I don’t care for the phrase, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” not only because it’s fundamentally unsound logic – ask anyone who’s had a heart attack how much stronger he feels afterward – but also because it tends to denigrate and even discount the joy we find in our travails. I would say that our pain goes far further to define us than our joy does. Suffering forges stronger friendships just as being wronged builds passion into our fiber.
Ever wonder why your old man still talks long distance to that drafty old fart he knew in the Navy? How about that college buddy who still can’t keep from dropping the F-bomb even into his sixties? Ever noticed the gleam in your parents’ eyes when they talk about that first apartment they had when they were newlyweds? The one where you couldn’t run the sink and flush the toilet at the same time?
These things aren’t impossibly impoverished obstacles. They’re the joyful speed bumps of youth. You define yourself when you leave the nest by the choices you make. You differentiate yourself from your family by making different choices. These choices can lead to some travails. Some people slide right into their parents’ life without a hitch while others put their elbows out and go in swinging, not for any particular reason but just because they need something different.
My life has always been a life of travail – both joyous and damning. I am now and have always been one of those people who just don’t fit. I’ve gone through periods where I craved normalcy and others when I violently rejected it, but neither mattered because normalcy was not a thing that was meant for me. I’m different. I have a story to explain exactly why I’m that way in all the ways that I am that way, but here’s a terrible secret about life: if you need a story to explain your behavior you’re never going to be one of the guys.
Don’t get me wrong, people like me. If anything, my super power is that I’m extremely likable. I can converse with a stranger for forty-five minutes on any topic. I’m a wiz at job interviews. I’m a great date. Trust me, you want to watch movies with me. But that doesn’t make me similar to everyone else. It just makes my differentness acceptable. Without that one gift, I’m just that guy on the corner who keeps talking to himself about how Herbert Hoover wants to steal his underwear.
Being different means you spend your life swimming upstream. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Going with the flow can sometimes leave you without questions and the life unquestioned is the life unlived. It’s like a beautiful suit that never gets taken out of the bag. Theoretically it looks good, but you’ll never know for sure until you wear it.
I’m also lucky that the travails in my life have been almost entirely of my own making. It’s not like I had to endure the racism of the sixties or the gay bashing of the seventies. I’m a white, heterosexual male, what John Scalzi calls the easiest setting on the game of life, but I am different. And when you’re different you travel a path uncommon to all the other people of your ilk, your race, and your class.
I left college after my sophomore year to travel the country and write my first novel. It was called Sending Down the Fare and eventually it got me my first editor, the wonderful Bill Thompson. But in the process of writing that novel I wandered North America with nothing more than my 1974 Toyota Corolla, my Smith-Corona electric typewriter and what possessions I could carry. When I landed in New Orleans, I rented a carriage house behind an uptown mansion. It was little more than an un-air-conditioned shack, but it was in a neighborhood drenched in history, a place that spoke to me and made my fingers move over the keyboard. I wrote in Los Angeles and in New Mexico and in Austin but I never wrote like I did when I was in New Orleans. There was something about the oppressive heat, the shirt-drenching humidity, the daily thunderstorm, and the giant carnivorous cockroaches that drove my inner machine.
When you try to regale someone with a story like that, it comes off sounding a lot like the old, “uphill both ways through the snow,” yarns we’ve all heard way too much of. But that’s the problem! I don’t look back on my apartment in North Hollywood with its regular compliment of hookers coming home at dawn or the ratty carriage house in New Orleans or the hotel in New Mexico where I had to sleep with the door (and one eye) open as the rigors of my youth. These aren’t hidebound stories. They’re exultations of a great time. A time I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been different, if I hadn’t taken a different path.
There were times I would have killed to be normal but I suspect that those normal guys who slipped seamlessly into their parents lives are the ones who ended up thrice divorced and angry at the world. I’ve been married over thirty years and my kids still like and respect me. And, you know what? They’re different. Both in their own way, they’re different. They’re just lucky enough to live in a world that celebrates the difference people can bring instead of trying to bully them back into shape.
So if you’re out there and feeling weird because you’re different, I’d like to quote an old SF story to you. I don’t remember who wrote it or even the exact story but its message is important enough that I think I should wing it.
A boy grows up in a society where everyone is slotted into a particular career during their school years. This is an old story so all the professions are based on which machine you would be best suited to operate. The boy takes test after test but never gets assigned to a class of machines. Finally, as high school comes to an end and all his friends are heading off to different factories to man their respective machines, he runs away. Eventually he’s caught and taken to the place where those unqualified for any machine end up. Once there, he meets a powerful engineer who asks him why he ran away.
“I didn’t qualify for any of the machines,” the boy says.
“I see,” the engineer says, “and where do you think the designs for the new machines come from?”
It is true that the different suffer for their differences but it is also true that we create the future. On this day, of all days, I have one thing to say to my brothers and sisters of the slightly askew: Endeavor to persevere for the future is yours.