When I was a wee thing, a bucktoothed, brown-haired short girl who lived in books and sketched guidelines for utopian societies with byzantine rules of conduct on scraps of paper and hoarded them away because I sensed, even at that age, that there might be something odd about my interests, I was very very shy. I grew up with family that got drunk and cussed and threw food and raised their voices to get a word in edgewise; among cousins who played Survival and formed strategic teams for which you never, ever wanted to be picked last lest you find yourself tied up and left too close to an antbed after your team got its ass kicked in bottlerocket wars; with an artist mother who hated poetry and music and a musical father who would play the guitar and sing you to sleep in between disappearing for three days at a time on a bender. I wasn’t sure what to do with my voice at first. People usually didn’t act like I expected them to, didn’t respond like I thought they would, and were a little bit… volatile… and I had a keen sense of tragedy and injustice and embarrassment, like most 9 year olds, and did what I could to avoid getting called out on anything at all.
It’s a blessing that books were always valued, or I probably wouldn’t have survived childhood. Even Granddaddy, who would come home drunk for the Foreign Legion at 1 a.m. and put the basenji, Mohammed, on the mantlepiece, wake my grandmother to have her clean and cook turnip greens that a friend had given him in a paper bag, rouse the kids to feed them pork skins or some other Southern dainty that he had acquired on his nightly beer-soaked pickup truck journeys – even granddaddy read. You would tiptoe in on Sunday afternoon and find him on the sofa, asleep, with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand and a copy of National Geographic or Kahlil Gibran or Edgar Cayce on his plaid-shirt-covered belly.

Grandma favored the Bible and James Whitcomb Riley and children’s books about How To Behave and Why, but I always suspected that had at least something to do with finding the strength to get through all those nights of waking up at 1 a.m. to clean turnip greens for six kids and, later, fifteen grandkids. She was pragmatic, Grandma, and didn’t have much use for past lives or beer or the fate of the bushmen in the Kalahari. But she encouraged us to read and valued books, even when the primary value lay in making booster seats out of boxes full of old Readers Digests.

It was a good thing, because outside the (relative) safety of the family, I didn’t know how to talk to people, didn’t know how to make friends, always befriended the kid nobody liked because she smelled funny or picked her nose, got my hair pulled on the playground for the unforgivable combination of transgressions that came from being bookish, being short, being shy, being unfashionable, having hippie parents who made their own granola, and getting called on too much by the teacher (in other words, being a suck up, in elementary school vernacular).

By the time I was a pre-teen, I still hadn’t really figured out how I was supposed to act around people, what I was supposed to say, how I was supposed to be included in their lunchroom conversations about video games I’d never played, marshmallow cereals I’d never eaten, and visits to the mall I’d never taken, but thank all the gods in heaven I’d found a few shy, bookish, weird friends to talk with about fiction and poetry and pimples and parents and the sheer unfairness of life.

And after a while, that didn’t matter either, because, thank all the gods in hell, I found the Sex Pistols. And a host of other things that came quickly on their heels into my life. Like homemade tattoos. And ripped fishnets. And a way to inject vodka into oranges so I could take them to school. And friends who didn’t care if you knew how to make small talk or not. And music both of my parents hated instead of just my mother. And Siouxsie Sioux. And how to have a social life that centered around sneaking out of the house at midnight, having fumbling illicit drunken underage sex, breaking bottles, and hanging out in such exotic and exciting locales as drainage ditches and graveyards — places with no cover charge where nothing was (ostensibly) for sale.

Needless to say, I didn’t pick up any really marketable or viable social skills in high school. Matter of fact, I got kicked out, twice, which would have been really “cool” if I’d done it on purpose, but I hadn’t.

I still read, feverishly, ferociously, and I wrote. I copied song lyrics, read the backs of shampoo bottles when I was grounded from my tape collection or the library for bringing home one too many books about witchcraft or leaving one too many classroom-passed notes with Dead Kennedys lyrics scrawled on them for my father’s eyes to see. I read the encylopedia. I read my mom’s old art history books. I wrote gloomy, awful, adolescent poetry about razor blades and depression. I wrote little punk-rock fantasies about people with cooler hair than I had. I had a head full of words I didn’t know how to pronounce because I had never heard anybody say them out loud, and a stable full of friends who were, quite simply, Not Polite Society. I didn’t know how regular people dated — getting randomly handcuffed to somebody in the parking lot of a local punk show seemed like as good a way as any to hook up — and I didn’t know what regular people talked about, except it seemed like it was mostly the opposite sex and the prom and the mall and Getting That Driver’s License and new shoes. I lived inside my head, and inside books, and in drainage ditches on the weekends, and for a year I lived in group therapy, turning myself inside out on a daily basis with an adolescent audience of twelve or so kids who were also misfits but of a different tribe. And, oh, how we cared about those tribes. Even in residential treatment, the preps didn’t hang out with the punks, and the anorexics didn’t hang out with the suicides. I breathed Anne Sexton all day long, ate smuggled Valium and Tylox, and thought my disorders slightly superior, at least in part by virtue of their being more poetic — and more Punk.

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