Category: childhood

35

My birthday cake is officially a fire hazard.

Today is my 35th birthday. 35 is the last major milestone for a while (I can run for President! Yay?), but it’s also a point in life where things are either actively changing, or have changed enough to reflect on. I believe that we all live several lives over the course of our 80-some-odd years (or more! Hopefully!) on the planet, and by my math I’m somewhere around my fourth.

Let’s talk about them. And, for funsies, let’s call them “Ages.”

THE AGE OF CJ

The face of a martial arts master.

Childhood is weird. Memory is imperfect on our best days, and as we get further removed from childhood our recollection of it becomes a combination of unverifiable events and fantasy.

My childhood feels like staring at vague figures doing vague things in a thick fog. I remember being a generally happy child. I ran around outside, played with my friends, watched Saturday morning cartoons, played Nintendo upon waking up, and had an active imagination. That all sounds pretty good.

In reality, my childhood was filled anxiety and anger. I had chronic stomach pains that were never diagnosed, but in hindsight probably had to do with anxiety. My parents divorced when I was 13, and the years leading up to that were rough. Lots of arguments, snide comments, and a few physical altercations (none involving me).

To me, though, that was normal-adjacent. I had my coping mechanisms (wearing ear plugs and going to bed while it was still light out, for one) and so I didn’t think that the environment I was in might be unhealthy. Now that I have a son, though, for whom I want to provide an environment that supports his development in the smoothest way I can manage, I can see in what ways my childhood fell short. Some of that is because of my parents and their flaws, and some of it is because of circumstances they had no control over. They didn’t ask to be poor. My family didn’t ask to deal with mental and physical illness. We all had to deal with those things, and I think that contributed to a lot of the negative feelings in the house.

And so I’m left with frustration at all the things I never got but also am awestruck for what I had, given the circumstances. Sure, I only had two pairs of pants for an entire school year, but I never went hungry either–even if the food was often out of a box. My parents managed to pay for and take me to Tae Kwon Do three days per week, and then bought me equipment to play roller hockey after that. When you’re a kid you don’t understand that those types of expenses come with sacrifice.

We begin the long journey of discovering ourselves as children. My first identity was an angry, impatient child. After starting Tae Kwon Do I learned patience and how to direct my emotions into something productive. At home and at school I learned the value of being helpful to protect yourself. And I learned how to use sarcasm to deflect, and humor to engage. These traits have stayed with me, for better or worse.

Childhood is also when we begin to decide on who we want to be. I discovered reading and writing as a boy. I met my first best friend, who introduced me to hockey. I got a VHS-C camera from my grandfather and made videos with my friends.

I can recognize these things now, only because of how far away they seem, and how far I’ve come away from them.

THE AGE OF SIEGE

Puberty hit me like a truck hits a raccoon. Messily.

Many people say your teenage years are the best of your life. They’re absolutely wrong. Unless you stop maturing or run into tragedy as you get older, your teenage years won’t be your best years. However, they will be the most memorable.

My feeling is that this is because from the time puberty kicks in until you graduate college (or later) you’re a raw nerve and you feel every experience to maximum effect. Friendships are closer. Parties more fun. Sports harder and more exciting. Relationships deeper and more intense. To be a teenager is to truly experience everything in all its complicated glory for the first time.

My world expanded. I left my street for the first time and started to wander the neighborhood with new friends. I spent a lot of time on AIM, in chatrooms, and on Pogo. I went to overnight roller skating to meet a girl I only knew online. Later, I dated a girl from the suburbs, which was my first basic lesson in culture shock.

These new experiences also includes loss. As I moved into teenagedom, I let go of the friends I had made on my street (including my first best friend–the one that introduced me to hockey) in favor of new friends. My parents divorced. My sister joined the Army and left home. Pets died. I didn’t know how to deal with it.

I rebelled, in my own way. One year in high school I put my hair up in what I deemed “spider-legs” (basically, a bunch of tiny ponytails all over my head) and used colored gel to dye the tips green. I drank Mike’s Hard with my friends, when we could get it. Stayed out until 2 or 3 in the morning sometimes. Once, I ran into a friend’s dad outside while walking home late at night. He stopped me and asked if I was high. I’ve never been high, so the answer was no. He didn’t believe me. Most people didn’t. A consequence of living in a house where second hand smoke rolled out of the door like fog in a horror movie.

I also went to youth groups, despite not being religious. It was a place to hang out with kids my age, and if we went to the one with my friend’s older brother he would take us to the dollar show afterward (where I first saw MINORITY REPORT), and then we would help him clean car dealerships. Cleaning those dealerships made me think I wanted to work in an office. It seemed so fancy and stable.

I had my first heartbreaks (and did some of my own heartbreaking, as hard as that may be to believe if you’re going off the above picture), and poured that emotion into poetry, short stories, and screenplays. In those, I began to learn what it was I wanted in a relationship. Eventually, that rocky road would lead me to my wife.

But not quite yet.

THE AGE OF CRAIG

Henley’s for life.

The time after high school is insane. I went a bit insane with it.

I moved out when I was 19, vowing to never go back. Technically, that was true, although I have lived with my sister on two separate occasions. My vow wasn’t because my life was bad at home, although I certainly believed that at the time. First was dorming for a semester, which was pointless. I was stuck in a room with three other guys, one of whom slept through his alarm (the chorus to Thrice’s “Artist in the Ambulance” on repeat) every morning. On weekends I worked and generally spent my time at home, anyway.

After the dorm, I got an apartment with a high school friend. A family friend was our landlord, so we got free internet and cable. This only turned awkward once–when my landlord got a court summons for downloading porn to his IP Address, which was actually my roommates doing. Luckily, some research revealed there was nothing to worry about. My roommate and I got along really well (at least from my perspective–I’m sure there were lots of things I did to piss him off), which I am eternally grateful for.

Those four years were some of the poorest, most exciting of my life. Parties seemed to happen every weekend. I had friends in the art scene, and was able to score comp tickets to plenty of theater and music shows. My roommate was into gaming, so we played hours and hours of Halo, Gears of War, and Rock Band.

I was active everywhere. I wanted to get to know my city, and so I explored whenever I could. On my own, driving the ’84 Firebird my father had gifted me (and I then proceeded to neglect) around the city. Working in the independent film scene and getting to step foot in places most people rarely think of, like the water pumping station on Lake Erie. My work on independent film culminated in my writing and being Assistant Director on GRANTED, which then led me to reconsider all my dreams of being a filmmaker.

My friends and I played lots of sports. Dodgeball (2008 WNY Dodgeball champs!), volleyball, some hockey, and working out at the gym. We had to stay active, considering how much we drank and ate out.

This time was when I began having trouble holding down a job. Not out of incompetence (not always, anyway, although I was fired from being a telemarketer after two days), but in trying to find something that paid well and I truly enjoyed. I did Burger King for three years, two separate stints of machining, landscaping that didn’t end well, teaching an afterschool science program (where I would eventually meet my wife), and then working as an usher at the Buffalo Museum of Science. I also made wooden plugs on a drill press in my father’s basement for a penny per plug. If I worked quickly, and the wood cooperated and didn’t break apart of clog my drill bit (fat chance), I might make 200 plugs in an hour. I hated it.

Creatively, I wrote a lot. Mostly short stories and screenplays. I joined several writer’s groups that met in restaurants or coffee shops. I tried to direct my own short film, but royally fucked it up and gave up. I think I disappointed people.

There were also girls. Each one a lesson learned about who I am and what I need from a relationship. None were bad relationships, not really. Certainly not from my perspective. A few of those girlfriends might disagree, and I wouldn’t blame them. Most of my deepest shames are from how I interacted with women at this point in my life. My own insecurities made me less than they deserved.

Until Hanh, anyway.

THE AGE OF MR. GUSMANN

`
Married with children.

Growing into a responsible adult is exhausting.

Now that myself and most of my friends are marrying and having kids, it sometimes feels like we’re transitioning from being participants in life to being observers of it. I spend way more time watching my kid grow than I do any growing myself. And I think that’s right. I think that’s how it should be.

Which isn’t to say I’m dead, or that I’m not longer capable of growth or dreams or whatever. My priorities have changed, though. Where I choose to focus my energies has changed. That change is because I’ve finally figured some shit out.

Now that I’m older, I have a lot of things that I didn’t in those other eras. Stability, a sense of my strengths and weaknesses, money. The only thing I don’t have much more of now than then is time. But that’s because my life is so damn full. It’s bursting with things I never expected to have. Love, for one thing.

I often wonder what 15 year old Siege or 25 year old Craig would think of 35 year old Mr. Gusmann. I think they’d have a lot of questions about why I’m not a famous director or screenwriter, but ultimately they’d be ecstatic with where I am. It’s a helpful gauge when I’m feeling down, sometimes. On my worst days, when I hate my dayjob and Elijah won’t let me sit down for five minutes, and the house needs to be cleaned, and God damnit something broke, and the cat’s sneezing, and fuck what now–I can still look around and appreciate how all of these little annoyances are a direct result of my filling my life with people and things I love.

For me, each age has been better than the last. I’m determined to make sure that holds true, which means the beginning of this new era should be the best yet.

On Becoming a Fully Formed Adult

The face of a fully functioning adult.

Over five years ago I wrote a blog post titled, pretentiously, “The Ceaseless Onslaught of Adulthood or Pretension and the Act of Leaving Childhood Dreams to Children.” It’s about my feelings of getting older as a creative, and the push and pull between doing the responsible thing and doing the fulfilling thing.

Well, in the last five and a half years, I’ve further entrenched myself into adulthood, culminating with the purchase of my first house just two days ago. It’s a strange feeling, like a happy ending to a movie that you know is the middle chapter of a trilogy. I never had a clear distinction in my mind of what 33 year old me might be up to, but if 13 year old me did this probably wasn’t it.

There’s no way I could have imagined that I’d be married to who I’m married to, with the job I have, making the money I make (especially making the money I make, even if it’s not nearly as much as this sentence makes it sound like it is–growing up poor definitely put a cap on my conception of a good salary), and now living in the area I live with my own house.

Even ten years ago, around the time I first met my wife, I was making $10k per year through Americorps, working at an after school science program. I could barely make rent, had very few prospects, and felt like I was never going to escape my hometown. I was writing then, and had even just finished production on a movie I wrote (you can watch that, if you want), but was ignorant to what sort of writer I wanted to be, let alone how to become one.

Things wouldn’t get much better for a while. When I was 24 I did escape Buffalo. The next three years were hard. I was never able to get a foothold in my career, didn’t know how to make friends as an adult (actually… I still have trouble with that one), and spent almost as much time on unemployment as I did working. Luckily, I had a good support structure–something I know many others aren’t as fortunate to have.

I continued to write, entering screenplay competitions (and doing well in some, although never winning outright) and doing some freelance work to make ends meet. Still, no traction.

Fast forward to now and I’m by most metrics a successful adult. Wife, job, cats, house, car, etc. And I’m still writing. Still haven’t met with much success (as we covered last post). Sometimes the dream feels really far away, but more often I can still see it like a green light across the bay.

I initially meant for this post to say something about the act of getting older and turning pages in our lives. Maybe discuss nostalgia and what it does to us. But as I reflect on where I was at any other point in my life versus where I am now, I don’t feel much nostalgia. Beginning a new chapter feels natural and right, just as it did when I chose a different high school than my best friends. Just as it did when I left Buffalo, or when I followed my then-girlfriend (now wife) to New Jersey so she could pursue her Psy.D. Just as it does now, having closed on our first house.

The dream is still there. Maybe it’s evolved. Maybe it feels smaller now when compared with other life milestones. But it’s there. And it’s not going anywhere.

The Ceaseless Onslaught of Adulthood or Pretension and the Act of Leaving Childhood Dreams to Children

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an adult. I am an adult by any legal or biological definition, but I don’t necessarily feel like an adult. I’m not sure I think like an adult. I don’t particularly live the way a stereotypical adult may live. In most ways, I’m not sure I live up to the expectation of what an adult should be. Part of this feeling is the fact that I’m holding on to goals and ideals that I developed in childhood, either unable or unwilling to let them evolve into something different – like being a writer.

In a few months I’ll be turning 28 years old. In those 28 years, barring some sort of feverish inspiration or the miracle of being “discovered,” I’ll be able to point to a lot of minor successes. Black belt in a martial art that most view as more of a hobby than a threat, college degree I’ve never really used, regional dodgeball championship, writing and assistant directing an independent film, working as a “professional” – even if I was fired twice.

When I try to think of my life in those terms, it doesn’t seem so uneventful. My ambition has led me to some cool places and I’ve accomplished some unique things. But most of those accomplishments aren’t directly related to what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to write. Not to say I’ve failed, because I don’t think you can fail at something that is A.) completely subjective and B.) never given up on. If you never give up, the match is never over. You can’t call a winner until the match ends.

Still, I decided I wanted to be a writer and/or a filmmaker when I was young. I remember when writing first became a major thing for me. It was third grade. I wrote a story about a toy that turns out to be a time machine. The time machine and I go back to prehistoric times, where it loses a bolt (which was obviously the source of its time traveling powers) and we’re stranded. It was fun. It gave me a way to inhabit a world that was better than the one I’m forced to occupy day-to-day. I’ve never looked back.

But I’ve also never really figured it out. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t taken it seriously enough as a field of study until recently. So I think, “Gee, maybe I’m a late bloomer and I should focus on not being a starving artist well into my 40s or 50s.” I enter the adult world a toe at a time, always keeping an eye on my aspirations because if I don’t, they might disintegrate in the sunlight. First I move away from everything I love. Then I get a job in an office. I still write, more seriously than before, but don’t manage many steps forward. Eventually my priorities shift and things like a family, a career, and full independence seep their way into my skull, pushing the (perceived) glitz and glamor of becoming a screenwriter and working in Hollywood to the far periphery of my vision. It dawns on me that maybe it’s not as important as it once was. Maybe, just maybe, childhood dreams should be left in childhood.

Adults are supposed to live and die by routine. Adults are supposed to be responsible and hedge their bets – plan for the future while mitigating the risks that inherently presents. Adults are supposed to contribute to society in small but meaningful ways. Adults are supposed to be doing things I most definitely do not do.

The problem, in my eyes, anyway, is that being nearly 28 years old and still telling people that I want to be a writer reeks of pretension. It conjures images of people with fake glasses (“C’mon man, those fucking things don’t even have lenses.”) sitting in a coffee shop working in their own criticism-free bubble because they can’t afford an internet connection. It feels like showing off something I haven’t actually earned because to say you’re a writer automatically gives people the impression that you are, in some way, learned and disciplined and intellectual when that is rarely the actual case. It feels like I can say I want to be a writer instead of a carpenter or plumber because I have reached the pique of humanity and no longer need to develop the necessary skills to survive. Like the greek philosophers before me, my contribution to humanity will be in the form of thoughts that no one else has had. That, my friends, is not something I feel good about.

But then I pick up Bradbury. My hero. My idol. And, as it may very well turn out, my savior.

I’ve been reading his Zen in the Art of Writing and he speaks of writing as never growing up. It’s how he kept himself young until the day he died at age 91. He held onto his childhood fears and explored them as an adult. He viewed the world through the curious and giddy eyes of a child and used that constant inspiration to fuel his imagination. He didn’t let the pressures and expectations of a typical adult seep in and poison what he knew to be his creative lifeline.

The world places pressure on us to be a certain way. In childhood, it’s to conform to the latest trends – to fit in. We’re taught to follow direction, walk in line, be complacent. In adulthood, we can more easily let go of those things as we grow comfortable in our skin. We stop caring so much about fitting in. We totally ignore trends. We get better at choosing when to follow direction and when to improvise. We break out of the line. Our ambition ensures we’re never complacent. Instead, adulthood leads to new tics and commands. We’re told to be responsible. Start a family. Pay your bills. Keep out of trouble.

It’s not that I don’t agree with these lessons and commands. My problem, then, is the question of whether they can be separate from the creative life that is necessarily stuck in childhood or if there is a way to intertwine the two without undue stresses? Can I work a professional job to pay my bills while balancing a family and live half of my life in a fantasy world driven by my imagination and fears?

A better question, then: Is there a choice? Writing is what makes me happy. Over the past year and a half or so, I’ve found the chances of success as a writer of any kind slowly seeming slimmer and slimmer as my ego takes its beatings like a good soldier. Money and success are becoming less of a motivator to keep going. It has to be that way because, as I’ve learned and have had to accept, 95% of people that call themselves “artists” either hold other jobs to make ends meet or barely eke out a living in their art form. Plain and simple, that’s the reality of pursuing this sort of dream. Artists, by and by, are contractors and contractors work job-to-job with no guarantee that the one they’re working now won’t be the last one they ever work.

There has to be more to keep going. For me, it may come down to the fact that I don’t want to let go of childhood. I have the same friends I’ve had since I was a kid, why can’t I have the same ambitions? Not only does it feel safe, it makes me happy. In a world where every day can be a struggle to please someone or to get by, my friends and my ambitions help me to look forward to the next day.

Ultimately, then, maybe becoming an adult isn’t about letting go of the things we held so dearly as children. Maybe being an adult is fulfilling those responsibilities while holding on to a youthful exuberance. Maybe the act of retreating into my childhood aspirations and letting them act as a reprieve and solution to the pressures of adult life is a good thing.

Maybe, like Bradbury, writing will keep me as young as I wish I still were.

© 2022 Craig Gusmann

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑