Sunday, March 31, 2013

The virtue of arrogance

Last night I stood in the relatively quiet, back area of the bar portion of a nightclub talking with my new friend Ron about writing. The conversation didn't just flow easily; I would describe it as "gushing." It had the kind of excited, passionate, back-and-forth table-tennis flow that you get when you put together two people who can really nerd out about the topic at hand. It was that rare thing (for some of us, at least): conversation without gaps, without any awkward lulls, without anybody saying the perfunctory, conventional thing just to be polite or socially correct. It felt like Vulcan mind-meld or something.

At some point, amid the talk of genres and technique and dissections of Nick Cave's musical and literary aesthetic, Ron asked me how I felt about my writing ability -- was I self-deprecating about it, did I suspect that I might be over-confident, or was I (in Goldilocks parlance) just right? I found myself saying that I'm arrogant about it, but that it's just because I know that I'm good. He said he admired that, said that an artist has to have a degree of arrogance in order to push things through in this cold, harsh, critical world. He said, in effect, that if you say, "Aw, shucks; I'm not that good..." -- no one is going to take you by the hand, give you a cookie and a hug, and exclaim, "Au contraire! Your work is genius! Come, let me whisk you away to the enchanted land of legitimately published authors and rave reviews!" If you go around saying you suck, the literary agent or fiction editor is just going to say, "And so you're wasting my time because... why, exactly?" 

It's weird for me to apply the word "arrogant" to myself, even about writing. Because I am one of the "aw, shucks" folks. I self-deprecate like nobody's business. Folks are always chastising me for being constitutionally incapable of simply accepting a compliment with a "thank you" -- I always counter the nice thing with something bad about myself. It just feels like the humble, polite thing to do. I say "sorry" for everything, even stuff I didn't do. Part of it is my Appalachian upbringing; my siblings do this, too. My sister told me once that a girl had complimented a dress she'd worn to a wedding. True to the manner in which our mom raised us, my sister's response was, "Thanks -- it's so cheap! Can you believe I got this on sale for twenty bucks?" The status-conscious idiot she was briefly dating at the time got after her for revealing the "cheapness" of the dress, but I would have done the same thing. One problem with being this knee-jerk polite and self-effacing, though, is that people get concerned -- they think I have self-esteem issues; they say, "Aw, I wish that you liked yourself. Why don't you like yourself?"

I do like myself. I have self-esteem issues, sure -- mostly related to my shyness (by far my dominant personality trait, at least until you get to know me) and my appearance. But deep down, in some dark private well that I draw from when things get tough or nigh-untenable and I have to really rely on my inner resources... I have always liked myself, and I have always believed in myself. 

I've had to, because there have been many times when I've gone it alone. My freshman year of college, away from my beloved group of high-school friends, my roommate and I got into some stupid spat and she moved out. (We have since made up, and now I think she's one of the coolest people I know.) I'd had no friends at that college; any semblance of a social life I'd had was via my roommate, partly because she came to college with a built-in acquaintance through one of her older brothers, and that acquaintance plugged us into the little Christian-youth-group community there on campus (the girl's boyfriend played in a gospel band in Greensboro, North Carolina). When my roommate moved out, I remember this army of her friends coming in like a row of ants to port all of her stuff off to her new room. I knew they'd all heard her side of the story, but I was too shy to even try to tell them mine. 

I lived in our room alone for a couple of months until the end of the school year. I wrote long, zany letters to my old high-school friends (this was before e-mail had really taken off as the main mode of communication; I remember writing at least one choose-your-own-adventure letter to my friend Megan). Every weeknight I would go to the 7-Eleven just off campus and buy three things -- a BLT sandwich in a Saran-wrap papoose, a Hershey bar, and a bottle of ruby-red grapefruit juice -- then go to my room and watch "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" on my crappy little TV that would sometimes turn black-and-white for no reason and one time randomly switched me to some channel that was broadcasting a puppet show in Arabic. I took a daily walk to the campus post office and picked up letters from my mom, written in her looping backhand on marbled pink stationery -- I swear she wrote nearly every day, worried that her oldest kid, the only one out of the nest so far, was lonely.

I would sometimes see my ex-roommate's friends on campus, and they were uniformly cold and snubbing. Because my classes were lecture-style with almost no mandated interaction, I would go entire days saying nothing to anyone except the 7-Eleven cashier, to whom I would say "thank you" after we had made our exchange.

The preppy lushes in our building made fun of my clothes, the eccentric fashion sense that I'd been admired for (well, among some of the more creative-type students) at my infinitely cooler and much more diverse high school. I wore things like Hawaiian-print grandpa-in-Florida shirts (that were later made cool, much to my vindication, in that Baz Lurhmann version of "Romeo + Juliet" with Leonardo DiCaprio in it that came out that winter) and these fantastic faux-leopard-fur pants, about which a group of my suitemates and their friends sang the Guns N' Roses song "Welcome to the Jungle," at just enough distance behind me and at just a low enough (but audible) volume for it to count as definitely laughing at and not with me. 

But the whole time -- I thought that I was cool. I kept on dressing like a weirdo. I was a bona-fide nerd, but I liked myself. I secretly thought that the lushes in my building were boring in their standard-issue Gap clothes, with their pragmatic majors and their shallow-seeming aspirations of joining a sorority or getting a diamond from their boyfriends. I would wonder if they even had souls. (The writer in me suspected that they did. I recall hearing this one girl, Angel, an athletic brunette admired by her peer group because she was captain of the dance team or something, drunk and talking on the phone in our shared bathroom. I could only hear her saying, "I love you, Billy... Billy, I love you..." in this way that made me think of a kid imitating an adult on a soap opera, as if she were testing out the words, saying the things she felt she was supposed to say, and it rang a little false but was oddly endearing to me, having never seen her in anything other than cheerleader mode.) The affirming letters from my friends and my mom would arrive in my school-issued mailbox, reassuring me that I wasn't truly alone, and that I was loved. 

I could drone on with a lot of stories like that, times when I was alone and had to like myself, because I was all that I had. There were the four months I lived in San Diego; there was the year or so after I was back in Northern Virginia in my always jocularly described "bachelorette-pad lair" (a name that made it sound as if I were some black-widow spider who eats the heads of her "mates"), sucking at being single and loathing the "casual-dating" scene. Even when I was in a decade-long relationship with Tim, my beloved ex-boyfriend (and now friend) who was brilliant and crazy and had manic depression and was unemployed for nearly the entire time we were together (except for two months at the end, when he worked in the warehouse part of a hardware store) -- I was essentially alone in some ways, essentially his mother, the person who paid for his shelter and food and even gave him a sort of allowance for comic books or obscure whiskeys or collectible little Japanese toys or whatever fun little non-essential item he was fixated on at the time. His manic depression kept him cocooned off from me, mired in a miasma that didn't allow him to see very far outside of himself, for all sorts of biological, chemical, and medication-side-effected reasons. For my money, feeling alone with someone is even worse than being just plain old alone. 

So my point here is that, at the risk of sounding like a phony or a liar, a lot of my self-deprecating, "aw, shucks" act is just that: an act. It's a veneer of politesse, deep-rooted in my upbringing. Many times, if you tell me something nice and I bat it back at you with something negative -- "You're so skinny!" "No way; I've gained like 15 pounds being sedentary this winter!" -- I don't really believe what I'm saying. I just don't know what else to say that doesn't make me sound like some smug bitch. 

To take it a step further, in what might very well be a kooky direction, I believe that arrogance -- a word that usually comes across as pejorative -- can also translate into a gut-level belief in or trust of yourself to make decisions that, while unconventional or unpopular, are the best and most enriching directions for us to go in. 

Lately I've dwelling too much on a nasty e-mail from my ex-friend X. In it, one of her impressively low blows was a reference to one of the weirdest and hardest-to-explain situations I've ever had happen in my life. When I was 27 years old, I had a brief relationship with a man who is the father of the guy I'd dated in parts of eighth and ninth grades. This episode (with the dad) was so colorful, so outrĂ©, so strange and evocative that it's hard for me to not self-mythologize, romanticize, glamorize, exoticize it. I flew down to where he (the dad) lives in New Orleans to spend a cataclysmic, life-changing week with him, a week spent in Bourbon Street strip clubs and blues taverns and that saw me pole-dancing in my hotel room to classic rock on the clock radio, a week during which I both had sex and got drunk for the first times (I have no doubt that those two firsts were related). The dad is a quirky-to-the-max English professor and haiku scholar/translator, a Buddhist who once had an expensive "love doll" with curly pink hair he named Mai, who has written me into one of his novel manuscripts, as his lover in Old Japan (last I heard, this particular draft was sitting in a drawer, waiting until certain involved parties have departed this earthly realm before he'd ever allow it to be published). 

In X.'s charming missive, she made it out to be some sordid ("sick," to use her word), despicable, Freudian fuck-up of a situation. Which, well, it was. Or it could be, when viewed from a certain closed-hearted, closed-minded, conventional point of view. But I knew -- as I had explained to her, and as I'd written in one of my better short stories -- that, despite our age gap (he was 51 when we met up that first time), despite the admittedly weird and stalker-undertoned way in which we met (I'd been futilely trying to get in touch with his son, who apparently didn't wish to be looked up), despite all of the morally unambiguous wrongness of that whole scenario... the simple truth is that he (the dad) and I were two kindred spirits who met and fell in love. And lust, of course. And so the predictable happened, and there were moments when I thought, "What in the hell am I doing here?" but at times it was beautiful. 

Maybe I'm wrong and hopelessly adrift in the tangent sea here, but I think all of my prattle above has something to do with arrogance. If I didn't have a certain degree of self-belief, of stubbornness, even; if I were the sort of person who would let myself wither under the judging blow of statements like X.'s about "sick" "lashing out" due to feelings of "abandonment;" if I didn't have that deep inner wellspring of love and respect and trust for and in myself -- I fear that I would look at the world with the same narrow, closed-hearted view that X. espoused in her knee-jerk, mad-dog e-mail to me. I would assume some Orwellian-robot view that reduced my strange love story to an equation like this: unconventional relationship = inherently sick, regardless of its individual nuances and emotional undercurrents. 

I wrote, in my earlier post about her e-mail, that I regretted the situation with the haiku dude -- but you know, I take it back. If anything, it sure as hell made me a much more interesting person, with a wider range of life experiences to empathize with and relate to and write about. Did it damage me a little? Yes, it did. But I'm proud of my scars. I did things that were spectacularly stupid and yet wildly, irrationally beautiful in their all-too-human weakness and longing. Again, if I hadn't flouted conventional thinking and mores and even a few taboos and gotten involved with him, I never would have written this. Or, god, dozens of things that were directly or indirectly inspired by my relationship with him or its clanging reverberations in my life

In the message she sent to me just before she Facebook-defriended and blocked me, X. wrote: "Have fun with your incorrigibility schtick." (I remember she typed a frowny face after it, which to this day I find strangely endearing.) 

OK, I will.

I am arrogant, not just about my writing, but about many of the seemingly batshit directions I've taken in my life. To put it over-simply, I had my reasons, even if they were dumb. I was always going after something that I needed.

So I say, be arrogant. Be incorrigible. What the hell. If you live your life according to "Dear Abby" and let yourself be crippled with self-doubt, surrendering to an army of attacking "should"s, you'll never do anything. And your obituary is going to be boring as hell.  

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