The autobiography I didn’t want to write

I was born with a stainless steel spoon in my mouth, no hair whatsoever on my head, and twin genetic bullets of depression and addictive tendencies aimed point blank at my head. The downmarket spoon came with hand-me-down silver rattles with ancient toothmarks and thorny inscriptions. Our ancestors did a lot of great things, managed to arrive in America soon enough to get mixed up in the Revolution to a very minor degree, and then proceeded to make descendants. The hair problem was self-correcting; seemingly even more so as I get older and have to pay for my own beauty salon visits. If you’re worried about the genetic jackpot I mentioned, well, I managed to duck one problem but get grazed by the other.

The family I’m from succeeds in spite of itself. We’re related to Governors and Presidents (by marriage and distantly), and then, on the other hand, some fool is such a mess he gets tanked on lighter fluid during a blizzard and thinks it might be a good idea to chain-saw a picture window in the side of his vacation cabin (and he actually does a good job of it). We have spry oldsters complaining about politics and Kids Today and raising Cain in their nineties and beyond, and then we have youngsters and grandpas alike who can’t seem to get the hell out of the way of a train in time (one case in particular was due to an ear trumpet malfunction), and it’s a sad heritage to have more than one relative meet his Maker via locomotive, as it implies a certain lack of common sense. We have religious ancestors like Great Uncle Josiah, who used to recite the entire Bible before each family meal, doing so in a deep, booming voice that sounded like something dredged up from the bottom of a well. His children were surprised when they married and discovered that food could sometimes be warm when you ate it. There were the ninnies who had so much money they didn’t know what to waste it on first, as they bought airplanes and houses and fur coats and small countries and then lost it all, rather inevitably so, during the Great Depression. Then there were the working poor, like my grandmother, who thought getting two walnuts and an apple from Santa was a coup, and who excelled in high school and earned a full scholarship to several colleges, but had to give it all up to go to work as a secretary so her brother, who was less gifted intellectually, could learn how to become a doctor. Which he did, and which he was, until he drank it all away. The bellydancers, the polka players wearing live crabs on their heads, the lawyers, the deejays, the inventors, the British stepmothers, the hippies, the warhawk Republicans, the yellow-dog Democrats, the dirt-eaters and the oenophiles, they are all my family members, the whole human potpourri.

One side of the family is stark raving mad, in varying degrees. Everything from a slight touch of seasonal affect disorder to full-blown paranoid schizophrenia. It’s like a rainbow of psychiatric maladies. That was my father’s side, and when I was almost 12, he up and shot himself one day, out of the blue. In his case, there was no warning at all. Then again, if you look at the family tree, it seems inevitable. Me? I have your garden variety depression, and it resists medication, which, if I may be blunt, sucks. Medication acquaints you with what “base normal” feels like, so you learn what situational depression is (things actually are pretty bad at the moment, and being unhappy is a reasonable and highly logical response) and what clinical depression is (life is going fairly well, all things considered, but you still have to think of a list of reasons to get up in the morning and interact with other humans every day, and being unhappy makes no damn sense whatsoever). The good news is that I’m not planning on doing anything drastic about it. There is nothing quite like a dramatically bad example to get you to reject permanent solutions to a problem. I don’t even blur the edges by playing with sharp things and listening to emo music. Maybe it is my destiny is to be the first person on this side of the family tree to get mushed by a train, but it won’t be on purpose. If getting out of bed is a battle, then I am a victor every day, and that’s something to feel…well, not good about, but it’s a step in the right direction. I pull myself up by my own bootstraps, and if I don’t like it, that’s too damn bad. I don’t come from a family of quitters. Well, I come from a family of everything, but for every quitter, there’s a bunch of ancestors who didn’t know when to stop. You should hear some of them talk, sometime.

Some of my acquaintances have no idea I’m a professional party pooper in disguise. I can be sociable and fun and witty and personable. I just get mysteriously busy every now and then, and avoid having to confess I’m hermiting at home, staying guiltily in bed feeling like something a rational person would scrape off the bottom of a shoe. When you’re a depressive, and let’s pretend this isn’t a thinly-disguised first person account for a moment, you might be likely to spend a lot of time alone, so you’re not a huge drag to be around.. The upside to all of this nonsense is that you get addicted to media in most of its forms. It beats being addicted to something else. So you read a lot, and have time to do art projects and write, and that’s not all bad. Also, everything seems important, even the little things. Depression magnifies the act of brushing your teeth into a nearly unbearable feat of will, and, if you’re lucky, this focus on detail may inspire your art and writing. Everything’s so darn important, it’s hard to edit it out. You learn to hide layers of meaning in a sentence, and symbols and images within a larger painting or sketch. You may mangle proper nouns because you read too much and get names and places mixed up, but all of that input comes out making sense every once in a while. Your friends, for you do manage to be bearable enough to collect a few here and there, think you are out of control with your vinyl records, your nine bookcases crammed into three rooms, your stacks of art supplies, your various half-hearted collections of Things,  and they absolutely hate to help you move. The downside is being the only person in your generation to have depression issues of any kind, and a family full of smart folks who read all the literature about it they can but fail to really understand it on a personal level. They do, however, eventually stop trying to argue or threaten or cajole or jolly you out of a sad mood, at least some of the time.

I tend to set small goals. I can’t say what my life’s dream is, because I don’t have one. My small goals are attainable goals. I will write a good paper. I will finish this proposal for my boss. I will not eat an entire carton of Haagen-Daaz. I will go to the concert, meet the musicians, dance for a few hours, have some fun. I will learn how to illustrate with a mouse instead of a Prismapencil. I will take better photographs. I will run a literary magazine. I will think nothing of dropping everything and driving out west for a few months at one point, but be paralyzed at the idea of having to move across town at another. I’ll gladly fly to a foreign country alone and have a wonderful time exploring the places that are off the beaten track, then feel panic when I have to go to the grocery store because I’m running low on paper towels. I will annoy the public library workers by checking out as many books as I can physically carry by myself every month, and then read them all. I will become good at Tetris. I will learn a new painting technique. I will feed and care for the ferret I got guilted into adopting, and will do it every day. I will not use my crappy brain chemistry as an excuse to be lazy or impolite. I will accept too many responsibilities, and then fret about how the day only has 24 hours in it, and worry about how to juggle everything. I will accept an offer to have all my graduate student tuition paid if I leave my circle of friends, my home, my job and my comfortable way of life far behind, then deal with it when I am nominated to care for my suddenly terminally ill grandmother, until she dies and breaks everyone’s hearts for leaving us behind, and to shoulder tens of thousands of dollars in debt I was originally not going to have to pay for myself. I will learn how to make a web page with cascading style sheets…and I will learn how to shift gears when things are too painful to talk about at length.

My art tends to be layered and deceptively simple. I start off with an idea, and it nags at me until I put it down on paper somehow, with words or images. Everything has to mean something, but viewers or readers have to look at it for a little while to see what, precisely, it does mean. It’s fine with me if someone doesn’t do that. It can be our secret, mine and theirs, if they hang around a little longer and suddenly notice something hidden. That’s the reward for seeing some value in my work, for caring enough to pay attention. I’m the kind of person who reads footnotes and looks up translations and squints at the brushstrokes when looking at what other people do, but if people looking at my art are not, that’s okay, too.

I have never made any real money from my art. Then again, I have never made any money from either of my Bachelor’s of Arts degrees, or from managing to walk upright and feed myself, or from having a good work ethic and being a conscientious employee. These are all things I have had to do to learn how to be me. 


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