Friday, June 10, 2011

I Am a Child (or, I Don’t Wanna Grow Up)

Yeah, so my hairline is making a run for it, and my waistline won’t quit expanding; I’ve got a bad back and a heart murmur, high blood pressure and even higher cholesterol. The hair in my sideburns and around my neckline started turning stark white about a year ago, and I shave a hell of a lot more often since my chin whiskers followed suit. Christ, I’m getting to be an old man!

But I am a child. In that distinctively male way of immaturity in perpetuity, yes—just the other night I was watching The Karate Kid with friends, and I honestly couldn’t help but chuckle every single time Pat Morita said “wax off.” Saith my pal Hershal, “You’re such a child.” So yes, there’s that—god knows I stand firmly by my well-worn maxim every fart is funny—but there’s something else, too. Something I didn’t quite comprehend until a tiny ah-ha moment that slapped me in the face last night. Bear with me—I shall try to stay on track.

I was watching Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1962 supernatural social reform noir Pitfall, an intense and moving surrealist film written by one of my favorite novelists, Kōbō Abe (if you haven’t read Woman in the Dunes, you need to unfuck that). I could probably prattle on about the intricacies of Teshigahara and Abe’s film, but it was something largely inconsequential (though not really) that struck me with regard to the topic at hand. The protagonist, an unnamed miner, is working one of the many mines he plans on deserting, and his young son is playing with the clods of earth he carries out in baskets. When the mine’s owner comes along to check up on the proceedings, he finds the boy spitting on the clay to moisten it as he shapes it into various strange formations. The owner finds this charming—the “work” of a child, as opposed to real, adult work. The sweat of the brow and all that sort of thing. Someday, the viewer might presume, this kid will grow up to toil in the mines, himself. And the time for shaping clay will be long behind him.

I was stricken thinking about this, because the dichotomy I was observing—childish creativity and adult toil—is hardly contained within the confines of the Kyūshū labor crisis half a century ago or any other social microcosm. It’s pretty universal: we encourage children to be creative, but choke it off when they come of age. By the time they’re nearing adulthood, we firmly look them in the eye and tell them they’d be idiotic to pursue creative endeavors as opposed to tried and true paths, steady and sensible. And hell, I’m not arguing with this—if I had a kid who announced he was going to be a poet, I’d probably faint. Good thing I don’t have a kid, because what a lousy hypocrite that would make me. I went to college, earned a mess of degrees, and then decided, “The hell with this—I’m going to write.”

Childish, I tell you!

Isn’t it? Isn’t the urge to create something from nothing—and I mean something with little to no teleological value, here, not a table or an engine or a better mousetrap—essentially the initiative of a developing mind? When I was child, I wanted to do everything creative people did. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a comic book writer/artist, a musician, an actor, a filmmaker. Over time, I determined that most of these weren’t as much fun as I’d hoped, or that I wasn’t any damn good at them, but some remained. In my 20s I blew a substantial portion of my late father’s inheritance bread making a 16mm film out in Hollywood (it was terrible). I also wrote middling plays, tired Bukowski-wannabe poetry and I even tried my hand at painting an extensive series of truly vomit-inducing self portraits. I look back now and think I was trying to find my voice. Everybody else figured I was a late bloomer. Somewhere in between these assessments, I was staving off adulthood as desperately as possible.

And I still am. The truth is—to quote Tom Waits—I don’t wanna float a broom. Sure, I’ve got a day gig, but I selected one that allows me to spend the bulk of my time writing. Sure, I’ve got Cup O’ Noodles for lunch today, but I’d rather worry over problems in my novel while eating that than worry about what I didn’t do (and why the hell didn’t I?) while dining on finer fare. Is that childish, or at the very least child-like? Probably…there’s some modicum of reality in the dichotomy between the miserable miner in Pitfall and his playful, creative boy. All children make art, while only very few adults still do, respectively. And yet, it takes the experience and insight of a grown-up to create something like Teshigahara and Abe’s harrowing masterpiece, or the marvelous Peter Straub novel I’m presently reading, for that matter, or anything of real consequence. Well, except Mozart. And Béla Bartók. Oh, and Picasso, of course.

And Alexander Pope, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer…but there are always exceptions to the rule, right?

All right, so there are no absolutes. But that’s not my point. My point is that it takes a certain refusal to heed mean old Paul of Tarsus’ admonition to “put away childish things” to pursue what one might vaguely describe as artistic undertakings. (Though I would argue a good life philosophy would be to always circumvent Paul—that guy was such a prick. For realsies.) Does this mean every so-called artist is as much of an immature child as I am? Certainly not. I categorically refuse to wear neckties regardless of the occasion, I never finish my vegetables, I’d have Reese’s™ cereal every morning if my wife would let me, and I never—never—wear pants on weekends. I’d be like this if I never wrote a word in my life. But I argue it is because of my childishness that I am able to tap into that energy, to access those aspects Herr Kant’s perceptual manifold, as it were. It is my Key to the Kingdom, and if it means that I indulge in the occasional flatulence competition and helplessly titter at every perceived adianoeta (heh, I said titter), then so be it.

Yes, I am a child, and no, I don’t want to grow up. One of my greatest heroes, a well-known author, once offered a sound piece of advice to me upon my request for whatever kernels of wisdom he had for a young writer. “Don’t do it,” he said. “Not unless you have to.” It isn’t prudent, you see—I think that’s what he was telling me—nor is it in any way sensible to seek this calling. Don’t do it—it’s irrational, absurd, a child’s dream.

Yep. Absolutely. And it’s mine, all mine.