camp out on my back when I was laying on the floor watching television. We also liked to play, in all the traditional boy/cat ways.

When she was about halfway through her natural life-span, though, Tigerlilly developed diabetes. We tried to regulate her blood sugar with insulin injections, but it was really a losing battle. I remember those last days, when Tigerlilly couldn't really get up off the floor. I petted her, told her I loved her, but when my father finally had to take her to the vet, I couldn't bring myself to go say a final goodbye...which still bothers me, to be honest.

We had another cat, a stray my mom named Muffin. Muffy had a hard life and was most likely abused before we got her. My mom was the only one who Muffy really seemed to like, and she rarely let me get close to her. She was always nervous and skittish, hiding underneath beds more often than not. Eventually, Muffy also got diabetes and didn't last long after the diagnosis. We were never friends, and I never understood her, but I was sad when she died, because I knew my mom did miss her tremendously.

Afterward, we eventually got two more cats, sisters from a litter in my Grandfather's barn. We got them when they were kittens. One of them was a tortoise-shell with almost leopard-like markings. My mom named this one Sheeba. The other was a long-haired Siamese my mom called Cleopatra. My brother and I, though, decided these cats deserved cooler names. Sheeba had massively long legs and tail, so we called her Spidey. The long-haired Siamese? She became Fuzzhead.

Both Spidey and Fuzzhead were great cats. They were generic cute kittens while young (I remember Fuzzhead falling asleep in my arms the first day we had them, which was truly an "aww" inspiring moment), but they both quickly developed strong personalities. Spidey was a talker, a yelper, tremendously loud, fast, and muscular. She really hated being held, but she was not shy about yelling "pet me! PET ME!!! NOW!!!!!" Fuzzhead loved to be held, but she would make you work for it...often, she would make you follow her for two laps around the living room and through the kitchen before stopping, looking back at you with her piercing blue eyes, and collapsing, almost as if saying, "Okay, you have now earned the opportunity to love me." That these two were sisters was also very evident, because they looked out for each other. One day, Fuzzhead fell into my parents' hot tub on the deck, and Spidey ran to the glass doors and pounded on them until she got our attention...and then led my Dad to the hot tub, where Fuzzhead was struggling to stay above water.

Eventually, we got cat number three, who decided to camp out on the street in front of our house in a torrential downpour, looking pathetic until my Mom finally brought her inside. This one was a black and white longhair, which Mom named Smudge after the white blotch of fur in between her eyes. Smudge wasn't very attractive at first, as her ears and eyes were way too big for her face, but she grew into it. She also never learned to meow, so she let out this weird grunt. Smudge also wasn't tremendously bright. She was, however, an awesomely sweet cat. She would run to greet me when I got home, and often, I would step out of the bathroom post-shower to see her sitting in the hallway, staring up at me like a long-lost friend.

Eventually I moved to Ohio. About a year or so after I came up north, Spidey developed a huge growth on her back. It was cancer, and although my parents had it removed, the cancer came back...and she died a thousand miles away from me. Smudge, who was very much my cat, also died of cancer when I was away. I often wondered what it was like for Fuzzhead, first seeing her sister disappear, then seeing her playmate (such as it was...Fuzzhead often just would whack Smudge for no reason) leave and not come back.

The last time I went to Florida, Fuzzhead still recognized me. She still looked beautiful, and she still purred like mad when I held her. But we knew not all was well. For starters, she weighed half as much as she used to, even though she ate constantly. She was also going deaf, and when I would sit down to pet her, I would surprise her...she had no idea I was near. Still, she seemed happy enough.

Before I left, I sat down on the floor next to her when no one else was around. She was laying on her side, so I gently started petting her. She snapped stroke head around, saw it was me, closed her eyes as if smiling at me, and let me pet her. I told her that although I wasn't around, I still thought of I still thought of her departed sister and of Smudge. I told her that she was always a great friend to me, and I loved the time we spent together. I reassured her that even though I was the other side of the country, and even though I didn't know when I'd be back or if we'd see each other again, I would never, ever forget her or stop loving her. She lifted her head to mine and rubbed our noses together, as if to say "I understand...and I feel the same way."

I found out this morning that Fuzzhead died last week. At age 19, her body finally gave out. She had a great life, though, and was loved to the end...especially by her friend a thousand miles away.

Right now, I am torn. I think of quotes from two of my favorite writers. One of them, in the course of a story, has a character that remarks "bringing home a kitten is, in one way, committing yourself to eventually burying a dead cat." The eventual pain, in other words, is inseparable from the pleasure of life. This might make one wonder if it's worth the separation, the suffering. The other writer, though, once said "Remember: every day here is a gift." This is the attitude I will try to take, as I'm sitting here, typing a memorial, realizing I'm totally cat-less, tears rolling down my cheeks, thinking of my departed girls.