The College Try part two Academia Nut

And so I find myself in Medford in Southern Oregon. I can attest to the aforementioned clarity of that first morning as symbolic of, say, calm before the storm. See part one if you haven’t already.

I had transferred up to your garden-variety public school. Early nineties, so Bush One was about out and Clinton was stumping for office. I can’t really say what policies either president implemented for the present educational system, but I can assure you I felt the tinges. In whatever way it had trickled down into Wilson School, it was affecting me, no doubt. Couple that with the bottom-up anxiety I had come from being shuffled in and out of both ends of the didactic spectrum (aside from homeschooling) and you have this perfect storm, ready to drop.

My dad and I walked across the street on a morning in January not unlike the one described. Crystal clear and bright as light; I could see my breath. We checked in to the office as another father brought his daughter and her younger brother to school late. I could sense her poise. I came to find that her name was Megan and crush for her began to develop. I then walked into Mrs. Dower’s third grade classroom and had already begun to identify those in authority. And I’m not referring to the teacher, I was referring to what students seemed to be more with it than others. Pegging one or another as this or that, socially. I’ll just say right here that I was wrong with my first impressions. But that paradigm, of noting the cool kids. Seeing who was “with it” and who wasn’t was a muscle that strengthened greatly while I was in third grade. A couple weeks went by and in my attempt to fit in (yet another failed attempt at social integration), I greeted a fellow student—a boy—with a slight peck on either cheek, reasoning, however childishly, to myself that it was akin to how you might greet a foreign dignitary upon his arrival to your exotic country. And from then on, I was mercilessly bullied by two twins for being homosexual. Again, a high sensitivity-based-shyness alongside such a monumental social faux-pas and you understand, maybe a little, how that perception might be leveled at me. And I can look back on it and shake my head, if laugh. But understand, this was like an avalanche of, not just social awkwardness, but extremely heavy social condemnation. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the nastiness on display from two lanky individuals, the perpetrators of this campaign to in a word hurt me. Because a person’s reputation, in a very practical sense, is neither here nor there at that age. I find that there is much change from eight years old that an individual will undergo during the years leading out of elementary and into middle and high school. The funny thing was, as I dispassionately examine these events, I can tell you that there was nothing good to be gained in looking to be “a big fish in a small pond” or someone who was cool for its own sake. Life is about becoming an individual. And instead of becoming that, I sought even harder to fit in, to justify myself. To prove that I was straight and cool and, quite possibly, macho. This is the wrong response, more of a knee-jerk reaction. The campaign died down over time, but I had tasted blood. I had begun to see anti-light glimmers of what lay ahead. Namely a future in school with the chance at a girlfriend and a place in the In Crowd. It took about three years before I had worked up the courage to ask Megan out on a “date” (I had no idea what that meant) and on the day I had purposed to do so, my dad pulled me out of school. Thank God. The funny thing is, he knew nothing of the troubles I’d faced nor of any of the aforementioned social posturing that seemed to be the only marketable skill I took away from my time at Wilson.

I knew upon exiting school at ten years of age that my life trajectory was going to be different than most kids. I already sensed that I was going to have a harder time getting a job without having gone to high school (because I instinctively sensed that I was done with the public school system) and this worried me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time but it’s like the option was permanently shut off. And please understand, while my dad was a wonderful man, full of intensity and also very smart, he subconsciously sought to keep me from having a life like his. A life that included dropping out of university because he couldn’t take the strain that his mother put on him in looking for someone else to shoulder the burden of an alcoholic marriage and whatever social stigma that came along with it. For him it would be the dry discipline of the Marines. This is where he went after school and after serving two years active duty, sought to go back to community college. But couldn’t seem to settle on something to major in. I don’t know how these experiences informed the decisions that he made in taking me out of school to homeschool me, but for many years, my life looked to take (what would look to be) a similar floundering and directionless path. I distinctly remember walking across the parking lot of a local store shortly thereafter, figuratively wringing my hands together and worrying how I was going to make it in this world without any formal education. Another touchstone took place one night at a restaurant. The waitress asked me what middle school I’d be attending. I answered “Hedrick”. After she left, my parents were shocked that I’d lie, but I didn’t know how else to answer her, I was too ashamed.

What followed was a highly unstructured and free-form tour of the middle and high school years at the foot of my father. I showed interest in helping a neighbor of mine deliver newspapers and so at 13, I learned what it meant to get up early everyday, rain or shine, and serve others (I took over the route after he was done). This continued until I was 27, until I was long since tired of that routine. It felt good to earn money and be able to rouse myself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning—a “soft skill” that I use to this day. But it was a dead-end job. Something that required no education in the things of math, science, or, really, reading and writing, at all (could “paperboy” be on the spectrum of literary careers?). But that’s not really what “joining the workforce” is about, is it? Ideally, we should be plumbing the depths of our being, with help from peers and parents, to find our mission, our calling. And if I’m at 27 not knowing what I’m meant to do, at least in a broad sense, something may be wrong. But the knee-jerk reaction to “what to I do with my life” isn’t “go to college”, I don’t believe. While I know now what I want and what I want (i.e. what I’m majoring in) most-likely isn’t going to change, I don’t advocate simply going to school for its own sake. To me, the way to do this thing called life is to serve. To selflessly live until you gain that kernel wrought irreducible through the forge of the system of the world at large. And read. If you haven’t already guessed, my dad really didn’t have a gameplan or curriculum for doing what he did. As I got older, I really wonder if perhaps he could have gotten in some kind of trouble for the way he raised me. My mom worked and I know that she struggled with the state of our life—a stay-at-home dad who looked for all intents and purposes without to be homeschooling his two sons but whose only real instruction to me (the one rule I could put my finger on) was to read voraciously. This was not the way to raise a child. But, amazingly, it was the way to raise me. Please understand, I did respond to this and whatever gifts and skills I possess do I own by virtue of making the most of the situational cards I was dealt. But citing the social/emotional trauma I received in grade school, it was good, though, for me to be alone. I still carried with me the scars and irrational ways of looking at life and society and it took all the years of being “homeschooled” in order to unlearn the posturing and peer-oriented self and emerge from that cocoon into the real world. With something to actually offer others as opposed to being in a system that I would learn to manipulate as I made my way through.

Looking the Part

I read Jurassic Park when I was ten. Fourth grade, Ms. Stevens. She and my dad had taken a partnered, special interest in my reading and I had followed suit by polishing it off in just under a week. Had to make the deadline of the movie’s release, dontcha know. But I skipped whole parts and didn’t really get the concept of Malcom’s iterations and whatnot. Blank spaces being filled in with whatever DNA was at hand… That Summer was a watershed for me. I remember walking down to McDonald’s many a time to get a large fry and to collect whatever new dinosaur cup was a being offered by way of toy/prize. Also, my baby brother was in utero. Life was going from cool to cooler in spite of the heat. I digress. Dinosaurs! So I read it again prior to The Lost World’s (book) release. Read it in full, I did. The one thing that dismayed me a tad was the fact that I couldn’t then displace Sam Neill’s portrayal of Grant in my mind’s eye. It bothered me that I couldn’t dredge up my internal visual representation of Grant from Reading Jurassic Park 1.0. But I moved forward and enjoyed the sequel all the same.

Contrast the above with Paulo Coelho’s irreducibly complex Alchemist and you’ll see that the boy of the tale is a tabula rasa for you. Not one word is given as to his personal appearance and I find that refreshing. Just under the cusp of gimmick, as it were. Truly brilliant as a literary device, if I may. But moving forward, how do I reconcile all the above with the intensity of a person like Tom Cruise who went on to portray Lee Child’s Jack Reacher? Having never read the series but who from a distance I feel would have been best served by someone like Clive Owen sans British accent or Liev Schreiber in a strong-but-wounded masculinity? God knows. When I read (or heard, not sure) that Child, screening the film, was actually impressed—more so than he’d thought, I find it remarkable that a real person could unseat the image of a character in even the creator’s mind. At least, this is my interpretation. Weird.

I read about half of James Thackara’s Book of Kings in my early twenties. Quite a tome with successive layers of flashback requiring an older, more focused mind than the one I then possessed. One day in the newsstand of my local Barnes and Noble, I came upon a cover to Spin or some such featuring The Strokes in all their heyday. And I was gently struck dumb with the appearance of Justin Lothaire in the person of Albert Hammond Jr. That was a new one.

In closing, William Gibson has recently edged out (by several orders of magnitude) Crichton as my all-time fave fictioneer. A strong kernel as to why this is true (there are many, many) is due to his creation and development and portrayal of the character of Milgrim. Introduced in Spook Country and wholly rounded-off in the excellent Zero History, Milgrim is described by Heidi thus: “You couldn’t find a whiter guy” (p. 386). This says volumes, to me, and while he is generically unremarkable in appearance, it’s his mind. His mind belied behind his easily flaccid exterior. While Alchemist’s protagonist didn’t do much for my personhood in spite of the book’s being a beautiful bildungsroman, Gibson’s Milgrim has given my adult life and mind a mirror from which to further actualize.

The Apple of My Mind’s Eye

This first came across the screen of my mind with Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Ronald Reagan in The Butler. Not a movie I took the time to watch but as I cut my teeth on Rickman as Hans Gruber in 1988s Christmas action flick Die Hard, I experienced an internal reorientation as to just who can portray whom. I was also thoroughly impressed with whomever it was did the casting for this movie, to pull him out of my internal typecasting set to “arrogant” and “villainous” and in turn have him portray the founder of modern Conservatism. They were visionary, in my opinion.

Fast forward to this year’s excellent Love and Mercy featuring respectively Paul Dano as a young and then John Cusack as the aged Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. I liked this movie enough to purchase Wouldn’t It Be Nice the next morning. And it was in no small part due to the portrayal of Wilson by each actor. While I’ve never been into the Beach Boys’ music, I could most likely point out a contemporary Brian Wilson in a crowd and even possibly a younger as well. This being said, I found Dano’s sensitive, brilliant portrayal exceptional (He portrayed a sensitive and brilliant Wilson). It was exceptional in spite of the fact that he didn’t sing. I don’t think, I could be wrong. I seem to recall him from an earlier film off the edge of my periphery. But John Cusack stirred up the aforementioned “casting call” thing from The Butler. Again, while I never watched Rickman’s Reagan mannerisms—which I’m sure weren’t too far off base—Cusack’s nervous tics and sloping, halted gait seemed to me to be spot on. I mean, he’s an actor’s actor. Were he to stand up straight, relax his face, I wouldn’t have pegged him for the older Beach Boy, ever. Props to the casting director for Love and Mercy.

And now, furthering the unconventional casting call paradigm, I see Michael Fassbender portraying Steve Jobs in the forthcoming Steve Jobs and wonder. If I hark back to all the actors I remember portraying real people, I think of Kelsey Grammar as George Washington, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln and Russell Crowe as Noah, there are more. The thing about the former two, however, is they more-or-less resemble the very real historical figures they intend to (and do indeed) portray. But this idea. Furthered with the what might seem to be an ad hoc choice of Fassbender as Jobs. Something in Rickman’s face was placed atop Reagan and the rest is history. Watching the sensationalist trailer for Steve Jobs, however, I not only don’t see Fassbender in that role—never did but as I read the Isaacson biography shortly after it came out the very real Jobs imprinted upon me in the way a posthumous biography will, keyed to my unique neurochemistry. While the book was written towards the end of Jobs’ life, I don’t think he ever saw it (said he didn’t want to) and it was published three weeks after he passed. I had in March, seven months prior, purchased my first Apple product: an iPod touch, 4th gen. and so it was during this year that Jobs was on my mind and standing atop my creative processes. God rest his soul. But he was there allowing or else relearning my inherent approach to user interface and tracks of thought with reference to a peripheral. I count him one of my strongest influences for thinking and drive. And moving forward, I found Ashton Kutcher’s portrayal in Jobs—while it may not have been based on the book proper—carried with it pitch perfect reenactments of bullet points to Jobs’ temperament (his fit over an employee’s neglect of font-design seemed directly to be lifted from the scene in the book as imagined by me). And now Kutcher is modeling for Lenovo, weird. I still want to see Jobs’ invective “Not. F******. Blue. Enough!!!” (see Steve Jobs by Isaacson, pg. ) But I thought Kutcher was great. He got the walk down and even though his general shape and hair/face combination come across as more of a representation, a caricature of the real man (offset against Josh Gad’s Wozniak), I appreciated it for what it was. I wonder about Fassbender and wonder more at Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. We’ll see. And back in the nineties with Noah Wyle as Jobs in The Pirates of Silicon Valley, the casting-according-to-look paradigm holds true and holds up, in my mind. In closing, I find it remarkable that the Jobs book would be turned into a movie when the book itself wasn’t well received by the higher-ups at Apple (no surprise, really, when you think about it). While I emerged from its reading with my opinion of the man galvanized, most of my fact base gaps filled in, I still respected him, still hold him in esteem. Contradictory, mercurial aspects of his temperament notwithstanding, that he would keep his eye on the prize forsaking all others, so to speak, was perhaps the pilot light of his person, in my opinion.

And whether or not those who knew and worked with him at Apple appraised (and therefore disliked) the Isaacson book as an incorrect portrayal of Jobs as an all-things-considered decent person (my take home message) or whether they thought Isaacson cast him in the tyrannical light those who haven’t read into his psyche or past experiences dismiss him as, I know not. But this year’s new book by Schlender and Tetzeli seemed, after a hundred pages or so, to be painting the same aforementioned picture in my mind’s eye (altogether brilliant-but-flawed and wounded-but-decent) and was lauded and well-received by those who knew and worked with him. I stopped reading.