the book

When I was a child, my happiness depended on how other people felt about me. I wanted everybody to like me, and if they didn't, I got very upset. My parents and teachers said that I shouldn't be so concerned about what other people thought. I shouldn't live my life trying to please others. Besides, there would always be someone out there who wouldn't appreciate me no matter what. That was their problem, not mine. I should put it out of my mind and just be the best person that I could. I pretended to agree, but secretly, I was still happiest when people liked me. So I courted them. I did things to win their approval. If I couldn't bring them around, I was devastated.
     This was my mind set until I got to college and started meeting lots of people who claimed not to give a damn what anybody thought about them. They didn't care because happiness came from within, from being comfortable with the way you were. True happiness didn't come from outside yourself--in fact, depending on what was outside yourself to make you happy was one of the big traps you could fall into. It could ruin your life. My parents had told me the same thing, but my college professors and peers added a startling axiom: To be genuinely happy, I had to love myself. I had to be my own best friend.
     I spent the next fifteen years trying to love myself and be my own best friend. I tried to convince myself that the only way to achieve true happiness was to become absolutely self-sufficient, a sublime ecosystem like those sealed globes that only have water, a brine shrimp, and a piece of kelp. I wouldn't--and shouldn't--need anybody or anything else, and if an entity outside myself did offer some positive form of interaction such as friendship, it would just be a bonus on top of the already complete fulfillment that I provided for me.
     The problem was that I never for a second understood what it meant to love myself. When I love people, I write them letters and send them drawings and presents. I call them up or invite them out. Love is the pleasure I derive from a person's company, and the more pleasure I derive, the more I love him or her. The people I love the most are the ones with whom I want to spend the most time. I've never really enjoyed spending time with myself; I'll do it, but only when I'm writing. I prefer sharing my free time with someone because I'm locked into me twenty-four hours a day, and it can get dull. Other people are refreshingly unpredictable. They surprise me, and I like that. It took me a long time to admit that I'm just not as interested in myself as I am in other people, which is one reason why I could never look in the mirror and say, "I love you!" without feeling dishonest.
     When I turned thirty, I embarked on a self-help kick, reading almost everything by the Swiss psychiatrist Alice Miller. This led to therapy and approximately twelve thousand hours of conversation with my brother Tim about the nature of happiness. All three pursuits were very worthwhile, even if they didn't make me particularly happy. I then decided that publishing a book--any book--might be the answer. I started writing novels and collections of essays, none of which I was able to sell. After a few years of freelance music journalism, I put together In Cold Sweat and racked up fifty-six rejection slips from literary agents and publishers. And those were just the ones who responded.
     In January of 1996, I developed a strangely specific urge to visit Saint Louis, Missouri. Out of nowhere, I thought, "I should go to Saint Louis and stand under the Gateway Arch." I didn't do anything about it for the next five years because it seemed pretty irresponsible to drive or fly off to Saint Louis when I didn't even have a steady job. The desire was always there, though. It didn't torment me or anything; it was more like a whim than an itch. But it never went away. With time, it got more focused in that I started to imagine that something of value was waiting for me under the Arch.
     In April of 1999, I drove to San Francisco to spend a week with a friend I've had since I was sixteen. I was at a very low ebb, but she told me that she would be glad to see me anyway. The morning I set out, she was hit by a major crisis. When I showed up, she was in damage control mode and couldn't spare me more than a distracted hour here and there. Since I was unwilling to go home and sit down at my evil, mocking computer again, I wandered around San Francisco for three days, checking out all my former hangouts. On the fourth day, I was going to see where my ex-girlfriend lived with her doctor husband. Unaware of my plans, my friend's house mate asked if I wanted company for the morning. I'll call her Waltraud because I don't want to embarrass her.
     I really didn't want company, but I didn't know how to refuse without insulting her. She seemed like a nice person, a granola-ish woman of about twenty-seven. The night I'd arrived, she had knocked on my door and invited me to sit in the kitchen with her and her boyfriend. I was feeling less sociable than usual because my friend hadn't been home to greet me, but it was easier to just accept. I actually had a really nice time. Waltraud and I talked about music, art, and Europe in an easy, unforced way, like we were already old pals. She even fed me polenta with broccoli, Roma tomatoes, and vegan pepperoni when she found out that I hadn't had dinner. Everything about her was warm, open, and low-key, and she had turned an awkward situation into a relaxing evening. So I said sure, I would be glad to have her along. We went to the beach instead of my ex-girlfriend's house.
     I spent the next week with Waltraud. We rented videos; we saw a frog exhibit at the Exploratorium; we went to coffee shops; we took walks; we ate burritos; we had a brief game of King of the Mountain on an old stump; we sat and talked; and we painted with her acrylics and brushes in the kitchen. I was very self-conscious at first, but not just because I hadn't painted anything in years. Waltraud wasn't twenty-seven, she was eighteen, and the guy in the kitchen that night wasn't her boyfriend. The situation was entirely different from what I thought it had been. She was basically on vacation and would only be in San Francisco for another month.
     On top of everything else, she was a dancer. The darkest periods of my life--the episodes of absolute, catastrophic, soul-killing heartbreak--have all involved dancers. Yet Waltraud didn't project the slinky, withholding vibe that still bewitches me even though I've learned that I should run from it as fast as I can. When I asked why her toes didn't turn out, she said, "Women only walk that way so people will know they're dancers." She also complained about a man who had called her legs "nice sausages." Since she was offended, I didn't laugh, but the way she said it was hilarious. She was a deeply serious person who was also quick-witted, bawdy, and irreverent, as funny as a stand-up comic. I wanted to tell her that she was a rare gem. Instead, I painted her a column of red figures ascending through a cloud of gold. I later gave her a biography of Audrey Hepburn and a tiny succulent too. My gifting got out of control, as it often does.
     I extended my stay by three days at Waltraud's request. When I left, she promised to write, and she made me promise to someday visit her at her New England home. I agreed, though I thought that she was just being polite. She had driven across the country by herself, seemed to have at least three thousand close friends, and was starting college in the fall. The world was very much her oyster. So I was pleasantly surprised by the stream of letters and postcards she sent marking her progress back toward the east coast. I made her a birthday card with a painting of a bridge I walked across every morning on my way to work in Norway, the last time I was truly happy for more than ten minutes at a stretch. I was nineteen, the same age that she was now. She phoned and thanked me.
     Over the next year and a half, we wrote or e-mailed about once a week. We sent each other art projects, had a couple of misunderstandings, smoothed things over, and exchanged a lot of theories about what brings happiness. We agreed on a lot, and we disagreed on a lot. I don't believe in generation gaps--we don't live long enough for that--but there are definitely culture gaps. Sometimes, Waltraud and I found each other's values incomprehensible. We were always honest, though, and I revealed more to her than I ever had to anyone except my brother Tim, my therapist, and the friend at whose house Waltraud and I had met.
     In January of 2000, Mel Zerman at Limelight Editions sent me an e-mail expressing a glimmer of interest in my book In Cold Sweat. In August, I signed the contract and decided that it was time to visit Waltraud. I'd always wanted to drive across the country, ever since I'd heard of Jack Kerouac, and getting a book published was my justification. I was going to be an author, like Kerouac. Even if the book tanked, even if it was instantly remaindered, it would still be in the Library of Congress catalog. Unreal.
     An endless series of disasters, obligations, and reversals kept me from going on my trip until November. When it looked as if I would have the next six months free, I bought maps and warm clothes, made two dozen road tapes, accepted a parka and emergency supplies from my father, and packed up my computer, which although no longer evil and mocking still wasn't a friend. I wish I loved writing. I wish beauty and wisdom flowed out of me like... like... like water flows out of a big... pipe.
     But being on the road was fantastic. After almost seven years of nonstop writing, I felt as if I'd been let out of prison. I was drunk with freedom and a sense of recklessness brought on in part by all the people who had told me that I was crazy to go. I was crazy to drive across the country; I was crazy to go alone; I was crazy to drive at that time of year; and I was crazy to be visiting a woman--a girl!--twenty years younger than me. I was plumb insay-yay-yane to think that I could have a lasting, meaningful friendship with her.
     I chose a relatively southern first leg--Interstate 40 through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, switching to the 44 in Oklahoma City. From there, I would angle up to Saint Louis, get on the 70, and cross Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. I would stay on the 70 into Pennsylvania, where it intersected the 79; the 79 would take me north to the 80, and then I would head east into New York, get on the 87, and finish up in New England. Following my friends' and family's advice, I planned on taking ten days, but once I was on the road, I got anxious to see my pal again. I lost interest in the journey and concentrated on the destination: Waltraud, my dancing painting guitar-strumming quasi-socialist rock-climbing camera-shy often-indignant vegetarian bud! New England too! What in the world would it be like? I'd never been to the east coast, except for Florida and JFK International Airport in New York.
     I wasn't prepared for how different everything was beyond the California border. I spent my third night in Rolla, Missouri, where the motels had "AMERICAN OWNED" on the marquees, and there was a small tentlike placard on top of the TV in my room that said, "We hope you enjoy your stay. Jesus loves you." The next day, I started seeing maroon smears on the freeway, as if huge vats of paint had fallen off the beds of speeding trucks. Some of these marks were a hundred feet long and emerged from massive reddish chrysanthemum-shaped blots that spread across two lanes. I was mystified until I saw a smear that ended in a furry white rump and tail. That was all; nothing else; only two white buttocks and a tail aimed at the sky. Now I knew what was happening: Deer were being hit by eighteen wheelers and exploding. They were disintegrating. Since the only lights on the freeways after dark were on the fronts of vehicles, I assume that the animals just stood there mesmerized. Or maybe the growing brightness was something wonderful to them, and they jumped out to meet it in a kind of ecstasy.
     I drove through Saint Louis on the morning of November 17, ignoring the impulse to stop and stand under the Gateway Arch. That whole idea seemed silly now, just another of my wishful, flighty, flippety-doo delusions, and anyway, I was having a horrendous attack of culture shock. I do not belong in the Midwest, despite having a genetic predisposition on both sides of my family. On second thought, maybe that's why I felt so uncomfortable. Maybe I actually do belong there. I estimated that I could make it to Columbus, Ohio, by ten or eleven that night, but as I crossed the Poplar Street Bridge into Illinois, I took a last look at the Arch and felt a stab of something very close to anguish, as if I were losing a good friend. It really would have been stupid to get so close and then leave without trying to find out why I'd been drawn to it for five years. I exited into an industrial park, turned around, and headed back over the bridge into Saint Louis.
     I left my car in an adjacent parking structure and set off with my camera into Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. It was extremely cold, the air crisp and clean and tangy like cider. I was in a different world entirely, surrounded by red brick buildings with ads painted on the sides and flocks of blond, blue-eyed children herded along by blond, blue-eyed teachers.

     The Arch is the most bizarre human-made object I've ever encountered. It's almost biomechanical, like an H. R. Giger image. And it's jazz; it's a gorgeous, shining trumpet solo. Don't ask me what that means--I'm just relating my impressions. I took some pictures, hoping that they would show how the rays of sunlight made it look like it was on fire. The visitors were all touching it, but I didn't want to because it didn't seem appropriate. I was about to go inside when I was hit by the knowledge that after almost a decade of work, I'd managed to junk most of what I'd hated about myself. I'd thrown off most of the premises that had ruled my life and was finally making decisions based on my own free will instead of my programming.
     This assessment was followed by self-acceptance. Just like that. For the first time ever, I accepted myself. I accepted the good, the bad, and the ridiculous, all as parts of the same odd but not revolting creature. A huge wad of anxiety and self-loathing simply evaporated, poof. It made me laugh. I stood there under the Arch, chortling because I was the happiest I'd been since I walked the bridges on my way to work in Norway. That acceptance has stayed with me. I still don't love myself; I still have no idea what that means, and I still have enough fear and self-doubt left to give me heart palpitations, bruxism, and acid reflux disease, but the edge has been taken off. Reality has set in. That paralyzing voice in my ear--what my brother Tim calls the little German grandmother on my shoulder--has shut up. She used to whisper, "You are a loser, boy. You vill alvays be a loser. Effrysing you do vill fail becuss you are a chust a worssless loooooozah." I haven't heard a peep out of her since November 17, 2000.
     The rest of my trip went by in a flash--Saint Louis to Columbus, and then Columbus to Waltraud's home state in New England. I drove the final nine-hundred-mile leg in sixteen hours. It sounds suicidal, but it really wasn't. I was wide awake, electrified, housecleaning like crazy. For sixteen hours, I rejected almost my entire outlook on life, element by element, until I was essentially a brand new person. When I entered Waltraud's state, I rolled my window down because I wanted to smell and taste everything about that moment.
     I checked into a motel down the road from Waltraud's house and left a message on her machine the next afternoon. I was too antsy to wait around for her to call, though, so I got in my car and drove toward her college. I knew she worked in an organic food store, but I didn't know which one or where it was. I felt very strange; I was still flying on that post-Arch high, and I'd crossed the country so fast that I hadn't been able to acclimate myself to the changes. If Missouri had been a different world, New England was a different dimension, a dimension of trees, fields, and hills, with tiny winding roads and tiny buildings. And churches. There were steepled churches everywhere, those austere, chilly, Puritan, Yankee houses of worship that look like square white rocket ships. I kept expecting them to spew out mobs with torches.
     On the way to the college, I saw a big supermarket with a rather politically correct name. I pulled into the parking lot and drove past the front window, and there was Waltraud wrapping flowers at a counter. I parked and went into the store, wondering what to do. My Arch-courage faltered for some reason. I suddenly felt like I was on a fool's errand, a clown's errand, something that would crash and burn and leave me a shambles like so many of my enterprises have. I guess I'd internalized all the anti-support I'd gotten before I took my trip. Then I decided that what would be would be. I went through one of the checkout stands and came up beside Waltraud. She was blank-faced in her apron, her new nose stud glittering under the fluorescents.
     "Excuse me, Miss," I whined.
     She turned with the terrifying patience that people in the service industry sometimes develop. I wonder what she would have said if she hadn't recognized me. But she did recognize me, even though I'd lost thirty pounds since she had last seen me a year and a half ago in San Francisco. Her mouth dropped open and she fell back against the counter, gasping, "Oh. My. God." That was nice, but then she charged me like a bull, grabbed me around the neck, and administered a bone-crushing hug. That was very cool indeed, but then she pulled back for a second, and her eyes were filling with tears, and she hugged me again, even harder, like she wanted to fuse me to her, and she said, "I'm so glad you're here! Oh my God! I'm so glad you're here!" That was when I had the second epiphany of my trip.
     I studied Japanese Shotokan karate in high school because I wanted to learn how to beat people up. Luckily, I had a good sensei, who taught me that there was a lot more to martial arts than punches and kicks, and only cretins studied karate to learn how to beat people up. Sensei could be very straightforward, but he also spoke in allegories. The one about belts particularly confused me. Karate students start with the rank of white belt and progress up through various colors until they are awarded a first degree black belt. There are several degrees of black belt too, the exact number of which depends on the individual dojo, or school. According to Sensei, very high-ranking black-belt karateka keep their belts for so long that they eventually fade to white.
     "See? They come full circle," he said. "They go back to the beginning."
     "Ah, yes," I said. It was gobbledygook, like something from a fortune cookie. I didn't understand it at all. Were black belts supposed to forget everything they had learned? It didn't make sense.
     Well, I think I know what it means now because I find that I'm back where I was when I was a child. For me, the ultimate level of happiness comes from how people feel about me. I have never been as overjoyed as I was when my vertebrae were being crushed by an outdoorsy dancer in an organic supermarket in New England. My emotional state under the Arch doesn't even begin to compare. I was sure that what I experienced in Saint Louis was an end in itself, but it was just a means to an end. By making peace with who I am, I was only completing another leg of my journey. I hadn't arrived yet.
     Maybe the point of Sensei's story is that black belts dispense with the unnecessary and return to simple truths. Their progression up through the ranks of colored belts is vital to this process, as my decade-long trek to the Gateway Arch was vital to preparing me for the simple truth that I (re)discovered in New England. Maybe the story also means that knowledge and experience give you the power to choose instead of being forced into default positions by your limitations.
     I still hear that I have to validate myself. I'm still told that the only person who will ever really know me is me, and no one's opinion of me--even a favorable opinion--is accurate because we all see each other through the distorting prism of the self. I'm still told that if I depend on other people for my happiness, I'll be giving them an unreasonable amount of power over me. They'll be able to play me like a harmonica.
     I thank you for the warnings, my friends, and I invite you to close your cakeholes and stop with the generalizations. Worry about yourselves. I'm talking about what brings me happiness, not you. Besides, I never fully believed it when people told me that they didn't care what anyone thought about them. Even when I was making the same announcement, I noticed that none of us ever sought out the company of people who hated us. No, we were all just afraid to admit that we liked being liked and disliked being disliked. We had to be strong and independent for some inane reason. I've known only a handful of people who genuinely don't care about anybody else's opinion--they're called "sociopaths."
     The mistake I made as a child was in being a supplicant. I begged people to like me, and I did things that I hoped would make them like me. My parents and teachers were right--it didn't bring me happiness. I also saw liking and approval as awards bestowed upon me by my superiors. I didn't know that it could be an equal exchange because I didn't know that I had anything worthwhile to give in return. When I was a child, I craved validation from anyone and everyone; as a young adult, I went to the other extreme and pretended that nobody's validation mattered except my own. Those were mistakes too. My current position is that I first designate the few people whose validation matters, and then I allow them to validate me. This actually requires a lot more self-confidence than my previous approach because I have to be open and receptive. It was much easier to keep my door firmly shut. Safer too.
     It's complicated. It's a balancing act. It's very hard to explain. I don't depend on people to make me happy; I no longer do things in the hopes that they will like me; I don't seek their approval--but approval from people I value does bring me to a level of happiness that I wasn't able to achieve on my own. I can't deny it. And while I don't need that approval, I don't "need" beauty, art, and music either.
     When my Gene Simmons article was published in the July '96 issue of Bass Player, a brilliant music journalist named Matt Resnicoff wrote a letter to the magazine saying that my interview was "likely the best Simmons piece ever." I can't think of a single reason why I shouldn't appreciate a compliment from somebody I admire and respect. I can't think of a single reason why it shouldn't validate me on some level. I didn't write the article to get approval from Mr. Resnicoff, but that approval sure cheered me up.
     As for unfavorable opinions of me, they do have an affect because it's always unpleasant to find out that somebody thinks you're stupid, ugly, boring, or pathetic. Here's the worst letter to the editor I've read about me so far, reprinted by permission of Bass Player:

     Bravo! Scott Thunes has my gratitude for giving a great interview. Not since Bill Laswell or Anthony Jackson has an interviewee shown the proper disdain for the effusive and sycophantic ways of writers like Thomas Wictor. I sincerely hope this magazine can bring us more such material--either by interviewing more musically conscious people like Thunes, or by sending writers like Wictor back to Tiger Beat, where their slack-jawed efforts are more at home. Bass Player could do with fewer interviewers who are primarily seeking validation for their mindless worship of their interviewees. On his way out the door, perhaps Wictor can take his annoying list of '80s-albums-now-mostly-unavailable (known as Unsung Bass Stylists) with him.

Michael Wyzard            
Lomita, CA            

     I don't mind admitting that this letter upset me. I would be lying if I said that I didn't care, especially since it zeroed in on some of my greatest personal and professional weaknesses. But I also didn't give up writing for the magazine. After that initial rush of horror, I tailored my emotional response, which is very different from saying, "Oh, it didn't bother me at all." It did get to me, no question--I just didn't let it destroy me. Likewise, even if my ultimate happiness comes from other people, it doesn't mean that I'll be granting them control over me. If they turn out to be jerks, creeps, or weirdos, I can fire them and "move on," to use the most dismal phrase ever coined. I can "get over it." Or I can give them another chance if I think they are worth the risk. Either way, I'm still in charge of what happens to me. I'm still responsible.
     Finally, I'm speaking from my own individual, personal, hard-won experience here. I've done most of what I thought would bring me happiness: I've achieved a level of clarity that I never dreamed was possible; I've accepted that this being called Thomas Wictor isn't a complete waste of space; I've started to write the way I always wanted; and I've published a book. These are all triumphs, yes.
     They just aren't in the same league as spine-snapping hugs.
     Heart disease is the number one killer in the country, but nobody talks about the other deadly American affliction--oblivious self-absorption, the major symptom of which is ignoring the consequences of your actions. Look how people drive. Look how they let their dogs bark all day and all night. Look how they treat their so-called friends. Look how they raise their children. It's not to be believed. Well, I'm an American too. As much as I appreciate what I eventually got from turning inward all those years, I went about it for the wrong reasons. I overdid it, and I need to apologize to everybody I hurt, disrespected, and took for granted. I have no excuses. I'm sorry.
     So thanks for the hugs, Waltraud. Thanks for showing me the way back. It's a relief to know once and for all what's important. Here's a slightly--and unintentionally--symbolic rendering of you in your element. I hope I didn't embarrass you too much.

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