Who Are Tired of Performing Normal
Surrealism runs through the streets.
—Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I stood in front of the bank teller this morning, trying to perform normal.
Wishing I could just go home, get back to work.
See, I’m building a dream library under the house. I’m modeling it after that book hostel in Tokyo. We’ll climb ladders to sleep in shelves. We’ll metamorphose into books. We’ll wake with bent spines.
But here now instead I’m wasting my time standing under these harsh florescent lights, tying to perform sign-here like I’m not re-living the shame of so many years of bounced checks and closed accounts and begging forgiveness for the overdraft fees that mean the difference between rent and no rent and I’m breathing hard even though I have enough money now and all these blackbirds under my skin start pushing to break themselves out, beaks pressing out from the thin peel of my sun-burned chest, and I keep shifting my position, hoping the teller won’t notice the sharp protrusions.
I just want to go home. Get back to work on my dream library. Burrow and write.
Rationalism says that the “me” at the bank who successfully performed normal was the truth.
I signed there.
But that’s not the story I want to tell.
What if here now at my computer—clack clack fingernails on keyboard—is the place I come to be authentically myself
let the birds out?
Reality is debatable.
We all know that.
Magical realism—or the marvelous real—is often defined in opposition to the limits of rigid rationalism.
Listen: If we’re interested in deep change moving forward, we’re going to have to face reality.
And if we’re interested in deep change moving forward, we’re going to have to look past reality.
We’re going to have to see past normal, too.
As far back as I can remember, my dad carried a video camera with him almost everywhere we went. He filmed the moments that made up his experience. He’d been an experimental animator, had a schizophrenia diagnosis now, refused medication. His appearance and body language alone made a lot of normal people nervous. Add the video camera, and my dad got himself into all kinds trouble.
Storekeepers sometimes warned me: “That old man’s recording you.” Or they just straight up called the cops.
Other people yelled at him. Sometimes they punched him up. They grabbed his camera and smashed it on the cement sidewalk, leaving him standing there, unarmed, with the saddest look in his eyes.
People don’t like it when strange men film them.
But my dad didn’t mean any harm. At home in his basement apartment that smelled like turpentine, he watched the footage and sorted out which parts of his day he’d hallucinated and which parts had been the reality that everyone—including his video camera—could see.
After he’d played back the hours, and separated fantasy from camera-seen reality, he’d start to edit a few of his hallucinations back into the narrative.
He’d put a giant duck on stage with the Honolulu Ballet.
Or the ocean on my head.
Sometimes I did feel as though I carried the ocean on my head.
A half-decade ago, as the South Bay Area finalized its mutation from an artist-class intellectual bohemia into capitalism’s tech-central, bulldozers came for the Spanish craftsman I grew up in.
I sent an old friend to grab the giant arched door, imagining I might incorporate it into a home of my own someday.
But the door just waited, silent, in storage, regal and lonely.
In magical realist literature, we are always interested in doors.
In the ways doors act as borders.
In the ways we might open them, destabilize them.
We are interested in all the doors.
In stepping through them, in repurposing them.
Maybe my problem was that I’d imagined my door would always remain a door.
My artist-class lifestyle these days means we’re on the move every few years—priced out and priced out and priced out.
This last move, my wife helped me make a table out of my old door.
A door can always become a table if it isn’t going to settle down.
So, here we sit in our little house out in the high desert. We’re drawing cartoons and writing recipes and reading fantasies and eating enchiladas and clack clack type-typing about hybridity at my arched wooden door-table.
I click the brass lock open and shut, open and shut, and between chocolate cake and the evening creative brain dump that might turn into a zine or a story, its click click, open and shut. My door, at once a symbol of my family history and a symbol of my escape. My door.
Click click, and I open my door.
Click click, and crawl in.
Click click, and I climb down.
Iron rungs stair-step the way; the dirt and rock walls smell damp as I descend, as I keep descending, into the ruins of my history.
When my father and I stepped out the door of his basement apartment into the glare of a foggy morning and headed down to the beach, he didn’t usually carry his video camera with him.
He brought his metal detector instead.
My father was a beachcomber.
Beep beep. We dug up pop tabs and pennies, car parts and the occasional gold ring.
Beep beep. My father taught me that performing normal wasn’t the only game in town.
We combed sand for the castoffs of tourists and the debris of our own histories. We brought our treasures home, and sorted the fragments.
What will we make of this today?
Down here in my dream library, I type curriculum for my writing students until the pressure of the blackbirds under my skin becomes too much. Deep breath, then, into my belly, and as I exhale, all the birds burst through, blood-covered like newborns at first, but they open their wings and fly. They shake it off. They keep flying.
In my dream library, I tend the wounds of my own hybridity.
And get back to work.