Since I haven’t been blogging for a bit (okay, since November of 2014, but who’s counting–other than my own brain as it makes its reliable journey into a nightly grotto of self-loathing insomnia–I want you, dear reader (if I even have one left,) to know that, in addition to being certifiably nutters (time-consuming,) raising three rising stars (in the celestial sense, though Molly seems destined for . . . some sort of celebrity, and Rainer is a . . . well, I’ll just say it: she’s a musical prodigy, and of course my middle child, Zeke, a tender genius who needs to be misted like an orchid every-hour-on-the-hour,) there has also been the bit about being employed as a social marketer, (company name being considered: “Bone Thugs-N-Disharmony,” with our sales krew known in local patois as AdMob!) so I spend time on that. And somehow the damp laundry sours in the washing machine, the playroom looks like a Barbie/Littlest Pet Shoppe human/bestiality-orgy atop a series of LEGO spaceships, the dishwasher doesn’t get run until the food on everything has calcified–“necessitating” the procrastinator’s dishwashing Golden Ring! The need for things to be soaked!–meaning a *blurp* of a healthy squirt of homemade [that will be another post] washing-up liquid (you’ll notice I’ve adopted a few British colloquialisms; part of the gentle parenting of my teen–in addition to answering ’round about 100 daily two- to three word texts sent rapid-fire in random clusterfucks and ranging from th’ high melodrama to th’ mind-numbingly banal, also involves my embracing and power-streaming of all episodes of her beloved Dr. Who program.)
So: soaking! We love it. ***Blurp*** goes the washing-up liquid, set heat of water faucet up high enough to remove the designs clear off of the coffee mugs, et voilà! (That was your first homemaking tip from me; more to follow. Get your “PIN IT!” button-pressing fingers ready! Another free tip: Let spilled, cooked-to-softness Top Ramen noodles dry completely before attempting to sweep or vacuum them into oblivion! You’re welcome. PIN IT!)
In order to keep track of all this, and of all the psychiatrist and therapist visits, accompanying “coping mechanisms,” medication refills, reminders to tend to things like showering and that ilk, I needed a scheduler. Don’t talk to me about phone apps. Don’t even mention Google Calendar. That shit does. not. work. Plus: ART! So, to wit, my DIY bonkers-as-bloody-hell alternative day planner, taking me from dodgy to sorted (you affluent and sane types can just buy one from Erin Condren, who makes what seem to be the premiere iterations of such things–complete with personalization and all sorts of charming bells and whistles. They really are lovely, and I might have just gone ahead and gotten one if I had $50 lying around.) But I didn’t. So I did this:
Bwaaaahaaahaaaa, I hope you can read the text . . .
She’s come undun
Added a ziploc bag for stickers, coupons, reminders, etc. at the back ^ ^ ^
Nutters business-card holder for nutters
Bonus business card holder when you want that psychopathic vibe at your boardroom meeting.
I think a lot of us who suppressed artistic pursuits for years are revisiting the possibilities now that we’ve lost our “real” jobs. Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a sales rep become a photographer, a realtor start up a home-grown theater program, and a downsized tech guru switch to consulting and focusing on his music career.
A couple weeks ago, I traveled back to New York City, the place where I nurtured my dreams as a young adult. As a teen in Long Island, I’d occasionally catch the commuter train in the early morning and spend the day in the Village, maybe take in a Woody Allen retrospective at a theater, drink coffee and smoke Camels, all without any awareness of the irony such cliches deserve. I left the area for college but moved back in my twenties, lived in a fifth-floor tenement walk-up and worked at a bookstore. I went to cafes as a pretension, sitting there and making a half-hearted attempt to write, or at least to pretend to write. “Look at me, won’t you? I’m writing in a cafe. Regard my thrift-store hipster clothing.” (I’m sorry, Hungarian Cafe near St. John the Divine, I don’t think I ever covered the rent on my chair all those hours.)
In college I majored in journalism. That was the compromise I made with my parents, who were, after all, fronting the bill for my tuition. There was one thing I was sure I could do, and that was write. In fourth grade I began announcing that I wanted to be an “author,” but despite years of trying, I couldn’t seem to translate that desire into the role of “journalist.” I wanted to write about emotions and memories. I didn’t want to chase after reality and chronicle it, I wanted to create my own, or at least poetically interpret what I saw, and I didn’t see how to do that in media.
I’m sorry now for my shortsightedness, and for the fact that I didn’t explore my options more fully. When I was asked (which I was, often, throughout my life,) “why didn’t you ever ‘do anything’ with your writing?” my pat answer was something along the lines of, “But I have. Everything I’ve done professionally and personally has benefited from it.” That’s a load of crap, and I know that now. I could turn a phrase in a thread of business emails, and express myself decently when I needed to put my best face forward. Resumes and cover letters came easily. I also wooed my fair share of lovers through my written sentiments and wordy rhapsodies.
When Facebook entered into the picture, I started to rediscover old college friends I’d been either too drunk or too careless to maintain contact with. Interestingly, many of them had become editors, were working in publishing, or were authors of books. I felt fleeting bitterness: I could have done this! Why didn’t I do this? After awhile, one or two of those friends began to quietly mentor me, and then I had a blog, and then a few more writing assignments came here and there.
I had to have the bud of a writing career lain blatantly in my lap, on the heels of professional ruin. Thank goodness for confessional blogs.
My professional experience as an independently-contracted sales rep became, ’round about 2008, an extraneous luxury for the companies I represented. If they didn’t completely change their business model to eliminate that position, at the very least the commissions dried up to nearly nothing. But now, years later, I’m sitting at a cafe around the corner from my house, writing long and hard for the few places that pay me to do so. It’s my work and I love it. And you know what? I’m noticing a lot more people writing here. It’s become difficult to score one of the good tables with an electrical outlet, now.
I think a lot of us who suppressed artistic pursuits for years are revisiting the possibilities now that we’ve lost our “real” jobs. Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a sales rep become a photographer, a realtor start up a home-grown theater program, and a downsized tech guru switch to consulting and focusing on his music career. I will never downplay the struggles of our poverty, but I greet this artistic revolution with gratitude.
So I had my short trip to New York, in order to meet with some people who have been instrumental in my fledgling writing career. I got to sit on the subway not as a bitter and unfulfilled bookstore employee, but as a writer. I got to look at those long avenues with their rivers of taxicab yellow as a (very lightly) employed “creative,” and I felt younger than I ever felt when I was a resident of that great city, several long lifetimes ago. It was so good to come full circle with those lost dreams; to walk up to the brownstone building of My. Literary. Agent! I’m not embarrassed to say I cried.
I’m a person who is prone to crushing sadness. It’s a thread that has remained constant throughout everything I’ve done and written. As cornball as it sounds–and I’m actually cringing as I write this–I take comfort in what was my first spoken word: “light.”
That said, I am overdue to honor my mentors: Robert Feinstein, Jeremy Smith, Neal Gorenflo, Lisa Belkin, Candace Walsh, Brian Doherty, and Laura Jackson among the many who’ve shown me The Light, and other unnamed benefactors who let me have my moment. I finally get to be a writer now.
Prologue: I was prepared to post this four days ago, until I got some truly horrible, absolutely devastating and completely unexpected news in the mail, which put me into such a cycle of hopelessness that I . . . forced, I guess?–through a bereft text to someone I thought was a trusted confidante–my psychiatrist of dubious professional judgment (okay, he had a half-star on Yelp, which should have been a red flag, but I have always had a thing for the underdog) to 5150 me to the local psych ward, which led to a transport to a Mental Facility. So I spent Thanksgiving Day–and the three days following–in a psychiatric hospital, acknowledged to be misplaced and thoroughly unjustly admitted by any of the few qualified experts who actually spoke to me. The rest of the time, I tried sleeping (pillow-free) while tears pooled on a bolted-down vinyl bed, all my personal belongings removed from me, prohibited from anything pleasure-giving including exposure to outdoors, touching or being touched by anyone with loving reassurance on the shoulder, reading (until my husband delivered one paperback book and some magazines,) or even using my own toiletries. I watched a young man gouge bloody chunks from his arm with a plastic spoon until he was given enough Norco and Valium that he became a tree, swaying slightly, a fixture on the perimeter of the short hallway that I paced tearfully for hours. I watched one woman go down into a prostrate pose–unresponsive for two hours–as I cried and called out “Sue! Tyranni-sue!”–her name for herself,) and tried to get help from any source, frantically alerting the nurses and ultimately the custodial staff, (who never in the days I was there cleaned the feces-smeared, solitary water fountain.) They finally pulled her away when her bladder let loose. We never found out what happened to her, but she did make off with pieces of all of our clothing. Tyranni-Sue loved to take people’s clothes, even Clarissa’s, who outweighed her four-fold.
Never in three days did I see anything therapeutic occur. I was never told anything but NO, never responded to with anything but “that’s our procedure,” and when I asked for a library, there was none. Music? No. A visit outdoors? Absolutely not. It was the darkest and most soul-murdering three-plus days of my life. I am so glad to be home. I wonder if that’s part of their therapy: show you hell, so that no matter how bad things get well, hell, you’ve seen worse. Following, the piece I had been about to publish before my slow-motion tour through a psychiatric hospital. It is my deepest hope none of you ever find yourself at a similar institution. If you do, we’re pulling a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
* * *
I was earning five figures a month in sales commissions when the economy melted down in 2008. With shocking suddenness, my retail clients stopped ordering, and the checks stopped coming. My husband couldn’t readily help. He left the IT field when our two younger children were born in order to be a stay-at-home father, and of course found his skills had become too outmoded for him to jump back in. If we had only bought a house outside our income bracket and had been forced to foreclose, it would have been a complete cliché. Either way, my family and I were now at least one version of poster children for the Great Recession.
For about a year, we spun our wheels, trying to adjust to our new reality. I began a much-lower paying job in my industry while concurrently starting an upbeat blog about downsizing and simplifying after living comfortably and well during the boom times, and at first I got lots of hits. Our survival decisions were often dramatic and made for good reading: superficially-speaking, we notably downgraded our lives. We gave up our tame and tidy suburban comfort and sold our only car. At the time, and for a while after, it seemed that people were paying attention and respected our choices. But eventually our story got old enough that it felt like a caricature of itself: what I dourly called, “Chicken Soup for the Recessionista’s Soul.” “The New Poor” is no longer at the top of every news feed—even though in our greater metropolitan area, Sacramento, the number of unemployed now exceeds all previous records.
When I was a child, the one unforgivable crime in our house was laziness. In the family’s oral history, my ancestors’ work ethic was granted near-mythological status. They were solid Midwesterners and Southern Protestants, of Scottish and Scandinavian background, and like most Oklahomans, they had a bit of Cherokee blood—but above all, they were stalwart and duty bound. My grandparents were of the generation that soldiered through the Great Depression as children, and through World War II as young adults. They planted victory gardens. They doubled-up and doubled-down in hard times, bunking with relatives and reducing their quality of life in order to Do The Right Thing while it was required of them. Through everything, they worked. And worked. And when he retired, my grandfather left behind a job he had held for 40 years, but he kept working. Every morning he put on a pair of coveralls and looked for Something To Do. Idle hands? No such thing, not in our family. There was no room for the sort of chair-sittin’ and atrophy that marked the retirement years of other types of people.
My parents had sternly warned me on occasion as I was growing up that my chosen profession, to write, to be an “author,” I said, (actually, the profession that chose me . . . the one that came most naturally, fed me at someplace deep in the dark good roots of nerves and sinew, and rolled out through my fingertips as surely and easily as crayons in that factory montage we all saw on Sesame Street, the answer I gave to anyone who asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” from as early as I can remember, the one that led to teachers nominating me for school-wide awards year after year) was not a realistic career path. So I reluctantly set that wish on a shelf, and, after years of foundering in one college, and then night school after failing the first go ‘round, doing things I didn’t want to be doing, I earned my degree at twenty-five. This led to years of a stunning study of mediocrity, progressing on through the decades through menial jobs of varying levels of enjoyment, until I eventually got plucked out of the crowd by some keen-eyed corporate executives and became their traveling salesperson. An “independent sales rep.” Quite like my father had been—perhaps not coincidentally—and finally making very good money in a job that I was at least competent in doing. I had done the right thing by denying myself the creative path, I thought, despite decades lost and friends rediscovered always asking first of me: “What did you ever do with your writing?”
That’s partly why the first months of the recession left me dumbstruck, blinking slowly and wondering what would come next. I had done the right thing. I had pushed aside my creative aspirations and joined the flock of coffee achievers. I was a business traveler. My family wanted for nothing. Everything around me was beige and new and safe, plush and hushed by the wall-to-wall carpeting and the hum of the ice-maker and the central heat and air.
Now we find ourselves heading into our fifth year of living at less than half of the the poverty line for our family size, and I’m sitting at a café, writing with the vague hope of being paid for my work sometime in the future. It has happened before, sometimes consistently—we have been on national TV for our lack of car in suburbia (because that is worthy of note, and gets shocked reactions still, I’ve found, which shocks me, as it has become normalized in our lives.) My husband is at home with our three kids; we’ve been taking turns since he started a full-time job doing the shipping and receiving at a women’s clothing store—a job beneath his intellect that he was lucky to get. So today he is making lunch and picking up Legos while I do my best to shake money from trees. I know that my extended family would respect me more if I stopped doing my freelance writing and social media management and started taking a bus to an overnight fast-food job an hour away. Do I owe it to our children to put away the laptop and take the most grueling, menial job I can get? Is that the highest moral decision? Does that match the ethics of “the best I can do?” And could I survive it, and how would it work with biking the kids to and from school, do their homework with them? How do I act in my greatest good, for my family, without obliterating myself and my sanity in the meantime? The answer was: I didn’t maintain. I didn’t keep my sanity.
I’d been encouraged by several sources to pursue Social Security Insurance for at least a while based on what has become a lifestyle I can’t maintain while concurrently operating the happily functioning part of my brain. I had some sort of nervous breakdown, and a lifetime of dysthymia and depression did the Tasmanian Devil spiral dance, transporting me into fully-flowered Nutsville. So being that I’ve had the kids for much of the day, I’m legit bonkers, I have no car and can’t work full-time anyway, I’ve turned a lesser-version of what used to be my fantasy career into the only logistical way for me to earn money right now. Combine the writing with social media management for small businesses, and I can scrape quarters into the trough like in that arcade game that always looks so promising. Not the kind of money I earned in my sales job. But if I stay awake late enough, scour enough content mills for writing gigs, I can get small assignments that pay $15 or $20, and if I manage to amass enough of them in a month, it can mean paying the electricity bill on time instead of chasing the city worker down the street after he’s just shut off the power. And sometimes I get an ongoing client for a few weeks, and that’s like having a bouquet of fresh flowers on the dining table . . . until that client’s needs have dried up, and with it, their steady payment. Then it’s like brackish water in a vase with a drooping Gerbera Daisy and peonies dropping browned petals.
One week in a winter past my husband, the kids and I rode our bikes in the cold, eleven miles roundtrip, to enjoy a rare, cheap meal out at a favorite restaurant we had loved in Austin that opened a location out here in Northern California. We don’t make things easy for ourselves, and the self-flagellator in me likes that. Our resources are always stretched dangerously thin, though, and the $45,000 we salted away in plummier days is long gone. We’re not the only ones, and I know that and don’t pity myself for the destruction 2008 wrought. All around us (neighbors as well as relatives living farther away)—for years—people have been losing their extended unemployment, living in houses where renovations were begun and then abandoned, walls just spackled and left to be finished in better times, kitchen floors exposed boards. Some have abandoned previous professions and followed artistic paths, handiwork, humbler tasks. It’s a different sort of support when everyone is on the same sinking ship. They can’t help, they can only bear witness, grab elbows, barter resources, skid backwards as the tilt becomes more acute.
I’ve done some undignified things I never thought I would do and asked for help from people I never thought I would ask, after the bottom of the barrel we were scraping became well and truly bare. Not long ago, I made such a comfortable living that we never had to scrimp. It’s at this time of year I am forced to remember when I had to leave our Thanksgiving groceries behind on the checkout belt because my debit card was declined. I feel humiliated when I think about how my children are not at all surprised when utilities are shut off, or when they ask, “can we get donuts? Does that cost money, or card?”
We have learned to be creative to get by. We have kept chickens, we have a large vegetable garden that did better when working didn’t occupy my “free time,” we barter those aforementioned resources and my social media skills for needed goods and services. One year, a few days before Christmas, I went online to sell a bicycle that my oldest had outgrown. Craigslist is strange and wonderful. It’s like this complicated and nuanced recession marketplace, and sometimes we’re one another’s saviors there. A woman wanted a not-too-expensive Christmas present for her school-age daughter, and I needed money to buy for my own kids. It was painful to remember that in past years we’d always received fat Christmas catalogs in our mailbox—and no wonder, since every marketer probably had us pegged as big spenders. It wasn’t unusual for us to drop over a thousand dollars on gifts. Now, we don’t get the J.Crew catalog, or Hearthsong, or Hanna Andersson, Sundance, or Williams-Sonoma. Just as well. Looking back, I feel stupid for not heading first to thrift, consignment, DIY, swap-meets, garage sales. Garnet Hill has not yet given up on us, but I’m not biting. It’s a game of chicken, and I guarantee I will win.
The potential bike buyer and I met on my porch. It was only 7 pm or so, but dark enough that the dangling strand of half-lit Christmas lights hanging from the leaf gutter provided the only illumination. I was glad for the forgiving darkness; maybe she wouldn’t see the slight scratches on the bike’s frame. I doubted her daughter would notice, and I knew the marks would buff out with minimal effort if she did. But then my words stumbled over themselves, and I heard myself trying to give this stranger an excuse not to buy it. “It’s not perfect, but I could come down on the price,” I said, trying not to think about what the $125 would mean to us.
She bought the bike, hurriedly handing me some folded bills. I thanked her and put the money in my pocket without counting it. It was a business transaction, but so intimate that it felt like a social one as well. We worked together to fit the bike into the backseat of her sedan, negotiating its position by micro-amounts to allow both doors to close. It was the kind of thing you do with family when you’re wedging an oversized purchase from Ikea into your car in the parking lot. Very few words, body language conveying the small adjustments that need to be made. I was struck with the urge to hug her good-bye and made a darting movement in that direction before thinking better of it. My already loose boundaries are becoming even looser as these emotionally challenging times continue.
The other day at the park, I spent hours chatting with another mom from the kindergarten, an affluent woman wearing yoga pants and driving a Lincoln Navigator. She had funny things to say about her twins. She expressed respect at seeing us on our bicycles in the rain, explained in too many words spoken too quickly about how even though they live very close to the school, there is this reason and that for why they don’t take bikes but drive instead, and I said, “Oh, if I still had a car, I would likely find any excuse, every day. I’m not holier than thou.” She complimented me on my thrift shop dress. It was only later, when talking about the vacation house her family rents in Tahoe and the ski boots she bought for the boys, that she stopped short. It was awkward. She ceased speaking as if I had poked her with a stick. The silence hung for a few beats, and then she continued but haltingly, as if embarrassed. She talked about scouring Groupon for deals, and about her religious Sunday coupon clipping. She mentioned having been poor as a child and how that’s not what matters, that it’s not what she remembers and that it’s not what my children will remember. I would like to believe her. I was taken aback that knowledge of my family’s economic situation is something that preceded us, that was such a part of our identity that it stopped our conversation cold. (And no, she doesn’t read this blog.)
I can be abrasive (who, moi?), and when younger, I wore my convictions like a blazing cloak of righteousness. I hope that now, at this vulnerable time in my life, I have become less judgmental and more approachable. I had not wanted this other woman, this mother like me, to feel anything but at ease. Still, there was this chasm between us, of needs and not-needs, and she filled it with her own embarrassed rationales. I smiled and nodded, full of sympathetic head tilts and raised eyebrows. I touched her arm, reassured her with dismissive noises. That would have been me had the recession not hit us so hard and so relentlessly.
So I’m writing this in the dark on the front porch swing, as brutally cold as it is, because I just need to get out of the house. There’s been a lot of rain, and I’ve felt uniquely trapped and what with the kids all being home from school and nothing to get them out of doors. (We did take an afternoon to adventure along the creek where the salmon are making their journey to spawn. Although it’s very much against the law, it was fascinating to watch a young boy—he couldn’t have been older than ten—trudge upstream in nothing but cut off blue jeans carrying a fish as large as his torso: “I done wrassled it and knifed its haid,” he shouted proudly to his waif-like mother. “Good work, boy, that’s dinner for tonight and then some!” It’s been a few weeks since our monthly food stamp card was re-upped. Armed with $340 for our family of five, we can just barely fill some gaps on our refrigerator and pantry shelves. No, there’s nothing romantic about being poor—but there is joy in small things. This morning, as I slept for the last precious hour or so before waking, I dreamed of eating bacon. I could get bacon, maybe. Soon, even, I think. And there’s a waffle-maker somewhere in our house of too-much-stuff, which I’ve been slowly but surely selling on these buy/sell/trade groups on Facebook. But I won’t sell the waffle-maker: because dang it, one of these weekend mornings, I hope my future holds a plate with a waffle soaked in butter and good, real maple syrup, and bacon on the side.
And that leads me to this admission: The color and clatter of our chaotic existence now gives me more pleasure, (when I’m able to claw with un-manicured fingernails and raise my tear-weary eyes just high enough to see beyond the edge of my dark and cavernous hole of paralyzing guilt, fear, and worry—insert sardonic laugh,) than my corporate affluence ever did. There is a joyous, delicious jangle and pop to this sort of freedom, (when I’m not deep in depression and anxiety—more sardonic laughter.) My northern European ancestors populated Oklahoma Territory, and my Cherokee relatives, having been relocated against their will, endured the Trail of Tears and joined them. That land, that time, and the people who embraced those challenges mark those aforementioned sinews and synapses deep at the heart of me. Maybe it is those ancestors who made me a writer and a survivor, although of late, I feel like I’m not doing the “surviving” part very well. But each day my children feel loved and go to bed with full bellies is a successful day, and those keep happening, so I’m going to call that “survival.” Can I get a group agreement on that? At any rate, it feels like an evolutionary imperative: I just need to concentrate on the map inscribed at a cellular level and summon the strength and capability to lift us up and carry us through these hard years. Then I can see the sparks of light that illuminate and inspire me, more than any empty material successes ever had. And days come when I get an email through Facebook or somewhere that says, “Hey, I’m with such-and-such company. We’re very impressed with your writing, and we’d like to pay you to do some for us. May we trouble you for your phone number?”
Today was a day like any other. The children emerged from their beds, as pink and helpless as mewling kittens, and skittered downstairs where they could cocoon themselves in blankets and cluster near our one wall-heater against the early-morning chill. Regardless of the weather, my plan is to straddle my colorfully-festooned bicycle and head out the door to the food bank, as we are so close to the only holiday that isn’t commercially commodified to death, but one in which I hope my family will add to the neighbors’ feast we’ve been invited to join, and have abundance in the weeks that follow. (If I’m lucky, I’ll get a ride. We’ll see.) Later, I will purge some of the soil from the neglected garden and use it to fill the pots on the porch that have been holding plants donated by a friend, but remain root-bound in their plastic shop containers. Maybe I’ll fill the empty slow cooker with simple soup components . . . or maybe I’ll rely on my husband’s far-superior culinary abilities. Yes, that. I might wield the pick axe and continue my work on the side yard, cut down the dead branches from the pear tree, and check on the ripeness of our obscenely overloaded orange tree (our traditional Christmas offering to neighbors and loved ones or anyone who wants oranges, they’re ready right around Dec. 22, consider yourself notified. I deliver,) because the instinct for hard physical labor is built into me, too, and just like my elderly grandfather who kept dragging brush and cleaning leaf gutters into his nineties, it flat-out feels good. And feeling good has been hard to come by for me, as late. (I’ve not been doing well in the state-of-mind aspect of surviving. Molly says, “I love my crying mom.”) Then I will open my laptop and do the work I was meant to do, which sometimes pays well but, for a long time, has not. Throughout, I will keep my knees (metaphorically) slightly bent so I am ready for movement, my back strong and locked straight, my eyes cast forward, ever forward.
Tears of grief, fury, and recognition as I read this. And there are some who mention that Robin Williams’ particular comedy schtick may have been him in the throes of manic phases, but that’s pure conjecture. Interesting potential truth, though.
Internet, we need to have a talk.
I’ve had a number of readers ask why I’ve neglected to write about Amanda Bynes this last year. It’s simple, really. I don’t believe that celebrities are “fair game,” and that, when they have very human and very difficult struggles, I should capitalize on those things by writing an article, however well-intentioned. I believe they are deserving of privacy and respect, by virtue of their being people.
However, I’m making an exception here, because in the midst of the negative and callous press that Bynes has received, I think it’s time we had a chat about it from a different perspective. And then, after we’re done, I think it’s time we stop speculating about it altogether. Deal?
First and foremost, there is no way for us to know what, if anything, Bynes has been diagnosed with. The family has denied schizophrenia and bipolar…
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(This piece was originally commissioned by MAKE Magazine, but ended up on Yahoo.com, from where it has since disappeared. I feel it is only right and just to reprint it here.)
Nerd Crush For the Connoisseur
When I first heard about this guy Robert Cockerham’s website, cockeyed.com, I pictured something along the lines of an amalgam of clever backyard engineering projects mixed with some of the milder exploits from Jackass, minus the penile injuries. I wasn’t far off, but what I didn’t know was of Robert’s righteous place in Internet pioneer nerd-dom.
And when I told a few of my friends that I had befriended Robert and, eventually, that I was going to be writing an article about him for the redoubtable Make Magazine, the din of giddy squeals from both male and female nerds of A Certain Age was deafening. My friend Summer said, “my ex-husband and I were so geeked out on him and Cockeyed! Oh my GOD!” She put her hands in her lap forcefully as if to calm herself, and was quiet for a tense and excited second or two.
“Have you met him? WHAT’S HE LIKE?” Her cheeks—I’m serious—were flushed. Flushed! Based on things like his parabolic solar concentrator, “The Light Sharpener” and the prank he played at the Roseville Galleria Hyundai Dealership display, which involved his adding a pseudo-time machine made out of a repurposed component of a Korean boxing robot (more on that later.) Ahhh, sapiosexuality. The boon to all of us who are smarter than we are cute (though Robert is cute by any measure.)
I explained to her that Robert is best described in the exact way he describes himself, on his very own website: “I feel my strongest traits are 1) my overall knowledge of material handling and properties, 2) an unnatural ability to complete projects and 3) a good sense of humor through good times and hard times. Oh, and one more, I don’t mind asking basic questions.
“If you liked any of this stuff, or have valuable suggestions, project proposals or lawsuits pending against me, please email me.”
I’ve spent some time with Robert, and what I can tell you is this: his cautious, mild-mannered demeanor does not match what one would expect from a person who once facilitated the flaming detonation of a giant, ketchup-packet-filled, wire-crafted teddy bear on the streets of his neighborhood, like a horrifically-misunderstood prescience of Burning Man. What he does seem reminiscent of, in fact, is a tech employee at a corporation like, for example, MCI, which in fact he was, when he began to gradually lure friends over to his house on weekends for help making manifest his plans for elaborate (and often surprisingly expensive) pranks, with building his mad scientist-meets-Willy-Wonka useless whirligigs, flux capacitors, and shitty-shitty-bang bangs, as well as his heartbreaking works of staggering genius.
He also started using the web in ways no one really was, yet. Back in the days of Alta Vista and Geocities, he got himself a personal URL and started blogging. In days of yore, when it was hard to find images online that were larger than a microchip, he bought a digital camera and started uploading big pictures that got lots of excitement and attention. He predated all that stuff we share like mad on social media now, the “wow . . . why?”–inducing links from eccentric engineering-types who make machines that maybe don’t do much but they’re just plain cool, the smart humor sites and the just plain weird stuff, and even the embryonic concept of flash mobs and the wildly-elaborate pranks that we see on YouTube that go viral before we even get a chance to log on in the morning.
When he and his coworkers got laid off from MCI, they used their severance pay to take a tour of Europe, and he blogged it all. He blogged it. With his (at the time) high-res camera and his growing online readership, he wrote and photographed his experiences. Robert and I are almost exactly the same age, and I, as a writer, am left slapping my forehead at my own lack of foresight: I didn’t even own a personal computer until . . . 2005? When I was thirty-five? All the opportunities missed! But he saw the potential, or maybe he was just enjoying what he was doing, and kept rolling with it.
But is he a “maker?” And where was the seed of it all, really? Way back when, when rocks were formed, little Robert, son of a forensic scientist and one of four kids, developed something of an unnatural fascination with Makita drills, and the first thing he made was a set of speaker boxes. He never lost his desire to create and build–sometimes functional objects, and sometimes things one would more accurately describe as junk sculptures, with a strong bent toward prodigal genius. And he always liked to make people laugh. His nature, then and now, was low-key and more introverted. So, how to get an audience, how to get participants, how to become the charismatic mad scientist and ne’er-do-well gadabout who is the Robert Cockerham of cockeyed.com?
The Early Days: Internet Pioneer, Mad Scientist, or Sex God?
(I’ll give you a clue: he doesn’t own any leather pants, nor does he have a profile on FetLife, nor–sadly for us all–any beefcake posters.)
He ended up at University of California Santa Barbara, struggling to survive in the oh-so-challenging environment of beach-meets-mountains geography, when he discovered a long-standing tradition there that was to inform the person he was to become: their famous annual costume parade. “I realized,” he told me, leaning forward with something of a conspiratorial tone, hands clasped together and resting on his knees, as we sat on stools across from each other in my hoarder-trashed, pink-painted, uh, office, “that with a couple days’ effort, I could be, like, a rockstar.” His eyes open up a little wider, like he’s sharing the secret to insta-fame and glory, to getting-laid-in-a-hurry, to BMOC-status.
But what he chose for his first foray into rockstar-dom says a lot about Robert. He decided to be a kiosk.
“Yeah, you know, the kind they always have at college campuses, I guess, with the pagoda or kind-of Kremlin-looking top? I made it out of cardboard, and stapled all these flyers to it. I cut out a small sideways oval for my eyes, and made shoulder harnesses so I could wear it. People were all, ‘oh my God, look! It’s a kiosk!’ and stuff like that. Just shouting and pointing. All night it was like that! Man, it was great.” He smiled and shook his head at the memory. The glory, the reveling.
They were pointing and shouting. At a cardboard cipher.
“But no one could see you.”
“Yeah. I guess there was that. Someone did pop under and up and got in there with me for a minute, but that was it.”
I brightened. “Did you have crazy on-the-spot sex? Set the kiosk down and get bizzay?”
“No. No, I didn’t do that.”
“Some kind of rockstar you are.”
“I guess I’m the quiet, anonymous kind.” (Introspective silence.) “There was one year I went as a map of Africa. My face poked out somewhere around Chad. It wasn’t nearly as big a hit, though.” He looked solemn and regretful.
Ultimate Success, Ultimate Prank . . . and he’s not stopping
But the crazily-creative costume-creation would become something of a specialty for Mr. Robert Cockerham, and they would bring him as much glory as some of his other famous inventions and legendary pranks. Sometime back, he had the great good fortune of attending a costume contest at Industrial Light and Magic (YES, birthplace of Star Wars and headquarters for George Lucas’ special effects creative team,) and he went as an old-school crowd of paparazzi, complete with flashing, popping cameras made from deconstructed and somehow re-purposed disposable point-and-shoots that he found, dumped by the hundreds–all the film used up but the flashes still intact.
What you need to know is this: Robert Cockerham won the freaking costume contest at freaking Industrial Light and Magic. He won. that. shit. But what made him most happy is that, apparently, in addition to that insane achievement, George Lucas’ child favored Robert’s costume over all the others as well, and came over to marvel and comment.
But my personal, favorite cockeyed.com creation got him mentioned on the morning talk shows and written about in all the expected places: his piece de resistance, the Disneyland Costume. An absolutely stunning display of attention to detail and hilarious lack of self-consciousness (easily my favorite Robert-trait,) the Disneyland Costume is like the world’s most gigantic hat (when I say gigantic, I mean gigantic: 6’5” in diameter,) worn at a steep angle for maximum view-ability, with his head poking out at the Matterhorn!
“You’ve come a long way from Chad.”
“Indeed. I started the process by studying satellite maps, and, using Adobe Fireworks, printed that all onto seventy sheets of paper, then simplified it so that it was sort of an augmented reality, highlighting the attractions that people would want to see.”
“What made you choose to do a costume of Disneyland?”
He stopped, paused, looked at me, spoke slowly: “Well, because everybody loves Disneyland.” I heard the unspoken word at the end of that sentence: “DUMMY.”
But as a resident of the conservative, moneyed, highly-law-abiding suburb of Roseville, the cockeyed.com story that intrigued me even more was the one he told about how he pulled one over on the infamous Westfield Roseville Galleria. (You know the Getty Museum in LA? The Met in NY? This is our equivalent. Marble-floored, cameras everywhere, a hushed and posh quality.) He had found an enormous . . . object . . . elaborately electronic, printed with unreadable characters and pegged throughout with blinking LED lights, along the roadside. (This sort of thing happens to Robert.) After a whole lot of Google-fu, he learned that it was half of an incredibly expensive Korean boxing robot “toy.” Like, $10,000-range expensive.
“So I got this idea . . . “
He realized that the only way he was going to get it into the rarefied confines of the plush, Nordstrom-anchored church of consumerism was to put it on a dolly and walk with casual confidence right by the front desk. You know, where Information and Security are. So he did exactly that, as-big-as-you-please, and made his way directly to where Hyundai had set up a large promotional area, complete with two parked cars, information KIOSKS [I still smart at the missed opportunity for costumed shenanigans,] and signage. He “installed” his addition in what looked like a natural spot within, marked with a very professional-looking warning note that said: “CAUTION: TIME MACHINE OUT OF ORDER. CALIBRATION OFF BY THREE DAYS. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT [and here he put the number of the Roseville Hyundai dealer’s service department.]”
“It lasted three months.”
I leapt off my stool and screamed, laughed, clapped.
That’s Robert. He’s not in it for the glory. He’s in it for the fun.