Beyond Being a Real Boy

When I was a kid, my parents considered me to be useless. I had it drilled into me that I was the guy that, if any ordinary person could tie his shoes or make his way in the world, would still fail. Defining myself as a man required not only a break with the family, but recognizing and overcoming (at quite some cost, and with significant pain) the similar voices that are ready to join the chorus in the world. I always looked at the world in unusual ways, and was never cut out for academia, corporate life, standard religion, etc. I specialized in doing things that were adventurous to try to change my life and the bigger they got, the more helpful or disastrous they were. But sometimes they helped a lot. I had to define who I was, determine what the world was, alter the conception of my relation to the world, and ultimately decide what to do then.

Asher BlackWhat I learned is that not only can I survive, but I can survive on pure ingenuity if I need to. I’m adept at starting things (I’m a founder), at taking things and altering them to be better or at least different (hacking them), and at building things (I’m a builder). Drop me on the streets of NYC naked and broke, and I will be running some kind of business in a month. Make me homeless in Texas, and I will have a job, car, and apartment in 3 months. I always keep contingency plans, and I always consider what to do in worst case scenarios, because then I don’t have to be afraid of them so much. As a result, I own a company with a stream of clients, am 50% owner in another operation, 40% owner in a startup, 20% owner in another going concern. And I’m mobile, liquid, and have a single debt which I’m tackling and no revolving debt. I have an accredited graduate degree I did 100% by distance learning, before that became so popular, and that tripled my income when I got it, but it’s not much of an academic accomplishment in itself – I keep it in a drawer with that parcel of the moon I bought out of the back of a comic book as a kid. It’s OK, but I don’t need the thing anymore unless I starve so badly I have to get a temporary corporate gig. No one checks my resume when I want to invest.

I’m not bragging – I’m saying they were wrong. I’m not unable to tie my shoes. I remember when my father first told me I’d never be the guy who could change his own oil. I called him once after I rebuilt the carburetor on a truck (it fired up on the first pull), and he simply didn’t believe me. That was one of many pivotal moments. I don’t like calling them “lessons” – people in this evangelical culture are obsessed with taking away lessons, getting ‘messages’, and turning art and life into a Sunday School storybook and everything into ideology and philosophy. I don’t fit into that either, and never will. But it was one of the moments I understood that the message isn’t affected by proof to the contrary.

I didn’t just build my livelihood, I built a discipline of art (though building from scratch has meant I’ve had to figure it out through many false starts and succeed through persistence), and I’ve built in a small way a means of impacting the world for good. I am able to care for people who can’t repay me and will never meet me and, for a man who was told as a child he’d never have any meaningful relationships with anyone, this is pretty important. I have changed lives, I have built a portion of the world of good, and I don’t feel proud of it – I feel relieved, alive, human. The voices that tell you that you can’t do anything, can’t connect with anyone, and have nothing to say, create, or contribute – they’re dehumanizing voices. When they’re backed up by the fundamental institutions of power and influence in the world – family, religion, college and corporation – it takes quite a lot of personal stamina to overcome them. But blessed his he who overcomes.

I’m in the midst of making some significant changes in my life. And they’re costly, risky, and adventurous all at once. And I look back toward what is expected of me – that I fail – that I fall on my face and prove that I’m incapable of caring for myself and others, that maybe if someone is charitable toward me (demonstrating their worth, not mine), I’ll barely be able to eek out a living by pumping gas (there are honorable men who pump gas, so that’s their values talking, not mine – I’d like to send Charles Bukowski to have a brief chat with them, or Sixto Rodriguez – and I successfully ran a landscaping company for more than a decade while going to school, so I respect manual labour), but that certainly I’ll never do much more that matters.

I remember being told that the things I cared about studying in school weren’t real and didn’t matter in the ‘real’ world – and that while I already had a degree in one of them. I remember getting met with surprise and disbelief when I had clients, with that same disbelief when I got my own health insurance, when I traveled Europe, when I did just about anything. See, even trying out the four keys of Middle Class life for a while – the house, the car, the career, the marriage (I was married) – didn’t change the myth. The new myth was that somehow those all merely fell in my lap by accident or that I finagled my way into them. And that told me that no measure of success handed to me by anyone else will ever satisfy them – let alone satisfy me. Fail to acknowledge when someone achieves your values and it exposes how bankrupt they really are – you never meant them in the first place – the goalpost keeps getting moved as you catch up to it – the real goal is convincing you that you can’t succeed, which is a way of saying you’ll never matter to anyone.

I do matter to people. I matter to my clients and business partners, whose businesses make money because of me. I matter to my children overseas who eat, because I share the money that my Faith and ethos tells me is theirs, not mine. I do not share enough, to my lasting shame; I wish to get better. My goal is to one day make enough money to be able to give most of it away, or all of it, if I can live off of investments. I’m small time, but I want to get big time, for them. I think I can redeem myself by making my children those who the world abandons or deprives, because they’re me – just at a different time. And then there’s art. Art is a language that the people who taught me I’m nothing don’t speak. They can’t evaluate it. Ever taken something to an appraiser who says ‘this item can’t really be valued with any specific number’. Yeah, it’s like that. I’m not a stellar artist yet – I’m working on it. That’s another myth – that it doesn’t take time, dedication, and hard work – that you don’t have to trade things for it – you do. There are born artists who spit and it’s beautiful – but a lot of us pull our art out at the roots with pliers in order to show someone and make it real. I will do that, if need be. Does the art matter to people? I’d be insulting my one regular reader if I said ‘no’. So far, it has made a difference to at least a couple of people. When we know someone who is doing it, we feel a spur – we want to do it too, if it’s in us, and we begin to believe – believe that we can. We all have those voices that tell us we can’t – if you don’t, you don’t go outside – someone somewhere has said you suck and to do something ‘else’ – maybe it was you – you can’t escape yourself. But when someone close to you goes into motion, it looks more possible. Ask yourself if you’d make art if you weren’t surrounded by art, or if other artists weren’t in your life.

The people who said “you can’t” all those years, were partly right. I’m not cut out for a cubicle or a box – I thrive in truly open environments that encourage and don’t punish free thinking – not just bigger boxes where “free thinking” is a motto but they still have orthodoxies you can’t transgress – if there are thought crimes, if I don’t get to truly consider all the options, if I can’t really explore whatever seems interesting to explore, creating along the way – then yeah, I don’t belong and I won’t succeed well there. I’m not a corporate guy – never was. I tried it – and it was Hell trying constantly to learn to ‘pass’. It’s not my context, and context is everything. I’m part owner in a company that has the underlying ethos that all the people in the world we label “freaks” can succeed in a conducive context – it’s the context that needs changing out, not the person who needs to be squashed to fit like a square peg in a round hole. It’s one of the reasons I fit there, but not the only reason. I can lead. I can found. I can build. I can run things. I can be the minister of propaganda guy that modifies and bends our message and the chief of intelligence that watches our back and continually scans potential competition. I’ve always been able to do these things, since I was a kid. I just didn’t always have a context. I started having one in 1992*, and have multiplied them since then, while making periodic runs at convention and finding that, no, it still isn’t for me.

It’s interesting to me to watch examples of the old adage – eccentricity is for the rich; if you’re poor, you’re just crazy. The guys that make a ton of money and get famous – those that have achieved, in other words, one of the more standard measures of success in our culture – the sort of thing that gets the middle class wet – they can say these same things, and people will say “right on – that’s awesome – do it!” When you’re not there yet, it’s still “who do you think you are?” and “you’re weird and there’s no excuse for it”. This is why it’s essential for me to do bigger things. It’s because it’s all well and good to say “but those voices were wrong” and “anyone you have any business being around won’t be like that”. Yeah, they’re wrong, but they’re everywhere, and we are around them, and they make up the vast majority of everyone. They’re part of our pool for potential relationships of all kinds. Someone will say “I don’t believe that.” I’m not trading in your belief; I’m trading with my own life, and I can’t afford to stake it on ideology and wishes. I know what the world is; I’ve been under its knives. The truth is some of us will only make sense in the world a) doing the things we’re designed for and b) succeeding at them overwhelmingly and with a preponderance of success.

In short, as a guy with a web site and invested in a few companies, I don’t make all that much sense. I am just here, just me, and just weird – perhaps bordering on eccentric. And it’s not enough. Not for me. To truly overcome, to overcome those voices, which are the voices that come out of the dark in horror stories, and to find the thing everyone really wants – to be accepted and loved – I have to do more. I have to overwhelmingly knock it out of the park. Comedians are my favorite examples. They were so often the cut ups in class – usually berated by authority figures – often taunted and beaten down by society at large, and they struggled (most still do) with depression – which is a very nice word compared to what it actually looks like (alcoholism, drug addiction, other self-destructive responses). But the ones whose names we’ve come to know, now they make sense in the world – now we get it – and they get it too. Now it’s like they locked into orbit and they’re bright shining novas in our lives. A lot of them are still depressed, because people still don’t really relate to them as human beings – they just want them to “do that drunken actress routine again” or “tell that one joke you do so well”. Fitting a slot has a price – it’s being a cog in a machine that doesn’t care about you.

I imagine some story tellers feel exactly that way after a while. “Sign my book. Tell me another story.” but does anyone really know them. The wonderful thing is that art tends to be a home, and it receives you in a way that almost nothing else does. So for me, I’m not OK with just making art for art’s sake. Art is a concept. A good one, but still a concept. I want to fit. I want love and acceptance. I want welcome. I want home. I want all of it. And my life will *only* make sense, really, when I get there and know that it does, because other people around me know that it does. Some of us don’t get to live out the Pinocchio story. We don’t go from wooden child to real boy. We have to make a larger leap. This is what I intend to do. Whether I do it or not remains to be seen. But it’s my intent. I’ll do it or die trying to do it. There’s no retreat. That bridge was burned when I was born. The goal never really was merely ‘survival’ – which is the real lie in those people that kept moving the goal posts. Some of us can’t survive just by surviving. We have to thrive. We have to go past “real boy” to “oh my god, look at that boy!”

And if I can’t get there, then I’ll die in motion, in the arc I’m making in the air, like a man I admired for how he died. My great grandfather. Don’t accuse me of being morbid – we all die – all of us are going to be food for worms – so we’d better plan it. We’ll die either wasting away or sitting around, or we’ll die doing something or at least trying to do it (which is doing it, in a sense – we just didn’t finish yet). Some of the artists I admire most left us with their best works unfinished. It’s not a sin or a crime. My great grandfather’s death is an icon for me in this way: he was a farmer. He wanted to die on his farm, doing the work of the farm. He wanted the meaning of his life to be expressed every second until the end. We found him at the woodpile, with the axe in his hand. He died cutting wood for the farm. And I swear that if I can, if I can, I will die at the woodpile, axe in hand. Only, my woodpile is something different than a farm. I am committed to striving continually, my whole life, of which there may be an awful lot left – maybe more than half, or not much at all (it’s that way for all of us), to reaching orbital velocity, to exiting the atmosphere of the banal, to soaring and becoming awesome.

I fully expect someone to say “ah, this is unhealthy”. You listen to people and you realize that nobody knows what they’re talking about when they talk like that. Look at all the slogans artists post in social media – “nothing comes from striving”, “nothing comes unless you push”, “write from calm”, “write from rage, terror, passion” – they can’t make up their minds or form a coherent evaluation of anything. Even the people doing it can’t *really* tell you how they did it or how they’re doing it – they’re too close to it and it’s too personal. Read author’s works on creating author’s works, and there are gaping holes in what they’re telling you. It’s not like you can sit down at your desk, with that book open, and make a novel of your own. There’s a reason most of those authors wrote their advice book – 1. it was suggested by the publisher and they’re getting paid to, 2. it gets you off their backs – they’re tired of giving the same responses over and over to “how do you come up with your ideas?”Most of the people writing lots of books on how to write books aren’t writing many other books (e.g. novels the names of which we’ll recognize) at all. Advice is an industry. And I can’t help but notice a good lot of the purveyors of ‘mental and emotional health’ went into it because they were sick. Nothing wrong with that, but it means I don’t have to take the prevalent and self-contradictory wisdom as gospel, either. Besides, all I have to do is change the wording to something sloganish and familiar – “I want to go ‘From Good to Great” and suddenly everyone says “yeah, that’s correct – that’s the right direction.”

Advice is usually garbage, because only you really know what you need to do, and only you can really dig it out and do it. Half of getting advice is trying to offload some of the mental burden onto someone else. Half of giving it is a surrogate for actually doing anything yourself. It’s why I write maxims, not aphorisms – I’m giving myself my own advice. There’s usually all kinds of ancillary advice – accepting non-acceptances – e.g. “It can be unhealthy to take it too far.” Yeah yeah, I plan to shoot for the stars, and die shooting for the stars. “But you need to accept if you don’t reach them or can’t.” Do I? Accept it for whom? Accept it why? So I can feel better, or so you can? Acceptance – isn’t that a stage in the mythical “grief process”? I’m not going to grieve – I’m going to build momentum and die in my race car in flames on the wall if I have to, but I’m driving this bitch toward victory if humanly possible. I may not make it, but only an almost certain loser covers himself by starting out with “I’ll just be happy and accepting if I don’t get a flat tire.” Jesus, what kind of competitor is that?

Let’s change context again – football. Of all the football speeches in the locker room before the game, can you point at one that went “Try to win, but just accept it if you don’t. It’s OK. It’s not healthy to get so worked up and actually *need* to win the game.” See? Advice is dumb. Pretty much all advice. Context is everything. And the error of all these advisors is the same as the error of the voices of my childhood – you don’t think I can win or that if I do, it’s dumb luck not the result of hard ass work and refusing to flinch, to stop fighting or relent – you think I should *plan* on not winning, and you think there’s another option. You don’t get me at all – that’s what that means. And you don’t live in the world as I live in it – it’s not the same thing to you. That’s OK. I’m not blaming you – go be a real boy. But for me, it’s not enough to just have skin. It never could have been – it’s not arrogance – it’s that you’re not me, and mere survival leaves me dead, in my heart – the context in which I was born, into trial by fire, doesn’t leave mere survival as a survivable option. I need victory. I need to put back what was taken. I need to undo it all.

I usually am labelled a diva, not just for these reasons – it’s a personality thing – it’s a fair label, I think. I’m a diva. But show me a diva that is designed to be obscure in *any* context. It kind of goes against the whole diva motif, doesn’t it? My best friend says I have “presence” – I walk into a room and people want to fight with me or play with me, but I ring a bell when I show up, unless I’m intentionally hiding out – even then I come off as that closed up guy who’s all hidden. I don’t mind if people make light of it by saying “diva”. I acknowledge it in good fun, and I even have a web site with ‘diva’ in the title. See my sparkles. But a diva just won’t blindly follow advice. I need trophies. I need ticker tape. I need streamers. You send me up on stage to get a Tony, an Oscar, a whatever – and I’m not going to say “I feel so humbled. This is so unexpected. I never would have thought. And gee whiz, it’s really everyone else who deserves it. I want to thank mom…” I’m going to say, “This is awesome! I want more.” You don’t survive being me without more. You don’t have a future as me without more. You can’t look up, raise your eyes at all, and look ahead without wanting more. Sure, I might look ridiculous now, because I’m not on your coffee table. I may never be, it’s true. But I want more. And last I checked, I’m not dead yet. So, I’m working on it.


— I’ve been listening to vulnerability lately. This is my act of vulnerability for today. —

* What happened in 1992? Well, first some background. I’d been dumped on the street at 17, after a rough and abusive childhood it’s too painful to recount. When I say “the street” I mean the worst ghetto in the city, gunshots keeping you company at night, your life threatened on a regular basis, and a state of seige between drug dealers, users, petty criminals, prostitutes, and the police, with the more hard hitting and immensely violent criminals on the fringes. No skills I could recognize, no prospects, no money. I did things that were not exactly in keeping with the law to get by and other things to make the pain go away. I got in deeper, because of a girl. Having given up on the world, I was planning to take it to the level of spectacular. Girls were my nemesis tho, a delightful yet agonizing one, and I got messed up in a cult for a while, because of another girl. I became a shooting star there, but I also started going to college. Education, art, and reading pulled me out of all of that stuff – I asked untidy questions and ceased to be immensely popular in that particular religious circuit. And yet escaping these three darker sides of humanity – abusive homes, criminal activity, and religious numbskullery – which all make interesting reactions to each other – just wasn’t enough, by itself. You don’t fix feeling that that nothing you do will change anything (inefficacious) and that no one will ever love you (valueless) quite so easily as just an exit. So in 1992, I was on the brink of a change – a major life alteration – I was trying to start my first grown up business (I’d started petit operations as a kid) but it was very fragile. I was alone, living in a hovel in a slum, unable to pay my bills, unable to buy the basics I needed to sell my services, and unable to keep clients without them. And girls – girls were breaking me up pretty badly. I felt alone, hopeless, and at an end. A change is always when I’m the most vulnerable. Everything is in flux, and you aren’t sure where the ground is. 1992, and I’m on the edge of my bed with a shotgun in my mouth, noting how surprisingly easy it is to reach the trigger. And that’s when a woman came and rescued me. I decided to make one last ditch effort to see a loophole. I had called her and asked if there was actually any reason she could think of, and it’d have to be a really good one, because I wasn’t going to get fooled, to go on. It had to pack substance – it had to be real. If she hadn’t come up with an answer, the trigger was right there. Instead, she told me to hold on, she was coming over. I hadn’t expected that – it was the bravest thing I’d ever seen a woman do. And it was the only time in my life anyone had swooped down and saved me from anything. I’d faced monsters and always alone. Hell, just the fact that there existed someone in the world that would come and get you, changed my perception of the possibilities of the world. She was a hero. She pulled the gun away, and took me out of there, and gave me my first vacation (ever), and she invested in my first business and helped me with everything from improving my diet to pursuing my own art. She helped me get a new place that was full of light and air. She encouraged me in school. She made me believe I never had to go back. I’ve had ups and downs since then. I didn’t stop doing big and adventurous things. I can’t say I’ve never emotionally revisited that hovel and that despair. There have been points in life that were abject pain. But it was a pivotal point. I haven’t seen her in many years, though I know she’s doing well and doing her own writing. But I still benefit from what she did. My best friend is a lot like that, now. I think everyone needs someone to help them see something of worth in oneself and the world of what’s possible, when it feels like there’s nothing possible or worth going on for. My friend has dutifully performed that task, of continually showing and reminding me, for countless years. And so, I exist now – if not in a completely solid realm of hope and beauty where everything is always love, peace, and joy – like a middle class New England Christmas with sweaters and warm macaroons – then at least in an icy ocean, where islands of those things sometimes offer me a place to stand. And for me, life is every day looking for a place to stand.

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