This is the story I've been working on,
I share it in hopes of inspiring others to not isolate themselves from the world due to fear, depression, alienation...
We are all in a state of constant flux between stagnation and growing, fear and love, chaos and harmony. We all hurt, we all have secrets, but the more we open up to the world, the more we can connect and reach out, however it is we can, with whatever means we have to create or use our voice, together, we can all heal.
Thank you in advance for reading this. This is in many ways the closest thing I have ever tried to write of a "life story." It is about half done, at least in how my teeth have affected my life, up until the present, and the exciting new chapter I am writing right now. I intend to document as much of this process as I can, and perhaps one day, it will finally be the book I've wanted to write for the past 10 years, that can inspire the world.
Part One - Perspective
I am an only child. I was born 2 months premature to a 15 year old mother and 22 year old father, weighing 3 pounds, 9 ounces. The doctor apparently told my parents that night, "it's not as if you can't have another." I lost about a pound of weight, and spent the first several weeks of my new life in an incubator with jaundice. Many might say it was a "miracle" I survived.
According to all of my memories, I was raised by loving grandparents, and 4 aunts and uncles ranging from nine to seventeen years older than me. I was always told by my grandmother that they were "just too young...they were kids themselves...they didn't know how to take care of you." I grew up with "real parents" that came to visit me on Sundays for a few hours I never really felt a connection with, who would bring me candy and occasionally toys, and for the majority of my childhood, pay my grandmother $15.00 per week for my school lunches and just...you know...for taking care of me. Apparently in their minds, that is all it took to raise a child. But that as they say...is another story.
I was by all means, Lucky. So many children I am sure are abandoned and neglected (or shaken to death!) in this country by ignorant young parents and in so many regards, I had far more of a family and a home than they, but I certainly nonetheless still grew up with many "issues" due to my relationship with my parents. It wasn't until only a few months ago that I learned from my aunts and uncles more of the circumstances surrounding how I came to live with my grandparents. There is no short supply of bitterness and resentment in my mother when speaking about them and the family that actually raised me, though i have always hoped somewhere deep inside it was really due to regret, but nonetheless her perspective would never admit these truths to me, one of these truths I speak of being that my mother used to always try to pawn me off on my aunt Carol to watch me so she could skip school and get drunk. I did live with my parents for the better part of my first year, but it was always described to me as a child like they brought me to my grandparents like a gift while they tried to save money and get on their feet and get along better. I only a few months ago learned that in fact, my grandmother (who everyone in the family calls "Ma") one day went to visit them and found my bed was covered in maggots from old rotting food nearby and i had flea bites and she could not take it anymore and took me from them. Funny thinking back to the confusion of my childhood now, and who I was always told were my "real parents," and who were just my grandparents.
|Me and my grandparents in North Wolcott, NY|
|This picture hung above my grandfather's chair for as long as I can remember.|
So I was a miracle, a gift...one last chance for my grandparents who had raised 7 kids, to have another. I was always thought of as special and unique. I seemed for whatever reason far different than the rest of the family, and often got more spoiled and had more freedoms that would have been unheard of no doubt with my aunts and uncles. Honestly, I think in a way they were afraid. After they all began raising me and loved me, I think they were subconsciously fearful of that day down the road that my parents would finally grow up and accept responsibility for their actions and come back to get me. So I think they tried to be as nice to me as possible, so as not to make me want to leave them. I don't know, but some things I seemed to often just get away with. My memory somewhat betrays me, but I know that Ma wiped my butt still til I was well into my first year or two of school. We didn't have hot water until I was probably around eight, and I remember always hopping up on the kitchen table before school in my underwear for her to bathe me with a washcloth and soapy water heated on the stove. I chalk it up to the lack of nurturing in my first year and my confusion of neglect by my other mother that made me require more attention, but whatever it was, it just seemed like in areas of hygiene, I grew up with no self-confidence, discipline or sense of responsibility whatsoever. I never wanted my hair combed, and more than anything chore, ever, for some reason I absolutely HATED when the time came each night to brush my teeth.
Somehow, more often than not, i got away with it. There were no spankings, no being sent to bed without any supper, mostly it seemed just a calm acceptance, or a trust at least that when I was asked if I indeed did brush my teeth during that time in the bathroom before bed, that I actually did, and did effectively. Although my aunt Barb I often remember tried to inspire me with fear, "You don't want to grow up with bad teeth like your Mommy and Daddy that hurt all the time, do you?" I grew up for the majority of my childhood barely ever brushing my teeth at all. And when weekend love came in the form of candy bars from parents who were each immature themselves with two mouthfuls of pain and negativity, I blew through my first set of baby teeth before I ever knew what tooth enamel was.
|Random school pictures, I believe from Pre-1st, 2nd and 5th grades|
I only have two memories of ever visiting a dentist's office. The first time I was in 4th grade, and I felt so proud being able to tell my teacher and friends that it took not one but FIVE shots of novacaine before they could finally remove my tooth. Those teeth didn't matter anyway, right? The quicker they came out, the easier it would be for the next ones to find their parking space. By the time I hit middle school, my mother began to get more and more frustrated with me during her visits, her and Ma always arguing about SOMEthing I didn't want to do. In 6th grade, I still didn't want to comb my hair, let alone wash it. She also seemed to grow up angry at Ma for always parting my hair on the side, whereas apparently to her it was meant to be parted in the middle like hers. Instead of ever trying to simply speak in a calm manner and TEACH me any of the things that she yelled at Ma for apparently not teaching, it seemed she would just scold me like a dog who shit on the floor, when it was her fault for never letting them outside. Further evidence of this can be found in my parent's lifelong disgusting house, where 5-7 inbred poodles roam free at any given time barking their heads off and shitting all over the floor while one of my parents screams at them. Look anywhere around their hoarder's house and you will find piss and shit and dried up old newspapers that once covered it strewn about, with an apathetic, defensive attitude that almost suggests that no one else in the world possibly would raise dogs in any other way.
Somewhere during this tense time of frustration with me when my mother would always be bitching about SOMEthing, whether it be my "caked-in dandruff" in the checkout of the grocery store or that I didn't take off my school clothes or whatever she could think of to complain about whenever she saw me, it became time for my second dental visit. (I do want to point out however that though I was incredibly shy, lacked confidence and the responsibility to take care of myself, that I had better grades than anyone in the family ever had, and was not only in a gifted art program as early as 2nd grade, but also was one of only two people in my grade of a hundred to be in my school's gifted and talented program from third through eighth grade when it was cut from the budget, during which time I recall not a single "Good Job" or "Congratulations.") This dental visit I don't really recall much of except that I had to put a mask over my face and got to watch myself blowing up a balloon through it...and waking up with a mouthful of gauze and a bloody hole in my mouth. Apparently when I was unconscious my mother had been talking to the dentist, and later reported to me with authority, that they confided, that "it ain't gonna matter if you brush your teeth or not, the dentist said that they are so bad they are going to rot from the inside out, not matter what you do." For a kid with already low self-esteem and poor body image being one of the skinniest and smallest 3 kids in the whole class, who happened to hate brushing his teeth to begin with, this was just the permission I needed from my "real mother" I was "supposed to listen to" to virtually abandon the chore altogether from that point on...
|Me caught playing Nintendo in my messy room in 7th grade.|
That last photo I'm aware of that exists with me smiling with an open mouth is my eighth grade school picture.
It was later that year that my grandfather died, and my parents for the first time in my whole life when I was fifteen suddenly decided to ask me if I wanted to come live with them. I know in some way, the repercussions of their repeated abandonment of me are connected with my own repeated abandonment of care for proper hygiene during that time of my life. Why, after all, should I respect the orders of someone telling me to clean my room each week, when they had the filthiest house I had ever seen? They simply couldn't fathom why, after all these years, that I didn't want to live with them, and in turn mostly stopped visiting for the remainder of my time in high school.
The time after my grandfather's death was lonely and confusing. He was no doubt the closest thing to a real life hero that I had. He was simply so funny, so generous, so...weird. He was always tinkering with something in his shed, always fixing something (or breaking it) and gave me my first tools at an early age that inspired me to do likewise, one Christmas getting lectured by my mother for taking apart all my toys, like, somehow that made them worthless or broken to her, but far more exciting, interesting, and full of knowledge to me. For a few years after he died, I spent a great deal of time alone, playing video games, playing in the 125 acres of fields and woods and creeks that our landlord owned, or working on art. My aunts and uncles had all left but my uncle Robert, and to me, it felt like the heart of my family was gone. Ma and I eventually were forced to go on welfare, and with neither of us having a license or a car or family that came around as much, I think that both of us continued to feel more and more abandoned and lonely.
|Ma and I at Niagra Falls, Summer 1993|
Though we spent a great deal of time together, watching television and putting together jigsaw puzzles and borrowing movies from our neighbor, I became more and more inward and focused on my morbid art and writing. Growing up shy in a small hicktown in upstate NY with an old-fashioned family without transportation during most of my adolescence did not exactly allow me to find my extroverted side. TV and games and food and our yard were all the life we often had, and though I spent huge amounts of time on couches and eating junkfood others never imagined would be possible, I never gained weight. Being skinny my whole life made me self-conscious enough in school, but when my lack of brushing my teeth began to catch up with me around tenth grade, I became a whole different person. While I tried to empower myself with descriptive words like "quiet, deep, introspective poet' and "sensitive, serious artist," I knew in my head that it was all bullshit, and what I was, really was, was a coward who was filled with regret. When everyone else was partying and learning to drive and getting laid, I was home hiding in my room working out and watching movies of hero underdogs saving the day or overcoming their fears. When i graduated high school with the record for being able to do the most pull-ups in the school, make no mistake that it was because I spent the past 3 years trying to compensate for my broken smile.
If you ask me now, I am not even sure how it got so bad. I didn't grow up getting regular medical or dental care, and I was terrified of doctors because I spent my whole childhood in hospitals watching my grandfather slowly die every few years. When I first began to have molars that hurt, I honestly had no idea what to do. My parents at that point weren't visiting or really even much talking to the family because all of my aunts and uncles of course were on MY side, being the ones who truly raised me and cared for me my whole life. We never really had insurance, and until my senior year, were mostly surviving off of about eight grand a year in Ma's social security. The more that cavities started to appear, the more it became easier for me to just take tylenol and not tell her than to make her worry about any additional expenses when we already didn't really have any extra. By the time I was 17, I had cavities in three of my top front teeth and virtually no enamel resembling anything pearly or white when I opened my mouth...so I quit opening it.
|Me at my house in the room that used to be my uncle Robert's. 18 years old in 1995.|
Over time I learned to speak while opening my mouth less and less, my lifelong shyness easily befriending my new habit of mumbling through tight lips and rarely looking people in the face while speaking to them. I lost whatever confidence I ever might have had in talking to girls or making positive, smily first impressions, and took on the reputation of a quiet, deep, brooding poet and artist. It seemed the more I allowed myself to easily fall into this role, the more I succumbed to speak with the sarcastic and often negative and critical tongue of my bitter, absent mother. It was also around this time that I began writing to penpals as an outlet to communicate in a way that did not require anyone to be able to see my face when talking to me, god forbid they might, just might, catch a glimpse of my imperfect teeth. Long before the days of the internet, I still had at one point, ten penpals from the surrounding states, whom I began to spend hours each day writing out my every thought to in letters. For about a year straight with all the spare time that I had I wrote and wrote and wrote, learning to capture every moment, however mundane from my solitary life with my widowed grandmother to share with the world, somewhere out there, where people existed I dreamed might not judge me for my teeth if I could just talk to them enough and show them how awesome I was before they might finally get to meet me one day and learn that I was in fact, "White Trash."
|Me at the Sterling Renaissance Festival the day that I met my penpal Sonya. Summer 1996.|
Part Three - College
College came and went in a heartbeat, and my sad tragedy only continued. "Oswego's Most Promising Young Artist Continually Alienated By His Appearance Despite Gifts." "Bright and Inspiring Student Racks Up $10K in Credit Card Debt on Alcohol and CDs To Avoid Issues." By sophomore year, I had lost a front tooth, and avoided every possible conversation I ever could about the dentist, that Halloween trying to explain to a room full of my closest friends why I was offended that they all dressed up as "white trash" without actually telling anyone specifically why I was so sensitive to that term. My closest and most inspiring female friend I had ever had since the second month of school I allowed to become my "best friend" when for that year and many after I would in my heart know that she was the first true woman that I was ever felt like i was in love with, though I was always unable to tell her. My first front tooth actually broke in half while I was eating a toasted sandwich with her in the dining hall and to this day it was one of the most terrifying moments of my life, scared that my closest friend in the world I thought I had the biggest crush on with perfect teeth from her rich father the Supreme Court judge in the Bronx might finally discover how truly white trash I was and...and...WHAT? Think I was gross? Not want to ever love me, or even love me as STILL her "best friend," who just happened to have fucked-up teeth? Who back then might have been the first friend I might have ever had who would've offered to go to the dentist with me, or convinced me to use my credit cards on the dentist instead of beer and CDs and band tshirts. How or why I let my teeth build a wall of perpetual fear around my life and between that and my connections with others I honestly still don't fully understand. I don't know what it is about losing small parts of one's body over time that makes you unable to trust people, but to me it always seemed like the more my teeth decayed, the harder and harder it was for me to fully ever believe that anyone else with perfect teeth would not abandon me if they knew my secret. The more I was afraid to open myself up to people I became close with or become vulnerable with crushes I had because I thought if we kissed, they would KNOW, and they would be grossed out and offended. Thus began a pattern of me having crushes on people that ultimately became "best friends" that I was always waiting for the perfect moment of connection and mutual trust that I could finally confide my secret with...but it never came. Christine, though still my best friend for several years, transferred and later got married--and I can't deny if on that day, even though I was seeing someone else, that I wasn't filled with immense regret that I had never acted on my feelings. Even if we might have afterward still decided to be best friends, at least I would have taken that risk after two years of college thinking about it every single day. Beth one day just quit talking to me after weeks of what I'm sure were missed opportunities I was too shy and scared to accept, telling me I was too negative and that people "don't like being told they are wrong all the time." Ashley moved back to Rochester and continued to date another crop of unappreciative men for another few summers before our connection faded. Lizz made out with me two years late when we were both drinking and our friendship never really recovered from the awkwardness that followed, or my bitterness that I didn't seem good enough for her in my mind.
I was going to graduate college with the reputation of a true, hotshot NY art critic, eager to go tear the world of bad art with no content a new ass. One friend confided if I ever became an art critic, they were giving up being an artist. At the time I considered that perhaps the greatest compliment I could get. I had honed my tight-lipped commentary and scowling, finger-pointing to an art form in and of itself over the past four years, and my sarcastic jokes and criticism often became the focus of my every conversation. My new career was interrupted my last semester however, by my first confusing attempt at a girlfriend, and her ultimate admittance that I was sort of being used to cheat on her other dumb boyfriend back home. Part of me was just mindfucked for the first time letting someone in that close to my secret, naked world. The other part of me felt cheated...for having someone that close, sooo close, and still not getting the answer I had wanted all these years: "Okay, now that you know this secret of mine, how does that make you feel? Do you think any less of me? Does it gross you out to be intimate with me?" I barely did any work for the rest of the semester, though I did write the first poem that truly captured my raw honest inner emotions about the way that Becca made me feel, and left college with my BFA feeling like I had been cheated out of the supposedly happiest, craziest memories of my life somehow, still a virgin, never having really fell in love, never "came out of my shell," not even really wanting to make art anymore. Whose fault was it? Was it my parents? My grandparents? Mine? I don't know. I still don't know. But I know if I could have taken it all back and began college with perfect teeth, I would have had a very different and much more free experience, and have no idea where I would be or what I might be doing right now.
|Taken by Lizz. Last semester of college, 2000|
Part Four - Patterns, Katie
If I were to write it all out in detail, what would follow for the next nearly ten years would be more of the same. More crushes and missed connections, more bitterness, increasingly cynical poetry, perpetual feelings of being misunderstood. If you carry around a secret long enough, it begins to define you. The more lies your inner critic tells you, the harder it is to rewrite a single sentence of the story of your life that you offer with your every subtle action to everyone you meet each day. Over the years, I became known by some people as a variety of nicknames unspoken to me. "Oh, the really negative guy?" "Angry Paul?" Sometimes, they almost become terms of endearment. Volunteering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, my friend Jaimie proudly refered to me as "The Cynical Voice of Reason!" I even learned to find my own sense of pride and integrity for the way I behaved, always feeling like I was at least the ONE person who had the balls to say what was on other's minds who didn't. But it was also usually always the negative thing. Idolizing Bill Hicks for years may have helped me tap into my blunt honesty and shifted my gears from criticizing bad art to the dominant culture instead, but he also gave me another reason to strip my tongue of any tact it might have once had. Combine that with years of my mother's painful pissing contests and guilt trips of everyone around her and throw in a perpetual desire to always have the last word, and you've got a pretty good idea of how I've managed to alienate many of the people who were once my friends and acquaintances over the past decade. And now remind yourself, if you know me at all and have taken the time to see through my harsh exterior and talk about my passions with me, that deep within the fragile face I've erected such a serious eyebrow wrinkle over for the past 18 years, is an extremely sensitive, compassionate, caring, generous, honest, loving person with one of the biggest hearts you will probably ever meet. And think of how it might feel, for over half of your life, to let something that might seem so insignificant to others, completely control your life and affect your every action and how the world perceives you, and every moment threaten to never let the world know the real you because of fear.
|Silly photobooth pics of me and Katie taken at Great Northern Mall in Clay, NY 2003.|
When I was twenty-five, I fell in love for the first time with an eight-teen year old who caught me completely off guard during probably the worst and most depressing times of my life after I got a DUI and was stuck living alone in a new suburb with no friends, unable to drive for the past several months. For a while, I almost managed to finally overcome my fears and trust her. But when it did finally reach the moment of truth and she one day realized that she had never seen me smile a REAL smile and wanted to see my teeth and I awkwardly refused to show her for a half an hour, it destroyed me that I still felt she would abandon me if she knew the "real" me. She agreed to stop pressuring me if I would at least show her pictures that night, and I spent one of the most awkward nights of my life trying to take webcam pictures of myself thinking of nothing but our happiest most bliss-filled joyous moments and trying to free myself to contort my lips into a shape that had not regularly taken in almost 10 years. Her first response I remember still was, "That looks like it hurts. A LOT." and of course that I was "still beautiful" but I still don't think for the months that followed of our intense, eleven month romance that I ever truly believed it. The mindfuck is, not knowing if she genuinely meant it, or if I actually myself really believed I was indeed beautiful. If I did, why would I ever really care what anyone else thought? Why did I always seek approval, though rarely finding the courage to even give anyone the chance TO tell me if I was still beautiful or not?
Part Five - Poetry and Integrity
The questions and perpetual internal struggles of my own integrity and hypocrisy have haunted me for years. After Katie and I broke up in 2003 I turned to writing again quite intensely and for a time performing at three open mics per week. Our love had been a period of rejuvenation for my lonely spirit, and though our relationship ended badly, I knew that I was a much stronger, more mature person than she who was more in tune with who they really were and what they wanted. I poured myself into my writing for the first time in years, completely intent on being as honest and true to my real feelings as possible. I was determined to share my pain and my perspective with the world, and to be as blunt as possible as an antidote to so much of the cliched, uninspired poetry of "support group" open mics as I thought of them. While there was no denying that I wore my heart and my passion and my opinions on my sleeve through my words at that time, there was always a certain edge that was missing from it. No matter how true to myself I was and all I inspired and touched with my words, I still always felt cowardly and dishonest, because even in a few sentences on a page, I could never bare to write about my teeth, nor could I perform with the charismatic stage presence of those who slammed because I couldn't face an audience without the shield of my pages in front of me, and I couldn't project and inflect courageously because missing teeth made enunciation a chore.
Although my writing was always very personal and a source of great pride for me, with the inability to ever perform with the voice that I dreamed of, it felt as though even through my writing I could never overcome my darkest fear. I recorded a spoken word CD and even earned a feature in NYC, but utimately felt like a failure, and began to move in a different direction to try to focus on visual arts again, helping to found a new art collective back in my old college town. I started over again, made a new group of friends, and pushed repeat on the narrative of my tortured existence in isolation. I stumbled upon an exciting new connection for the first time since Katie with my friend Sarah who I met at SUNY Oswego's new social justice group. Here I was again, 4 years later, still trying to connect with college kids and relive the past I'd ultimately deemed a failure. Sarah graduated and left before I could ever get out the words I wished to share with her, and after proceeding to alienate myself from many of the friends I had made in the community because I lost all passion for making art with my biggest inspiration gone, I turned to writing lyrics for comfort.
Though I have used the name "themightyhumanrace" as the name I create stencil art under for almost 4 years, it began in fact, as the name of a band I dreamed of singing for. With no knowledge of music theory nor skill at playing a single instrument, I nonetheless began memorizing lyrics while screenprinting at Arograph that I would write down any chance I got, and trying to give them shape using the beat-making program Fruityloops. With nearly a full album of material and a few songs with full drums and bass recorded, I searched frantically for friends to help give me a voice to the pain and frustration of the past several years, and the heavy weight of digital culture on all of our hearts. On the way home from seeing Ashley for one of the last times, I wrote a spoken word piece to an Explosions in the Sky song entitled "The Exclamation Point of My Life Sentence" that to this day I still consider probably the single most beautiful thing I have every created in my life. Its words in that moment felt almost like a suicide note, a desperate cry for connection after an entire life of isolation, full of universal truths most anyone I felt could identify with:
"to whatever gets you through it when you feel like giving up,
this song is just another toast to never growing up and
remembering the way it felt when everyday was new
this song is just another way to thank you for being you and
to the people who remind you what it's like to feel alive and
to the ones who lie awake at night just trying to survive and
to the people that you never see, and how much that you miss them
this song is dedicated to anyone out there who'll listen."
but once I had created something I felt was so absolutely necessary for the world to hear, I had no idea what to do with it. I found myself singing my empowering songs about seizing the day and breaking from your routine life...ironically while continuing to drive my 45 mile commute each day to a job I hated, broke, alone, and in pain, not knowing what to do with my life, but knowing I could no longer continue to do what I had been doing. I sold my belongings and cashed in my vacation pay, moved out of my shitty apartment to couchsurf with my friend John, and counted down the days to leave NY shortly after my 28th birthday. The details of the next four years and all of my travels, though many tremendously empowering, are not really relevant to this story. I will add however, that leaving NY was the first real step I had probably ever taken, towards truly facing many of my fears and running off into the night, full of uncertainty but dedicated to embracing each day's journey for the first real time in my life.
To be continued...