Urs Fischer, “Yes!” (PHOTO: Brian Forrest)
When you were a kid, did anyone ever ask you what you wanted to be when you grow up?
Stupid question: of course they did. Adults asking kids what they want to be when they grow up is a fundamental part of the human experience. If it wasn’t your parents, it was your relatives. If it wasn’t your relatives, it was your teachers. Or maybe it was the checkout girl at the supermarket when you were six; I don’t know. It doesn’t matter who it was. The point is, somebody asked you at least once, if not a whole bunch people, a whole bunch of times.
And I bet every time someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, you always had a real good answer for them. Maybe you wanted to be a doctor, or an astronaut. A rock n’ roll star. All of the above, even. Whatever it was – even if it was never the same thing twice, which it probably never was, because kids are mercurial as fuck – didn’t matter, because it was more than just what you wanted to be; it was who you wanted to be, a perfect being in a perfect world that no one had the heart to tell you doesn’t exist.
Despite the inevitable setbacks reality provides, this idea never really goes away. We just keeping moving the goalpost nearer or farther afield as necessary to keep things interesting. Or maybe it’s more like going to the eye doctor, and having your vision periodically adjusted to make sure that whatever your future self looks like, you can always see it with just the right amount of clarity. But no matter what, it’s always there, watching, waiting, a block of clay whose exact shape is limited only by the scope of your imagination.
At some point along the way, my goalpost became too heavy to move, and strange as it sounds, I think I actually managed to clear it. I suppose I should be proud of that. Were it not for my having done so revealing just how ill-formed and dystopic my idea of a future self was, I think I would be. It’s difficult to picture a future that isn’t a portrait of instability, deprivation, and turmoil, centered around a misshapen, incomplete, rendition of my future self, a wax sculpture abandoned under a desert sun. And I’m still not even sure how I got here. But I’m beginning to figure it out.
There were a lot of things I wanted to be when I grew up. First, it was an astronaut. No surprise there. Every little boy who grew up in the Space Age wants to be an astronaut, if only for a minute. Calligraphy was next. My grandparents used to jibe me all the way through my twenties about wanting to be a “Chinese artist” when I was six or seven, after learning how to draw a few hànzì in grade school school one afternoon. That turned into a penchant for art and design in middle school, primarily of the comic book variety. But as much as I tried, I could never rise above the level of glorified tracing. When high school came along, I eventually abandoned art for writing, then theatre and finally music, where I remained until just a few years ago, when I found myself firmly camped behind a word processor once again.
My parents were good people; they supported me in everything I wanted to do. They couldn’t afford to send me to Space Camp, but they bought me chemistry sets and Star Wars toys let me make many spectacular messes before I had a clue what the hell I was doing with any of it. I can’t count how many calligraphy sets they bought me, or how long they sat in that deflated stack on the bottom of my bookshelf after my southpaw ass gave up when I couldn’t stop smearing ink all over the page. Lord knows how much they spent on that drafting table and all the equipment for when I was in the seventh grade, only to have me move on after a year when there were no more drafting classes to be had beyond the seventh grade. At least it made for a good writing desk, if I wasn’t typing up my homework on my computer. But you don’t need a desk to write in a journal, or to play the bass guitar, which made it easy to give the thing up when my father sold our house to rent a smaller one after my mom left us.
Never once did they complain when I would give up on something because it was too hard, or lose interest if and when I got bored with it. Never once did they push back on my frustrations, even for banal reasons like money or space. Frankly, they rarely ever noticed when I gave up on anything. As a hyperactive, sensitive kid, my parents always valued structure over discipline as a guiding principle for raising me. “We just want you to be happy,” they always told me. “Just keep your grades up.”
In other words: school is the only success we’re interested in the responsibility for managing.
Believe me, it’s not like they didn’t care about me, or didn’t try to relate. They came to the opening night of every show I did in high school, and after graduating from WWF wrestling and Top Ramen on Saturday mornings when I was a kid, my father and I never missed an episode of Ren & Stimpy or Liquid Television or Beavis & Butthead together. Really, it was the only time we ever hung out, and I cherished it. Meanwhile, my mother and I went on about a gazillion hiking and biking trips all over California together, practically from the moment I learned to walk; along the way, we would always sing along to every goddamned song on the radio we heard no matter what it was, regardless of whether we knew the words.
But outside of subversive teevee shows, there was little else my dad and I could really relate over; even today, he’s still as much as mystery to me as he ever was. And my mom? Well, it turns out that all of those trips and all of those sing-alongs were just as much about having her escapist cake in an increasingly loveless relationship and eating it, too. As her pretext for seeing the world I learned a great deal, including how to maintain pretense where none exists. It didn’t serve her then, and it doesn’t serve me now. But that hasn’t stopped either of us from practicing it, with each other as much as with everyone else.
It’s difficult at this point for me to not acknowledge exactly how pathetic this all might sound. My formative years were ones of relative privilege, and I know there are many in this world who would love to have the luxury of flitting around from hobby to hobby on someone else’s dime without the slightest trace of remorse or regret. My parents were incredibly generous, and their ability to provide me with so many different means of expressing myself is something I’ve always appreciated. But in truth, that’s more or less where their support ended. When it came to this idea of exploring my future self – the person I wanted to be when I grew up – I was essentially left to my own devices.
It never seemed to matter how weird or queer or outspoken I got; as long as I didn’t invite any disciplinary problems into our household, nothing was off the table. I didn’t know what they wanted me to be any more than I knew what I wanted to be. And with a ton of ambition but no real direction, I just wanted to make art and be happy. By doing so, I believed everything would sort itself out, and I would lead, if not a wealthy life, at least a fulfilling one.
Much of that began to come crashing down around me when my parents divorced, and my parents either lost or relinquished what little remaining authority they had over me. My mother soon discovered that, having absconded from her family leaving nothing more than a note on my father’s bedstand, I could no longer serve as both her punching bag and a civics experiment. It’s worth mentioning that the increasing contention in her relationship with my father was reflected in her relationship with me, especially as I began to approach puberty. By the time I was eleven, our disputes had reached Crawfordian proportions, with her shoving me over my bed or into the closet, face contorted and snarling, yanking my pants around my ankles and mercilessly beating me wire coat hangers as I screamed for help that would not come.
I don’t remember how long this went on for, or how many times it happened. All I have is a story that my father tells me of the night he found my mother’s letter, of coming home from the night shift at the ceramics plant and finding me curled up on the couch under my mother’s favorite blanket – the white one with the red and yellow sneakers on it, and the red satin trim – wide-eyed, shaking, ghostly pale, clutching a baseball bat and swearing that she was going to sneak into the house and kill me. I do not remember any of this, but not in that way like it didn’t happen; more like a scene clipped from the film reel of my memory. I roll the tape in my head and I know it’s supposed to be there, but the footage is gone, and I’m the one who cut it out.
My father tried to bridge the parenting gap, Lord knows he did. That first year that we were on our own together, I genuinely thought we were going to be all right. I don’t know how it ever occurred to me that he wouldn’t start dating again, or that his doing so might prove disastrous for our budding new relationship.
I was sixteen when his new girlfriend moved in with us. My father was used to my mother playing Bad Cop, and it wasn’t long before he slipped into his old role once again, essentially leaving me to my own devices as long as I didn’t get out of line. Only this time, the Bad Cop wasn’t my mother, who I can see now meant well even in her worst moments; it was a vile, mendacious, awful woman who hated me with a fiery passion for reasons I could never begin to understand.
She drove a titanic wedge between my father and I, who had become something of a recluse in our new home. He rarely left his bedroom other than to go to work, and when we would occasionally cross paths, the only emotion I seemed to be able to evoke in him was ire, usually over some trivial thing I had either done or not done to throw his succubus into conniptions. Even getting kicked out of high school on drug charges did little to inspire any real sense of disciplinary duty in my father, either with academia or my burgeoning meth addiction. Every time I watched him disappear behind that bedroom door after some awkward, stilted interaction, I could feel her empty, piercing eyes glaring malevolently at me from within its darkened confines, it felt as if it was the last time I would ever see him again.
After getting kicked out of high school, I would often disappear from home for weeks at a time, only stopping in during the hours when no one was home to shower, eat, and grab clothes. I followed my bliss with no resistance, and with no one to advise me differently. It’s a miracle that I managed to get a diploma through that alternative schooling program, and that smoking crystal meth turned out to just be a phase. But for quite a long time – years, I think – I seriously don’t believe my father noticed that I was a ghost in my own house. And when he finally did, pounding on the door of that house on Cherry Lane one early Sunday morning, it was hard not to laugh in his face when he demanded I come “home.” It wasn’t until she withdrew her feeding tubes from his heart and cerebral cortex and crawled off into a hole somewhere in the American Southwest nearly two decades later that we were able to have something approaching a “normal” relationship again.
Things got better when I met my future ex-wife; there’s nothing like a good woman to straighten a young man out. My future self started to get a little clearer, especially after eight months in a twelve-step program. But it didn’t take long after a failed stint in vocational school for me to start following my bliss again, this time diving deep into music and art after we moved to the Silicon Valley. And for a while, it was enough to tow the line, and tow it well. Be happy; just keep your grades up. Everything will work out all right. And so it did, for a long time.
But along came irreconcilable differences, a love affair (mine), a nervous breakdown (also mine), job loss (yeah…mine, too), and divorce. That was one hell of a six months.
That belief carried me through several painful, empty post-divorce years, lonely night after agonizingly lonely night; it carried me through the most abusive and traumatic relationship I’ve ever had in my life, one fraught with emotional abuse, flashbacks of childhood sexual assault, multiple near-overdoses, even a robbery; it carried me through the most ambitious musical experiences I’ve ever undertaken, and my rebirth into wordsmithing, a craft which has taken more me places than I’ve ever dreamed in less time than I ever would have thought was possible.
I guess there’s a certain freedom in knowing that I’ve “succeeded” in living up to my future self, even with as low as that bar was to clear. Most people haven’t by the time they approach their forties. It frees up my goalpost again, leaving me secure in the knowledge that there’s still time to sculpt something magnificent out of so much melted wax. There’s nothing I’ve ever wanted to take responsibility for managing more. I just wish I knew what that something was.
Is it too late to go to Space Camp?