Remove the Suggestion Box
Ididn’t grow up in a family of artists.
I come from people who worked more regularly at life, you might say.
My maternal grandfather was a dairy farmer; my paternal grandfather was a furnace salesman. Both my grandmothers were housewives, and so were their mothers, their sisters, their aunts.
As for my parents, my father is an engineer and my mother is a nurse. And although they were the right age for it, my parents were never hippies—not in the least. They were far too conservative for such things. My dad spent the 1960s in college and the Navy; my mom spent those same years in nursing school, working night shifts at the hospital, and responsibly saving her money. After they were married, my dad got a job at a chemical company, and he worked there for thirty years. Mom worked part-time, became an active member of our local church, served on the school board, volunteered at the library, and visited the elderly and the housebound.
They were responsible people. Taxpayers. Solid. Voted for Reagan. (Twice!)
I learned how to be a rebel from them.
Because—just beyond the reach of their basic good citizenship—my parents did whatever the hell they wanted to do with their lives, and they did it with a rather fabulous sense of insouciance. My father decided that he didn’t merely want to be a chemical engineer; he also wanted to be a Christmas-tree farmer, and so in 1973 he went and did that. He moved us out to a farm, cleared some land, planted some seedlings, and commenced with his project. He didn’t quit his day job to follow his dream; he just folded his dream into his everyday life. He wanted to raise goats, too, so he acquired some goats. Brought them home in the backseat of our Ford Pinto. Had he ever raised goats? No, but he thought he could figure it out. It was the same thing when he became interested in beekeeping: He just got himself some bees and began. Thirty-five years later, he still has those hives.
When my father grew curious about things, he pursued them. He had solid faith in his own capabilities. And when my father needed something (which was rare, because he basically has the material needs of a hobo), he made it himself, or fixed it himself, or somehow cobbled it together himself—usually without referring to the instructions, and generally without asking the advice of an expert. My dad doesn’t hold much respect for instructions or for experts. He is no more impressed by people’s degrees than he is by other civilized niceties such as building permits and NO TRESPASSING signs. (For better or for worse, my dad taught me that the best place to pitch a tent will always be the spot marked NO CAMPING.)
My father really doesn’t like being told what to do. His sense of individualistic defiance is so strong, it’s often comical. Back in the Navy, he was once commanded by his captain to make a suggestion box to put in the canteen. Dad dutifully built the box, nailed it to the wall, then wrote the first suggestion and dropped it through the slot. His note read: I suggest that you remove the suggestion box.
In many ways he’s a weird egg, my dad, and his hyper-antiauthoritarian instincts can border at times on the pathological . . . but I always suspected that he was kind of cool, anyway, even back when I was an easily embarrassed child being driven around town in a Ford Pinto filled with goats. I knew that he was doing his own thing and following his own path, and I intuitively sensed that this made him, by definition, an interesting person. I didn’t have a term for it back then, but I can see now that he was practicing something called creative living.
I liked it.
I also took note of it for when it came time to imagine my own life. It’s not that I wanted to make any of the same choices my father had made (I am neither a farmer nor a Republican), but his example empowered me to forge my own way through the world however I liked. Also, just like my dad, I don’t like people telling me what to do. While I am not at all confrontational, I am deeply stubborn. This stubbornness helps when it comes to the business of creative living.
As for my mother, she’s a slightly more civilized version of my dad. Her hair is always neat, and her kitchen is tidy, and her friendly good Midwestern manners are impeccable, but don’t underestimate her, because her will is made of titanium and her talents are vast. She’s a woman who always believed that she could build, sew, grow, knit, mend, patch, paint, or decoupage anything her family ever needed. She cut our hair. She baked our bread. She grew, harvested, and preserved our vegetables. She made our clothes. She birthed our baby goats. She slaughtered the chickens, then served them up for dinner. She wallpapered our living room herself, and she refinished our piano (which she had bought for fifty bucks from a local church). She saved us trips to the doctor by patching us up on her own. She smiled sweetly at everyone and always acted like a total cooperator—but then she shaped her own world exactly to her liking while nobody was looking.
I think it was my parents’ example of quietly impudent self-assertion that gave me the idea that I could be a writer, or at least that I could go out there and try. I never recall my parents expressing any worry whatsoever at my dream of becoming a writer. If they did worry, they kept quiet about it—but honestly, I don’t think they were concerned. I think they had faith that I would always be able to take care of myself, because they had taught me to. (Anyhow, the golden rule in my family is this: If you’re supporting yourself financially and you’re not bothering anyone else, then you’re free to do whatever you want with your life.)
Maybe because they didn’t worry too much about me, I didn’t worry too much about me, either.
It also never occurred to me to go ask an authority figure for permission to become a writer. I’d never seen anybody in my family ask anyone for permission to do anything.
They just made stuff.
So that’s what I decided to do: I decided to just go make stuff.