I ate 27 prunes one day at lunch when I was in third grade. That’s three prunes for every year of my young life. On this particular day, in 1977, I suddenly became the most popular kid in the lunchroom, when a bunch of kids gave me the prunes from their lunches. I ate alone, and didn’t really have any friends, but somehow everyone decided to give me their prunes, which I remember thinking was swell of them. We each had been given 2 or 3 in a little white Styrofoam cup as a side for our lunch that day, in place of dessert. It began with one kid, and then everyone excitedly jumped on the bandwagon as I watched the prunes pile up. They were all laughing when they did it, but I just thought they were really excited to dump some unwanted fruit. I had never gotten so much positive attention. My cup ranneth over. What had I done to deserve such kindness?
Around 2:30 pm I found out. I ran to the boys’ restroom as fast as my stubby legs could carry me, and as I sat in the blue metal stall feeling the effects of the high sorbitol content that makes prunes a great diuretic, I realized I had been tricked. They were laughing at me. I read recently that the EU has declared that prunes do not have a laxative value. My third grade self echoes a contrary opinion from Hitchcock Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska.
To be fair, I didn’t help those kids in the third grade much. I may have actually assisted them; while all the other boys were over the moon about Star Wars, I was asking to stay up late to watch all of “Funny Girl.” I wanted to play Autoharp, and I thought the best song choice to sing for my music class was “A Taste of Honey” from the first Barbra Streisand album, a song about a poor, unwed pregnant girl in the north of Britain. I was a know-it-all, too. My hand shot up for every answer. My nicknames were Carrot Top and Encyclopedia Brown. Did I mention the red hair?
I went to seven schools in seven years in Millard, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha. That is to say, I was always the new kid. The new kid with no sporting ability, asthma, and two interests: reading and Barbra Streisand. During my parents’ divorce and subsequent year alone with my unhappy, angry father who was confined to a wheelchair, I developed a strange habit of squeaking. I would make very soft vocal squeaks to myself, until I reached a certain tone at the height of my range, the attainment of which would allow me a moment’s relief before I was compelled to find the pitch again. A red haired, asthmatic, squeaking know-it-all. I was a rarified taste.
Still, I remember the boy in my neighborhood who told me, “You can be my friend as long as you don’t tell anyone at school,” before I remember the brother and sister down the street with whom I played endless Monopoly games. It’s not like I was Quasimodo, and even he wasn’t entirely friendless. He had Esmeralda, and probably a priest or two.
Sadly, there’s no psychic laxative to help let go of incidents like this. The little Styrofoam cup of my brain is full of cups of prunes, whispered laughter, back-handed compliments. How do you grow up and not hold on to awful words and events that happen along the way? How do you keep going, when what echoes is not a cheer but a raspberry?
I have honed an ability to hold on to when someone is making fun of me, insulting me, or generally doing me wrong — from the guy who had sex with someone else in a bar bathroom when we were on a date, to the classmates filmed me picking my nose during a critique in acting school. Of course, what also developed was an aching need to please people, while never believing anyone would be pleased. To put a twist on Marx (Groucho), “I wouldn’t believe any club would have me as a member.” To put a twist on Marx (Karl), “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as, okay, still a tragedy.”
I’ve always thought it ironic that we tell stories about the outsider, the quirky individualist who becomes the hero, even celebrated iconoclast. In my experience, difference is looked on suspiciously, and frequently our hero is left with a distorted sense of self, suspicion of others, intimacy issues, and healthy sense of distrust.
That distrust comes with a paradoxical need to look for validation, which of course is never to be trusted. Besides being exhausting, the need for validation also inadvertently leads to relationships with the exact type of person one is trying to avoid. I dated a super worked out, hyper intellectual guy in New York who loved Clement Greenberg and broke up with me with this chestnut: “I’m not sure I’m ready to signify to everyone that I’m your boyfriend.” He also belonged to a sex club overseen by a triumvirate that auditioned potential members, who had to strip and be judged by their body and “talent.” If you know that going in, you’ve really got no one to blame but yourself. I had spent the entire relationship sucking in my stomach.
Naturally, with a crappy sense of self, need to please others, and a deep desire to be anyone but myself, I became an actor. If you’re heavily self-conscious, it’s surprising how being on stage can free you. From the age of thirteen, it was my favorite place to disappear. You can be a completely different person in plain sight. No applause or compliments for me, just the sweet feeling of time dissolving and disappearance. It’s a concentration and focus similar to sports. In order to get to the actual job you have to audition, which is a combination of a job interview and blind date, only daily. If you’re prone to self-abasement, acting is the best place to practice. I’m convinced a large percentage of actors audition only to have the chance to call themselves awful names and fail in front of another person, and then apologize. So, it’s just like sports, minus the team spirit, acclaim, cash and cardio.
Now, with the Internet, the possibilities of the validation/rejection cycle are never-ending. We can put ourselves on to a stage or an unfriendly schoolyard daily. It’s perhaps watching that spectacle that’s made me realize how ridiculous it all is. The daily exercise of placing my self-esteem in the hands of any yahoo on the street was solved by reading comments on Yahoo. These people, I thought? This is ridiculous. The idiocy of many internet comments illustrated what I was doing on a daily basis, what I’d been trained to do. It is literally a fool’s errand: a useless trip with out a destination to keep a stupid person busy. People may have been mean, but I was the fool — training myself to take their passing opinions as more important than that of those close to me or my own. I carried those assessments on my back, and never arrived anywhere. It finally occurred to me to put down the bag and walk away.
In sixth grade, I was in a Halloween musical. I was now a supporting lead, eclipsing my previous acting experience playing a cardigan wearing lawyer for a rotting tooth in a third grade play. I was Frankenstein and sang a solo about believing in yourself, a mash-up of “Believe in Yourself” and “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” if I remember correctly. Backstage, I sat down by accident in a school trashcan. With my knees collapsed to my green pancake covered face, I couldn’t get out. I flagged down a girl dressed as a witch, who started laughing, as I did, too, which only made it harder to escape. We were both trying to stifle our giggles and get me out. I got out and sang. Nervously, not perfectly, but with all the green-faced, neck-bolted bravado I could muster.
In the movie version, I would feel a great sense of camaraderie in the theater and from that day forward everything would be wonderful. In truth, no one cared. My parents were in the midst of a divorce, so a bad time. No one at school on Monday seemed to care about my triumph. I did, though. It was an inkling that I should value my own experience, though it took me years to put that into practice. That day, I laughed at myself, climbed out of the garbage, went on stage, and sang my song.