Note: an early and incomplete version of this column was presented at Nomadic Press’s GET LIT event in Oakland, CA, March 21st. Please support their mission of being a venue for the marginalized.
Many thanks to Christine No and Paul Corman-Roberts for allowing me to share a piece of this action. The tone here is a tad different than most other FXXK WRITING pieces. If you don’t like it, ask me if I give a shit.
After my mom’s death in 2013, my sister shared a memory of when I was seven or eight.
I was hiding in the basement bathroom trying not to cry and failing. She asked why the waterworks but I shook my head. She noticed something was amiss, climbed up the toilet and found the evidence I’d been hiding as if I was a third-rate criminal in a lazy pulp novel. In a corner best known for cobwebs and spider corpses was my report card.
“You were so scared,” she said. “Scared that the report card said you were stupid.”
1989. That year my grandfather, who was born in a log cabin in the icy doom of Thunder Bay and had won tuition at agricultural school via a grain contest and survived the Depression and raised a family with a variety of jobs (including guard on a prison farm, a failed feed business, and, lastly, selling real estate) had also told my mother (his ex-daughter-in-law), that her only son was a “useless” worker. It’s a long story, but I suspect he hoped Mom might take the hint and find a way to get me out of the malaise of my parent’s divorce. Big mistake! Mom read me the letter because the “truth” was important. Another big mistake! The truth I took away? I was stupid and useless, verified by both school and family.
That year I also ditched an English exam to watch re-runs of The Rockford Files at my mom’s nicotine-stained apartment; forgot to submit a year-long history report on . . . something historical; and, while I did all the experiments in science class that required fire, I don’t recall ever writing up a lab. My report card that year glared: English? “E.” History? “E.” Science? “E.” (in Canada, Es are fails, or so I was told)
(And now, some irony: I’m a writer, historian, and my doctoral thesis was the biography of scientists. Wait, wait, it gets worse!)
By administrative fluke, I ended up in high school without going to summer school, and when Dad asked for the dreaded report card, I lied and said the school was “mailing them out this year.” That September, he confronted me with my deceit. I reached under my bed and revealed more proof that I was dumber than a bag of hammers.
(Did I mention my father, the chemical engineer with the MBA, would later join Mensa, the Genius Club? I’d read their monthly newsletter, mc2rd, at breakfast, chewing Life cereal as I learned about heroin and how it changed your blood, convinced that this was as close as I was going to get to the Land of Smart).
Dad made it clear that he believed in me, and that these grades did not represent what I could do. For him, it was about application. I’d have to work harder. His final words, though, hit with the precision and power of a career boxer against a glass-jawed palooka. “I love you, but don’t you ever bullshit me again.”
I never did, at least about school.
Fall, 1995. Kurt Cobain has been dead for a year, my punk rock band, for which I’d sweated blood to make a success (and failed), just died, as had my grandfather. I’m a student at York University because I qualified for a near-automatic scholarship thanks to dad’s days in the oil business. I’m a history major because I liked the dramatic stories of war and revolution and, at least at Earl Haig Secondary School, I was pretty good at history… for “a collegiate” kid.
Collegiates were the local kids who, thanks to geography, were allowed to go to the now fancy pants school (Haig had once been a drugged-out haven of rockers and burnouts, a school for guys like me! But it was saved from destruction by becoming Canada’s version of Fame). But unlike those accepted into the Claude Watson School for the Arts, or the Gifted Athlete Program, or the just plain “Gifted” academic program, Collegiates had no special powers. Here, the great unwashed watched as others students were groomed to be the power elite of arts, sports, and commerce. Our destinies? Auto shop, teacher’s college, or someone else’s problem. Just one of many reasons I started a punk rock band.
As I’d promised my dad to work hard, I did pretty well by my final year, though I was convinced my successes were BS, earned not because of brains but because I was a fast talking, happy-go-lucky, hilarious and cute punk rock kid who got along with the ESL kids and my friends in Special Ed as well as the dancers, Olympians, and Einsteins. Charm, not ability, got me through the door.
Yet, there was a flicker of hope that, maybe, just maybe, I was smart, too, like my brilliant sisters who excelled in math or the arts. Perhaps family and institutions of learning had got me wrong. Perhaps I’d prove it at York, the school you attended if you didn’t get accepted to the University of Toronto (AKA the “Harvard of the North” which was both my mother and father’s alma mater). Granted, since I had neither advanced math nor language credits, I had to attend “everyone’s second choice” university and became a York “Dork.” Maybe here I would shine.
Dr. Kanya-Forstner, a world-renowned expert on French imperialism in Africa, complete with ascot, bullet-proof tenure, and the ability to pronounce “controversy” as “Con-TROV-ersy,” was the first real historian to assess my abilities. A guy who didn’t owe me shit, and never found me funny. During one tutorial (what Americans call seminars), he advised us that high schools had dropped their standards on university credits, so the universities were now in the awful position of accepting students… only to fail large numbers who are not yet ready for academics. Guess who thought they were one of the great mistakes?
If memory serves, my first paper received a C. The second, a D. But I recall the red lines of his cursive: “You need to learn how to write.”
(And now, a sample of the sounds in my brain, 24-7, for the next six years or so.)
You’ve swindled, charmed, and bullshitted everyone into thinking you were smart, boyo, so well played, but your punk-rock class-clown routine is stale. You’ve suckered enough sympathy from the powers that be so that you could pal around the talented, the chosen, the people meant to do cool things . . . but the con is over. You are a certified, Grade A, can’t-write-for-shit dumbass, and your doom is nigh, fucker.
After my grandfather’s death, I often reflected on a shrink’s prediction about my glorious future back when I was thirteen. The nice lady in a pink dress who had my best interests at heart had said: “Jason could run away from home, head for the streets, and no one would hear from him again.” A prophecy?
The streets. Where failures go to die. I’d been trying to avoid that call to adventure forever. Still am.
Back at York, the flicker dimmed in the ivory tower. I considered pulling the lever and dropping out. Save money. Just work retail. But I had no band. No art. No smarts. No skills beyond helping high-maintenance beauty queens in a ritzy suburb find the latest Oprah Book Club pick at the bookstore where I’d been the “evening manager” (which sounds way sexier than it was). But could you do that forever? I stood upon a trapdoor. Below it lay the streets, above it a world telling me I was dumb, not cut out for the smart stuff.
What saved me were two words.
Punk rock turned me into a professional musician at sixteen that played gigs near insane asylums and detox centers, forced me to learn how to make demos in the studio with a producer who played drums in a Deep Purple cover band (and had a deaf dog named Brewster!), and develop the conflict management skills of a career UN diplomat when negotiating the psychological warfare in play when your drummer wants to play hip hop and avant-guard post-punk but your Ramones-loving guitarist has a new found appreciation of Simon and Garfunkel (let alone the interests of your new bassist, who used to be a speed metal guitar virtuoso).
After much study, punk rock’s ethos bled into me:
The world is full of beautiful, talented, and “gifted” people. They have been chosen by schools, the media, and the rich to be Jedis, Playmates, and Rock Stars. They own success in every conventional sense. And they will never let you play with their toys.
So, fuck ‘em. You wanna be in a band? Do it. You wanna make a ‘zine and draw comics? Do it. Who cares if it sucks, if you succeed, if no one comes to the show? Do it. Who cares if you’re stupid, untalented, ugly, fat and fail? Who cares if you only know three chords and can’t sing and your drummer has chronic back trouble. Who cares? Success is not guaranteed, but wouldn’t you rather fail on your own terms than succeed at being someone else’s model of failure? Wanna learn to write? Work, mutherfucker, work and DO IT!
Punk rock didn’t care if I was stupid. Hell, it welcomed the freaks, geeks, and idiots of the world with arms open and fists raised. The Replacements, a band that was my church, taught me that fuck-ups who didn’t have a diploma or a driver’s license between the four of them could do incredible things. The ‘Mats said you didn’t need to be perfect, you just had to say “fuck you” to what other people thought and try, fail, try some more, fail, fail a lot, and keep going with as much fun, gusto, and guts as you got… but nothing happens if you’re just crying in the bathroom.
So, at York, when it came to writing, my mantra to all the Kanya-Forstners in the world was simply this-
“Fuck you. I will write, and make you eat my fucking words.” I just had to learn how. On my own.
And that’s when things get Faustian: because I could tell you about rising to the occasion at York, of the inspirational teacher, Jackie Buxton, who believed in my academic work (and yeah, like most, I had a crush on her) and how that kept me from dropping out, about being a civilian at a military college, of doctorates and books and stories published, because, like Henry Rollins has argued about his own life, I believe my punk rock attitude led me to develop a work ethic that saved my life and earned me success and survival when other support structures and dreams died.
But unlike most punk rock threats, my “fuck you” was externally silent. Internally?
I’d replaced fear of the streets for the battle cry that would not stop screaming at me.
And it was loud.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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