I fidgeted in my seat, my seventh grade teacher reviewing my IQ test results. He looked over his thick rimmed glasses at me, frowning, as if the words he would speak made no sense to him.
“You have a great potential.”
I am not privy to what the actual IQ score number was. I do know that his words were more condemnation than salutation, as I was obviously not living up to whatever that number represented to him. I had this annoying (to him) trick: I knew how to wing it. I could skip steps because I could see the whole picture.
The magazine’s executive editor sat me down.
“ I’d like you to keep writing this article every month, if you want to.”
It wasn’t really writing, as much as it was gathering and sewing together bits of stuff from here and there, until there was no more twist. But he thought it was good enough to print, even though I was winging it.
Sitting in an ashram, just another teenager meditating in the pool, unassuming as krill. the guru baba took exceptional notice of me, delivering the elusive and edifying shaktipat. He spoke to me in hindi as he moved me nearer his seat, and his pretty young translator Malti gave me his words.
“He said you are a very old soul.”
She had a beautiful, beautiful smile. I understand she took over for the Guru when he died and is now herself dying. I haven’t seen her in many years. I don’t know if it is possible to fake your way through being an old soul, but I was definitely winging the meditation. Not quite as bad as failing to memorize a single damn word for my Catholic First Communion, but I do remember surreptitiously looking around the ashram and being deeply amused by the spastic antics of the “struck by a ten thousand volt bolt of ecstasy” contingent in the crowd.
I sat in the psychologist’s office, not as a client. He is father to Ron, my friend. A rotund middle-aged man, his keyboardist/singer son’s manager-in-fact, helping to launch Ron’s career. Ron wanted to be the next Bryan Adams. Talent-wise, there was no particular reason why he shouldn’t be. “You’re easily the best bass player in this entire state,” he said, taking the liberty of addressing me in the familial familiar tense, a fatherly advisor. “What do you see yourself doing over the next couple years?”
I sat in the studio, alone. It was late in the day, late May and the advanced painting class was done but for the crying and for the portfolio review. My portfolio of oil painted canvasses for the class were arrayed on a quixotic collection of easels at the other end of the room, awaiting the arrival of the master. I despaired at my lack of curatorial ability; a lopsided and uneven presentation. Lacking any kind of theme through the canvasses themselves, I opted for a simple timeline, left to right. He walked in the room, sat down next to me. He counted the canvasses. He grunted. He looked at me sideways, gestured to the rightmost work.
“Is that one your final project?”
“Yes. It’s not done.”
It was supposed to be a painting of a live model. We were to find and pose a model ourselves, compose a canvas. The whole canvas was to be entirely covered with paint, a curiously crude and inadequate measure of ‘complete.’ My painting was of a nude, she was half-wearing a man’s button-down shirt all unbuttoned. Relaxed, languid. Her left breast visible in silhouette, her bare legs crossed comfortably, her hand turning a leaf of music manuscript.
“Was that done from an actual model?”
He looked at me with a squint.
“Does something make you think it wasn’t?”
Like any undergrad, My instant mental grade calculus was churning. Unfinished meant one letter grade off. Extremely hesitant to admit a second failing, I did not admit that my figure was not from life, rather based on a picture from an old dog-eared women’s clothing catalog. What were the chances that he had leafed through that same Chadwicks catalog? The figure’s casual nudity was crafted out of the thin air of my imagination, something I expended a great deal of conscious effort on, having recently read about Michelangelo and Da Vinci and how gravity and anatomy and experience infuse every square inch of skin with a unique story. I was forced to think and act seriously, because I could not see. He either believed me, or simply chose to suppress his better instincts and suspend his disbelief. I looked him in the eye and allowed a tiny smile to play over the corner of my mouth. As if to say a canvas, a palette, a brush and a quiet loft will STILL remove a woman’s clothing today just as surely as it would in 1700. He grunted again. He was a grunter. A grunting master. Yes, you’re goddamn right they do, this grunt seemed to say. It was an affirmation grunt.
We had, in the span of that moment, reached a plateau of understanding. A step closer to peers, a step beyond master/student. He got up, walked over to the display of canvasses and pointed one out. A second, extra portrait I’d done, outside of class, for the girl who had been our nude in-class model. One day after breaking pose and donning a robe, she walked over to me and in a little shy voice asked me to do a special painting just for her in a green taffeta formal dress, a gift for her grandparents. There was something endearing and sweet about that shyness, and sincere.
“This right here,” he said, tracing the area of neck and cheek on the portrait, “painters work for years and still fail to achieve this.”
He walked out without telling me what my grade was.
In my charcoal drawing class, the corpulently rubenesque nude model asked to buy my drawing, tears welling up in her eyes, because it made her body look like she’d never seen it before, truth and beauty together on the same surface. I gave it to her taking no payment. It wasn’t so much the charcoal stub in my fingers after all, it was just the dumb luck of sitting in the only good spot in the circle. I was winging it.
“I know it isn’t your fault, but it’s definitely your problem.” The waitress was just not going to take no for an answer. There was nothing to do, she was an adept in the black art of shutting down debate. I didn’t want to walk out, to quit with an epithet-laced flourish the way the two cooks had, moments previous. So I stopped washing the dishes and went ’round the other side of the kitchen and did what I’d done all my life. I winged it. The next day I arrived for my dishwasher shift to find that I was the new lead cook. Too many customers the night before had suffered an epicurean foodgasm, with full vocalization. I mean, I am no chef, no way no how, but even I know that microwaving fish is just wrong. In some warped way, washing dishes turned out to be a great way to learn about cooking, because you see first hand what comes back on the plates, if you care to notice.
I am good with lights. And with angles. I can light a stage with a few candles and a shard of broken beer bottle. But give me a lighting rig and I can shine on that stage and make the performers three dimensional and real. But there’s a sadness about stage lighting: You’re only successful if people DON’T notice your work. You are at your best if you’re invisible, unnoticed.
I was sitting on the couch, medicinally enhanced, when a mathematical equation just appeared, floating in front of my face. Glowing with a tinge of neon. A little ostentatious maybe. At least there wasn’t any glitter. I decided that it must be either important or amusing and so committed it to memory. It wasn’t terribly complex. Later I found that it solved a particular problem at my job as a graphic artist/technician, a solution that illuminated the workings of a very expensive, enigmatic and idle piece of equipment who’s documentation had gone missing. I didn’t quite know why it worked, but it did. I did as I had always done…I winged it. As it happens, my discovery was no discovery at all. Cosines had been invented already. I just hadn’t personally become aware of them yet.
Karen decided she would keep the baby. The baby was by no means unwanted, rather unwarranted, unanticipated. I was in shock. My twenty year old legs had been cut out from under me using my own machete. A self-inflicted mortal flesh wound. I suddenly found my dreams on hold. My world was a funnel, and I was slipping down to the narrow end. We were in love, so that wasn’t the problem. Dreams-on-hold and the burden of a great potential were the problem.
You can’t feed a baby with a bottleful of great potential. I felt the burden of my potential. I worked as a pizza cook, as a paste-up artist. I settled into the inspiration-killing life of a salaryman.
One night, little baby Kira would not lie down, would not stop crying. She was always a stubborn sleeper, never wanted to miss a single moment; but this was beyond stubborn. I put her in her crib, back in her crib, back in again, I pushed her onto the mattress and held her there, anger flaring. Out of control. Before I could hurt anyone, I stormed out of the house, and walked. I hit the rock beach of Marblehead sound, coatless in the bitter midnight November chill, and walked. I circumnavigated the entire island, my extremities numb, pre-frostbite pins and needles of pain with every step as I reached my own front porch again, hours later. I walked in to find my serene, pretty young wife holding a sleeping child, a bottle of antibiotics and children’s tylenol on the side table. A modern-day Pieta.
“Ear infection. A bad one.”
I moved past them into the tiny apartment and sat alone in the kitchen until I could feel my feet again. Until I could feel my Self through the shame and embarrassment of this obvious display of exactly how perfectly I sucked.
Fuck yeah, I was ripping this parenting thing right up. Nailing it, not. Winging it was not working. I had to work, and work hard. Starting now.
The years have flown by. Two more beautiful children and ten years, a medley of mostly happy moments and mostly fond memories. But the burden of my great potential was grown heavy. So was hers. My beautiful young wife and I looked at each other for the last time across the vast oceanic void of the conference room table in the law offices of Brighton and Fernald, esq.
I thought to myself, fuck yeah, I ripped this marriage thing right up. Nailed it. Ten years to the day.
But I was free. Of the obstructions and demands of a family, free to do my work, to exorcise my demon of great potential. But you are never really released, because you never really let go.
The necessary skill possessed by a painter is also the bane of his existence. The painter must ‘see.’ Seeing is the act of noticing. Seeing is more rare than you’d think, considering that we’re all given eyes. But seeing is only the start. The act of painting is a compromise. It’s a process of notating light using dull, flat pigments, recording three dimensional events by smearing them on a flat surface. When you see, which you must do in order to paint, you can’t help but notice that what you can actually accomplish in the medium is a shallow, flat unsatisfying proxy to the actual vision. It’s heroin. The sublime seeing, then the horrific realization that you will forever chase the vision without catching it.
I sat between the old woman and my friend who had introduced us. The woman was a psychic. A real one, not the kind that has a sign and an ad in the yellow pages. She would see things. Not silly melodramatic allegorical psychic things that make for good bedtime stories and cable tv infomercials, but incidental, odd stuff. As they chatted, with me in the middle of the social crossfire, I was absolutely unable to keep my eyes open. She said there was something special about me. She looked at me and said she could see my aura, that it was huge, filling the room, that at that moment an incredible amount of energy was emanating from me. Why, she had no idea, but that it sometimes happened to certain people in this house. She became afraid for me and then suddenly afraid of me, and asked me to leave, as I kept fighting to stay awake. She died some years ago, a decade after our only encounter, and my brother owns that house now, and it has never happened to me again there. There are other places where the same thing happens. There’s a particular stretch of road in Henniker that does the same thing to me. Remembering her, whenever I travel that road I visualize that my aura is beaming like the sun, energy streaming out, being given or being taken, I don’t know which. I apologize silently to the oncoming traffic for my failure to dim my aura on their approach. There are a lot of accidents on that short stretch of road, the most common being that the driver inexplicably falls asleep. So I imagine there are others like me.
I ate lunch, late lunch. I was working the overnight shift at a large printer, the kind of place with printing machines the length of a football field where massive rolls of gleaming clean white paper were made dirty with ink and mailed directly to a million household wastebaskets. I was eating takeout chinese, and the fried rice was falling out of the left side of my mouth. I drank some coffee, only to have it drip down the side of my face. My eye was watering because it wouldn’t blink. One side of my face had gone dead. In the emergency room wondering by what cruelty I deserved a stroke, was told instead that a bit of flu had a walkabout in my inner ear, and went camping in my fifth cranial nerve. Just a weekend bivouac, No biggie. Just a gimp face, not a death sentence. The healing process was simple, just hang out and practice the stress-be-gone meditation and take B vitamins. I went home. All the way home, to my parents, on their invite, to convalesce.
A late continental breakfast in the sunny kitchen where I’d grown up, the wood stove chasing the early April chill. The course of my love life and/or the unfair lack thereof was of course fair conversational game.
“I need someone who is an upbeat inspiration. Like, for instance, my high school girlfriend, Alison. Remember her?”
Sometimes the universe is like a vending machine. You put your coin in the slot, you push the knob, and out comes the thing you want. Not 5 hours later, I sat in the Folkway restaurant, breaking bread with recently-divorced and effervescently pretty Alison. We would not spend a night apart for 12 years from that moment.
“You have a sperm count that all these other women here would kill for,” a clinic doctor said. My new wife was trying to become pregnant (with my involvement, fortunately). The next visit my coffee cup was shaking as I watched the ultrasound screen. The technician was counting.
Three, definitely. Definitely three. Definitely. Not quite a rugby team, but enough for a pickup game. Over the course of the pregnancy Alison’s belly would sometimes resemble a rugby pitch. As often as not someone was getting yellow carded in there as well. My inventory of progeny was about to double. The months went by like a flash, and we were in the operating suite, a three-ring cirque du medic with all the trimmings, enough doctors to bankrupt any HMO. Complete with the clown car (Alison) stuffed with clowns (the triplets).
Triplets. Long before it was fashionable, long after it was medically routine. We were thus blessed with the problem of what to name them, not the problem of which pale, serene, lifeless angel we’d have to grieve. People ask me what it was like to care for three tiny infants at once, and I have to admit that a trauma-induced amnesiatic fog has obscured much of the first year. But I do know it was a happy year, a good year. I had lost my job, but instead of being a burden it was a blessing. I had more time to be with the babies.
Being the best bassist in NH is a great feeling. Like it might even be meaningful. But wander just a few miles south, to the back bay of Boston, and you find that there are 500 other cats that are eating your breakfast. Don’t quit yer day job, eh wot?
Here’s the thing. You know that saying that’s bandied about in politics…that the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good? Or that you write a hundred songs to get a single good one?
Bullshit. Who does that?
If you’re not writing the best song you’ve ever written, then why would you even dream of polluting the universe with it? If you’re not painting the best painting ever, what makes you think you should? If you can theoretically accomplish great, when would ok ever be ok?
Why would you ever play a single note of music if it was just another note? I don’t want to just smear my artistic stench on whatever surface is handy, in the hopes that someday by sheer dumb luck I get a spectacularly good smear. It’s like conversing just to hear yourself talk. Or a dog pissing on hydrants and tyres.
Ergo, my creative output isn’t exactly prolific. Very little of it passes my filter. This is a problem.
Since the triplets, we’ve had two more, a boy and a girl. Bringing the total to eight. Eight progeny. Each one brilliant, each one radiant, each one the light of the world. A doctor. A mathematician, a dancer, an artist, a thinker, an actress, a beauty, an empress. I realize with middle-age pragmatism that Empress is not exactly a viable career option, but the nine year old dares to dream.
I was fascinated with this new internet thing. It seemed like a good time to learn programming, hop on this ship before it sails. My first project was an auction website. Seemed like a good idea at the time. With a new technology like the Internet, the new ideas are thick as mosquitoes in the air, and anyone can pluck them out and invent them. I invented, but it was other people who were competent enough to come to market, where I was merely competent enough to wing it, and it was just not enough. I was waiting until it was PERFECT, instead of launching the millisecond it was slightly better than too broken to use.
I am that man. The one who is just behind the curve, the one who is brilliant but cannot manage the brass ring. Don’t misunderstand, my family is provided a comfortable world. I have not ever, however, managed to solve the burden of my great potential.
I finished up feeding our animals at the barn and drove home. I’d felt bad for two days, and bad went to worse, and worse went to critical. Due to the machinations of modern medicine, I did not die from my heart attack, I was merely injured and frightened out of my wits by it. In the aftermath I had no choice but to face it full on, face my burden, the luxury of a half-assed ‘wing it’ treatment stripped away.
I now fear for my legacy.
I have no significant body of work. No warehouse full of paintings to be discovered and hung in the museums of the future. No works that will be requested of musicians in every wedding reception and karaoke-every-thursday-is-ladies-night of the future. Nothing to shelve next to the great writers that are relegated to the side aisles of the bookstores of the far future, where the enlightened literary geeks and gluttons of that age will forage. No stack of patents that will have me mentioned in the same breath as Edison.
My life is half over or probably much more and what have I done? The perfect certainly has been the enemy of the good, and probably the enemy of the sublime as well. What have I done?
Last week I received a message from a writer, who made a comment about some parenting anecdote I had shared. The reply, “you seem a good dad.”
Unwittingly, I think she named my true legacy. And as far as legacies go, I think I could do far worse than that.
But I still have this burden. And work to do.