- Be born. Be born into middle-class circumstances, perhaps your father works for the phone company, perhaps your mother works at the Red Cross. Perhaps you all live in the suburbs of an industrial city in decline, let’s say…Detroit. Attend public schools, ride your bike. Be raised Catholic. That’ll help.
- At a young age, let’s say 9, let’s say it’s 1990, move with your family far away from home – perhaps to the South. Perhaps Georgia. Perhaps to the sleepy hamlet of Conyers. They’ve got six Waffle Houses!
- Find that your level of intelligence coupled with a natural sense of curiosity and a desire to read and read and read make the rigors of public school an easy ship to sail. Be socially awkward, but not entirely friendless.
- Grow up. Move out of your parent’s house. Go to the first in-state college that accepts you and your state-funded scholarship money. Find that your level of intelligence coupled with the low standards of a public school education have completely fucked you out of ever developing any kind of study habits or sense of accomplishment. Drop half your classes. Squander your talents and your scholarship. Drop the other half of your classes. Move back into your parent’s house.
- If you happen to have gotten laid at any point back there, that’s cool; it is in no way helpful to your current situation.
- Take on a job in a factory, mixing industrial cleaning fluids. Pretend this is acceptable. Half-heartedly take some community college courses. Blow your paychecks on records. Ignore the fact that all of your high school friends have moved away. Ignore your community college courses. Finally say fuck this bullshit and move back to your college town, vowing to do better.
- Do marginally better. Focus on writing. That’ll help. Take writing workshops and work jobs you hate and drink heavily and fail to notice you’ve dropped out of school again and have become a townie. Holy shit! Stop being a Middle Georgia townie! Move back into your parent’s house. Fuck.
- Go back to school. Get a job. Get engaged. Move out of your parent’s house. That’ll help. Get married. GRADUATE COLLEGE. Luck into a job in, say… public radio. Realize that though your path to this square foot of happiness you have managed for yourself was fucked, it was an intricate game of Jenga. Pull one wrong piece away and bam, you’re still drinking shitty beer in a college bar in Middle Georgia with other sad people who have found themselves living in Middle Georgia. Rejoice, for you are blessed.
There is nothing wrong with me. Okay, there is very little that is actually wrong with me. I may talk a neurotic game, but the truth is I have not worked my way through even a fraction of the kinds of hardships that others who are close to me have. Yet, through high school I always thought of myself as the black sheep–the dangerous, angsty, problematic one in my family. I mean, compared to my younger brother, I was a heathen caveman.
My brother is a talented guy. It’s December 1989, we’re kids in the backseat of dad’s minivan. We’re driving around Warren, Michigan, where we live. Christmas carols are playing on the radio. We arrive home and as the rest of us pull off our coats and boots and sweaters, my little brother goes to the living room and sits down at the piano. He begins to play. He plays the carols we had been listening to on the radio and we all crane our necks and go and watch in amazement because my brother is four years old and he has never played the piano before. I had dropped out of piano lessons just a few months before. At the time I was mostly relieved that the pressure for me to succeed had disappeared with a few bars of “Good King Wenceslas”.
Mozart followed soon after. Then Beethoven. Generations of dead Viennese took up residence in our house as my brother dropped hammer and nuance across lesson and recital and competition and audition. His talents earned him two concurrent academic careers – one in public school, the other in private lessons, and woe betide him should he let either slip. Competition days were especially grueling. You walk into a room alone to sit at an instrument in front of a row of judges and you either let the hundreds of hours of work you’ve put into those few minutes sing…or choke on a bundle of nerves.
To be blessed with musical talent – any talent – is to spend your life repaying that debt by working your hands to the bone in service of this thing that people mistakenly call a gift. You can walk away from it, sure, but the best among us show reverence to our blessings.
In October of 2011, my brother came out of the closet. He said he hated to reinforce the stereotype of the gay church organist, but there you go. He moved out of the house he and his wife had bought together and moved in with me while he figured out his next move. He kept his head up and went to work playing organ in a Catholic church, like a mole, embedded behind enemy lines. It may strike you as foolish or contradictory or even traitorous for a gay man to give his talents to an organization which condemns him for who he is, but if your first language is Bach, what are you gonna do? It’s not like you can go be an organist for Delta. Not a lot of pianist positions in the dental industry.
As this story goes, he will go on to be fired from the Catholic church in a big embittering mess. It will be over his homosexuality. He will be interviewed by local network news and the New York Times and he will move on…but that’s an entirely different story.
In the middle of all the turmoil kicked up by my brother’s revelation about his sexuality and his impending divorce, our mom was angry and confused and trying to make sense of this. She told me once in a scolding tone of voice that she was disappointed that her son was taking the easy way out. I argued with her, no—there’s nothing easy about what he’s doing. He’s taking a sledgehammer to this comfortable life he’s built. Knocking holes in the walls of his house–his marriage–destroying the certainty of a comfortable future. That’s not the easy way out. There really is no easy way out.
Further Instructions on Living a Blessed Life:
Fuck up. People who never fuck up are assholes. And liars. If you have to “go off in search of yourself,” when you find whoever that is, kick their ass up and down the street. Burn anything to the ground that you’ve managed to build on top of a lie and make sure that bruised and bloody dick of an “authentic self” you’ve found builds something spectacular in the ashes. And if you possibly can, have a far more talented younger brother. That’ll help.