The Road Unpaved

My journey is in no way remarkable. I grew up in a middle class family, in a medium size home in a mid level town. I’m a white male, raised in a predominantly caucasian area and born into a conservative household. I never found myself in a position where I needed to acquire a foreign tongue to survive, nor was I ever hindered by any speech impediment that required due diligence to overcome. I had to make a conscious choice to pursue different worlds, always aware of the inherent danger of becoming just another carbon copy who walked the line in a small town. My story is one of deciding not to be confined or defined by the structure I was presented with, instead chasing after an infinite expanse that only linguistic renegades could show me. Mine is a story of discovery.

My parents are both the youngest of their families, which resulted in all of my cousins being much older, distant and un-relatable to me. At the same time, I am the oldest child in my family, giving me no older siblings to inform me on the ways of the world, or to equip me with the tools to navigate it. All of this to say, I occupied a very specific and isolated position in life: perpetually too old and too young.
It’s 1992. I’m twelve or thirteen, sitting on the bus, the school day at it’s end. The scene is as it always was: the familiar green, dried and cracked vinyl seats with aluminum backs that were riddled with names and sketches of dicks; the all consuming grey outside, where the dusty granite road melts into the walls of portable classrooms and then into an overcast sky. It was every day in a long line of every-days. But this one shifted. A friend behind me taps my shoulder, his face crazed with a wild excitement. He pulls off his headphones and hands them to me. “Dude, you gotta hear this.”
I take his headphones and put them on. He presses play on the walkman and a wild funk rock song starts up. It’s a song called “Sir Psycho Sexy,” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was the most profane thing I had ever heard. A sample (skip ahead if you’re easily offended):

Deep inside the garden of Eden
Standing there with my hard on bleedin’
Theres a devil in my dick and some demons in my semen
Good God no that would be treason!
Believe me Eve she gave good reason!
Booty looking too good not to be squeezin’
Creamy beaver hotter than a fever
I’m a givin’ ‘cause she’s the reciever
I won’t and I don’t hang up until I please her
Makin’ her feel like an over achiever
I take it away for a minute just to tease her
Then I give it back a little bit deeper

It was revelatory. It was as though I heard sound or speech for the first time, that I had lived life to that point just reading lips in a completely void and silent world. I had never heard nor imagined that people spoke this way (this was before the internet and when PG13 was still an actual rating). And while this enticed and excited me, it’s not as though it inspired me to walk around my junior high, spouting off the explicit poetry of sex that I had just learned and become the deviant other mothers won’t let their children hang out with. If anything, I should’ve been ridiculously offended. I was a young boy who had lived his entire life in a conservative Christian home and this song just used biblical imagery to illustrate a gratuitous sexual escapade. But it wasn’t the specific language or content of that song that struck me, it was the absolute freedom within which it existed. No word or topic was off limits, anything was accessible by merely thinking it and then giving it a voice. There was so much power in this idea, that language can exist somewhere uninvited, un-fettered by social constraint or status quo. It was as though the foundation of my world had been compromised. I felt as I would imagine Galileo felt when he discovered that we were not the center of the Universe, but merely one piece of a giant chaotic puzzle with infinite boundaries.

One weekend during my junior high years, very close to the episode on the bus with the infamous Sir Psycho Sexy, my mom let me stay with my youngest cousin who was in college at Chico State. I was terrified and ecstatic. I felt like it was my first adult moment. I went tubing on the river with her friends and stayed up late watching all the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ movies (she worked at Blockbuster and could get anything I wanted). It was a fun week for a boy of that age: no real parental supervision and existing by my own set of rules. Near the end of that week at a party with some of her friends, I was looking through a stack of cd’s (cd’s were very new at the time and somewhat of a novelty). The stack contained every album the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s had ever recorded. I marveled at the idea of what those discs may hold. The owner of said collection saw me admiring and we began a conversation about music that I don’t remember now, but was no doubt very intellectual (sarcasm). As I was packing up to leave my cousin’s a few days later, her friend dropped by with the entire Peppers CD collection copied for me onto cassette. This was a shift in reality for me, the start of a new chapter. I was becoming someone different and that new person was now equipped with tools to find definition in the world.

The Chili Peppers would be a gateway drug for so much in the following years. I discovered punk rock through them, from which I learned to question all authority, not for the sake of rebellion, but for the sake of preserving honesty and accountability. And in punk, I found a culture and self definition during those tumultuous teenage years. As I mentioned, this was before the internet and the wealth of information that is always readily available to everyone now. To find something new meant going out with intent. When you entered into a culture, as I did with punk, you would immerse yourself in everything it had to offer. Some things would stick, others would not. It was like trying on different appendages to find what form best suited you. Language became a valuable tool in this world. Since I was “different,” dressed unique and carried myself unlike the majority at that time, I became a target for others. And since I was scrawny and lacked any natural aggression, fighting back with my fists was never an option. Words became my shield. There were countless moments of guys trying to pick a fight with me that I was able to talk myself out of, or around. It was like what I imagine being a dancer is like, thinking two moves ahead but still concentrating enough to land the step you were currently performing. Language became survival.

Around the same time as I discovered all this music, I discovered film. Again, up to that point, I had been exposed to mostly what Disney and Steven Spielberg had to offer (not a complaint. ‘Radiers of the Lost Ark’ and ‘E.T.’ are still among my favorite films of all time). But I began to peruse the video store aisles and look for things that looked interesting to me. One such film, was ‘Dead Poets Society,’ a Peter Weir film that came out in 1989 that chronicled one school year at the prestigious and conservative Welton Academy in 1959. Robin William’s plays an English teacher named John Keating, who exposes the young men of his class to poetry and challenges them to think for themselves and discover the incredible power of words, both written and spoken. It was a film that came to me amidst my own similar journey of discovery. At the end of the film, Ethan Hawke stands on his desk, in direct defiance to his Headmaster, to honor Robin William’s character Mr. Keating, who had just been fired for his unorthodox teachings. In that uniformed classroom, I saw the freedom of punk rock in it’s most tangible and effective setting. “Oh Captain! My Captain!” Hawke called out from his desktop, the title of a Walt Whitman poem that had become the students form of addressing Mr. Keating. I wept (still do whenever I watch it). There was power in that simple language and the open rebellion that I found a kindred nature with. Again, it wasn’t rebelling just for the sake of it, but against the unjust constraints to personal, linguistic freedom that were placed upon them.

Because of this film, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” would be the first book of poetry I would purchase for myself (up to that point it had been Shel Silverstein books given to me at various birthdays and Christmases). That crazy, wild eyed, Gandalf bearded homosexual became an entry point for me into poetry and an exit point from the conservative confines of my understanding of language up until that point. I was forever changed, setting forth on a adventure that I would never be able to return from. My small world was blown open to reveal a Universe larger than my ability to conceive.

Whitman showed me the way in which normal, everyday words that I knew and used plainly, could be organized or rearranged to form beautiful sentences and ideas that could challenge your mind and heart simultaneously, touching you deep within your soul, at the root level where all emotion is birthed. It was as though I didn’t understand my own native tongue before this moment. From his poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (Medium is terrible for poetry. You can in no way reproduce or play with it’s original form. Click the title to read it correctly)

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child
leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower'd halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as
if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and
fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease…

It was through these various forms of poetry, music and film that my hunt began. My education came not from teachers or text books, but from the hands and mouths of my idols. Their honest and unrestricted art was unbiased in it’s delivery and became a series of rabbit holes for me. Once I discovered one artist, I would follow them down their individual hole, through all of their own inspirations and discoveries. During these pursuits I celebrated with Allen Ginsberg in his own love and admiration of Whitman in “A Supermarket in California,” and I discovered a misfit in “A Catcher in the Rye” whose uncomfortable existence, wild train of thought and simple language I found comfort in.

For me, language and literacy define the very fiber of who we are as humans. They make up, not necessarily the parameters of who we are, but the infinite possibilities of who we are able to become. More simply, language informs freedom; it does not equip constraint. I may have found this through dumb luck and avid curiosity, but isn’t that where all great things are found?