By Tommy Shannon
It is 1973 and I’m 7 years old, my parents won’t let us children watch television, and even if we could, the Watergate hearings have preempted all of the regular programming. We live in Washington D.C. for the summer, and this is the media story against which all others are measured. It ends up being broadcast 28 hours a day. I start reading my dad’s paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the slogan “by any means necessary” segues perfectly with the Watergate hearings. I decide that Malcolm X, and by extension books, are more interesting than TV will ever be. It’s not even a fair contest.
The word bipolar doesn’t have meaning to a 7 year old; later on I find manic depression is clustered on both sides of the family. On the upside, I’m reading adult books as a young child; on the downside, bone crushing depression and suspended states of near catatonia, alternated by manic vacations, risky behavior and self medicating. At least you get to be bright. I decide to revel in it.
Reading is a compelling escape from the beginning, a means to an end. Wherever my head happens to be at that time, I want it somewhere else. In the coming years, I will figure out some alternative escape routes, such as becoming a drunken drug addict, sexual abandon, and borderline suicidal and dangerous behavior. The possibilities excite me, but for a child, a book is all I need. All things in good time.
Reading replaces school for me. I go to school to learn how to act around other people and get in fights during recess, I read to learn. This works fairly well, until an “unfortunate event” occurs in 9th grade; that’s the end of my high school career, I never return. Instead I take the SAT and ACT and go to college, they don’t even bother checking my nonexistent high school transcript. Looking like a 12 year old is fine, as long as you’re good at taking tests. I begin to realize that in this world, you are whoever you say you are. Sure sure, you bet.
Cut to the year 1999, I’m now 33. I live in Detroit and have just gotten back from another tour with my band. Despite my best efforts to squander all of my resources, I have money in the bank and a girlfriend of rare and sought after vintage. Many would trade places, but I wake up one morning and realize I won’t be doing this anymore. The music industry runs on hard drugs. I’ve been addicted to first quality China White heroin for the last 13 years. I leave my apartment, my girlfriend, my music equipment, and everything else I own behind in Detroit and take the first flight I can book to Santa Fe, New Mexico to kick drugs in the high desert plateau. Little do I know that I’m surrounded by heroin in Northern New Mexico. Fortunately, it is second or third quality, not even worth my time. Life is funny sometimes.
I read continuously for the next two months. Kicking heroin is getting used to feeling bad, that’s the secret. Once you get used to feeling bad, there isn’t a whole lot that life can throw at you, is there? I read so much I get headaches from the eyestrain. I laugh at mere headaches now. “You better run along, I think I hear your Momma calling. Don’t make me get out of bed. I’ll hit you so hard that your family tree will stagger.” Headaches flee rather than face retribution which is swift and certain. I would as well.
Reading becomes a valid use of my time when I’m too sick to do anything else. I imagine that I can read my way out of my addiction. That’s a dangerous idea, a mistake, completely wrong. Wrong is usually more interesting than right, so I run with it. Famous last words.
I decide to reinvent myself. I never play with a band that gets signed again. I get a Realtors license, but I don’t get along with the industry, or the qualifying brokers. I get along with the money famously, so I end up selling high end Persian carpets, flat weaves, and kilims in downtown Santa Fe for the next 9 years. I never do heroin again, instead, I do attitude, and I chase a lot of skirt. A fair trade.
Now it is now. I’m weary of hearing my peers tell me that I should write a book, so I take my first writing class. I read more than ever but I believe less of it. Experience shows us that life is defined by ambivalence and paradox, not certainty and party lines. Meaning is something that exists in each of our heads, not something that is objectively “out there.” I’ve become a menace on the sales floor, and understand the positioning and triggers that plant the seeds of desire and motivate each of us to buy. We’re collectively not nearly as sophisticated as we believe ourselves to be, but I accept that our species does have the seeds of greatness within it. In spite of my remarkable sales skill set, my interpersonal skills could still use some work. I am getting better at writing though, diplomacy may never be an area of strength for me. I’m good with that.