On why it took several years to get this site launched, and why having an online creative hub is of particular importance to me. Thanks for being here.
Santa Cruz County might sound exotic and bohemian to people who think the drags down Pacific Avenue and Ocean Street to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk are the whole thing. But I wasn’t born in that Santa Cruz County. I wasn’t born to surfers, slam poets, musicians, sidewalk artists, or writers. I was born in Watsonville.
Fifteen miles and a world away, Watsonville is a city carved right out of the apple orchards and strawberry fields on which much of its economy is still based. Driscoll’s strawberries come from Watsonville. So do Martinelli’s apple juice and sparkling cider. There was a whole Steinbeck novel set in Watsonville.
Even that Steinbeck tidbit – see, I really shouldn’t know that. Steinbeck characters do not read about other Steinbeck characters for fun.
I was born into a family of men for whom hard labor was work and play: construction for money, dirt bikes for fun. When Dad broke off from the family cabinet shop, it wasn’t to launch a consulting firm: It was to go into business for himself as a mobile auto glass repair/replacement guy. This meant he drove old motorcycles and vans to auto dealerships around the county in search of cracked windshields and people responsible for having them fixed. Money was tight enough that he never kept more gas in his tank than absolutely necessary, always calculating exactly how much he’d need to get where he was going and return home on fumes. If a road closure forced a one-block detour, he’d come up one block short on the way back. He kept an empty gas can and some old running shoes in the back of the van for just such occasions.
Both of my older brothers were good students who grew impatient with book learning, tested out of high school early, and went to work for themselves as soon as they could. By age 16, the eldest was a successful independent business owner (auto glass) representing the United States alongside Dad in an international dirt bike race in Australia.
Forget about college. Just staying for all four years of high school would put me behind in all the measures that seemed most valued by this segment of the family.
In fact, I’d already felt behind for as long as I could remember. Partially, this was just the nature of being a youngest brother: I’d watch the bigger kids reaching milestones that were still years off for me and wonder why I wasn’t right there with them. It was more than that, though. Many of their milestones weren’t things I thought I’d ever like to do. Joining little league teams. Giving readings in church. Launching bicycles off jumps. Grinding skateboards along curbs. Hosting teen dance parties in the garage. Getting out of high school early to work. If these were the things that mattered, I’d never catch up.
I was a different kind of kid. Reserved, unathletic, dry-witted. Awash in the world of ideas, uncomfortable in the world of realities.
For me, the best possible day would have involved spending an unlimited amount of time selecting the maximum number of books from the library, then carting them home and poring over them on my bedroom floor. I walked to shopping centers to browse office supply stores for fun. Given a choice between watching a movie and making something up, I’d make something up. I could keep myself thoroughly entertained for hours without leaving the house or turning on a TV. When I saw the hyperactive distractibility of other kids my age, this seemed a kind of superpower.
I found an important outlet in school, which seemed precisely geared to my strengths. “Please remain quietly seated and on task.” “Read the chapter to learn about the topic, then complete the assignment to show how well you have understood.” “Use these cool office supplies.” Here my ways of being and thinking seemed desirable, even exemplary. Here the requests made of me were things I’d like to do anyway: Not “come hang out in the pit area at a motorcycle race” but “write a story about a time things did not turn out as you expected.” School gave me something I had trouble finding anywhere else. It was where I felt best understood. In the mornings, I’d run in.
At home, things were more complicated. Of everyone in my immediate family, Mom was the most like me. She had been a quiet kid, a bookworm with my same affection for schoolwork and office supplies and ideas. Careful not to squash whatever personalities cropped up naturally in her offspring, she grasped mine perhaps most intuitively of all. She didn’t force me into activities. She took me to libraries and teacher supply stores. She subscribed me to the Boxcar Children Book Club and didn’t complain when I’d blow through all the month’s selections within the first day.
But she was also a working single mother, and I was an especially sensitive, observant kid. As kind and supportive as she always was in her manner, the tensions of our often-difficult reality bled through. I felt bills going unpaid and change being scraped together for groceries. I felt the resignation of sinking deeper into credit card debt just to pay for school clothes, and the unwelcome surprise of every other expense that popped up.
Regardless of how much Mom might protest this assessment, it struck me that the bare facts of our living situation seemed to call for a child very different than the one I was. Maybe a well-off family could afford to shelter one or two kids like me – quiet, imaginative, slow to meet a gaze, afraid of the world – and not give those idiosyncrasies a second thought. For a boy of my station, they seemed like damning faults.
Confident, conventional, industrious children who’d get on in the world quickly: That was what the situation called for. That was what would minimize Mom’s distress. That was what I wasn’t. Even in my most supportive human relationship, I lived with a lingering suspicion that I was the exact thing that was needed least.
Other relationships were less supportive. When I accompanied Dad on an auto glass job, I’d be introduced as a curiosity: the dirt biker’s little professor of a son. Whereas following in Dad’s footsteps would have been great without explanation, my own peculiar gifts had to be explained and contextualized in a way that would serve him: I was so smart that I’d become a lawyer and defend him. I was so smart that I’d become a doctor and sew him back up at races. Oh, not interested in law or medicine at all? Then I would become an author and ghostwrite his best-selling memoir. Whatever I might want to do in life, its value was to be measured in how useful it would be to him personally.
Meanwhile, I struggled to keep my own shaky self-concept afloat. I lived from report card to report card, pouring everything I had into schoolwork in between. I resisted all suggestions that I ease up and be okay with good-enough performances. In home life, I could be made to feel self-conscious about losing myself in mental pursuits: It was weird or just less preferable than getting a paper route and bringing in some money. School hours were my chance to unfetter my natural curiosity and be positively recognized for it, no strings or guilty feelings attached. In the presence of teachers, I never felt judged – or like I had to judge myself – for not riding motorcycles or not bringing enough money into the family. Where the expectations of me matched what I actually felt capable of doing, I invested myself completely. School was life. Life was school.
One effect of proceeding through my formative years with this way of relating to learning and to myself is that I haven’t always – okay, have seldom – felt entitled to make time for creativity/imagination in less structured environments with less clear expectations and rewards. Without a carrot dangling in front of me, I don’t create. Without a clear, verbalizable justification for what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, where it might lead, and why the whole endeavor is worthwhile, I don’t create.
For a long time, “school” had been its own socially-sanctioned justification. In post-school life, I’ve struggled to come up with another reason. But why do I feel the need to justify time spent thinking and creating at all? Who do I rehearse all these justifications for? My father, who might have preferred a boy more like him? My long-suffering mother, who could still use a more industrious son and is still too nice to say so? If I was actually put here to express and create – if that is one of my reasons for being – isn’t that its own justification? No further explanation or beating myself up should be necessary.
But absolution from self-regenerating guilt doesn’t come easily. So I sit down to write and think of that unbridgeable gap between me and Dad, so foreign to each other, and I feel sad. I think of my oldest brother, who went from teenage phenom to successful contractor and two-time home-owning family man by age 30, and I wonder why some of his confidence and real-world gumption couldn’t have rubbed off on me. I think of Mom, scraping up change for groceries while I fantasized about living in a boxcar with Henry and Jessie and the gang, and I feel guilty. I think of every kid like me brought up in a less complicated home environment and I feel envious.
And then, if I still think enough of myself, I write.