Friday, March 06, 2009
PLANET P, “WHY ME?”, AND ME.
I’ve been playing an “80s song of the day” via Twitter and Facebook over the past few weeks, purely as an exercise in fun and nostalgia. Despite the decade’s more… unusual excesses… it did manage to turn out some decent music. And some music that’s so awful that you have to celebrate the fact that someone still managed to get it recorded, published, and into stores. But it wasn’t until yesterday (March 5th) that I actually played a song that meant something to me. What surprised me, though, was just how much the music seeped back into my brain as it played, and the memories and feelings it would dredge up.
The song is “Why Me?” by the band Planet P (Project), a side effort by musician Tony Carey. The first Planet P album is a masterpiece of wonder and concept, and while Carey has only released two more records under that band name (the latest one after a twenty-year hiatus), they don’t compare to that initial effort. “Why Me?” is, on the surface, the lament of an astronaut launching into a journey and coming to regret the isolation that this duty has brought into his soul.
”Watching all the lights blink down below… the Earth is turning, why does it go so slow?”
So what makes it special to me? I’m not an astronaut, after all. Simply put: it was probably the first time that I listened to a song and realized what it was REALLY about beyond the lyrics. Sure, there’s a deeper message about isolation in the lyrics, but that’s not what the song is about.
“Why Me?” is about someone fulfilling a destiny that they want no part of. About getting so caught up in a culture that pushes excellence upon its members that you can lose sight of what you really want and instead do what everyone expects of you. About how living within that culture becomes an addiction and realizing your addiction only when it has come closest to destroying you.
I understood what the song was about very, very well.
”Houston can you hear me? Or have I lost my mind?”
To say that my youth was spent in a culture that pushed excellence would be an understatement. I was part of an amazing group of fellow geniuses that thrived on pushing each other higher and farther in our intellectual pursuits. Billy, Eric, Tina, Jill and I found ways every day to raise our level of performance past the others, forcing the rest to take note and think about ways to keep up. It wasn’t just school. It was practically a sport. And even though I played sports incessantly, and worked as a sports reporter, our group made for the most competitive environment I’ve ever been around.
It was brutal. Whether it was a class presentation or the speed at which one completed a math test, there was an unrelenting pressure to be better, no excuses.
And like an addict, I craved it. A huge part of me thrived on it, because there was nothing better than the thrill of having a day where you felt like you had set the standard for everyone else. But there was also a part of me, a small one at first, that I began to see what was happening as a disease.
I was diseased.
”There must be a thousand other guys… must be some other way to look good in your eyes…”
So that’s how I went into high school. Feeling like a part of me was diseased. Wrong. All (not so) wonderful emotions for a 14-year old, for sure. But there’s really not a damned thing you can do about it at that point.
I couldn’t exactly say “Fuck this- I just want to be happy, find out who I am, and let academics go.” I was shouldering huge expectations from my family as well. I wasn’t going to get any sort of large college dollars from any of them. So the focus on scholarship money, etc. was prominent. But as desperate as I felt, I was also feeding the addict, because I didn’t know any other way.
Being around my friends (and I love them all dearly to this day- I was lucky to have them in my life, and know that it was a privilege) was like… like I was an alcoholic living in an apartment upstairs from a bar. Morning brought a new fix as I walked through those glass doors. How could I screw up my life that fresh, new day? I’d find a way.
Then the worst possible thing happened.
Each year there was an academic awards ceremony, giving out top awards in various categories, as well as a “Student of the Year” award (male and female) for each (freshman, sophomore, etc.) class. My freshman year, I won the award.
I was soooooooo fucked.
One, you could only win the award once. So there was this stunning feeling that I had maxed out and had nowhere to go but down for the next three years. Two, it simply demonstrated that my addiction to my own competitive nature had actually paid off. Talk about mixed messages! So after it was all over, and I was home and allowed to show my true feelings about what was happening to me (to my mirror, not to my mother- I trusted only me at that point, and even then, not very much), I had my first inclination to run.
”Hey, let me out of here… what am I here for?”
It wouldn’t be the last time my fight-or-flight instinct kicked in. At least one other time I was really close, going so far as to figure out the logistics of how it would work. And, ironically, I suppose I sort of did in the long run by moving to the desert. But there no question that I had begun to crack around the edges, and that added a new problem: I was going to have to work harder to fake my way through it all.
Yes, the competitiveness encompassed emotional states as well. Never let ‘em see you sweat, and none of us ever did. Invincibility can be a curse, and I focused my energy to trying to make it look like my struggles could just be passed off as moodiness. And I’m reasonably certain that a good number of the people I went to school with would tell you to this day, twenty years later, that I am one of the moodiest bastards they’ve ever known.
Mom would be so proud.
Throw in some family issues to go with all of it, and I was in full retreat. I had my moments of joy, of course, and I had some wonderful friends who took the edge off of that feeling. Sometimes, I even felt a real sense of self-worth, not just the one I could fake like an Oscar-caliber actor.
”Why am I up here? What do they see in me? Must be a thousand other places to be.”
Over the past six months or so, the internet has brought many people back into my life from back then, old classmates living their new lives. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling experience in many ways, yet bittersweet in others.
As a person who left and had very little contact with anyone over the past two decades, I suppose when I began reaching out I was guessing that there might be some sort of mild curiosity factor and people might actually talk to me. For a short while, at least, until they remembered what I pill I was as a kid. Then I figured I’d get dropped and folks would move on. But that hasn’t been the case at all. I’ve had wonderful experiences with people. Time has taken us to different places, and while that time has taken the edge off of me and I’ve evolved into a wildly different man than they knew, old friends have also been open to seeing me in that light. For that, I’m enormously grateful.
The bittersweet comes from looking now and seeing all I missed. These extraordinary people (that tolerated my bullshit) have lived amazing lives, and being privy to some of it now, I feel the sense of loss that comes with time and tide having passed you by. Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, illnesses.
My first semester at ASU I floundered badly, earning the first “C”s of my academic career. I struggled with discipline, but mostly I struggled with motivation. It took me a while to figure it out, but it was because I was going through the DTs. I had no one to compete with. No one pushing me and keeping me moving forward. Ironically enough, I got what I had always wanted, but didn’t know how to handle it. It took me those first few months to settle in and begin to figure out who I was without my “drug.” Second semester, I got myself together and began to feel the disease slip away. My self-hatred began to calm, and my personality began to develop on its own (if perhaps a bit late).
So the question of “why me?” stopped being a lament. Instead, I learned how to add a word: why NOT me? Open for the first time, I could explore the world on my terms; live the life that I wanted to live. Which has brought me to here. This place in my mind, in my heart, where I am part of a destiny that I do not fear and can embrace.
A thousand other places to be? Sure. But I wouldn’t be anywhere, or anyone, else.