And if you think it's easy that's only 'cause
You ain't me. And I ain't you.
-- Earnie Isley
I'm finally at a point in my life where I'm learning things that I should have learned a while ago. Surely it would have taken more faith and courage for me to have taken another road. So I hope that I am wise enough at this point to admit my failure of ambition. And still I'm a bit confused.
This weekend I have been thinking about how difficult it has been for me to be myself. It has gotten easier over the years, but when I was young it was very difficult. Something reminded me about how I used to look for friends when I was a child and find that all of the children I was introduced to had none of my intellectual interests. I've always had a problem because of my own natural curiosity and my intellectual powers, such as they were. I never quite believed that I was a nerd or a geek or anything anti-social but I was made to suffer because of those terms. I understand that people simply didn't understand me, but I didn't understand myself. I didn't feel like a weirdo. I simply felt like there were a lot of social things I didn't understand the value of.
I often recall a summer vacation after my sophomore year in high school. I was bored at home and turned on daytime television. Regis Philbin was on his own talk show talking about a thousand things I had never heard of here in my own hometown of Los Angeles. I recognized that there were certain things I might not experience because of my not being rich, but I was shocked to find that I wasn't even aware of such things. So I endeavored to find out.
So when I think about how I might be different from other 'nerds' in my profession, I know that I made a conscious decision to discover and understand the world of fashionable Los Angeles beginning in the mid 1970s. Several years later, when the term 'yuppie' was coming into fashion (I read it in the LA Weekly, while sitting on a bus stop at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and Purdue Avenue after paying for a traffic ticket), I knew that's what I wanted to be. A young urban professional.
Much of the life of the world was a mystery to me, and I did have a certain amount of arrogant ambition. I believed then, as now, that anything I wanted to know, I could learn. But I also understood, then as now, that I had no particular sponsors who were invested in my success. While I was at my private prep school, I was informed about every standardized test I should take that would help the school look good but I had no particular confidence in the advice of my guidance counselor. This is a very typical story I've heard from others and from things I've read and I don't mean to suggest my predicament was highly unusual. However I am particularly drawn to the subject of intellectual courage and courage in general.
What are we supposed to know, and how should we broker that knowledge? What kind of time should we give ourselves to pursue ultimate aims, and what confidence can we have in the edification of the journey? It is an especially difficult dilemma to consider for those like myself who were not only unsponsored, but who felt they had nothing to lose from falling short. And yet we must socialize. We have to sing the songs that everybody knows along the way, so we take time away from the pursuit to consume and understand the common understandings that get us through a day.
I always preferred to have my appearance, specifically my clothing, speak for me. I always felt and still do feel flummoxed in estimating what it is someone who might care to know me, might care to know about me. Self-introductions are very difficult. I probably overshare. I've heard one intimate friend tell me that I seemed insecure by telling so much. Perhaps she was right. But how else can one do it, especially if one is actually unafraid? What sort of personal information should one be proprietary about? One eventually learns, but in one's fragile youth it is very hard to say. I like this band. I go to this church. I believe this about politics. If one seeks to think one's way into the future, many conversations are wagers. For me, it took a long time to break through. That was because, as I suspect it is for most young people, I was looking for someone to complete me. I ended up painting myself into a corner and that forced me to dismiss so many individuals for whom I made rash presumptions. Moving to NYC made it clear that my Los Angeles shoes were not communicating properly.
It wasn't until my last grandmother died that I abandoned my race, class, political and religious conversations that, along with my career credentials and marital status, communicated what I thought were the proper clues which bore up my identity. I had been on my way to allow identity to flow like the loose robes of the desert through which ones nakedness might be shared. This was a difficult journey, especially as I moved and worked across the country. So I always had a contingent part of me, and now it was more evident. I was not that Ivy League graduate, or that Wall Street hustler. I was nowhere near the apex of the most reasonable peaks of ambition that I could imagine for myself, and nobody cared.
It is now a great deal easier for me to say that I am an asshole. That is because I have found enough people to tell me that I am their kind of asshole. The inner beast that has been my ego, suffering under the clothing and skin and conversations that I have had to learn to be sociable is now able to express itself. What I find unusual is that it often expresses itself as a kind of resigned indifference. I have learned that the world of human beings stumbles along without ever clearly knowing how much weight to give to the wit and humor of Regis Philbin, the testimony of Robert Conquest or the intricacies of analytic geometry. We don't know what we are supposed to know, we just hope that we can manage our way through the gates for which we have no passports of confidence.
Resigned indifference is not a comfortable position, and I am not particularly proud of this attitude. But I honestly have no idea how I should fit into a society that has failed to uphold, for me and others I presume to be like me, a reasonable set of values and expectations. What are they? Let us merely say that although Truth may not serve man, it should be prosperous for enough men to serve Truth. The pursuit is not its own reward, and we must fight off the competition in any case. I don't actually pursue Truth but I believe the employment of reason and moral ethics to be enough. These too, are likely only to provide a sort of smug self-satisfaction of our own estimation of our energies. And then one gets old.
I suspect that there's someone who has already read the book or found the friend who let him in on this secret when he was 23 years old sitting on a bus stop in West Los Angeles. Instead, I was figuring out how to comport myself as a young urban professional. I've been there and done that to my own satisfaction, and that may be the only satisfaction there is to have. But I also have also taken very seriously those race, class, political and religious ethics I have grown in and out of. Some of that work has helped me to this point, which while not particularly high, does feel elevated.
A friend posted a list of late 19th century occupations taken during the London census. One of them struck me as both poignant and hilarious. "Fatuous Pauper". It would be quite presumptuous to rename this blog or split it from now going forward, but that is how I feel. I feel on the one hand I might have dealt with my social dissonance in a more cold-hearted manner and isolated myself further into the narrow set of social constraints of a more disciplined and demanding profession. On the other hand, I actually do like myself, even if I should descend into penury. I think I'd be a very good wanderer, although I'd need to work on my harmonica skills.
I'm going to beat myself up a little more about this for a week or so. I'll let you know how it turns out.