Prior to around age 15, I was like most every other pubescent teenager, attempting to navigate my often-hellish home life, while also juggling being the new kid at a new school in a new state, hormones raging, with no outlet to speak of. And as is common in most similar scenarios, I despised my parents, who I saw as shiftless hypocrites (which they were), and figured I was never going to figure out how to talk to a member of the opposite sex or ever forge the happy home life I often fantasized about (which I wasn’t). But then, a series of seemingly random encounters changed everything about my outlook, and gave me something to strive for—to hold on to, as it were, and provided my life with the first sense of meaning I was able to claim for myself, that hadn’t been artificially jammed down my throat by parents.
It was poetry.
No, not my crappy attempts at writing poetry, but my sudden awakening to its existence as something real, and connective, and yes, beautiful. I inhaled Whitman and Keats and Byron, rock stars in the poetry world during their own lifetimes, and now the harbingers of True Feeling, True Freedom, all those years after their own lives ended, in my own life. Reading their immortal words showed me that emotion—feeling—is ageless, and incorruptible by time or politics or religious fervor or any other human construct; as long as human beings exist, and had access to such beauty, it would remain not only beautiful, but also pertinent to the human experience for anyone who dared to put down his mobile device long enough to take it fully within.
That summer following my poetry-induced awakening, 1990, Jane’s Addiction released Ritual de lo Habitual, their swan song and my introduction to the hedonistic modern rock that would further shape my ideas about love, and life, and prioritizing one thing over another.
No one’s leaving
Coming from a background where I was forbidden to listen to the radio or watch TV for much of my childhood (my parents’ vain attempt to shield me and my younger brothers from “secular humanism”), by the time I had my blinders yanked off to all I had been missing, I was like an Over-Eaters Anonymous adherent on a Golden Corral buffet binge, and I made a sworn pact with myself to never again enter the rooms of self-denial and moderation. There was an entire world out there, a world of extravagant delights, and I would never stop until I had tasted all of them. I was a product of extremism gone to the opposite extreme. No longer would I see everything as possibly damning to the soul and spirit, a world full of temptations sent by the devil himself to coerce me into a false comfort so that I could be sent down the road to hell—I would embark on that road of my own accord, with no persuasion or enticement needed, other than the promise of freedom and the pursuit of beauty—not just in its literal form, but in the way beauty feels. This was the equivalent of walking out on the deck of a massive ship, the sun beckoning an open-faced acceptance of the world exactly as it was presented to the every sensory perception, and welcoming every sight, smell, sound, taste and feel as it came. I was a fallen angel. I no longer cared to be among the righteous, protecting my soul and my self from all carnal temptations—I would be the Full Human, as God had intended. I would take in all His creation, bite by glorious bite, ingest it wholly, thoroughly, a libertine in search of libation and all other experiences that would serve to allow me to comprehend life in a more comprehensive and fulfilling way than the narrow avenue originally proposed to me through my parents via the Sacred Word.
But despite this liberation from the artificial economic and religious suffering I and my siblings endured under the unblinking eye of our parents, I now believe, these years later, that I took it too much to heart. This assessment, like all others, is subject to change. But for now, there it is. I went too far to the Other Side, the opposite end of the spectrum; in my rejection of all things extreme-right, I fell completely off the edge of all things extreme left. And realized what a shame it was that beautiful things, like flowers and connectedness and fighting for what’s right had been co-opted by the “Jesus”-people on the right, who were against everything that had anything to do with actual beauty. They lost me at hello.
But what, then, was beauty to me? Did I even have an understanding of it at all before I read poetry or heard Jane’s Addiction or finally gathered the nerve to address, with no manufactured pretense, Amy Ellis in my 10th grade English class? If I was no longer worthless due to my predetermined inheritance of Original Sin, was I immediately worthy of receiving Beauty, or at least appreciating it from across the room without feeling like a dirty motherfucker because of acknowledging such Base appreciations for something as ungodly as the female form, unshackled from the burdens of seeing Her for something more than a submissive baby-and-home-making machine?
My only previous understanding of “beauty” came from my uncle’s 1970’s-era Playboys, when I was age 8 (which would probably explain my preference to this day for women with” hair down there,” despite the modern trend toward inexplicable Brazilian waxes that render the female form in a perpetual prepubescent Barbie state, IMHO), and the coffee-table-sized books of Renaissance-era art that my lawn-mow client, Mrs. Sabatini, kept on her coffee table, and which I furtively stole glances of when overseeing her twin infant sons while she went to the kitchen to find and write me a $12 check for services rendered…
I had a secret
So there I was, 15 and never laid, visions of shapely, pubic-haired, ivory-skinned Dionysian women rapturing me to places heretofore unknown, and along came Lord Byron and Jane’s Addiction, Dead Poets Society and Walt Whitman, entreating me to explore lands I had long suspected existed but had never dared enter… until I did.
And then it was off to the races, and all I cared about was finding the ULTIMATE BEAUTY. I wanted the wife and the children and the family I dared dream could exist on this plane. So I went for it. With a catch.
There was a girl who was completely in love with me at one point. We worked together while in college. We connected on every conceivable and meaningful level. But she wasn’t about to have my baby, and someone else was, so I rejected her. I rejected her because I couldn’t stand to think about a world in which I had little-to-no connection to my unborn baby, and so I stayed with the hell I knew, rather than flying to the one I could only imagine… And as it turned out, the hell I thought I “knew” ended up being worse than any hell I’d previously imagined, excepting worse-nightmare-scenarios and horror movie actualizations. It was a life granted for a mere moment, some sadistic Faustian bargain, wherein I got to pretend I actually had the beautiful life and a marital kinship that was printed on paper only, was only as good as the ink it was written in, and when I ran back to the file cabinet when the legal paperwork was demanded of me, I encountered only blank pages, the contract disappeared, the Love and Family replaced with blatant disdain and abject rejection. And I blamed Walt Whitman.
I blamed Whitman and Perry Farrell and the endless Most Beautiful People lists that went from populating supermarket check-out lane magazine stands to representing the lion’s share of internet year-end best-of lists. If you weren’t beautiful or somehow connected to one of the beautiful people, you weren’t truly achieving The Dream, merely a hollow knock-off. After all, what was any of this worth if you weren’t the subject of at least someone’s envy? We were meant to cultivate that, to give others something larger than themselves to strive for. And if we came up short in our own quest for the Enviable Life, then what was any of it worth, really?
I started writing this essay more than a month ago, then abandoned it after a re-read, as it seemed at the time to be a feeble attempt as justifying the multiple life-choice mistakes I’ve committed over the years. How fucking pathetic is everything a person seeks to achieve if its basis is founded, at least partly, in something as shallow as physical beauty? There has to be more to it than that, and there is. But any person with only a modicum of self-evaluation is going to look back and try to rationalize how things went so completely off the rails on the way to Now. There IS more to life than beauty and the seeking out of it—there’s work and struggle and compassion and service, wonder and wandering. And, of course, the inevitable staving-off of the Inevitable, via the latest new-fangled exercise and diet regimens, and plastic surgery for the more monetarily secure and hopelessly Past Their Prime.
But then this douchebag rich kid who couldn’t get laid murdered the beautiful people who wouldn’t give him the time of day, and I decided to give this piece another look. The kid was attractive enough I guess, and had access to more money than most people his age, yet due to his belief that he deserved the very best of everything, he evidently couldn’t get laid by the caliber of women he felt he “deserved.” Only the most beautiful, the most perfect of everything for him, or nothing at all. Think about that: this kid decided that committing murder and then suicide was preferable to lowering his expectations of what was an acceptable hotness-level girlfriend. Though I’d argue that, even more than an unwillingness to compromise on standards, he was just inept at socialization. No woman, save your standard crack-or-meth head, is going to drop trou for a guy who can’t hold a normal, non-creepy conversation. Judging by the guy’s YouTube videos, all he was capable of discussing is how unfair and pathetic his life was—his words and general demeanor far more off-putting than any Cyrano-sized proboscis. But there was nobody there to tell him that. And if there was, he obviously lacked the skills to learn that skillset. And now innocent people are dead for no reason, and he’s got five minutes of postmortem internet fame. Business as usual.
I don’t know what my ultimate point is with all of this. I started writing this as a means of attempting to dissect how people’s initial understandings of the world and what matters in it are most always flat-out misguided if not completely wrong. This is not to say that poetry and beauty and art aren’t all important aspects of life and the human experience, only to possibly illustrate that any preoccupation with anything that is as fleeting and momentary as a relationship or a look is misguided at best, and, as we saw in the case of the “Virgin Killer,” life-ruining at worst. So here’s to moderation, in all of its forms. To knowing thy self, and to commitment, above all else, to the transitory nature of life generally, and fickle love most specifically. Because I’m realizing that it is only through our acknowledgement and embrace of these realities that we become truly capable of living life on the terms it presents us with, and not end up banging our heads against the walls of expectation. None of this, as the saying goes, can merely be assumed as a “given.” It is only through grace and sheer dumb luck that any of us have anything that isn’t cancerous, disastrous and in all ways completely ruinous to the soul and the psyche. There’s a lot of suffering out there, and an endless supply still to come. All that can be expected by anybody is the good luck enough to not have your turn at sorrow happen anytime soon, paired with a daily meditation on how amazingly lucky we are to have another day of this struggle in all of our stupid, insignificant little lives.