Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Teenager: Spokane, 1973

Crosby, Stills & Nash is what my mind returns to. I played that album, the one they did before Neil Young joined the band, incessantly. And I waited.

It had everything, all the pieces. The political defiance and despair. The sensual love songs that were about seizing the day, about being willing to lose, rather than about keeping and possessing. The cryptic acid-inspired imagist songs. But it was musically quite simple and tuneful, with lovely harmonies.

"Carry on. Love is coming. Love is coming to us all," they sang. I didn't believe it, but I had to believe it. What else did I have to believe?

I waited for love, for the peaceful revolution, for everything to happen all at once, for a new life to present itself to me. Everyone knew it was glimmering just beyond the horizon. Nobody had a plan, though. No one had a task. No one knew how to work towards it. Our only directions, or the only ones we trusted, were that we should learn to see. "You better free your mind instead." It's funny: after all these years, I still believe it. That the fundamental task is to learn to see.

We tried. God, gurus were a dime a dozen. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was my brother's. Guru Maharaj Ji had a place around the corner. I spent an evening with the Jesus People on the beach, around a driftwood fire, and a pretty girl assured me that we wouldn't be idle in Heaven. We'd take the battle to the enemy. And she gave me a hug, a hug I still remember, nearly forty years later. The next day I cautiously invited Jesus into my heart. He, presumably aware that what I really wanted was more hugs from more pretty girls, declined to come.

I read Hugh Prather, Carlos Casteneda, Hermann Hesse. For a while my bible was a book called How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, which recommended uncompromising honesty and militant selfishness. A sort of dumbed-down Ayn Rand.

I knew enough about myself not to meddle with drugs. Everyone else was experimenting with mescaline and hash and acid and speed. I didn't trust myself: I had a shrewd idea that if I started I would never stop. And anyway, I found I could alter my consciousness quite as drastically, and much more cheaply, by simply going without sleep for thirty-plus hours. Waking dreams and hallucinations are not that hard to find. Nor are violent mood swings. Go that long without sleep and hang out with people doing acid, and your mind will indeed go traveling.

Traveling, yes. But not -- not to someplace new. Not to someplace where I was unselfconscious. Wherever I went, I was still shy, still awkward. I still had glut of love on my shelves for which I couldn't find a market. And my body dogged me wherever I went: pudgy, soft, and pale. I knew as well as you do that only slender, tan, catlike people find enlightenment, or love. I was more piglike. I had never lost my puppy fat. I burned and freckled under the sun, but never tanned.

I composed manifestos and declarations. Kept a diary, a precursor of this blog, which I invited people to read. The handwriting changed daily, from small precise printing to a ferocious forward-slanting scrawl. (I had never really learned cursive writing, despite the best efforts of my elementary school teachers. I pretended I didn't care about such a trivial matter, but the truth was that I found it impossible to concentrate on writing one letter while thinking about the next one, which is what you must do to write a neat cursive hand -- you have to know what the next letter is so you'll be able to join this one to it properly. I had always found this, and still do, hellishly difficult. As soon as I started thinking about the next letter, my hand started losing its place in the present letter. I hated the childish writing I produced when I tried this. Soon I simply and flatly refused to write cursive and took to printing, which is how I've written ever since. This trick of disguising my disabilities as the eccentricities of a genius who simply can't be bothered was, and remains, one of my main strategies for getting through life.

But I digress. Where was I? Manifestos. Yes.) One of the peculiarities of the time was the conviction that nobody could be meaningfully happy until everyone was happy. So all my projects for becoming happier were projects for making the world happy. Property had to abolished, authority abrogated, sex roles abandoned, oppression eradicated, before I could begin to become happier. I wouldn't even be able to start until these preliminary steps were accomplished. It was a generous impulse, in its bizarre way, if a useless one. The ambitions were so huge they smothered under their own weight. My solution to being pudgy was to write diatribes about the evils of private property. My solution to injustice was to try to get girls to go to bed with me. It all made sense at the time.

I was pudgy, but I was not out of shape, actually. I strode briskly for hours around Spokane, racking up ten or twelve miles per day at times, muttering to myself, arguing with myself, laying out frameworks for vast works of philosophy, composing worlds in which epic fantasies would play out. Then, as now, I would suddenly stop stock still and gaze at a crook of waterpipe, or a weed, or a cloud, in astonishment that anything could be so beautiful, so much itself. My senses were as raw and tender as I was. I wanted, desperately, to be loved. To be loved like that, like I loved the waterpipe. Such a thing was clearly both impossible, and urgently necessary.

"Carry on," they sang. I walked on, full of hope or of despair. Maybe I could make the impossible happen, just by wanting it enough. Maybe. Maybe I could.

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