Wednesday, April 09, 2008

I am weirder than you

Once upon a time, my mother and my mother-in-law were visiting at the same time...and actually achieving rapport. (I hear the married people among you gasp; for the benefit of the rest of you, mother and mother-in-law working together can generate exponentially more aggravation than either of them alone. Go rent The In-Laws if you don't believe me.) At any rate, they were commiserating about how unreasonable and unmanageable Mark and I were, individually and collectively.

"It's like they're having a contest to see who can be weirder," my mother opined.

Well, let me tell you, I Win. Naturally Mark doesn't want to admit defeat, but I know I've got it locked. Not only am I weirder than him, I'm weirder than you.

It's tempting to blame my father. Evidently it was his idea to name me Barbara, the accepted meaning of which is Stranger. He loved the cognitive dissonance generated by pairing it with Friend, which of course was my last name until I married Mark and added his to the mix. Any Rosicrucian worth his salt can tell you that enlightenment can be achieved by disciplining one's mind to accommodate contradictory truths: what they call achieving modulated paradox. (Knowing that, of course, is one of the things that makes me Weirder Than You.) But my father is a very logical person, so I don't think that was the intent.

Nevertheless, there it is: he named me Stranger, and I am.

I realized recently that one of the things that marks me as different from the norm is my taste for the edge in my business and creative lives. Most people crave safety; I'd rather work without a net. I'm not an adrenaline junkie; it's just that the places where they string the nets are not interesting, and I'd rather have a rich intellectual and creative life. Mark and I have spent our adult lives embroiled in one start-up and/or privately-held business venture after another. There's no net out here; we swing from one chandelier to the next. Sometimes it's fairly hair-raising, but none of the mistakes we've made have killed us, and very few of them were irreparable. We exchange the feeling that we are safe and everything is under control, which is most people's primary motivation for choosing big established companies when they look for jobs, for the opportunity to make our own mistakes, do our own art (his is a scientific rather than *artistic* art, but the principle is the same) and pursue our own visions.

It is my current belief that there are certain experiences which change a person so profoundly and irrevocably that it becomes almost impossible to remember what it was to exist on the other side of that experiential line. Becoming a parent, particularly the parent of more than one child, is one of those things: when you are truly responsible for another human who you know will not thrive unless you give them heart and soul, that changes everything. People who have crossed into the parent zone share understandings that people who have not had the experience will never really comprehend unless they make the same crossing.

Likewise, declaring oneself a professional in the arts works a profound change on the artist. There the responsibility is to one's self; but the necessity of taking responsibility rather than waiting for the Gods of Art to come down and anoint one changes works a change in one's artistic life which is nearly as profound as the transition to parenthood: we become, in effect, artistic adults. Becoming a pro liberated me; I now believe that has a lot to do with the fact that I came out where I did, on the independent side of the line. Becoming a pro finally gave me the control to go with my outside-the-norm ideas.

I have only recently recognized that choosing start-up or independent business models is another of those paradigm-changing choices. Those of us who run our business lives from the chandeliers share experiences and attitudes that people who gravitate towards the feeling of safety view as just plain nuts. We're accustomed to being in the fray of business, to dealing with whatever comes our ways, rather than being insulated; we take for granted that we will make mistakes, but that we will survive and learn from our mistakes, and we know from experience that very few of the mistakes we make will be uncorrectable. We accept all this in order to pursue our own visions, and most of the time we take for granted that this is just the way things are: because we know that working without a net is the price of doing the work that lets us grow.

Wynette likens running your own business to running the Iditarod. I find real resonance in that: running the Iditarod is -- well, am I the only person who has noticed the similiarity of its spelling to the word idiot? It seems a senseless activity. You assemble your team and drive out into the middle of nowhere, under conditions that could potentially kill you. People who have been through the Iditarod not only share an experience, a mode of being, that the rest of us can only look at in puzzlement, but are driven to repeat the experience over and over. Mark and I have been running the Iditarod, metaphorically speaking, for about 20 years now. We haven't won yet; but it hasn't killed us, either, and we've managed to raise two fantastic humans and have some wonderful intellectual and creative adventures along the way.

To outsiders, I know, a high percentage of what I do looks crazy. But I must swing from the chandeliers, indeed must have a fistful of exposed wiring, if I am to reach my potential. It's just one of the things that makes me weird. I am grateful to have a husband and creative partners who understand and are willing to join me out here, beyond the nets.

(Yes, we are secretly having more fun out here. Anyone who has ever heard me laugh the Evil Laugh will surely understand.)

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